Monday, 30 November 2015

Year by year: 2001

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – NO MORE SHALL WE PART

Nick Cave’s success is not too hard to explain. The man knows exactly what his strengths are; and he knows exactly how to use them. Which, come to think of it, does not necessarily mean great things. Great things are charisma, talent and taste. Those, and a great deal of style.

No More Shall We Part was my first Cave album. Also, it is his best. Over the years I have tried to figure out whether it’s the songs or the great sentimental power that this record holds. The hypnotic guitar rhythm driving “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side”. The stirring, minimalist piano chords that never fail to sound like the best thing in the world.

But it could not be just that. In the end, it’s the fucking songs, and the perfect mix of rough and gentle, melancholic and pounding. It’s the man who recorded The Boatman’s Call but someone who had also done “Mercy Seat” all those years ago.

It’s easy to disregard the second side of this album (besides “Oh My Lord” – you cannot disregard that) in view of what came before. “Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow”, “Hallelujah”, “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side”, “God Is In The House” (when I heard him do it live, the whispered part felt more spiritual than all religious sermons combined)... But then you delve deeper into something like "Darker With The Day" and you start noticing how brooding and essential those seemingly long-winded songs are. 

And “The Sorrowful Wife” is astonishing. It’s a bit like “John Finn’s Wife” the other way round. Two sides of Nick Cave stitched into one song of power and mourning. Face it, when he lets all hell loose – you just lose it. It’s mind-blowing. 

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Jeff Lynne

I’ve always valued a good melody too much to look down on Jeff Lynne. Idle Race, The Move, ELO, goddamned Traveling Wilburys. And even now. He might not have another “Do Ya” or “Nobody’s Child” in him, but Alone In The Universe does the job well. 

He plays to his strengths. You smile unintentionally when you hear the opening “When I Was A Boy” as it sounds like a million Beatles-inspired songs. But there’s also great sincerity about it. Jeff Lynne has always been honest about his talent, and suddenly, in the year 2015, it has paid off. Not a classic by any means, but a great reminder that a good song is – primarily – a good song.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

You will have to love the aesthetics. The static camera, the lack of on-screen emotions, the pale colours. Otherwise, you will just get bored, confused, hysterical and wonder when the whole thing is over – ‘And what was it about?’ Or, worse, ‘And what, pray, did the director want to say?’ 

There is of course a strong Beckettian edge to it, and post-war Vladimir and Estragon are hardly any different from their contemporary versions. They don’t spill the truth – but they imply it in a way so obvious as to appear subtle. Like Inland Empire, it’s a film whose message (and I do hate the word) is clear. It’s just that you will never ever be able to put it into words. Rather, you reflect on it.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Year by year: 2000

Black Box Recorder - THE FACTS OF LIFE

A pretty girl frowning against slabs of raw meat, you could not think of a more accurate description of this album. John Moore and Luke Haines providing the brutal wit and pop sensibilities, and Sarah Nixey singing in a way that is both sexual and icy cold.

The Facts Of Life is one of my favourite albums of all time, and “The Deverell Twins” could be the main reason for that. Not “Goodnight Kiss” with backing vocals that would make you weep with joy. Not the title song, the world’s most likeliest and most unlikeliest hit single. Not the ominous and magical “The English Motorway System”. It's “The Deverell Twins”. With its gorgeously sinister guitar line and with its chilling story of child suicide dug up from the 19th century. This is intriguing songwriting. 

Compared with two other studio albums from Black Box Recorder, The Facts Of Life gets a very slight edge. It just feels like their most realised and perfectly executed creation. And a good start for the decade: seductive, sophisticated, impossibly cynical. 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Year by year: 1999


No one can write a disjointed melody as beautifully as Stephen Malkmus. No one can break your heart with meaningless lyrics the way Stephen Malkmus can do that. Could, can – I still rate his songwriting, even though a good song comes with an effort these days.

“The Hexx” is icy cold perfection and “Ann Don’t Cry” is achingly pretty. “Major Leagues” is still irresistible and “Platform Blues” is still mind-blowing. Terror Twilight could be Pavement at their most flawless. Even the silly “Folk Jam” has its playful place between the gorgeous and the beautiful. 

