Wednesday 30 September 2020

Clandestine Classic LXIII - French Disko

The sixty-third post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

I'm going to let you into a little secret: I'm not hip, not trendy, don't have my finger on the pulse. Never have, never will. And that's completely fine ... but it does mean that the act featured in today's post, Stereolab, basically passed me by when they were in their early 90s pomp. I was, in fact, spending a lot of time relying on Suede to fill the post-Smiths gap I still felt (although Brett and Bernard were only really marking time for me, until Gene came along and I could really fall in love with a band again). Whatever, you can read between the lines and see that I was in a guitar-led, literate, occasionally fey, indie bubble. Stereolab didn't fit, ergo they passed me by. I have always been parochial, it seems.

My first real exposure came in the form of the splendidly title Lo Boob Oscillator, when that was featured on the High Fidelity soundtrack. I would struggle to name a soundtrack I've listened to more but that's a whole other blog post. Lo Boob Oscillator is notable for singer Laetitia Gane's Nico-esque delivery, French lyrics, slight 60s vibe and repetitive beats. But it's not that track I want to talk about.

Stereolab would have remained a likeable soundtrack curio for me then, if not for 6 Music, and a recent playing of today's classic, French Disko. This one's sung in English, and features vocal interplay between Laetitia and guitarist Mary Hansen. The other hallmarks are there: vintage keyboards, repetitive rhythms, almost droning vocals. But what, you might reasonably ask, elevates a song that's more than 25 years old but that I've only just discovered to Clandestine Classic status? Well, for a start, the lyrics aren't messing about:

Though this world's essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn't call for bubble withdrawal
I've been told it's a fact of life, men have to kill one another
Well I say there are still things worth fighting for
La resistance!

Though this world's essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn't call for bubble withdrawal
It's said human existence is pointless
As acts of rebellious solidarity can bring sense in this world
La resistance!
La resistance!

Very "now", arent they, for lyrics written in 1992/3? And that's the thing, really, more than just the lyrics - this feels utterly timeless. Maybe the vintage instruments coupled with a more modern pace threw me off slightly but when I first heard this on the radio, not knowing who it was or what it was called, my first reaction was to think this was a new band, a new sound. Imagine my surprise, then, on doing the research, to discover its age, and that of some of the instruments being played. I know this probably reflects on me, and the fact that I'm a white, middle-aged, lower-middle-class man living in the sticks, but to me this sounds, if not "now" then at least how I would like "now" to sound. It is, I would contend, truly timeless, in the best sense of the word.

I still don't know much about Stereolab but I am, as Henry Kelly used to say, playing catch-up (compilation Oscillons from the Anti-Sun looks a good place to start, and includes French Disko). Whilst I do that, here's today's classic, courtesy of the modern miracle/curse that is YouTube, plus a contemporary live version from The Word (because it is excellent, and because watching The Word makes me feel young). I spoil you, you know?

Friday 25 September 2020

Half heard

You know when you catch a song on the radio, just a snippet, and you think, "Oh, I like that, wonder who it is?" Well, long gone are the days when you had to listen out for a repeat play or trying humming/lala-ing the bit you could remember to your mate. If you couldn't read the track info from your RDS or DAB radio, there's always the station website to see what was played.

All of which is a pre-cursor to me saying that this morning I heard a snatch of a song on the radio and thought, "Oh, I like that, wonder who it is? Sounds a bit like Doves but not a tune I recognise." By the miracle of the 6Music website I now know exactly who and what it was.

Reader, it was Doves. Specifically, this.

First I've heard of any of the new material. Alright, isn't it? Although when I heard it, I really hoped it wasn't Doves because then I would have potentially discovered a new artist that I like, rather than recycling my same old parochial taste. Oh well ... life, eh?

Sunday 20 September 2020

Three questions

Here's your semi-regular reminder that we're all in a whole heap of trouble...

Remember Tony Benn identifying five questions to ask of anyone in power? Well I think we're all going to have to start asking ourselves three questions about everything - everything - we do in life, whether that's the obvious stuff like personal transport choices and energy providers right down to the small stuff, like which brand of loo roll to buy and how ethically your margarine of choice is made. And these are those questions:

  1. What's the environmental impact of this decision?
  2. How can I reduce that impact?
  3. How can I offset what I can't reduce?

