Midweek spins

Here we are on the downhill stretch to the weekend once again and I thought it an opportune time to pull up a chair, pour a mug of the caffeinated stuff and take a butchers at those tunes that have been on repeat this week.

Elliott Smith – Let’s Get Lost

My wife recently added Air’s instalment of Late Night Tales to the record collection and that – as if I needed one – was a prompt to dust off From a Basement on the Hill this week and enjoy the gorgeousness of Elliott’s last (albeit posthumously released) studio collection.

Tad – Trash Truck

Tad loomed loud and large at the heavier end of the Seattle scene spectrum. Flicking through the racks in a charity shop a few weeks back I found an original copy of 8-Way Santa (before the couple on the cover found it and threatened to sue) still with its shrink wrap for a measly £8 (considerably lower than current market rate). Had to be done.

Metallica – Sad But True

Sticking with the heavy for a moment – with the album’s 30th Anniversary pushing a lot of attention toward it, I’ve had Metallica’s ‘Black’ album hammering away in the car for a few days this week, it’s one of those landmark albums from a period in 1991 that was just dripping in classic albums.

Placebo – Beautiful James

A couple of years ago I thought it was curtains for Placebo – their newer stuff was approaching the bottom of the barrel. On the evidence of ‘Beautiful James’ which harkens back to their Meds sound I’d say the layoff – seven years since their last album – has done them some good.

The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

More proof, if needed, that the next War On Drugs album is gonna be a good ‘un.

My Morning Jacket – Regularly Scheduled Programming

Apparently, in summer 2019, MMJ played a set of shows that were to be their last for some time and were going to be calling it quits for a bit with whispers of retiring the band. Instead those shows reinvigorated them and they decided to get back to cutting great music together. Somewhat sidelined by the pandemic, that new music is finally here and I’ve had ‘Regularly Scheduled Programming’ on repeat this week.

Albums of my years – 2020

First off – yes, I’m jumping ahead by a fair leap from the last of this series. Why? Well, the original premise was to go through each of those years leading up to my 40th. Problem is I didn’t account for my own lapse in prompt posting, the restraints such an ambitious series has on getting out other posts (I’ve still a couple more Bruce posts in the tank and countless others that were in the works) and that target drifted past last October. 2020 was a bloody weird one for me, for all of us I’m sure, and while I had more time on my hands as a result of spending the majority of it on furlough (and a small part job hunting) and coming to terms with release from a toxic work environment for some years and its impact, I simply wasn’t in the mental state needed to keep a schedule and get that target home. Plus – given that it’s now still just about January – it feels more fitting now to blast out a 2020 wrap up and fill in the gaps on an ad-hoc basis.

2020 was, understandably, a real weird one in music from February onwards. Most music news focused on the cancellation of tours, delays in releases and – most sadly – those who had died after contracting Covid-19. As we got used to the new state of things artists both decided to release albums anyway or, often, had so much time off-cycle that they were able to turn around entire albums in the lockdowns that most of the world were under (and still are, here, as I type). Music news and the presentation of new music shifted into a different phase as ‘guest spots’ on TV shows came via webcams and concerts were streamed from artists’ homes and rehearsal spaces right into those of the audience. While this served a welcome relief and distraction for music lovers including myself, I cannot overstate how damaging an impact this pandemic has had and is having on the events industry.

With the news cycle this year being one of the strangest, it’s easy to forget some of the events that took place in 2020. Hell, March 2020 seems like a decade ago so the fact that, say, Pearl Jam released their first album in seven years is almost forgotten. That they too had the anticipated rollout and tour cancelled no doubt threw a spanner in the works. While we’re still on the subject of the news cycle I think we can, all of us around the right-thinking world that is, agree that the best news to come out of 2020 was the defeat of that contemptible sack of shit and a potential end to the plain insanity and ‘alternative-fact’ delirium. Well done America and thanks.

The start of the year saw reunions and reunion tours announced for bands like Genesis and Rage Against the Machine only for them to be promptly postponed, leaving them in the odd position of being together again but not really. It would be hard for a band to be together long enough to decide to break up in 2020 – a few did but nobody that you’d call any great shakes with the exception, for me, of Milk Teeth – but we lost a lot of great musicians in 2020. Thanks to Coronavirus we said goodbye to John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Country singer and fried chicken connoisseur Kenny Rogers died at age 81 as did Bill Withers and Spencer Davis. Neil Peart, long held in high regard as one of the greatest drummers to sit on the stool, died in January, Little Richard passed away in May. We also said farewell to Peter Green, blues guitarist of choice and founder of Fleetwood Mac, Justin Townes Earle and Ennio Morricone – one of the most emotive film composers to score a film – left us in July at the ripe old age of 91. And perhaps most surprisingly, after increasing rumours of ill health, Eddie Van Halen lost his battle with cancer in October. A guitar player like no other, he was a real ‘light the fuse and watch the fireworks’ player who seemed unable to pick up an instrument without riffs and melodies falling out of him.

