Looking At The Mist On The Hudson
So here I am, sitting with a fresh pot of coffee and a pile of records. Actually it's mostly a pile of CDs but I still call them all records you know, because back in the mists of time, well, they were. Records I mean. I'm also downloading a couple of MP3s at the moment, but more of that later perhaps. For now it's a slug of that dark coffee and a plunge into the pile of things I have been meaning to bore the world with words about for, oooh, let's just say 'ages' and let you decide on how long that really is. Didn't R.E.M. have a song called 'Ages Of You'? I think they did. I liked R.E.M. once but strangely we don't talk about that much, which is a shame because the early records still sound terrific.
I was wondering whether or not to add to the recent clamour that has surrounded the Jazzactuel collection of avant/free jazz but decided that both Robin and Kevin have said it all better than I ever could. If you haven't already read their opinions, do it now. Then go buy the box set. Ditto the Anti-Pop Consortium album Tragic Epilogue that Robin gives a hearty thumbs up to in his April Listen Hear column. Of course as someone dedicated to the personalisation of the definition of Pop (the reclamation of the term from the papsters, if you will), I'd take great pleasure in telling this crew that in fact tracks like 'Rinseflow' and 'Driving In Circles' are great Pop moments, defined as such through personal experience, but I dare say they wouldn't care to hear my witterings. Which is fair enough of course. They do a great line in sleeve notes too, proclaiming themselves to be "driving analogue stakes through binary hearts." More lines suggest that you "do not allow yourself the liberty of nostalgia." "Romance" they add, "is slavery."
Well, 'Romance' might indeed be slavery, but it's too easy and glib to suggest so in such a straightforward manner. If it is a slavery, then it is only as a subset of the slavery that is implicit in democratic capitalism, where Romance is constructed as another mediated means of control. But people like snappy slogans and memorable lines, and that's Politics for you, and I guess that the Anti-Pop Consortium would consider themselves Political creatures, which is just fine.
'Romance' was the title of one of the sides of the first single by Edinburgh's Josef K, a group that have been written about a great deal in the pages of Tangents over the years, and particularly recently, due to the steady stream of reissues by Marina and Rev-Ola. Joining the collection is the Crazy To Exist (live) release by LTM, which collects two shows from April and August 1981 and slaps them onto one CD. I'm sure that both shows have been available for a long time on tape through the right channels, but frankly I've never been much good at finding such channels and anyway, would you believe it took a trip to New York to even find this CD? I'm sure it's available in the UK if you ask someone nicely but my bet is you'll have to go on-line and order it. Of course it's ragged and jagged and, oh ALL those things we always say about Josef K and you know I still wish Kevin would write and tell us why it proves him right.
Actually the whole thing about having bought the Josef K record in New York brings me back to those MP3s I was talking about earlier. See, I've been madly trying to track down something by Stars, of course to no avail. I mean, it turns out that they don't have any records out yet anyway, but that's not quite the point really because YOU try finding anything worth buying in Exeter's record stores (that said I did get The Saints and Secret Affair compilations for a fiver each during my search) and god help you if you actually try and get them to order anything remotely obscure. Like for example the new Stars EP that will be released by Le Grand Magistery very soon... it's times like these when I wonder what I did before Internet shopping. Hmmm. But in the meantime I am downloading some Stars songs from a not-to-be-named URL and I have to report that I am smitten. Kevin drew a parallel between the new Broadcast record and St Etienne, and really Stars have St Etienne genes to be sure, mixed up with a bit of New Order and a kind of Pet Shop Boys / Magnetic Fields type appeal, but really they are all about great Pop, made all the more appealing because I know nothing at all about them. I'm hoping this changes in the not too distant future.
