A slightly extended version of my Nottingham Post review.
In the 18th century, a Welshman called John Evans crossed the ocean to America. He was searching for the mythical tribe of Prince Madoc, Welshmen who mated with native Americans and were the USA’s first European settlers. Two and a bit centuries on, his distant relative, lead singer of popular Welsh band The Super Furry Animals, has written a concept album about him. It’s also an app, and a movie, and a very enjoyable book. All of them are called American Interior.
Gruff, in fur trapper’s hat, takes to the stage at five to eight to introduce a quirky ten minute film that gives the background. Then Gruff and his four piece band begin, bringing with them a large felt puppet of, yes, John Evans, wearing a pirate’s hat. Gruff took this figure round the US with him. The story is in the well-researched book, shortlisted for the Guardian first book award, which, unlike tonight’s show, is also a travelogue.
What follows is part gig, part powerpoint lecture. And it works superbly. Rhys is a hesitant raconteur, with a dry, laconic wit (eg Evans’ family move to a hovel so poor it only has dial-up internet). He has a story full of twists, tall tales and escapades that takes us from London to New Orleans. All interspersed with ravishing pop songs like the title track and Hotel Shampoo’s ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ that recall the Beach Boys and the psychedelic Beatles of ‘Strawberry Fields Forver’. No spoilers, but it doesn’t end well.
After 90 minutes, Rhys finishes the tale. More silliness, as signs tell us when to applaud, and how hard. ‘Now we’re ready to start the gig’. We think he’s joking. But, no, he plays ‘100 Unread Messages’, which sums up the whole journey, then encores right up to the curfew, ending with ‘Sensations In The Dark’ and a lovely ‘Year of the Dog’. Terrific.
My friend Don died a week ago today. We only met a handful of times, but were cyber-buddies for more than a decade. Internet friendships tend to involve carefully edited versions of ourselves that wouldn’t fit so firmly in real life, but, had we not lived 4,600 miles away from each other, I suspect that we’d have been good friends. He was very supportive of my fiction, sometimes posting rave reviews on Amazon under quirky aliases (ie Joey Kludge). Three years ago, when I dedicated the second Bone and Cane novel to Don and his crime loving wife, Jo-Anne, he was touchingly flattered and at first convinced I’d just sent them some sort of specially personalised proof copy.
I met Don through a Usenet newsgroup about Bob Dylan. I sent him a copy of a UK only magazine compilation CD he was after. This began a regular, mainly music obsessed correspondence, with many more cds exchanged, that we both enjoyed a great deal. We’d often have conversations that spread through the day, despite the huge time difference. Every year I’d send him my best of year CD and he would send me that year’s latest all music issue of the Oxford American, which he’d introduced me to. It’s funny how you picture people via their online persona. Don, who, after a while took to calling himself Really Real, combined posting about music with acting as a kind of gatekeeper, taking up arguments with some of the more nutty members of the Dylan fan community, always happy to play Devil’s Advocate to get a discussion going.
Don’s online persona was much more curmudgeonly & comic than the real Don, who I got to meet when he and Jo-Anne were visiting Paris at the same time as Sue and I were over from the UK. We later visited them in Vancouver, where they were terrific hosts. Don was a very sweet, quite straight looking guy with a great sense of humour, as well as being an old hippy who never entirely grew up. On our Vancouver visit, I particularly recall Don showing me his original Beatles butcher sleeve, our being surprised by a van full of armed cops arriving in a back alley when we were on our way to see the Hold Steady, and a luxurious woodland picnic. A former schoolteacher, Don came from a prosperous family and was able to retire early, so at least he got to spend a long time doing the things he loved most, which included travelling with Jo-Anne, seeing a lot of movies and, until recently, going to plenty of gigs. His massive interest in music, especially Dylan, was demonstrated by the amount of time he continued to spend on the Dylan newsgroup, long after newsgroups were a thing (I stopped using it when my newsgroup software would no longer update, although it’s easy to access through Google groups).
From time to time, though, Don would keep me up to date with what was going on there, and when Jo-Anne wrote to tell me that he had succumbed to pancreatitis, the day after his 68th birthday, I offered to write a post there, telling the group, which I did last Friday (this blog is an expanded version of what I wrote there). The outpouring of love and fascinated comments about Don was staggering: far too many great comments to summarise here, but I do want to mention one particular guy who goes by the name, Just Walkin’, who wrote to tell me how, inspired by Don, he packed in being a software entrepreneur to become a high school teacher. In his sixties.