So what albums made it through? It was a great year for post-rock releases. Caspian’s In Circles, Toundra’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a re-imagined soundtrack for a silent German horror film), Audiolepsia’s Waves & Particles and I Hear Sirens’ Stella Mori all got a lot of ear time in 2020.

Stone Temple Pilots released their second album with singer Jeff Gutt (I always have to double check that’s actually his name) – Perdida is ‘ok’ but it’s a long way from Core. Nada Surf’s Never Not Together is pleasant enough but nothing to really stick in the mind like Lucky and Bob Dylan emerged from years of cover albums to release his first album of original songs in eight years: Rough and Rowdy Ways. If not being able to tour is affecting anyone it’s gotta be bothering Bob – not that he’s likely to be at a loss having sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal for a rumoured $350 million. I don’t think I’ve listened to the album more than once though. One I have listened to a lot and took almost as long to release is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II. Back in 2015 when The Waterfall was let loose on us, the band said they’d recorded two album’s worth of material and the second would soon follow…. since then nothing. Until Jim James took a walk during lockdown with his iPod and heard the songs again, prompting its release shortly after. It was worth the wait but I’m itching for some ‘new’ MMJ…

I started getting into Courtney Marie Matthews in 2019 and was pretty chuffed when she released Old Flowers in 2020 – a gorgeous album with lots of brooding and burning guitar leads buried in a lush atmosphere supporting her great vocals. ‘If I Told’, in particular received many a repeated listen:

In a ‘back from the past’ file you’ll find Bush – known for finding more success in the States on the back of the post-Grunge boom than in the UK – but they’ve been back together for a while and putting out music that’s pretty bloody strong considering, their 2020 album The Kingdom got a good few streams my end as did Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks which is a surprisingly strong and consistently good album given I’d almost completely tuned out of new music from Alanis for over a decade. Somewhere in there I also discovered the music of Rose City Band in 2020 – via a real vibe of an album Summerlong that you could just put on loop and drift away to somewhere else in your mind.

Milk Teeth released their second album, following a series of EPs,  a self-titled effort brimming with their mix of 90’s inspired punk and rock before calling it a day. Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was found Bright Eyes returning nine years after their last effort with a much strong effort that I was expecting though I’ve yet to part with coin for it. One I happily did part with coin for was Thurston Moore’s By The Fire – a great album that’s probably the strongest of his post-Sonic Youth and, with Steve Shelley handling a lot of the drum duty, is as close to that band’s sound as you’re gonna find on a new release. Big Thief were a big discovery for me in 2019, in the space of a year I went from not having heard of them to grabbing each of their four albums (two of which were released in 2019 alone) and getting very quickly addicted. For some reason I was a little late, then, in listening to Adrianne Lenker’s 2020 release Songs and Instrumentals but I’m glad I did – it’s my favourite of her solo work to date and very much worth a listen.

Billy Corgan decided to stop being a moaning dickhead long enough to make another Smashing Pumpkins album – Cyr is a double album in which I doubt there’s even a single good album. Someone really, really needs to tell him ‘nah’ more often.

For all that, when it comes to new music (as opposed to the discovery of new-to-me bands and older music that seemed to dominate 2020 for me listening wise), there were two albums that got the most ear time with me and it’s unlikely to be any surprise which. Both had been the subject of rumours swirling ahead of their actual drop and both proved a very welcome relief in terms of both quality and distraction from the world’s troubles.

So let’s do this:

Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 album Western Stars, his first since his residency on Braodway, was a a real outlier in his catalogue. A ‘solo’ album in the sense that it wasn’t an E Street Band affair but nonetheless bathed in sound. There was to be no tour. A ‘live’ film and soundtrack quickly followed and then the rumours started as Bruce mentioned he’d started writing for ‘the band’. And then, when we needed it most after half a year thwarted by lockdowns and pandemic, the announcement came: the new Bruce Springsteen album, backed by the E Street Band, Letter To You was coming. Not only that, but it was recorded in a matter of days, live in the studio, minimal overdubs! Could it be? Could the sound of the E Street Band in its prime – Bruce hadn’t recorded live with the band without at least demoing the material since the early 80s – without the interference of extra layers and gimmicks that had afflicted his last three albums (even Western Stars couldn’t escape it) all produced by Ron Aniello? The answer was very much ‘yes, yes and YES!’