Terror Twilight was the best gift to the fans. Swan song, and they knew it. Also, I quite like to think this album was the perfect ending for the 90s. It had a bit of everything. It was catchy, irrelevant, grungy, sentimental. And, most importantly, it finished with a brilliantly irreverent metaphor.  

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Final Derriere

80s slump – to put in mildly – was inevitable and not entirely hopeless. But it’s hard to think of another band that has retained the original edge with such effortlessness and with such conviction. This extraordinaly ability to modify it a little, to reinvent it, but to still have it... You’ve heard latest albums by Keith Richards and Dave Gilmour to know how ‘who the fuck cares?’ it can get. 

But from “Fletcher Honorama” to this. The Mael brothers can still pull it off, and “The Final Derriere” (off The Forbidden Room, one 2015 film you should definitely see) is as a good a song as Sparks have ever written. I’m seriously struggling for names here…

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Year by year: 1998


I thought about this one for a few seconds. That mystical charm that Deserter’s Songs had back when I was 20 years old, is it still there? And the way I lay down in Piazza del Campo a while ago, late at night, listening to this album to the open sky and a growing sense of calm? Has that not disappeared like so many other things have?

Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips was a great collection of songs. Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev was a great album. The way one song started, the way another song ended, the way they all flowed into each other (and flow into each other they did). The dark wonder of the melodies and the drama and the childishness of the lyrics:

Well, she tossed all night like a raging sea
Woke up and climbed from the suicide machine

Their new album does absolutely nothing for me. It has the style and it has the tunes, but something has definitely been lost. Not relevance (not even applicable here) and not the quirkiness of Jonathan Donahue’s voice. However pathetic it way sound, what is missing is that element of magic. That mystical charm which was paramount on Deserter’s Songs and which was still felt on All Is Dream

And sometimes I think it’s all about “Opus 40”. Now if ever there has been a song that makes me feel like the happiest and most special kid on Earth…

Monday, 23 November 2015

Year by year: 1997


Ween are reuniting. I don’t know whether it’s for a tour, for a few shows or they are planning to release a new album, but despite my cynical attitude to such reunions – this is something of a relief. For starters, none of their non-Ween records have been any good. Secondly, if this potential new album comes even close to White Pepper or The Mollusk or Chocolate & Cheese or Quebec, I’m willing to forgive everything.  

As for The Mollusk, no serious music lover should ever waste his or her life without hearing (and falling in love with) this album. Just to give you an idea – if you don’t know what I’m talking about:

“Ocean Man” is power pop.

“Buckingham Green” is progressive rock.

“Cold Blows The Wind” is pure folk music.

“It’s Gonna Be (Alright)” is adult fucking pop.

“The Blarney Stone” is Irish pub singalong.

“Mutilated Lips” is the greatest song of all time.

“I’ll Be Your Johnny On The Spot” is techno.

“Polka Dot Tail” is a slow waltz.

“Waving My Dick In The Wind” is novelty country.


And it’s not like they take a genre and abuse it. Rather, they take a genre (not necessarily a genre you like) and excel in it. In a way so effortless you think they simply cannot miss. I mean, it’s not like you can tolerate adult contemporary or techno – but try “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)” and tell me just how snide and snarky you are. And then they take a genre and push it to extreme levels. It’s almost as if “The Blarney Stone” is more vicious and authentically profane than anything The Pogues ever recorded. 

Oddly, my only problem with Ween (other than the fact that La Cucaracha was a slight misstep – in spite of “Your Party”) are its fans. I’m talking about FANS. I’ve had some experience communicating with them, and unhealthy numbers of those people were more attracted to “L.M.L.Y.P.” and never really grew out of “You Fucked Up” or Pure Guava. And while those records certainly have their wild appeal and you have to love them for being so deliberately annoying and infantile, it has never been about that. Has it?.. 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

What's in...?

