Musings on The Mercuries

Back in the 90s when The Mercury Music Prize started (named after its first sponsor – a company that no longer exists!) I’d look at the list and the majority of them would already be in my collection. This year there was only one on the list that I could say I knew (Anna Calvi’s excellent Hunter). I suspect quite a lot of this is due to my being an old fart, and not just because I’m still bitter that Blackstar didn’t win, but it strikes me that in the last few years the prize has become a very London-centric music-media love-in. It’s been five years since an artist outside of London won and I don’t think there has been a genuinely surprising winner for much longer than that. The shortlist often shows a lack of genre diversity (the token modern classical artist seems to have completely vanished and folk or pop rarely get a look in – at least Jazz is still represented (which would be a major oversight given its insurgence in recent years)) and while there was a refreshing number of explicitly polictical acts this year it still feels very safe, unexciting and, to be honest, a bit stale. If they can make it to the 30th award maybe they ought to call it a day there…

Long time, no post

I’ve just moved to a new host and when I imported all the old blog posts it struck me that it has been four years since I last posted! I’m really not very good at keeping up blogs *sigh*

Anyway – I’ll try and update a bit more regularly! Maybe I’ll liveblog Top of the Pops or something!

April 2013 Purchases

Oh dear me I’ve got *so* behind here… Jan-March I’ll have to write off as a lost cause…

So – before we get into June here are April’s purchases!

Ed Harcourt – Back Into The Woods
Ed Harcourt is definitely on the Rufus Wainwright singer-songwriter axis. Back Into The Woods is very stripped back low-key affair, rather an about face after the lush arrangements of Lustre. There’s certainly an intimacy to the record, which works best with the simple piano arrangements, but it teeters on the brink of aural wallpaper. Pleasant enough, but doesn’t demand your attention.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – English Electric
The sound of the 80s has never been more popular, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the originals re-appearing to prove they can still have something to offer. OMD always struck me as one of the second-league of 80s electronic bands and while McClusky and co do have a way with a tune, they never really struck gold in the way bands like The Human League did. Sonically the here and now fuses perfectly with the 80s synths but I can’t help thinking that the actual song-writing is just re-treading past glories.

The Phoenix Foundation – Fandango
While The Phoenix Foundation are well established in their native New Zealand they only started to be known in the UK with the release of 2011’s wonderful Buffalo. Fandango is a fairly sprawling affair, most of the tracks clock in at over 5 minutes, with a languorous feel. It doesn’t, however, feel over-long or in desperate need of editing which is no mean feat for an album that finishes with a 20 minute track!

Serafina Steer – The Moths Are Real
I picked up this album after hearing a session she did for Lauren Laverne on 6 Music (you may have noticed this is a common thread). With Serafina being a harp player it would be easy to package her into a similar box as Florence Welch or Joanna Newsom. While comparison with the latter has a certain justification there is a definite influence from dance music (most obvious on Disco Compilation) that, along with the kitchen sink lyrics, gives a twist to the delicate folk sounds that dominate and saves it from veering into twee-ness.

Karl Bartos – Off The Record
Imagine Kraftwerk in a gay club circa 1988 and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this album sounds like! Camp in that way that only a very earnest German could be!

Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect
It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Stainless Style had been a one off – a wonderful Delorean influenced 80s throwback from Gruff Rhys and Bryan Hollon. Fortunately for us it wasn’t and this full-on concept album (a biopic about Italian leftist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli) is great stuff. While there is nothing quite as shimmeringly-wonderful as ‘I Lust You’ and the biographical element is probably only evident to those in the know Praxis Makes Perfect is a more cohesive affair than its predecessor with a definite Italio tinge running through it.

The Knife – Shaking The Habitual
Quite a difficult listen this one – especially given that I’m more familiar with The Knife of Deeper Cuts – but I’ve no doubt it is worth persevering with…

December 2012 & January 2013 Purchases

The cold winter months are fairly slim pickings for new releases, so it’s been a fairly quiet couple of months on the new purchases front…

Various Artists – Cool Christmas
I remember playing this album a lot one of the Christmases I worked in Our Price and I always think I ought to buy it and then not get around to it! A couple of tracks aside this is as much more offbeat collection of Christmas songs so it makes a nice change from the endless Slade…

Cerys Matthews – Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Cerys picks a selection of traditional Christmas songs and delivers then with such enthusiasm and folksy aplomb that you can’t help but be charmed by it.

Kirsty MacColl – Electric Landlady
December is the anniversary of Kirsty’s untimely death – so it is always a good time to remind yourself just how great and under appreciated an artist she was. Electric Landlady is an album I never got around to buying at the time so I was very pleased to see the deluxe reissue available on emusic. Don’t be fooled by the title track (which I wasn’t keen on at the time but I’ve grown to love), this is no bandwagon jumping – the songs and her voice are as strong as ever.

Kirsty MacColl – Kite
This was one of the first CDs I bought – mainly on the strength of Freeworld (which still sounds fresh and, sadly, relevant today) – and it finds her a the top of her game. The flakiness of men is still a favourite topic, but there is also strong sense of social commentary running through it. The bonus tracks on the reissue are a collection of alternative versions, b sides and remixes that are a nice addition.

