Old LP – “Three States: Rarities 1997 – 2007” by Dear Nora (2008)

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This is supposed to be a new music blog and, believe it or not, I do listen to a fair bit of new music. But sometimes you fall behind a bit and, though recent records by The Goon Sax, Swearin and Comet Gain have all been excellent, and I may yet actually write about some of them, sometimes I just slip into a state of mind where all I want to do is play something comfortably familiar. And along with my beloved Trust Fund LPs, Dear Nora’s records have fit the bill recently. Katy Davidson’s indiepop turned minimalist folk project from the early 2000s has gained a kind of cultural cachet in recent times that they could never have dreamed of back in their heyday. This has included being adopted by Pitchfork, when Davidson’s unsettling and hauntingly beautiful second LP, “Mountain Rock”, was named “Best New Reissue” after its re-release on vinyl in 2017. With this year producing a long awaited new LP, “Skulls Example”, their first new material as Dear Nora since 2006’s patchy “There Is No Home”,  the obvious move would be for me to give that a proper listen. But Katy has moved on stylistically from their earlier work and the effort required by me to listen to it thoroughly has so far proved beyond me: it seems that I simply can’t be arsed. Instead, for distinctly personal reasons, I’ve spent much of the last couple of months going on walks round my local village listening to 2008’s “Three States” double CD compilation.

It is a true behemoth of an album, weighing in at 111 minutes and a daunting 57 tracks, ranging from 2000’s debut single “Make You Smile” to 2006’s cover of The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, and including plenty of released and unreleased material from in-between, before and after.  But rather than sounding like a cobbled together collection of odds and ends, it works just fine as an album in its own right, finding the band on eclectic but typically breathtaking form.

Dear Nora have been through extensive artistic changes during their twenty years plus in music, and there’s plenty of variation over the decade covered here. The starting point is the charming, brattish punk pop of their earliest work, and this is the source of some of the most satisfying songs on the record. “Second Birthday” is more or less perfection, a stunning mixture of clipped, tuneful riffing and Katy’s gleefully childlike early vocal style, but given a bittersweet touch by its sharp lyrical edge. “Second Hand” takes the same template and adds a wonderful, soaring bridge, showing an increasing sophistication of songwriting that would only deepen as time moved on.

After the first dozen or so songs, the rest of the first disc is largely taken up with demoish acoustic material, and these highly personal sketches are generally just as well executed. The artistic declaration of intent of “My Guitar” is another standout track, carried along by its insistent single note counterpoint, as Katy refuses to let their life stand still, candidly spitting, “I’m not gonna lay down in cement, not today”. This showcases a major theme of “Three States”, change, travel and moving on, which returns again and again over the period covered. Another good example of this is the gentle, punishing “The Weight’, where a lover is declared “a carrier of hope“, before being implored to leave Katy behind, as they repeatedly sing “leave me and carry on, the weight won’t get lighter” over the deceptively warm accompaniment. This combination of light and dark is a further touchstone on this album, the delicate backing often masking an uncomfortable, brutal honesty.

Disc 2  continues the high standards of the first, and occasional scraps of sound set aside, there isn’t a genuinely bad track on the entire set. “Sarah, You’re Not For Me” is my favourite song here, a career pinnacle, previously thrown away on a various artists compilation, but rescued on “Three States” from obscurity. The section in the middle, where it veers into a passage of blissful psychedelic reverie, is the kind of moment lesser bands would have based their entire catalogue around, whereas for Dear Nora it was just one more diversion in a body of work peppered with interesting twists and turns. The twin takes of “Hey Tiger” show how Davidson could turn the same song into different, equally captivating shapes, by turns warm, confident psych pop and a vulnerable acoustic sketch, both of which are major highlights.

Covers of classics by Bob Dylan and The Zombies (as previously mentioned) show a couple of obvious influences, but Davidson’s songwriting has plenty of unique touches. This is especially clear towards the end of the collection as it becomes increasingly unusual, veering towards flinty, uncomfortable pieces such as “When Things At Home Got Shitty”. However, these are still interlaced with material like the gentle, melodic folk of “Fargo”, which offers plenty of light relief. It’s a tough prospect when you’re first looking 57 tracks in the face, but if you take it out on a journey, anything where you’re shackled to an mp3 player, then the quality and sheer extraordinary talent on display on “Three States” will soon become clear. And it may yet be that I properly get round to “Skulls Example”, which I really ought to do cos there’s plenty on there to love I think, from the little that I’ve heard of it. But at the moment, it seems likely that the next time I lace up my shoes, I’ll just head back to “Three States” again and listen to that instead.

