As Of Now And Now Only (Hopefully)

As of now and now only, hopefully - I do hope so. The idea is that, one year from now, I'll look back on this and say - what was I thinking? It takes time for things to settle in. It always does. Inevitably, some things will take longer than others. More often than not, though, it will happen eventually. And, believe me - I really, really, really hope that it does happen. You never know, do you? Six months down the line, for want of something else - anything else - pop on that which didn't quite make sense last time and - suddenly - it makes perfect sense. It has to happen.

See, these are albums about which I was really excited. They're albums I tried and tried and tried and tried - listen after listen after listen - albums with whom I've burned that midnight oil in a vain attempt to find something - anything - to love. Hoping against hope time and time again that this time - this time - only now will I truly hear what they wanted me to hear.

And yet, I never did. Albums I wanted so badly to love but didn't. I'm not writing them off. It's just that, I've put so much in already and got very little so far in return. One year from now I fully expect to feel completely differently. Right now though - there are slow burners, and there are albums with which - oh I can't bring myself to say it - albums which - just - might not actually be - any good.

Here, then, are my three biggest disappointments of 2009. Painful stuff.

1. Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years

I abjectly refuse to even toy with the notion that their time has come. Hey Venus was an album of short, colourful pop songs - ludicrously accessible - and yet I never succeeded in penetrating its glossy surfaces. After 2/3 of the first three tracks invoked the dreaded Truck Driver's Gear Change, I simply had difficulty in continuing. Even now, two or three years later, I am hard pushed to recall any moments over than the chirpy chorus of "Show Your Hand".

It was perhaps with trepidation, then, that I approached Dark Days/Light Years. The early signs were promising. "Inaugural Trams" refused to leave my head for days after the inaugural listen, and it was nice to see a return for Pete Fowler's unmistakable artwork. I found Keiichi Tanaami's efforts for Hey Venus to be far too cold and clinical for such a soulful band - they left a sour taste in the mouth. Granted, his mark is also upon this release, but Fowler's input ensured that this at least looked like an SFA album.

Then came the first listen. "Crazy Naked Girls" was an excellent start. "Cardiff In The Sun" immediately stood out and remains to this day one of the album's few saving graces. Apart from that though...

It's not as if the music is in any way inferior. Far from it. They remain one of the most consistently innovative and downright interesting bands operating in the world today. I know that these are dense masterpieces of freaked out genius, the likes of which no other band could ever dream of creating. The thing is, it's now been part of my life for well over six months and it still feels as if I'm missing something. Usually with this band, by this point I'm well and truly in and I find the music gently lilting through my dreams. Of course, with any music of any substance it's to be expected that multiple listens will be a prerequisite. But I look to Hey Venus and I shudder. What if I never break through?

What the album lacks, I think, is consistency. Everything they've ever put out has been a diverse affair, but there's usually a subtle overarching theme - barely perceptible but impossible to ignore - which serves to achieve cohesion overall. Here there are tracks that drift aimlessly and blissfully, tracks that threaten to tear apart the very grooves on which they rest and tracks seemingly culled from hypercharged late-night jamming sessions - all bustling for room over variously light and bouncy/dark and menacing pristine electronic pop. I repeat, it's all good. But having come to expect from these guys albums that stand out as more than mere sums of their parts, it can't help but disappoint. Rings Around The World, Phantom Power, Radiator - three listening experiences. Dark Days/Light Years, though, has never felt like anything other than a collection of songs. Bloody good songs, granted. But from this band, I expect much, much better.

By no means am I writing off either the band or the album. There's every chance that, someday soon, it'll click. As of now and now only (hopefully) - here we are, and I'm left feeling cold. There'll be further new material from them next year. It promises to be orchestral. I hope, by then, I'll either have come round to these psychotic jams or that the new release is so good that all - by which I mean, their preceding two albums - will be forgiven. Dark days indeed. We all have them. They can be forgiven. There's still hope.

2. Athlete - Black Swan

This one I'll admit took me quite by surprise. Casually browsing the net was I one day when I happened - happened! - upon it - happened to come across it, on Amazon - there it was - and, suddenly, "gracious!" A new Athlete album!

