In case you didn’t already notice it from the army of bulldozers clawing mercilessly at the cultural landscape, today’s giddy feeding frenzy is pretty much the perfect storm as far as the great minds behind Global Release day are concerned. A day on which one song by one artist can generate more conversation than a thousand underground musicians. This is event culture: music as commodity. It’s exciting, like a new coke flavour.
A world in which newer is always equated with better, and newest therefore always means best. A world in which national TV hosts tell you how excited they are to introduce the next fabulous special guest and their fantastic new single (and you’re going on tour, aren’t you? Tell us about that, why don’t you) even though the hyperbole is completely redundant because the PR and booking system has been calculated to within a fraction of a degree on the clapometer, such that you know the audience (and the audience of millions at home – how exciting is this!) will match their seal-claps (unpaid) to the smile of the presenter (paid) and star (2% extra sales per degree of whiteness).
It’s a hit from me!
Well that’s going to be massive. Of course it is, when the system demands and designs massive hits. When the soundtrack for mainstream cultural events must contain nothing but known, bankable quantities. That one you like is on Graham Norton again Mum! Before a song is released, it is set to become the soundtrack of the summer. According to its creators and their friends, who just happen to be taste-makers-in-chief.
And then the backlash. God! The inevitable, soul-sucking backlash. Can’t sing, can’t write. Talentless. Overhyped. Cynical posts on blogs everywhere (ahem).
So wrong, so much of the time, and nothing more than a conscious and very deliberate rejection of the premise, the setup: a refusal to be told. But understandable: when critical appreciation is non-existent, or irrelevant at best, you can’t simply add a voice to the discussion. How do you introduce considered opinion into vacuity? Why bother? So hey, why not just write about it anyway, and if you can’t in truthful honesty say something good, stick to the facts and ask your readers what they think. That way you can still be part of the conversation (phew!) while distancing yourself from the noise. Better to be inside the tent, pissing out, eh? Is it me, or is it really crowded in here, and why does “outside” look just like a slightly bigger tent?
Ah. But, you say, what happens when the star releases something disappointing?
Talk to me about how that happens. Too many people have too much invested, directly and indirectly, in a successful release. Remember, newer always means better. Not only that, but sometimes when it’s not good, it’s better than that: it’s good enough. If expectations were lower, it would be released differently. There is no hope here, only dread certainty. The certainty of millions of units, and the certainty that you will be listening in the days and weeks to come, no matter what.
This will start out as one of those posts where I go on about how pop is good, pop is fun, and how pop was my first love and I will not be shamed into pretending it never happened. Even if I knew what the first album or single I bought truly was, I wouldn’t cover the truth with a conveniently hip alternative choice. I’ll mention in passing a Jarvis Cocker quote – something about pop being light and fizzy, and rock being heavy and lumpy.
In the middle section, I’ll remember that this isn’t really going anywhere, and that I’m supposed to be writing about Other Girls, the shiny new single from Cappa. I’ll say something about synths. I might drop “slinky” in if I can find the right place. I’ll listen half a dozen times and try to think of the right words. I’ll shake my head and muse over the iniquity by which inferior alternatives sashay onto global radio playlists while Other Girls is being written about in some pretentious meta-style in a little fringe music blog.
I’ll close by mentioning that you can buy Other Girls on iTunes. I’ll also add some links, like I normally do, so you can follow Cappa.
I wasn’t even sure I was going to review 1989. Having originally written my copy in the style of Paul Morley channeling Lester Bangs, I was on the verge of hitting the big red “Publish” button when Father John Misty appeared in a vision before me doing Jemaine Clement doing David Bowie from the 70s doing Jareth the goblin king telling me to “wait a minute mister posting man”.
So if any of what I’ve written sounds a little confused, well that’s because I am. Before even starting I tied myself in knots wondering how best to approach this review: do I treat it as interpretations of songs, not all of which I already know? Do I familiarise myself with Taylor Swift’s originals and play a game of comparisons? Do I take it very seriously, or as a jolly jape or playful homage?