Martin Rossiter – The Defenestration of St Martin
A very low key return from the Gene frontman.

Rachel Zeffira – The Deserters
Another discovery via Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music show. Multi-instrumentalist Zeffira has produced a wonderful collection of songs with a startling array of textures. Vocally I’m reminded of Julee Cruise, which is no bad thing… One of my albums of 2012.

Saint Etienne – More Words and Music by…
The US deluxe edition of Saint Etienne’s brilliant comeback album is in many ways better than the UK version (which came with a second disc of hit n miss remixes). More Words, which the band made available in limited quantities on their website when they returned from their US tour, has a nice set of B-sides and covers and is in its own way just as good as the main release.

Dutch Uncles – Out of Touch In The Wild
Dutch Uncles were one of my finds of last year – loved their Electric Counterpoint sampling debut and the follow up is just as good. This psychedelic art-rock reminds me of Talking Heads which can only be a good thing.

New Order – Lost Sirens
I have a complicated relationship with New Order. They are probably my favourite band but they haven’t made an album I’ve really enjoyed since Republic. As such I wasn’t expecting much of this collection of tracks that didn’t make the cut for the messy and uneven Waiting For The Sirens’ Call but it’s actually a pretty good mini album. It’s a shame that there is so much bad blood between the current members and Peter Hook, this shows there was still life in them before they imploded…

The Timelords – Doctorin’ The TARDIS
Hated this at the time, but I’m reconciled with it now and it is a perfect example of how The Rules worked. Not sure The Rules work any more in this age of manufactured, pre-packaged, X-Factor wannabes but I’d like to think they do…

Del & Xavier – Tickle
Even in mixtape form Del Marquis manages to produce something with more of the quirky Scissor Sisters personality than Magic Hour. Great stuff – I look forward to the album!

November 2012 Purchases

December flew by – so I’m rather late again!

Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan’s third album is starkly beautiful. Gone are the lush exotic arrangements of Two Suns, replaced with glacial synths reflecting the melancholy mood. A perfect autumn/winter album that shimmers like pale sun on a frosty day.

Björk – Bastards
The Biophillia project rolls on, an app, an album, a live residency and now the inevitable re-mix album. Some of these mixes bring the songs of Biophillia into focus, others add even more layers of complexity. A mixed bag – equal parts baffling and beguiling…

College – A Real Hero EP
I don’t actually remember buying this – must have been an odd amount of eMusic credit left and I’d favourited them some time ago (presumably after hearing on 6 Music). The title track is a lovely piece of swoony electronic pop, the rest are slightly throwaway instrumentals.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Frankie Said…
Do we really need yet another Frankie Goes To Hollywood compilation? Not sure, but this is a nice collection of single and 12″ versions – many of which haven’t had a CD release before. Not essential – but an interesting release if, like me, you’re a fan of 80s 12″ singles.

Space – Magic Fly
Not the loveable 90s indie-pop scallies – this is the original late-70s French electronic Space. I first heard the title track on Top of the Pops 1977 and when I noticed it was on eMusic I thought it was worth the credits. You can trace a line from this to current French acts like Daft Punk and Sebastian Tellier. Surprisingly fresh sounding given that it is 35 years old.

Sufjan Stevens – Silver & Gold
Sufjan’s second collection of Christmas EPs is a little less trad than ‘Songs For Christmas’, but there is much to like. Cost a fortune in eMusic credits – but there’s not much else to spend them on at this time of year!

Lindstrøm – Smalhans
I’m mainly familiar with Lindstrom from his remixes (he did a great mix of Jetstream by Doves) but this collection of original tunes is great. Dance music that sounds good at home can be tricky to pull off – but this gets it just right.

T-Rex – The Slider
Bolan was the master of the perfect single but the albums are rather hit and miss. This, along with Electric Warrior, is mostly hit. Metal Guru and Telegram Sam are, of course, the high points but the whole album shows just how great Glam could be…

My music – the melody that keeps coming back…

I’ve recently invested in an iPad mini and I’ve been having fun with the music making tools that are available on iOS. When playing around with a sequencing/sampling/synth app called Nano Studio I found myself returning to a melody that started life as the middle movement of a string quartet I wrote at University. The string quartet movement itself is quite a sombre affair (there are shades of Barber’s Adagio for Strings in there) and the recording I made of it had added poignancy as the first violin had recently lost her father. In the year following University I was back in Oxford sharing a house with my friend Chris from Uni (he’d got a job (that we’d both applied for) at a local studio technology company) and one of his colleagues. During this time Chris and I worked on a few musical projects together and one of them is this re-imagined version of the string quartet theme. One of the biggest records of that summer had been Children by Robert Miles and the sound of that record is definitely part of genetic makeup of this track. We actually recorded this at the demo studio of the company Chris worked for – I can’t remember if we lugged my PC in (I think it would have been running Windows 3.1 with the Cakewalk sequencer software) or if we MIDI dumped everything to a floppy based MIDI recorder I had. Either way we multi-tracked the parts onto tape so we had more flexibility with the studio’s setup of effects, compressors and EQ. Sadly I never got a proper ‘master’ on DAT – this was copied from cassette – but listening to it now I’m surprised at how well it stands up. It does sound unmistakably mid-90s, but the arrangement is great and the key change (which was the cause of much debate) still makes me smile.