 

 

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New Single – “Camel Coat” by Saint Etienne

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Now finally coming to the end of its 49 entry run, the wiaiwya 7777777 singles club has been of a consistently high quality over its seven (naturally) short years. In that time, it’s moved between one off bangers from artists who never released again like Milk Skin, jaw dropping singles by bands on the rise such as The Leaf Library and, finally with this year’s run, late, great entries in the careers of some of our finest groups, the ones who never seem to pass their best. The penultimate release is by Saint Etienne, who can simply be introduced by saying that it’s fucking Saint Etienne, don’t you know who fucking Saint Etienne are, what the fuck is wrong with you?!? And, of course, the important thing is that they’re at the top of their form here on “Camel Coat”.

The song opens as taut, minimalist disco, perhaps closer in tone to Citizen Helene’s storming “How Can You Find Someone To Love?” than to any of the other previous entries in the series, as Sarah tells a tale of doomed romance, with the owner of the coat defined as “not a lover or a friend”, but merely “somebody I  didn’t know that well”. The song takes off in the chorus, with its gorgeous “not gonna cry” hook soaring over subtle layerings of acoustic guitar, tambourine and hand-drums, as the earlier funk leanings of the song shade into the kind of lush, infectious pop music that has defined the band’s career.

Sarah comes into her own again on the spoken word middle eight, a melodramatic flourish where her ex is revealed to be a top pop star in what can only be described as a very Saint Etienne move. Then we return for one final, ecstatic chorus before the bass slides for the last time and we’re done, left wanting more, which is as it should be. To say it’s another brilliant single from Saint Etienne seems beside the point, there have been so many already. But there’s always been a reason to find a place in your life for each and every one of them, and “Camel Coat” is no different. It may be just one more entry in a great British pop catalogue, but still, it’s one of the better ones at that.

The 7″ and subscription series have now both sold out, but the download single will be released on November 7th and can be purchased here:

New EP – Nothing’s Changed by Justus Proffit and Jay Som

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Melina Duterte’s is a feelgood story of genuinely independent music, one of several recent artists who have moved on from bedroom recordings and backroom gigs into substantial acclaim and a significant musical career. Within eighteen months of semi-drunkenly loading the first Jay Som album up onto Bandcamp as a give away, she released the tense, adventurous Everybody Works LP, one of my favourites of last year,  which became a staple of the 2017 end of year polls. However, with her beanie hat, spectacles and unassuming demeanour, she still feels very much like one of the DiY crowd, the only difference being that, rather than knocking out a fanzine or creating a lo-fi racket, she’s instead more frequently to be found working away on some sort of winsome pop masterpiece in a backroom somewhere. For her new project she’s decided to change tack a little, recruiting lo-fo singer songwriter Justus Proffit to join her on a new five track EP, where she largely steps back from the mic and lets him take centre stage.

Perhaps surprisingly, given that this is a collaboration through and through, it still sounds very much like a Jay Som record. This is possibly because she mixed the EP herself and, as a consequence,  the dreamy, slightly unreal tone of her best work is still very much in evidence, alongside the obvious differences on display. The clearest change here is having Profitt as the front man, singing lead on four of the five tracks, but fortunately he’s massively qualified for the role, bringing a charismatic slacker charm to it that more than justifies the move. Profitt and Dutertes’s harmonies are a highlight of the EP, whether they’re gently intertwining as on the hazy, melancholic title track, or beautifully playing off of each other amongst the jagged power pop hooks of “My World, My Rules”. Duterte’s only lead, on the dreamy, synthetic ‘Tunnel Vision”, is perhaps the most obvious shift back towards Everybody Works, recalling highlights like “One More Time Please”, but the EP is hardly a significant break with her previous work anyway, reprising a number of familiar styles from the past and simply making them anew.

Saving the best til last, closing track “Grow” is utterly spellbinding, its whistling organ melody and relaxed good times ambience coming across like a lost soundtrack to the end of the summer, arriving to warm us all a little as the Autumn gloom sets in. Overall, and appropriately enough for a record entitled Nothing’s Changed, not a great deal has actually shifted from previous Jay Som outingsbut there’s enough movement here to make the enterprise worthwhile, suggesting that there’s more than enough legs in this collaboration for it to continue for some time to come.