Don was a great maker of compilations, often on themes. I have loads of them. He also made 35 ‘great year to be born’ CDs, compilations of the best music (from a Canadian perspective) of every year from 1951-1986. I have a full set, and he’d often send me updated, improved versions. He’d post his theme compilation lists on RMD, asking for suggestions. Over on the group now, a bunch of people are putting together the tracklisting in his honour, Heaven. Ironic, of course, as Don was well known to be a staunch atheist. He hated funerals and there won’t be one. One frequent request I got from members of the newsgroup was for a photograph of Don, which I can understand. Before I met Don, based on his online persona, I had a kind of cartoon image of a bearded unabomber type. I asked Jo-Anne for some she liked and post them above, for the people in the group, and as a memorial to my friend.
I’ve missed Don’s witty repartee for the last few weeks. He was too ill to hear the best of year CD that I sent him, never mind tell me which tracks he loved and hated. We’ll never discuss the book about Dylanologists my brother gave me for Christmas, or the complete Basement Tapes. But music I got from him is all over our house, and he’ll remain a constant presence. Sitting in front of me is a magazine that arrived in the last post, the 2014 Oxford American Southern Music issue: Texas, which Don, who had great difficulty communicating at that stage, asked Jo-Anne to buy for me, and she posted after his death. I’m off downstairs to open it now. Thanks, buddy. It was real.
Here’s where I indulge myself in listing my thirty-two favourite albums of the last year. Usual provisos. Has to have come out in 2014 and be primarily new material (Bruce Springsteen, therefore, is allowed in. Richard Thompson isn’t). Some highly placed albums didn’t feature on the best of year CD below because either they came out too late (D’Angelo, a soul classic, with strong strains of Sly & The Family Stone), I couldn’t make them fit (Natalie Merchant) or I just damn forgot to put them on (Rosanne Cash).
1. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
2= Sleaford Mods – Divide and Exit
2= D’Angelo – Black Messiah
4. Young Fathers – Dead
5. Beck – Morning Phase
6. Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread
7. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
8. Adam Cohen – Going Home
9. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
10. Mary J Blige – London Sessions
11. The Delines – Colfax
12. Natalie Merchant
13. Gruff Rhys – American Interior
14. Prince – Art Official Age
15. Spoon – They Want My Soul
16. Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes
17. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
18. Toumani & Sidiki Diabate – Toumani & Sidiki
19. Ronika – Selectadisc
20. James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical
21. Future Islands – Singles
22. The Both
23. FKA Twigs – LP1
24. Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
25. Simone Felice – Strangers
26. Lucinda Williams – Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
27. Caribou – Our Love
28. LaRoux – Trouble In Paradise
29. Bridie Jackson & The Arbour – New Skin
30= Rumer – Into Colour
30= Sun O))) & Scott Walker – Soused
30= J Mascis – Tied To A Star
This is the 26th year I’ve made a best of year compilation (with cover photo – Season’s End tomatoes – and track veto from my partner, Sue), on cassette and, since the turn of the century, on CD. Since 2010 I’ve put the tunes on the net (copyright holders, I’ll remove on request, these are a promotional tool only up for a short time etc etc). I have friends who do the same, though none have lasted the course (plaudits to Jon & Veronica for the longest continuous run). Those friends who still get a cd might want to look away until theirs arrive. Some compile two cds, but I’ve always restricted myself to one, thinking enforced brevity the best way to ensure quality.
1. Young Fathers – Get Up If one single thing justifies the existence of the Mercury Music Prize, it’s this year’s win for the Young Fathers, who I’d never heard of. Their album is ebullient and original, taking hip-hop somewhere new. Earlier today, I got the spot to review the band when they make their Nottingham debut on May 26th, only to have to pull out when I realised that I’m teaching that evening. But I’ll probably buy a ticket (only a tenner) and catch as much of their set as I can anyway. This is the catchiest tune on the album, a great way to start the CD.
2. Mary J Blige – Therapy For reasons best known to Mary, she debuted new songs on Later months before her London Sessions album came out. I ended up watching her astonishing performance of this one four times. The raw lyric – hardly matters if it’s autobiographical or about, say, Amy Winehouse – make it a brave song to kick off an album with. And it tells such a striking, involving story that I was shocked, when it finally did come out, last month, to find that it’s only three minutes twenty seconds long. A soul classic.
3. Spoon – Do You? I came slightly late to Spoon, in 2005, but have followed them closely since, even managed to see them twice, despite their aversion to touring the UK. They Want My Soul is another really good Spoon album. Is it as good as Ga Ga Ga or Gimme Fiction? Time will tell, but this track is yet another catchy corker, with that pleasing Lennonesque rasp in Britt Daniels’ voice.
