Spoon - They Want My Soul
You can never predict what’s going to be an ear worm. You’re unsuspecting and they sneak up on you. And then, before you know it, it’s taken over. After a month of listening to the latest Spoon album in the car, on public transport, on foot, in my living room, I’ve realised it’s possessed me. It’s only when you realise you’re whistling a riff whilst changing a nappy, or humming the chorus whilst making a coffee, does it dawn on you that it has you in its grasp and there’s no escape.
It’s over twenty years since the Austin band Spoon first graced us with their music. Formed by Britt Daniels and Jim Eno, they were named after Can’s theme song to the film Das Messer. Four years ago, Transference, took something of a step back and was more of a lo-fi approach, an effort to rejig their sound, but it failed to build on the standout and breakout brilliance of 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Transference was produced by Daniel and recorded in his basement flat. In a recent interview with The Guardian Daniel admitted this was a mistake - the record became a labour, not of love, but of annoyance and frustration, it became “fucking tedious”. Unsurprisingly, Spoon took a break after touring that album and Daniel, after a chance encounter during that tour, teamed up with Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner and New Bomb Turks’ Sam Brown to form Divine Fits. The resulting album, A Thing Called Divine Fits, was released in 2012, and, upon hearing They Want My Soul for the first time, that sabbatical with Divine Fits was just the refreshing tonic Britt needed to recharge his batteries and get those creative juices flowing. The latest Spoon album echoes some of the feel-good pop of Divine Fits, the joyful and carefree approach that can only be gained from a new band and working with new people.
They Want My Soul is focused, tight and impeccably produced. The songwriting is crisp and tight, Daniel’s ear for a catchy and upbeat riff have resurfaced. Spoon inhabit a world of blurred and mixed influences. Are they a rock band? Are they a pop band? Are they an indie band (whatever that)? The answer, as with all these questions, is somewhere in the middle. Of all three. What has remained throughout their career is the beautifully production of the records. After Daniel’s previous experience with production, they’ve brought in uber producers Dave Fridmann and Joe Chiccarelli to work alongside the band and, yet, their affect isn’t obvious - this is still, without doubt, a Spoon album and, as with all good producers, they’ve just helped to focus the music and, in this case, squeeze all the goodness into a perfect and lean 37 minutes.
The songs are driven by Daniel’s nasal vocals whilst the music is full of flourishes and oddities that are exhilarating and addictive, burrowing their way into your head: the crisp guitar riff that finishes ‘Rainy Taxi’, the vocal “Do do”s of ‘Do You’, the rising synth refrain of ‘Outlier’; I find myself repeating them infinitum. Yet removing these clever production tricks and catchy riffs don’t leave the songs exposed - Daniel has a cutting lyrical tongue, a way of twisting words in and around the music, making them equally catchy and deviously obsessive: “You were smart, you played no part, you just thought what you thought […] You had taste, you had no time to waste, what happened to you kid?” from ‘Outlier’ sounds like a critical take on selling out, whilst ‘Rainy Taxi’ contains the barbed line of “As the sun goes fading in the west, there’s an army east that’s rising still”.
As with all classic albums, it finishes perfectly. ‘New York Kiss’ is a love letter to a specific place and time that can no longer be visited, it’s either too painful or too perfect (it’s not exactly clear which of these it is): “There ain’t a thing I miss, not like your New York Kiss”, “Now it’s just another place, a place your memory owns […] right now I know no other place I say goodnight” as the twinkling keyboard finishes, it reflects a star lit sky, and the dangerous emotions of lost love and lost time fade out, and the album finishes.
As you let the silence engulf you, the lasting question is, who are “they” of the album title? After following Spoon for over ten years and marveling at their exquisite music, I can only think that it’s “them”, the band. I’ve completely submitted to them. Spoon have my soul.
Originally published on The Quietus.
30 07 14My radio show from last week is now available for streaming / downloading.
Before a brief Summer break, another hour of underground music.
Green Linez - Grafton Centre
Suicideyear - I Don’t Care About Death Because I Smoke
Lee Gamble - Jove Layup
Loscil - Fury
Fieldhead - Hecla
Summer Night Air - 4.3
Biographs - I Won’t Ever Do Anything; I Feel Safe Here
Memory Drawings - There Is A World Without You
Mamer - Eagle
16 07 14My radio show from last week is now available to stream or download from Soundcloud.
Another hour of music outside the norm.