Someone told me recently that a kid in the USA hadn't known that Stars' take on 'This Charming Man' was not an original, and whilst at first I was moved to hilarity, I figured, well why the hell should they have known? Stars make the song all their own, and knowing The Smiths version would add little to -the story. But speaking of The Smiths, I recently dug out my old singles to make a tape for a young friend and you know what? They scared me. The fact that every single nuance of those records was known to me inside out, as if they are hard-wired into my very psyche. That was scary… it's the same when I play the Go-Betweens, and it makes me realise just how much time I used to spend playing those records. Sometimes I miss that blind obsessive devotion and I think I am entirely wrong to be writing about music now, because it's inevitably not the same. I know that in fifteen years time I won't be playing the records of Belle & Sebastian and feeling the same way, despite the amount of vital influence they held over me for a good eighteen months, and I know too that I won't ever get the same feeling from Stars 'This Charming Man' as I get from the Smiths', which isn't to say it's not as good a record, and isn't to say that someone else will get JUST that feeling but the other way around, but is probably just to say that I'm as jealous as hell of that person and that I'm feeling frail and old and withered. Which is fair enough.
And on the subject of Belle & Sebastian, well all I have to say is that there's a great cloud of disappointment hanging around here and it's hovering over a tape of Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. I'm sure it will be loved by all and sundry when it is released, and at that time my vitriolic words will seem as sour grapes and will I care? Of course not. In the meantime you'll have to wait like a good 'un.
What else is crap? How about a book by the one-time manager of The Farm, Kevin Sampson? The NME suggest you read Powder, and Alex James of Blur suggests it is a 'code-red book' (?) that demands you attention, but naturally I say don't be so fucking stupid. Unless you really are that fucking stupid, and love your rock and roll in platefuls of clichés, in which case you are sixteen and in which case you will love it. Really, I WROTE this fucking book when I was sixteen. It's that bad and is yet more evidence towards the argument that a good novel that uses the music industry as its backdrop is impossible to write. All evidence and arguments to the contrary welcome.
I should be more positive really, shouldn't I? I should get out more too, but where's the fun in that? I tried that this morning and was appalled by the number of grotesque people on the streets (yes, yes, you're right, I saw my reflection in the shop windows too often), depressed by the complete lack of any media that I wanted to indulge in, dejected by the contents of my PO Box (aforementioned Powder and a Mojave 3 single that is, at best, acceptable indie-pop-rock with a hummable tune) and distinctly unimpressed by the size of the regular coffee in the local café. It serves me right for falling in love in New York City I suppose, but that's neither here nor there really.
There really is a Jimmy Armstrong's at the corner of West 57th Street and 10th Avenue you know. It's entirely possible to suggest that some enterprising soul spotted the site for sale and created some kind of weird Matt Scudder theme pub, but it doesn't feel like it. There really was a pair of antlers on the wall, and there was a sign on the door signed by Jimmy Armstrong and family to the effect that they'd be closed on Easter Sunday. I had a pint of Brooklyn Brown, which was probably a bad idea. We heard someone question another bar customer on their not being American with the line 'you mean you're from Brooklyn?' The line was delivered by someone who had been called 'Felony Bob' and who insisted was a 'transport professional', and was funny if you were there. Unfortunately the bar in question was not Armstrongs, but what the heck. All of which is to say that I have been reading little else but Lawrence Block, although I did pick up some Jan Willem De Wetering on Kevin's recommendation, and The Big Blowdown by George P. Pelecanos, which is the first of the trilogy that concluded with last year's excellent The Sweet Forever. All of which purchased from a store called Murder Ink on Amsterdam. At half past nine on a Wednesday evening, which will sound completely normal to a lot of people, except to say that if you live where I live it's unheard of.
I saw Aislers Set for the first time in New York and I fell in love with Pop all over again. It's nice when this happens you know; you get let down and then something else picks you up and shakes you like crazy and you remember those, I mean, THOSE feelings all over again and it all makes sense, and you know that despite that nag nag nagging feeling of being over the hill and far away, there's always a place in your heart for a song that simply tells of being drunk on the streets of Chicago for fourteen days on end and a melody that takes wings and soars and you just want to leap to the sky and tell it you are in love with someone's blue blue eyes, except you never do because the sky, from my experience, is profoundly deaf, and you just end up looking like a fool. But Aislers Set, yes yes and thrice YES. They played 'Holiday Gone Well', 'Long Division' and 'My Boyfriend Could Be A Spanish Man' which are three of my favourites from their great Terrible Things Happen album, and I grinned and danced like an idiot. Inside, of course. They played a handful of songs from their new album too, which is released in a couple of months on Slumberland and which I insist you purchase. I will remind you of this nearer the time, rest assured, because quite simply Amy Linton and Aislers Set play songs that hook me up inside my heart and make me trip headlong into the arms of a multi-coloured Pop trip.