So, no, I hadn't been waiting for this one with baited breath. Be that as it may, I love Athlete. There was once a point at which Vehicles and Animals was a big part of my life. If prompted I probably would have identified it as one of my favourite albums, ever. Of course, my ears were younger back then, and granted I'd heard comparatively few albums overall. But that said, it would still have represented quite a plaudit.

I knew, however, that I could truly describe myself as "dedicated" when, upon hearing their sophomorphic Tourist for the first time, I was already excited as to where they were going to go next. I remember thinking there and then as to how unfair it was that I should have to wait up to three years for the follow up. And when it did arrive in the shape of Beyond the Neighbourhood, the wait felt very much worth it. Some gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous songs on that album. "The Athlete Sound" - as tasty, affecting, reliable and warming as a cup of tea. It was love.

Then came Black Swan, and, yes, I was unprepared. It was easy to write off that dismayed first listen as "unprepared". The second listen, too. But the third? The fourth? The fifth? What happened to them? Where was absolutely everything I'd grown to love for the past six years? Where had it all gone? Was I listening to the same band? Undoubtedly. But - what was missing?

The sad thing is, I've still no idea. These are low-key, understated and deeply troubled songs sung, as it sounds, very much from the bottom of the heart. They soar alright, but in doing so serve to sail right over my head - a head, mind you, which is very, very keen to listen. And yet, listen as I might - I never did, never could - connect. The connection is key. Always is.

A disgusted passer-by, scowling with offence at the syrupy drones emanating from the room, wrote it off as "too American". And he's absolutely right. That's just it. Athlete's sound was always crisp and radio-friendly, but never has it been so lacking in essential feeling. Before, it sounded reasurring. This time, it simply sounded as if it was desperate to be of no trouble to anyone. As if - as if it were meticulously groomed to inspire nothing but apathy.

The big kiss off is, as usual, that right now, even having listened countless times, I cannot recall a single note from any of the seventeen tracks (I had the two disc special edition and everything). The saddest part is that with the baffling announcement of a greatest hits collection to be released early next year coupled with the none-too-subtle hint in the album's title (Black Swan - SWAN - SWAN SONG) - well, all signs are indicating that this might be the last we ever hear from good old Athlete. I care not what anybody says, it will truly be a great loss.

3. Jason Lytle - Yours Truly, The Commuter

This one perhaps stung worst of all. When Grandaddy suddenly and unceremoniously disbanded after 2006's Just Like The Fambly Cat, a part of me died. Shut up. It did.

It felt great to have him back. Finally. Pretty much wholly responsible for most everything on the aforementioned album, I was confident that the first Jason Lytle solo album would sound like - well, a Grandaddy album. And it did. It felt like listening to a new Grandaddy album. On that first listen it was easy to forgive even that which must be the worst album cover of the year. Look at it.

So I was happy. On repeat listens, though, it suffered, and suffered very badly indeed. The lifeless drums, listless synths, weary vocals and defeated lyrics - this was a very depressing listen. Parts of it sounded awful - cheap, tacky - I love home recording, but from a songwriter as so obviously talented as Lytle I expected so much more than the amateur synth string washes which dominate the proceedings here.

Then came the worst part. I relistened to ...Fambly Cat. "Jeez Louise", "Rearview Mirror" - some of it was excellent, verily. Most of it, though, sounded just as flat and plastic as that which would follow. Then it occurred to me. The blandness of ...Fambly Cat I could forgive because the album was presented as a dignified death. I clung to it like one would cling to a dying relative. You forgive such horrible cusses when one is on their death bed. It's to be expected when they're in so much pain. With ...Commuter, though - well, it was supposed to be a glorious return. And with a sound as overall limp as that of ....Fambly Cat - my reaction was, unfortunately, one of "Is that it?"

I REPEAT - I hope against hope that each of these albums will, in time, endear themselves to me. As of now and now only, though - disappointed. Very, very disappointed. Must try harder.


Slow and British

The year is drawing to a close and, like everybody else for whom music represents an obsession, I'm obsessively cultivating those sacred "year-end" lists.

My "best albums of the year" will be exactly the same as that of pretty much everybody else but with two very important differences:

1. Nobody else liked Zero 7's "Yeah Ghost".
2. Nobody else cares about my opinion. My ultimate list will not be discussed, spat upon, torn to shreds nor used as a basis of what to buy, what to hear. I can but dream. Oh fuck off.

