A (strange) Twist of Fate…

You know it’s strange how if two people visit the exact same place at the exact same time they won’t have the same experience or see the same things.

Case in point: earlier in the year we took a drive a little further along the coast than usual to Margate. Now, I knew there was a fairly fabled record shop in the town and I was curious to check it out. I remember the vibe, the range and the purchases I made and having to run down the street with the little guy in my arms hoping the food place on the corner would have a toilet he could use.

My wife remembers the music that was playing, I don’t. She shazamed it and it keeps appearing on our Spotify as she listens to it while working at home. So I start listening to it…

Now here we are at the twist of fate element because as much as I’m enjoying the album – Space Echo: the Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde* – the story behind it, the ‘mystery’ is one of my favourite ever.

It’s 1968; a ship leaves Baltimore harbour headed for Rio de Janeiro. It’s a calm, steady sea, the containers it carries are safely secure and this March sailing should not be noteworthy. Except, later that same day, the ship vanishes. Disappearing from radar without a trace.

São Nicolau

Skip forward to a few months later and the villagers of Cachaço on the island of Sao Nicolau, Cabo Verde -an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast of Western Africa – are appropriately gobsmacked and confused when they find… a ship. Somehow marooned, the crew nowhere to be seen. Oh, I should probably point out that they were gobsmacked and confused because Cachaço is 8km inland from the coast.

After much back and forth between the village elders and local authorities it’s decided that the containers should be opened and a team of welders arrive on the scene, getting to work while the locals await with baited breath – presumably still scratching their heads and wondering where the hell this fucking great big ship came from. Well, the only certainty is that it came from Baltimore, having set sail in March of that year. We know that because of it’s cargo. Turns out it’s containers are full of gear from Korg, Moog, Farfisa, Hammond and Rhodes which had been en route to an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro (the first such of its kind) before it mysteriously vanished.

We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of the very latest and best  keyboards and synths available at the time. Seemingly fallen from the sky, into a village with no electricity. In fact, this is what was believed to be the origin of the ship; “fell from the sky”. Aside from the bloody great big crater that had appeared underneath the field it was in, those physicists and scientists drafted in to explain it came up with the same theory! Then, perhaps less scientifically, I don’t know – you have to remember that this was 1968 – someone claimed there were ‘cosmic’ particles on the ship’s hull. Apparently the bow also showed evidence of extreme heat. You know; like a meteor that had fallen to earth.

Amílcar Cabral

Origins aside – the cargo was commandeered by the local police and stored in a church. I imagine at the time the locals were more than a bit disappointed – a bounty of seemingly amazing treasure falls in their lap and a) the lack of electricity makes it useless and b) the fuzz decide to lock it all up.

Now, in 1968 Cabo Verde was still, along with Portuguese Guinea, a colony of Portugal. A chap called Amílcar Cabral and a group of fellow Cape Verdeans and Guineans were fucking furious about this to say the least. Some years prior they’d formed the  African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). Acts of sabotage eventually erupted into full scale conflict and the  Guinea-Bissau War of Independence in 1963. This would eventually lead to Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau achieving independence.

So, back to Cabo Verde and that shit load of synths. At this point large tracts of Guinea-Bissau are, despite the presence of Portuguese troops and authority figures, under PAIGC control. Not so much Cabo Verde but the writing is starting to show on the wall. Amílcar Cabral** decides ‘arseholes’ to the police commandeering the haul. He announces that they should be distributed equally amongst those schools on the islands that had electricity.

Overnight a generation of young children got their hands on the very latest musical equipment. According to the legend any of those children that came into contact with the equipment inherited amazing musical abilities. I’ll take that with a pinch of salt but then I’m something of a cynical bastard. I’d say it’s more likely down to kids having a much stronger and untarnished sense of rhythm. Either way the effects of this sudden take up – according to the label behind the release, at least – had a massive role in inspiring the explosion of electrified sounds that emerged from Cabo Verde following its independence in 1975.