Everybody knows the feeling of looking through a list of songs on an album and thinking: ‘Nah, these can’t be any good’. It’s absolutely perverse, this perfunctory hunch, but you are right in 95% of cases.

Likewise, a cursory look at latest releases makes me realise that if you can’t come up with a decent band name – how on Earth can you come up with a decent tune?.. 

Rocket From The Tombs, Teeth Of The Sea, Lanterns On The Lake… 

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Year by year: 1996


How in God’s name he managed to shoehorn Proust and Dostoevsky in there I do not know, but novelty music (if this was indeed novelty music) is rarely done with such conviction, charisma and melodic substance.

Denim On Ice (like its predecessor Back In Denim) is pure addiction. Catchy to the point of vulgarity, or how else do you get something as brilliant and ridiculous as the kids’ singing on “It Fell Off The Back Of The Lorry”? Exquisite melancholia of Felt this was not. 

So what was it? Glam-pop? Novelty rock? Or just Lawrence going off? Whatever it was, Denim sounded like a fascinating flipside of Britpop, and in that respect – you can’t get a song any more delightfully cynical than “The Great Pub Rock Revival”. 

Lawrence is fucking genius, and I can barely resist:

Friday, 20 November 2015

Year by year: 1995


This was interesting because I had already started writing a half-assed review (all these reviews are half-assed, granted) of Tricky’s Maxinquaye. Describing “Hell Is Around The Corner” in every saucing detail and how no straight man can resist going down on the girl while this song is on.

Also, this was interesting because I had already started writing a half-assed review (all these reviews, etc.) of Pulp’s Different Class. Describing “Underwear” in every saucing detail and how no straight man can resist undressing the girl as soon as this song starts playing. Or once it’s over. 

But it all came to nothing as there is no way I can listen to the first 25 seconds of “This Here Giraffe” by The Flaming Lips and not admit that however good that year was, I physically cannot choose another album. Sorry, Jarvis.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Year by year: 1994


Let’s see.

Let’s see why an album as good as Vauxhall & I got dumped and Dummy was not even considered. The reason is that Grant McLennan’s third solo album has 19 (nineteen!) songs of such beautifully crafted perfection that I’m simply left with no choice.

I guess every Go-Betweens fan had to play this game at some point in the 90s. You took a solo album from Robert and a corresponding album from Grant. You chose five best songs from the former and you chose five best songs from the latter and what you got as a result was an imaginary Go-Betweens LP that would have been perfect. For me, Horsebreaker Star changed that.  

Quite simply, I couldn’t do it with this album. I could even do it with Danger In The Past (“Dear Black Dream”, for instance, is good but what a mess), but I have no idea how you pick and choose from a record of this consistency?.. 

Really, you hold on to what you’ve got. And one million verses of “What Went Wrong” seems barely enough…

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


Tindersticks might be my favourite band of near-brilliance. And by near-brilliance I mean that they don’t overwhelm. They leave you on the verge of orgasm, they almost knock you down. Almost, but not quite. 

That extra punch that is missing – I’ve come to realise it could actually be the whole point. It’s intricate and it’s elusive. “Travelling Light”, “Another Night In”, “Kathleen”, etc. They all have moments that threaten to kill (like Furniture’s “Brilliant Mind” does), but they never really do. Fantastic music all the same. Stylish, brooding, beautifully understated.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Year by year: 1993

The Auteurs – NEW WAVE

No element of shock here. I didn’t even have to consider the competition. The songwriting on New Wave is of such charisma, intensity and self-belief (almost obscene for a debut record) that you have to wonder how anyone can not be converted by the time the lush punches of “American Guitars” kick in.

I’ll keep it short. I’ve written about this album extensively about a dozen times now and I have no intention of repeating myself. So let’s just talk about “Don’t Trust The Stars”.

First time I heard the album I barely even noticed it. New Wave was the first album where my favourite song changed from month to month. “Don’t Trust The Stars” was the only one that seemed decently brilliant rather than indecently so (better than anything by any Br*tpop band from the period, mind). But once in a very drab street on a very drab day, with a drab woman sitting at the bus stop reading horoscopes, the lyrics and the tune overwhelmed me. And the strange order was restored. 