Support for the Aislers Set was meant to be from The Fan Modine but they didn't play. Unless the 'Gordon' who imposed his appalling cabaret folk mewlings on us for far too long was in fact the Gordon Zacharias of The Fan Modine, in which case I assure you I am profoundly confused, since The Fan Modine 7" on Grimsey is a gem of off-kilter wobbling electric-folk-funk-pop in its best places not unlike the Sea and Cake. Recommended. As is the even more wobbly sounding introduction to 'Johnny A' by The Departure Lounge, also on Grimsey. There's something about this record that suggests some ultra-hip scene that's being going down in the nether regions of England for a good few years; a kind of post-lounge-core elegance where people worship Momus and the Gentle People and dream of making records that oscillate around loping keyboard lines and where all vocalists sit in Corbusier armchairs with a smoking cigarette and knowing smile. Which is probably complete nonsense because it's more likely bedsits in Ladbroke Grove and listening to Tindersticks, which, come to think of it, this single puts me in mind of in it's laid back slummy elegance.
Did I ever tell you how surprised I once was to hear the truly amazingly obvious POP of 'Top Of Morning' by The Hang Ups crop up on Dawson's Creek? It was a really early episode, but still… it was a shock. A fine shock, but a shock none the less. I keep wanting to love other Hang Ups records as much as that one, but it never quite happens. Their new 7" outing on Grimsey is the 'Long Goodbye' is good, but fails to ignite and ultimately outstays its welcome. Flipside 'Flying Over' is more downbeat Hang Ups and again plods where it probably dreams of aching.
Aching is what The Clientele could have copyright over at the moment, and their 7" for Spanish label Elefant is more proof, if it's still proof you want. '6a.m. Morningside' is the definition of plaintive, and when Alasdair Mclean sings 'the windows are all open, and it's Saturday', well if you don't want to dissolve then you were never whole in the first place. What's special about the Clientele is the way that they paint from such a limited palette, and although there's more melody than in, say, Robert Ryman's paintings, the same obsession with limited themes prevails. The beauty is in the subtleties, which you either get or you don't. I mean, I know people who think Rothko paintings are boring.
The Clientele crop up on the CD that accompanies the very excellent Papercuts magazine too, furnishing their song 'Bicycles', replete with another of THOSE kinds of moments, this time in a line that sings of 'three balloons in a white sky, 1978.' Which loses all in translation, but trust me, it sounds like the heavens opened up, grabbed hold of your heart, wrenched it around a few times and left you breathless and thankful. Also on the Papercuts CD are contributions from the amusingly Upbeat Baxendale, the magically downbeat Pines (whose 'Baby You'll Do' is as good a hymn to the myth of monogamy as Glo-Worm's terrific 'Travelogue') and The Visitors, who provide a live in London version of the perennial forgotten favourite 'Waking Up To Nothing'. Their Miss album, out around June on Matinee is a collection of similarly little known pop, I'm sorry, Pop gems that stab at the very heart of What It Is To Be Sixteen. That's Sixteen, clumsy and shy probably… or at least sixteen, angry and drunk. Perhaps both.
Okay, time to wash out that coffee pot and put the records back on the shelves, closing down to the strains of the eponymous CD by Washington's The Caribbean who make a kind of late night drawling out of joint edgy folk-implosion rock. It all kind of falls away from you, like walking streets late at night with the memory and echoes of words and faces lingering just out of reach. Like your life just got slightly detuned and your TV has in-built snow. Silver-blue, walking in Riverside Park and looking at the mist on the Hudson….
© Alistair Fitchett 2000