New LP – “Aftering” by Fred Thomas

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Fred Thomas’s last LP Changer spoke to me in a way that few others do; the sense of weariness, fascination and internalised rebellion in the face of a world moving away from him struck a resounding chord with me and, as such, I’ve been awaiting the coming of his new L.P, Aftering, with something approaching heart attack levels of anticipation.  Changer saw the Saturday Looks Good To Me founder dealing with the tough business of keeping himself together amidst the tedium and unhappiness of bad jobs and broken relationships. Aftering is, if anything, even more bleak, not so much on a personal level as in a wider sense; the album features the usual references to alienation on a small scale, but also frequently alludes to the journey of our era towards its own especially terrifying out-door, a timely and even more unsettling idea.

From the blank, synthetic throb of opener “Ridiculous Landscapes”, there’s a grim streak that runs throughout most, if not all, of the record. The first verse of the song references “fall out shelter basements always bracing for the blast”, and there’s a sense of doom and decay that pervades the lyrics much of the time, from the people “dressed up like the world’s about to end” on the bleary, infectious “Alcohol Poisoning”, to the reccurence time and again of intense cold and winter settings, on “House Show” and “What The Sermon Said” to name but two. But this discomfort doesn’t necessarily drag the music down: the run of sparking pop songs through the first half of the LP are never less than thrilling, with the strangely euphoric “Good Times Are Gone Again” in particular standing out. The feel of the song is reminiscent of The Killers’ cheerily upbeat “All These Things That I Have Done” but, subverted by the doomy power chords and unsettling chorus (“bad things are happening now”), one comes away in spite of this with the sense that there is little alright with the world. Elsewhere, the ‘Box Elder’-ish speed jangle and bubblegum harmonies on “Altar” show that Fred can still easily keep up with the popkids if he wants to, but it’s not until after this that Aftering really starts to throw its punches.

House Show, Late December” provides the stunning centrepiece to the album, eight minutes of lyrical savagery set to a slow, shimmering guitar and shuffling drums, with occasional atonal squeals of various kinds in the background. Here, Thomas’s vocal escalates over the course of the song into a slow burning fury, with a general sense of anxiety early on shading later into abject disgust at the world around him – “everything you say there’s nothing wrong with there’s something wrong with” – as it grinds inexorably onwards. Even better is ‘Mother, Daughter, Pharmaprix’, possibly my favourite song in a strong field. A gorgeous, stumbling guitar arpeggio provides its backbone, as Thomas calmly details his uncomfortable desire to shrink away from his friends and music, before laying out a spellbinding tableau of a mother arguing with her teenage daughter in a pharmacy, as beautifully observed as it is desperately moving. As always, the sense of something slightly askew is in the air, accentuated by the slightly processed sound of the guitar and the tiny, barely perceptible mistakes that find their way into the playing.

While the faster, poppier tunes on the first side have a hugely appealing urgency to them, it’s the slower, more reflective material that perhaps remains with you longest. Taken as a whole, Aftering is not always an easy listen to say the least, and can be a little draining at times; the intensity and gravity of emotion on display sometimes, especially on “House Show” and the even more grisly “Slow Waves”, demands an amount of work from the listener that often isn’t expected in these days of instant gratification. But the important thing is that the dividends on offer far outstrip the effort required; this is a massively varied, richly rewarding LP, a second future classic in a row (though there may be more, slugabed as I am in chasing up back catalogue) and a record that frequently manages to be fearless, without forgetting that it’s important to be fun sometimes as well.

New LP – “There You Made Me Funny” by The Middle Ones

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There is a warmth and good humour on the records of The Middle Ones which it is difficult to overstate. Invariably dealing with the simple pleasures and strong bonds of love and friendship, one comes away from their songs with a sense that, somewhere in the world, there are two people whose caring, generous natures, and enormous talent for expressing them, almost justify the miserable general shitshow that churns ever on regardless. It has been four and a half years since they last released a record, six since their last LP “Slow and Steady” and if ever there was a time when a new album from them was desperately needed to dispel just a little of the current gloom, surely it is now.