But there are other lists to be compiled before that one. First, here's a list of albums I "dug" that were released elsewhere last year that I only heard this year because I'm slow and British.

1. Empire Of The Sun - Walking On A Dream
When this was first released over here, earlier in the year, most everyone seemed to be spouting exactly the same. The "E" word and the "M" word. The "E" being "Eighties", the "M" "MGMT". I took issue with both. Synths and drum machines have been a fixture of pop-music since the 60s. Why, then, are any musicians who peddle a vaguely electronic sound these days instantly painted/tainted with the "eighties" brush? And MGMT? Luke Steele had been doing the whole lysergic psyche thing for years before those Friends of Fridmann, but nobody likened MGMT to The Sleepy Jackson, did they?

But that was all immaterial. For two solid weeks it formed the soundtrack to my dull and drizzly journey to work through dreary Northenden and deadly Wythenshaw. Every day was damp and grey. And yet, every day the sun was shining. This album offered perfect escapism - it rendered those depressing streets positively dazzling and ensured that I was in something vaguely approaching a "good mood" upon arriving at work.

To me, much of it sounds like the soundtrack to a technicolour, hyperkinetic Japanese videogame. Think Game Cube, Dreamcast - think Puyo Puyo, Puzzle Bobble, Outrun or Super Monkey Ball. Listen to those steel drums at the end of Half Mast - that's what I'm thinking. Even has lyrics about hotels in the hills with carousels. Pure, joyous escapism. Never got along with that last track, though.

2. Women - Women

This came out very late last year overseas and seemed to come out here very early this year. As such, I can't help but view it as being somehow removed from time and space. I mean, it's important to not link music to whichever year it happens to be released - and when visiting established albums it's a lot easier - but when you're coming across music as and when it's released, well, it's difficult - for about five years after their release albums feel like little more than products of their time.

So it's unusual for me to find an album released so recently that feels so detached from everything else. The music helps, of course. At any one moment it sounds at once a product of grimy log cabins, of sodden pine forests and of shady crack-alleys. What's a crack-alley? An alley in which crack is taken? What in tarnation? An anus.

Yes, it sounds filthy, dangerous - but also vast, fresh and dripping. The album drips as it sizzles and not one vocal is discernible from the scalding mix. There are, of course, moments of creepy sweetness - but the full descent into feedback noise madness at the end leaves a lasting feeling of disquiet and discomfort. Short, at little over half an hour, but a listening experience somewhat akin to taking that short-cut home through the graveyard at night.

3. School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms

I loved The Secret Machines. I still do. I love The Secret Machines. And yet, I never got around to listening to their third album. Thing is, Benjamin Curtis apparently left as a consequence of finding himself disillusioned with the fact that his band were beginning to dabble in territory too conventionally rocky for him. Citation needed, indeed.

"And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes/I'll see you on the dark side of the moon" - for Mr. Curtis, the dark side of the moon was The School of Seven Bells; an airy, curvy haven with air so crisp it's bitingly cold. I'm not usually a fan of describing music solely in terms of bands of whom I'm reminded. However, when I heard these sweet Mellow Candle harmonies over music as otherworldly as The Cocteau Twins (albeit with less dated production values) - well, all of a sudden that third Secret Machines album didn't seem so appealing. No. I still very much want to hear it. It's just that, I always liked Curtis's work, and if he was finding them too - pedestrian? - and took all his good ideas here - well, the urgency was lost, you know?

Alpinisms. Makes me wish I could ski. Or, at the very least, that I lived in the mountains. A glorious album with which it is by no means a bad thing that it causes me to fall asleep.

NEXT - Three disappointments of 2009. Oh no!


Anti-Romantic Mix-Tape

Alex Gadsby wants it to be understood that whilst this is not a photograph of her, she did take it.

Want to woo a girl, or a man, or other, or someone, or something? Making a mix-tape is a great idea. Or, in this day and age, a burned CDR, or a playlist on Spotify or other - or perhaps a combination of the latter two - an MP3 CDR - placed in a CD player set to "random" and "repeat" - sentiment after sentiment, for eternity.

Of late I've been considering as to what would constitute as the worst woo - what sequence of music would - were you to present it to a potential suitor - send them running, or induce such a state of mortal peril in your target of courtship that a sequence of events is set in place which eventually results in your getting arrested? I've had a very bad week.

