Kitkats and Vinegar
I went to town on Saturday and I bought two CDs. This in itself is not unusual, but what is strange for these times is that neither was a reissue (I avoided the Byrds Box Set that actually has only three albums in it - but has space for six more! - for the knock down price of 20 quid because I already had two of the enclosed albums and... you get the idea).
My first purchase was the Belle & Sebastian single 'Jonathan David'. Don't ask me why I bought it... because I'm going to tell you anyway. I bought it because of geometry and because of the hue of a pair of brown eyes (and incidentally have you listened to that Pogues song again recently... I implore you to do so because it is exquisite oh yes it is) and because of the curse of memory and because, as we'll get to in a moment, 'there's no harm in reliving life through a half-caught, half-remembered smell of perfume.' Or indeed the fleeting glimpse of a face through a plate glass window. I bought the Belle & Sebastian single because they once woke my whole world, shook it to the roots and made me smile. They made me shimmy too, but that's another matter entirely.
The 'Jonathan David' single is also another matter entirely. I'm not even sure what I was expecting, and certainly given the fact that I singularly failed to warm to any moment on their last album (or indeed their last single) I should have known better than to wade in with high expectations, but there you are. So it goes. And 'Jonathan David' goes on too long.
Belle & Sebastian used to make a sound that was full of nervous strength and awkward confidence but now they sound wispy and limp. It's a crying shame. Nowhere is the tragedy more clearly heard than on 'The Lonliness of a Middle Distance Runner.' This song has been in the Belle & Sebastian repertoire for four or five years now (don't ask me to be detailed, my memory is shot) and the band have said in the past that it has never been released because they could not get a decent recording of it. Well I have three different 'demo' versions of 'Lonliness' that all sound immeasurably more full of life and energy than the flaccid rag that has turned up on this single. It all sounds so half hearted and a pale imitation of the sound I fell in love with, the sound that mattered so much. Which is why it matters so much. And of course the irony is, it doesn't matter at all. Memories are still largely intact. Or not. Half-remembered smell of perfume still in my nostrils, moving on to new moments and the same old feelings.
[taking polaroids of shoes]
New moments and the same old feelings. The feelings, the delights of the new and the fresh with the opening petals that are the flowering of possibility. The dawning of potentials and the blasting scent of the awareness that in spite of all the ugliness you meet every day there is somewhere a voice and a heartbeat that resonates with marvellous splendour. Such is the feeling hearing 'All Your Stars Are Out', a song that catapults its way into my head and accompanies me on sun filled evening cycle rides out and up to the common, from which you can see the world, and 'All Your Stars Are Out' sounds like all that world with majestic harmonies and a piano that sails in the skies. 'All Your Stars Are Out' is the triumphant return of Animals That Swim.
[lacking historical grounding - the archaeology of musical memory]
In 1992 a 10" sized slab of vinyl dropped through my door. The cover was a somewhat baroque photographic affair with a stuffed fox and squirrel sat next to a candelabra and plastic roses with the words 'Animals That Swim' scrawled in yellow on red in the top right corner.
'50 Dresses' remains one of my favourite Animals That Swim songs, and in fact remains one of my favourite songs by anyone. It's a solemnly processional song that glows in the dark with perfectly phrased lines that talk about spaghetti and cat food, and buying imaginary dresses whilst the trumpet refrain that closes the song could be right out of the June Brides or indeed the Church Grims' repertoire.
The other tracks still sound equally marvellous. 'Chapel Market' is a mad charge of a tune that tells the tale of colourful characters, one of whom might have been 'Edie Sedgewick's evil twin' which is to say a character I'm not sure I would care to meet. 'Holloway Aviator' similarly paints some kind of warped character sketch, loping along with some wildly oscillating trumpet and great lines about dada anti-art talk and not painting at all. It's really quite unintelligible and all the better for it. Similarly 'Oregon State Fair' is a fair warning about the 'delights' of 'wacky' hippies who play their records at the wrong speed in an effort to appear 'strange' and which always reminds me of sitting in the dark of a Smokey Mountain campsite on Labour Day (night) drinking tequila shots and Mexican beer with an off-duty paramedic who used his forceps to hold his joint, allowing it to be smoked right down the end, and also a rather bemused Boston couple who were trying to tell us how amazingly creative their five year old daughter was because she played her Sesame Street record at the wrong speed all the time. It seemed to me that this was a rather obvious thing to do and that most five year olds with even a modicum of intrigue in their heads would try it, but anyway. 'Oregon State Fair' ends with the wonderful words 'Thank God we missed the sixties' which is my favourite closing line of song anywhere.