Bronze Teeth - Glass Tooth
Black Hat - Dream Interlock VI
M. Sage - Across Cross Country
Robert Curgenven - Cornubia
Delphine Dora & Bruno Duplant - Le Voile Imperceptible de la pluie engourdie
Smoke Dawson - The Minotaur
Dragon Turtle - Narwhal
Savaging Spires - We Could Be Dead Together
A Winged Victory for the Sullen - VII
Near The Parenthesis - Virga
02 07 14My radio show from last week - great local and international music.
An hour of underground sounds.
Alur Horns - Rec. in Uganda by David Fanshawe
Cagey House - Never Work With The Sun
Noveller & Thisquietarmy - Reverie I
Lawrence English - Graceless Hunter
Good Willsmith - Taking Too Long To Text
Kevin Verwijmeren - Abstract Point Forgotten in the Rush
Laica - ID Situation
Leksovka & Freund - Borrowed Mic Test
National Jazz Trio of Scotland - Rare Species
Dakota Suite - This Is My Way of Saying I Am Sorry
18 06 14My radio show from last week. And it’s a corker.
An hour of music beyond the norm.
Copeland - Advice To Young Girls
Luke Abbott - Free Migration
Some Truths - Section 12(2)
John Chantler - November Pt 1
P Jorgensen - Gold Beach (Outtake)
Mark Harris - In Spite of Everything, The Night That Made the Darkness
Sly & The Family Drone - Grey Meat
Land Observations - Flatlands and the Flemish Roads
Tom Vek - Luck
Three albums in ten years, minimal interviews and few live performances. Tom Vek isn’t your regular pop star, littering the world with throw-away rubbish. His latest album, Luck, has found a home at that label known for its championing of intelligent and left-field pop brilliance, Moshi Moshi, a perfect place for Vek’s crisp and clever pop music.
What drew me to Vek with his debut album, We Have Sound (way back in 2005), was his stripped-back and lo-fi pop music. Crafting crystal clear beats and crackling guitar riffs with a subtle simplicity that proved that keeping it simple is always the best policy. There’s a sense that Vek is something of a perfectionist, that this simplicity takes him time and effort, and he’s continually striving to complete it. Luck may sound more polished and less lo-fi, but his minimal approach ensures he still sounds fresh and vibrant.
The first track sets the tone perfectly, opening with the repetitious drone of Vek’s vocals, uttering the title ‘How Am I Meant To Know’, rising until the song cracks apart with a barrage of guitars and drums – a dense mix that’s made from just three elements with the minimal of augmentation. ‘Pushing Your Luck’ is driven by a crunching guitar riff and the repetitious chorus, echoing over and over, burrowing the refrain deep into your skull. Lead single ‘Sherman (Animals in the Jungle)’ shudders to life under his, now trademark, angular guitar and clipped drum beats: “You think of death, the inevitable option”.
What sets Vek apart from the rest of the crowd is the presence of an underlying intelligence to his songs. Vek has cited works by both Tom Wolfe and Michael Bracewell as influences on Luck. The latter is a more obvious touchstone – a literary novelist who has also written extensively about Roxy Music, one of the more obvious influences on Vek’s musical output. There is certainly something eating at Vek throughout the album. There’s an obvious sense of disillusionment with his generation – a riposte to the disposable trappings of modern living – certainly ’Sherman…’ is filled with bile (and is directly inspired by Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities), a distaste of consumerism and excess. However, he’s also worried by the age old issues of love and loss – the delicate ‘Trying To Do Better’ or ‘The Girl You Wouldn’t Leave For Any Girl’: the latter sitting as a peculiar outlier with its discordant guitar chords and Vek’s wailing vocals, a post-modern love song, perhaps?
As we loose ourselves in a world of manufactured pop and internet popularity, it feels apt that an artist like Vek should lead a rebellion against it. An artist who has created a career in his own style – never pressured into releasing music that he wasn’t happy with – but has also married the seemingly disparate ideals of pop music and intelligence. Pop music seems to be defined, at the moment, as disposable – something to be used and discarded, given no thought. Thankfully, Vek has returned at just the right time, proving that pop music can be both clever and enjoyable – a rare combination indeed.
21 05 14My radio show from last week
An hour of underground music.
