Pulp – Sunrise

Confession: I was going to finish this playlist with another Pulp song, Bar Italia, but as evocative as that song is, it’s messy and in the gutter. And if not in the gutter, then a Soho coffee bar, which at a the right time in the morning is less than a stumble of difference. As Jarvis sings, “it’s where other broken people go”. It might bring back memories of pre-dawn London, but I don’t want to be there right now.

Instead, I give you a reformed Pulp, just knocking out of the park the closing track from their final album We Love Life originally released in 2001; largely ignored at the time; post-Britpop; post-everything.

Sunrise is a glorious, affecting, high. “I used to hate the Sun”, admits Jarvis, “because it shone on everything I’d done”. With a spiralling guitar solo, and the wonderful Richard Hawley bringing the slide, what choice does Jarvis have – what choice do any of us have? – but to review the situation.

But here comes sunrise
Yeah, here’s your sunrise

When you’ve been awake
all night long & you feel like crashing out at dawn.
But you’ve been awake all night, so why should you crash out at dawn?

If you’re still up by morning, it’ll all make sense.

Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft

Warp and Weft is Laura Veirs’ ninth studio album, and the second on her own Raven Marching Bands label. Her first self-released title was 2010’s July Flame; between that album and Warp and Weft she put out Tumble Bee, a beautiful album of songs for children that was more rediscovered folk than night-time nursery rhyme. Add to that the Two Beers Veirs EP and you have an artist happy to tread her own path, guided by the footprints of those who have gone before.

Warp and Weft is picked and plucked in typically intimate and beguiling Veirs style, this time enriched by an ever growing band of collaborators. Opening track and single Sun Song features vocals from Neko Case, her harder, lower register neatly complementing Veirs’ own softness and fragility.

Combinations like this are at the heart of Warp and Weft. As the title suggests, the weaving together of parts is one of the album’s overall themes; it’s a title that Veirs has been holding back until the time and the music was right. Here, the weaving is of artists, ideas, and lyrics past and present. On “Finster Saw The Angels” , she is joined by KD Lang on a song about the folk artist Henry Finster, designer of the cover to REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction, while “That Alice” gives a little love for jazz pianist Alice Coltrane.

On “Dorothy of the Island”, Veirs launches into lines from “Motherless Children”, a song of unknown origin that’s been around in recorded form since the 1920s. The inspiration? Perhaps Veirs’s own fears on becoming a mother for the second time and, as she says in a making-of video, realising what it means to bring someone onto this earth, and the corresponding fear of losing someone. This theme travels east on “Sadako Folding Cranes”, an oriental tinged account of a young survivor of Hiroshima.

Warp and Weft ends with a lengthy jazz outro in the meandering shape of “White Cherry”. It’s a meditative, woozy sunset finale, the end of a journey that began with the Spring dawn of “Sun Song”, and the feeling of intense joy and gratitude that arrives with the rising sun, and the change of the seasons.

And the warmth of a new Laura Veirs album.

Watch the Warp and Weft making-of video.

Aztec Camera – Good Morning Britain

Aztec Camera plus Mick Jones, formerly of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite: an above average combination.

Wikipedia claims that before Stray Roddy Frame’s lyrics were the subject of some criticism, and considered one of Aztec Camera’s weak points. Hard to believe that could be true of the man who would go on to write Small World.

In 1981 Aztec Camera were very briefly label-mates with Orange Juice and Josef K on Postcard Records, before signing to Rough Trade. Indie-pop, new wave, call them what you will, they were best known for “Somewhere in my heart”, which reached number three in 1988, but for me for some reason this one lingered longer…

Ah, now I remember, it’s because it appeared on the generally otherwise not terribly brilliant compilation The Hit Pack. To give you an idea of how good this rival to the Now That’s What I Call Music series was, the last two tracks on side two were:

  • New Kids on the Block – Tonight
  • Gazza and Lindisfarne – Fog On The Tyne

I don’t know what to say, except that in my defence I took it back to Woolies as soon as I could.

The Smiths – The Queen is Dead

Take me back to dear old blighty…

It begins with a World War I music hall number about returning home from the front, interrupted by feedback and drum rolls, and recounts a non-violent assault on the palace (“with a sponge and a rusty spanner”) that turns into a cosy chat inspired by a real-life event: in July 1982 Michael Fagan broke into the Buckingham Palace (at the second attempt), and while the story that he sat at the end of the Queen’s bed in conversation with Her Royal Highness is apocryphal, he did help himself to half a bottle of wine and a brief sit-down on the throne.

Morrissey turns this non-conversation into unreal discourse: When The Queen casts aspersions on his vocal prowess (“I know you and you cannot sing”), Morrissey replies self-effacingly: “That’s nothing – you should hear me play piano.”

If The Queen is Dead is angry, it’s sardonically so, and it ends, as does so much with Morrissey, in introspection: “Life is very long when you’re lonely”.