All these instruments helped bring to life and modernise traditional, indigenous fold music – some of which had been forbidden under Portuguese governance – and enthusing them with salsa-beats, trippy, futuristic sounds and rhythms that made for a truly unique and compelling sound that’s brilliantly compiled on Space Echo: the Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde. As a bonus it makes for a great listen while the summer sun and heat is burning away too.

Now that is one hell of an origin story, isn’t it?! A whole musical scene and shift and generations turned on to and absorbed by music by one of the strangest twists of fate.

I’ll drop a few below along with the Spotify link for the album, should you be so inclined. Well worth an explore.

 

 

*Perhaps a little out of the usual Alternative / Rock stuff you may be used to expecting on this blog but variety and life’s spices and all of that…

**Amílcar Cabral, born in 1924, was a well-educated agricultural engineer. A poet, theoretician who turned revolutionary and became one of Africa’s leading anti-colonial leaders whose legacy would reach far and wide long after his assassination in 1973.

Tracks: Most of the Time

I can smile in the face of mankind
Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time.

How on earth do you begin to chose one track to talk about by an artist like Bob Dylan? A man with thirty-eight studio albums, twelve instalments into the  Bootleg Series.. probably close to three hundred original compositions to chose from. Given that I can go on jags of listening to very little but Bob it’s a near impossible task to think of even a Top Five as that could change on a day-to-day.

Thankfully, that’s not the purpose of these infrequent Tracks posts. It’s more a case of highlighting particular favourites, those ‘always on the play’ songs and, in this instance, from the 1989 Oh Mercy album that’s ‘Most of the Time’. *

My first introduction to this shimmering, atmospheric beauty came via the film ‘High Fidelity’. We’re talking the year 2000. My Dylan awareness and collection is growing but there were – and still are – gaps. One of which was his work in the 80’s. You can’t blame me, I’m far from alone in not really digging his religious albums and while I now think Infidels is a pretty solid album, the three that followed it weren’t and that period didn’t exactly sit on the same priority-purchase list as Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited or Desire did at the time (I’ve still not added those missing 80’s discs to my collection).

So when John Cussack sat soaked on a bench in the pissing rain in a moment of cod-psychology realisation** and a slow-burner song with what sounded very much like Dylan singing over it came through the speakers I had to find out what it was. I mean, shit, they only used a minute of it at most in the film. I scoured the track-listing on the soundtrack when it came out and found ‘Most of the Time’ sandwiched between songs by Love and Sheila Nicholls. But… for reasons unknown didn’t buy it. Perhaps my student loan hadn’t arrived yet or perhaps I’d actually used it for tuition and course books. Either way, it was a few more years before I added Oh Mercy to my collection and fell in love with it all over again.

Oh Mercy is one hell of a fine album by anyone’s standards. For Bob Dylan it represented something of a comeback both commercially and critically. The songs one here are as good as his earlier high standards and Daniel Lanois does a bang up job with the production. Oddly enough, close to a decade later with Dylan’s appeal on the wane again after two albums of covers it would be Lanois who he turned to to produce Time Out of Mind to further acclaim.

Kicking off the second half of the album, ‘Most of the Time’ is perhaps the lushest track on it in terms of production  but the lyrics are what get me. That caveat… “I don’t even notice  she’s gone… most of the time” and it’s implications…. Direct, relatable, to the gut. Dylan (as he indicated in Chronicles Volume One***) was really on a streak, suddenly, with the writing on Oh Mercy – as  The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 would show; even the outtakes were strong – but for me ‘Most of the Time’ is the best thing on it.

 

*In another it could easily be ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ or ‘Love Sick’ but never ‘Wiggle, Wiggle’.

**I liked the film, though as I get older less so, soundtrack aside. The book on the other hand… the character is a complete and utter twat and I had zero interest or compassion for the prize prick.

***Though it’s been suggested that the Oh Mercy section of the book is pure fiction.

…a discovery and not judging records by their covers

I’m someone who’ll happily admit to being wrong*…. though I’m not sure this falls into that category. More an instance of learning to give something a try before passing judgement.

Throughout the tail-end of last year (and some month’s prior when  it came out) I kept seeing mention of an album in those best-of lists. I didn’t read the reviews I didn’t want to know. Why? Well the cover was a big WTF. You can see it here. See, told ya. Nope, not joking; that really is the cover. The band, The Hotelier, decided that’s the best way to package their album Goodness.