Who cares about your mystic lies?..

Monday, 16 November 2015


Intuition is an artist’s most powerful tool. However, it can also lead to an artist’s full disclosure. If there’s no talent and personality involved, it’s just an ugly mess. Lack of depth, lack of vision and lack of artistic integrity. 

Alexander Sokurov, who has over the years frustrated and delighted me in equal measure, seems to have finally done it. Frankofonia is complete artistic intuition, half-thoughts catching on half-ideas and breaking into spontaneous revelations and illogical eurekas. A rich, strangely engaging and horribly relevant meditation on Paris and art. It’s the eternal ‘art versus human life’ question, and Sokurov just riffs on it for an hour and a half. 

But when it's done by someone of such artistic integrity and such powerful intuition, you sort of wonder why he breaks it up at some point and asks: 'Are you not bored yet?' 

No, not even close.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Year by year: 1992

Morphine – GOOD

Morphine are special in the sense that if you start listening to them – you stop listening to everything else. You begin with Good and then move all the way to The Night. You have to. Until all your ears can register is the sound of a two-string bass guitar.

I’ve always thought of ‘Morphine’ as the perfect name for this band. Cure for pain, that kind of thing. But it’s not as simple as that, and morphine leads to addiction. As depression does. Morphine is exactly that: the sound of mild, soothing depression. If you think that sort of thing can’t exist – try spending a night with one of their five studio albums. 

There is not a single standout song on this album. All very even. You could argue that “You Speak My Language” is the special one (try finding a person you can sing it to), but I’m just as addicted to the melancholic “You Look Like Rain” (hard to say why Tom Waits never came up with that title) or the deceptively upbeat “The Other Side”.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

‘Don’t waste my time with Islam’

It’s never just Paris. It’s always the Paris that you know. But Paris will overcome. And France will. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

Year by year: 1991

Teenage Fanclub – BANDWAGONESQUE

Not Grand Prix by any stretch of the imagination, but still one hell of a record. I realise there’s a tendency to look down on it in view of much cooler bands like Pavement and Nirvana (side note: Teenage Fanclub was one of Kurt Cobain’s three favourite bands), but fuck it – these melodies are stunning.

Bandwagonesque (in spite of what its cover may suggest) is seriously good. Big Star-esque power pop dragged all the way to the 90s. The only sign of the times (as well as their Catholic education) is the second song here, “Satan”.

It’s actually a notable one, placed as it is between “The Concept” (“Ballad Of El Goodo” worthy; a song you physically cannot say no to) and the sweetly sweet “December”. It’s like they can do that, too, all that grunge intensity and shit (check out “Hardcore” on Grand Prix), but their interests lie elsewhere. With the sugary rush of “What You Do To Me” and “Alcoholiday”. 

Bandwagonesque is a bit of ‘too much of a good thing’ sort of album, but you can’t be seriously telling me McGee has ever managed a more talented band (can I keep saying that till the end of times?). 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Year by year: 1990


New Zealand.

Flying Nun Records.

The Chills.

Few things can compare with the excitement of first hearing a classic pop song from New Zealand. “Death And The Maiden”. “Nothing’s Going To Happen”. “Made Up In Blue”. “Inside And Out”. “Anything Could Happen”. “Fingerpops”. Or, indeed, “Heavenly Pop Hit”.

My only problem with bands like The Verlaines and The Clean (and most other New Zealand bands) is that they never released one truly compelling album. Nothing that would come even close to the brilliance of individual songs. Or, indeed, of Submarine Bells.

Martin Phillipps was in top form at this point, and he could do melancholically majestic (title song) and effervescently effective (“Familiarity Breeds Contempt”). This was so good there was no way he could recreate the magic on the worthy but patchy follow-ups like Soft Bomb and Sunburnt. Or, indeed, Silver Bullets

But my heart still jumps the moment I hear those first few chords of the song that defines its title.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Year by year: 1989


It used to be one of life’s simple pleasures – listening to “Tame” at full volume. In public transport. On the way to the university. “Debaser” was good as well, but nothing came close to the exquisite chorus of “Tame”. I haven’t done that in years, opting instead for “Here Comes Your Man” that may or may not be the greatest pop song ever written.