PJ Harvey – The Last Living Rose

Since her 1992 debut, Dry, PJ Harvey has variously been raw and angry, scratchy and angry, a lover scorned by Nick Cave on their duet Henry Lee (they also fell in love while recording the song, and broke up later. So, probably more anger there), then in love and happy and winning the Mercury prize for the first time (in 2001 with Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), then somewhat confessional, before finally arriving at the lyrical, poetic process that wrought Let England Shake in 2011.

Let England Shake brought her a second Mercury prize, along with countless end of year accolades: it was a rare list that year that didn’t end with PJ Harvey’s name. It’s an album about identity, nationality, conflict, war. Three songs reference the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I. But as the perceptive Quietus review of the album has it, “perhaps this is not so much a collection of anti-war songs as a call to arms for would be war photographers, writers, painters and filmmakers”. In other words, art about art, a line that fits with her art school past, and with her general ambiguity as a recorder and a documenter, rather than a commentator and critic.

The Last Living Rose is at once comparable to The Eton Rifles and Sleep Well Tonight, with its suggestions of violence and decay (“Let me walk through the stinking alleys to the music of drunken beatings”) yet simultaneously it sits apart from those other two: having no agenda of its own, it waits ambivalently for the listener to fill that gap.

Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey damp filthiness of ages
And battered books
And fog rolling down behind the mountains
On the graveyards and dead sea-captains.
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings

Gene – Sleep Well Tonight

A sort of companion piece to “The Eton Rifles”, and coincidentally cropping up on the same label (Polydor), “Sleep Well Tonight” was Gene’s third single, and the first that would make it onto debut album Olympian. (It was a brave person who decided to leave out the two outstanding earlier songs, “For The Dead” and “Be My Light, Be My Guide”, that had made Gene’s name).

Like “The Eton Rifles”, it’s a tale of dust-ups and differences; this time it’s not class warfare as such, more the small-town mindset versus anything that dares to act different, think different, be different. Unlike “The Eton Rifles”, there’s only the threat of violence, never far away if you stray to the wrong side of town, the wrong side of the bar, or the wrong side of some jumped up, lagered up townie giving it the big I am.

This was prime Gene era, and what did they get for it? Iffy reviews and everywhere accusations of being the pale version of The Smiths no-one needed. Tough crowd those inkies.

Matt Berry – Kill The Wolf

When I first heard Matt Berry had an album out it was from a commenter somewhere below the line on The Guardian’s web site. As it was a suggestion for one of the albums of the year so far I took it for the knowing, ironic suggestion it surely had to be. I mean, really: Matt Berry? Dr Sanchez from Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace? The inheriting head of Reynholm Industries? The constant voice of Absolute Radio spots?

Dixon Bainbridge?

This reaction to the idea of Berry making actual music can’t be uncommon. As uncommon, I’d say, as the surprise and delight of listening for the first time and finding out that he’s the real deal. On Kill the Wolf he continues where earlier release Witchazel left off, to deliver an album of enchanting psych-folk, cut through with a little prog and a pinch of lyrical oddness. Just a pinch, mind, and it’s a sense of otherness well in keeping with the albums moods and themes.

Kill The Wolf radiates lingering sinisterness. Word associate to its lighter moments and you might think of summer fayre, maypoles and quaint rural custom, but as the sun dips down these are replaced by bonfires and “the black cloak of night”. It’s a very pagan darkness; a new soundtrack for The Wicker Man, filtered through the smoky gauze of Matt Berry’s mind.

As he himself describes it, the album is about:

the devil and the saint inside us all, and how hard we try to let the best man win, whomever you may consider that to be.

It’s a theme made explicit on the atypically poppy Devil Inside Me:

All that I could be
Is all that I’ll never be
Obsessed with this journey
Of houses and money
With nothing to play for
Where no one looks at me
That’s all I need when the devil’s inside me

Along with Devil Inside Me, the other singalong pop moment on the album is Medicine, featuring a guest spot from ex-Bluetone Mark Morriss. Here, to keep the off-beat flag flying, Berry has a stab at rhyming “medicine” with “venison”. Amazingly, it works pretty well in the context of the track, one of the more openly playful moments on Kill The Wolf.

Elsewhere there are two instrumentals – Wolf Quartet and Village Dance, the latter taking its melodic cue from another song on the album, October Sun, while opening track Gather Up is a herbal chant with flute. If that doesn’t grab you, there’s Solstice, the album’s center-piece, and nine and a half minutes charting the shortest day to the longest. Inspired in part by multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield (with a few exceptions, Berry plays all the instruments on Kill The Wolf), it’s a musical journey from folk to the excesses of psych-rock.

Solstice probably isn’t for everyone. Knock Knock and Bonfire, on the other hand, both show a remarkable lightness of touch and deserve an audience far wider than either are likely to find appearing two thirds of the way through an album by someone far better known for a comically exaggerated acting style. You can, and you should, fix this.

What’s in it for you? I don’t know. A kit-kat?

The Jam – The Eton Rifles

Hello, hooray, what a nice day!

Is it OK for me to like this? Should I ask Paul Weller for permission? I think he’d be alright about it, I mean it’s not like I was born into privilege, and I’d never even heard of the Bullingdon club until recently. I’m not to be confused with a proper, bona fide toff like David Cameron, and I like to think that’s an easy mistake to avoid.