So why would I listen to something that’s wrapped like that? Turns out because it’s fucking good is why.

I was reading a feature on Spin’s website on Wednesday – 30 Best Emo Revival Albums Ranked. Now, please, don’t think I’m about to start putting on eyeliner and listening to (shudder) bands like My Chemical Romance or other such atrocities. For me that genre refers to the music of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate or Cap’n Jazz. As such I’d recommend giving the feature a read.

Anywho. It lead to a lot of Spotify listening and discoveries – I’m still wrapped up in The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die’s Harmlessness too – so many great songs and discoveries that it’s genuinely exciting me. It’s also meant that my Your Daily Mix on said streaming platform has rapidly changed.

One of the albums in the upper echelon of that list – number 4- is just that bizarrely covered album. And I thought ‘ok let’s see what the hubbubs all about, bub.” I mean, afterall, the reviews were pretty ecstatic –  “Goodness feels like that very rare sophomore achievement where a fresh, already pretty great band becomes somehow cosmically greater” or “Goodness does more than remind of existence, it makes the promise of a new day, and even the everyday, feel more alluring.”

So… are they right?

Fuck, yeah.

There’s a rush, urgency to the guitars and vocals. A real pain apparent and never a let up from the percussion. There’s so much in the mix here that I’m discovering more with every listen – and I’ve had a good three of those since yesterday, like being keen to know every moment of these songs as soon as possible. There’s no way to refer to this band as ’emo’ – that would be wrong. They’ve very quickly (I’ve checked out previous albums by now too) evolved beyond that and can very much be considered a shit-hot alternative** band.

I’m still discovering this band and album so may well write more so will leave just a couple of tunes here but, lesson learned; as with books, never judge a record by it’s cover.

 

 

 

 

*Not really because I never am.

**Whatever that means now.

….it was a very good year

… to quote Mr Sinatra.

So, after a period of hint dropping, it was confirmed that, in a rare move, Radiohead would be revisiting their past and would mark the 20th anniversary of the game-changing OK Computer.

My copy of OKNotOK 1997 2017 as it’s called (3 LPs featuring three unreleased tracks and eight B-sides, all newly remastered) has been secured in its indies-only blue variant with my new-favourite shop and I’m sure that I’ll be talking more about OK Computer when I’ve dropped needle upon it.

However, the fact that it’s now 20 years since 1997 has seen a few of those nostalgic lists appear on various sites (Spin published a pretty solid 79 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997 list) and it got me to thinking that, from an alt-rock point of view at least, 1997 was a very strong year for releases. Let’s take a butchers…

Yes, kicking off with the fact that if ’97 saw Britpop killed by Oasis’ abhorrently indulgent and tuneless Be Here Now, then Radiohead’s OK Computer nailed down the coffin. I remember catching the video for ‘Paranoid Android’ on MTV2 and being blown away.

Foo Fighters would release their second (first as a band) album The Colour And The Shape, an album which is still held up as their best by so many* and contains some of their biggest tunes like ‘My Hero’, ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘Walking After You,’ and, of course that barely-known song ‘Everlong’.

The ‘Everlong’ video was directed by Michel Gondry who also directed the video for Björk’s ‘Joga‘, which features on her album Homogenic which also came out in 1997. Built To Spill used their major label debut to mark a massive stylistic shift and dropped the sublime Perfect From Now On, Portishead released their self-titled album and, while Hand It Over isn’t the best Dinosaur Jr album (it would be the last issued under that name for some time), it features some belters in ‘Nothing’s Goin’ On‘ and ‘I’m Insane’ guaranteeing it gets pretty regular plays from me.

A chap called Elliott Smith released his third album, the beautiful and much-loved Either/Or containing some of the best songs he’d ever produce in his all too-short life.

The post-rock cannon got two very important débuts in 1997. Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their F♯ A♯ ∞ and would go on to become, to me at least, the most important band in the genre. Meanwhile, five blokes from Glasgow in a band called Mogwai released Mogwai Young Team on their way to also becoming a hugely important band in the genre.

