Neo Plastic Beatific Visions

I’ve said this in the past and will no doubt continue to say it in future, but as I trawl through stacks of records, throwing together some kind of banal commentary, I am acutely aware of the fact that the vast majority of my reference points are achingly archaic. This, one assumes, is an effect of age. It’s not even as though I switched off listening to new sounds twenty years ago and therefore have no conception of more, ah, contemporaneous connections to be made. There are shelves full of CDs, hard disks full of mp3s, record boxes full of vinyl; all of them holding sounds from today and indeed tomorrow. But can I remember what they sound like without actually trawling through and playing them again? On the whole, no I can’t. I like to think it’s all to do with the idea of Pop being tied to moments, and that most of the time these days I am playing music almost solely for the purpose of writing about it. I simply don’t have the time where the music is soundtracking Other Events, which is why it singularly fails to leave the same kind of impact that it did, say, twenty or even ten years ago. The other answer of course is as hinted at earlier: I’m just getting old and forgetful.

All of which preamble is by way of explaining why, on hearing the A-Z of Mathematics set by The Library Trust, all I can think of as comparison is Johnny Dangerously. No bad thing in itself of course, but I realise many readers will simply scratch their heads and go ‘eh?’ Now I’ve written about Johnny Dangerously in the past, in the context of a review of the I Am Kloot Natural History debut; I Am Kloot being fronted by one John Bramwell, who, having dropped the ‘Dangerously’ moniker and gathered a troupe of talented players around himself, made that great debut in 2001 and the less impressive eponymous second album of 2003. They followed that up with Gods and Monsters last year, but I have not heard it. I seriously doubt, however, that is as fine as The Library Trust’s effort. The A-Z of Mathematics is a delicious record of autumnal finery, full of snapshots of villages, towns and cityscapes painted largely in deft acoustic colour. Peculiarly, uniquely English in the way that Chris T-T, July Skies and Gravenhurst or Ray and Dave Davies are and have been, The Library Trust’s Robert Edwards writes songs that capture some strange essence of a mythic and dissolving country. It’s the sound of a country mediated through song and literature, refracted through old photographs and scratchy super 8 film of holidays to Margate or Morecombe with ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats, donkey rides on the sands and the Art Deco swoop of the Midland Grand on the horizon. There are at times echoes too of Ballboy at their acoustically purest (as on The Sash My Father Wore set), which is no bad thing, and perhaps too of The Lilac Time when Stephen Duffy was wistfully waving at trains.

And whilst we are on the Library tip, what about Mr Hudson and The Library? As I understand it, there is something of a buzz around Mr Hudson at the moment. He certainly has the looks and the locks, and appears to be dialled into a strange cross-pollination between urban beats and classic singer-songwriting. Certainly his Bread and Roses EP is a bit of a treat, with a suitably strained indierock vocal treatment meshing with a slab of hip hop, a splash of orchestrated Pop and a sprinkling of jazzy echoes. There’s also a neat mixing of Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ into ‘The Ballad of J Dylan’, whilst ‘Mr Hancock vs Mr Hudson’ is sure to raise a smile as contemporary beats underpin an extract from the timeless Blood Donor sketch. And it’s this one minute cut that in many ways seems to embody what Mr Hudson attempts to do; which is to bring together disparate elements of English influences to create a contemporary sound that both reflects something of the cross-cultural mash-up whilst embracing the ‘traditional’ elements of the past but without placing too much emphasis on any one ingredient. In its own way it’s a kind of urban equivalent to the way that Epic 45 is embedding an electronic element into the suburban and rural landscape in an attempt to redefine a sense of belonging for the 21st Century. And whilst I’m not entirely convinced it’s altogether successful yet, I think it’s a fine undertaking and I for one will follow Mr Hudson’s future explorations with interest.

There is a similar feel to Ben Fitton’s This Unique Museum project, whose Collection Of Short Stories is out on the Skyeyesea label. Fitton mixes electronica with acoustic guitar and washes of dreampop influenced melancholia. It’s not always on-target, but as with the rather lovely ‘Isabella (A Place You Could Call Home)’, when it is, it’s certainly worth treasuring.

