There can only be one explanation for all of this. My real name is Andrew Van Winkle, and I’ve spent the last thirty or so years asleep in some form of catatonic trance in which I’ve somehow managed to sustain a legal career, father a child, and write some stuff, but nonetheless miss a whole lot of important music.
That can be the only explanation: for, dear reader, the Music I’ve Not Listened To Yet outweighs the Music I Definitely Have Listened To Before in the same way that a black hole outweighs the rest of the surrounding universe (apologies to any physicists amongst you). And that’s even taking in Music That, Yeah, I’m Sure I’ve Heard That Once.
It’s not like I haven’t tried, albeit sporadically. Back in my student days, like any serious young thing of that era I had a proper turntable, amp and speakers, studiously assembled from different manufacturers off my grant monies (1). The amp was an Aiwa, I think, but the speakers were definitely Wharfedale, and each about the overall size of a small light goods vehicle. Seriously. There was a family of Vietnamese Boat People living in one of them for a while. (2)
Still, though: even then, far too much turntable time was devoted to the lesser works of Robert Zimmerman, and the stuff that passed me by is shocking. Where, for example, was Patti Smith (of whom more later)? Even though every single advert in the music shops looking for a band member referenced the Velvet Underground as an influence, my actual hearing of them was limited to the more obvious tracks. I did tune in to the Sainted John Peel (Blessed Be His Eclecticism) but lacked the follow through, sadly, to purchase many of his recommendations.
It’s all very disappointing and, obviously, most of all I’ve let myself down. There have been sporadic attempts since my student days to stay current: my nephew, Dave, shared my enthusiasm for Kula Shaker (3) and dragged me over to Glasgow to see them last time they resurfaced; more importantly still, he not only got us tickets for Nick Cave at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh a few years ago, but burned a whole load of his stuff onto CD for me to listen to in advance. Of course, this is the man who had The Ship Song as part of his wedding service…
Similarly, Daughter and Heiress is doing her best to drag me into the 21st century music-wise, and recent introductions have included Foals, (4) Courtney Barnett, and Ezra Furman. I’ve previously gone on about the gig a couple of years ago featuring the first of these and Cage the Elephant, (5) which probably still qualifies as The Greatest Rock Gig Ever.
My colleague, Manic Pop Thrills, is also doing sterling work in bringing recent and/or still performing bands to my attention, such as Supermoon and De Rosa (see last review). The undermentioned Harky, too, is also striving to introduce me to such delights as Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat.
So I’m sorted, for the forseeable future, with current material. Still though: what about all that stuff I’ve missed along the way? Where on earth to start? I mean, it’s not as if I have limitless time (as I imagine a proper music reviewer has) to sit back, have some lackey reverently lay a record on the turntable for me, cue the needle with the precision of molecular biologist, and then leave me to absorb fifty (or more) years’ worth of the best music ever. Apart from anything else, I don’t even have a turntable now, far less a lackey: my listening time is strictly limited to the bits in between all the other stuff I do, and like most people, has to be done at the same time as doing something else. In fact, my listening to music time, like Gaul, can be divided into three parts:
a) While washing the dishes, or cooking. This involves a CD player which has its own quirks, like switching itself on when it feels like it, and a kitchen with acoustics that, probably, aren’t ideal. Still better than the SECC right enough.
b) Driving in my car. This carries its own compromises if other family members are present; its own risks if the music’s just too damn good – Jimi Hendrix has been banned from the passenger seat for that reason and, as my recent review of the new Foals album indicates, it’s not just Mr James that makes me drive too fast. Another issue is the CD player in the car, which, if you play it too long, spits the CD out at temperatures so hot you could fry an egg on it.
c) Long bus journeys. Listening to mp3s on your phone via big Skullcandy headphones not only passes the time very agreeably: it also often guarantees you a double seat on the express bus, as people avoid you and then go and sit next to someone with earphones bleeding house music like tinnitus instead. Smiling at them and saying ‘Good Morning’ often works well too. Especially if it’s afternoon.
Which is all a very long winded way of getting to the music on my virtual turntable at the moment. Following the three means of listening described, then:
Music To Wash The Dishes By: currently getting the most play, partly by dint of lurking close to the CD player and not get properly tidied away yet, are two CDs I bought cheap at Fopp in Glasgow over the New Year: Guy Garvey’s ‘Courting the Squall,’ and Florence and the Machine’s ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.’
Turning to Garvey’s album first, the Elbow front man’s solo project will have been reviewed by every serious music journo by now, so I’ll limit myself to saying it’s great, really: kind of what you would expect from a solo project by the front man of Elbow. In other words, a bit like Elbow, but a bit more out there.
