Old Album – “Abracadabra: The Asylum Years” 2CD by Judee Sill (2006)

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Up until fairly recently I had never even heard of Judee Sill, but after falling for one of her songs on the radio, it suddenly seemed that I saw her name everywhere. Radio documentaries I keep an eye out for had covered her in depth, my favourite bands name-checked her frequently; she was another one of those ‘greatest artists you’ve never heard of’ who, in fact, everyone has already heard of. Apart from me. So, despite being a slowpoke, I caught up quick: what else could I do?

 

 

For those who still don’t know, Judee Sill came out of an extraordinarily troubled youth (addiction, crime, prison, etc) to become one of the truly great singer/songwriters and, having been adopted by the fashionable Laurel Canyon set of the time, she went on to release two of the finest albums of the 1970s. Sill’s self titled debut from 1971 is deceptive: her stereotypical ‘girl with a guitar’ image leads to comparisons with more obviously folky ladies of the era, but there was always much more to her than that. The baroque string flourishes which zip in and out of “The Phantom Cowboy”, the extended harmonies and playful, bouncing synths on “The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown” and the joyous, bittersweet gospel pop of her best known song, “Jesus Was A Crossmaker” all highlight unexpected and at times contradictory elements of an album that still never forgets its folk and country roots. But in spite of its at times unconventional approach, it’s a record that feels perfectly at home with itself, flowing with an elegance and an elemental beauty that’s very much its own.

 

 

1973’s Heart Food may possibly be better, but it’s a tough call to make. It’s more adventurous still and draws at times on the influence of Bach, most clearly on the rapturous, delicate “The Kiss” and the LP’s stunning, multi voiced climax, “The Donor”, where Sill singlehandedly emulates a full choir over a doom-laden solo piano. As with the debut, many of the lyrics are drawn from religious imagery and it’s often difficult to separate the sacred from the secular: the Joni Mitchell-esque “When The Bridegroom Comes“ blurs the lines between romance and religion, while “The Vigilante” finds Sill returning once more to country, combining her twin obsessions, God and cowboys.

While you could fork out £20 each for the vinyl reissues, the Abracadabra set is much better value for money. It features both LPs in full, but also adds outtakes, a wonderful short live set and, best of all, the solo demos for the Heart Food LP. I don’t usually have much time for demos but, shorn of their studio setting, Sill’s songwriting is so evocative that stripping the songs back only seems to add to their impact. These gentle, intimate takes are very much the equal of the finished album and, for those who already have the original records, they are worth the price alone.

After Heart Food flopped, everything fell to pieces: she got into a self inflicted argument with label boss David Geffen that led to her being dropped, and then subsequently faded back into obscurity and addiction, dying from an overdose aged just 35. While she remained virtually unknown in her lifetime, the word finally seems to be getting around about her remarkable, singular talent. If you want to discover her music for yourself, Abracadabra is the perfect place to start.

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Quite Old Now LP – “Time N Place’ by Kero Kero Bonito

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I’m not sure about Kero Kero Bonito’s early records; while they’re undoubtably fun, their excitable J-Pop often felt a bit one dimensional to me. But since they took a curious left turn on 2018’s more downbeat TOTEP EP, I’ve found them a lot more interesting, and their third album, Time N Place, happily finds them going further down that route. Whilst previous efforts rarely ventured beyond their standard, wide-eyed electropop, TNP shifts styles frequently, taking in campfire singalongs, computer game synths and random bursts of noise along the way, while still retaining much of the childlike wonder and solid pop sensibilities that first brought them success. Lyrically, there’s a sense that the carefree days of youth have passed, but Sarah largely manages to stay positive in an often unsettling adult world. It’s gloomy but fun, which is the way I like things, so unsurprisingly I love Time N Place.

 

 

Much of the album feels like an indie rock record: “Only Acting”, first heard on TOTEP, makes a welcome reappearance, its crashing guitars feeling a world away from the clean, bouncing synths of previous LP Bonito Generation. The characteristically thoughtful lyrics explore the idea of being a performer, and throughout the album, there’s a depth to Sarah’s writing that early hits like “Flamingo” rarely suggested. The half spoken everygirl approach she often takes on TNP is a familiar KKB trope, but there’s a sombre note on songs like “Visiting Hours” and “Dear Future Self” that feels new and surprisingly raw. The latter in particular, where Sarah addresses herself in the future from a time capsule, is wonderfully moving, with lines like, “But I heard all the years’ll leave you hurt / Everyone you love disappears and nothing works / Please don’t say you hate the world”, finding her primed for disillusion. However, there’s still room for some joyously daft speculation, as she asks “Do cars ever fly? Have you travelled time?” with a naive curiosity which will be familiar to old fans.

