Setting records

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I just built some new shelves for my records. I spent all evening doing it, my records are now on those shelves and now my records feel like someone else’s records.

I’m scrolling back and remembering the significant record arrangements of my life so far. Most recently, up until this afternoon, my records lived in two remaindered Habitat shelving units which were stacked on top of one another and slotted into an alcove in our dining room with my stereo bits and bobs slung on top. I’m pleased to say that these had become packed to bursting and, since what goes around comes around, are suddenly in high demand for storage in someone else’s room where they will fit rather conveniently, thank you very much.

Prior to this I had them in the same units side-by-side upstairs. And prior to that, I reckon, I had them in the same shelves alongside our bed in our two-up-two-down in South Manchester. My records and the means to play them were, for what now seems like a brief period in sunlit uplands, within arms reach as I slept.

And prior to that? Let’s think. I can’t recall shelving of any variety. Steve and I lived in a flat in Didsbury for a year or so. I can remember little about the layout of my room, but I’m assuming my records were stacked on the floor. I do recall that at one point the heating system began to leak and a pool of water spread from the centre of the flat out to the periphery over the course of a number of weeks, eventually forming a perfect circle of dank, essentially stagnant carpet. I must have moved my records outwards to keep pace with the moist advance.

I have photos of shelves full of CDs from our house in Rusholme. Whilst my records are permanent, undislodgeable features, I have thrown away, or ‘decluttered’ in modern parlance, almost any other relics of my past, including bin bags full of letters and photos. Unsurprisingly, one of the shots I think I opted to keep and which I’m sure, is lurking upstairs still 20 years later, is of bedroom bookshelves shelves full of CDs. I was pretty sure that if we were burgled and they went, no insurer would believe I’d actually had as many as I would inevitably have to claim for. So I took pictures of the shelves, assuming that would be enough. Later that year we were indeed broken into and my collection remained unpilfered. Months later, when we moved house, I realised one of the reasons why. It would have taken 10 men to lift the whole lot.

Prior to that? I was at home briefly having returned from University, where my records were stacked on the floor. In my final year, they extended out next to my bed from the head end. If I woke up on my left side, my eyes would be flicking up and down the row of album spines before I’d fully registered that I was awake.

I’m not sure exactly when they became alphabetised, but I know it was relatively late. Prior to that, there was a topography to the collection, a joy in understanding the terrain of what was ultimately a random ordering. Arriving at one record, I would know what was next and the trail would unfold in my mind’s eye and my finger’s touch. Looking for a specific album I could intuit its position and almost reach in and grab it blindfolded.

Now I have more records, and now I also have more shelves. For the first time in a little while my records have some room to breathe, although not enough in their 13 by 13 compartments, to be properly flicked through. Still, I can now pull them out without having to pinch the spines, and push them back in without having to first pull out three or four neighbouring albums to force back in with them in a brute force attack.

The whole thing looks different once again and seems, somehow, new. In a literal sense, this is a dream come true. Surely all record collectors share that dream of finding that the collection that they thought they owned actually contains hidden subsections, albums by their favourite artists that they’d never heard of and whole new annexes of music to explore at leisure. My collection feels opened up in some way by this rather small change,

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My Records of 2013

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albums2013Here’s the list of my albums of the year for 2013. I’ve had no problems whatsoever compiling this list as it features the only 11 new records I actually bought over the last 12 months.

My listening habits have changed a lot over the last year and Spotify is now my first reference point for genuinely new music, i.e. artists I haven’t heard before. This year i’ve spent much less money than usual on records, but that’s not because streaming has replaced purchasing. If money had been no object, I would have three or four times as many, and there’s a parallel list of albums which i’ve had on heavy Spotify rotation.

This list almost breaks down evenly into albums by established and well-loved artists which I would have picked up whenever I got the chance, and albums which I played so many times on Spotify that I felt either compelled or obliged to buy them.

Finally, I feel no sense of conflict or confusion as to why i’m writing this list. It’s because I want to and because, in some tiny way, I want you all to know that I’m the kind of guy who would buy these kind of records.

Deafheaven – ‘Sunbather’

I love the idea of Black Metal – a blast of noise and fury as cathartic and destructive as a nuclear detonation, channeling pure, dark rage and horror. But somehow, the product usually manages to undermine itself through the sheer puerility of everything which isn’t the music. In their titles, artwork, lyrics, names, so many BM acts seem just like silly, gloomy teenagers. I can’t get past it.

That leaves me with acts that eschew the posturing and just go for the noise. This year, that has meant Deafheaven, a black metal band who grew up loving Slowdive. ‘Sunbather’ is a red-roasting racket, without any other nonsense.

