1. Montparnasse – Floating Points
2. People of the Sticks – The Besnard Lakes
3. Junebouvier – Whirr
4. The Big Nod – Soft Walls
5. Sand Dance – Temples
6. Stoned and Starving – Parquet Courts
7. Mum’s the Word – Chain & The Gang
8. I Miss Your Bones – Hospitality
9. No Need for a Leader – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
10. Fat Lady of Limbourg – Dirt Dress
11. Wont’ Remember my Name – Soft Walls
12. The Upsetter – Metronomy
13. Passing Out Pieces – Mac Demarco
14. Pretty Machines – Parkay Quarts
15. John Brown – Papercuts
16. Far from Any Road – The Handsome Family
17. Pulling on a Line – Great Lake Swimmers
18. Would That Not be Nice – Divine Fits
19. Fever Boy – Femme
20. Pseudologia Fantastica – Foster the People
21. What a Pleasure – Beach Fossils
22. Talking Backwards – Real Estate
23. Re Stacks – Bon Iver
24. Rocky Mountain High – John Denver
25. Hellhole Ratrace – Girls
26. Lariat – Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
27. Open Eye Signal – Jon Hopkins
28. Baby – Dakhabrakha
29. Winter Sundays – Your Headlights are On
Fed up with working peripatetically, I accepted a full-time position with an engineering firm in Kennington. I only bother to mention this because it had quite an impact on my listening habits. It was all to do with Spotify and this associated thing called Discover Weekly, which we listened to while we worked. It’s basically a weekly playlist derived from an algorithm that predicts the sort of things you might like based on what you’ve previously searched for, and it’s surprisingly astute. What I used to do was write down in a draft email the names of songs that caught my ear. Once I’d accumulated four or five, I’d send them to my personal email address and then go over them in the evening, probably on YouTube. Not all tracks stood up to closer inspection, but judging by the length of this playlist many of them did.
There is barely a song to be found on The Big Nod that wasn’t encountered this way, and it could be that I’ll be hard pushed to find anything interesting to say on the subject. Let’s see how it goes…
Floating Points is the name that neuroscientist Sam Shepherd records under, and he can count snooker legend Steve Davis as a fan. The track Montparnasse is 11 minutes’ worth of downtempo electronica, and not the sort of thing I’d usually use to kick off any compilation. It is one of the few tracks here that recalls a specific memory outside of environment in which it was discovered; it reminds me of waiting for the train at Putney after an evening's bouldering session at Urban Ascent (now The Climbing Hangar) in Parsons Green. So strong is this association that I wonder whether my enthusiasm for music had been invigorated, for I hardly ever listen to music through headphones these days, not even on trains – I’m more likely to read a book.
Anyway, about 8 minutes and 45 seconds in the shuffling deep-house of Montparnasse sabotages itself: the drumbeat vanishes and the track plays out to an ambient, Orbital-esque kind of refrain, and then just stops. This is how I can get away with following it up with People of the Sticks (released 2013) by Canadian band The Besnard Lakes. It all plays out like the beginning of a James Bond film: Montparnasse scores the opening action sequence and People of the Sticks is the official theme, whence the credits role. That’s not how I intended it; the analogy suggested itself after the fact. The Besnard Lakes can be described as a post-rock endeavour incorporating elements of shoegaze.
So could Junebouvier (2012) by Whirr, who hail from the San Francisco Bay Area. Their contribution to my playlist is more urgent, with the bass guitar playing a more integral part. Is this what the kids had been listening to since I’d been ‘away’? Were those in the know also digging the Soft Walls? Information was scarce. I wanted to buy their LP but couldn’t find it anywhere (No Time, released July 2014). The Soft Walls sound like what might have happened if a John Cale period Velvet Underground had decamped to Marrakech with Brian Eno, although a simile like that can lead your imagination almost anywhere. There’s also a North-West African sort of vibe going on in Sand Dance (2014) by Temples, a band that could be more generally described as merely psychedelic. Listening to it now, the shift between these two songs is too abrupt for my liking, but I can live with it. Parquet Courts’ Stoned and Starving (2012) conjects what the Velvet Underground could have sounded like if they’d invited John Cale to contribute towards Loaded; distorted guitar-breaks thrown over a repetitive groove with insouciant backing vocals.
I’d not heard of any of these bands before, let alone the individual tracks, and was pleasantly surprised that music like this was being recorded. Not that I had my ear to the ground, but artists such as Alt-J, The War on Drugs, Mac DeMarco, Warpaint, etc. were getting airplay, so why not Brighton act the Soft Walls?
I hadn’t purchased a Chain & The Gang record since 2009’s Down With Liberty… Up With Chains!. I’m not sure why this was but it could be that they hadn’t played in the UK for some while – or if they had, I hadn’t got wind of it. I’d been made aware of 2011’s Music’s Not For Everyone a year or so after its release, whereas 2012’s In Cool Blood completely passed me by. On my birthday, Chain & The Gang were scheduled to play at The Dome in Tufnell Park – supported by Comet Gain – to promote the release of the latest album, Minimum Rock N Roll. If you’ve read my liner notes for my compendium Feel Good By Numbers then you’ll know that I once had the pleasure of buying Ian Svenonius a drink at the Highbury Garage (whilst he was still with Weird War). Hoping that he might remember this, I brought my copy of his book The Psychic Soviet to The Dome for him to sign. He said he remembered and, book duly signed, proceeded to deliver an impeccably energetic performance – just as he always does, without exception. I came away with a copy Minimum Rock N Roll and added the track Mum’s the Word to this compilation.
