Nick Drake – Pink Moon

It seems appropriate to close off a month of tracks by those who have fallen by the wayside with perhaps the ultimate lost artist, someone about whom it was once said that he barely existed at all; someone with a skin too few.

Much of Nick Drake’s life, his music, and even his death is surrounded by mystery. In a world of exponentially gathered and shared information he stands unique as an artist: there are no bootlegs of Nick Drake gigs, no video footage, just a handful of albums, a few studio out-takes, and a slowly excavated collection of home recordings.

Even the circumstances detailing the recording and handing over of Pink Moon, his third and final album, are sketchy and debated. What’s known is that Nick contacted producer John Wood, and the two recorded the album over two late night sessions at the Sound Techniques studio. When asked what else he wanted on the album, Nick replied that this was it – he didn’t want any “tinsel” added, just his voice and guitar. With the exception of the piano overdub on the title track, that’s exactly what he got. 28 minutes of simple, unadorned beauty and sadness.

Over time, a story got around that Nick wandered into the Island records offices one day, deposited the master tapes at reception without a word, and disappeared back into the world. The story now seems merely apocryphal, although differing accounts exist of what really happened. Chris Blackwell, Island’s founder, says he went downstairs to meet Nick, asked him how much the album had cost to record and gave him the figure Nick responded with (£500) there and then. Speaking to biographer Patrick Humphries, however, press officer David Sandison tells a story of inviting Nick up for tea in his office, enduring a silent few minutes, then watching him leave again. Shortly later he gets a call from reception to say Nick had left some tapes downstairs.

Doubtless, uncertainties such as this, combined with the paucity of available material, and the desire to trust second or third-hand accounts as authorities on the inner workings of his mind have fuelled the cult of Nick Drake in the years since his death. It is barely possible to cast aside the circus of distractions and focus on the music. If you can do so, you will find each of his three albums offer you something different: the slightly stoned Five Leaves Left; the expansive, jazz-infused Bryter Layter; the sparse, quietly resigned Pink Moon. Of these three, despite its brevity it is Pink Moon that has the deepest impact. Nick’s warm, rich voice reaches out to you from the recordings, while apart from only a handful of duffed notes it’s immaculately played, as ever was the case with Nick Drake. Bleak and generally without hope of salvation, it does, however, finish with the almost – almost – uplifting “From The Morning”, and the words that adorn his gravestone in Tamworth:

Now we rise
And we are everywhere

Pixies – Here Comes Your Man

No Kim no deal, 1/10, 2/10, trampling all over their legacy: if you’re even vaguely a fan of the Pixies you’ll be familiar with the kind of spoiled stuck-up comments, pointlessly bitter reviews, and level of spluttered outrage that’s currently doing the rounds.

Meanwhile, the band chug along through an almost constant sea of tour dates and festival appearances, and no matter what your views on their new material, you should at least be reasonably impressed that a band not known for their harmoniousness has now stuck around for longer in its second incarnation than it did the first time around. And that holds, even if their grip on bass players doesn’t.

But that’s just my take. I’m not one of those Pixies fans (and I know they exist) who will travel across continents to see a band even though in their esteemed opinion they reached a peak with their first release, who will spend hundreds of pounds, dollars, euros to see a band that haven’t been the same since Come on Pilgrim in 1987. I came in, more or less, at Bossanova, which almost no-one rates as the best Pixies album, which is perhaps one reason why I’m willing to cut them a little more slack than others for Indie Cindy. If you don’t like it enough, don’t buy it: no-one’s gonna force you. If you hate it, don’t listen to it: just hug all your old albums until it’s over.

James – Government Walls

At a time when most people were discovering James through “Sit Down”, I was not the exception to the rule. There they were, Easter holidays 1991, on Top of the Pops, looking and sounding like they’d been dropped in from another planet.

It was “The Smiths play TOTP” all over again, 90s style. I was watching, thinking that this was definitely a good thing, thinking how amazing that this song could be not only in the charts, but almost at number one.