Ben Fold Five’s Whatever & Ever, Amen, home to ‘Brick’, ‘Song For The Dumped’ and ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ was also released in ’97 and Pavement released Brighten The Corners.

Back into the less ‘alt’ side of things, that fella born Robert Zimmerman made a quick recovery from a life-threatening heart infection despite thinking he’d “be seeing Elvis soon” and dropped, seven years after his previous studio album, the hugely impressive return to form that was Time Out of Mind.

1997 was also the year that I started to get into Aerosmith  released a stonker of an album, even if it would turn out to be their last strong effort to date, in Nine Lives. Look at the evidence: Get A Grip in 1993 was a monster in sales terms but not that much critically speaking and not one I listen to too often. Nine Lives, however, is a powerhouse record of raw sounding rock with some real earthy tones and – for the genre – some pretty eclectic sound and instrumentation. There’s still not one song I’d skip, though I wouldn’t necessarily hold up ‘Hole In My Soul’ as exemplary the rest of the album – ‘Taste of India’, ‘Full Circle’, ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’, the Joe Perry showcase ‘Falling Off’, ‘Somethings Gotta Give…’ ‘Fallen Angels’ – is a classic. Even before they changed the artwork and it shifted like hotcakes thanks to the addition of that asteroid movie song.

There’s also… Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ The Boatman’s Call and, I’m sure, plenty I’m omitting that a look through over such lists will make me go “oh, of course…” but with a lot of strong albums released and the fact that I was earning a regular pay cheque  (weekend work at a supermarket) at this point to fund my growing habit, there’s an awful lot of music in my collection from 1997 that still gets a lot of play.

*I could do a Foo Fighters Least to Most…. The Colour and the Shape battles it out with Wasting Light in my mind for their best to date. Both represent their most consistent and one will have the edge over the other depending on the day.

Soundtracks: Singles

The Film: 

Singles is a pretty decent little film. I say ‘little’ as it’s not one of those huge studio jobs involving comic book heros and arse-quaking explosions that are clogging up cinemas these days like so much backlogged faecal matter. No, it’s a charming film made for a modest budget ($9m), held in pretty strong regard amongst critics and fared pretty well at the box office ($19.5m) and has gone on to an even stronger after-life on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray etc.

An exploration of relationships in their bloom, chaos, flourish and collapse amongst a group of those young folks at the time called Gen X. It’s a solid and often funny film that was Cameron Crowe’s first step away from those teen-angst films such as Say Anything. It also happened to be set in Seattle, in 1992 with one of it’s characters, Cliff (Matt Dillon in a role that Crowe had tried to get Chris Cornell to play*), the singer of a grunge band – called Citizen Dick (which also featured Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Eddie Vedder) – and events play out against the backdrop of the then ascending Seattle music scene of which Crowe (formerly a writer for Rolling Stone) was a dedicated fan.

The Soundtrack:

So the soundtrack… it arrived a few months ahead of the film’s release and was a huge hit as these things go, going top ten and selling over two million copies. It featured new songs from Pearl Jam who were starting to break through, Alice in Chains’ ‘Would?’ made its debut on the album along with a song from Soundgarden and a Chris Cornell solo tune.

It served not just as an amazing primer to the city’s nascent music scene but features some great songs from non-Seattle bands such as Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and two absolute belters from Paul Westerberg only months after The Replacements had called it a day, ensuring, in its way, that these songs would not be shoe-boxed as ‘grunge’ but would be shown amongst the a much-wider alternative rock scene.

Noticeable by their absence among the other 3 of the Big 4 is Nirvana. Nevermind hadn’t dropped while Singles was in production and while musicians such as Ament and Cornell amongst others, were very involved in the film’s production (more to come), Kurt viewed ‘Hollywood’ as something to be steered very clear of. It’s also likely that Warner Bros – who would need to approve the soundtrack participants – didn’t see Nirvana at the time as a commercial viability. Oops. Still, they changed their mind on that front when, as studio politics and games meant the film suffered a delayed release by which time Nevermind had hit. So Warner Bros thought ‘let’s try and cash in’ and floated the idea of releasing the film under the name ‘Come As You Are’ instead. Even sending the band a copy of it to seek approval. Thankfully it never happened…

So, back to the soundtrack. It’s a killer selection of Seattle and Alt-Rock tunes, yes. But it’s not just a near-perfect mix-tape that I’ve damn-near worn out. The songs also fit the scenes they’re used in, too. As Campbell Scott’s Steve walks around Seattle it’s Cornells ‘Seasons’ that keeps him company and when he needs to let off steam he does so by going to Alice in Chains or Soundgarden shows and losing himself in the crowd.