Given that it’s produced by Stereolab’s Andy Ramsey, there’s an unsurprisingly playful approach to synth use, ranging from the wistful Bontempi swing of “Time Today” to the oddly dramatic “Dear Future Self”, which sounds something like a Brian Wilson offcut set to a video game march. It also goes down some unusual experimental paths; “Only Acting” constantly threatens to break down into a barrage of effect laden screams and crashes, before finally dissolving in a shimmering, glitchy racket. Closer “Rest Stop” goes one further, opening as a charming synth ballad before the second half of the song finds itself entirely smothered in noise, with the melody barely audible above the various rattles and scrapes. However, Time N Place is rarely a difficult listen: the lulling keys and gentle acoustic guitar of recent single “Swimming” is typically gorgeous, and this warm, melodic direction is much more characteristic of the album.

 

 

Time N Place feels like the work of a band on the move. Most groups with the kind of early success KKB have had would double down and try not to frighten the horses too much. Instead, it feels like they’re growing up alongside their audience, experimenting with style, tone and lyrics to create something that functions on a kind of emotional level that’s largely new to them. But the fun that made their name is in there too, and this is still very much an out-and-out pop record, full of nagging melodies and charming, youthful energy. Growing up doesn’t have to mean getting old and boring, and Time N Place is the clear proof.

 

New LP – “Relief” by Repulsive Woman

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Discerning fans of the New Zealand indie scene will know about Millie Lovelock, both as the sweet voiced singer in erstwhile janglers Trick Mammoth and, more steadily over the years, as frontperson in her own psych-pop duo Astro Children. Repulsive Woman started off as an identity she set up to cover songs by her beloved One Direction, but over time it’s evolved into an intriguing minimalist project in its own right and one which, with “Relief”, has finally come of age. Admirers have had a long wait for a new Astro Children record, but this is more than ample compensation. In fact, it’s Lovelock’s most consistent, coherent and quietly marvellous record to date.

Whilst the brittle, uncomfortable lyrical content will be familiar to Astro Children fans, the music is less layered and overpowering, stripping everything back to a strummed, almost troubadour-like guitar augmented with extremely low key arrangements. The opening title track marks out the boundaries of the LP; based around a repeated, hypnotic riff with occasional eerie effects, it has warmth to it, but more like blood than anything soothing. Lovelock’s voice is as vulnerable and touching as ever, but mournful here; lyrically oblique, the song revolves around intimacy and distance, with violence never far away, ideas that recur throughout the record. “Some Body” has a similarly woozy, disorienting feel, playing on separation within a dead relationship (You put a knife in me and it came out clean”) as the relentless two chord guitar patterns grind on. Often on “Relief” there’s a feeling that, however close she allows other people to get, something is always held back, either for her own emotional safety, or just from the fear of revealing too much. The most notable contrast is on “Overripe”, where Lovelock seems desperate to bridge the gap, and the song’s crushingly sad refrain, “I get so lonely, no one ever makes me laugh”, is delivered with an almost proud defiance as it breaks the dam of reserve.

Whilst the lyrics add emotional texture, it’s often the sombre tone of the music that does the heavy lifting. The clipped, melancholy sound of single “Rough Around The Edges” breaks from the spacier material that surrounds it, with the battle between detachment and emotion feeling more tangible here, the prim, stately violin of the instrumental break contrasting with the intoxicating wash of vocals that follows it. “When I Get Good” takes a similar line, with its strings sounding like a stiff, cleansing breeze after the intensity of the preceding track, “Soft Borders”. It also features a stunning chorus, as Lovelock’s voice soars pleadingly over the violin counterpoint, and in general the tough subject matter on “Relief” is often leavened by memorable tunes that lodge firmly in the brain

Aside from the wry vignette “Ulysses”, this is not a cheerful record, but for all that, it is uplifting in its own way. Lovelock records her personal battles with a fierce candour which makes the album feel, if not like a friend (this is far too spiky a record for that), then certainly a comforting presence in a cold, confusing world. The album has a unity to its sound which is key to its power; stark and elegant, it’s deeply expressive but within strict boundaries that seem only to add to its emotional range. It is also illuminated by moments of unnerving brilliance and delicate, desperate beauty. On the brooding closer, “Earn It Twice”, Lovelock sings “I don’t feel bright, but in the sun, on my own, I glow”. The trick that “Relief” pulls off is that it manages to shine, not despite its grim depths, but because of them.