4. Ronika – 1001 Nights Skip to the post below for more on Ronika, who we saw supporting the Human League this week, making a strong debut at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall. I’ve been a fan since Mike Atkinson introduced me to her at the Bodega Social two or three years ago, and took a bunch of people to her album launch there this summer. Named after much missed Nottingham music store, Selectadisc, which was one of my top haunts from 1976 until its closure a few years ago, the album has an embarrassment of riches to choose from (it also features my old mucker Charles Washington on one track, as did the Bodega gig). Search Siren was my initial choice but, after Tuesday’s gig, Sue insisted on this disco thumper, making it the last addition to this year’s CD. No argument here.
5. Mark Ronson feat Bruno Mars – Uptown This number entered the charts at number one yesterday, released by public demand I gather, and is so ubiquitous that I don’t need to post it, do I? Oh, alright then. Shades of Prince in another classy disco-thumper. Did I tell you I saw Prince from close-up in Leeds earlier this year?
6. Hello Saferide – I Forgot About Songs New album The Fox, The Hunter and Hello Saferide has no release date in the UK and is only available as a pricey import or download, but it’s well worth seeking out, nonetheless (thanks to Scott, for pointing out its existence). That this group haven’t appeared on the best of year CD is down to my constantly playing catch-up with them. I was intrigued by The Quiz and knocked out by its glorious double A side I Was Definitely Made for These Times so immediately started playing catch-up (including Annika Norlin’s work in Swedish, as Säkert!). You could, if you want, define some of their work as twee. Sure, there’s an element of adolescent innocence to these songs, but they’re also quirky, observational and, most of all, life affirming. This song more or less sums up why I make an annual best of year cd.
7. Leonard Cohen – Samson In New Orleans There’s some debate about the quality of Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. One music magazine had it in the top three albums of the year. In others, it barely scrapes the top forty. Old Ideas, his wonderful comeback, was my favourite album of a couple of years ago, easily Cohen’s best since Recent Songs or even I’m Your Man. Two years is a short gap for LC, and while this album is really good, it’s not great (at least, not by his standards). This track, however, is quintessential Cohen. I must confess that, to my surprise, I’ve listened to his son Adam’s new album at least as much as Leonard’s. But it’s an odd listen. Adam has explicitly embraced his dad’s legacy and there are times when he sounds so much like the Leonard of Songs From A Room, 45 years ago, that it’s scary. My favourite song on We Go Home, ‘Fall Apart’ addresses this whole area and is a fascinating listen. Originally it appeared on our CD directly before his dad, but Sue vetoed its inclusion (along with one by John Fullbright; ‘too many miserable songs’). Here it is, anyway.
8. Sleaford Mods - Middle Men I’ve had a couple of drinks at a Christmas do, so really oughtn’t to be writing for publication, but the condition feels entirely appropriate for Sleaford Mods, the band of the year (a year in which I’ve seen them three times, all great, but stonkingly superb at Spanky Van Dyke’s in September). They’re from Nottingham, near enough, and I first wrote about them over two years ago. Jason Williamson writes about contemporary society with a bile and passion that has found its moment. I love the way this starts as one industrial sound, immediately shifts into another and throws in an entirely pointless ‘New Labour!’ at the beginning and end to confuse yet sharpen its portrait of dead end drinkers in Sherwood, where I happen to live. And the Wilko’s mention. Class. I’d say more, but I really need to get some food down me.
9. Drive-By Truckers – The Part Of Him After the brutal yet apt transition from Cohen To Williamson, this is more a shift in genre than of content. Paterson Hood’s story is about ‘an absolute piece of shit, to tell the truth, but he never told the truth to me’. DBTs hardly toured this album in the UK. Shame. Their last Nottingham gig, six years ago was terrific, and I’ve since travelled to Birmingham to see them – one of the great live acts. Is this about a real person? Hood’s written about politicians before, notably George Wallace.
10. Beck – Blackbird Chain There hasn’t been as much love for Morning Phase as Beck got for his first acoustic album Sea Change, yet it seems just as good to me, all the more enjoyable for not being such a radical, spot-the-influence departure. There were loads of dreamy tracks I could have chosen, but this intricate piece of chamber pop is what I went for. What is a blackbird chain? The lyrics sort of slip by, I’ll need to listen again… Nope, didn’t help.
11. Gruff Rhys – American Interior Spelt ‘Gruff’, pronounced ‘Griff’, which I only worked out this year. Must also confess that, though I went to see him talk about his film/album/book at Green Man this year, I dozed off for the entire event, apart from his monosyllabic answers to the first two questions (he warmed up, according to my brother and sister). I haven’t paid the album as much attention as it doubtless deserves, but will make up for that before I review his Rescue Room show in February. This title track is gorgeous.
12. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You) Took me a while to work out what this compulsive synth-pop anthem was reminiscent of, but this weekend it came to me – 80’s band Fine Young Cannibals (check out the brilliant Blue, if you’ve not heard of them) with the great, distinctive singer, Roland Gift. Future Islands have already had a longer artistic career than they did, but this is the song that has finally found them a large audience. I wanted to start the cd with this, but was over-ruled…
13. The War On Drugs – Red Eyes First discovered War on Drugs through Slave Ambient three years ago, the album arriving too late to penetrate our best of year cd but coming third in my albums of the year (safe to say that had I got it a week earlier, it would have come top). Lost In The Dream arrived early this year and has been steadily insinuating itself ever since. Yes, it is almost stadium rock, but if there is a certain U2ishness, it’s not the glossy sheen that spoilt The National’s last album, but something more universal. Why has this album topped so many end of year lists? Because it’s full of fantastic songs, and it strikes a universal chord. I’ve seen some great gigs this year, but my finest hour was watching War On Drugs at Green Man (a festival I went to largely because they were playing) and I can’t wait to see them play a full set at Rock City in February. To quote myself from earlier in the year: ‘I suspected that WOD were the best rock band in the world at the moment. Now I’m sure they are. Talking to strangers (20’s t0 50’s) between numbers, we were all saying the same thing: ‘I thought they’d be great, but I didn’t know they’d be this great’. Can’t remember the last time I got to the front and threw myself around the way I did that day. The album works better as a whole than as individual tracks. This one, which was the advance song, reminds me of the very unhip Big Country, but in a good way. The War On Drugs are too old fashioned to ever be as hip as half the acts on this CD but, like Sleaford Mods, their time has come.
14. Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté – Hamadoun Toure A guest post by my partner, Sue Dymoke, who chose this track. It has been an excellent year for the West African Harp what with Seckou Keita’s sublime live performance with Welsh Harpist Catrin Finch at St Mary’s Church in Nottingham and Toumani and Sidiki’s wonderful album. I would have chosen many tracks from this splendid collaboration but restrictions on world music space per best of year CD (Dave’s rules not mine) quickly narrowed it down to this, the first track which is named after a key union figure in the recent crisis in Mali who provided support for young people’s education and kept communications open between north and south. Toumani and his eledst son Sidiki both follow in the male Mande griot tradition and yet Sidiki (who is a Mailian hip hop star) gives the ancient kora sound a new contemporary twist. Enjoy!
15. Indiana – Only The Lonely Starting to put together my albums of the year list, distracted by a leaked copy of what may be the best album of next year, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. One album that definitely won’t feature on the 2014 list is No Romeo, the debut of Nottingham’s Indiana, which I’ve had on preorder for more than six months, but keeps being put back (now until January 26th: looks like there are some bonus tracks, but maybe I need to cancel my original order to get this version.) I’ve heard the album several times, and it exudes pop class, as exemplified by this distinctive earworm. But I do worry that the delays, and a couple of ill considered videos (maybe that’s just me: check out the one for hit Solo Dancing and see what you think) don’t bode well for the album, and that her label haven’t worked out how to market Indiana, a mature, sexy woman who doesn’t fit current pop templates (see also Ronika, above). Hope I’m wrong. A Merry Christmas to all my readers. Sleeve notes resumed on Boxing Day, or soon after. Now we’re loading our car with the (two, so far) best of year CDs we’ve received from friends to play on the journey north.
16. Prince – Breakdown Lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Prince, but this is the first time we’ve got close-up (the usual crowd – me + my oldest friend, younger brother & Prince fanatic, this time joined by his partner & eldest son, who last went to a Prince gig when in the womb), front standing at Leeds Arena. A terrific night with loads of hits, deep cuts and a few recent songs. Though, sadly, not this ballad, the highlight of the two albums he put out this year. Classic Prince, knocking track 5, good as it is, into the proverbial cocked hat.
17. Bridie Jackson & the Arbour – Prolong Second consecutive appearance for this Tyneside group who specialise in exquisitely mournful, minor key ballads. This is from their second album, New Skin. I happened upon them on a double bill with David Almond at Iron’s 40th anniversary festival in Cullercoats last year, an enchanting performance. They’re touring again soon, though have yet to play Nottingham. Check them out.
