COZY-UP WITH A WINTER SOUL WARMER

After days of trying and failing this week, Cult of Luna‘s Somewhere Along the Highway finally got played in full yesterday. Glorious. But why the protracted arsing about just to play an album?

The conditions weren’t right. Nearly, but not quite. It is winter, which is a start. And we had the sub-zeros outside, finally. But it was also TOO BLOODY SUNNY every morning to do justice to Highway’s cold weight.

Winter music. Seasonal listening. Frosty bites. What gets you through?

Scratch that last question – it makes winter sound like the enemy, a battle to be endured and escaped from. It’s not. It’s Optimum Music Season. Short dark days and the great indoors are primed for music, books about music, and winter music selections.

This gives you every excuse to dig out some music specifically for the time of year and then agonise over exactly the right time to play it. You want to turn it into a 3-D experience: surround sound with seasonal mood and vision.

As we know, some albums just sound better at certain times. Not like there are any rules, rights or wrongs about it. It’s down to preferences. But, more than any other time of year, winter encourages this hibernatory Right Moment fixation.

For example, David Bowie‘s Blackstar and The Next Day (and a few other Bowie albums) are never bright-light listens. Not for me at least. They’re autumn-winter affairs or soundworlds for the smallest hours. The dead of night? That’s when they’re most alive. Never the heat.

Henry Rollins touches on music’s relationship with time, season and place a lot in his books, and it’s one of the things that makes him a really good music writer. He writes as a fan, not a critic. You won’t get in depth reviews or high brow critical perspectives, he knows that’s not his space. But you do get words and fanaticism about buying music, playing music, what memories it stokes, when it got/gets played and what it soundtracks in life. And when you read this, you realise you’re not alone in your nerd-world musical indulgences. He’s out-nerding everyone, doing it for a living. It’s on a different scale. But it’s good to know because it validates your own quirks.

Back to seasonal sounds, though. Which albums make for a winter-enhancing selection box?

It starts with the nice long seasonal build-up to Christmas. Childhood pop for the magic-of-Christmas mainline (Frankie Goes to Hollywood ALWAYS, some other pre-teen pop as well usually). Uncool 80s metal for another childhood link. Lyrical storytelling and sparse folk – Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Michael Chapman – for long nights, low lights and late mornings. Accessible jazz or blues, ditto. Post/Scandi metal for the harsher realities once the Christmas vibe is retired.

Seasonal music
Winter selection box

On top of that there’s a pull towards music that’s warm. Not sunny warm but intimate warm. Close-up instrumentation warm. Analogue 60s/70s productions warm. Late-era Beatles, that kind of stuff.

Something new that really tuned in to the 70s analogue spirit this winter was a 2021 album:

If Words Were Flowers by Curtis Harding.

Ho-lee shit, go check it. Ultra warm soul with just enough backbone funk to swing a tail. Gospel sweep and widescreen strings. Bass clarinet rasps and tenor sax uppers. Soft psychedelic fuzz. Hip-hop stiffness on the beats. And I dare you not be melted by The One‘s gentle heavy groove.

File near Mayfield, Axelrod, Kiwanuka? This might be glib and obvious (what did you expect) as a batch of references, and maybe I’m riding high on the first-plays thrill of a new discovery that’s fitting the mood, but it’s all we can manage right now. Haven’t even checked the lyrics yet.

Tip? Crank it up on a walk out in the frost. Soul with a scarf on.

Veering off now to a different thought:

When will Nick Cave and Warren Ellis do a winter album? Even wilder, what about a Christmas one?

Surely it would leap to the top of the seasonal stack with Low’s Christmas and the Sufjan Stevens box set. Quiet moods, small-watt ambience, ghost tales, long shadows – Cave & Ellis are surely built for this? COME ON FELLAS! Let’s get the rumour started. They’re a fixture in my seasonal listening anyway, might as well go full hog with an official St Nick Christmas Album.

Right, that’s it for now. Nice talking with you. See below for a few words on three winter aces, lifted lazily with no edits from a previous post. The sentiment’s the same.