If it hadn’t been for that pesky Chesney Hawkes…

“Sit Down” eventually appeared on Gold Mother when it was released for a second time in 1991. While it’s hard not to like “Sit Down”, though, it’s hard now to really love it, so ubiquitous has it become. What was once an exciting breakthrough has since become hard to avoid – the song that everyone knows, the song that leads the musically ambivalent to say “hey, this is the sort of stuff you’re into, isn’t it?”.

Much more exciting, from the same album, is “Government Walls”, a beguiling combination of a soft-synth three-chord progression, brass, and Tim Booth’s currently apposite angry citizen lyric:

Ask a question and they’ll talk of secret services
Secrets from the people they should serve
When they can hide their crimes in a legal disguise
Truth will not be seen nor heard

The Charlatans – The Only One I Know

The Charlatans (or Charlatans UK if you’re reading this in the United States) are one of indie rock’s great survival stories. Formed in the late 80s, they started out pretty baggy, and have constantly re-invented themselves with each album since 1990’s Some Friendly to their 11th studio album Who We Touch twenty years later.

As well as surviving baggy, indie, britpop and two decades of changing tastes, they’ve dealt with personal tragedy, losing keyboard player Rob Collins in a car crash while the band was working on their fifth album Tellin’ Stories.

Back in 1990, as I was dabbling with the dark indie arts, I made Some Friendly my first CD purchase (long before I even owned a CD player, mind), having fallen in love with “The Only One I Know” from the legendary Happy Daze compilation, and “Then” from the less legendary Hit Pack compilation.

I know it’s now 24 years later, but to me this still sounds fresh and exciting, and it doesn’t take much to realise what drew me to it, and why I felt it would be such a strong signifier that I wanted to be seen as a little bit different when it came to music taste: what are these lyrics? (actually, some of them are lifted straight out of The Byrds’ Everybody’s Been Burned)

Where is the chorus?

What do they look like?

Exactly… exactly.

The Bluetones – If…

I’m sorry, Bluetones, I really am. From barely controlled excitement at best ever debut album by a British band in my lifetime Expecting to Fly via a confused relationship with its successor Return to the Last Chance Saloon – love half, have quite possibly listened to the other half no more than once – to paying no attention whatsoever to album number three, Science & Nature. I really am sorry.

But this, this is magnificent, we surely must all agree, we fans of Britpop, we fans of 90s indie guitar bands. It builds, drops, builds, and builds again, knowing exactly when pull the new shape each time. It begs, borrows or steals a line from “Wichita Lineman”, and then dumps you out in the cold when you least expect. It’s what Britpop isn’t supposed to be: simple, yet smart.

As of 2011, no more Bluetones means no more Bluetones, but it does mean more Mark Morriss. The singer’s second solo album A Flash of Darkness was released earlier this year; if, like me, you kind of miss having The Bluetones around, you should definitely pick up a copy.

The Dandy Warhols – Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth

What is it with advertisers and their ability to take a perfectly decent song and ram it down your earholes continually for months, years on end, until you get to the point where you just can’t take any more of it?

And then to start a new campaign with the same song, same message, same slogan, same logo, but new reasons to get mad. It’s not as if they even pick songs that have any particular relevance, just the ones that their focus groups felt marginally more favourable towards.

And it’s not as if the brand itself has to be something you hate, boycott, or are repulsed by. You might well be a paying customer of the company at the time, or just find them to be generally ok, no real complaints, not perfect, but mustn’t grumble.

It’s enough to make you go right off a band sometimes. Or at least, coupled with ever diminishing returns, it doesn’t make you want to return to a band. So thank you Vodafone for helping to make me not want to listen to …The Dandy Warhols Come Down so much any more, even though it’s stacked with fantastically easy rock hooks and the effortless cool of songs like “Every Day Should be a Holiday”, “Boys Better”, “Cool as Kim Deal”, and this, the lead single for the album. Yeah, thanks for that.