I don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of what’s different, what’s new, what’s unchanged, what’s better, what’s worse, what’s richer, what’s poorer. Happily, this means I largely get to dodge the “mansplaining” minefield that some critics have haplessly happened into, scoring points for Adams on account of his fragile alt-americana man status (good), over Swift’s position as pop icon (bad, ldo).
Of course, it’s almost impossible to imagine 1989 as a set of pristine Ryan Adams concoctions; it’s hard not to be familiar at least in passing with one or more songs from 1989. But that’s ok: Unlike some people I am pretty pop-friendly; unlike some people I don’t have an innate dislike of Taylor Swift; unlike some people I don’t hate that Adams has chosen to undertake this project.
Even more specifically, I don’t hate “Shake It Off”. I’ve heard it, but not so much that I want to unhear it. (I just don’t seem to live in a world where I’m forced, against my will, to listen to other people’s music choices 24/7). I keep a fuzzy version of the song somewhere in the south-by-southwest parlor-by-living-room of my mental palace, and I can just about remember how to get there from my Eames chair in the library, from where I’m savouring Adams’ stripped back version.
It’s tempting to mention “Wonderwall” at this point, but although the end result of Adams’ interpretation of both tracks is lower-key, the Oasis track was not, let’s face it, a stomper. Aside from the intimate vibe, the best substitution was perhaps Liam’s more in-yer-face vocals (albeit vulnerable than his usual) with something less certain of itself. Here, a single block keeps the beat while Ryan cracks his voice, cranking up the intensity through the bars but never blowing up, or even really threatening to. It’s not better or an improvement, it doesn’t add authenticity to plastic pop, it’s just different. And at this point I neither know nor care how seriously I’m expected to take it.
Speaking of “Wonderwall”, here’s “Bad Blood”.
It’s interesting how Adams can make a cover of “Bad Blood” start off sounding like a song by someone else that he’s already covered. I’ll skip some of the logic, but what this essentially means is that Ryan Adams can take pretty much anything and create from it the sound of, well, the sound of Ryan Adams covering a thing. You see, what’s great about his version of “Bad Blood” is that it’s the kind of Ryan Adams track that you might find on any of his albums (apart from the ones where he does the heavy rock thing), particularly the ones that lead make reviewers use the phrase “return to form”. So that’s all good then. Except the flip-side is that he’s in danger of squeezing all these disparate sources into this universal cover-o-matic machine, and often the results are less varied than their source. As shaky as my knowledge of the original 1989 is, I have a feeling the sheen is less homogenous than Adams sometimes makes it seem.
Another effect of this big squeeze is a compression of sounds: “Style”, for example, wants to rock you, but while it sounds meaty enough, there’s a suspicion that some of it might be mechanically reclaimed.
Better is Adam’s take on “All You Had To Do Was Stay”, which is rendered as 80s soft-rock, somewhere between a John Hughes brat pack soundtrack and a Tango In The Night demo tape.
Wildest Dreams gets similar treatment, only minus the big chorus, making it passable, missable, sounding somewhere just shy of finished. I Know Places, on the other hand, is intriguing and wonderful. Initially shimmering surf-rock chords, it’s got a chorus you could sing all day. Thematically and sonically it’s not a million miles from Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know. (Seriously, work with me here…).
“Out of the Woods” provides the album’s other outstanding moment of Adamsing. It’s lengthy (but not quite Strawberry Wine lengthy), strummy (fairly Strawberry Wine strummy) and intimate and personal. It’s sweet and enchanting and almost justifies the whole project on its own.
