Chillax

I seem to be listening mostly to relaxing dance music these days. I blame a trip to the Big Chill festival in August: three days spent lounging in the Herefordshire sunshine listening to relaxing dance music. It’s been wonderful for working too – I love my head-noddingly intellectual electronica, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something so undemanding about Mr Scruff for example, or Lemon Jelly. It just cries out for a cup of tea.

I’m running out of ideas though. There’s only so much help that Spotify can be. I like the related artists function, but I can’t seem to break out of a cycle of Ninja Tune on there. So I’m looking for suggestions of chilled, calming dance music to listen to so that I can plug my way through thousands of old census returns, and at the same time imagine I’m in a field with some tea, or looking out over the Adriatic, or looking out of the window into a rainy night with low lights and mugs of coffee.

Mumford & Son, the work’s never done

The Mumfords are another group I first encountered on the telly: this time, rather than the effete, stylised androgyny of Hurts I was confronted by a gaggle of what appeared to be extras from an ITV Thomas Hardy adaptation, all grandad shirts and waistcoats, romping around in haystacks in the wind. Hairy men they were, with mouths opened a bit too wide. But visual aesthetics aside, it was the music that made me stop and pay attention.

There’s a few bands that sound a bit like Mumford & Sons, a few precedents in the overwraught, frantic thrashing vein of Arcade Fire, say. But there’s a tautness to Mumford & Sons, a restraint that’s lacking in many more successful bands. And though Marcus Mumford lets it rip from time to time (hence the need for the wide open mouth I suppose), it’s never with total abandon, rather (I like to think) a very English sense of emotional reserve. Same with the forceful male harmonising, the hard-plucked banjos and the like: it’s kept with control, even when it’s most raging. Good on them, I don’t rate the sixth-form stylings of The XX at all and I was hoping the Mumfords would get the Mercury.

Hurts, everybody

It’s been a while since I’ve done any music reviews, and, I suspect, it will be a while yet. Which is perverse really as I’m probably listening to more new music now than in the last three years or so. Most recently it’s Hurts, who I first encountered through the striking video for Better Than Love, and whose debut is now available on Spotify. I’d been entirely out of touch with music videos since I last watched The Chart Show but got into a MTV2 habit which included the likes of lovely videos by Temper Trap and the Mumfords, for instance. Hurts‘ effort (above) is probably my favourite of recent days (Temper Trap one with the cross-country run would have won it but for the horrific memories of actual school athletics it recalls). All moody and tense, it gives the song a wonderful atmosphere – it’s a great song already.

The rest of the album isn’t half bad either, although they don’t quite match the aural excitement of Better Than Love. The tone is that of a number of two-pieces over the years, notably the brooding romanticisms of Tears For Fears, the singer/silent partner synth swathes of the Pet Shop Boys, or even the trance-y drama of M83 or Air. See most recent single Wonderful Life: the lyrics are an almost banal tale of meeting on the Severn Bridge, of ordinary romance between ordinary people. I’m almost reminded of Arab Strap or Belle & Sebastian, not just the Pet Shop Boys (they even head vaguely into Erasure territory on Devotion, a duet with Kylie Minogue, no less). The booming backing choir in the big chorus with it’s refrain of “don’t let go, never give up, it’s such a wonderful life” has just that combination of reservation, sarcasm and desperate belief that characterised the likes of Mad World or Head Over Heels. And by the end of the track the synths are stabbing and washing, the choir is bellowing, Theo Hutchcraft is repeating himself with more and more twisting on his vocals: it’s Gallic electro time.

I miss writing about music a bit, but I think I needed the break: if you’d have asked me to write reviews over the last couple of years, I think you’d have mostly got diatribes about how it was fine these days and everything, but not as good as Bruce Springsteen.

Standing with me shouting “pull up your socks”

Plan B is a modern day contradiction, a paradox. I’ve only just got used to enjoying new music again (thankyou Mumfords) and along comes this dirty white boy from Forest Gate who raps first-person narratives like Dizzee Rascal reading Ian Rankin, writes like a YouTuber commenting on the finer points of happy slap technique, and looks like a young Shaun Ryder with Eminem’s fashion sense. I hate him because he brings out in me all my prejudices, my middle class repulsion of this shocking and crude young white man, or even some sort of twisted racism because I wince at the appropriation of black culture – it’s the same sort of prejudice that engendered the pejorative term ‘chav’, or perhaps its ‘wigger’ equivalent from the US. Any white rapper is always going to be subjected to the most rigorous of assessments: hip hop afficionados tend to have long memories, and for every half-credible Eminem there’s a massively successful Vanilla Ice, riding on the back of black culture. And now the UK has its own, credible and commercially successful hip hop scene, hangers-on are unlikely to be taken seriously.

The problem is that, whether or not Plan B is a good rapper, he’s got the voice of something approaching an angel – a genuine Northern Soul voice, drenched with heart and soaring higher than Justin Timberlake stubbing his toe. Though predominantly a rapper, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words nevertheless featured the odd clever vocal break, inserting Dub Be Good To Me, or even Young Girl into his sordid (or otherwise) tales. But on his latest album, which went to #1 yesterday, Ben Drew takes the step into full-on Wigan Casino arrangements, coming across like Mark Ronson but with the benefit of not having to deal with Mark Ronson at all. This is where he throws me, because these are classic-sounding, genuine soul articles, full to the brim with passion and feeling, and it screws my prejudices right up. I get my realities mixed up, between what I hear on the record, what I see in the pictures, what I felt for Noel Winters in Harry Brown.

Born to be kings

How does one get away with this anyway?

This is why I freaking love Spotify. I currently have no record player, so I’m relying on digital, which is fine, but all my Queen records are on 12″, which isn’t easy to listen to with no record player. The same holds for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, which are yet to find their way to Spotify, although I’m chomping my nails waiting.

I’ve heard Somebody To Love I don’t know how many times on the radio recently, and I love love love it, so it’s good to break out the pomp and nonsense every now and again. Here’s the playlist.

It’s Not Like The Movies

I’ll make this clear at the very beginning: I never disliked Kid A. It was a good record, I just wasn’t really in the right place to make the most of it upon its release. OK Computer I devoured, just as I did when I first heard The Bends, and just as I did when In Rainbows came out; but there’s an unaccountable gap in there. When Kid A was released in 2000, I was more likely to buy a Therapy? album, or Metallica, or NoFX, or something of that ilk. I certainly wasn’t looking for a dense, intricate burst of digital noise and wailing.

And so I gave the album several cursory listens – I tried, I promise – but I just couldn’t get into it. So when Amnesiac followed, I paid little attention, and Hail To The Thief also failed to capture my attention. But yesterday, I was walking alongside the Brunswick centre to Skoob with How To Disappear Completely approaching its finale, and it just clicked. The surreal, martian façade of the shopping centre, with cars appearing from underground in my peripheral vision, the bright white of the apartments sparkling in the bright sun and bright blue sky, with things happening at every angle at which I could look, to a soundtrack of synthesized, beautiful cacophony… It was a little epiphanous really.

I think it’s more of a build-up to a point, really – a few weeks ago I spent an enjoyable evening being taught the various beauties of Radiohead videos, and they really are beautiful. The music fits in so much better with abstract visuals. The album is all very lovely and subtle and not bombastic, not nearly as pretentious as I’d thought, and every bit as gorgeous as Radiohead have always been.

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Today’s my last day on the job. I’ve just been taken for lunch, where I had to pay for my own food – somewhat different to when I first started and they seemed to be buying me dinners at every opportunity. I guess now’s the right time!

By the river in a little tent

I don’t know if they make Stars In Their Eyes any more. Probably a good thing if they don’t – more of a mercy killing than anything – but it does shift the emphasis a little on the age old question: who would you be on Stars In Their Eyes? For my own part, I was never quite sure: I had high aspirations but a voice that would make Ozzy wince – I figured if anything, I was best suited for death-grunting. These days, the point is ostensibly not to sound exactly like someone else when competing on, say, X Factor, but to be a good singer – it rarely happens, and the most highly praised performances seem to be those which copy every tic and inflection of Whitney or Mariah &c.

If I could sing like someone though, I’d probably go down the soul route: it would be Percy Sledge, or James Carr, or Sam Cooke. I’ve been listening to a lot of Cooke over the weekend, and it astounds me that I’ve never bothered before. Percy Sledge is as polished as his hair, whereas Carr is the gruff, rawer end of the spectrum; but Sam Cooke is as pure and perfect a singer as you could ever hope to hear – cited regularly as an influence on Otis Redding, Rod Stewart and Van Morrison, Cooke was far more beautifully pitched, toned and paced than any of them.

Cooke started off via gospel – singing in church, as it seems where most people started: The Soul Stirrers are fantastic for vocal harmony. The songs are reverent and gentle, but still vital. When he graduated to pop it caused something of a controversy, but we can only be thankful that he did – the musical world would be a different place without him.

Sam Cooke – Peace In The Valley
Sam Cooke – Chain Gang
Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come