2017: the sleeve notes

December 8th, 2017

This year, the pile of CDs I wanted to include a track from but didn’t have room for was higher than the ones included. I had to compile 2017’s CD early, which means no individual sleevenotes or MP3s beyond the final three tracks this year. It also meant that the Neil Young, Morrissey, Sharon Jones and Bjork CDs weren’t out in time (Sue, who has a veto, hates Morrissey, but Bjork is on her Christmas list). One late release, Taylor Swift, edged out The XX (I couldn’t resist following Father John Misty’s TS reference with the best track from her new album). Other artists I would have liked to include are Bedouine, Nadia Reid, Laura Marling, Young Fathers, James Vincent McMorrow, David Rawlings, Feist, Juana Molina, Todd Rundgren with Donald Fagen, Public Service Broadcasting, Sampha, Bob Dylan, Mark Eitzel, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, LCD Soundsystem, Robert Plant, Natalie Merchant, Tinariwen, Lana Del Rey, Alvvays, Songhoy Blues, Kendrick Lamar, Courtney Marie Andrews, Kurt Vile with Courtney Barnett (been a good year for Courtneys) and – especially – Mavis Staples. A CD’s worth, easily. I used to do a part two for home consumption. Indeed, I know of people who do three disc annual compilations, but I’ve always been of the ‘more is less’ persuasion. Editing is the art.

2017 starts with Sparks, whose Hippopotamus is great fun: the first of theirs I’ve listened to extensively. I average a gig a week or more, but these days most of them, inevitably, feature people I’ve seen before. Not Sparks, though, and they were terrific at Rock City. Catchy, beach-pop in the Fleetwood Mac vein from Haim, then one of my albums of the year, by War on Drugs, keeping up the ridiculously high standards of the last two. A welcome return from The Feelies, whose two comeback albums are as good as the records I fell for in the 80s (and check out my non-fiction book of the year, Graham Caveney’s memoir The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness, named after a Feelies song). Destroyer’s Ken finds them on the same startling form as their last two, while Sleaford Mods’ ‘BHS’ was the highlight of their Rough Trade album launch back in March, one of three times I’ve seen them this year. Still the band that defines our age, they killed it at Rock City on their tour finale, too.

Didn’t see all of the Mods’ set at Green Man, as they overlapped with pj harvey, who I hadn’t seen since 2004. The highlight of my favourite festival was the amazing set by Richard Dawson with an array of backing singers and musicians. Peasant is the album on which I fully got what he’s about. ‘Solider’ even more than ‘BHS’, is the marmite track on this year’s cd. Some will hate it, others grow to love it. Arcade Fire’s Everything Now is a patchy album, even more so than the double that preceded it, but the title track is gloriously catchy and has a timely lyric. I would have liked to include one of the longer tracks from the wonderful comeback album by Fleet Foxes, but couldn’t justify an eight minute song. Crack-up is a marvellous, multi-layered thing, which deserved more plaudits.

Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness also finds her on top form, in deliberate 70s MOR mode, with a ridiculously catchy song about the actor Andrew Garfield. Spoon continue to be Spoon, the most Beatlesy band who don’t sound like a Beatles pastiche (a nod here to my other big non-fiction read this year, though it’s a couple of years old, Mark Lewishon’s outstanding, absorbing, authorative, Tune In, which takes the Beatles up to the end of 1962). Randy Newman’s Dark Material doesn’t flow as well as most of his albums but has plenty of strong songs. This is one of two (the other is an old one, Wandering Boy) that doesn’t use irony.

Broken Social Scene are a collective that don’t make albums often but when they do, can blow you away. Hugs of Thunder is, some have said, the album that Arcade Fire ought to have made, if they were braver. In my experience, artists do what they have to do. This is as uplifting and energetic as BSS’s best work. The National’s new album marks a solid return to form after Trouble Will Find Me found them coasting on previous styles. It pushes them into new areas musically and lyrically. This is the song that most got stuck into my head but more keep coming through, just as they did on the album I first fell for, Alligator.

I’ve been following Michael Chapman for more than a decade now, since we got talking after a party to celebrate a Cosmic American Music Club anniversary. Dunno how I missed his stuff before since he’s been a name since the late 60’s (he gave Mick Ronson his break). In the US, he’s a legend, feted by people like Lucinda Williams, Thurston Moore etc. At home, less so, but his fiftieth album, 50, is terrific and has, belatedly, had the reviews and attention it deserves. I’ve seen him twice this year, in terrific form at Green Man and in Nottingham’s The Running Horse this month. This song was a highlight both times.

Father John Misty’s latest was memorably described as like Elton John singing below the line comments on a Guardian blog. Pure Comedy isn’t as memorable as his falling in love album I Love You, Honeybear but is funny and endearing. The song satirises people who fantasise about Taylor Swift, who’s new to me. On the strength of this song, I think she might have a future. Fun fact, she’s named after James Taylor and once duetted on ‘Fire and Rain’ with him.