The problem with 1989, perhaps, is that it seems like a perfect idea at first, but that doesn’t sustain for a whole album. Cherry-picking a selection of tracks wouldn’t have made the same cultural statement, whatever it may be, but it might have resulted in a stronger, more cohesive work. Maybe 1989 is just top-heavy with thumping hits, and meanders to its close, and that’s why so many of its better moments come early on. Or maybe listening in reverse track order could make you fall in love with the second half before ennui sets in. Either way it’s worth taking a moment to consider that one measure of any set of songs is their malleability: if you strip away the layers do they still work? Can you dress them differently and have them work in new ways? That so many of these songs can bear that effort and hold up should perhaps be enough to convince: whatever your views on the production or personality of the original, there are tunes a-plenty there, even if the style is not to your taste.
What Adams has created with 1989 is an album of two halves: one doesn’t linger in the memory especially well, not even fuzzily; the other is pure gold dust. In other words, 1989 is ultimately just another Ryan Adams album.
There’s a myth in the nostalgia industry that paints each decade in different colours. Reality is rather more blended. The 1960s witnessed great change, socially and culturally: by the middle of the decade, four-fifths of UK homes had a television, and they had shows like Ready Steady Go! and Top of the Pops to watch. It was even OK now to borrow your servant’s copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. But just as the world didn’t suddenly become neon-lit and full of yuppies and shoulder pads the moment the last chimes of 1979 were heard, neither did London become a swinging flash mob twenty years earlier. And no, everybody was not too busy discovering sex…
Take the first number one album of the 1960s, The Explosive! Freddy Cannon, by Freddy Cannon. It was the first time in the UK that an album by (that 1950s creation) a rock ‘n roll singer had topped the charts. “The greatest decade in the history of mankind” had begun with what now seems a throwback, its style and joyful abandon utterly modern in its day, but now closer in tone to the music hall era, where some of its tracks had originated, than any present day rockism.
Some time passed, roughly ten years in fact, before the decade closed, appropriately given their cultural dominance of the day, with The Beatles atop the charts. Although Abbey Road wasn’t the final Beatles studio album to be released, it did mark the last time the four were all fab and recording together. Earlier that year they’d made their famous rooftop appearance, the band’s last public performance.
And when the decade was over, The Beatles had scored 10 of its 13 biggest selling albums. No other artist got close: only the soundtracks to The Sound of Music, South Pacific and West Side Story outsold any albums by The Beatles in the 1960s. It’s no wonder people have long agreed that we’ll never see the like of it again.
Which is absolutely fine by me.
Whether it’s Monopoly or 50 Shades of Grey, I can’t stand a runaway leader. It’s just not possible for that one thing to be so outstandingly brilliant in its field that it naturally and rightfully kicks all competition to the kerb. Magnified through the rose-tinted spy-glass of time, you end up with a cultural landscape that appears blandly homogenous. Take 1966, the year London did finally swinging, the year a World Cup victory was achieved. In 1966, a total of four albums topped the chart. Four! They were: The Soundtrack to The Sound of Music, Aftermath by The Rolling Stones, and Rubber Soul and Revolver by The Beatles. And you thought 1991 was a tiresome struggle, with Bryan Adams taking up most of the summer and autumn on top of the singles chart, and Simply Red on their way to having the best selling album two years in a row with Stars. 1967 wasn’t much better – you had The Monkees (two albums), The Sound of Music (again), Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (for half the year), and Mr Val Doonican (Val Doonican Rocks, but Gently).
So, not a lot of variety, and a runaway leader.
The other thing I can’t stand is being told what to like, and there’s an awful lot of that about when it comes to the ’60s. Eat your greens, learn your musical history, respect the icons, it’s all derivative, that modern music, it’s all been done before you know, and better. What do you mean you don’t like The Velvet Undergound? And what’s that enormous elephant doing in here?
Ah, yes. I was coming to that.
You see, I own Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course I do: it’s a statistical inevitability given the size of my album collection. I also have a copy of Rubber Soul, although I’ve listened to it maybe twice. And yes, Revolver is in there, too. And I love it.
