New Single – Fred Thomas/Anna Burch – “Parkways”/”Saint Adalbert”

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Fred Thomas has been responsible for my favourite albums of both 2017 and 2018, and though I’ve come late to Anna Burch’s debut, “Quit The Curse”, it’s also a fine record that’s been played rather a lot round here recently. So when it was announced that their tour split single was to be released for mailorder though their American label Polyvinyl, there was a brief sighing noise to be heard and a sharp sucking of teeth before Paypal was hastily activated and the money was coughed up for this pricey import 7″. £10 notes come and go, but Fred and Anna are forever.

The pair are long term collaborators, both on each other’s solo work and in their band Failed Flowers, so it’s unsurprising that they should share one or two obvious musical sensibilities. The key one to be found on both sides of this single is country. “Parkways” offers a kind of winsome, Byrdsian country rock, reminiscent of some of the material from last year’s brilliant “Changer‘ LP, but taken up a notch or two here, with the sweeping vocal chorus (augmented by Burch herself) giving it a bit more of a Nashville feel than previous efforts have had. Lyrically, Fred embraces his on-brand side, with another tale of “dark days” and a “slowly eroding mental landscape” that will be familiar to anyone who owns the recent, heart-stopping “Aftering” LP. But overall, the mood is more upbeat and the song ends on an uncharacteristically optimistic note, as a phantom repeatedly tells him “You will be happy, maybe not soon, but you will be happy” over the soaring, jangly guitar hook. It’s hardly an unequivocally positive message, but those of us accustomed to his recent doom and gloom can at least take a little more comfort than usual from this single, one that’s just as good as anything we’ve seen from him, which means that, all in all, it’s pretty fucking great.

“Quit The Curse” embraced country in a way that was surprising to those of us who’d only heard the snappy janglepop of Anna’s pre-LP singles and “Saint Adalbert” carries on in much the same vein, with her voice at its most plaintive on a tale of heartbreak and mixed messages. The verse is propelled by a rattling acoustic guitar and a smooth, stately bassline, moving into a chorus which adopts a similar Nashville-type swell to “Parkways” but with a far more lush, sensuous feel to it. At the end, Anna curiously sings of saying “an Irish goodbye”, which apparently involves quietly slipping away without a word, presumably to avoid further upset (this has also been rumoured to be to do with walking out a bar before you get your keys taken off of you, but I suspect she means the former here). The whole thing has a kind of sombre elegance about it that makes it another song that just begs to be listened to, and the two sides complement each other nicely in a way rarely found on a split single.

That this release consists of offcuts from two already excellent LPs shows that both artists have top drawer material to burn, and also serves as something to whet the appetite for the return of Failed Flowers next year, who already have a new single scheduled for release on Slumberland. But more to the point, this is a great record that, when the vinyl finally arrives, will be listened to again and again and again. Having paid a tenner for it, you can be absolutely certain I’m determined to get my money’s worth.

“Patkways”/”St Adalbert” is available to buy both at joint Fred Thomas/Anna Burch shows on their current tour, and online here: https://www.polyvinylrecords.com/product/fred_anna_split

 

 

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Other LPs I have loved this year pt 1: “Clean” by Soccer Mommy

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It’s getting towards the end of the year and the new releases are drying up, as labels look towards the Christmas glut of compilations and everyone hangs back and waits for January. Were there anything interesting to report, I would bring it to you, my fabled 12 readers, and indeed I might yet do so. But given that there isn’t much around at the moment, I thought that I might as well shift my focus to stuff from earlier in the year. There were a few things that came out before I got started with the blog (amazing to think there was a time when I didn’t rattle away on here to no purpose at all), and also one or two good records that I missed along the way. So, with that in mind, I’m going back to March to take a look at Soccer Mommy’s excellent third album, “Clean”.

