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Music


What’s the story behind this page? To be honest, I had a similar, though very crappy, page years ago and I’ve been thinking about a new one, on and off, for some time now. But a much better story is that a good friend called me a snob. She’d just bought herself tickets to see a young female soloist, and was excited about it, when I churlishly piddled on her parade by saying something like “Bah, humbug. Pretty girls who can sing are ten a penny.” It was rotten of me to say that, but it’s true, as anyone who’s spent a few years on the sofa watching Disney and Nickelodeon with a tweenie daughter will attest. Having suffered through Hannah Montana, Sonny with a Chance, Victorious, and all the rest of them, it takes a lot more than a symmetrical face, a jaunty pair of tits, and a serviceable soprano to impress me.

For the avoidance of doubt, I think Miley Cyrus has a one in a million voice. What a shame she wastes it singing crap.

So what is worth listening to, then?

Well, I wouldn’t presume to say.

I have no musical training and the only musical instrument I can play is the car stereo. So, the only thing I can say is what I like, and the only value of that is this: I’m only going to post artists I like (who needs ill-informed negativity?) so if you see an artist you like posted here, then obviously our tastes overlap, at least a little bit, and maybe you’ll find more.

And what I like (mostly) is innovation. I was at high school in the early 1970’s, when there was a lot of experimentation going on: Mike Oldfield, early Split Enz, Emerson Lake and Palmer – to name just a few. I grew up with this. Sure, numerous “greats” have been stamped out from the trusty verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus mould, and there are bound to be more, but it’s nice when you hear something different. And it’s nice, too, when a song’s lyrics are something other than a variation on “you’re really hot; let’s go someplace and have sex”, or “you dumped me and I’m really upset about it”, both of which get pretty tedious after a while. So you’ll understand why I am totally infatuated with Let’s Eat Grandma at the moment. It doesn’t mean I like everything about every song but, my god!, those girls are the most inventive, courageous, talented songwriters on the planet right now.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There will be a few songs mentioned here with the old formula, and a few that are different, some that aren’t in English (get over it), some with no words at all, and – yes – there’ll be some favoured artists, but the standard unit here will be individual “songs”. We’ll worry about aggregating them by artist and shuffling them into some kind of categories later. Maybe.

Meanwhile, “in no special order”… I hope you find something you like.

Deep Six Textbook – Let’s Eat Grandma

Given the intro, this has to be my first recommendation. Deep six Textbook is the remarkable first song on a remarkable first album from a remarkable artist. For a start, I’m an old codger who has been listening to music for more than half a century and, yet, here is something completely, astonishingly new. Next up, every song on this album is different to all the others and new in its own special way. And, as if that’s not enough already, the artist, a duo, are two young women who would have been in the vicinity of 15 to 16 years old when they recorded it. Finally, they composed all the tracks and play all the instruments themselves. I’m just in awe of these two. So, ok, their voices hadn’t matured when this album was laid down. In an interview I read, one of them says “We sound like mice.” That’s too harsh; after only one or two times through, the high voices aren’t what I notice any more. Instead, it’s the freshness, the imagination, and the sheer courage to throw away the recipe book and the standard pop instrumentation, and make brand new music with a couple of keyboards, a xylophone, a recorder (yes, really), and a saxophone. Even the lyrics (“I feel like standing on the desk and screaming ‘I don’t care’”) are something new and different. The official YouTube video is a charmingly low-budget affair, featuring the two musicians themselves.

Cherokee Lane – Tangerine Dream

To the best of my knowledge, there is no studio recording of Cherokee Lane; it only appears on the live album, Encore, released in 1977. It was recorded during a US tour by one of the band’s early lineups, comprising Peter Baumann, Edgar Froese, and Christopher Franke. I first heard this album played in full on the radio, late one evening, in the late 1970s. I remember being stunned; I rushed out and ordered it as soon as I could (not so easy in those days as it is now – no internet). It has worn well, for me anyway; I still play it regularly. I love the “other worldliness” of the music, the long tracks (Cherokee Lane is 16 minutes), their choice to forego voice and make instrumental music. Cherokee Lane is my favourite track from the album, but I like them all. The band is still recording although all of the members are new since Encore. I like the new stuff too; Blue Arctic Danube is another favourite.