Deerhunter – ‘Monomania’

More or less a standard new Deerhunter record, which shouldn’t even be a thing. Regulation Deerhunter is okay for me and listening back I’m surprised by how many of the songs seem to have stuck. But, Bradford, fuzzing up your vocals and pretending you’re wearing a neon motorbike jacket is not a bold new direction.

Grouper – ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’

Grouper may be one of my favourite artists of the last few years. I can tell, because I have almost no idea whether I like her records or not, but I keep on coming back to them. And the more I come back, the more my grip on them seems to slip. ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’ seems to hide its true identity under layers of gauze and haze, layering static, hiss, reverb and any other available aural opacifier between the listener and what seem, beneath it all, to be simple acoustic laments. But there’s nothing simple about this proposition.

All of which is a windy way of saying that no matter how many reviews I read telling me that this album is a moving evocation of loss, wrapped in a narrative that will have you wrung out by the closing track, I basically have no idea on earth what it’s about, can barely cling on to the details of any of the tracks, but it hasn’t stopped Grouper nagging away at me, and I love that.

The Haxan Cloak – ‘Excavation’

My Christmas list is stuffed full of records i’ve lived with on Spotify and now need to own. Almost all are abstract, electronic – in influence if not always execution – and, to my inexperienced ears, representing a vanguard of new musicians stepping away from the dance floor and towards the contemporary classical performance space. Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak, is pushing downwards, finding ways to drag the sounds out from the depths of his psyche and into a world in which they may well never have been meant to exist.

Hookworms – ‘Pearl Mystic’

Pure nostalgia, pure pleasure, ‘Pearl Mystic’ proves that just because something’s been done before doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing again, or that it can’t be done better. It’s a bubbling, seething cauldron of guitar that will boil you down to bones.

I wrote about it here: http://devonrecordclub.com/2013/10/30/hookworms-pearl-mystic-round-56-robs-choice/

Iron and Wine – ‘Ghost On Ghost’

Sam Beam’s fifth album begins with a clattering, uncontrolled rhythm, rolling over itself before resolving quickly into a sweet, soulful shuffle. It’s a knowing dig at those who thought he would take Iron and Wine even farther down the discordant jazztronica of ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’. I thought that last record was unfairly maligned but, nonetheless, this unmistakeable step back towards the heart of what he does best has produced a warm and wonderful sound. It’s confident, brimming with effortless melody and open-hearted words. Amidst the noise and anti-noise of all my other 2013 playlists, the rhythm and roll of ’The Desert Babbler’ has perhaps been the most naggingly addictive pure sound.

The Knife – ‘Shaking the Habitual’

This triple-album, an unashamedly conceptual piece, whichever way you see its intent and execution made a big impact on release. It seems to have dipped below the waterline since. Perhaps it was too big to digest. Perhaps it was too ridiculous to take seriously. Whatever. There are sounds in here that you’ve never heard before. There are tracks which hammer and bang like nothing else you’ll have nodded your way through this year. There are places on this record which only The Knife have access to.

Low – ‘The Invisible Way’

Low and Jeff Tweedy made a lovely Low record, moving the sound on incrementally by combining the succinctness of ‘Drums and Guns’ with the accessibility of ‘The Invisible Way’ to create a smart, thoroughly enjoyable collection. I’m not damning it, and that’s not faint praise.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – ‘Push The Sky Away’

This was on hard rotation for a couple of months at the start of the year. The way Nick Cave has matured into an artist who so fully and completely inhabits his own unique space, embodying his mode of operation, delivering time and time again on the foundation he and his band have built for themselves, seems to me to be one of the wonders of the musical world. File him alongside Tom Waits and… erm…

‘Push The Sky Away’ is a perfect example, wherein he does things he’s never done before, taking a further step away from the swampy wild west and finding himself amongst sex-traffickers, sailors and theoretical physics wonks. Definitely the best album of the year to feature one song which opens with a description of the narrator completing the composition of one of the album’s preceding tracks.

Pinkunoizu – ‘The Drop’

A dizzying blend of sounds lifted magpie-style and blended with abandon by this Danish four-piece. Even if by some miracle the individual tracks manage to hold their disparate influences together, there’s no way this should work as a coherent album. Somehow it does.

I wrote about it here: http://devonrecordclub.com/2013/11/29/pinkunoizu-the-drop-round-58-robs-choice/

Vampire Weekend – ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

When ‘MVotC’ arrived it was trailed as the musical equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon novel, cramming in countless allusions, allegories and hints of hidden histories. I still haven’t sat down with the lyric sheet, but I know this is a smart piece of work. In fact, I think it’s the sort of record we should be hoisting shoulder-high and showering with garlands.