New Album – “Welcome Home” by Hannah Cohen

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I’m not familiar with Hannah Cohen’s previous work, but I’ve fallen from a great height for her third LP, Welcome Home, which came out a couple of months ago. Inspired by a desire to leave her cramped and confined conditions in New York City for a new life upstate, that sense of escape comes through in the relaxed, expansive feel of the music, an adventurous combination of folk, light funk, 80s style pop and more. But lyrically there’s a different freedom at work, as Cohen’s soul-bearing lyrics feel truly fearless, contrasting the open vistas of the music with an almost claustrophobic vulnerability. It’s a record that feels extremely personal, but one that I can’t help finding parts of myself within too: when Cohen talks about her ‘old bruises‘ which have ‘faded away with time‘, my own seem to feel a little more sensitive to the touch. 

From the first chiming chords of opener “This Is Your Life’, Welcome Home feels comfortable in its own skin. A combination of folky classical guitar and an almost R&B style rhythm track, the two things never feel in conflict with each other, instead giving the track a relaxed, soothing feel. The adventurous lyrics – “The moment you see it, you want it, take the risk’ – seem a little out of place at first in such a calm setting, but they’re very much of a piece with the clarity and focus that emanates from the song. From there though, things get emotional very quickly. “All I Wanted” is the first of a number of relationship confessionals, as Cohen painfully dissects the end of an affair in almost masochistic terms – “I used to touch your body and your eyes would roll back” – unwilling to let love die when it’s clearly on the way out. All this is set to a gloriously washed out synth soundscape, her sweet, soaring voice initially dominating the arrangement before the languid rhythm track kicks in, all squelching bass and gently shuffling percussion. “Old Bruiser” plays on similar themes as Cohen works through a series of reminiscences, moving from sexual abandon to petty arguments with a rueful but seductive air, as the music pulsates in tropical bliss.

Elsewhere, the album moves towards more straightforward pop on the likes of “Get In Line”, with its pulsing funk guitar and disco shuffle, and these tracks largely come off just as well. “Holding On” is perhaps the best of them, again fuelled by the liquid sunshine sound that permeates the album, as Cohen chronicles falling head over heels in love in typically open fashion“What’s This All About” is the one place where she strips everything back, leaving just an unadorned piano and her stark vocal to express the confusion and fear of searching for meaning in a life gone stale. It’s a stand out moment, not only because it’s yet another heartbreakingly gorgeous song, but also because its simplicity adds one more layer to a record that frequently combines differing approaches with ease. 

Welcome Home is a bold and joyous album that wrings great beauty from the ecstasy and turmoil of life. Musically beguiling and lyrically frank, Hannah Cohen is an artist who gives everything of herself in a way that’s both unnerving in its honesty and touching in the connection that it makes. What marks this album’s perfection though is that, when everything else feels like too much, this record is still exactly what I want to hear. A gem of a summertime album.

Newish LP – “Dizzy Spells” by Patience

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Way back when I was casting about for a title for this blog, I absentmindedly picked out “Only memories” from the lyrics of Patience’s “White Of An Eye”, one of my favourite singles of 2017. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but having just made it through my first year, it seems appropriate to be returning to the same artist. For those not yet initiated, Patience is the solo project of Veronica Falls singer Roxanne Clifford who, rather than replicating her previous band’s mixture of cheerful jangle and pensive lyrics, has instead struck out on a surprising electro-pop odyssey. Dizzy Spells is filled with pulsating rhythms, wibbling oscillations, ticking synth drums, synthetic handclaps and lots and lots of analogue keyboards, with the whole thing clearly orchestrated from behind a mess of baffling machines and unruly cables. But Clifford has retained her knack for picking out a good tune, and this is a key part of what makes Dizzy Spells a truly compelling listen.  

 

 

The 80s dominates much of the sound here, with Clifford showing a lightness of touch that reminds me of New Order at their best. Much of the first side is made up of glistening synthetic tapestries bound together with warm, intelligent chord structures, recalling the likes of “Dream Attack” and “Bizarre Love Triangle”. “Living Things Don’t Last” and “Aerosol” tap into these influences in different ways; the former feels playful and charmingly naive, while the bold, striking synths of the latter make for a more dramatic impact. “White Of An Eye” also offers a tip of the hat to Peter Hook with its dancing, melodic guitar counterpoint, but there’s far more to Patience than a collection of reference points; the emotional punch of the music is always potent and never fails to land.