BJORK – Vespertine

Top of the winter pops is Vespertine, always. Somehow, it’s the essence of snow in musical form, yet it doesn’t sound like it’s contrived to be a winter album – it feels like it just turned out that way. Hidden Place pushes against wind and snow drifts before the chorus sweeps you up and out, flying over white patchworks. Frosti, Aurora and An Echo, A Stain make for an especially frost-twinkled run of three, but the whole of Vespertine has a softness of sound that is flakes falling, ice forming. Magical. It only ever gets played at this time of year. That’s the deal.

NICK CAVE AND WARREN ELLIS – White Lunar

Where Vespertine exposes your inner wonder to winter’s call, White Lunar tracks the harsh, bleak end of the same season – let your mind go with The Rider #2 or Zanstra and conjure a whiteout. Song for Jesse and Micro Sucker could have fallen from Vespertine’s branches, but really, it’s isolation and loneliness that dominate these heavy scores …. like Srey Leak, disc 2. Plug in for barren, wintry detachment from civilisation this Christmas.

CULT OF LUNA – Somewhere Along the Highway

Or Salvation. Or Vertikal and Vertikal II. But probably Somewhere Along the Highway. Less seasonal than the others here, but I always get more Cult of Luna in the diet in winter. Slow-moving, heavy and intense, the Swedish post-metal masters rarely waver far from their template and yet, like Mogwai, refine it pretty much every time they put a record out. This, their fourth album, may be their best. Dim soars to a higher mellow than they’d managed before, and Back to Chapel Town is a timeless snowbound pounder. Just get the whole album on, it’s a class act.

KARMA TO BURN … NO MORE

R.I.P. WILL MECUM, KARMA TO BURN FOUNDER AND RIFFMEISTER

Plenty of musicians pass away and we can’t comment on them all, nor should we even try. But this one? Karma to Burn have featured a few times in this blog so yes, we’re doing it.

Will Mecum died of a head injury after a fall at the end of April. He was 48. Weirdly, four months later, that’s pretty much still all we know.

It feels like small media noise for a band who, if you got them in your life, seemed like a pretty big name. You felt they were known to everyone in the rock-metal-stoner scene, not least because of their pretty unique format and on-off links to John Garcia. But maybe they weren’t. Maybe they really were still cult.

They were definitely a conundrum. Sometimes you’d play their albums and revel in the greatest of no-bullshit rock sounds, that instrumental riff metal thing that took its cues from the AC/DC, Ramones or Motorhead school of Ain’t Broke No Fix and just rocks like a bastard. Sometimes that’s all you need: pure rock, no solos, no art, no words. The subversive power of guitar-bass-drums amplification.

At other times, you’d get a bit bored by the one-trick repetition and lack of adventure (never the debut though – always killer, that one).

Similar thing live, depending on which incarnation you caught. Last time I saw Karma to Burn was 2018 and it was a good gig but didn’t quite fly for a band you want to be totally smoked by. But Audioscope 2011 – man, that was something. Three badass road dogs and plentee amps upstairs in a pub made for a shit-kicking headliner set. Mecum was into it yet anonymous next to his more animated bandmates, the genial Rich Mullins on low-hung bass and the wildman-unkempt Rob Oswald on drums.

Watch a clip from that very gig. This is the Karma to Burn and Will Mecum that lives on.

Wild, Wonderful Purgatory rocking hard while writing this. It sounds better than ever. And now that K2B have joined the departed, it probably always will.

So long, guys. And eternal thanks for the live introduction to Desert Storm.

PLANT AT KNEBWORTH 1990: REWIND THE RADIO TAPE

You know what it’s like. You see a reissue or a magazine profile or a landmark album anniversary or a musician’s death or something and you end up triggered into a back-catalogue sinkhole. It’s part of the music-fan game. We love it.

Unsurprisingly, a bit of this happened after picking up the Robert Plant Knebworth 1990 EP on Record Store Day last week.

I dug out my TDK D90 radio taping of the gig and played it before the EP.

