Times are Tough, We Can Still Picnic
Maybe it was the hanging fever of the flu to blame, but against my better judgment I strolled out of the local Alldays yesterday with a bag of Hula Hoops and copies of the end-of-year editions of Mojo and Q magazines. I was intrigued to see what kind of sounds their writers would suggest were the choice cuts from the year. Naturally the choices were nothing but the most banal and obvious and served only to once more make it clear to me why I never read the music press. Someone please remind me of this next year when I'm hanging around the magazine racks with that bag of Hula Hoops in my hand. Steer me toward the gardening section instead.
So what would I choose as the finest albums of the year? I certainly know I'd be pushing it to get much more than ten albums that were released in 2001 that I would say graced my stereo with any great regularity. Maybe that's because I didn't cast my net as widely as in previous years, and maybe it was because I was busy chasing down things I'd missed out on previously, like unearthing the glories of Augie March (who lit out in 2001 only with the great 'Here Comes the Night' single) for example. Maybe too it's because I was lazy, or maybe it's just that there weren't that many really terrific records made.
Boston's Clem Snide proved to be my delight of the year and kicked against the tide by releasing two albums full of the sweetest sensations. Your Favourite Music and The Ghost of Fashion were two albums that kept me afloat in times of trouble, and for sheer bliss, nothing else could quite match the exquisitely simple and aching magnificence of 'The Curse of Great Beauty'. White Stripes came close, with their Kinksian delight 'We Are Going To Be Friends' from the awesome White Blood Cells, and in fact White Stripes push Clem Snide close to be my favourite band of the year, being the soaring sound of the summer and beyond. Other Detroit bands made some terrific noises this year too, like the Von Bondies with their ace Lack of Communication, Detriot Cobras' Life, Love and Leaving (though not quite as raw and rabid as their excellent Mink Rat or Rabbit) and the Dirtbombs' Ultraglide in Black, all of which were on hand to raise temperatures and spirits when they needed raising.
So if Boston and Detroit gave us some gems, what about New York? Many said that the Strokes Is This It was a triumph, but of course they were wrong. Is This It was my disappointment of the year. It's not that's it's a dreadful record, it's just that it's too quiet, too thin, too weedy, too insubstantial... it just doesn't cut it. Which was, and is, a shame because the haircuts and clothes are terrific.
Better by far are Swedish punks The Hives, whose Your New Favourite Band was a 'best-of so-far' stuck out by those chancers at Poptones. If your idea of Punk is a million miles from the sanitised faux-rebellion of assembly line US toe-rags that seem to have burst from every orifice of Pop these past few years, then The Hives are a great antidote, being all Ramones style smartdumb lyrics and melodic thrash. With titles like 'a.k.a. I-D-I-O-T', 'Automatic Schmuck', 'Hate to Say I Told You So' and the magnificent 'Untutored Youth', The Hives are a delightful fly in somebody's ointment.
Of course the Poptones release of choice for the boring music press is the Cosmic Rough Riders collection, and naturally that's one Poptones release you'd be wise to avoid, being all traditional Rock pomp and circumstance. Better by far was the return of the Jasmine Minks, whose Popartglory was a spectacularly flawed gem. Full of passionate from-the-heart (they know no other way) rants, mad guitar and organ overdoses, Popartglory sometimes didn't know when to stop experimenting, but at its core were a clutch of songs ('3b48', 'Angel', '2001' and 'Redsky') to make you dance, weep, sweep and soar. Which should be all you'd need from Pop, after all.
More welcome returnees this year were Animals That Swim who broke cover after five years with a gorgeous, typically quirky single 'The Moon and The Mothership' and its accompanying album, the triumphant Happiness From a Distant Star. And then they promptly disappeared again. Must we wait another five years for more of their cinematic quirk-core kitchen-sink drama genius? Pray, every last one of you, that it isn't so. And ditto Swell, who quietly snuck out what may well be their finest album to date in Everybody Wants To Know. Full of brooding, dark and dubby electric space, David Freel proved himself once more to be master of sparse American rock.
Warp of course has been a label of inestimable good taste for many years, so it was no real surprise to see them as the label of choice for the release of Vincent Gallo's When. Warp of course can do little wrong, and Gallo is the same. From being the scene grabber in Emir Kusturica's strange Arizona Dream with his great 'I'm an Actor' recitations and re-enactments of movies scenes, through the awesomely cool Buffalo 66 (in which he helped Christina Ricci reach some kind of wayward pinnacle) to this album of oddly off-kilter minimalist lounge jazz-pop, Gallo has been for me the epitome of 21st century cool. Only his recent dubious choice of facial hair 'style' has let him down. On When it sounded like Gallo had ignored the past 20 years and instead travelled back to devour the early '80s sounds made by the likes of Young Marble Giants, Weekend and The Gist, marrying them to the cultish cool of his New York youth (he was in with the innest of in-crowds at this headiest of times in New York, being in the band Gray with Jean Michel Basquiat). It's all suitably downbeat and cinematic of course, like dreamy passages down the laser-straight prairie roads that grace the cover, or laid out in the south Californian sun by a pool in a run-down and deserted desert motel. Bleached, blasted and beguilingly beautiful.
Similarly bleached and beautiful were Australians Art of Fighting, whose Wires was a minor sensation this year. Clothed in an artful sleeve of architectural drawing, Wires was a restrained (post)modernist delight; the sounds of Tadao Ando or Mario Botta buildings; the kiss of lightness in a Farnsworth house. Just as good was the debut by fellow Australians Deloris. The Pointless Gift was full of post-rocking suppleness, a refracted take on Chicago shenanigans from the other side of the planet. Best of all was the album closing 'C U At the Cinema' which could be some kind of focus for most of my favourite records this year, because most of them have been like movies, sounds seen on the inside as much as heard on the outside. Even the Augie March single had a movie connection, with its cover being a still from Matt George's 1999 film Four Jacks.
Still in Australia (they must have been putting something in the water - or more possibly the beer - there for the past decade), Braving The Seabed might or might not have released their eponymous debut album in 2001, but regardless, it's still a glistening gem of a record that rewards repeated plays, revealing as it does exquisite textures and meandering hidden melodies.
And STILL in Australia, The Lucksmiths showed in their Why That Doesn't Surprise Me album exactly what it was that Belle And Sebastian once had before they threw it away in favour of, uh, more 'authentic' 'soul' or whatever it is they call the racket they make these days. And that something would be... well, look at it this way: When B&S made their greatest sounds they seemed to me to make reference to many underappreciated '80s bands such as McCarthy, Felt, the Postcard groups and so on. The influence of the '60s (like Love and the Byrds) was felt as a kind of refraction through those influences, and that made for a great sound. What B&S seem to me to have been doing more recently though is stripping away that intermediate layer and being far too reverential to those root '60s sounds. So now they just sound like bad pastiche. Lucksmiths on the other hand still sound in love with the possibilities made by both the early B&S records, and those bands inherently suggested by them. So that whilst on Why That Doesn't Surprise Me, Lucksmiths don't really sound like, say, the Orchids or Another Sunny Day, the frame of reference is clearly there: they appear to share the same spirit. And the spirit is spirited wide-eyed but strangely knowing naivety at the world. A case of, to paraphrase an old Orange Juice sleeve, times being tough, but we can still picnic.
Which seems as reasonable a thought to end a strange and troubled year on as any.
The Hula Hoops, incidentally, were as tasty as ever.
© Alistair Fitchett 2001
Clem Snide: The Ghost of Fashion (Cooking Vinyl)
Hefner: Dead Media (Too Pure)