In the two and a half years since her debut, the home recorded “For Young Hearts”, Sophie Allison (aka Soccer Mommy) confirmed herself as a major talent on the American indie scene with her acclaimed second LP, “Collection”, and has consequently spent much of the interim being pigeonholed in ‘women in rock’ articles written by extremely dull music hacks. Despite its more fully realised production, “Collection” felt like a bit of a sidestep to me, largely consisting of re-recordings of earlier favourites which might just as well have been left alone in a lot of cases, fine though the new versions often sounded. However, when “Clean” came out in the spring, it moved things along in a more productive way, comprising as it did a set of entirely new songs, aside from previous single “Last Girl”, which was again re-recorded. It was also heralded as having a more “mature” sound in some quarters, and it certainly feels that way in terms of its polished musical approach, though the indie guitar pop template hasn’t really changed a great deal. Lyrically, it was once again an in depth look at romance though the eyes of a young woman (Allison is only twenty), with its examination of the subject addressing some unsettling ideas along the way. However, it’s fair to say that there’s plenty of maturity on display on that side of things as well, as the angst and insecurities dealt with here are hardly unique to her teen/twentysomething years.

Allison’s songwriting is the star of the show as ever. Whilst the melodies are fun and catchy, the chords and progressions show a sophistication which is the mark of someone who knows their craft. Musically, there’s also an uneasiness about a number of the songs which, when set against her clear pop sensibilities, makes for a more interesting, and potentially needling, listen than you’d find with many of her peers. “Skin” is a fine example, with its infectious chorus positioned in contrast to an awkward, discordant verse, carried by its angular bassline. Much of Gabe Wax’s production gives “Clean” a kind of college rock sheen, all chugging guitars and washes of synthesiser, and Allison’s voice is as bubblegum sweet as ever, but the unusual touches like those found here make all this feel a little deceptive, like something is being smuggled onto the record that might go unnoticed on a cursory listen.

The lyrics on “Skin” also explore some uncomfortable ideas, as Allison sings “I’m just a puzzle piece, trying to fit just right / So I could be the one that’s stuck inside your mind”. This is a marker of an important theme, the fear of not being good enough for someone. That sense of nervous desperation comes up again most obviously on “Last Girl”, a snappier, more fleshed out version than the one which appeared as a single last year. Here, Sophie can never really believe herself to be the equal of her boyfriend’s fabled ex, singing “Why would he still want to be with me? She’s got everything”.

But there’s flipside to this as well, a feeling of being hemmed in by that discomfort, and a desire to break out and be her own person in a relationship. This is most clearly seen on “Your Dog”, again underpinned by a twisting, dominant bassline, which features one of the most memorable lines of the year, “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog”. It’s also underlined in “Cool”, where Allison idolises a peer who “won’t ever love no boy / She’ll treat you like a fucking toy / She’ll break your heart and steal your joy, like a criminal”, as Sophie covets the distance and self assurance that she herself lacks. What also stands out here is that there are no happy endings, as the other thing dealt with frequently on “Clean” is relationship breakdown. The bruised, brooding “Flaw” is the best song on this subject, all clipped, twisting chord progressions and shimmering guitars, with Sophie’s voice at its most vulnerable on a complicated tale of infidelity and self deception.

Behind all the seductive gloss, “Clean” is at heart a dark, nervous record on which Allison looks hard at how she behaves in relationships and what good it’s doing her. This kind of emotional vulnerability is difficult to pull off without it becoming whiney and self conscious but “Clean” is certainly never that, feeling more like a rite of passage LP than a protracted whinge. But like any record, the test of “Clean” is the quality of its songs, and this is something it passes easily. That such an album should also have been reasonably successful is simply the icing on the cake, and marks another staging post on Sophie Allison’s way to world domination. Eight months on, it feels as fresh and unsettling as it did at the start of the year and easily earns its place amongst 2018’s best albums.

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. This can also be seen on 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 on “Three States” overall, a career pinnacle, previously thrown away on a various artists compilation, but rescued here 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 intriguing 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 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” and listen to that once more.

 

 

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