After I got into the madchester scene and baggy indie in the early 90s I found “She Said She Said” on Revolver, and my mind was, to use the modern parlance, a little bit blown. it seemed to so perfectly encapsulate the sound I loved, with its percussion bouncing all over the place, the constant presence of that lead guitar melody, and lyrics you could drop seamlessly into any number of indie-pop hits.
And then Revolver goes and closes with “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and Freddy Cannon, kicked to the kerb, lies in the gutter looking up at the stars, wondering which gave birth to the new sound. They appear to be dancing, laughing, but it could just be the LSD talking. And while I’m feeling confessional, The Blue Album and The Red Album (I much preferred the latter) were among the tapes in my Dad’s collection that I most frequently played. Nothing quite matched a Buddy Holly compilation, I found, but since tragedy took him in February 1959 he’s not a part of this story other than for us to wonder what might have been, what his incredible talent could have stretched to, and how pop music could have been his to shape for years to come.
But apart from The Beatles, what have the 1960s ever done for me?
My confused feelings about the 1960s are best summed up by a compilation album I bought, probably in about 1990 or 1991, seduced no doubt by the budget price. Top Ten Hits of the 60s was a 1988 album released on the Music For Pleasure label. It contains 16 hits of the decade, by artists ranging from The Animals (“House of the Rising Sun”), The Hollies (“Look Through Any Window”), The Beach Boys (“Do It Again”) to the hippy sounds of The Flower Pot Men (“Let’s Go To San Francisco”), and not one but two appearances each by Cliff Richard and The Shadows – together on “In The Country”, and separately with “The Twelfth of Never” and “FBI”.
Yes, that’s two Cliff Richard appearances. Whether or not he appears on either of the Now! compilations I own that puts him, in terms of number of tracks I’ve bought, ahead of The Velvet Underground and The Who. Until last year it would have put him ahead of Marvin Gaye.
For no discernible reason of continuity The Temperence Seven’s 1961 number four hit Pasadena is also included. A nine-piece who based their sound around old-time jazz, they rose during the trad-jazz revival and were sunk along with so many others by the Beatles behemoth.
So, apart from misjudged cheapo compilation purchases and Revolver, what have the 1960s ever done for me?
Well, there’s this, for starters:
If you don’t know The Box Tops, and despite the huge success of “The Letter” in 1967 it’s possible you don’t, the kid out front is Alex Chilton, later to become lead singer of Big Star, a band second in influence only to The Velvet Underground, and who I found through listening to Teenage Fanclub and from seeing their name referenced by the likes of Michael Stipe.
And then there’s some of my favourite albums – albums I’ve been listening to since I started exploring beyond the scattergun and feeble offerings of Top Ten Hits of the 60s, like Astral Weeks (1968) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). Songs that never seem to grow old, like “Wichita Lineman” (Glen Campbell, 1968), “She’s Not There” (The Zombies, 1965), “San Francisco” (Scott McKenzie, 1967), “Castles in the Sand” (Jimi Hendrix, 1968) and “California Soul” (Marlena Shaw, 1969).
There are artists that have grown old, but whose music from the 60s can still electrify, like the hard not to love Neil Young, whose ’60s output alone puts many to shame: from Buffalo Springfield…
……to his solo / crazy horse releases
There’s Simon & Garfunkel, who provided in The Graduate (1967) one of the finest movie soundtracks of all time, and whose 1968 song “America” evokes the spirit of frustrated freedom as well as any. I was thrilled in 2003 to see them live, their differences reconciled for long enough to charm audiences once again. They even brought out The Everly Brothers for a mid-set performance, so that was two legendary duos from the 60s in one night.
And there’s Nick Drake, about whom I could write another thousand words (it’s ok, I won’t) without blinking or pausing, and whose debut album Five Leaves Left was released in the Summer / Autumn of 1969. I was handed a copy of Drake’s third and final album Pink Moon (1972) by a friend at school one day. He wasn’t a friend I can ever remember talking about music with, he just handed me this CD with the words “I think you’ll like this”. He was right, but I don’t think he could have anticipated the extent of the obsession he was helping to create.