When so much alternative rock has been lauded for disengagement, dislocation and blurring out, or for just doing more, longer and with less focus, Vampire Weekend have produced a work of scope, substance and, crucially, concision. It crackles with energy and melody, rejoices in musical flourishes, stylistic invention and lyrical density, and pulls all these together into a whole which is as playful as it is intriguing, which will move the feet as much as it spins the head.

Talking Heads ascended to the firmament for doing something similar, for daring to aspire to being smart as well as musically gripping. It genuinely baffles me why we aren’t rushing to put Vampire Weekend up there with them.

So, that’s that.

My record of the year, you ask? That would be ‘Coexist’ by The xx. But that’s another story.

#musicdiaryproject – Friday

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Jo was on Marge duty this morning, so just Head Music for me until lunchtime.

I had ‘Send in the Clowns’ for a few minutes. No idea why, but it brought a brief gust of Friday ennui.

Then came one of those lovely moments of connection between people and eras that music can conjure in a flash. Walking down the corridor I passed our Press Office where I heard a very old favourite song being played, presumably via YouTube. Dan, Press Officer, was clearly struggling to convince his colleagues that this was a song they certainly must be familiar with. They were laughing at him and he was having difficulty defending his position. I took this in as I walked by, but after going past it struck me that I really ought to step in and help out. I took a couple of backwards strides, popped my head around the door and asked “‘Camouflage’? by Stan Ridgway?” I think I made Dan’s day, to the hysterical dismay of the others. We were able to exchange quips about him being an “awfully big marine” before he revealed that the reason this has come up in the first place was that he had snuck some of the lyrics, a brief snatch of the tale of that heroic soldier, into a newly published press release. Excellent work.

Yuck – ‘Holing Out’

I read a tweet from Pete Paphides a couple of weeks ago raving about Yuck, then a less than convincing review from Pitchfork. Spotted a link on that site today which led me to this song via Soundcloud. Thought it sounded okay, and pretty much as all the references to early 90s Pavement etc had given me to expect.

#fridaymix

I try to join the Friday Mix whenever I can, even if I can’t listen in. Every Friday at 12.30pm, the Friday Mix overlord creates a new Spotify playlist based on a theme which has been voted for by the waiting participants, who then get to add two songs of their choosing to the playlist. The tracks are sorted and ordered by whoever wants to drag them around then at 2pm the playlist is locked, everyone presses ‘Play’ at the same time, and several dozen people, dotted who knows where, all listen along to the same songs, alone but together.

It’s an interesting way to collaborate, challenge and mingle with other music listeners, and one which just wouldn’t have been possible even two years ago. Today’s theme was ‘sunshine’ and I added ‘Sunrise’ by Lambchop and ‘I Am The Sun’ by Swans. Most weeks most participants seem to want to add in happy songs, so I do take a certain childish pleasure in choosing something more bruising whenever I can. It’s often Swans, to be honest.

I thought ‘Sunrise’ would be a good opener and tried to boost it to the top, but Eric and Ernie kept being bumped even higher until the last moment when, inexplicably, Finley Quaye appeared in the number 1 spot.

As the playlist ticks through there’s a parallel discussion on twitter, using the #fridaymix hashtag. Unfortunately this is usually pretty perfunctory and polite. It’s rare to see frank opinions exchanged, even though part of the pleasure is both cooing and sniffing and other people’s choices.

You can see today’s playlist above. After the Bob Marley track, my office-mate came back from a meeting, so I muted my PC. According to the Twitter feed, Swans drifted by without a mention once more.

PJ Harvey – ‘Let England Shake’

Whilst writing this, I sat upstairs and listened to the second side of ‘Let England Shake’. Not really concentrating.

Pavement – ‘Perfect Sound Forever’

Haven’t listened to this for 15 years or so. Sounded great. 10″ vinyl is still weirdly cool.

Swell – ‘Swell’

Picked off the shelf after 5 minutes of aimless gawping. I don’t know anything about them. My friend Ben and I used to like them in the days before you could find out everything about a band in 10 seconds. I remember it was their second album we really liked. One of the first I remember having that slightly broken down country sound that would come to inflect so much of the alternative music I liked from the US. It has something intruguing and seductive about the sound of it, rather than the songs of it. This is their first album. I think Ben had the second. I might go and google them now…

Goodnight.

What 2010 sounded like – my records of the year

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This is late, I know. I’m sorry. Most end of year lists were chip paper three weeks ago. I can’t say that i’ve spent the time mulling over my choices, honing every comment. It’s 10pm on 2 Jan, and I still don’t know what i’m going to write, even though I’ve been thinking about writing it for a month or so. That’s also long enough for any final saving claims to spontaneity to have withered away. Perhaps i’ll just get on with it.

