Shoulda worn a hat
If someone had told me even just a couple of years ago that I could go on holiday and take a hefty chunk of my entire record collection with me on something the size of a cassette tape I think I’d have laughed aloud and cried ‘if only…’ But here I am, sat in sunny Andalucia with a soundtrack laid down by iTunes plucking random selections from the 6000 odd songs on my iPod. To coin a phrase, ‘that’s amazing!’. What’s also amazing is that, whilst statistically speaking I should be hearing more Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, Byrds or Kinks than just about anything else, instead it’s Josef K and the Stockholm Monsters that appear to be favoured. This is clearly a good thing, and it makes me wonder what kind of weird and wonderful algorithms the people at Apple have written into the iTunes code that determines what gets played in ‘shuffle’ mode. It’s already pretty clear that it analyses tempo to judge what should come next (and I dare say it takes genre into account), but was there a particularly hip coder who wrote a line or two that says if there are Josef K or Stockholm Monsters tracks to be found, that these should have some kind of priority? The mind boggles. Or mine does at least, which maybe means I have too much time on my hands, or that I really have got a bit of sunstroke to go with the sunburn.

It’s my own fault of course. I should have worn a hat. I didn’t think about how when I’m out in the sun in the Devon summertime I nearly always have a hat of some description on my head. Usually a bike helmet. I didn’t think about how just because it’s April, the southern Spanish sun wouldn’t be strong as all hell. So, you know, it’s my own damn fault that my forehead is burnt to a crisp and swollen over my right eye, so I feel like some dumb boxer or even worse like one of those bozo tourists we like to laugh at in the trailers to crap Sky real life dramas.

Anyway, all this a preamble to say that since I’m having a day indoors popped full of antihistamine and paracetamol, cold compresses occasionally pressed to my forehead, I thought I’d take the opportunity to take iTunes off shuffle and play through the CDs that arrived over the past few weeks and that are sitting in an imaginary pile on the table beside me.

Kicking off with a suitably Spanish slant with the always delicious Pipas and their Bitter Club EP on the always delightful Matinee label. As you know, I was seduced by their A Cat Escaped album last year, and was very much looking forward to this new batch of post-irony post-modern Pop songs. Pipas admirably handle the tricky task of blending apparently conflicting influences and genres into one masterful whole; so melodic electronica, drum’n’bass, acoustic folk and frail fey indiepop all rub shoulders in a mix that you think should be awkward, all elbows and skinned knees, but is in fact a perfectly proportioned parcel of pure Pop. Of course it helps that none of the songs outlives its welcome, and with nothing clocking at more than a shade under two and half minutes, these are pocket masterpieces that light up the sky with brittle cracks of spangled phosphorescence.

Sticking with Spain with another delight from the Acuarela label. Nones by Refree is the sound of melancholic post-folk, a spooked midnight stroll to the Castillo on the peak, a mournful boat trip to the heart of darkness with a radio somewhere playing some ghostly skewed swing jazz. Being shamefully ignorant of the language, I have no idea what Refree are singing about, but I like to think it’s about hearts broken by the firelight and passions burning in mountain peak shadows. You know if Sodastream were Spanish I guess they might not sound a million miles away from Refree, and that’s no bad comparison to make.
Also on Acuarela is the Ariadne EP by the god like Clientele. Inspired by a series of paintings by surrealist artist Giorgio De Chirico, these five tracks are sure to both delight and challenge fans new and old alike. For whilst in the four instrumental and one vocal songs there are fragments of the reverb laden softly psychedelic sound of yore, there are also moments that perhaps not inaccidentally recall Rachel’s when they similarly scored music for Art with the Egon Shiele album. And for those wanting an even bigger step away from the expected there’s the eight and a half minute drone of ‘the sea inside the shell’, which sounds like Rome or Labradford meditating on a ladder of angels. Ariadne is certainly The Clientele’s most ambitious record to date, is the sound of a band adventuring beyond the safe structures of the Pop song into a land altogether more abstract and challenging, more musically in tune with the surrealist and symbolist imagery hinted at in their earlier recordings. Ariadne sees the Clientele spreading their wings, viewing new and strange possibilities in their psych landscape. I await their future explorations with eager anticipation.

I was looking forward to hearing the Great Lake Swimmers eponymous album (on Fargo) too, having heard a few murmoured words of wonder echoing around this Canadian group. Recorded in an abandoned grain silo in Southern Ontario, singer songwriter Tony Decker lays down an urbanised rural feel in his songs, and on occasion comes over with echoes of Neil Young, which is no bad thing. There’s also a hint of Joel Gibb about the vocal delivery, although without the infectious edge or the choral swirls that make the Hidden Cameras so utterly special. Not that this is a criticism pre se, because Great Lake Swimmers are naturally a different beast to the Hidden Cameras, are a much more down tempo deal altogether. So rather than being a joyous Pop hybrid, Great Lake Swimmers are instead resolutely slo-mo folk, down beat pluckers dreaming of unearthing long lost Leonard Cohen or Red House Painters tapes in dusty attics of forgotten island retreats. That the songs outstay their welcome somewhat is I’m sure more to do with the caffeine in my system than anything else. Well, that and the sunlight streaming in the window, reflected from the white canyon of the village streets beyond. I’m sure that in red wine tinged retreats from the day they would seem otherwise.

