I don't know about you, but I find organising my life to be pretty damn hard. I find organising my record collection to be the hardest. At this point I want to point out that I have no High Fidelity-esque interest in how you arrange your collection, and that it's not the decision on how to arrange mine (it's vaguely alphabetical - otherwise how do you - or more importantly anyone else - know where anything is?) that causes me grief, but rather it's the keeping it in some semblance of order that causes the headaches. It all leads to me throwing up my hands in annoyance every month or so at the fact that I cannot find that bloody DJ Krush CD because it's not where it should be (under K, naturally, not D) and why didn't I get it together to put it back in the right place when I last played it? Anyway, the problem was compounded this last week by having just moved house, which led to pretty much everything coming out of the boxes in a mish-mash of organisation that seemed to perfectly mirror my own state of mind. So the first step was to pile everything into three letter spread sections: a,b and c and so on. It was interesting (no actually, it was boring as hell if you want to know the truth) to see what letters were most popular - S had to have a section all to itself, whilst I, J and K were pretty quiet. Actually the stretch from H through L is pretty empty, save for all the Lambchop, Luna, Jasmine Minks and Hefner (this is just CDs we're talking here). It all starts to pick up again at M, with all the Stephin Merritts (you have to have a bit of knowledge here because I put the Future Bible Heroes, Gothic Archies and 6ths records under M for Merritt); then the bunch of New Order re-issues; a surprisingly large number of Orange Cake Mix keeping the O's up to strength, Primal Scream, Public Enemy, Art Pepper and Pere Ubu help keep the P's looking respectable; Paul Quinn and an old Quigley release make sure that Q is not empty; lots of Richman, naturally; and then the S section which stretches as far as the eye can see. Or kind of. I'm always struck by how many Swell releases there are in the S section, which shouldn't be so strange because Swell made some terrific records, and whilst we're on the subject, didn't the Badly Drawn Boy The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast record sound just like Swell in more than one place? The answer of course is Yes it did.
All of which is some mightily long-winded way of explaining why this extended treatise on The Records I Have Been Listening To has skipped all the way from D to M. And since I already mentioned the genius that is Stephin Merritt, I think it best that I tell you that the second 6ths album Hyacinths and Thistles has had an extended period of camping out on my CD player recently. For anyone not yet in the know, the 6ths project is one where Stephin Merritt gets a bunch of vocalists to sing his songs. Apparently on the first collection, the marvellous Wasps Nests, he asked all the contributors to sing like they were bored. (The vocalists included Lou Barlow, Amelia Fletcher, Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley, Robert Scott of the Bats and Chris Knox of Tall Dwarves - these New Zealanders, don't you just love them? And speaking of whom, I found my old 12 Hours Fast Flying Nun compilation the other day and boy does it sound fantastic. I'd forgotten just how great the Headless Chickens sounded for instance. Didn't Thom Yorke once play in some dodgy Exeter pub-rock band called Headless Chickens? Before he was in that dodgy pub-rock band called Radiohead that is…). Digressions: The curse of too much coffee in the morning. The first 6ths album also featured one of my very favourite songs of all time, the astonishingly simple and affecting 'Falling Out Of Love (With You)', which is sung by Dean Wareham (of Galaxie 500 and aforementioned Luna fame) and which was covered so wonderfully by Tullycraft on the Cher Doll compilation Something Cool.
I don't know if the story about singing like they were bored is true, and I'm not sure it really matters because regardless Wasps Nests was a terrific collection, and Hyacinth Thistles was always going to have a hard job following it. That it does so with such magnificent aplomb is testament not just to the songwriting of Merritt, but also to the variety of vocalists on display. And where Wasps Nests had 'Falling Out Of Love' to make hearts crumble, then so Hyacinth Thistles has the Momus sung opener 'As You Turn To Go' to do the same task. Honestly, this song makes me cry. I played it on a bus ride once, just hitting 'repeat' as we sped along the Exe valley and it broke my heart in a million different ways. There's something so glorious about mediated heartbreak; in the same way that it's not really tears you shed when you watch a sad movie, or that it's not really fear you feel when you watch a horror movie, the heartbreak isn't real, but the illusion is wonderful. Painting yourself into pictures. There's something so special when you hear Nick Currie sing 'if you ever loved me tell me so, as you turn to go.' Beautiful sadness guaranteed.