Plus, according to Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge (a must-read), the royalties and monies received for being part of the soundtrack helped an awful lot of bands that never scaled those heights reached by Seattle’s Big Four, with some using the funds as mortgage down-payments. If I recall correctly, Mudhoney – who were late arriving to the soundtrack ‘party’ – recorded their song, ‘Overblown’, for a fraction of the pretty sizeable budget and kept the rest.

Touching back on that involvement for a second…. Three of Pearl Jam’s members featured as Matt Dillon’s Cliff’s band mates. At some point, however, they’ve ditched him and a deleted scene showed him giving it a go solo:

For a bit of authenticity Jeff Ament designed the Poncier tape. He added a handful of genuine-sounding song names to the label too*. Perhaps because he’d been unable to find time to play the role or simply because he was a nice bloke, Chris Cornell saw the list of songnames and took it upon himself to record a song for each of the titles. Of the Poncier Tape songs only ‘Seasons’** made the film and its soundtrack, initially.

Now though the Deluxe Reissue of the Singles soundtrack is with us. It collects those missing Poncier Tape songs (amongst which an early ‘Spoonman’ can be enjoyed) and couples them with a few other songs that didn’t make the cut the first time round to flesh out the included bands roster to bring in Truly and Blood Circus. For my money it’s not a bad set of additions but the single-disc will serve all brilliantly. That being said, Westerberg’s ‘missing’ songs are a welcome addition to my collection. Citizen Dick’s own ‘Touch Me I’m Dick’ isn’t what you’d call a highlight.

I’m running through a few Cameron Crowe films and their soundtracks in my head – Jerry Maguire (which made a hit of Springsteen’s ‘Secret Garden’), Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, even Elizabethtown which was itself a bit of a dud film had a stellar musical accompaniment – and it’s a safe bet to say that the man doesn’t make a bad one and really knows how to get just the right tune into the right place. Singles, his first attempt at a more serious film, is also a perfect example of that.

*All too often in ‘music’ films the song names or actors with musical instruments are as convincingly ‘real’ as a pair of tits on Baywatch.

**For those curious it’s FCFCCF

In another perfect life….

Holy crap balls.

As the caption says “SURPRISE! Run. Our new song. Video directed by Dave Grohl. Turn it up”

Foo Fighters dropped a new song (their first new music since 2015) this lunch time – whether it’s from an upcoming album hasn’t been confirmed but after another new song was played live recently and given that the band have a very heavy touring itinerary lined up with a few festival dates in the mix it would be a very safe bet.

I’m a few repeated listens down the line already and I’m really enjoying this one. Better than anything on Sonic Highways. It’s ambitious, catchy as the flu and bloody good. The video is a blast too.

 

Times of Trouble

I’ve been a little numb the last few days and wondered if I should even say something about events, if there could be anything I can even add in something so seemingly self centred as a blog especially as it wanders into the more personal than music / books but…

In the wake of Chris Cornell’s shocking departure my wife sent me over an article – some years old, I should add, rather than one of those disgustingly inappropriate “wrap Eddie in bubble wrap” statements of late – on “How Eddie Vedder survived“. It’s a good article – more about how he lost the tortured element and found a sort of coping mechanism rather than getting lost. But it touched on something my wife knew nothing of: the Roskilde tragedy in 2000 when nine Pearl Jam fans were killed, crushed to death as the crowd rushed forward.