Letter To You is Springsteen’s finest album since Magic and the sound of the E Street Band (with the Charles Giordano and Jake Clemons filling in for the faithful departed) at its glorious best in a way it hasn’t been captured on ‘tape’ in a long-ass time. The album moves with a confidence and power that I honestly didn’t expect was there anymore. There’s something both comforting and exciting about hearing that sound on new songs that just makes you want to head straight back to the start after finishing the album.

It’s a joy to hear those older (‘Janey Needs a Shooter’, ‘If I Was The Priest’ and ‘Song for Orphans’ date back to ’72) songs songs dusted off and, at last, given life. The newer songs – which all came quickly to Bruce once he started playing a guitar given to him by a fan – sit amongst his best. There’s at once a sense of ‘this is who were then and this is who we are now’ as there’s no getting around the fact that time marches on (hell, it’s there in his voice) while at the same time letting you know that there’s still gas in the tank to go.

While Western Stars was an album that wouldn’t really transfer to the world’s stadiums and arenas, Letter To You brims with songs that need to be heard live – let’s hope that tour can happen soon.

And that just leaves…

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

Once upon a time you could set your clock by Pearl Jam releases. Every 18 months or so you’d get another slab of the great stuff. But that schedule, sadly, is close to 20 years ago… gaps between albums started to get longer: nearly four years separated Riot Act and Pearl Jam, another three until Backspacer, then four again before we got Lightning Bolt and then…. the longest wait to date came to end this year with Gigaton, their first album in seven long years and their first since 2006 with a new producer; sessions and work with Brendan O’Brien not hitting the mark for the band (or fans, see ‘Can’t Deny Me’).

As a long time fan, I was growing tired of the rumours – the fake supposed track lists and titles (some better than others, most featuring ‘Of The Earth’ and ‘Can’t Deny Me’ as attempts at validity), the ‘massive tour featuring both small venues and stadiums in each city’ and claims of ‘two new albums and an Ed solo’. It would come when it would come. And then, early in 2020, there were some very real hints, snippets of a strange new sound doing the rounds, an app and map to hunt down images around the world, an album cover and, finally, the email from Ten Club arrived ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ – it was time!

Now, I’ll be honest, at first I was a little ‘do what?’ But by the end I was hooked and going back for another spin – a lot more than can be said for ‘Can’t Deny Me’. It’s definitely Pearl Jam but it’s Pearl Jam sounding more focused and engaged than they have on record for a while, working with Josh Evans had clearly allowed them to take a freer approach to their experimental side in the same way as working with Tchad Blake and Adam Kasper had. If this was a sign of what was to come on Gigaton a) sign me up and b) what’s next? Well, ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ showed that ‘DOTC’ was a deliberate left-field choice, it was a more straight-ahead song but, again, the band sounding tighter and more ‘on’. From the conversations online I saw, it did the job of shutting up those bemoaning DOTC’s ‘weird’ sound. And then came ‘Quick Escape’ and I new that Gigaton was going to be great:

It’s a belter of a song, guitars to the forefront and a scathing lyric  – “crossed the border to Morocco, Kashmir to Marrakesh, the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet”. What was I expecting – an album with the experimental textures of Riot Act with the power and engaged lyrics of Pearl Jam. What I got was exactly that and it’s fucking great – even though ‘Buckle Up’ took a lot of listens to not skip.

Since Binaural I’d started to consider Pearl Jam a band of second halves on their albums – from the mid point on things got tastier. ‘Light Years’ through to ‘Parting Ways’, ‘Nothing As It Seems’ through ‘All Or None’, ‘Just Breath’ onwards etc is where you found the juicier cuts of meat. But Gigaton is not only front-loaded, the mid section is dazzling – ‘Seven O’Clock’ is easily Vedder’s wordiest lyric and is powered along by a melody that has the rare distinction of being a ‘Ament, Gossard, McCready, Vedder’ composition, and ‘Take The Long Way’ is one of those great Matt Cameron composition – and closes strong with ‘Comes Then Goes’, ‘Retrograde’ and ‘River Cross’, Vedder’s touching lament on fear and the nature of doubt in life underscored by an antique pump organ (the take used retained from a 2015 demo for the song).