Their third studio LP, “There You Made Me Funny”, released next week on their own Both Both label, takes a slightly different approach from earlier albums. The accordions, clarinets and general church hall ambience are gone, with arrangements mostly stripped back to just an electric guitar, occasional drums and of course Anna and Grace’s peerless harmonies. At its fullest iteration, which makes up about half the album, this resembles  a basic version of the scratchy DiY pop played by indie peers such as Frozy (whose Nicol Parkinson takes the controls here), rather than the more expansive elements heard on some earlier songs. However, this is still recognisably pure Middle Ones and there’s little here that is cause for genuine surprise; indeed the sound is reminiscent of previously released live recordings. Opener ‘Lucky’ sets the scene pretty clearly, with scrappy strummed guitar and drums backing the pair’s charming tribute to a friend. Elsewhere, songs like “OMC” take a different route, as the (as ever) spellbinding vocal interplay, and stuttering rhythms of the guitar and percussion, add up to something more akin to a traditional folk song.

 

Listening to some of the quieter numbers, the obvious parallel as ever is with The Softies, most clearly on enjoyable slow janglers like “All The Way Home” and “Cromer”.  However, the comparison only goes so far; lyrically, whilst The Softies were frequently disappointed one way or the other, The Middle Ones can find something good even in the worst of situations. On “Waking Up”, Anna for once sounds utterly desperate as she recalls the fear of moving to a new place, but before long her confusion is gone, replaced again by joy in the company of others. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether the lyrics on “Funny” concern friendship or romance, but perhaps the point is that it doesn’t really matter, that the important thing is the strength of the bond, the happiness gained and given from the connection.

Closer “The Place’ feels a little more certain in this regard, a tale of trying to make love work long distance.  While the song obviously has a bittersweet edge to it, accentuated by the melancholy, grinding guitar, the focus is on the small things that blunt the separations, the letters, gifts and visits which somehow seem to make it all worthwhile. The LP is peppered with these incidental details and shared experiences, which so often pass us by but are frequently the way by which we form bonds with the people in our lives; watching Columbo the morning after sleeping on someone’s couch for example, or having a fit of giggles in the supermarket. This builds a kind of tapestry throughout the album, a network of joys and kindnesses which ensnare the listener; by the end, you just wish that anybody could ever think of you with the fondness that Anna and Grace clearly feel for those around them.

This would be worth little if they were unable to translate those sentiments into their music but, as anyone who knows anything about The Middle Ones will tell you, their ability to do that is basically a given. ‘Cromer’ may be the best of all, a wistful waltz about swimming with a friend, where the close harmonies and atmospheric wash of percussion seem to convey a sense of the calm but powerful intimacy of the situation. A lyric here captures the band’s philosophy almost entire: “I love this film and you’ve never seen it / You love this book so I promise I’ll read it / I love this place, I’m so glad that you’re here with me”. The Middle Ones understand that these everyday actions and tokens of affection with which we reveal our feelings are not small things, but the stuff of which all our relationships are built. God fucking bless them.

“There You Made Me Funny” can be ordered from here:

The Middle Ones – There You Made Me Funny

Coming attractions for the autumn…

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I’m in the position at the moment where there isn’t a bunch of new albums I want to talk about. However, there is a lot of stuff on the horizon that I’m really looking forward to, so, in the interests of brevity (never my strong point) and the vain hope that more people might read something if it contains more than one thing, I thought I’d collect it all up here in a single post and save myself doing one for each. First up is The Goon Sax.

I’ve always felt that the youthful, pop-royalty-related Australian trio had a naive charm to them, but their debut LP Up To Anything never quite clicked with me in the way it did with a lot of other people. However, the two singles from their forthcoming second effort We’re Not Talking mark a path towards an altogether more promising affair. “Make Time For Love” is underpinned by a jaunty acoustic guitar but what really make the song are the ticking cowbell and lush strings, which provide a new dimension to their sometimes sparse sound. Louis Forster’s vocal has a suaveness and swagger that matches this more lavish tone, and there’s an ironic detachment to it that somehow makes the whole package just that little bit more winning. Previous single “She Knows” was of a similarly high quality and the stage is set for an LP that seems likely to surpass their debut with ease.