Richard Hewson - Deserted Starship
Brian Hodgson - Cathedral of Space
Olan Mill / Keung Mandlebrot - Linear Elasticity
Mike Weis - Out of the Flowers
Dalhous - Sensitised to this Area
André Foisy (with Persistence in Mourning) - Interlude V
The Lowland Hundred - Part 2
Isnaj Dui - Rolling Globe II
Padang Food Tigers - Side B
Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper - Song for Charlie
Mike Cooper - Hope You Soon
“The focus is entirely on life”: Talking Death Blues with Jon Mueller
Jon Mueller is an artist with many strings to his bow. Not only an expert percussionist but also a lecturer on creativity and new business approaches. His latest project is Death Blues, a multidisciplinary work that was inspired by a manifesto, which can be read here. This has been touring the US over the past 18 months, finally evolving into a recorded piece which is available as a digital download (vinyl release coming in January of next year). The music is basic, repetitious and could be seen as an modernist take on medieval chanting or an electric roots or folk music. It’s hard to classify. I’d been speaking to Jon about a few different projects when the Death Blues started dominating our discussion. I wanted to find out about the inspiration for such a project, how this different from Jon’s own musical work and what we can expect from it in the future.
What is the Death Blues and how does it differ, if at all, from Jon Mueller the artist?
Well, the focus of the project is a way to consider some things about life that often get brushed aside; a way to dig a bit deeper into what each of us experience, and question what those experiences mean to us. This process is intensified and hastened by the mystery of how much time each of us has to do this. I’m involved in it as an instigator for discussion, as well as a participant.
How does the music help get deeper into that experience?
Music in general is a connector, a situation that presents a variety of dots that can connect in different ways: ideas, emotions, and even physical feeling. So, any kind of music addresses the personal experience. Music inspires individual thoughts about personal taste, discovery, and senses which both can and cannot be put into words. For ‘Death Blues,’ by working with things like repetition, it asks a favor - to be patient, to listen, to focus, to be present. From there, more subtleties might be noticed and details discovered (both in the sound and the listener’s mind) based upon one’s willingness to interact. Music becomes both a guide and a backdrop to one’s ideas, memories, and new stories they might tell themselves while they listen. Each sound can inspire something different in each person, and when repeated, these things can be strengthened. This practice, of course, is nothing new. It has been the approach within various musical cultures throughout time, and there are some fascinating books on the subject that go far deeper into the topic. But this was my intent with working on ‘Death Blues,’ to focus on the alignment of the concept and the musical function to create a more powerful effect.
So how did Death Blues come about?
I was in New Orleans. I had some ideas about what I wanted to work on next with music, but as I was walking around the city and thinking of those ideas, I got a sense that it somehow ‘wasn’t enough,’ that there was something more that the music might tie into. I had just given a talk at Loyola University, where I discussed with students the idea that music is a way to solve problems, that it’s not just a product to be sold, and that it should be considered as something very personal in order to connect better with others. So, I sort of wanted to take my own advice.
Was there something specific about New Orleans that connected with you, considering its history and, certainly its most recent issues?
A few people I talked to on the trip mentioned the fact of an event like Hurricane Katrina happening again. Each time someone brought this sentiment up, I thought it would be followed by a statement of plans to move away from the city. But it wasn’t. That really struck me - the idea of finding satisfaction in something such as place, and that sense of fulfillment carrying one through the fear of something that would happen to them no matter where they lived.
Is there a focus on death and finality?
The focus is entirely on life. There is no reason to focus on death. It’s my hope that all components of this project encourage the listeners and participants to consider their own existence and find the positive things they can within it.
How does this influence the music? Is it prepared or is there a strong improvisational element?
It is very prepared music, albeit with variation on length based on how consumed by the above experience the performers are. The repetition possibly allows the listener to use it as background for consideration. The subtle changes that occur marking possible developments in that thought process. For those performing the music, this happens more directly, through breathing, moving, focusing on the sound and experiencing those changes more physically.
You mention the repetitious nature of the music and giving people time to reflect, I found the music an almost religious experience with its chanting and historical vibe.
I was striving toward a sort of pure sound, an almost folk approach of raw instruments: acoustic guitar, upright bass, drums, gongs, voices, wood, metal, strings, and breath. There’s something seemingly fundamental about that in terms of music. But of course these things are amplified and take on a more modern feel, which then reminded me of African music like Konono, who found ways to amplify their acoustic sounds for a larger audience. This process of taking ancient things and concepts into the present calls people to understand the reality of sound around them, but to also feel it’s ties to something much much older.
What kind of ancient concepts?
People sitting around making music for each other, for their families, and how that functioned as a form of expression, communication, and release. That’s a very old thing. I’m curious about how it began, and where it came from. The aim was to carry on that tradition in my own way.
How do you ensure you keep it relevant with such a large scope?