Weller, a prominent former Red Wedge member, responded scathingly on hearing about David Cameron’s spectacularly dumb pronouncement that Eton Rifles was one of his favourite tracks:

Is he thick? He probably thinks “Eton Rifles” is a song about him and his mates at school…which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.

I fear poor old Cameron feels an undeserved tinge of pride from the lyric. In the song’s battle between Etonians and passing Right to Work marchers, the toffs triumph despite being outnumbered: “Well, what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” asks Weller.

Cameron claimed that the song meant a lot to him, and to his fellow members of the corps at the time. This man, may I just point out, is now running the country.

And there’s more. “I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs”, Cameron says. Fair comment, perhaps, although when a song protests against a privilege that you perfectly embody it does make it a rather curious choice for you to cherish.

Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action

It’s appropriate enough that opening salvo of Franz Ferdinand’s fourth album is a found lyric, a moment of brilliance that isn’t quite matched by what follows. The words (“Come home – practically all is nearly forgiven”) are taken from a postcard lead singer Alex Kapranos found in Brick Lane market, and are directed to Karel Reisz, director of the French Lieutenant’s Woman. The sender is as unknown as Karel’s crimes. As Kapranos says “ it’s so evocative yet so concise at the same time, which is what a good lyric should be.” Not quite “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, but not bad all the same.

For a moment, just there, it seems like the band might just have recaptured the magnificence of “Take Me Out”: as exciting a slab of spiky guitar as you will ever encounter. And then, true to form, they don’t quite follow up on the promise; the rest of the album is inconsistent, occasionally brilliant.

“Evil Eye”, with its shoutbacks, is amusing enough, but misses its intended mark of darkness, while “Love Illumination” has presumably been snuck in to fulfill the album’s “songs for girls to dance to” quota, and to keep up the illusion that Franz Ferdinand are a knockout pop singles band, but not much else. The truth is somewhat different.

“Stand on the Horizon” (a collaboration with Todd Terje) is the first standout moment, effortlessly sashaying onto the floor two minutes in, while “Bullet” showcases the best of the raw, aggressive, full throttle Franz Ferdinand. It’s just a shame that the up and down running order places the album’s weakest link, Fresh Strawberries, with its 60s-jangle, friendly bank advertising jingle of a chorus, between these two.

And what about “Treason! Animals?” Horrible title, no getting away from that, but its psychedelia does at least segue smoothly enough into time travelling love-song “The Universe Expanded”, and then in its final act, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action finally offers up a little consistency, albeit with a low-key, spacey coda: first, “The Universe Expanded”, then “Brief Encounters”, and finally “Goodbye Lovers and Friends”, with Kapranos perhaps seriously, perhaps tongue in cheek, perhaps just downright lying, declaring “you know I hate pop music”, before signing off with the so-obvious-it-must-be-a-bluff break-up lyric:

Goodbye, lovers and friends
It’s so sad to leave you
When they lie and say this is not the end
You can laugh as if we are still together
But this really is the end

Yeah, sure it is, Alex.

Belle & Sebastian – The Stars of Track and Field

Hello Basingstoke, hello HMV, hello listening post.

At their worst, listening posts only encouraged a lazy sort of music purchasing strategy; the amount of effort given to assessing an album followed a power-law curve where the first or second track, assuming it drew you in, could expect to get a nice long listen, followed by a steep drop off through the album until you were barely bothering with more than a few seconds of anything from an album’s second half.

At their best, they gave you an unrepeatable moment of magic, hearing something for the first time, falling in love with it, and trying your best not to look too loon-like by grinning or laughing. This sometimes resulted in the sort of awkward head nod last seen atop the neck of a government minister on daytime TV.

I’m pretty sure I took the grinning option, rather than the must-look-like-I’m-enjoying-myself movement when I popped on the often slightly warm, usually slightly too loud, probably quite bass-heavy headphones and Stuart Murdoch’s nervous vocals ushered in a twee new world.

Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs
Kissing girls in English, at the back of the stairs
You’re a honey, with a following of innocent boys
They never know it
Because you never show it
You always get your way

The Stars of Track and Field was the second in a terrific run of Belle & Sebastian opening tracks, which they followed (if not quite equalled) with It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career and I Fought in a War, and had preceded with The State I am In from their limited release debut, Tigermilk. If there is such an accolade as “great listening post band”, then Belle & Sebastian surely qualify.

I Am Kloot – Not A Reasonable Man

A beautiful live version of one of I Am Kloot’s many finely crafted vignettes.

Nice to see a suitably respectful quiet from the crowd. Presumably some noise has been removed in the edit, or maybe Manchester fans are just that knowledgeable and respectful. I know from personal experience, though, that singer John Bramwell can be a bit of a talker during gigs; I once had cause to spend a good part of someone else’s festival set tutting at the back of his head. Not that he noticed, gabbling on like that. And, let’s be honest, not that I really wanted him to anyway, in case it escalated…