I first came upon their work, incidentally, by way of a documentary about them on a flight to Oz in about 2009, and I’ve loved them ever since then. I don’t think GG is likely to branch out on his own full time on the basis of this – it’s not like he’s gone and recorded Ballingristani nose flute music and turned his back on conventional rock influences, or anything. But it’s good, and one of these ones that’s a grower, I think, as I’ve liked it more every time I’ve played it.
Florence and the Machine, on the other hand, has kind of gone the other way. There’s a danger, of course, with a band as full-on successful as this, for muso types (however fractured their musical knowledge) to go all superior about someone like Flo. But I love her, I really do, thought she was knockout at Glasto last year, and all that. It’s just… that phrase, actually, full on? Plus a little formulaic – there’s the quiet bit, her singing low, significant lyrics, then it crashes into top gear and the horns start blaring and Flo gets a bit, well, shouty? Actually, my favourite, apart from ‘Ship to Wreck,’ was ‘St Jude,’ which stays low, with lots of woodwind. Although I also like the last track, ‘Mother,’ because the guitarist finally gets a proper wig-out solo at the end.
Music whilst driving: Top pick at the moment for the egg-frying car CD player is ‘Easter Rising,’ an incendiary live performance from Patti Smith. Many Smith fans would probably say this is the worst possible album for me to start my education with, and that I should instead listen to the classic studio canon of ‘Horses’ and ‘Easter.’ Well, they may be right, but I think this is one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard. Recorded for a radio station one rowdy night in Eugene, Oregon, it captures a rock gig in the raw, fluffed lines, banter with the audience, guitars running too hot, and all. Starting with a piece of performance poetry, The Salvation of Rock, Smith never gives the audience a moment to settle, bringing in the band with a roar, throwing unexpected covers at them, and, of course, delivering a blazing rendition of ‘Because the Night.’ Feisty.
Bus journeys, can on occasion, give the longest uninterrupted listening time – particularly if, as was the case on Friday, the Forth Road Bridge closes because of wind, and a scheduled one hour trip turns into a three and a half hour epic, more of a quest, really, to find the mythical destination of Dun Eidinn: I half expected we’d diverted through Mordor, but actually it was Kincardine.
In trying circumstances like these, a hardy perennial (bet no one’s used this pun before) is Wildflowers, whose debut album, ‘On the Inside,’ I’ve mentioned before. I was thinking when I listened to them on Friday that they’re about the first group since Del Amitri who can incorporate accordion into their overall sound without either sounding twee, or giving me flashbacks to my childhood mental scarring at the hands of Jimmy Shand And His Bloody Awful Accordion Band, playing what passed for ‘Scottish music,’ in those dark days.
Another album getting a lot of play at the moment is a free download of a Bruce Springsteen gig recorded in Tempe, AZ, in 1980. A lot more doucely engineered than Patti Smith’s gig, it nevertheless captures The Boss at an early peak: mainly songs from ‘The River,’ but also featuring the title track from ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and ‘Racing in the Street.’ My favourites, though, are ‘Candy’s Room,’ and, especially, a blindingly brilliant version of ‘Point Blank,’ led by Roy Bittan’s stunning piano lines. If you like Springsteen, honestly, go and download this from his site – it’s billed as a giveaway for ‘the holidays,’ so might go down soon. (6)
Of course, back in the day, I had ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Darkness…’ ‘The River,’ (an illegal cassette of that, if I remember,) the early 75 – 85 live box set, and even ‘Born to Run,’ where he went all a bit shouty. So it’s not really homework, as such.
(1) Semi-mythical system of supporting students where the Government gave you a bunch of money at the start of term, and never asked you to pay it back. Really.
(2) Note for younger readers: previous refugee crisis. The country of origin changes, but the inability of the First World to cope with it in a humane manner, and tendency for some to froth at the mouth in a xenophobic frenzy, tends to stay the same.
(3) Weird synchronicity point: I started drafting this yesterday morning, and left off just before starting this paragraph, in which I mention Kula Shaker. Do I not get a PM on Facebook from my mate Harky just a few hours later, drawing my attention for the first time to the new album and tour? Tickets for 15th February at the O2 ABC Glasgow are now sooo booked!
(4) Tickets also purchased for Foals at the SSE Hydro on 12th February. We’ve agreed that I’ll do the preview, and D & H the review.
(5) She’s also going to Cage the Elephant on 16th February – three gigs in 5 days. The 17th might be a quiet day for her.
(6) Thanks to Ralph MacGillivray for the tip.
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