69 Cobras and Snowstorms

I made the fortuitous mistake of asking Kevin what he'd been listening to recently, and the results of the enquiry were the as always spot on words found in his Reversing Out of This Cul De Sac piece. He asked the same back of me, so I felt it only right to respond in kind.

It's a tricky word 'recently'. How recent is recent? How far back do I dare go? I could go back into the summer months and tell about how I resisted telling the world in my En Vacances article how much I'd been listening to the Appliance album Manual (Mute records). I had this notion that I'd hang fire and write about it when it came out at the end of September but by then of course it was no longer recent to my ears and the world had moved on. Suffice to say now that in those summer months it was a delight to behold, a textural pop gem to speed through country vistas with. Some dissenters suggested that the band had moved into dubious rock realms, that they were preferable when they were being Stereolab and not Radiohead, and whilst I'm still occasionally undecided about the vocals on some tracks, I still think that when they mesh at their finest they make a joyous, knowing groove. Lovely sleeves too, but then that's painters for you.

Speaking of Stereolab, their new Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (hereon called simply Cobra) has been a regular on the Tangents CD player. Actually it's been a regular on the Tangents MP3 player, but more of that in a moment… Cobra sees Stereolab moving more into jazz territory, with some exquisite vibes (Marino will love this one) going down. The new jazz effect may be the result of the close links here with Jim O Rourke and John McEntire, and it all makes for a warmer and yet also strangely more out-there Stereolab. The strangeness is no longer so obtuse and forced; it flows with a natural sense of the adventurous, and it's rather quickly made Cobra into my favourite Stereolab release to date.

I mentioned that I'd been playing the Stereolab record on MP3: I've been ripping all my recent CD purchases (and slowly going through all my old CDs doing the same) into MP3 files for ease of access from my computer (no more rooting around for the CD only to find I forgot to put it back in the case!) and it's making life very interesting, particularly when you dump all an artists work into one folder and randomise it… very entertaining. And no more so than with the work of Stephin Merritt, someone that regular readers will know I have a particularly high opinion of. That opinion was raised even higher this September with the release (USA only!! Can you BELIEVE that!!?) of his astonishing 69 Love Songs collection. True to its title, this triple CD collection proves that artistic ambition within contemporary music is not dead, and although of course size isn't everything, in this case it certainly helps because you get Stephin's wonderful sense of melody, experimentation and humour spread over more songs than you could possibly want. Except you always end up wanting more, such being the nature of addiction. MP3 was heaven sent for this collection because I can listen to all 69 songs without changing the CDs (how did we ever manage having to turn the record over every fifteen minutes!), sort them into whatever order I like, make it a random order or whatever. It's great. Am I sermonising on the MP3? I guess… I just wish that those little portable players held more music. And were cheaper… And anyway, really I just want one of those Memory Sticks. Now those look great…

I digress. From the fantastic simple opening strains of banjo and Stephin's overdubbed vocals singing about being 'Absolutely Cuckoo' through to the hilarious closing 'Zebra' with Claudia doing a great louche millionairess over some wayward accordion, 69 Love Songs delivers on Merritt's oft-stated intent to make music that takes Abba at one extreme, experimental at the other, with nothing in between. With results like this, we obviously need more such extremists in music.

Didn't Kevin already give mention to the Vic Godard collection on Motion records? Well once upon a famous time a review of Vic's 'Watch That Girl' single ended with the journalist proclaiming that he thought Vic Godard was (quite rightly) God. He had a point, and so do I when I tell you that I think Stephin Merritt is God. Really. I'll say it again:

Stephin Merritt is God.

Don't say you weren't warned.

And of course Kevin is spot on when he tells you that the Vic Godard collection is prime Pop Noise the way it ought to be. I just read the bit in Head On where Cope talks about seeing Subway Sect for the first time, and it's a passage that brings tears of joy to your eyes, makes you want to leap up and touch the rooftops and proclaim with one voice that you've seen the light. Even if you never even saw them play yourself… it's great Pop writing, as you would expect, and the Godard collection 20 Odd Years is great Pop Noise as you would expect and as I've just said twice for you in case you missed it first time.