Not long after discovering the delights of '50 Dresses' I stumbled upon the bands' earlier 7" release on the terrifically titled Beachheads In Space label for 50p in the local HMV store. 'Roy' was a great imaginary conversation between the wonderfully named Hank Starrs and Roy Orbison in the local all night place. Great lines were bandied about that told of Roy's feelings towards Elvis; 'that Presley was the dumbest shit I ever met, he couldn't write a fucking note, it should have been me with the songs that I wrote' but really the song was about that feeling when we reach a certain age and it seems as though all our chances have flown away and that no matter how hard we examine it, it all just doesn't make any kind of sense and we just feel lost and desolate, and... the refrain of 'it passed me by... why? I don't get it, I just don't get it' gets me right there deep down in my heart every time.
What also gets me every time is the fact that for some bizarre reason I never picked up their debut album Workshy which I am sure is a bona-fide classic. In fact of course the reason I didn't pick it up isn't bizarre at all and is to do with the fact that at the time I was too busy with obscure Drum'n'Bass 12"s to worry about quirky, literary Pop. My loss, of course.
In 1996 I was, however, more on the case. That year's I Was The King, I Really Was The King album was an accomplished record with a whole host of highlights. 'Faded Glamour' was like some kind of band theme song, a Monkees Theme for a bunch of grimy art school chancers with a penchant for uplifting Northern horn refrains and soaring melodies. 'The Greenhouse' was another of the bands' warmly drawn character sketches, this time cataloguing the tale of a northern asthmatic getting nicked for growing Marijuana in his greenhouse in 1973 ('or so'). From there the story passes somewhat bizarrely to picking olives in Sicily and drinking the village dry of wine for the first time since 1869. Which leaves me wondering whatever happened in 1869. Sonically it's a case of rampaging guitars running amuck on top of a stomping beat, whilst above it all leap those plangent horns. Magnificent. Then there's 'Near The Moon' which storms along with some lovely lines making London out to be the solar system and nicking chairs from skips to sit on out on the roof, and it all sounding like uplifting chaos and beauty like you want to hear forever, or at least all day today with the sun out and the sky bright... and even better is 'London Bridge' which is all gazing back and forwards through the mists of time, a kind of archaeology of emotional ties and things we cant let go that makes me smile and makes me look away with a wry glance to the reflections in the kitchen window as I cook the dinner. It's cinematic, of course.
And speaking of cinematic, what of the images conjured by 'Bed Island', or best of all the gorgeous 'East St O'Neill' with its ghost who is neither 'grey nor wraithlike' but 'bright and solid like a new bike', and really 'East St O'Neill' is one of those songs I can play forever and never tire of because it always sounds fresh and so full of sensitive strength, which it seems these days is a rare quality.
[take your love with you when you go]
It was five years since I had last seen a new Animals That Swim record. I thought they had packed it in, gone off to do something strange like pick olives in Sicily. I was wrong.
Happiness From A Distant Star is their new album, and it sounds exactly like it ought to. Which is to say, it sounds exactly like Animals That Swim. Only five years older, wiser and, if not exactly wearier, perhaps warier. It's there in the lyrics of course, notably on the already quoted 'Homunculus' with its 'there's nothing wrong with living like you did ten years ago' which suggest not stagnation but rather a coming to terms with your age, your needs, your desires. It's a lovely moment in a collection of songs that are gleaming, oddly cut gems.
Animals That Swim have made more great literate and cinematic Pop with this album. The single 'The Moon and the Mothership' is another of their wonderful story-telling tunes, reciting the tale of an acquaintance going a bit mental on a transatlantic flight and thereafter becoming an aliens obsessive, like Fox Mulder from Hackney. Includes the epic line 'it changed his life he said, with seven Phil Dick books in a pile.' 'Mackie's Wake' is in the vein of 'The Greenhouse' and skips along on an organ and horn refrain that reaches the heavens on numerous occasions. It's a beautiful exuberance of a song; a celebratory epitaph for the essences of the past that are worth remembering. These ghosts are singing up a storm.
In 'Dirt' Hank sings 'my feet will understand the layers of ages in the soil' and it's this acute sense of history, this awareness of the movement of times and of our being rooted in our moments and our personal archaeologies that Animals That Swim seem to grasp so strongly. They make the personal into the universal with an enviable ease, although perhaps that five year gap between records suggests it is more a fine crafting. Whatever. When you hear 'A Good Day For Everyone' with its fine lilting melody and it's easy dance into the morning, all the crap of the world will disappear and will be replaced with calm, accompanied by some strangely strengthening knowledge that we can all make some sort of difference to our worlds after all. And when Hank sings 'We said our 'who cares' to the 'you'll never belongs'' you just have to sing inside and remember that you're not alone. What more can you ask for from Pop?
© Alistair Fitchett