I could go on and on about John Murry, whose debut, The Graceless Age, was my favourite album of 2013. This year’s A Short History of Decay is terrific, too. This song was a highlight of the instore he played at Rough Trade earlier this year. Only sorry I couldn’t make his tour when it stopped at Leicester in September, but Sue had an operation this year. Lovely guy, too, and, as I discovered, a bit of a bibliomaniac. I can relate to that. We also talked about Warren Zevon, clearly an influence on John’s songs. His songs are equally world weary, but not as cynical.

The title of the compilation links that song and the next one. Future Islands divide people (it’s the singer’s performing style, and his voice) and can feel a little samey on record. But live, at Green Man, they were tremendous and Samuel Herring is an incredible front man, full of passion. A life affirming song and show.

This year, we lost Chuck Berry, at 90. You can argue the ins and outs of who invented rock’n’roll but, for me, Chuck Berry was everything. No Beatles or Stones without Chuck, certainly no Dylan without Chuck’s lyrics. His final album came out a few weeks after he passed, and this is the most characteristic song on it. Hail, hail, rock’n’roll.

John Murry – Countess Lola’s Blues (All in This Together)

Future Islands – Through the Roses

Chuck Berry – Big Boys

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers

December 8th, 2017

 

Hearty congratulations to Rowena Edlin-White, whose five years working on this splendid anthology (originally intended to come out before our UNESCO bid went in) was time well spent. Over 200 writers are discussed in this book, from David Herbert Lawrence to David Lawrence Belbin (no relation), with the living writers doing their own entry (some from beyond the grave, like Derrick Buttress, who sadly died this year). It’s a bargain, at £12.99 (or £25 for the signed, limited edition hardback pictured) and also includes several essays, on comics, the Forest Folk, Dickens in Nottingham (by Derrick) and Graham Greene in Nottingham (one of mine). I wish I had time to say more, and maybe I will, once I’ve read it all. Meantime, read this on our City of Lit site. So far, I’ve only got through the living writers, all but one of whom I know, to some extent. It’s also a delight that Sue and I are one of two living literary couples in the book, the others being our friends Stephen Lowe and Tanya Myers. I was in Five Leaves Bookshop (the publishers) yesterday, and Ross told me that they plan to publish an online appendix to include the writers who have emerged (and continue to emerge) since the book’s contents were finalised. I hope to see Mansfield playwrights James Graham and Beth Steel, both of whom have great work (I know, I’ve already seen both plays) in Nottingham next year, amongst many others, like Mukaro Makubika, whose Fagon award winning Shebeen opens next year, Anyway, that’s my book recommendation for Christmas this year. Music recommendations above.

Billy Bragg, Rock City, November 18th, 2017

November 19th, 2017

Billy Bragg wants us to know he hasn’t joined the ‘Christmas Kitsch’ market. ‘I see Bananarama have got in early’. But he’s here to do his big numbers. A mass singalong of Sexuality starts the show, and a packed Rock City doesn’t just do the chorus, it knows every word and fills in the back harmonies. Billy is visibly impressed, gushing about Rock City Saturday nights and the best singing on the tour.

He’s brought ‘the green monster’ on which he wrote many of the songs, reminding us of his first Nottingham visit, 33 years ago, to a packed basement club called The Garage, especially when he plays ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’.  The guitar’s doing his back in but it’s worth it.

It’s a nearly solo show. CJ Hillman provides sweet pedal steel on several songs and impersonates Johnny Marr on Accident Waiting to Happen. Greetings to the New Brunette (Shirley), St Swithin’s Day, The Warmest Room and Levi Stubbs’ Tears are given great, faithful renditions.

Bragg’s between song repartee remains half stand-up/half sermon. He has plenty to say about Brexit and Trump. The buckets are out for Notts homeless charity Framework. Woody Guthrie’s Ain’t Got No Home is dedicated to the campaigners sleeping overnight on the Forest, who were in for a cold one.

He plays most of new EP, Bridges Not Walls, including Why We Build The Wall (which I wrote about last time he played Nottingham), explaining how he came back to writing political songs like Saffiyah Smiles. Keep Faith (dedicated to the audience) and Power in a Union close the set in resolute manner.

The first encores, Full English Brexit and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Back) demonstrate that, when it comes to mixing irony and empathy, Billy’s no Randy Newman. The old person voting for Brexit deserved better than the song’s awkward mix of empathy, cynicism and condescension. Fine, of course, to update your own songs (btw ‘Must I Paint You a Picture’ would be much improved by removing that naff ‘if we lived by the sea’ line), but please don’t try it on Bob Dylan.

All that’s forgiven with the last two numbers. He leaves us with a terrific, rewritten Waiting For the Great Leap Forwards, funny and uplifting as ever, and a belting singalong of New England. Stirring stuff and probably the best Billy Bragg gig Nottingham’s seen since his classic election eve show at Rock City in 1997. What we wouldn’t give to live to see another one of those, eh?

This is an extended version of my review for the Nottingham Post, with a few more personal opinions. Last time I reviewed Billy at Rock City, I got some stick for pointing out that he was in less than great form (he’d had a bereavement, but punters weren’t to know that). Good to see him make up for it with a full, satisfying two hour show this time.

Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

Sexuality

Andy Partridge – History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll

ABC/KID CREOLE & THE COCONUTS – NOTTINGHAM ROYAL CENTRE, 12/11/17

November 13th, 2017

 

‘It’s been a while since we passed through these parts,’ Kid Creole points out. ‘How many of you were here in 82? Your age is showing.’

Two of the Coconuts weren’t born when he played Rock City. August Darnell, 67, looks ten years younger, and still sports a natty purple zoot suit, with frequent change of hat.

The band take the stage at full throttle, pumping through a strong Stoolpigeon, a terrific I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby (‘this is from my egotistical years’) among others. The brilliant Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy (which does a bit of crucial foreshadowing in my most recent novel) is the highlight.

The Coconuts, in their Hawaiian skirts, are as flirtatiously entertaining as the 82 incarnation. The six piece band are great. No wonder virtually the whole audience is there for the 7.30 start and quite a few dance in the aisles. Support act of the year.

ABC were also at their peak in 82 but never played Rock City. They’ve made up for that with three visits in recent years. It’s only a year since their exhilarating Lexicon of Love orchestral show.  This final gig of their greatest hits tour was added late. It’s a more relaxed affair than the orchestral event. That said, there’s plenty for fans to enjoy.

The set is carefully structured. Four numbers from Lexicon of Love Two are mixed with smaller hits and one new song during the first hour. There’s a great rendition of the rarely performed Be Near Me, their biggest US hit.

The video for 1987’s King Without a Crown (it got to number 44 – no, I didn’t remember it either) plays on the screen, intercut with the present show. It’s one of several video reminders that 80s fashion hasn’t lasted well. Great to hear Beauty Stab’s That Was Then But This is Now powerfully performed. Obviously, there isn’t room for all of their more minor hits, and S.O.S. is sadly absent.

The big Lexicon songs are saved for last. The set closes with Tears are Not Enough and All of My Heart. Poison Arrow and The Look of Love bring the whole crowd to their feet. Splendid, although as a commentator on the Post website (where a shorter version of this review appeared) said, anyone following Kid Creole is bound to feel a little flat. Kudos to Martin Fry, however, for treating us to such a great double bill. We had great seats, and Sue took the photos above. We were both at the 1982 Rock City gig, though we didn’t know each other then.

Kid Creole & the Cocounts – Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy

ABC – That Was Then But This Is Now

Public Service Broadcasting at Rock City, October 21st

October 24th, 2017

Public Service Broadcasting hardly sound like the quintessential live
act. Their albums could double as the soundtrack to an installation or
documentary. 2015’s impressive album The Race for Space was recently
followed by an album with a less commercial but no less worthy
concept. Every Valley charts the rise and fall of the Welsh coal
mining industry between the 1950’s and 1980’s.

Founder J. Willgoose, Esq. on guitar, is joined by Wrigglesworth on
drums and newest member J F Abraham on bass. Each also plays sundry
other instruments. They could be three bespectacled secondary school
teachers. Willgoose, from the back of the crowded floor, resembles
newsman Robert Peston, giving enthusiastic, polite introductions.

Illness forced me to miss them last year, but I was determined to see this tour and am delighted I came.

A rammed Rock City is here for a good time. Two tracks from Every
Valley set an intense mood, then the uplifting Theme From PSB gets the
party started. It’s a relief, after half an hour, when the air
conditioning comes on.

This is a joyous show, with PSB frequently joined by Two Brassy Gents
and, on They Gave Me a Lamp, Haiku Salut, who also re-emerge, dressed
as cosmonauts, for the encore (see Robin Lewis’s picture, above).

I have rarely seen a more carefully balanced set.

Blending songs from their two concept albums with the
less cerebral first LP, they create a set that flows logically to an
exhilarating climax. The video backdrops are outstanding, making
terrific use of archive footage and interviews. The only issue is that
sometimes the male Welsh voices are drowned by the music.

Encores of Gagarin and Everest bring the 95 minute set to an
exhilarating close. Kudos to whoever came up with PSB’s witty, pre-gig
announcement. This explained why it’s a bad idea to make films on
phones during the ‘hard rock/soft pop’ show. ‘But a few photos is
fine’. It worked a treat, with barely a camera in sight throughout,
enhancing a proper, beat driven, highly visual, Rock City classic
Saturday night.

Apologies for the lack of recent posts: computer issues, trying to write a novel, start of term etc. I don’t put the majority of my Post reviews on here, but this one isn’t online. This month (below) I’ve also reviewed Squeeze and Slaid Cleaves for them. Follow the links to read the reviews. Press ‘play’ below to hear ‘Theme From PSB’.

 

PSB setlist

· Every Valley

· The Pit

· Theme From PSB

· The Now Generation

· Korolev

· People Will Always Need Coal

· Go to the Road

· Night Mail

· Spitfire

· Progress

· They Gave Me a Lamp

(with Haiku Salut)

· All Out

· The Other Side

· Go!

· Lit Up

· Encore:

· Gagarin

· Everest

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2017: the sleeve notes
This year, the pile of CDs I wanted to include a track from but didn’t have room for was higher than the ones included. I had to compile 2017’s CD early...

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