The Sixth Beatle, Part One

Not many people know this, but I was actually the sixth Beatle!

I’d known Paul for years. We’d hung around the streets of Liverpool trying to pick up birds. It was hard work, as some of those girls were really heavy. Anyway, when it came time for the boys to record their second album (at this stage it was going to be called “The Beatles Wow”), Paul called me up to see if I could bring along any cakes or sandwiches, as he knew my Mum was the best cook in the street.

So, I went along to the session at Abbey Road with a few biscuits and a big chocolate cake, and George Martin flew into a rage. “Is this all you could come up with? Some biscuits and a silly cake?” He really was a greedy, bad-tempered bastard, and after complaining all morning, ate as much of the cake as he could during the break. I bought him a couple of extra doughnuts, which seemed to calm him down, and he ended up letting me add some handclaps to “I Wanna Be Your Man”.

Years later, I went along to the “Sergeant Pepper” sessions, but that’s a whole other story. George Martin spent more time sleeping then eating in those sessions.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself, because my first contact with the music scene was when I got to know Bobby Zimmerman. I’d just finished my Kerouac phase, after hitch-hiking from Chicago to Los Angeles. On the way back to the East Coast I found myself at the University of Minnesota. I bumped into Bobby pretty soon – everyone seemed to know him. He was always trying to come up with a new angle on how to be a pop star. I suggested the surname ‘Dylan’ – he wanted to go with ‘Dolly’ or ‘Dolphin’, which didn’t quite have the same feel. Then there were the instruments themselves. Bobby was trying to play the guitar and the trumpet at the same time. I told him it wouldn’t work, but he was a pretty stubborn guy. Months later, he tried out the harmonica, and things started to fall into place. I went with him to New York in ’61, but he soon left me behind once his career started to take off.

There was one night just before we separated, both of us high on weed, and Bobby dragged his guitar out and began strumming a few random chords. I was singing along, and, as it’d been a wild, wintry day, and kept repeating the phrase “Blowin’ in the wind”. Now I wouldn’t begin to take credit for the song, but imagine my surprise when it was a big hit. I think I was living under the tram line in Brooklyn at the time.

I hung around Greenwich Village and the protest scene for a couple of years, but soon grew bored when singers began protesting about the colour of cardigans and the inability of whales to speak Greek.

I went to England in mid-63, and as I’ve already explained, helped The Beatles with their second album. I’d just finished with them, when Mick and Keith from The Stones called me up. They’d heard about my Mum’s cakes and biscuits and wanted a taste while recording their new album “Afterdinner” (later known as “Aftermath”). Unfortunately, I was with them during the “peeing incident”. We were on our way back from Brighton, when Keith and the lads decided to stop for a piss. We all got out of the limousine and each found our own private hedge. But Keith was in a mischievous mood and began peeing all over Mick and Bill, then he pulled the cakes out of the car and peed on them. As you can imagine I was very annoyed.

The police arrived in the middle of all this and arrested everyone on ‘public indecency’. After the original cakes got peed on, I refused to arrange more, even though Mick begged me. “Those cakes and cookies could mean the difference between a hit and a flop.” I refused, and apparently Mick and Keith were so angry they wrote “Sympathy for the Devil” about the incident. Originally, the song had references to cream buns and marzipan.

I didn’t speak to Mick or Keith for years after that, in fact, things were so dull in London that I went back to New York, and caught up with Andy Warhol. He was stuck on an idea for his next project, so I suggested he photocopy baked bean cans. He really wasn’t keen on the idea and had this whole dog thing planned. But after an Afghan Hound tore up The Factory and peed on Twiggy, he reconsidered the baked bean idea.

It wasn’t long before The Factory became the New York ‘scene’ attracting poets, pop stars, pirates, and parakeets. Andy, Gerald and I went to this club one night and saw this crazy band that called themselves The Velvet Underground. They made me want to throw up, but Andy was somehow fascinated with them. Pretty soon, they were hanging around at The Factory too. And they practised every day, not that all the band were that enthusiastic. John, Moe and Sterling couldn’t give a shit. Nico was nowhere to be seen. Only Lou was dedicated, strumming away to his strange lyrics about toothpaste, parachutes, and coconuts.

When Andy did get them booked, it was often my job to make sure they all got to the venue on time. John Cale didn’t believe in time, having destroyed all his clocks. Moe was too busy bashing her toms to hear us calling her. Sterling hated the band and would deliberately bring the wrong instrument – a bassoon, bagpipes, a mouth organ. Nico had to be literally walked to her spot on the stage, which we marked with an “N” in chalk. She still didn’t get it right, and would often wander off stage as though visiting the powder room.