18. Sturgill Simpson – The Promise I’ve learnt not to go to gigs on days when I finish teaching at half eight, as it’s a rush (this year I missed half an hour of Flaming Lips) and I can’t unwind enough to enjoy them fully. But I had to make an exception for Sturgill Simpson, whose terrific second album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music brings a Merle Haggardesque classic country voice to modern subject matter. I was particularly taken by this ballad, an 80’s pop song I’d never heard (until a moment ago – don’t think I’ll be listening to it again) slowed down into a haunting ballad. Got there at nine, in time to buy a pint as he came on stage. I was a bit frazzled, but he was great. Possibly this year’s best Cosmic American Music show. Have a listen.
19. Bruce Springsteen – The Wall This year’s Springsteen album, High Hopes, is unlikely to trouble best of year charts, as many of the songs are from earlier in his career, or covers (in order to limit my choice and keep this down to one cd, I have a self imposed rule about not letting rerecordings in, hence no tracks from Richard Thompson’s fine Acoustic Classics. I was tempted to put on a track from this terrific Jackson Browne tribute set (stream) in lieu of one from JB’s new album, but, in the end, neither fitted. Also sorry not to have room for Natalie Merchant, Adam Cohen, J Mascis, James Vincent McMorrow, FKA Twigs, Lucinda Williams’ title track, Rosanne Cash, Caribou, The Both, John Fullbright & many more). This ballad, in which a fan encounters one of his musical heroes at the Vietnam war memorial wall in Washington, DC, is classic Springsteen. Not the anthemic Bruce, channelled earlier by War on Drugs, but the reflective one who initially cast ‘Born In The USA’ as a slow blues.
20. Sharon Van Etten – Every Time The Sun Comes Up Another newcomer to the annual cd, although I’ve been listening to SVE for years without any of her albums really grabbing me. Latest Are We There is her strongest, and this dirty, drunken, celebratory final number is its highlight (and was the highlight of her Saturday afternoon Green Man set).
And that’s it for another year. Today I’ll be compiling my best of year albums list for the traditional midnight countdown and I’ll put it up tomorrow. A happy new year to all my readers. Come again.
33 years after Dare, The Human League retain their core members, Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley, supplemented by additional members who’ve been with them longer than the 80’s version of the band lasted. People come expecting a well oiled machine with all the hits plus a couple of recent songs. I’ve never known them disappoint.
There’s one surprise tonight, though: their choice of opening act. Nottingham’s Ronika is doing the whole tour. Her updated 80’s pop/disco sound couldn’t be better matched to the main act.
She comes on with ‘Ey Up, Nottingham!’ Wearing Adidas shorts and dark sunglasses for her RCH debut, she’s become more confident since I last saw her at the Bodega in early summer. Her banter with the crowd is relaxed, and includes a dedication to the much mourned music store, Selectadisc, that she’s named her debut album after.
Sunglasses off, she introduces her tight band as Hot Tap, Cold Tap and Smooth Basin. The last three numbers, in particular, are killer: Automatic, 1001 Nights and Search Siren. The latter concludes ‘Don’t Let This Be Over Too Soon’, but, sadly, after half an hour, it is. It’s hard for the sharpest pop act to break through in an overcrowded market heavily focussed on youth, but this tour will earn her a lot of new fans.
If you think Nottingham music is currently in the ascendant, think back to Sheffield 33 years ago, with ABC, Heaven 17 and the all conquering Human League. The League’s backing band come on to the staircase set and crack into the opening beats of Mirror Man, one of their biggest hits. The sound is great. Then something happens that I’ve never seen here before. The whole stalls are on their feet before the band even take the stage.
Phil Oakey is in futuristic shades while Susan and Joanne are in white, hair up, each looking like the Goddess of Nemi. The shades come off after Sound of the Crowd. It’s followed by two strong songs from their recentish album Credo, with Heart Like A Wheel in between. The ‘girls’ leave for Seconds, returning with a costume change for a trio of songs from Hysteria: The Lebanon; the often under-rated Life On Your Own (Phil and Susan argue over its chart position and Phil gets it right: 16); and Louise. The inclusion of the latter, sadly, always means we won’t get their best ballad, Human.
After that, it’s big numbers all the way, including Love Action, Open Your Heart and Fascination. The three leave the stage for a costume change, and during the next song’s extended intro, even the entire upper balcony gets to its feet. The song is, of course, their only number one, Don’t You Want Me.
First encore is the traditional early number. This time, The Path Of Least Resistance, from Reproduction (which I failed to recognise!). The 80 minute set concludes with a resplendent Together In Electric Dreams. Nottingham Lace (OK, Adidas) met Sheffield Steel and we all went home happy.