The great thing about the 6ths records is hearing singers you sometimes forgot about and who, when you hear them again, you remember suddenly loving and wondering how you ever lost touch. Sally Timms is one of those voices. The Mekons member (what do you mean 'who are the Mekons'?!) turns in the gorgeous 'Give me Back My Dreams', and makes me want to go out and find some of her Cowboy Sally records. There are some voices on this record that you imagine haven't been near a 'Pop' record in years too. There's Melanie, she of 'Brand New Key' fame for those of you with long memories (not to mention long lives) who turns out for the toy piano accompanied 'I've Got New York', Odetta (a '60s folk 'protest' singer) who delivers the charmingly accordion-led 'Waltzing Me All the Way Home', and then Gary Numan, who I suspect you won't recognise, who delivers 'The Sailor In Love With The Sea' replete with it's authentic '80s electro-pop backing. There's always been a strong '80s electro-pop influence in Merritt's music, and as if to make it clearer, Numan is followed by Marc Almond, who gives us a typically over-blown performance on 'Volcana'. It all seems a bit of an '80s overload when you realise that Clare Grogan is in on the act too, although when you hear her sing 'Night Falls Like A Grand Piano' you recall just how captivating she was from that first glimpse on Top Of the Pops with that straw boater and that summer dress, through Gregory's Girl and even, it has to be said, cropping up on Father Ted.
It's not all forgotten stars of yesteryear though, as Sarah Cracknell takes time off from St Etienne (and speaking of whom, wasn't Sound Of Water just a fantastic album?) to perform 'Kissing Things'. That's things like mirrors and cigarettes and 'wishing it was you'. Merritt has said that he writes his songs as exercises, that he never writes about his own life. I think that is hilarious because really he writes about the details of life and love so perfectly and that suggests to me a life led experiencing the wholeness of the world very acutely. And Daniel Handler, as I've said before, mentions in his Watch Your Mouth novel that "life is made of specifics", which means that every specific is different, and the catch is that only by writing about those specifics (kissing the mirror wishing it was… -insert name here-) can you be universal. Merritt, it seems to me, knows this as clearly as Handler, with the connection further being that Handler plays accordian on the Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs opus.
Then there's the great 'Just Like A Movie Star' with it's mantra of 'how beautiful you are, just like a movie star' and the magical line 'You'll be James Dean, I'll be Sal Mineo you can hide me…' which makes me laugh and cry every time. It's sung by one Dominiqe A, of whom I know nothing aside from the fact that he is French. More details lovingly received. Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto turns in a delightful 'Lindy Lou', Katharine Whalen from Squirrel Nut Zippers does 'You You You You' whilst Miss Lily Banquette, the sultry cocktail singer from Combustible Edison closes the record with what I presume to be an excellent, if lengthy (it didn't make it onto my sneak preview CDR!) 'Oahu'.
Sadly though, the record is not the glitch free tour de force it could so easily have been: Merritt inexplicably has the very dreadful Neil Hannon of the excremental Divine Comedy sing the fantastic song 'The Dead Only Quickly.' You can HEAR the stupid smirk on Hannon's face as he sings this, it's an absolute travesty. If you are lucky, like I happen to be, you may have a copy of the song being sung by Merritt himself, and in that case you may have done what I have done, which is to make a new copy of Hyacinth Thistles, with a sneaky replacement of Stephin's version for Hannon's. It makes such a difference. You know it makes sense.
Hyacinth Thistles is released at the start of September 2000.
© Alistair Fitchett 2000
I destroy my heart to spite myself