I’ve played this album through so many times this year I’ve lost count – I even picked up the CD too (as Pearl Jam don’t seem to grasp download codes with their vinyl) so I could spin it in the car on my new commute – and am still not tired of it. Pearl Jam haven’t sounded so consistently engaged and willing to ‘go for it’ in pushing their sound for years and it’s a joyous listen that, in a year of turmoil, managed to provide an uplifting soundtrack. It’s an easy choice for me to highlight this as my album of 2020 on so many personal levels.

Spinning The New… 2

Taking a momentary pause from the Pearl Jam series for, as those playing along at home may have sussed our, the final three all dropped between 1993 and 1996 and I thought it was time to take a quick gander at the newer stuff spinning right now.

This is fairly genre-specific. I’m not about to jump any sharks and start discussing Eminem’s ‘diss track’ (this is something that baffles me as a concept) or even start talking about the new Paul McCartney stuff (some of the worst material I’ve heard from the former Fab that didn’t involve frogs). While I have heard the new Smashing Pumpkins track I must have dozed off listening to it so it’s not going to be appearing here.

Mogwai – We’re Not Done Yet (End Title)

Another year another new Mogwai album. Well, sort of. These dons of post-rock have seemingly hit a real stride in terms of output as there’s a been a release per year of late alternating between ‘studio’ and ‘soundtrack’ album. Their soundtrack albums are different to their ‘own’ as the music is, obviously enough, written to suit someone else’s vision / story but each have been strong and worth additions to their catalogue (take Atomic as a prime example). Kin the film would appear to be destined to be seen by nobody: a box office and critical bomb. Kin the soundtrack should be heard by many – it’s a great, moody, sci-fi soundtrack that feels like it could just as easily blend into the background on Stranger Things (yes, I’m a very recent convert all binge-watched up to speed).

Jim James – Just A Fool

Back in 2015 My Morning Jacket were talking up the possibility of a very quick follow up the then-new The Waterfall on the back of how much material they’d written and recorded in those sessions. It hasn’t happened and can’t see it happening any time soon. Instead we got three solo albums from Jim James: one patchy, one a continuation of his covers project and this year’s Uniform Distortion which I picked up from the record store while collecting my pre-order of KinUniform Distortion feels actually like a very fine MMJ album and is well worth exploring.

Kurt Vile – Loading Zones

There’s a new Kurt Vile album dropping later this year and I’ve already got it on pre-order. I got hooked on Vile’s sound following Smoke Ring For My Halo. There’s something hypnotic about Vile’s sound and once you’re hooked.. well.

J Mascis – See You At The Movies

Oddly enough, there’s a direct line between Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis and Kurt Vile in terms of style and sound and the two have often shared a track. It’s fitting, then, that Mascis has a new solo record dropping this autumn too – his solo work is less wall-of-sound guitar than the Dino albums but he’s started mixing his trademark guitar solos and shredding into his folksier / acoustic solo stuff to strong results so I’m looking forward to Elastic Days – also on pre-order from my not-quite local dealer.

Currently Spinning

It’s not just books. I’m consuming a lot of music lately. Specifically I’m playing the arse out of the new albums from Built to Spill and Last Days of April (of which more to come).

 

I’m stuck on this song:

 

Still blasting the My Morning Jacket album from the car:

 

And, because my son still rocks out to this album:

Time to roll the answer floats on down the farthest shore…. of the mind

There’s a few music ‘magazines’ I’ll read online. Things like Spin (for their lists, their in-depth Dinosaur Jr article etc) predominantly, occasionally Consequence of Sound, even Pitchfork (which I take with more than a grain of salt thanks to their hipster-heart-on-sleeve and love of things not even slightly alternative) from time to time for news. I’ll also get the Rolling Stone email on a close-to-daily basis.

I’m sure this isn’t unique or blog-worthy in itself but bear with me.

Sometimes there’ll be an article on a band I’m loving. So what I like to do – having read said article – is kinda back-explore the coverage of that band on the site(s). See what they were saying about them / reviewing etc before I was reading them.

IMG_4439My Morning Jacket dropped a new album this year, The Waterfall. It’s brilliant. No question from me that it’ll be up in the most played of 2015 come December.

Checking back on some of the earlier reviews for the band it’s interesting to see there’s a lot of comparisons for their seminal Z album to Radiohead’s OK Computer. Rolling Stone lead their review with “America is a lot closer to getting its own Radiohead, and it isn’t Wilco.”

I can understand the comparisons. It was a Big Step album. It was more experimental with the sound and was a deliberate move away from regional sound to something altogether more Universal and moved them into a different orbit in terms of sales, concerts and coverage.