Whenever this happened, Andy got me up on stage with my kazoo or spoons. I didn’t get to play on any of the Velvet’s albums, but I did help Lou with some of the lyrics. “Waiting for the Man”, for example, used to be called “Waiting for the Mandarin”. And “Heroin” was originally called “Hairy Woman”.

By the late 60’s I was getting tired of life at The Factory – too many hangers-on, nobodies, cheesy celebrities. I did get to meet Jim Morrison though. We became good friends for a while. He even leant me a pair of his leather underpants. I was to blame for the strings on “The Soft Parade”, which pissed everyone off for months.

I was in the bath with Jim when he passed away. It wasn’t drink or drugs, but a dangerous bath toy.

I left Paris straight after the funeral and found myself in London for the first time in 8 years.  It wasn’t long before Davie Jones (or Bowie as he now called himself) called up. He was after ideas for a new stage show. He’d heard about my Mum’s cooking from Lennon, and was thinking of an entire evening of dancing baked goods. I suggested that the cakes and cookies could have been brought to life by an alien ray. David changed the central character’s name from Sprinkle Fairydust to Ziggy Stardust, and all of a sudden, his imagination caught fire. By the following morning, we’d written a couple of songs, designed the stage set and a couple of costumes. We celebrated by snorting an entire bag of ‘green’ coke. Something special David had acquired in South America.

As you would know “Ziggy Stardust” was a huge hit. As payment for my contribution, David arranged for several bags of the ‘green’ coke, which was fine until I discovered that the green tinge was a result of a type of mould.

Anyway, things were moving on in the music scene. A new sound calling itself ‘punk’ was suddenly popular. I was in Manchester at the same time as punk’s premiere band The Sex Pistols. They were playing at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. It’s been said that everyone who was anyone was at that first gig, but I can only recall seeing a young Morrissey and Mick Hucknall. The Hall was only about half full.

The band itself generated a great deal of energy, most which emanated from the ‘singer’ Johnny Rotten, whose main act of aggression involved spitting great globs of spittle at the front rows.

When the Pistols returned a few weeks later, the Hall was packed. I saw Tony Wilson, Peter Saville, Howard Devoto, the Warsaw boys. I’d met Steve and Bernard a few weeks earlier at a local fish and chippery. They were troubled over Ian’s ideas for a new band name. Ian wanted to call the band either Toy Division or Joy Sauce. When I suggested a compromise by adding Joy to Division, the boys seemed relieved. But when they approached Ian, the difficult front-man decided he liked Toy Sauce best of all…

When I saw them a year later, they were still bickering about the name. Ian is supposed to have said he wanted Fluffy Pop Twinkles “or else”. Some have even suggested that the name issue might have pushed Ian over the edge.

I moved back to London after that, and began thinking of my own band. A new variation on punk was taking over the scene – some called it post-punk – and I decided I wanted to be part of it.




Music is the Medicine

Have you ever been a little discouraged or depressed – only to hear a familiar song on the radio which somehow lifts your spirits, if only for a few minutes? Have you ever been in the middle of an ordinary day – busy, frustrating, chaotic – and upon passing a boutique or cosmetic shop you hear a song that you’ve not heard for years. You feel a little shiver inside, and the hairs on your arms stand up. You might even go into the shop, if only to hear the whole song.

Just recently, while shopping for Spam in the local Foodland, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” crackled over store’s speakers. I was so taken aback that I dropped the tin of Spam. For many memories are wrapped up in this Joy Division song, and for ten minutes or so I felt inexplicably moved, as though the song had somehow released the past.

What is it about an arrangement of sound that has such a profound effect on us?

Well, like many things in life (sport, sex, Krispy Kreme doughnuts), it all comes down to chemicals. But while it’s understandable that sex, food, and drugs might trigger release of this pleasure chemical (dopamine), it is less clear why a sequence of sounds might produce the same reaction.

A Canadian study in 2001 used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain areas activated by music. And in the limbic and paralimbic areas they found the same rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in pleasurable activities, as with food, sex, and addictive substances. It was a strange discovery because music is abstract, unlike sex or food.

The Canadian study also found that there were two releases of dopamine – responses to both anticipation and fulfillment. There is a rush of excitement simply over what the next sound might be.

Why is music such a powerful drug on its own? It’s possible that our brains just love predicting and decoding patterns. Early theories on emotion suggest that music sets up aural patterns that coax our mind into unconsciously predicting what comes next. If the prediction is correct we receive a little reward – a jolt of dopamine.

However, that doesn’t answer the question about our need for music to survive or propagate the species. Musicologist David Huron suggests that the practice of making mental predictions based on limited information has always been essential to our survival.