This is what I've come up with. Because I haven't got a Spotify account and can't be bothered/am too fearful of arrest to upload MP3s, then I'm afraid that these are songs which you'll have to seek out yourself. Might be a bit of fun - seek them out, burn your own atrocity exhibition. Here goes.

1. Nurse With Wound - Two Shaves and a Shine (Edit)
David Tibet screams of straining to amputate his knees over a demented bass and bouzouki groove. Thrilling stuff, but the idea of a mix-tape is that these artists are saying that which you cannot express. You utlilise the poetry of others to serve your own agenda. If these words constitute as a window to your soul, in the presence of those with whom you want a degree of romantic involvement, you'd be best remaining a closed book. At best you won't get "in", at worst you'll get arrested. Gone for the edit for the sake of pacing and what have you.

2. Grinderman - No Pussy Blues
Nick Cave isn't getting any, so he wrote a litany of peverse sexual frustration which he recites furiously over a caterwaul of screaming feedback. "I thought I'd try another tack, I drank a litre of cognac, I threw her down upon her back, but she just lay up and said that she just didn't want to". It's probably not a good idea to reveal that you'd resort to rape. At least not in the early stages of a relationship.

3. The Cramps - Under The Wires
An ode to the sacred art of non-consensual telephone sex. Even if you're already in the healthiest of relationships, it's best your partner's not aware that you listen to songs with such breathy lyrics as "What colour panties are you wearing/And how long have you been wearing them?" 

4.  Lee "Scratch" Perry - Pum Pum
"Pum Pum" is, of course, a subtle metaphor. Perry is 73. Here you have five minutes of a lecherous old man croaking lustily over filthy dancehall grooves. Anybody you play this to is more or less guaranteed to never, ever want to have sex with you. Ever. Or spend any time in the same room as you.

5. R.E.M - Star Me Kitten (William S. Burroughs version)
Watch their eyes widen in horror as, with no apparent concept of rhythm, the peverse junky barks and slurs his unholy intonation over the most spartan and brooding of backing tracks. Worst case scenario - what if they know (and love) R.E.M, but have no idea at all as to the identity of Mr. Burroughs? What then? They expect joy and relief from their old faithfuls, only to be confronted with this - THIS. Then they ask you who in tarnation is William S. Burroughs. What do you say? A detailed plot synopsis of Naked Lunch has nipped millions of potentially beautiful relationships in the bud.

6. Crass - Asylum
Their eyes widen in horror at the extemely sacreligious bile - potential there to offend even the staunchest of atheists (You lie alone in your cunt fear!) - only to screw themselves shut again at those brutal industrial guitar screams. It grinds to an abrupt halt - they stare at you, lip quivering - "You like this?"

7. Alan Menken - Heaven's Light/Hellfire
A song of two halves. They might appreciate the sweet sentiments of the first half - in which their gaze is likened to heaven's light - but by the time they get to the insane, overblown, orchestral grandiosity of the second half - in which it is hinted that if they don't sleep with you, you will kill them; in a fire - well, you might never see them again.  It will be even harder to explain as to why you own a copy of the soundtrack to Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".

8. Comus - Drip Drip
You might have difficulty justifying even to yourself as to why you have, in your library, an eleven minute folk dirge written on the subject of cutting down the body of a hanged woman and fucking the corpse. Wait until the third date at least before revealing your fondness for Comus.

9. Kevin Ayers - Song From the Bottom of a Well
Disorientating backwards loops, screaming feedback and creepy Mysteron-like vocals chanting grimy rhyming couplets about griminess and - god knows what. Your desperate plea of "But Mike Oldfield's on guitar!" will fall on deaf ears.

10. Fripp & Eno - Swastika Girls
And what better way to end your mix-tape of unfathomable horror than with an approaching twenty minute loop of dissonant tape delay with an uncomfortable title? "Frippertronics!" you'll exclaim with gusto and aplomb. "Groundbreaking, in its day. You know, without this, there'd probably not even be a My Life in the Bush of Ghosts? And I don't even have to begin telling you as to how influential that proved to be." Never leave your room again. There's just no point.

CONCLUSION - There'll always be room for Coldplay.