Sadly I lost touch with Chris (and indeed all the folk I knew at Uni) after I moved out of the house share and bought my first flat. Last time I looked him up he was still working for the same company, based out in China, so he seems to be doing OK. One thing that looking back on this track does remind me is that I work best in collaboration. This track is 15 years old now and is probably the high point of quite a creative time…

My songs – Intercontinental

This track started life when I was learning to use the new software that I had bought for work – Cubase VST. It has a very Massive Attacky vibe and I am very pleased with it. So pleased in fact that I asked Antti Lehtola (one of the many people who I have come to know through newsgroups) to write lyrics for it. When he tragically died I asked Joy Green to write the lyrics for me as a tribute to him. Chris Naden offered to sing it for me and I we were all very pleased with the end result. Apologies to Joy if the lyrics are incorrect – I couldn’t find my original references – so had to transcribe the lyrics from recordings.

My love I know you’re beautiful
Though I’ve never seen your face
Its there in every line you write
A touch of truth, a touch of grace

And though we’re hours and miles apart
And we cannot even touch
I can feel you in my heart tonight
And I want you oh so much

They like to call it fantasy
I guess its hard to understand
How a love so deep
Can grown without the touch of lips or hand
But you and I know different
Love comes in different kinds
And what we have is a meeting of our souls, our hearts and minds

I feel like you are next to me
Feel your fingers on my skin
I can hear you in my mind my love
Breathing out as I breathe in

I smell the jasmine on your hair
Taste the sweetness in your kiss
And I wonder if reality could truly be more real than this

And your beauty is a light to me
Shining through the darkest night
The words we share are all it takes
To make the world feel good and right

And even if we should never meet
Never kiss and never hold
I will keep you in my heart my love
until the sun burns dark and cold

Music by Stewart Tolhurst
Words by Joy Green
Stewart Tolhurst: Synthesisers and programming
Chris Naden: Singing
Contains a sample of ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ by Radiohead

My music – two tracks born of the same idea

These two instrumental tracks both come from the same melodic source. I really can’t remember which version I wrote first – it was such a long time ago! I can’t quite decide if they are remixes, re-interpretations or independent tracks in their own right. Certainly they are musical siblings, if not twins…

This version is an ambient soundscape and gradually evolves.

This is a more structured ‘dance’ take on the same theme.

October 2012 Purchases

Beth Orton – Sugaring Season
Beth Orton has been out of circulation for quite a while and it’s great to have her back. Trailer Park was very much a favourite back in my post-student days and while the sound of her voice coupled with woozey strings hits me with a wave of nostalgia the sound chimes perfectly with the best of the current folk-influenced singer-songwriters. There’s definitely an air of Carole King which gives Sugaring Season a timeless quality.

Bob Mould – The Silver Age
You can really tell that Mould has been touring Copper Blue recently. The Silver Age is much less reflective than recent solo albums and the vigour of the Sugar material has infused the new material. Really good stuff!

Martha Wainwright – Come Home To Mama
Come Home To Mama sees Wainwright reflecting on motherhood following the birth of her son and death of her mother Kate McGarrigle. The Wainwright siblings have never been scared of covering the deeply personal (both have written seriously venomous songs aimed at their father) so it is unsurprising that the lyrics have an element of catharsis. That said this isn’t a dark album. Sonically it is much more electronic than you might expect, which gives it a reflective mood.

Patrick Wolf – Sundark & Riverlight
Revisiting and re-recording your back catalogue seems to be quite common these days. While I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it – essentially covering your own material seems rather lazy if I’m honest – sometimes a new spin on the familiar can work really well. It’s easy to forget how prolific Wolf has been and this stripped back collection is a timelyreminder of just how good he is.

Bright Light Bright Light – Make Me Believe In Something
I downloaded this after a very enthusiastic report of their Scissor Sisters support slots. Really good electronic pop with a foot firmly on the dance floor. This is what Hurts would sound like if they cut down on the tedious ballads…

Tracy Thorn – Tinsel & Lights
Possibly a bit early for a Christmas album, but Tracy Thorn was guaranteed to produce something more classy than your average seasonal album. A great collection of understated songs, including a wonderful version (with Green Gartside) of ‘Taking Down The Tree’ from Low’s benchmark of Yuletide-indie, the mini-album ‘Christmas’.

Tame Impala – Lonerism
Excellent follow up to the Aussie threesome’s psychedelia-infused-rock debut Innerspeak. Is prog back? Possibly, but when it’s as good as this I think we can forget the more self-indulgent past of the genre!

Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
There was an inevitability that this would win the Mercury Music Prize this year. I have to say it’s grab-bag of styles hasn’t really convinced me. I can’t help thinking there were other albums more worthy of the accolade (such as Django Django’s fantastic début) – but such is often the way of the Mercury…