I could say the same for James William Hindle’s Prospect Park (Track and Field), an album that similarly seems so one dimensional it’s a bit like gazing forever into Aaron Siskind photographs. Only with less textural interest to sustain one’s interest. Which is maybe a little harsh, as Prospect Park is at times a truly sensuous exploration of the appeal of Americana; a Yorkshireman letting years of absorbed influences and obsessions seep out into the day, blinking away the sleep, squinting into the Spring sunlight. It’s at its best on songs like ‘Come Down Slowly’ or ‘Hoboken’, which bristle with scuffed sneakers trailing through sunkissed parks; daydreams of places both remembered and imagined.

I mentioned the ghostly presence of Red House Painters earlier, and they crop up again in the sounds of the eponymous debut by Sweden's Chasing Dorothea (Stereo Test Kit). Like their countrymate Erlend Oye (charming chap, once shouted me a taxi ride from Harringay to Oxford Street), Chasing Dorothea are enamoured by the appeal of life’s quiet interludes and have clearly listened to their fair share of Nick Drake albums. It’s probably also fair to say that Tigermilk has aired on more than one occasion in the recording studio of their minds. This is clearly no bad thing, and Chasing Dorothea manage to construct a rather appealing version of the dream.
Fellow Scandinavians and labelmates Laurel Music come from much the same kid of direction as Chasing Dorothea, or indeed as their fellow Swede’s Shade Tree. There’s a similarly shared love of country tinged folk, although in the case of their This Night and The Next debut album, Laurel Music sound just a fraction too slight, a degree too obvious, so that their admittedly succinct stabs at fey indie/emo-folk come across altogether too lightweight and lacking in ambition. I’d much rather hear a whole album’s worth of Shade Tree, and hope that someone gives them that chance soon.

Off to Iceland now with Mum. I wonder if they were aware of that awful advertising tagline when they named their group, or if it’s just some strange coincidence that reverberates only in the UK? Well, as all good 87th Precinct cops know, coincidences can usually be counted on so I imagine that is indeed the case, and we should be tickled for that, because there aren’t many laughs from their new Summer Make Good album (Fat Cat). Not that this is a criticism in any way, as Mum on this outing are a darker, more foreboding entity than on the previous Finally We Are No-one set. Shadows lurk here, switchblades glint in the gathering clouds. Ghosts of children sing-song ancient curses in the distant valleys and the rider-less donkey plods into the village on the echo of thunder, kicking up the dust in carouselling swirls caught in cinematic slow motion. Like God Speed! if they had the occasional good sense to know when to rope in the sails, or like Autechre playing in a sandpit of childhood memories, Mum here sound like the purveyors of minor epics, the painters of miniatures; like Stan Brackhage or if you will Abraham Edbus toiling over their painted frames of film. Or Harry Smith, even, a name that tends to be forgotten in those kinds of tales, although there he is in those great photos of Warhol lurking with the underground film makers and movers, a strange flitting shadow of mystery. And when Mum ask ‘will the summer make good for all our sins?’ you think of some contemporary Harry Smith combing the airwaves for strange cosmic electronic-folk and for sure you know he’d be digging this.

Finally, it’s less clear whether Harry would dig Tompaulin, although if he didn’t he’d certainly be missing out on a fair bit of fun. Guitar and keyboard centred Indiepop fun, to be sure, but fun nevertheless, as their early singles are collected, Tommy like, into the Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt set (Track and Field). With their post-Galaxie 500 dreampop sound and their knowing pulpy, (and indeed Pulpy), Baxendale comic Pop culture references, the singles here gathered were the kind of thing that dropped like mana from heaven for Belle and Sebastian fans back in the days when the Scots troubadors still delivered chaotic live shows and dubious third albums. Close your eyes and you’ll see them there still, slotted neatly on the shelf between those epic B&S EPs, right next to that one with Alan Horne on the sleeve. Not that Horne would ever have considered Tompaulin as worthy of much attention beyond a snigger at that reference to Exile On Main Street, but you know you can’t have everything. Tompaulin can’t have everything either, and what’s most striking about this collection is that whilst it’s got some great songs, whilst it makes you want to whistle down the wind, it shows Tompaulin to be, like say Camera Obscura, nevertheless stolidly rooted in the all too polite world of fey indiepop to ever shake off the shackles of their influences to truly reach the next level. It was a place Belle and Sebastian found themselves before they took the genius move of working with Trevor Horn and allowing a bit of unbridled joy into their work, but you have to wonder if Tompaulin will ever get that kind of opportunity. I’m not holding my breath, but I am going to spin a few of these songs one more time.

Now, where’s that ice pack?