Under the Wheel – Split Enz

For me, Mental Notes simply is Split Enz. My all-time favourite album at the time it was released, and still, I think, one of the great innovations in contemporary music. Their second album, Second Thoughts, comprises essentially the same songs (there is just one really decent addition, Matinee Idyll/129) but the Phil Manzanara re-mix is a botch-up, and all of the other-worldly charm of the original recordings has evaporated. At the time I was gutted; I just couldn’t believe that the band had no more in them. Shortly afterwards Phil Judd left the band, so all we were left with was the Finn brothers trading under an assumed name, and the group produced nothing but the unimaginative, derivative crap we heard from them subsequently.

It’s all a bit sad, really, but Mental Notes still stands as a bright and shining pearl at the beginning of the road, and the subsequent tale of woe does nothing to diminish it. It is hard to pick a favourite track; there are so many good ones: Titus, Stranger than Fiction, Spellbound…. But, if I’m going to force myself to choose just one, then it has to be the epic, enigmatic, Under the Wheel. There are a few good live videos around, but this upload of the studio recording is better just to listen to.

Since I Left You – The Avalanches

Since I left You is an intriguing album from Aussie band The Avalanches. I read somewhere that the entire album was constructed from samples. That sounds hyperbolic to me, but what would I know? It may be true. The brilliant centrepiece is undoubtedly the title track, and the best way to hear that for the first time is to watch this video on YouTube. This is sheer brilliance! The story, the dancing, the acting, are all as good as the music itself. If it hasn’t won some kind of mini-Oscar already, it damn well deserves to. The rest of the album, though, is a bit uneven, and some of the tracks – like Frontier Psychiatrist for example – can be downright irritating if you’re not in the mood for them. But the title track is catchy and clever and, wow, that video....

Midnight City – M83

Outside of France, M83 is possibly best-known for the piece Outro, the last track on the Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming double album, which was used as the title track for the TV series Versailles, and for this delightful advertisement. But here I want to commend the second track from the album, Midnight City. This is easily their most “single” track (the protracted near-silence in the middle of Outro kind of torpedos the mood a bit, doesn’t it?) and it is such a good song. I’ve no idea what the video is trying to say, but this song by itself is more than enough reason to keep a watching brief on the French charts which invariably throw up a more interesting mix than the boring and derivative crap we get most everywhere else.

The Same Deep Water as You – The Cure

Disintegration was the first Cure album I recall listening to from beginning to end, and I was hooked from the first note. It is my favourite Cure album, and for many years my favourite album from any artist. Some critics think it nihilistic; well, I guess it can be if you want it to. Or despairing, and it can be that as well. But any good music is only going to reflect your own mood back at you, so there.

Probably the best known track is Lullaby, and probably my favourite is Untitled, but for this review I’m pitching The Same Deep Water as You because, to me, of all the songs on the album, this one encapsulates the album best. It is moody and slow; individual notes feel like they’re being dragged reluctantly from Smith’s guitar one by one. But quite beautiful in its own way. Here’s a nice live performance.

Good Time – Counting Crows

Counting Crows have a kind of depressing, nihilistic thing going on; their songs are a sort of window into how the downtrodden live (or how I imagine it may be so; I’ve never been rich but I haven’t ever known real hardship either). Round Here, Anna Begins, Recovering the Satellites, and even Mr Jones are all good examples, but the quintessential one, for me at least, is Good Time. All sorts of artists try to position themselves as mouthpieces for our collective social conscience (makes me puke) but Counting Crows, and especially with this song, make despair tangible. Some of Hannah Reid’s best songs make my spine tingle; so does this song, but in a completely different way! Here’s an official-looking album-rip on YouTube.

Fearless – Taylor Swift

Yes, Taylor. Get over it.

This probably isn’t my favourite song from the prolific Ms. Swift (I think that might be New Romantics which is really very funny if you listen to it carefully) but, for my money, this song is the most perfect match of song to target demographic that I have ever heard. Teenagers, from what I can remember (my experience occurred in the Early Jurassic, so my memory of this time is sketchy) have the endearing characteristic of throwing themselves into pretty much everything, schoolwork and house chores being the obvious exceptions, fully. Whole heartedly. Holding nothing back. “Fearless” is a good word for it. IMHO, this song captures that quality wonderfully.

There are some other nuances that warm my heart also, such as the “best dress”. Sadly, this concept was utterly lost on my own daughter and her, frankly spoiled, high school classmates. Like too many first-world children, they all had most of whatever they wanted, including a new dress for virtually every one of their innumerable social occasions, and the concept of owning a single “best” of anything went over their collective heads like a meteorite. [But you all turned out ok – XX.] Whatever, this idea holds some resonance with my wife and me, and no doubt other parents, who had less in our day and, perhaps, appreciated it more. So, anyway, here I commend to you a song that has a whole lot more going on than a catchy tune: Fearless.