Don't miss out.

Ditto the Josef K release on Revola which we've mentioned in various places already but which cannot be mentioned enough. Like the Fire Engines Fond collection that kicked off the entire Revola series all those years ago (I still remember reading a review in Select and falling over myself to get hold of a copy… did it ever reach CD? Anyone?). And I do wish we could get Kevin started on how it all proves him right, because he always undoubtedly was and is and ever will be.

Is April recent? I only mention it because I want to tell you about Aislers Set and I have to go back to April to set the scene. The scene being: a sunlight filled park in Bilbao, Northern Spain, with locals promenading and children involved in what seems to be strange singing competitions. We sit and watch it all, filming and drawing in sketchbooks, and through all of it I sit and listen alternatively to the sounds of the Aislers Set with their wonderful Terrible Things Happen CD on Slumberland and the glorious noise of their precursors Henry's Dress whose Bust Em Green was also in the package received from Slumberland on the eve of departure. Henry's Dress made ravaging maelstroms of guitar and drum mayhem and sounded like teenage snogs in snowstorms. I kid you not. For me they were soiled when Amy didn't sing (they could sound unfortunately like an even worse than the 14 Iced Bears, 14 Iced Bears, if such a thing is imaginable) but that was seldom and with songs like 'Target Practice', 'Jimmy' (the line 'I didn't like the Beatles anyway' is such a killer), 'Sunshine Proves All Wrongness' and the aching 'Treefort' they made the best bubblegum Pop since the Ramones. No kidding.

The Aislers Set formed from the ashes of Henry's Dress and tend to explore the more textural and internal sides of Pop's classic themes of love, loss, distance and travel. Terrible Things Happen comes on like the Shangri Las singing the songs of the Go-Betweens whilst smooching with the Jesus and Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine at their wilful Pop best (circa Never Understand and You Made Me Realise respectively if you were wondering), which is to say that it sounds like the best Pop always should. Highlights? To coin a phrase, it's the way the sun catches my hair officer, but yes: the swaying density of 'California', the slo-mo dreaminess of 'Alicia's Song', the obsessive spirals of 'I've Been Mistreated', the math geek snap crackle handclaps and Pop of 'Long Division' and… and… hell it's a world of highlights. As is the tape I got last week featuring three songs from the new LP, which bodes well for the future of wayward obsessive Pop.

More wayward obsessive Pop from this side of the Atlantic was recently said to be made by Spearmint. I listened to their A Week Away album and found myself smiling to the line 'we listened to 'Being With You' and 'High Land Hard Rain'' and a few other things besides. Fine for five minutes light entertainment, but like the man said, why burn your money on those who never will?

Burning used to be something that Kevin Rowland made a great point about. He encouraged us all to 'Burn It Down', he spoke loud and proud about many things, he made us feel strong and good about ourselves, and whatever they take away from us, that's ours for keeps. There'll always be a place in my heart for Kevin Rowland, and there'll always be a place in my record collection for My Beauty. I had a fourth or so generation tape copy for a while and I kept coming back to it, as I keep coming back now to the album, specifically to the start; to 'The Greatest Love Of All' and to 'Rag Doll', both of which seem to capture so much of what I always loved Kevin Rowland for the most; a great voice and the way he'd keep repeating those phrases, those ideas… like the way he sings the word 'shine', like Van Morrison in 'Cypress Avenue'. It fills my heart. I still don't like his dresses mind, but that's neither here nor there quite frankly. He still makes me burn inside, and that's what counts.

Is that enough for now? There's more to add, of course: I want to tell you how fine the Tindersticks' Simple Pleasure sounds with their richer, smoother taste for soul inflections and stylings. Why the Visitors' Miss collection sounds like some of the finest songs about the strange purity and warped magic of adolescence ever recorded. How the Chessie record on Drop Beat is edgy tech dub noise and how my CDR of all the Hellfire Sermons singles and unreleased gems makes my heart leap and my body quiver and my head demand why no-one has released it properly? Maybe one day.

© Alistair Fitchett 1999