Only A Plague Can Stop Us Now

I have to tell you, I am totally in love with Last FM. It’s nearly two years since I registered with them, and for a long time I didn’t really bother much about it, but now I find myself somewhat obsessed. I am addicted to the weekly charts of listening habits. It takes me back to the early ‘80s when I kept a book of my own personal top 40, in which I would painstakingly document the progress up and down of particular songs. This was when people really cared about ‘singles’ as magical entities of course. Not like now when any damn song downloaded off iTunes or wherever will be eligible for inclusion in the chart. So does that mean when the fucking Beatles’ back catalogue is finally available for download we will see them cramming the top ten? It’s a worrying thought, and just one more nail in the coffin of the Pop single, perhaps, although ironically the single, and specifically the 7” single is still doing remarkably well amongst the underground, which only goes to show. Quite what it shows I’m not so sure, but I’ll let someone else figure that out. Meanwhile, let’s get back to Last FM and it’s charts.

The very fabulous Let’s Wrestle were number one in my listening chart last week, and rightly so. Despite the fact that at the time I had only three songs to play they still out-ranked groups with full albums. That’s pretty good going. This week I’ve added a further three songs to their playlist, but they have slipped two places, with one less play than Johnny Boy, whose album was released mid way through 2006. I didn’t even know about it until last week. Shame on me. It’s a fabulous Pop record too, up there with Oppenheimer and The Pipettes. Funny how things pass you by, isn’t it? This week’s number one group, Decoration, passed me by as well, which I’m secretly rather delighted about. It has meant that not only have I been pigging out on their delicious Flippant set, but I’ve also been able to unearth their previous releases, like 2005’s ace Don’t Disappoint Me Now which has a great sleeve with a partly spray-painted piece of art that includes a cut-out photo of Eddy Merckx in his Faema days. The painting reminds me things I used to make back in my Art School days, and ironically the music of Decoration takes me back to those times also, when the air was filled with clamorous guitars and songs about going nowhere fast. The moment before everything was spoiled, no less. And yes, it’s to the Wedding Present that Decoration most obviously nod, both in sound and lyrical content. Maybe it’s a Northern Thing. Whatever, it sounds magnificent, and I freely admit to being hopelessly hooked by their tales of twenty-something angst and bitter-sweetly observed melancholia. There are numerous memorable moments on Flippant, from the gently quaking ‘As Fickle As You’ through the plangent single ‘Candidate’ to the rousing sing-along ‘Only A Plague Can Stop Us Now’, which in fact is the track I’ve chosen to kick off my January mix. It was a close call though between that and the lonesome Christmas weepie ‘I Just Froze’ which you might have picked up on their December 2005 single release. For me though it was the week after Christmas 2006 hit to the heart. And whilst it clearly says nothing to me about my life, I can’t help but be seduced by the poignant storytelling that’s edged with razor blades. I can’t help but be won over by guitars that by turns clash like squalls lashing over the old harbour wall and that sparkle in the night like icicle kisses. Other reference points, if it’s such things that you need, might be Ballboy circa A Guide To The Daylight Hours, a more muscular Spearmint or Johnny Dangerously backed by Doves. Decoration make cinematic Pop where the movies playing are all grainy black and white Shelagh Delaney screenplays and where Julie Christie is catching the midnight train to London alone. It’s nothing new, and I for one have been here a host of times before, but so what? Isn’t that part of the whole magic of Pop? That sounds can capture moments of the present and the past in one magically conjured breath of reference that crashes across the boundaries of our personal histories, leaving us scarred for a second and reverberating with fall out for a week, a year, a lifetime…

I wrote about the next two tracks on my January mix in my last column. Popup’s ‘A year In A Comprehensive’ and Bricolage’s ‘Flowers Of Deceit’ are both lifted from the Get While The Getting’s Good compilation, and very fine they are. The release date for the collection has just been put back to the start of February, so make in a note in your diaries now. I understand that the Bricolage track also featured on last year’s In The City collection of ‘bands to watch’. Does this mean I am trendy in liking them? Heaven forbid.  There’s another compilation track next up in the shape of Firebrand’s ‘The Internet’s Day Off’ from the Hollow Smoke collection on Sorted Recordings. As you know I can never resist a great title, and this is a feisty number, full of what I think they call ‘post-punk’ edges and noisy rumbles. Elsewhere on the album there are some fine cuts from The Freed Unit, the much-frothed over Bobby McGees and the always marvellous MJ Hibbett.

Things slow down next with the sound of ‘Darkness Save Us’ from The Grand Opening’s This Is Nowhere To Be Found album. A gorgeous, downbeat gem of sweet melancholia, This Is Nowhere was made almost entirely by John Roger Olsson in his flat in Stockholm. That it sounds far from lo-fi DIY is testament in part to Olsson’s exquisite recordings and also to Linus Larsson who mixed it. It has something of the air of those early Elliott Smith albums, with a hint of Ed Harcourt or perhaps Elbow if they weren’t so glum and serious.