Ian Svenonius - a real gentleman
Back to Spotify: I Miss Your Bones by New York band Hospitality sounds a bit like The Breeders, which is all you need to know. At work, once we’d had enough of Discover Weekly, members of staff would take it in turns playing their personal preferences. I took the opportunity to explore further the Unknown Mortal Orchestra and selected their track No Need for a Leader for inclusion on this compilation.
The Fat Lady of Limbourg by Dirt Dress is a cover of a Brian Eno tune, and the sort of thing the guy who used to own all the indie tapes would have gone crazy for back in the day. I only became aware of this fact just now, literally before writing that last sentence, after rummaging around on the internet looking for something to say about Dirt Dress. There’s not much information out there, which suggests they’re no longer active, but their raucous take on The Fat Lady of Limbourg is certainly equal to Eno’s slower, slightly sinister original.
Another contribution from the Soft Walls, and probably the better of the two, Won’t Remember My Name sounds like The Jesus and Mary Chain reinterpreting All Tomorrow’s Parties by the Velvet Underground, maybe off the back of a particularly heavy session.
Metronomy are on a bit of a downer too, but of a different kind. “Why you giving me a hard time tonight?” asks the protagonist in The Upsetter, presumably to the object of his affection. I’m not sure of the song’s precise meaning but hearts have obviously been broken, as the wistful guitar solo that plays the song out firmly attests.
Passing Out Pieces by Mac DeMarco is a very strange tune. A discordant keyboard hammers out a discomfiting melody while Mac ponders the price of following his chosen profession. The video is weird as hell. Mr Wilkinson and one our bouldering buddies went to see him play live, and they rated the experience very highly.
Parquet Courts again, except this time they’re referring to themselves as Parkay Quarts. Due to a combination of familial and scholarly commitments, the rhythm section didn’t contribute much to the album Content Nausea, which may explain the nomenclatural reconfiguration. Pretty Machines harks back to The Strokes at the start of their career, whilst again sounding a lot like Loaded-era Velvet Underground.
John Brown by Papercuts was released in 2007, which goes to show how Spotify’s Discover Weekly isn’t all about pushing new music onto the listener. I could have done with something like this in 2007 – indie-folk before it went mainstream. This also applies to Far from Any Road by The Handsome Family, which dates back even further to 2003. I didn’t realise at the time, but the reason this song was probably doing the rounds was because it was being used as the theme song for HBO’s gothic crime drama True Detective. It exhibits more of an alternative-country sound than the Papercuts’ track, but the terms ‘country’ and ‘folk’ are quite often interchangeable. Pulling on a Line (2009) by Canadian folk-rock band the Great Lake Swimmers occupies the same ballpark. You can see from this how Spotify goes about its business.
My playlist moves up a gear, but I was looking to move down a gear. I’d completed a second London to Brighton cycle ride with my ‘team’ (Carlos-Weltschmerz) in June and then ridden a truncated Ride London Surrey 100 in early August (Hurricane Bertha intervened and the course was abbreviated on the grounds of health and safety). I was excited about watching the Vuelta, and still into cycling generally, but I wanted my Sundays back to do as I pleased, rather than being committed to riding my bike out to Chertsey or Windsor or wherever else.
In other news, my enthusiasm for my place of work was already beginning to pall. The managing director, although a very nice man, worried too much about things he needn’t have worried about, which meant I was kept on a tight leash. This is a common affliction amongst managers. They are, after all, control freaks by nature, and probably need to be. I also hadn’t taken a holiday in a long while, which was put right when my lady friend and I buggered off to Valencia for a long weekend towards the end of the summer, providing the perfect antidote to what would be the coolest August in 21 years, as well as one of the wettest.
This all paled into insignificance when set against the grave illness of a good friend of mine (a friend who appreciated the works of John Holt, Ian Brown, Stevie Wonder, They Might Be Giants and Paul Simon, among others, and had a keen musical taste). It didn’t end well – life is a seedy business at times. What can you do, other than manage one’s own sense of terror. Maybe that’s why I’m bothering to write any of this: to deny my mortality, or to overcome it – my own memento mori.
Divine Fits are/were a project resulting from a collaboration between Britt Daniel from Spoon and Dan Boeckner from Wolf Parade that spawned 2012’s A Thing Called Divine Fits. Would That Not Be Nice is a piece of slightly polished, slightly jagged alternative rock with a strong melody, which pushes this compilation up a notch.
Femme (real name: Laura Bettinson) released the single Fever Boy in late 2013. I can’t understand why it wasn’t a massive hit. ‘Alternative dance’ you might call it, comparable to music made by people like M.I.A. or Santigold.