Robert Plant Knebworth tape

Haven’t pressed clunk-click on that one in decades. Beyond the 4 EP tracks (Hurting Kind, Liar’s Dance, Tall Cool One and Wearing and Tearing), what else would be on there?

Not much, I reckoned. Another couple of tracks, maybe.

How wrong.

By the time Rock and Roll played out at the end, I’d noted eight tracks in the setlist. Immigrant Song works way better than you might have thought, while Hurting Kind and Tie Dye on the Highway are solid enough, kinda what you’d expect from Plant ’90. He was rocking his hardest album solo album to date, but vocally not quite home. That would be Fate of Nations and everything solo that followed it.

Jimmy Page joins for Misty Mountain Hop. Ha. Not quite all over the shop, but taut it ain’t. Wearing and Tearing though, that’s a different beast. Forceful and ragged, it snaps you to attention.

Here’s the track listing from the tape. Can you see what’s missing?

Hurting Kind (Got My Eyes On You)
Immigrant Song
Tie Dye on the Highway
Going to California
Tall Cool One
Misty Mountain Hop (with Jimmy Page)
Wearing and Tearing (with Jimmy Page)
Rock and Roll (with Jimmy Page)

Yep. NO LIAR’S DANCE.

So, now I know – finally – what it was that bugged me back at the time. It was having that song cut from the radio airing that I’d conscientiously and fanatically made the effort to tape (nerd is as nerd does). And when you’ve seen or heard the Knebworth version, you’ll know exactly why it bugged the shit out of ma much younger self. It’s a performance and a half, definitely the track of the set. Doug Boyle hits that acoustic so hard.

But now, with the new RSD EP, we’ve got the audio version so I guess that’s some sort of closure after 31 years. It turns out that my taping was a Radio 1 replay of the gig, not the live broadcast from the day itself – Tommy Vance said so, right after Rock and Roll. It also turns out that Plant also played Nirvana that day, so that’s another one to go and find.

And, if you haven’t seen it, here’s Liar’s Dance in all its windblown brilliance. Check that shirty billow. Boyle on fire and in command throughout. What a player.

While we’re here: RIP Phil Johnstone, co-writer and keyboard player through Now and Zen, Manic Nirvana and Fate of Nations. Crucial albums all, and his part in them was huge.

WHO MADE YOUR 2021 RECORD STORE DAY?

ROBERT PLANT LIVE AT KNEBWORTH 1990? YES PLEASE. AND A MOGWAI SOUNDTRACK? IT WOULD BE RUDE NOT TO….

Finally, after many years of hoping-but-failing, we have a Record Store Day release to buy without hesitation. This might sound strange for RSD fanatics but, for me, the day/event has always been a contrived effort (see Great RSD Swindle? post) despite the good intentions.

But thank Plant for a 2021 turnaround: a nice little twelve incher that collects 4 tracks from Robert Plant’s Knebworth 1990 set. Taped it from the radio at the time and still have the cassette, but when the whole thing got aired on the tellybox, didn’t some halfwit decide to cut Liar’s Dance? There’s something about that Knebworth broadcast that annoyed. Pretty sure it was having one of Plant’s best tracks chopped.

Or maybe that’s an invented memory. Dunno.

Anyway, back to Truck Store and this EP is what an RSD release should be: something previously unavailable, tarted up so it’s a bit spesh (yellow vinyl), not obscenely priced, and for a lifelong Robert Plant fan this does the job in spades, buckets and shovels. Thank you, RSD peoples.

Robert Plant live at Knebworth 1990
Robert Plant at Knebworth: keen as mustard

RSD 2021 part 1 didn’t quite end there. Mogwai’s ZeroZeroZero soundtrack stuck its tongue out and taunted a budget stretch. Shit. Went home to ponder and check some audio online first, which sounds ridiculous because it’s Mogwai, and Mogwai fucking rule, right? Yes. Especially this year.

Then again, it is a soundtrack. But a few seconds’ worth of random ZeroZeroZero samples said yeah, get it or forever be fool. Of regret.