Lyrically, themes of transience dominate. “White Of An Eye”, with its haunting ‘only memories’ refrain, looks back from an unhappy present to a time where sensations seemed to add up to more, observing with resignation that ‘you’re still alive, but there’s something that you just can’t touch’. Relationships are only seen from the endpoint; “Living Things Don’t Last” offers an almost bullish view of closure, with Roxanne imploring herself to ‘tear it all apart’ , contrasting with the delicate melodies and gentle synthetic waves of the music. Elsewhere, new romantic ballad “Voices In The Sand” finds her for once overwrought, asking “are you tired of me?” with a desperation touching on melodrama. But this kind of emotion is rare; for the most part, Clifford’s vocals balance their vulnerability with a controlled, crystalline assuredness, in keeping with the mix of humanity and distance that runs through the album.

 

 

The material on the second side reflects a slightly harder edge, particularly the grey, Kraftwerkian slabs of synth on “Moral Damage”. Here, Clifford’s voice sounds icy, stating bluntly to a departing lover, “charisma has gone, you don’t have anything I want, but the time I gave you back”. But generally, there’s still a strong thread of melody lurking beneath even the tougher material; “The Church” opens with a menacing throb of synthesiser but soon reverts to a bouncy electronic soundscape and a bubblegum melody as catchy as anything Clifford has yet written. Despite the occasional moves into darker territory, “Dizzy Spells” generally remains a record of infectious pop songs, and marks a brave new beginning from a hugely talented artist. Sometimes wistful, often bold and always tuneful in execution, it delivers on the promise of her early singles in style. Roxanne Clifford is a pop heroine for our times and your capitulation is inevitable; you may as well get it over with now.

Old LP: “Do The Collapse” by Guided by Voices

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Guided By Voice, circa “Do The Collapse”

As something of a part time fan of Guided By Voices, I haven’t really thought about them much for a while, but a few coincidences brought them to mind recently and, having dragged this CD out of mothballs, I’ve been playing it ever since. Often written off (especially at the time) as a kind of “sell-out” aberration, 1999’s “Do The Collapse” marks the point where Robert Pollard tried to move GBV’s brand of twisted alt-rock towards the mainstream. Ric Ocasek’s production adds some flash and polish, beefing up the band’s defiantly lo-fi sound, but it rarely feels overcooked. Instead, it provides a solid framework for an excellently written LP, a set of (for once) fully fleshed out songs that manages to look outwards without losing the band’s sense of themselves. As such, it’s well worth revisiting.

“Teenage FBI” is a fine opener: initially powered by a semi-industrial synth sound, it soon breaks out into more traditional guitar rock on a record stacked with chunky, powerful riffs. The lyric veers between a familiar tale of dysfunctional romance and some more nonsensical, sing-song material which, while making little obvious sense, is still naggingly infectious, with lines like “when you clean out the hive, does it make you wanna cry?” (reportedly about nose picking) making for earworms which are more or less impossible to dislodge. Elsewhere, heavier tracks like “Zoo Pie” and the anthemic “Picture Me Big Time”, featuring some great strutting guitar work and a fine, hollering vocal from Pollard, rock out in style, making it clear that, despite suggestions that they were bowing down to the corporate behemoth, there had in fact been no great softening of the band’s musical palette. This is worth pointing out, as other tracks, particularly lead single “Hold On Hope”, were seen as a horribly schmaltzy cop out. In reality, this was twaddle: with its elegant string arrangement and mid-paced acoustic riff,  “Hope’ is certainly sweeter than what fans were used to, but in fact the song’s message is anything but sugarywith lines like “still it grows on, as time still goes on, through each life of misery” clearly referring to the point where hope is all but gone. For all its detractors, it remains as wonderfully moving now as it felt to me 20 years ago. 

The song is also notable for some brilliantly baffling sentences (“one another, animal mother, she opens up for free”), again showing off Pollard’s habit of writing a lyric that fits the moment, without necessarily making a jot of sense. Taking this theme to it logical conclusion, my favourite song on the record, “Things I Will Keep”, is almost complete gibberish, filled with lines like “coded ancient, the crease ” and “to those in countless numbers, no longer cold or hot like things that I will keep”, words which retain a glorious, unfathomable beauty. As a song, it’s a power pop masterpiece, with the synths more subtly low key than elsewhere, the guitars chiming and melodic, and a beautiful, J Mascis-like solo which ties it all together. For me, this more tuneful material is the best part of “Do The Collapse“, with the driving college rock of “Surgical Focus” and the brief but dazzling “Mushroom Art” also creating similarly dizzying levels of joy.