Men and Women – Tanita Tikaram

I missed Tanita Tikaram the first time around; I guess her heyday was early nineties, although she is still recording as far as I know. I love her voice, although not many of her songs. Everything comes together in this one, though; Men and Women combines that lovely alto with an ethereal song that gets into your bones.

Wasting My Young Years – London Grammar

London Grammar has a very ‘spare’ sound – apparently the three band members studied music together at uni, and I suspect they surely studied Satie at some point. Not everybody’s cup of tea, but I don’t think any music lover will regret the few minutes investment to listen to this song, simply to hear Hannah Reid’s voice, if nothing else. She easily wins my vote for the most beautiful voice singing today, and I don’t say that lightly. At their Auckland concert in late 2018, the opening number was Rooting for You which she sang unaccompanied. It was spine-tingling, and I don’t even like that song. Frankly, this band’s lyrics leave a lot to be desired, but their music is better than ok, and Reid’s voice is supernatural.

For my money, Wasting My Young Years is far and away the band’s best song. Outside of the 2018 concert, I’ve never heard this song, nor any other by this band, played in New Zealand. It was, however, featuring in the French Top 40 when I visited Paris a few years ago; I discovered London Grammar alongside Christine and the Queens, and have held French musical taste in high esteem ever since. (To be fair, they have a goodly amount of shit in their Top 40, same as ours, but at least they include a few treasures as well.) This is a beautiful live version.

If you like the sound, hunt around YouTube for a bit and watch some of this band’s other live performances. No post-prod tinkering required here; these guys are the Real Deal. It’s hard to believe they need more than one take to record anything.

Sadly, however, London Grammar does have one serious weakness: their lyrics. For every Wasting My Young Years, there are another four or five songs with lyrics ranging from the merely unfortunate (Rooting for You) via the baffling (Hey, Now) to the completely incoherent (Hell to the Liars, an utterly, hauntingly, beautiful song until you try to understand it). The worst of them force Reid to warble and change keys in quick succession. But, every now and then they get the formula right – maybe by covering the CQ song Tilted; maybe by accident, never mind – and the results are incomparable.

The District Sleeps Alone Tonight – Birdy (cover)

My daughter asked me to buy Birdy’s first, self-titled, album, and I did. But I’m not going to pretend that I bought it for her: I bought it for myself, and I make no bones about it. It’s an album of covers (one exception) best known for her spectacularly successful version of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love. The songs are simply beautiful, and if you can listen to her rendition of The Postal Service’s The District Sleeps Alone Tonight without feeling it – well, there’s no hope for you. “I was the one worth leaving.” How can somebody so young convey such passion? I don’t know, but she does, and at the astonishingly young age of fifteen.

Yep.

Hoppípolla – Sigur Rós

Iceland punches well above its weight in the musical arena, having provided artists such as Björk, Of Monsters and Men, and, possibly best known of all, the always interesting Sigur Rós. In my experience, most every Sigur Rós studio album is quite different: the contrast between, say, Valtari and Kveikur is so vast you can scarcely credit they’re from the same band.

Probably their best known song, off the Takk album, is Hoppípolla. It means “jumping in puddles” apparently (what a fantastic language to have a word for that!) and I defy anyone to listen to this and not feel better afterwards. This is my “go to” music after a shitty day at the office.

It is also probably the band’s most commercially successful song, and you can see why: it is impossible to hear this song and not feel your mood lifted, even if you don’t understand a word of Icelandic. This is a lovely live version of the song. From the transition between Hoppípolla and Med Blódnasir (“my bleeding nose”) through to the end of the song, you’ll find no fewer than four band members playing glockenspiel or xylophone (I couldn’t pick one from the other, to be honest). Now, that’s not something you see every day at a rock concert.

Cool & Collected – Let’s Eat Grandma

Look, I don’t know anything so I could be completely wrong about all this, but…

Whereas there are no love songs (that I could discern) on Let’s Eat Grandma’s first album, their second album, I’m All Ears, seems to be full of them. But not the Kanye West “let’s go somewhere and shag” kind of songs; these are much quieter and all the more powerful for it. There’s Ava, about a friend who is cutting herself (“with her head in her scars”) but won’t accept help, or even companionship in the end. There’s It’s Not Just Me, Falling Into Me and I Will Be Waiting – and they’re great – but here I’m going with Cool and Collected because the guitary bit near the end is Simply Fucking Awesome.

I couldn’t find a live video that does justice, so here’s the album rip.

   

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