There’s a similar feel to Corinna Repp’s ‘I’ll Walk You Out’ from her The Absent And The Distant set, out on Mark Kozelek’s Caldo Verde label. With an intriguing glitch backdrop cementing it in the here and now, this is the sound of hollow cheeked strolls in a monochrome midnight. And if yes, it’s perhaps unsurprisingly redolent of some of the piano driven tracks from Red House Painters back catalogue, that’s no bad thing, surely?

All Sides have a fine groove in ‘Where’s My Gun’ cut from their eponymous set for Make Mine Music. Much more muscular than the usual fare from this fine label, this is darkly urban music, the kind of thing we used to call ‘Trip Hop’ if I remember correctly. And that’s a compliment, incidentally, for whilst the tag may have become horribly ubiquitous and mismanaged over the years, let us remember that so many of the source texts from those times still sound ravishing and remarkable. All Sides then have something of the orchestrated Noir urbanity that I associate with the likes of the peerless ‘Clubbed To Death’ cuts, and you can’t say finer than that. Once upon a time this kind of thing would have been a shoe-in for a Warp release, and you’d have known exactly what I meant but these days I’m not so sure.

Having said that, the new Mira Calix is on Warp, and is exactly as I always expect a Warp release to sound. I have a soft spot for Mira Calix, as I’m sure you do too. She is one of those mavericks we like to talk about, and over the years she has left a trail of remarkable records for us to admire. Her Eyes Set Against The Sun set, from which ‘The Stockholm Syndrome’ comes is no exception. Trilling, nervous electronics rub against creepy field recordings and children’s choirs. It is the sound of aliens inhabiting city parks and greens, rubbing cricket-legs on microscopic nuclear reactors in a mid-summer rain shower or mid-winter sunlight. So does Mira Calix make uneasy easy-listening electronica? I don’t know. I do know she feels like some spectral missing link between groups like Kleenex, The Slits and Andrea Parker. That’s saying something.

There is something of the maverick too in Boy Omega, and his The Grey Rainbow is, like last year’s Musika 77, another gem of down-beat folktronica. Sure, at times the introspective bent can be a touch wearing, but who am I to cast aspertions, after all? I mean, one of my students was leafing through one of my old sketchbooks a few weeks ago and said I was “SO Emo”. Go figure. And go get Boy Omega to fuel your January Blues.

Now I have to say that I know next to nothing about Dead Meadow. Their reissued (from 2000) eponymous album turned up in the mail one day last month from who knows where, and that is as it should be, for it is a disembodied psych-freak-out of momentous proportions. There is something of the Beachwood Sparks in the sound of, say, ‘Dragonfly’, but elsewhere they are as likely to evoke Primal Scream circa the first Creation album, or even Loop from the same era. Which is to say that they hark back to the Rock hinterlands of the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. Black Sabbath probably lurk somewhere in their collective psyches, but we won’t go into that. As you can probably guess, I don’t normally go for this kind of thing, which is probably why this passed me by first time around, but it’s a splendid diversion and well worth seeking out.

There is a Rock darkness (as opposed to Darkness) too about the Spirit set by Boston five piece Apse, out on Acuarela. I read something that drew parallels to Dark Side Of The Moon, but don’t let that put you off. It’s far from being that dull. And sure, if many of the tracks are lengthy freak-outs, so be it. Sometimes we need our minds blown. The sprightly four-minute ‘Blackwood Gates’ is my personal favourite, being all clattering drums, clanking metal bars and disembodied vocals sinking in a mire of squeeling guitars and rumbling bass.

There are lots of epic tracks on Destroyer’s Rubies, also from Acuarela. This time however the sound is much more to my usual liking, with various nods and winks going out to the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Okkervil River, Jim Reeves, Robyn Hitchcock, Buffalo Springfield and the Red Crayola. It’s a grand vision glimpsed in a gloriously downbeat manner, like pushing the context of the canyon to the background in favour of the exquisite creases on a pebble. If it’s occasionally overly pretentious then so be it. Sometimes you need someone who’s reaching for the streamers trailing from the skywriting airplanes to remind you that it’s possible to fly.

Old Toy Train’s ‘Crow’s Landing’ from the Presence Under the Tree: Attacknine Family and Friends compilation is up next. Now I had not heard of the Attacknine label before this double CD set landed in my lap, but I’m intrigued enough to want to find out more, for the songs here are uniformly excellent. The two discs are titled ‘Twilight’ and ‘Starlight’, which pretty much sets the scene: lots of tracks filled with mellow soft-psyche folk stylings. Think Nick Drake in a shoegaze country band with Vini Reilly playing guitar and you are getting close to the aesthetic of a lot of the bands collected here. Just the thing for drowsy evenings warming your soul in front of the fire.

Which, come to think of it, is where I should be.

© 2007 Alistair Fitchett