Mahogany, on the other hand, have a great amount of experience with just that kind of mix of electronica and dreampop (oh, go ahead and call it ‘shoegaze’ if you will) and their new Connectivity! set is a bumper crop of proof. From it’s Archigram-esque cover illustration to its Robin Guthrie directed video for the ace ‘Supervitesse’, this record is a delight of modern Pop genius. Think Phil Spector producing a soundtrack of electronica and guitars for Space 1999. Think of a back-to-the-future retro spectacle of the 21st Century; a vision of sharp suits and elegant loft studios, urbane classicism and the complexity of city movement systems. Think the already much-missed My Favorite, Broadcast at their Pop finest or Velocity Girl playing at being Cocteau Twins and you are getting close. Indeed, the Cocteau Twins connection is strong, for Robin Guthrie mixes three of the tracks here, whilst on ‘My Bed Is My Castle’ we find the vocal debut of Lucy Belle Guthrie (daughter of Robin and Elizabeth Fraser). And a charming debut it is too. Pick of the crop for me though is the amazing ‘Neo-Plastic Boogie-Woogie’ which is something akin to Piet Mondrian and Brian Wilson conducting Belle and Sebastian and Stereolab doing a speed of light cover of Young Marble Giants’ ‘Final Day’ on the top of the Empire State Building. And if the thought of that doesn’t take your breath away then you have either a dearth of imagination or particularly poor musical taste. I swear it is up near the top of my list for songs of the year, and that’s not something I say lightly more than once or twice a week. The album too is clearly in the running for being up there as one of my favourites of the year. If you have a penchant for Pop hooks sidling up to architecture of spare electronica and spacious guitar waves of colour and texture then for sure you will feel the same. Mahogany today sound mindblowingly fine, and then some.

And then there are Brakes. Let me tell you about how much I adore Brakes. It all started last year with the ‘Ring A Ding Ding’ single that I absent-mindedly slotted into my CD player one afternoon. Now I had been aware of Brakes before then. I admit I had them down as indie-rock chancers though I’m not entirely certain why. ‘Don’t believe the hype’ always went through my mind when I saw them referenced, but did I actually listen to check the veracity of that opinion? No I didn’t. At least not until that fateful afternoon when ‘Ring A Ding Ding’ exploded in my head like a thunderbolt. After that it was but a hop, skip and jump to their Give Blood becoming welded to my stereo and running away with the award for my most played and most beloved record of 2005. In the end there really was no contest. For what could compare with the infectious yelps, the coruscating wit and the adrenalin rush of those mini-masterpieces of succinct Pop genius? Seeing them play out only brought it home even more. I had seen the best damn rock’n’roll band in the world and nothing else mattered for at least five minutes afterwards.

Which at least partly explains why I’ve been awaiting their new The Beatific Visions set with something approaching a rabid sense of expectation. And yeah, yeah, yeah, anticipation may be so much better, but goddam it, it’s not as good as this record. Anyone expecting a Give Blood part two is going to be both disappointed and delighted in the same instant. For whilst The Beatific Visions lacks a little of the incendiary rush of its forebear, the same essential energy is nevertheless retained in its roots. It’s just that that energy is now slightly less maniacally unhinged and sketchy and held more within the structure of sublime Pop songs (the title track is a gem of magical proportions). The unholy Country edge is still apparent too, which is good to see, for really Brakes make for a fine antidote to too many polite alt-country bores and are more in tune with the harsh edge of early Cash, or Richard Buckner when he was pouring out scorn on Bloomed. No surprise then maybe to realise that The Beatific Visions was recorded in Memphis at the legendary House of David studio, with the former original Muscle Shoals member David Briggs even laying down some ragtime piano on the fantastic ‘If I Should Die Tonight’. Not that Brakes need any kind of ‘authenticity’ cred, for Brakes are a band that effortlessly transcend those notions by simply playing with a rare delight and passion. Recording fast and as live as possible doesn’t hurt their output either, and the roar of a band delighting in their playing is evident on the likes of the rampaging ‘Spring Chicken’, ‘Cease and Desist’ and ‘Porcupine and Pineapple’. Why more groups don’t grasp that concept is frankly beyond me. The finest moments for me though are when Brakes slow down and pare back. ‘Isabel’ is a beautifully pure moment, akin to the ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ closer on Give Blood, whilst the breathtaking ‘No Return’ is the pinnacle of the set. A more desolately haunting song will you hear. It sends shivers up and down my spine whenever I hear it, which in the past week or so has been many, many times. It sits in my pantheon with the likes of Clinic’s spectral ‘Kimberley’ and ‘Distortions’, and reminds me too of the ghostly highlights of Yo La Tengo’s masterful And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, and you can’t give higher praise than that.

The Beatific Visions has effortlessly elevated itself to one of my most treasured records of this or any year and has more than helped to cement Brakes as one of my favourite groups of this or any era. Believe the hype.

© 2006 Alistair Fitchett