When Foster the People broke through with the single Pumped Up Kicks in 2010/2011 I wasn’t at all impressed. I couldn’t stand the overly jolly bassline, nor the treatment of the lead vocal which had been synthesized in some way. For a while, I mistakenly thought the song was called Pumped Up Kids and that maybe it was about children who were into bodybuilding. After realising my error I then assumed it to be about trainers. It sort of is, but not in a celebratory sense: it’s about kids wearing kicks having to run for their life from a psychotic adolescent carrying a gun. All this aside, Pseudologia Fantastica is from the group’s second album, Supermodel, released in 2014, and has been described by one critic as ‘psychedelic dance-pop’ and by another as a ‘psychedelic, shoe-gazey wig-out’. You decide.
Beach Fossils were a band that I always intended to follow up on, but I never got around to it. Maybe I will now. The reason for this is that their song What a Pleasure (taken from their 2011 EP What a Pleasure) reminded me of some of the bands signed to Sarah Records – The Springfields perhaps. It’s the twelve-string guitar what does it.
Released as a single in January 2014, Talking Backwards by Real Estate also evokes the spirit of Sarah – this time it’s the Field Mice that comes to mind. The production is warmer here; less echo and delay. One of my bouldering pals used to like this song, and it recalls driving in his van back from Bermondsey after a session at the Biscuit Factory, or down to Fontainebleau for a climbing holiday in 2015.
Now for something altogether gloomier: re. Stacks by Bon Iver. All I knew about Bon Iver was that their principle songwriter, Justin Vernon, had a beard. That’s still pretty much all I know about them, which doesn’t in any way diminish my enthusiasm for re. Stacks. It’s about Vernon’s gambling habits, although the bigger picture is that he was also in the process of surmounting a number of personal obstacles. Re. Stacks is a folkish sort of tune and so opens the door for Rocky Mountain High by John Denver, even if Rocky Mountain High does come from a very different mental place.
Did you know that in the USA there’s such a thing as ‘state songs’? Moreover, sometimes a state may have more than one, as is the case with Colorado, whose state songs are Where the Columbines grow by A J Fynn, and – you’ve guessed it – Rocky Mountain High by John Denver. Under more normal circumstances I would have drawn a line here and finished on a (Rocky Mountain) high. However, the plethora of interesting material that Discover Weekly was pumping out compelled me to keep going.
Hellhole Ratrace by Girls would have made for a great climax to this. It’s a slow burner lasting all of 6 minutes and 56 seconds, capable of making me feel simultaneously sad and happy. The sucker punch comes at 3 minutes 45, where an electric guitar kicks in and singer Christopher Owens proceeds to plead the following lines four times over:
But I don't want to cry my whole life through,
Yeah I wanna do some laughing too,
So come on, come on, come on, come on and laugh with me.
And I don't want to die without shaking up a leg or two,
Yeah I wanna do some dancing too,
So come on, come on, come on, come on and dance with me.
It feels flippant to follow on with Lariat by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, but I had another two rather melancholic tunes I wanted to add to this compilation and it wouldn’t have done to place them here – three consecutive downers would have been too much to bear. You can always rely on Malkmus to provide some light relief, and so in it went. Lariat sounds a lot like Pavement.
To really sever the connection, and to give the playlist a sense of completeness, I threw in a second slab of electronica – the ‘tech house’ of Open Eye Signal by Jon Hopkins. I’m a dilettante when it comes to music like this, which is not to say I don’t derive genuine enjoyment from it. What it does mean is that I lack the cultural references within which to frame the tune – nightclubs, all-night house parties, illicit substances.
I hesitated to include the next track – Baby by Ukrainian folk project Dakhabrakha. It smacks of the sort of thing you’ll hear on Jools Holland, where the audience will whoop and nod approvingly as if they’ve been let in on a big secret. Dakhabrakha are not some street-band plucked out of obscurity for Western eyes to get all misty over, but the product of Ukrainian avant-garde theatre and the project of artistic director Vladislav Troitsky (whoever he is). The musical arrangement could have come out of anywhere. What grabbed my attention was the repetitive, sombre harmonies of Olena, Iryna and Nina, sung in what I assume to be Ukrainian.
It pains me slightly – only slightly – to hear people say that they don’t like this or that song because they find it ‘depressing’. This sentiment will often be lazily directed towards artistes like The Smiths or R.E.M. or Leonard Cohen (and would also apply to the works of The Red House Painters or Mazzy Star or Tindersticks, if these people ever listened to them). What they really mean is that such music demands too much of their attention and that they can’t be bothered to listen to the actual words. All they’re reacting to are minor chords, a slower tempo, or a lugubrious vocal – the lyrical content could veritably be triumphalist. These people can’t mean ‘depressing’ anyhow, because to find something genuinely depressing you have to engage with it. Ennui is something that comes on gradually.
I don’t know whether Winter Sundays by Norwegian band Your Headlights are On is supposed to be sad or not, although you’d think so given the title. Whatever its sentiment, it is not depressing but a thing of great beauty.