Despite all the mithering about its direction, “Do The Collapse” never really loses touch with GBV’s essential weirdness, it’s just more refined, channelled into especially productive directions. The song structures are, as ever, subtly unusual, with many tracks tending to meander along odd paths, or stopping abruptly after an unexpectedly brief stay: the 70 second attack of sparkling closer “An Unmarketed Product”, and the striking, modular twists and turns of  “Liquid Indian”, culminating with its ecstatic, show-stopping chorus, are both stand outs here. In short, it doesn’t feel like a standard play for the charts, which was reflected when it sank without trace, having both failed to crossover while also pissing off the regulars. Instead, it feels more like a bold attempt to break new ground, combining a fresh, commercial sound with some of the stranger aspects that still make GBV such a compelling and imaginative band. And despite that inability to break through, they’re still going strong now, with two new LPs out already this year and another on the way in the summer. Maybe no one pictures them big time anymore, but I can’t say it did them any harm to dream.

Kinda new album – “Titanic Rising” by Weyes Blood

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Weyes Blood’s last LP, “Front Row Seat To Earth”, has been a long time favourite here in the Only Memories furnished nuclear bunker, becoming one of my most listened-to records of the past couple of years.  Natalie Merring’s remarkable voice is the perfect hook for the album, imperious yet subtle in its emotional range, and the Laurel Canyon-style elegance of the music also has huge appeal. But repeated plays reveal a sophistication of songwriting that carries her way beyond the usual territory of early seventies nostalgia, with its odd, unexpected turns and dramatic flourishes making the album a fascinating, and at times unsettling, listen. It remains a fantastic record, and the period since its release has only burnished its reputation: its follow up has some pretty hefty expectations to live up to.

Which is something it does with ease. Titanic Rising” is a brilliant LP, moving further in the direction already established by “Front Row Seat”, but with enough unexpected elements to mark out a distinct identity of its own. It’s a sweeter record overall, with the grandiose 70s pop of opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” setting the tone, full of orchestral splendour and dominated by Natalie’s swelling, soaring vocal. Though its style takes a lead from the previous album, it turns up the melodrama to a much greater pitch, and this approach is mirrored across the record lyrically, where things are frequently breaking apart, and happiness, if present, can never be counted upon. That discomfort can be heard clearly on storming single “Everyday”: propelled by a thumping, Fiona Apple-styled piano and wheezing organ, it’s full of doubt and desperation, with Natalie uncertain in love and “always trying to make my keeper mine“. It’s also a wonderful, emotionally charged pop song, its singalong, Abba-esque chorus (“I need a love everyday!”) and upbeat tone contrasting with the struggle at its heart. Aside from failing romance, fear and confusion about the modern world is the other key theme on “Titanic Rising”, addressed most significantly on the epic “Wild Time”. Here, Natalie searches for meaning around her and often comes up empty (“Everyone’s broken now and no one knows just how / We could have all gotten so far from truth“), in the end only able to console herself that “it’s a wild time to be alive”. The music is more vulnerable here, built initially on a simple strummed guitar and embellished with strings and occasional dramatic piano, before moving finally towards a gorgeous, winding coda both weighted and lifted by melancholy.

Merring also finds space to go down some more unusual paths. Sometimes this blends subtly into the background, as with the woozy drones which provide atmosphere on “Wild Time” and lead single “Andromeda”, but when the pace changes for the centrepiece of the album, the results are bold and breathtaking. “Movies” is a two parter: starting off underpinned by a watery, synthetic arpeggio, Natalie’s moody vocal blurs the line between life and screen, suggesting a greater reality created inside the story (“Put me in a movie and everyone will know me / You’ll be the star you know you are“), before the song suddenly shifts, as powerfully rhythmic percussion and strings come to the fore in a warmer second section, building to a hypnotic, stunning climax. Easily the least commercial of the main tracks here (both sides end with a brief, conceptual instrumentals), “Movies” feels like the grand statement of the record, musically adventurous and generally yearning for a more vast and involving experience of life than the one that we’re usually stuck with. It’s amongst Weyes Blood’s very best songs.

Towards the close, the heartbreaking “Picture Me Better” gives an almost fairytale image of love, trust and friendship, but with the sad sense that these are things which are gone and aren’t coming back. Despite being notably Disney-esque in it’s sense of drama, it’s a calmer musical moment set against the swirl of emotions that precede it: on an LP where romance is to be welcomed with open arms but perpetually fretted over, it feels like Natalie is finally free to love someone without worrying, knowing that it’s already too late. Along with the final swoop of strings on “Nearer To Thee”, which takes us back to a musical theme from the very beginning of the record, it gives the album a sense of closure and finality. It’s a mixed blessing in a sense: the pain and turmoil is over, but the experience is so delicious that you can’t wait to go back to the start and go through it all again. All of which is to say that “Titanic Rising” is Natalie Merring’s second masterpiece in a row, and the yardstick by which I’ll be judging everything else this year. A truly magnificent record.