Bossanova remains special, but that’s mainly because it was my first Pixies record. Special albums are special, that’s the least you can say about them, but there’s no question that Doolittle is the one where the rougher edges of Surfer Rosa best meet the songwriting charms of “Is She Weird?”

The lyrics are nonsensical (unless you wish to psychoanalyse yourself – that’s according to Frank Black), the melodies are twisted and the chord progressions are fucked up. There really is no way to explain how it all works so beautifully without resorting to the ‘it’ argument. Pixies had it. You can speak for hours on end about what makes these songs so good, but I would just play you the climax of “Monkey Gone To Heaven”. 

You don’t have too many bands able to come up with something like that.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Year by year: 1988

The Go-Betweens – 16 LOVERS LANE

He was not supposed to like this album. Not at all. He had a vast collection of 60s singles on vinyl (including The Monkees’ immortal “Alternate Title”), thought “She’s Your Lover Now” was Dylan’s best song and played in a bluegrass band in the streets of Newcastle.

But I did play it to him, and at some point during “Love Is A Sign” he nodded his head in quiet appreciation. “This is good”. By the tone of it, this was verging on delight.

That said, it’s hard to play certain albums to other people. It’s not so much insecurity as a fear to be disappointed. Or in some way discouraged from communicating with these people. You get over that with age, inevitably you do, even if you still wince at someone unmoved by The Elephant Man or bored by Pale Fire. These albums are normally made by artists who speak to you. As opposed to whoever else is listening. 

16 Lovers Lane is the sound of intense, poetic, emotional, intelligent pop genius.  

Monday, 9 November 2015

The joke isn’t funny anymore

Amusing though it all is (in a totally unintentional way), you have to wonder if you care anymore. Praising Chris Martin's songwriting is a shark jumped. In fact, this recent interview makes me think of one particular screenshot I made half a year ago:

Who but Alan McGee would argue with that?..

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Clocks ticking

An artist dying in 1979. Can you imagine him living in the 80s? Can you imagine him living now? Christ, can you imagine him living one day longer? In retrospect, can you do that? Andrei Tarkovsky making films in the 90s, Christopher Hitchens twittering, David Foster Wallace writing a novel in 2015? This is oddly unthinkable. 

Same could be said for many people, granted, but it’s especially true for people of art. In a cruel and fateful way, an artist lives for as long as he is supposed to. And while that may sound desperate or possibly even religious, this is hardly a bad thing. It means eternity is constrained by time. And that’s a nice thought.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Year by year: 1987


Strangeways is the name of a Manchester prison and the fourth (and final) studio album by The Smiths… Ah but let’s talk about Morrissey’s debut novel instead.

It’s bad. No-saving-graces bad. Poorly written and ill-conceived. So bad you can’t ignore how bad it is. Pretty much like the latest instalment of Stephen Fry’s autobiography; in the sense that even if you are a fan, there’s no way you can get over the tedious self-indulgence going on.

In fact, there’s a mystical thing happing in List Of The Lost. I have no idea what this strange phenomenon is called in literary science, but each page reads like two pages (sometimes three, and in one case – towards the end of the novel – one page actually becomes ten). Very odd. 

Morrissey’s memoir, though, was a classic. It was especially great to notice that he actually rates Strangeways as The Smiths’ best album. The man has taste. Or how else could he write “Girlfriend In A Coma”?..

Friday, 6 November 2015

Year by year: 1986


Born Sandy Devotional doesn’t really blow you away. Not on first listen. Rather, it overpowers you with toughness and emotional intensity. So that the closer “Tender Is The Night (The Long Fidelity)” sounds almost lightweight when it beautifully brings it all to a close.

There’s a fascinating booklet in the CD version I have. It includes photos of Dave McComb’s notebook with ideas and rewrites and the general feeling that he was doing something monumental. That this was the Triffids’ album. That it would be as close to experiencing Australia (without actually going there) as possible. That it would capture all the vastness and all the isolation.