Mogwai ZeroZeroZero white vinyl
Mogwai ZeroZeroZero: who can resist?

So, a much better Record Store Day at this end. How was yours?

Robert Plant Knebworth tape
Just waiting for Cassette Store Day

Eddie Van Halen … overlooked?

EDDIE VAN HALEN PASSED AWAY YESTERDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2020.

Is it possible for the most influential guitarist of his generation, a guy whose band was one of hard rock’s biggest-selling stadium-slaying behemoths, to be overlooked?

I think maybe, and here’s why: it’s because we’re too cool. At least, we think we are. Maybe not all the time, but enough to overlook Van Halen’s musicianly credibility. And why do we do this? Because of Jump. Because of mega sales. Because of hair, smiles, girls, lights, showmanship, entertainment, innuendo, feuds, all that stuff. Because Van Halen weren’t alt, avant, art, fringe, prog, hostile, underground or anything ‘credible’ once you’d discovered thrash, grunge and the Lollapalooza bands. They were a catchy California sunshine crew at a time when Seattle matched our late adolescent moods better. So, we moved on. Sidelined the records we’d bought when younger, denied them as we got a little older. Van Halen are a band it’s easy to be a bit sniffy about.

But this isn’t cool. This is Poserville, a place we’ve all visited and maybe even stayed a while. It’s important to see the place, sure – but you’ve got to leave.

Eddie’s death might prompt more of us to leave. It might get more people to simply sink into the glory of Van Halen’s prime, whichever track, album or era it might be for each person, because there IS glory in those records. Not everything for everyone, though that may be true for some. But there is something for pretty much anyone – just gotta dig around and listen with guards dropped and scepticism binned. Then enjoy Eddie and his band’s music for what it is: highly musical, highly melodic pop-formatted rock with revolutionary playing that never gets in the way of a song. Ever. They were a song band, a popular song band, not a deep band or an issues band or a muso band, and this is why Eddie’s ability could be overlooked by the broader music world and the more tribal music fans.

Van Halen entertained and delivered a good time. They just happened to have one of the all-time rock sound innovators within. They didn’t really step outside that. Didn’t do a Beatles, didn’t do a Radiohead. But the guitar playing was already far enough ahead and the first album proves it. So do the next three.

There are many people who’ve passed away whose music means a lot more to me than Van Halen’s does, and yet I felt the need to write a little something. I think it’s because there’s conflict between what we think Van Halen is/were, which puts us off, and the pure joy (and awe) that comes from the best of their music when you play it and surrender to it. Going back to those first albums is revelatory. And they make you feel good, too. They are celebratory.

But if you need an outsider musician’s validation before giving yourself permission to cue up a Van Halen record, check Julian Cope’s review. He knew. His review might even get you to read David Lee Roth’s Crazy From The Heat (it persuaded me and was entirely worth it).

Right then. Better get on with that review that’s stalled, unfinished. So long, Eddie.

NO JOKE: KILLING = 40

KILLING JOKE ON STAGE IN OXFORD FOR THEIR 40TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR

It’s 16-11-2018 and we’re just dropping in for a minute to acknowledge one of the greats:

Killing Joke, we salute you.

No, forget that – too much like a symbol of establishment-sanctioned respect. Killing Joke, we REVEL with you, gathering in celebratory chaos against the wrongs of the world order.

Irony is, I can’t get to the O2 tonight so no gathering for me, gotta hope they stick it out for a 42nd anniversary tour. Am instead attending vicariously in real time with a shot of Pylon.

Will the gig be as much of a force as their 2015 Oxford showing?

No-one’s going to bet against it. Somebody tell us what’s happening at KJ four-zero!

Soundtrack to these words: CD 2 of Pylon, Apotheosis and Panopticon stoking a supercharged uplift.

Killing Joke - Pylon

BLACKSTAR DAY

Two years and two days on from Blackstar and Bowie’s 69th. Two years on from Bowie’s departure. January 10th: Blackstar Day.