We need to ask ourselves (1) about everything we do, especially when it comes to voting. And we need to take appropriate action based on our answers to (2) and (3). I mean, we're probably all buggered anyway, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to turn things around.

Sorry, thanks for indulging me. The usual unstructured waffle abbout music, books and the rest will return soon.

Friday 18 September 2020


Such Small HandsCarousel, the debut album from Such Small Hands, is released today ... and it's wonderful.

Such Small Hands is, as I may have mentioned here before, Melanie Howard, bassist with The Wedding Present. But don't expect her album to sound anything like her Gedge-based day-job. For Carousel is a collection of delicate melancholia, all minor-keys and gentle arrangements. Mel describes her sound thus: "Taking in influences including Bjork, Portishead, Chelsea Wolfe, Sharon Van Etten, Anna Calvi and Joni Mitchell, Such Small Hands blends dark pop with twinges of quirky folk and electronica" ... to that list, I would add that there's something about Mel's beautiful, slightly breath-y, layered vocals that reminds me of 90s 4AD darlings Lush - this is a good thing.

It's also quite filmic and is easy to imagine many (most?) of these tracks in soundtrack use. I also cannot wait to take these songs out on a lone, late-night drive: just clear, starry skies, empty roads and Carousel on repeat play. A potentially perfect combo.

Here's a track that's fairly representative of the album as a whole - track 3, Drifter:

Carousel by Such Small Hands

I know there are three months to go, but I'm calling this as my album of the year already - it's an incredible, delicate, beautiful thing, and listening to it feels like holding a ebon butterfly in cupped hands.

How about you, like what you've heard? Then hurry along to Mel's Such Small Hands Bandcamp page where a whole host of delights awaits. You can thank me later.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

About essential albums

We've all done it at some point - by we I mean bloggers - and the music press and broadsheet reviews sections do it even more; by it I mean describe an album as "essential": an essential listen, an essential purchase, or maybe, for variety, a must-have. But the collective we is very bold, arrogant even, in so-doing. For one reviewer's essential is another listener's disposal...

Take the new Paul Weller album, On Sunset. It's very good (except for the faintly ridiculous Ploughman but Craig has covered that already at Plain or Pan) and I've enjoyed listening to it, multiple times. But it's hardly essential. So I got to wondering, what was the last album of Weller's that I considered an absolute must-have? This might be a controversial opinion, and I say this as a massive fan of the Modfather's entire career and as someone who's seen him live more times than I care to remember... but I think the last essential Weller album was probably Stanley Road.

Yes, yes, I know, what about Heavy Soul? Sonik Kicks? A Kind Revolution? All great, in different ways, and there are many other albums in the 25 years since Stanley that deserve a listen (because yes, I bought them all). But essential? Records that I could honestly lay down on the table between us and say "You must listen to this!" about? No. I don't think so. Brilliant though he is, no.

I'm not opening this up for debate, or hoping that someone will make the case for this or any other album, because essential status is necessarily subjective - your list will be different to mine. I have a friend whose musical taste aligns so closely to mine that it renders a Venn diagram redundant, and he would probably argue that the last essential Weller album was Snap! but that's another matter.

The thing is, I think the definition of essential needs to be time-sensitive, in that the records we find essential are those that were important to us at a time in our lives when music was essential, before life/work/settling down/mortgages and the rest pushed it down the priority list. So Stanley Road came out in June 1995, when I was 24 - every release since then has had more to compete with in my head.

I did a blog series a while back called Every Home Should Have One, which might be construed as a list of essential albums. Tellingly, only nine of the 68 titles listed were from the 21st Century... or maybe I'm just parochial?

Anyway, here's a couple of live Weller performances: the first is Whirlpool's End, as performed on Later, promoting Stanley Road; the second is a lockdown session version of Village, promoting On Sunset.

I will always love Weller, that doesn't change. And maybe, just maybe, I don't consider anything essential any more.

Friday 11 September 2020

When is a riddle not a riddle?

When it's a joke...

The conversation went something like this:

HUMAN: Alexa, tell me a riddle please.
ALEXA:  What has four legs but only one foot? (Pause) A bed.
HUMAN: Alexa, please tell me another riddle.
ALEXA:  How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Now this is a joke, isn't it? And when I was a kid, the answer to this, the punchline, was Fish. But times have moved on, clearly, because...

ALEXA:  Two. One to hold the giraffe and the other to fill a bath-tub with brightly coloured power tools.

Which is pretty funny, actually. But it's not a riddle, Alexa. Keep working on those algorithms, Jeff et al.

Thursday 10 September 2020

Only she could convince James Bond to tie the knot...

Just going to leave this compilation of Parky interviews with Diana Rigg here, along with an iconic Avengers image that I had on a t-shirt in my youth.

Wit, opinion, personality ... Emma Peel for real. Diana Rigg, RIP.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

50 years of song: 2010-2019

I am 50 (and, through careful planning, this is my 1,000th blog post). I can scarcely believe it. To mark the passing of time, and all of its sickening crimes, I've been counting down (or, rather, up, I suppose) the tracks that were number 1 in the charts on my birthday, starting from the day I was born and working up to the present.

What is #1 today, for 2020? I don't care really, the charts are irrelevant to me now. Anyway, here goes - part five:

  1. Please Don't Let Me Go - Olly Murs: I couldn't even hum you the chorus of this...
  2. Stay Awake - Example: ...or this
  3. Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love) - Ne-Yo: ...or this
  4. Roar - Katy Perry: ...I know this one though!
  5. Prayer in C - Lilly Wood & Robin Schulz: Sorry, back to not having a clue on this one...
  6. What Do You Mean - Justin Bieber: ...or this (2.1bn YouTube views or not)
  7. Closer - Chainsmokers featuring Halsey: ...or this
  8. Look What You Made Me Do - Taylor Swift: ...but I know this one - well done me!
  9. Promises - Calvin Harris and Sam Smith: ...and this one, sort of
  10. Take Me Back To London - Ed Sheeran featuring Stormzy: ...but I have no recollection of this. Two of the biggest stars of the decade and I had no clue about this song until now.

I shouldn't be too hard on myself, I guess. I'm 50, the singles chart should have very little to do with me, or me with it. Such is the way of the world. If I'm honest I don't really want to embed any of the tracks this week but, for the sake of completeness, I can include this on the basis that I grudgingly have a bit of a soft spot for Taylor Swift, I suppose.

If I live to 100 and blogs are still a thing (both unlikely), I'll do this again...


Wednesday 2 September 2020

50 years of song: 2000-2009

I will be 50 soon. I can scarcely believe it. To mark the passing of time, and all of its sickening crimes, I'm going to be counting down (or, rather, up, I suppose) the tracks that were number 1 in the charts on my birthday, starting from the day I was born and working up to the present.

What will be #1 on my 50th? I don't care really - chances are I'll loathe it anyway. Anyway, here goes - part four:

  1. Take On Me - A1: awful (and a bad cover version)
  2. Mambo No.5 - Bob the Builder: awful (and a bad cover version)
  3. The Tide is High (Get the Feeling) - Atomic Kitten: awful (and a bad cover version)
  4. Where is the Love? - Black Eyed Peas: not a cover version, at least
  5. My Place/Flap Your Wings - Nelly: I have no recollection of this
  6. Dare - Gorillaz: not Dirty Harry, but not bad
  7. Sexyback - Justin Timberlake: I feel dirty saying it, but I don't mind this
  8. Beautiful Girls - Sean Kingston: no, me neither
  9. I Kissed A Girl - Katy Perry: God, this was twelve years ago? Cherry Chapstick indeed...
  10. Run This Town - Jay-Z featuring Rihanna and Kanye West: I have no recollection of this either

I think I stopped listening to the charts around the turn of the millennium and, on this evidence, that was a good call. Here's the only track I would want to listen to again out of that sorry lot. Hobson's Choice. Tune in next week for ten even worse tunes.