Lonely stretches and wide open roads. The thoughts he put into that. The work. The determination. But above all – this is a collection of great songs. Each one a complete Australian classic. It’s incredible that a song like “Personal Things” was included at the last moment. Dave’s vocals and the piano could go on forever for all I care. I love it to death. 

The whole album, really. The spiritual intensity of “Lonely Stretch”; the morbid, unsettling beauty of “Tarrilup Bridge”; the propulsive energy of “Life Of Crime”. And the feeling that against that vastness – you are a fly. You are nothing. And how the time flies. ‘As fast’, Dave sings, ‘as a chicken with no head’.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Year by year: 1985


Nikki Sudden in his prime was fucking incredible. Team him up with Dave Kusworth – and you get yourself a true lost classic. Listening to the recordings these two made in the course of just two years, from 1984 to 1985, you realise this was a songwriting partnership on a par with... Name any.

Jacobites, Lost In The Sea Of Scarves and then their undisputed peak. Robespierre’s Velvet Basement. If you like it, you love it. If you don’t like it – well, I have no idea how you even discovered it. You were not supposed to. Ragged and romantic. The kind of poetry and tunes that were as relevant to mid-80s as classical architecture. Thankfully, though, we’ve become too cynical to care about relevance. Which is why there’s still hope for Robespierre’s Velvet Basement

You often read about musicians being bitter in later life. You feel for them. Peter Perrett, Lawrence – those people had a shot. However, it would have been unreasonable for Sudden and Kusworth to be bitter. With an album like this, they had no chance. Not in 1985. Which does not really mean anything. Not when you can hear a song like "Snow White".

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Year by year: 1984


You can’t accuse me of being overly materialistic, but there are albums you love so much a digital copy seems a travesty. You have to actually own them. In a record store, you can’t go past them. Vinyl, CD or a fucking cassette. So that having loved this album for more than five years and having never resisted singing along with “Mellow Together”, I did not hesitate for one millisecond in The Morgan Arcade in Cardiff.

You could probably make a lame point about this album being patchy and uneven. You could – but that would be missing the point. It’s classic Hitchcock to put the nervy, quirky “Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl” alongside the sheer beauty that is “Cathedral”. Then there is this:

Then there is the clinically gorgeous “Flavour Of Night” and the wistful and timeless “Trams Of Old London” and, of course, the songwriting genius of “My Favourite Buildings”. Living side by side with “Furry Green Atom Bowl”, which sounds exactly the way that its title suggests. 

I Often Dream Of Trains is the quintessential solo Hitchcock album. There are times when you would prefer Black Snake Diamond Röle and there are times when you would prefer Eye or maybe Moss Elixir (“Man With A Woman’s Shadow” is an all-time favourite), but this is the one you need to best understand the talent and the demented charm of Robyn Hitchcock.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Year by year: 1983

Nikki Sudden – THE BIBLE BELT

Ever since hearing “Chelsea Embankment” for the first time, I’ve always thought about listening to that song while walking along the actual Chelsea Embankment. A dream only realised a few months ago, on a cool summer evening, with a bottle of ginger beer in hand. I was actually rather spiritual, all things considered. Nikki Sudden would have approved.

The hopeless idealism of that dream could only be inspired by this album. Nikki Sudden was a man out of time and out of any sort of context (he did toy with the context a little on those Swell Maps albums, but that was brief and almost accidental). Full of sexual yearning (“Cathy”) and references to France (“The Road Of Broken Dreams”). But above all – what a great songwriter. By any sort of standard, “English Girls” and “Missionary Boy” are some of the greatest songs that nobody in mid-80s cared to hear. 

With Dave Kusworth, he would go on to do greater things (more on this later), but The Bible Belt remains a lost classic. Apparently Nikki Sudden had no taste in clothes and often looked like a patchwork of colours and styles. Not musically though. For even when he tried something as untypical as the funky “Six Hip Princes” – he did it almost as tastefully and convincingly as Robyn Hitchcock did. If anyone still remembers “Grooving On An Inner Plane”.