I kept a list this year, and the list tells me that I bought just 32 new records. I can’t say that i’ve listened much more widely than those. Looking back, my 2010 collection seems both conservative, with few risky punts on unheard outfits, and strong, with no huge disappointments, just a few records I didn’t go back to as often as I might have hoped. If the list below seems of a type, well, perhaps it is. I’m surprised.

It’s been another year of fractured listening. Time spent listening to music on car journeys, or whilst walking the dog, has again outweighed the hours sat before the turntable, focusing intently, listening closely. Nonetheless, there are records which have stood out, stayed around and moved me during the year, and here are some of them, listed in the order in which I bought them.

The Antlers – ‘Hospice’
The Mountain Goats – ‘The Sunset Tree’

Two of my favourites of the year were released in 2009 and 2005 respectively. ‘Hospice’ suddenly sounded different on long, dark walks, when Peter Silberman’s emotional string-tugging proved irresistible. This quiet, surging soundtrack to heartbreak and decay has stayed in the memory longer than anything else this year.

I finally got around to John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats, and ‘The Sunset Tree’ is pretty much everything I want from an album. Sharp and funny, with tunes both affecting and catchy, delivered in a deliciously nasal west coast voice. The sound of the Summer’s ups and downs.

Joanna Newsom – ‘Have One On Me’

Joanna Newsom’s third album, spread across three records and two hours, is the towering achievement of the last twelve months, a trove of treasure which will take years to explore and catalogue. We can gasp at the audacity of her ambition, marvel at the scale of her achievement, welcome her maturing voice and songwriting, even, when the mood takes us, hear the whole history of the United States in a song like ‘Good Intentions Paving Co.’ but ultimately ‘Have One On Me’ is a triumph of exploratory melody, and a thumb in the eye for those who have proclaimed the death of the album.

The National – ‘High Violet’

I’m not sure how The National got so big between albums, but the confidence with which they toured ‘Boxer’ a couple of years ago was parlayed into ‘High Violet’, a perfectly realised and recorded album from a band who, whilst living only a short stumble from the mainstream, have managed to build a sound that could only be theirs, and then build and build upon it further. The National are doing things their own way, and have become beautifully self-contained and self-fulfilling in a way that recalls REM at their mid-80s best. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ is the best 4-minute single of the year.

Liars – ‘Sisterworld’

In which the mogadon nightmare of ‘Drums Not Dead’ smashes face-first into the scathing rock of their eponymous fourth album. It’s almost impossible to divine this band’s intentions. Like the good Captain Beefheart, lost this last month, you can never be quite sure whether Liars are jokers or geniuses and the tension between the two is just one of the things that make them so compelling.

The Arcade Fire – ‘The Suburbs’

I thought ‘The Suburbs’ was a convincing next move the the Arcade Fire, taking the lost children of ‘Funeral’ and spinning them forward to become lost parents. Some fine songs, but it makes my list mainly for ‘The Wilderness Downtown‘ a short online film by Chris Milk which is a sparse, almost unavoidably moving piece, and the first time in years i’ve seen a song so completely transformed by an accompanying promo.

Emeralds – ‘Does It Look Like I’m Here?’

Looking up and down this list, it does seem more conservative than the year actually felt. A few weeks ago this record, by a kosmische electronic trio from Cleveland, Ohio, looked like at least a partially left-field choice, but it seems to have struck many commentators in the same light and has found its way onto several end-of-year rundowns. For me its music box pointillism has been the sound i’ve reached for this year when I didn’t know quite what I wanted. Sometimes i’ve listened intently, drawn into its dissolving structures, and sometimes it’s served as a warm and bubbling background wash. It works beautifully as both, and has proved as satisfying and well-played as any other record this year.  

Crystal Castles – ‘Doe Deer’

This scathing 98 seconds is the hit and run of the year and the song i’ve scrolled to most. Insistent, belligerent and un-sit-downable, it rushes by in the context of the album, but taken straight it’s an unstoppable shock of distressingly contaminated adrenaline. The way Ethan sets up a lapel-grabbing track which Alice’s caustic vocals mercilessly destroy makes me want to stand an applaud every time. That they manage to both create such a compelling sound and then brutally wreck it within the space of a minute-and-a-half seems almost as fine an achievement as Joanna Newsom’s two hours of virtuosity.

Swans – ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky’

It’s just great to have them back, managing to take their rich, deep noise and bring to it a raw, live band feel. As savage and unflinching as ever, M. Gira will turn 60 this decade, but his gaze remains steely and unwavering.