It still feels like a select shortlist, but every time I think about it, I think of ways to lengthen it. And this is really only a snapshot of a decade based on the parts that I’ve fallen in love with at one time or another. And it’s not just strictly limited to music. As well as The Graduate, there’s the emergence of James Bond on screen through the decade, and Lindsay Anderson’s “If….”, a tale of anarchic rebellion set in a public school. This in turn led me to the fascinating Missa Luba, the Sanctus from which features prominently in the film.
I’d always had this feeling that the 1970s had more influence on my musical soul, but I’m less certain of this now. True, the influence on my ’90s and future indie tastes seemed to flow more from that decade: Big Star were active in the 1970s; it was arguably Neil Young’s greatest decade; ’60s David Bowie had little impact compared to his later output. And yet, there are moments when the 1960s creeps in. There are nods to it in a lot of jangly indie-pop and Britpop, and even instances of overt mimicry: compare “You Don’t Understand” by The House of Love (1992) with “I’m a Man” by The Spencer Davis Group (1967) or “In The Country” (1966) with “Wrapped up in Books” from Belle & Sebastian’s 2003 album Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Krautrock, which has inspired wave after wave of new music, was a 70s innovation, but one with some links back to the 60s: like Bowie and Young, Can released their first album before the decade was out. Stevie Wonder, whose Songs in the Key of Life has been a favourite of mine since being turned on to it by Giles Smith, had already had nine Top 40 hits in the UK by the end of the 60s. Those hits include “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, a Motown classic that still sounds dazzling and fresh 50 years on. You can make the same claim for many of the classic Northern Soul sounds that I adore.
So what HAVE the 60s ever done for me? Apart from give me one of my favourite films, one of my favourite soundtracks, one of my favourite artists, a great part of my musical education growing up, and starts for other artists who would go on to influence the music I listen to for decades to come, that is?
Well, nothing, really.
Note: This piece was originally written for and appeared on Music vs. The World, in April 2015.
Struggling to find the right words to go with “Good Morning”, the latest slice of brilliant 80s-flecked pop / disco / indie / gorgeousnes from Manchester’s Girl Friend, I realise after a while that the song speaks for itself. It absolutely does not need me, or anyone, to tell you that you will love it. Just hit play, turn it up, and do your best not to smile, spin or shimmy along. This beat owns you, my friend.
Please Eloise is the latest effortlessly perfect pop creation to roll off the sparkling Flyte production line. I know that might make it seem like these guys find it easy to write such finely honed tracks, but really I have no idea how much sweat, or how many tears, falling outs, group hugs and breakthrough moments it takes Flyte to incubate, hatch and nurture each of their creations. What we do know is that having previously written about “We Are The Rain”, “Where Nobody Knows Your Name” and “Closer Together”, with Please Eloise we bring to four our personal count of Flyte highlights. There will be more.
Please, please, please Eloise
Don’t believe what you see on the TV screen
All I need’s a soul to squeeze Eloise
Not a Chelsea daughter, sparkling water, sweetener in your tea
Oh please, please, please Eloise
Don’t believe what you see in a dying breed
All your secrets safe with me Eloise
You can tell yourself you’re someone else but all I’ll ever see
Built around Jade Keywood’s glossy R&B-leaning hook, “Black Magic”, is a paean to the irresistible draw of a no-good lover, punctuated by fizzing synth motifs, rubbery percussion and sleek bass oscillations.
You might have seen recent publicity for a bit of research by McMaster University’s Digital Music Lab that put indie fans at the top of the tree when it comes to open-mindedness towards other genres. Pop fans, it was also observed, were the least curious. There are two important things to note about this research.