As I tried to explain the events I still found recalling them upsetting. I remember when the news broke, how I – and I’m sure all fans – felt so horrified. I’d seen the band exactly one month previous and to know that fellow fans had lost their lives in an environment in which you always felt welcome and relaxed- lost in music with fellow fans – seemed so impossible. The idea that nine people who had gone out to watch their favourite band wouldn’t be going home, that there would be nine empty beds, nine families lost beneath the tidal wave of grief… it seemed so impossible.

A horrible accident. A tragedy that shook the music loving world and nearly ended the band*. Then, a little under two years ago in Paris, a city that for a year or so was like my second home, 89 people were murdered at an Eagles of Death Metal Concert. No accident, part of a series of terrorist attacks in the city in which another 41 people would be killed.

Just a day  or two after talking about Roskilde with my wife, on Tuesday morning I woke up and, like, most other mornings, checked the news while waiting for the kettle to boil. I’ve never been to Manchester. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Ariana Grande song but this… this shouldn’t be happening. The idea that you could go out to a music concert and not be safe, not come home…. it should be unspeakable.

Now, I’m struggling to write this because we’re now at the point where it’s gone from being 22 dead to learning the names of those people killed. Learning that an eight year old girl was taken from her family. That parents waiting in the lobby for their excited children to come out of the concert were killed. That teenagers, still children, filled with joy and love for music and the experience of seeing their favourite musician live, many experiencing a concert for the first time, were killed. It absolutely breaks my heart.

I grew up at a time when the IRA were very much active and civilians were being killed by their bombs. I remember my father trying to explain what and why these things were happening, the senselessness of it. The media wasn’t so full throttle / constant exposure as it is now but I do remember the real threat of it – they bombed Manchester, too, in ’96, the biggest bomb the UK had seen since WWII but their phone warnings ahead had meant that 75,000 were evacuated and nobody died. I remember a lack of public waste bins when the International Railway station in my hometown was opened for fear of IRA bombs being planted ( I think Prince Charles was due to open it and, since Lord Mountbatten had been killed by the IRA he was a conceivable target).

When the news broke on Tuesday morning my own young son was fast asleep and I – like I’m sure countless others – worry about the world he’s growing up in. I worry about what, when he gets just a little older, he’ll see in the news now that it’s so all pervasive and how I’ll struggle to explain the senselessness of it all. I do hope that I won’t have to but I’m not naive enough to believe that.

What I do hope, though, is that when I explain these things to him – be it as historical or, as I dread, current – that I’m able to point to how people react and respond as (aside from the usual stupid suspects) they are doing so now, and did then, in the face of terror; not with anger and violence but with a sense of coming together in support and strength. Not giving in and living in fear, shying from what we love, but in holding hands and standing up.

With such thinking I’m impressed and heartened that – just as in Paris in 2015 – in the days following, bands and artists continue to take the stage and audiences and music lovers continue to come together and experience live music. It’s a hard thing to do. The natural instinct being to hide, I suppose. I imagine every parent who’s bidding their children a “safe and fun night” as they head out to a show will do so being that little bit more anxious for a while to come.  Just as Pearl Jam still routinely call a halt to proceedings if they think it’s getting too aggressive in the ‘pit’ and implore the crowd to take a step back and make sure everyone is safe, concert goers will be more vigilante of their surroundings but it must carry on. Music and the love for it creates a community – as this and so many other blogs illustrate – and that’s never as clear or better experienced than at a concert. Long may it continue.

As Sgt Esterhaus would say,  “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

*The band had made many a plea for the crowd to take a step back and, realising something was wrong, stopped playing. It was too late. Nine fans had been killed in the crush and bodies were being passed over the barricades. The remainder of the band’s European tour was cancelled and, for a while, they considered retiring. They couldn’t conceive how to go on after something so tragic had happened. The Danish Police even tried put the blame on the band for “encouraging the rush”. Vedder would ‘disappear’ for a year following the completion of the US leg of the tour but he and other band members would – and still do – reach out to the family members of those lost. When the band regrouped, the (not all as bad as it’s remembered) Riot Act album would feature two songs about Roskilde – ‘I Am Mine’ and ‘Love Boat Captain’ – as well as ‘Arc’ which features only Eddie’s voice, nine layers of it, as a lament for those lost.