Our lives our finite. Our time should not be taken for granted. I think there’s relevancy there that everyone understands, consciously and subconsciously. It may seem like a large scope, but that scope is merely filled with reminders of what we already know on a very personal level.
So how does this all filter into the Death Blues manifesto?
The universality of the concept needed a place to develop beyond the implications of the various parts. The manifesto is sort of the central hub for the concept - why I’m doing this, what it means to me, and also, as a reminder to myself to remain conscious of these things. I’m not trying to make a statement of the world and its evils. I’m making a statement of my own, and how I deal with them, or at least attempt to.
The music, compared to some of your previous works, is quite simple, direct and, dare I say it, accessible - due to the nature of the project I guess that was an obvious approach?
It was deliberate. I thought about this during my walk around New Orleans, when I was thinking about the concept and the music. I didn’t want such a universal concept to be associated with sounds that were a complete mystery. Some of my work in the past pointed toward that - the curiosity of the sound source being the impetus for personal involvement in the music. ‘Death Blues’ is more accessible in that the sounds are familiar, yet not presented in completely typical fashion. The hammered guitars, the repetition, and using voice as melodic instrument, each support a kind of pure, hard minimal sound. Something to nod one’s head to, something to get lost in, yet not totally cast into space. The combination of the concept and the drive of the music will hopefully inspire positive action.
The live shows are being well received, have they been recorded?
There have been some recordings of the live shows. I believe a video is being produced by some of the team at Hopscotch Fest. But beyond that, there is and will be other music involved in the project.
What other music is planned?
The CD ‘Here: An Advanced Study of Death Blues’ was produced this year but offered only to friends and people associated with the project in some way. Additional material is planned to be recorded in that vein, and released on LP sometime next year and will be for sale to the general public. Currently, a full record based on the hammered guitar tracks from the original Death Blues record, orchestrated and performed by William Ryan Fritch and I, is being mixed by Jonathan Burnside. That will also be released in some form next year. Activities around all this stuff will follow. The project is just beginning.
This was original published on The Liminal.
07 05 14My radio show returned after a month off. It’s a good ‘un.
After a month off, The Visitor returns with another hour of underground music.
WIFE - Tongue
Gavin Miller - 2181 KHz
Erik K Skodvin - Red Box Curves
Cinchel - Porch Swings
Jenks Miller - Have Mercy
Shivers - Otomo
Malayeen - Nadia
Black Light Brigade - Sick Man / Angry Man
Martin Green - Maklin’s Bridal March / Griesly Bride
Pictish Trail - Wait Until
The Alan Parsons Project - Complete Albums Collection
This isn’t going to be one of those articles that declare the entire Alan Parsons Project (APP) back catalogue to be a lost gem - a hidden treasure trove of music that has far-reaching influences that are only now becoming apparent. Well, I may be doing the latter. However, one of the most peculiar aspects of evaluating the output of Alan Parsons Project, especially as it’s now collected for the first time in one set, is how popular it was at the time. There maybe little of the striking originality that sets out classic albums, but these APP albums all act as a mirror of their time with sparks of greatness that shine through today.
The APP was a core duo of Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson. Parsons was, notoriously, both the assistant engineer on Abbey Road and engineer de-facto on The Dark Side Of The Moon. Woolfson was a composer and manager but made his name in musical theatre, writing five musicals, many of which were inspiration for APP albums. This seemingly odd pair met in the canteen of Abbey Road studios back in the summer of 1974 and hit it off almost immediately. Their friendship blossomed into APP’s first album, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, an album based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, which was already written by Woolfson but needed some musical inspiration. The album was released in 1976, reached the Top 40 in the United States, and the APP continued releasing albums until 1987, though they still tour as a live entity.
It’s easy to dismiss APP as part of the excessive progressive rock madness that birthed the rebellion that was punk. However, there is more going on here that might initially meet the ear. Certainly, the albums were all concepts - the 1977 follow-up to Tales was I, Robot, loosely based on Isaac Asimov’s novels and the laws of robotics, and their final album in 1987 was based on the life of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. It’s easy to pass this all off as pretentious nonsense (1984’s Ammonia Avenue focuses on the public’s misconception of industrial scientific developments!). Yet amongst these eleven albums there are some hints of true progressive and original thinking. It was this mix of full band and electronics was still in its infancy, especially with this much more “popular” sound - this was the accessible side of prog.