Lambchop – Up With People

We all have songs that we can relate to very specific events, moods or people. Who among us can think of D:Ream without being reminded of the optimism of 1997? But of so much more significance to each of us than national moments of hope (and ill-advised ones at that, my friend captain hindsight is so fond of telling me) are the curious and unpredictable connections we make between ordinary everyday events and the songs that come to represent those same events.

“Up With People” is taken from Lambchop’s 2000 album Nixon – their fifth album, their masterpiece, and their first to take hold in the UK. It’s a beautifully contrasting song of handclaps, gospel choirs and uplifting and bright guitar chords set against a catch-you-unawares Kurt Wagner lyric in which he cheerfully admonishes us with the words “and we are screwing up our lives today”.

“Up With People” is also the sound of Spring and Summer 2000, of endless bus and train journeys to and from work. It’s the tune that plays as I stare out the window, trying to rouse myself from early morning slumber, watching the countryside shake, rattle and roll by. It can never belong to any other place or time, just as no other song can belong to this place or time.

The Stone Roses – I Wanna Be Adored

As word gets round that The Stone Roses are to split again, it takes me back to when The Stone Roses was regularly topping bestest album of all time polls in the NME and elsewhere, I would nod sagely: this was it, we’d found a winner, the album to end all albums, no need for a recount, no need to run this poll again thank you.

It might have occurred to me that it wouldn’t last forever, that something would come along and oust The Stone Roses, or that – forfend! – tastes would change, but I might not have considered it for too long from inside my cosy bubble. I was indie forever.

Then came the legal disputes, and – worse – Second Coming. Lead single “Love Spreads” was a canny move, allowing The Stone Roses to say they hadn’t lost it during their years of legally enforceable silence, but its groove was an illusion: opening track “Breaking into Heaven” illustrates most of what was wrong with the album, taking over eleven minutes to deliver one sumptuous chorus melody. The rest of it is solidly rocky, but all too often uninspiring. Only “How Do You Sleep” really harks back to the infinitely superior debut, and even then only by demonstrating what a remarkable moment of creative coalescence that first album was.

The Stone Roses are one of those groups that even though I rarely listen to them, will always be a welcome sound on the radio, in the pub, in the club(!), wherever. “I Wanna Be Adored” will always be one of the most glorious statements of intent made by any band at any time: as a song it’s irresistibly cool, perfectly pitched to squeeze maximum swagger out of lead singer Ian Brown, while John Squire on lead guitar quietly goes about his business with the riffs and twiddles.

The Cure – High

First thing to say about The Cure: I’m not really a fan.

I know.

This is at the very least somewhat surprising, and in some quarters would be considered scandalous.

I’m OK with that.

I’m not saying I don’t like The Cure. Just that I don’t love The Cure. Not like some folks do, and not like some folks might assume I do.

I love Wish, though, and the two live albums – Show and Paris – they put out a year later in 1993. I like pretty much everything on Greatest Hits from 2001, which is, I know, another embarrassing Partridgean admission, but in my defence, I did at least buy the 2CD version with acoustic versions of all the songs on disc 2. Acoustic versions on a disc I have listened to, ahem, maybe once.

The problem is that The Cure are everywhere and all around me: unavoidable. There are many Facebook groups dedicated to just The Cure, where fans can post their favourite song by The Cure that everyone else in the group of fans of The Cure inevitably also likes, just so they can get a big pile of thumbs all pointing up in love and appreciation of a song by The Cure they listened to fifty times yesterday. There are even groups that are to all intents and purposes dedicated to The Cure even though they pretend to be for fans of, to pick but one example, all 80s new wave. There are fan clubs, and there ought to be enough to contain the love of The Cure, but no, apparently not. Fans of The Cure have so much to share, so much to tell that they spill over and into other groups and they can’t help themselves from posting about The Cure in those groups, too, until I just wish I was allowed to veto all posts about one group, so I could just get some peace from The Cure for one day, one hour; oh, sometimes it feels like any length of time would be sweet respite.