Bowie's Blackstar

Blackstar Day

How much more do we know about the album and its messages? Lots, if you’re forensically inclined and need to have the whys explained. I’m not and I don’t. To me, Blackstar is kinda frozen because when Bowie went, time slowed – for a little while – and when you go back to the album, time slows again. Maybe that’s down to how and when you listen to it.

But when do you listen to it?

Not too often. Not yet, anyway. Definitely not in daylight, and not without complete attention for the whole album – it’s that kind of record. And even though it’s not played often, it feels as close and personal as any lifelong favourite, as it no doubt does for every other Bowie fan out there. I did play Blackstar on Sunday though, for the anniversary of its release. Mary Anne Hobbs paid elegant tribute to Bowie in her morning radio programme, as you’d expect, and that night, out walking in the 2-degree dark with a feels-like -6 freeze, Blackstar focused the senses. No distractions. New things heard. Still as knocked out by it – and by him and his exit – as the first time.

Blackstar is such a full-on album that it feels like the best gigs you’ve been to. Moving yet introspective, possibly even transcendent, yet never to be taken for granted. Like a true live-music moment, Blackstar absorbs. It’s more than just an album of music: it’s a life and a death and an afterlife, all at the same time, and it’s this inseparability that surely makes Blackstar’s pull stronger. I don’t want to know too much about its making or its meaning, if there is a meaning – again, not yet. Just enough to revel in its jazzed creativity, but not so much that the mystery and the magnitude of that January 2016 weekend is lost. It’s the kind of album that makes you think UP, especially on the title track and Lazarus. We think space, we think in ideas, we think bigger when we listen to Bowie’s best. Don’t we?

And I’d put The Next Day up there as one of his best too, another album which fits the blackout of night. They’re not for comparing, and Blackstar stands alone both for the music and what it came to represent, but The Next Day was a step toward. Countless times I’ve lost myself in it in the small hours when sleep has slipped away.

So yes, back to Blackstar. It deserves a quality of attention. You could say that, with that album and its layers and wrappings, Bowie is teaching us how to listen again – a last lesson from a pop-music-art creator-collaborator, a signal to get off the musical waltzer and slow things down a bit. Or, in the case of Dollar Days, slow down a lot … there’s a good reason for it not being the last track on his last record. Too fraught a finish. If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to … fuck, man. Those words, followed by the spirited sax that rises out of them, are almost unbearable. I Can’t Give Everything Away at least offers a momentary musical lift.

And with that, we have another year and another RIP to David Bowie. Still vivid and unreal, it’s all we can do to cue up the music and immerse ourselves in Bowie stories. There’s no such thing as indulgence this week, whether it’s Marc Riley’s Bowie tracks, or Mary Anne Hobbs and her interviews with Donny McGaslin and Denis O’Regan, or a repeat listen of this “Heroes” 40th anniversary doc. Check this Guardian feature on writers’ top Bowie tracks too.

For what it’s worth, this post was made with No Plan, half of Stage, one whole Reality and a double dose of Disco King. Previous words on Bowie loss here and here, and an Earthling review here.

Just sharing the love.

SNOWY AUDIO

THIS TIME, IT’S SEASONAL: SIX CHRISTMAS-ISH LISTENS

Noddy, Lewie, Bowie. Elvis and Ella, crooners and swingers – we wheel them all out for Christmas, and rightly so. It’s CHRIIIISTMAAAS, innit? But outside of all that, which non-jinglers best fit the wintry build-up to Christmas? Who creates the mood for a warming dark rum and a soundtrack for snow, even if there isn’t any?

Here are some of my go-to festives. Warmers and coolers, all seasonal. What are yours?

BJORK – Vespertine

Top of the winter pops is Vespertine, always. Somehow, it’s the essence of snow in musical form, yet it doesn’t sound like it’s contrived to be a winter album – it feels like it just turned out that way. Hidden Place pushes against wind and snow drifts before the chorus sweeps you up and out, flying over white patchworks. Frosti, Aurora and An Echo, A Stain make for an especially frost-twinkled run of three, but the whole of Vespertine has a softness of sound that is flakes falling, ice forming. Magical. It only ever gets played at this time of year. That’s the deal.