I was raised in a household by a father who was obsessed with progressive-rock. Our living room was littered with records and tapes of Floyd, Jarre, Vangelis, Yes, Genesis and, of course, APP. As with all these albums, picked through as a young boy, it was the artwork that initially drew me in. Gorging on an exclusive diet of science-fiction and fantasy books, these covers feed that interest - alien worlds and creatures or, in the case of APP’s Pyramid, a vision of a bearded man blurring into a stream of digital waves. I remember hearing Pyramid for the first time in years, the opening instrumental of ‘Voyager’ (yes, an ode to the exploring satellite of the same name), I can still hear the needle following the grooves of the vinyl, an underlying accidental drone between the quiet splash of drums as a soaring rise of space-age electronics soar into view.
The most intriguing story to come with this box set centres around the never previously released The Sicilian Defence, recorded around the time of 1979’s Eve. It was handed to the label in 1981, but was deemed too complex and challenging to be released and has been locked away in the vaults of Arista, until now. Named after a series of opening chess moves, the tracks themselves are the moves: ‘PK4’, ‘PQB4’ et al. Why this has never seen a full release until now is a bit of a shame. With the current vogue for New-Age electronica at an all-time high, its release couldn’t have happened at a better time, its release it perhaps no accident. There are tracks here that would easily have fitted onto last year’s celebrated I Am The Centre collection. But such is life and the peculiar nature of the APP - multi-million selling records, yet oddly absent and forgotten from recent memory.
The instrumental works of APP are where the real highlights are. ‘Pipeline’ from 1984’s Ammonia Avenue is a smooth flow of electric guitar and sharp beats that swoop over a modular synth refrain before ending with an effortless saxophone cry. The title track from I, Robot never fails to encourage me to turn it up - a growing blur of synthesisers and throbbing bass builds until pierced by operatic voices, akin to 2001’s Jupiter sequence. ‘Voyager’ from 1978’s Pyramid is of a similar vintage - a sense that Parsons was trying to put to use all the studio trickery and skills he’d learnt to engineer and craft a multitrack masterpiece from synthesisers speckled with live band arrangements. These are the reasons why APP are still talked about and referenced today - albeit in more hushed tones than some of their contemporaries.
It’s the “songs” though, those involving vocals,that increasingly date these albums. The vocals themselves were provided by an conveyor belt of well known voices - from Arthur Brown on their debut, through David Paton on Pyramid to Geoff Barrowdale (who’s now the manager of the Arctic Monkeys) on Gaudi, plus a host of others. With the vocals coming to the fore, the music shifts into the background and, inevitably, to the disappointing sound of a generic pub band - predominantly that of shuffling drums and 80s power ballad textures: see ‘You Lie Down With Dogs’ on 1979’s Eve, or ‘Limelight’ from 1984’s Stereotomy (the latter could easily grace a Chris De Burgh album from the same period). Yet there are always exceptions - the title track from Eye In The Sky is a polished slab of dreamy guitar pop that the current crop of Scandinavian posers would kill for. The laid-back groove of ‘What Goes Up…’ from Pyramid brings to mind the more accessible songs of Pink Floyd, and I’ve got a soft spot for the shuffling funk of ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You’ from I, Robot, if just for the razor-sharp guitar solo that sounds completely out of place. And lets not forget the power-ballad sheen of ‘Standing On Higher Ground’, one of the few high points from 1987’s Gandi.
Listening in the rare company of a box set you can cast an informed look back across the music. It becomes easier to spot those highs and lows, those little hubs of originality that have sparked inspiration for other artists. Upon hearing Oneohtrix Point Never’s Zones Without People for the first time I was instantly transported back to hearing APP’s Pyramid when I was a teenager. Interestingly, in an interview with XLR8R last year, Daniel Loptain spoke about APP and how he and Joel Ford started sessions of their collaborative effort making “Alan Parsons Project-style shit”, all slicing and dicing. Then there’s the Balearic sound that is currently dominating the airwaves - all have more than a passing resemblance to the ice-cool and smooth production that predominates most APP releases, especially the early to mid-80s. Certainly the early work of Studio, Mountain of One and Air France all reminded me of APP upon encountering them for the first time.
Ultimately, then, this box set puts APP in some kind of context. The chronology shows that each record was very much of its time. Yet Alan Parsons studio skill and engineering prowess always ensured that they sounded more interesting than perhaps they should. History itself doesn’t look too kindly on the career of APP - a footnote in the prog-art-rock category that failed to do anything original. Listening back to these records, you can see some of the points - there’s some pretty awful songs tucked away here - but, those moments of originality and greatness exist, and they serve to raise APP out of the forgotten pile of tapes and CDs left in an old Woolworths bin and to be seen in a new light.
Originally published on The Quietus.