 

OK, so I’ve already talked about Fred Thomas’s excellent 2017 LP Changerwhich was perhaps my favourite of last year. Never one to rest on his laurels, his new album Aftering is already set for release next month and, following the excellent, anthemic doom rock of previous single “Good Times Are Gone Again”, Thomas has now released a second taster, “House Show, Late December”. Stretching over an ambitious eight minutes, it is, to be honest, not the cheeriest of songs, resembling nothing so much as the savage slowcore workouts from Smog’s bleak “Dongs Of Sevotion” LP. However, hardy listeners will be rewarded in spades for their patience. A shimmering, funereal riff forms the basis of it, occasionally interrupted by atonal sax and keyboards, but what stands out is the section in the second half, where Thomas launches into a lengthy take on the modern world and his own life that feels both exasperated and resigned to the horror, and is as breathtaking as it is often uncomfortable. I had thought that it would be hard to top previous showstopper “Mallwalkers”, but “House Show” is something else entirely, a truly astonishing song from one of America’s finest. On the strength of this, Aftering will be hotly anticipated amongst the literally just over a thousand people who’ve already watched it on Youtube. Don’t let anyone tell you the public are always right.

 

Finally, Swearin are a band I’ve tended to admire from the sidelines, especially their brilliant 2013 single “Dust In The Goldsack”, without ever getting around to listening any further. However, their third LP Fall Into The Sun is due in October and I’ve really fallen for “Untitled (LA)’, which was released this week as the second glimpse of the record. Built around a skipping beat and scraping, poppy guitars, Alison Crutchfield channels Kristin Hersh on the vocal, as she waxes reflectively on the subject of love and separation. Does it do anything you haven’t heard before? Of course not, but it does it in such a wonderful way, especially the breakdown in the middle where the vocals cut out, the riff rips back through everything and the instruments return one by one, followed by Alison singing that soaring, poignant melody; why would you ever want anything more? Further proof if proof was needed that Swearin, like swearing in general, is always cool.

 

New LP – “Almost” by The Ophelias

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For complicated reasons I didn’t listen to much new music for a long time, but in the last few years since I started doing so again, I’ve found that if there is something that interests me within what used to be called ‘independent’ music, it more often than not seems to come from groups where women have a strong creative involvement. This is something still commonly undermined by determinedly sexist attitudes within the industry, which are never more apparent than in that joyless period which is currently upon us, the festival season. So it’s nice that the back story to one of my favourite records of this year so far, “Almost” by The Ophelias, feels like a subtle but effective act of subversion; the reason that the group formed in the first place was that each of the members were sick of being the “token woman” in someone else’s shit band, so they got their own together, the better to make themselves heard and make some great records in the process.

 “Almost”, their second LP, is a wonderful thing, an intelligent and sometimes challenging record which is still beautifully melodic, combining a light touch with the ability to take their music into uncomfortable places when they choose to do so. Opener “Fog” is very much the kind of rolling, gorgeous chamber pop that provides the backbone of a large part of the album, bound together by a simple acoustic guitar but with an artificial sensibility to the production that lifts it clearly into commercial territory. Owen Pallett’s Final Fantasy project often springs to mind here, and the processed strings that bring the chorus of “Lunar Rover” to a stuttering, swirling climax feel strongly reminiscent of their “Has A Good Home” album. But the sound here is largely of The Ophelias’ own making; art pop which pulls you in with its grace and charm, before throwing you off a little with its uneven mood, at once joyous and unnerving.

And for all its melodic pull, “”Almost” is always a little unnerving one way or another. Single “General Electric” uses it’s soothing, summery sound and sing song organ to sneak in a report from an uncomfortably masochistic relationship, as vocalist Spencer Pepper sings “I wanna be what you fantasise” in a blank, almost bored tone, reminiscent of washed out modern post-punks like Lithics. At other times, the band seem to channel idiosyncratic Canadian musician Jane Siberry; “O Command” starts off like a ringer for one of those nebulous, floating Siberry songs like “The Lobby”, before heading off in a direction of jarring time signatures and odd structural quirks which those who know her work will also find  familiar. Later on, the album takes a distinctly avant garde turn through the middle of the second side, particularly on “Zero”, which shifts between grinding. discordant riffs and an almost nursery rhyme chorus that seems to come from another song entirely.

By the melancholy closer, ‘”Moon Like Sour Candy”, we’ve come full circle, back to the strummed acoustics and evocative strings, but a little more world weary for the time spent. Spencer’s vocal feels more involved and desperate, singing “you can only like me when you’re drunk” as the song moves towards its stately, mournful conclusion, and the last line, ‘I’m trying” sounds more like a cry for help than anything at all positive. It’s a sad, beautiful end to an album that rarely takes the easy path, but makes the ascent seem effortless anyway. Truly unmissable.