I’ve spoken of it before so won’t do too much here.

In a way the comparisons thereafter also work. In the same way as some people never got over OK Computer and judged each subsequent release accordingly, the same is true of MMJ and Z. As Radiohead went further ‘left’ with their follow-up so did MMJ. The difference is that the quality control switch on the 1-2 punch of Kid A and Amnesiac was significantly higher than MMJ’s Evil Urges which alienated many by straying too far into the falsetto-funk and wandering – while Librarian and Touch Me Pt 2 still hold up not a lot else really does. A quick dart back to the centre followed for both bands too – Hail To The Thief for Radiohead and MMJ’s Circuital (obviously the timelines are a bit off). Circuital almost felt like an apology – straight ahead, less trip and almost subdued.

So if your wanderings into experimentation alienate some and your move back to please alienates others, what do you do next?

For Radiohead it was In Rainbows. Their now high-point. The culmination of their experimentation crafted into finely honed and tight songs without any flabby excess or weak points, taking every element of their sound to date and pushing it forward with the kind of expert confidence that can’t be ignored.

I didn’t get over OK Computer until I heard In Rainbows.

I didn’t get over Z – until I dropped the needle on The Waterfall (even if I did need to change the speed settings – who puts an album at 45rpm?!).

The Waterfall is not only MMJ’s most direct album, it’s also their trippiest. All the elements of their sound are contained in these 10 tracks and yet rather than feel like a retread, there’s an urgency to it, a compelling move forward. Everything is here from the big, live crowd-thrillers, the guitar solos, the orchestral / folk-rock, the psychedelic wanderings and the falsetto-hitting funk all surrounded by Jim James unimpeachable voice.

In the same way that Z sounded ready to blast forth from the stage (for evidence see the live album Okonokos that followed), The Waterfall sounds just as tailor-made to thrill audiences. Believe will undoubtedly be opening every live set for the next 5 years – a slow entry propelled with guitar-chord punching and the title repeated an octave higher each time until Jim James lets rip with a BELIEEEEVVEE that strays oh-so-close to Journey, the song lifts-off in the same way as Worldless Chorus and suddenly we’re airborne with the song. I’ve probably played the tune to death already but the rule at the moment is that if my toddler son rocks out to it, it gets played a lot – slipping this in the CD player (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – putting the CD in with the Vinyl is a win-win in my opinion) in the morning is the best way to start a day. Especially if the journey is long enough to include In Its Infancy (The Waterfall).

It’s something of a different tact for the band lyric-wise. There’s a different voice here, it’s more personal; certainly a break-up album, albeit with an air of “and so it goes”, with lines such as “I’m getting so tired of trying to always be nice,” (Big Decisions), ” it’s a thin line between lovin’ and wastin’ my time” (Thin Line) and “I hope you get the point, I think our love is done” (Get The Point).

That there’s another album due next year from the same sessions is great news – four years separate this from Circuital – even if a predetermined release schedule can sometimes spell an ease in quality.

It feels very much like My Morning Jacket are back in the game.

Starting…

…somewhere. But where? First posts are tricky so lets start at the end. The end of the alphabet – with Z. Or the two Z’s I’m stuck on at the moment.

The first is Z by My Morning Jacket.

My_Morning_Jacket_-_ZThis is one of those albums that sits up high in my list of bests. It wasn’t the first MMJ album I owned (that was It Still Moves) but it’s arguably a highpoint in their catalog. It’s one of those rare albums where tracks don’t get skipped – with the possible exception of Into The Woods depending on mood – and has everything that makes them great distilled into a little over three quarters of an hour. It’s got some scorching guitar-driven rock tracks (while there’s no One Big Holiday there is Anytime), the jam outs and nods to funk and even delicacy (and while It Beats 4 U isn’t quite as delicate as the later Librarian or earlier Golden it’s still tender) all soaked in just the right amount of reverb and remaining the right side of countrified.

There’s also a very strong likelihood that I’ll be seeing them this summer so it’s going to be playing a lot more.

It’s out there on the Mediafire’s of the world but it’s just as readily available at stupidly low prices as it’s already close to 7 years old.

The other Z is for Zdob şi Zdub. They’re a Moldovan band who I’d never heard of before I saw a short, 20 minute Romanian film with my wife and this happened to play over the credits. Since then I can’t get it out of my head but why would I, it’s fun, upbeat and beats the arse off any of the cack on The Voice etc and I love a bit of forgein music