Like I said, though: no hate. Wish is a constant nostalgia-inducing treat, one that I bought first on cassette, then on CD, and played repeatedly and continually, never quite able to get enough of its dark spirit, the black light of its dream-grunge and the sheer pop joy of songs like “Doing the Unstuck” and ‘Friday I’m in Love’. Almost, but not quite, tipping into the parody of the happy goth, these songs mix gladly with long, slow-burners like “Apart” and “To Wish Impossible Things”, themselves the calm to counter the wild passions of “Cut” and “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”. They even get away with “Elise”.

It’s just that for whatever reason I have never felt compelled to check out Disintegration or Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, or countless others, and that’s even though I know it makes me very Alan Partridge (I have Greatest Hits, surely I have, literally, their greatest songs already?).

I remember for years when I had time enough to spend in record stores but not money enough to make the trip worthwhile I would cruise the same aisles time after time, flipping the same CD cases, or with a single finger rotate the same cassette carousels looking at the same albums that neither I nor any other customers had quite brought themselves to purchase. I would smile at seeing albums I already owned, congratulating myself on having acquired such a high quality collection. I would look, repeatedly, at albums I didn’t yet own, and wonder. Should I? Not this time, perhaps, but if I come back with enough money…

One of the albums I would always be drawn to – one of the lost albums of my life – was Standing On The Beach – The Singles (a.k.a Staring At The Sea – The Singles). It was always unfavourably priced, though, in the way that back catalogue albums so often were back then. Well, it’s taking up space, might as well get a good return for it on the off-chance we do actually sell it…

I’m sure my CD collection would be home to many more albums by The Cure if I’d only taken the plunge on Standing On The Beach. Perhaps, as with R.E.M., it would have marked the start of a great splurge, a keen desire to hear everything. Instead, I put it back each time, waited, and bought Greatest Hits instead. Then, assuming arrogantly that I knew what to expect from albums past, or through not having the time to explore, I left the back catalogue alone, and I’m not sure even after getting this out of my system whether that will ever change.

Empathy Test sign record deal, new EP on the way…

As a huge fan of Empathy Test’s debut EP Losing Touch, released in February this year, I was pretty excited to hear the news this week that the duo had signed to Brooklyn label Stars & Letters. Not only that, but also the news that a follow-up, Throwing Stones is due for release in the summer: definitely a release to watch out for.

On an entirely personal and selfish level, I’m a humble man of humble means, and I do have to admit I got a bit of a kick out of seeing my own words staring back at me in the “press quotes” section of the artist page on the Stars & Letters web site.

But enough about me, why not listen to some Empathy Test while you’re here:

Free Download: Public Service Broadcasting – Elfstedentocht Parts 1 & 2

Although I didn’t get round to writing a full review of it, Inform – Educate – Entertain was this writer’s album of the year for 2013, and Public Service Broadcasting made my “review of the year” playlist with the first part of their subsequent single “Elfstedentocht Part I”.

The single got itself a Record Store Day release in April, but for anyone who missed out on that limited edition vinyl release, today was a good one, bringing news that the group were making “Elfstedentocht” available as a free download.

You can get your free download of the single by following the link from Public Service Broadcasting’s announcement of the news on Facebook.

Free download: Kramies – “The Folklore Sessions”

Dutch-American singer and song-writer Kramies has already released two hypnotic dream pop EPs for the Hidden Shoals label; now he’s taken tracks from both The European and The Wooden Heart to create an acoustic EP – The Folklore Sessions.

It’s sometimes said that to reveal the true heart of a song, you need to strip away the production, the extra flourishes, and reduce it to its simplest form. With only Kramies’ voice, acoustic guitar and the piano talents of Grant Wilson (Ghost Hunters), the tracks on The Folklore Sessions do exactly that, in the process revealing beautiful new moods and shades in their unhurried ambling.

You can download The Folklore Sessions for free from Bandcamp: