A thing about me which may or may not interest you is that I came to pop music extremely late. My parents are both orchestral musicians – I was raised entirely on classical records, with the memorable exception of my mother’s vinyl copy of Abbey Road, an excellent album which has, like all the other Beatles records, totally failed to influence me in any way (though it bears mentioning that the track ‘Because’ still brings me out in goosebumps). The first CD I ever bought was Kid A. I was sixteen. I started playing the guitar about a year later, and FaceOmeter came along about a year after that.
The result of this particular route to singer-songwriting is that my general background knowledge of music, and with it my ability to speak about it authoritatively(/pretentiously), has suffered. I grew up in Britain, but didn’t hear ‘Morning Glory’ until 2001. Think about that for a second.
I hope that this has had a pleasant side effect, in that it contributes to the fact that I very seldom get judge-y about other people’s taste. People are very fond of saying that they’ll listen to anything, but in my experience this is generally a lie, or, at least, an exaggeration. There’s stuff I definitely don’t like listening to, but with a few rare exceptions (I find nothing whatsoever redeemable in U2, for example), I’m pretty good at not launching into speeches or overriding other people’s playlists with my own.
On the other hand, the number of artists I know and intimately like is still, for someone my age who spends a lot of their free time writing songs, comparatively low. I still have a lot of conversations along the “You know that song by The Band?” “Which band?” lines. I sometimes feel that this could be one of the reasons I write songs at such a slow pace – I lack the deep network of influences that most of my contemporaries have to draw on. An alternate explanation for both is that I’m a lazy bastard.
Nonetheless, I do find myself listening to albums not infrequently. In a concession to the fact that this is technically a music blog, I will now share some of them with you. They aren’t a top 5 or anything like that. Nor are they necessarily records that particularly influence what I write, consciously at least. They are just “albums I currently like, and would humbly submit to your attention”. I’ve been careful to select albums rather than songs because I believe in the importance of the album as an artistic structure, and one of the few things that bothers me about the digital revolution is that we may see it go. That, however, is a post for another day. Perhaps I’ll try and write about it in five years or so, when I’ve figured out who this ‘Leonard Cohen’ fellow is.
Misty’s Big Adventure – The Solar Hi-Fi System
I got this album in 2005 and there hasn’t been a long period since then during which I haven’t listened to it. This is true of very few records in my possession. I’ve run out of superlatives for this record, which has just the right mix of DIY and studio aesthetic, high quality lyrical work, danceability and catchiness. It also has a couple of chest-thump-thumping, punch-fist-into-air moments which continue to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to this day. Their subsequent albums have also been excellent, but this remains closest to my heart.
Tom Waits – Alice
Another reason I’m slow to pick up new bands these days is that when I want a new musical experience I tend to buy a new Tom Waits record rather than investigating a different artist. About ten months ago it was the turn of Alice. I should say right now that I’ve yet to hear a Tom Waits album I don’t love; I picked this one because of its magical richness, the depth of the world it creates with just a few words and instruments. A truly enviable piece of writing and recording, it’s also extraordinarily well put together – each track naturally suggests the next, and the ending is heartbreaking. For God’s sake, buy it.
Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard – ‘Em are I
It would be wrong of me not to include one of Jeff Lewis’s albums on even a list this length. He’s the artist I’m most often compared to, and if the comparison is humbling then at least it’s also flattering. Jeff is one of the greatest singer-songwriters currently working, and whilst we do a lot of things quite similarly, there are important respects in which we differ. One is that he is fabulously prolific, and can turn almost any little guitar idea into a fully-fledged track with beautifully cunning lyrics (one of those lyrics, on this album, is “It’s hard to get too bored if you pick the right two chords / and you just keep strumming as if you don’t know what’s coming”). I picked Jeff’s latest CD because I think his backing band are sounding really good on it these days, and it takes you through an impressive range of emotions. Fetch.
C. W. Stoneking – Jungle Blues
And now it’s time for a record I heard for the first time three weeks ago. I’m allowed to mention it here because I’ve been listening to little else since I first heard it. This is an Australian-American who has taken up the blues and written an old-timey album about exploring Africa. It should be cheesy and slightly racist; instead, it’s soulful, tuneful, and, despite its very deliberately retro feel, oozes freshness. The lyrics, which you can barely hear for the first 8-10 listens owing to the incredible tones of the man himself, are also wonderful. I saw him live in concert at the windmill last week and it was one of the better shows of my life. Give him a listen.
Terry S. Taylor – Imaginarium
Back to the start of this article and its conversations about how I got into music. I absolutely certainly would not be writing tunes today if it weren’t for a kooky claymation point-and-click videogame called The Neverhood. It was released in 1996 and remains my favourite game. The soundtrack is an unbelievably silly blues/bluegrass affair with exceptional instrumental tracks balancing out the wonderful cutscene scores. The theme tune is one of my favourite songs. If I ever make a record 1/10th as good as this one, then I’m happy. No, I’m delirious. This is a fantastic CD. Oh, it’s out of print though.
* By the by, I just got the Virtual Console version of SNES Mario Kart for the Wii. It turns out I totally suck at it, which is an extraordinarily frustrating experience given my prowess at its sequels. I shall keep you aprised of my re-learning experience.