Firstly, if we take “pop” as a de facto default setting for music listening habits – ie assume that most people start out listening to pop music – we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find pop fans at the bottom of the pile. Not many people gravitate towards pop after a lifetime of experimentation, desperately searching for their holy grail. (“Eureka! The weekly top 40 countdown is exactly what I’ve been looking for!”). Equally, some people like a bit of pop but aren’t actually all that into music in general. Calling them closed-minded seems a bit mean, frankly.
Secondly, it’s a good result as far as keeping the peace goes. Indie fans are happy to be told they’re great and it’s important to them that they have managed to beat off the competition. Once again they have been proved right, something which probably matters to them more than pop fans. Those pop fans meanwhile probably won’t even read the research summary because a) who cares? and b) hey, have you heard this great new single by Keyes?
Released earlier this week (24th August), “Black Magic” is the first single proper from 18 year-old Warwickshire singer-songwriter, Keyes, following the success of Veins, earlier in the year. While you’re here, why not listen to that one, too?
First the bass hits you, then the accent. Oh, the accent! Not the disaffected, mid-atlantic sound but an altogether rarer and more beautiful creature. It’s Fiona Burgess, it’s Tracey Thorn, and it’s lying – floating! – atop a future-pop sound that’s somehow retro, somehow now, but however you come at it, utterly beguiling.
Joy Atlas are singer/songwriter Beccy Owen, keyboard/synth player Adam Kent, bassist Ian “Dodge” Paterson and drummer Ged Robinson. “Dismount” is their debut single, out on July 27th. The band hope to be announcing late summer tour dates soon…
Trails and Ways have announced a new track from their forthcoming album Pathology. “Say You Will” was written by bass player Emma Oppen; the original inspiration for the song came from falling in love with someone almost instantly, to the point of issuing a bold ultimatum: say you will, or don’t say anything at all.
From there it’s progressed into a slinky pop groove, all bass buzzes and shimmering, swaying new wave guitar strums and a sweet vocal style masking the lyric’s bold insistence.
Pathology is out on June 2nd, via Barsuk records.
Catch Trails and Ways on tour this summer, with support from Waterstrider.
Vanbot has put out a third track from forthcoming second album Perfect Storm. It is almost, but not quite, a straightforwardly massive slice of euro-synth. And it’s that “not quite” that makes “The Way You Say It” stand out from the competition: the way on several occasions it fools you into thinking you can see where it’s headed, only to body swerve into a different room altogether.
Perfect Storm is out on May 15th, via Lisch Recordings.
In case you missed it, last Sunday was Piano Day, an idea dreamed up by the supremely gifted Nils Frahm. It was a day for celebrating the grandest of all the instruments and also, it turned out, a chance for Nils to drop a surprise free album, Solo.
RRP does not have a free, surprise album to gift to the world, but we can instead humbly offer you a playlist that showcases the piano in its various guises from pop accompanist to bringer of magical melody to modernist prepared hammered thing. In the process, we hope to be the first site to successfully feature John Cage and Chas & Dave in the same playlist.
At some point it seems inevitable that Femme is going to blow up. S.O.S, her fourth stellar single release – after “Educated”, “Fever Boy” and “High” – could just be the moment it happens. And let’s not forget an Ace of Base mashup that threw Fever Boy and snatches of new single S.O.S into a wonder-what-would-happen blender along with “All That She Wants”. It was an act of insane genius, but you can judge that for yourselves here.
And now comes the full single release of “S.O.S”. More brilliance, more big chorus, more production magic, more reason to love Femme before everyone else discovers her.
Not that you’ll need any more convincing by this point, but it’s worth stepping back a couple of years as well, to a time just before Femme became Femme, when she was recording under her real name, Laura Bettinson, as part of Ultraista, the project formed by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Here they are, along with drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M., and a host of others) performing “Bad Insect” live on KCRW.
“S.O.S” is out on May 4th. A launch show for the single will take place the week before at The Lexington on April 29th. Buy tickets HERE