NICK CAVE AND WARREN ELLIS – White Lunar

Where Vespertine exposes your inner wonder to winter’s call, White Lunar tracks the harsh, bleak end of the same season – let your mind go with The Rider #2 or Zanstra and conjure a whiteout. Song for Jesse and Micro Sucker could have fallen from Vespertine’s branches, but really, it’s isolation and loneliness that dominate these heavy scores …. like Srey Leak, disc 2. Plug in for barren, wintry detachment from civilisation this Christmas.

BOB DYLAN – Tempest

Gotta have some Dylan at Christmas. Not youthful early-peak Dylan, but something more weathered, cracked and fallible instead. Crackling Bob. Time Out of Mind always works when winter nights shorten the days, but this year it’s Tempest’s fireside feel that’s snuck its way in – must be the light jazzy blues swing that shuffles through. Not every track is essential, but you CAN imagine Duquesne Whistle soundtracking a snowy trudge home after a warming short in the pub. Scarlet Town and Tin Angel give you the storyteller view from a window seat. Dark roots. Yeah, Tempest goes down well – pour another rum.

ROBERT PLANT – Band of Joy

Does a similar job to Dylan’s Tempest, but given that Plant is The Man round these parts, it’s much more of a player. What makes it a  listen for this time of year? The camaraderie, the togetherness, the organic warmth in the production… Angel Dance might share some of Duquesne Whistle’s jaunt, but it’s the ethereal dark of the Silver Rider and Monkey covers – and Central Two-O-Nine‘s rustic free-wheel – that really put a wintry seal on things.

CULT OF LUNA – Somewhere Along the Highway

Or Salvation. Or Vertikal and Vertikal II. But probably Somewhere Along the Highway. Less seasonal than the others here, but I always get more Cult of Luna in the diet in winter. Slow-moving, heavy and intense, the Swedish post-metal masters rarely waver from their template and yet, like Mogwai, refine it pretty much every time they put a record out. This, their fourth album, may be their best. Dim soars to a higher mellow than they’d managed before, and Back to Chapel Town is a timeless snowbound pounder. Just get the whole album on, it’s a class act.

MYRKUR – Mareridt

Far less metal than its predecessor, Myrkur’s second album haunts beautifully – check Crown and tell me there’s no snowscape coming to mind. Tracks like Bornehjem and Death of Days might not be Christmas family crackers, despite being free of metallic axe, but wait for the ice of the post-festive comedown. Surely Myrkur can score that?

To be continued? Probably. HAPPY ROCKIN’ CHRISTMAS!

 

WINTER ANIMALS

PSYCH HOUR

MUGSTAR MAN’S OUT-THERE RADIO HOUR

Should have done a quickie post about this sooner, because there aren’t many days until it expires, but if you’re seeking a 60-minute psych-out curated by an insider – and who isn’t? – check this Freak Zone Playlist on 6 Music.

Aired in connection with the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia last month, it features Jason Stoll – Mugstar bassist, God Unknown Records label dude – as your soft-spoken guide through the anything-goes.

Many high points here, especially Mesange’s ethereal low frequency – a Sunn O))) undercurrent to Zep’s In the Light spook – and Here Lies Man’s max fuzz Afrobeat, but the most audacious slab is Sly & the Family Drone/Dead Neanderthals. Destined not to be stuck on repeat in the car for the Aldi family shop, Sly/Dead hammer out a confrontational 10 minutes of doomed saxophony.

The psych playlist expires by October 28, go check it.

Stretching the Festival of Psychedelia theme a bit more, a link to Julie’s Haircut turned up in an email the other week – they also played the festival, and you can hear why. Whispered moto-shimmer with sax of a very different order to Sly/Dead, you might fancy picking them up for a psych expedition.

AND…Ritual Union music event this Saturday in Oxford. Bo Ningen, Ulrika Spacek and Flamingods are among the bands at this 4-stage Cowley Road special, let’s hope the whole thing rocks enough on the day/night. See you down there.