On the African plains, he suggests, our ancestors would not have waited to find out if a particular sound was a zebra, an aardvark, or a lion. Bypassing the ‘logical brain’, the mental processing of sound would prompt a rush of adrenalin that prepares us to get out of there, thus contributing to a good outcome. (No one was eaten by the aardvark!!)

Most of us have experienced the sudden swell of emotion when hearing a piece of music – whether Slipknot, Steely Dan or Sibelius – and it feels out of our control. Even though we realise it is ‘just a sound’ and there is nothing essential about the phenomenon, we can’t turn off this reaction, nor can we always predict it.

It seems we both need and enjoy this complex interplay of expectations, predictive logic, and emotions that music provides.

Adding another level of complexity to the musical enjoyment phenomenon is that our reaction to music will contain a cultural aspect. For example, waltz rhythms sound natural to Western Europeans, while Eastern Europeans are more accustomed to rhythms that may sound complicated to those outside their regions. We also have tastes regarding musical complexity, with some people stimulated by minimalism, and others bored by it.

So, what have we learnt? That our response to music is complex and multi-faceted? That there is some mysterious reason that the brain produces ‘pleasure chemicals’ when we anticipate and listen to music? That music is like a medicine – producing a drug that makes us feel good?

While scientists continue to investigate the phenomenon, I’ll forget all the above, slip on some Jimi Hendrix, some Heart, some Hayzi Fantayzee, and enjoy the dopamine….

Thanks to Psychology Today, BBC and Health


Port of Morrow – a Review

It might just be me, but the start of 2012 has seemed dismally short of great pop albums.

Thankfully, The Shins have helped remedy this with their first lp for five years – and the first on Mercer’s own label, Aural Apothecary – and it’s full of hooks, great melodies and memorable tunes. Since Wincing the Night Away in 2007, the band has seen an almost complete change in line-up, with James Mercer, now the only original member.

The new album – Port of Morrow – is possibly less guitar, more keyboards oriented than previous lps, but there is no great change in sound. This is not surprising, given that The Shins have always been almost a solo project for Mercer. On this album, his voice dominates, the intelligent, clever pop lyrics front and centre.

The album opens with one of its highlights, Rifle’s Spiral. Flickering guitars, bobbing bass, and bubbling synths provide the backing to a cryptic portrait – ‘viscera unfurls as you rise from your burning Fiat’ and ‘you were always to be a dagger floating straight to their heart’.

Second track, Simple Song, the first single, is, as the title suggests, a more straightforward love song. The song builds up nicely through the first verse and bridge, with backing harmonies and layers of guitar, then falls away beautifully in the chorus, leaving Mercer’s voice and a simple keyboard line to carry the gorgeous melody.

My life is an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff, you brought me a great big flood, and you gave me a lift, girl what a gift, and you tell me with your tongue, and your breath goes in my lungs, and we float over the rift.

It’s Only Life and September are both slower in tempo, both echoing the songs of Neil Finn (this is a good thing). Bait and Switch, on the other hand, is 70s power pop – jerky rhythms, electronic burps and an urgent, manic chorus backdrop a tale of temptation and betrayal – how she got in, I’m not sure that I know, two weeks on and my spine was in traction, my eyes in a basket.

Another album highlight – No Way Down – sounds almost celebratory in tone, while its lyrics describe crooked politics and America’s economic troubles. It’s a curious combination, but the tune is fabulous.

A tiny few are having all the fun, apologies to the sick and the young, get used to their dust in your lungs.

The second half of the album is filled with slower tracks; For A Fool – with its twanging guitar and delicious swoon of a chorus, Fall of ’82 – another portrait, complete with 70’s horns, and 40 Mark Strasse – a song of unrequited love: You play in the street at night, blown like a broken kite, my girl you’re giving up the night, are you gonna let these Americans, put another dent in your life.

The title track finishes the album with more cryptic lyrics – a glimpse of the apocalypse perhaps: Life is death is life, I saw a photograph; Cologne in ’27, and then a postcard, after the bombs in ’45, must have been a world of evil clowns that let it happen, but now I recognise dear listeners, that you were there and so was I.

The Shins are not groundbreakers or experimenters. In fact, their sounds and style are pure 60’s/70’s pop. In fact, on Port of Morrow they sound most like Crowded House, hardly cutting edge, but an indication of the songwriting strength.

The Shins do what they do extremely well, and I’m happy for them to keep on doing it.

Reign of Terror – a Review

Another month, another Brooklyn-based electronic duo with a new album! But unlike Chairlift, whose forebears might include Eurythmics and the Human League, Sleigh Bells seek their inspiration from the likes of Joan Jett.

Their first album contained its fair share of frivolity amid the endless metal riffing, and at least one perfect pop song in Rill Rill, but the follow up – Reign of Terror – finds them in a far darker place, and the album suffers for it.

Their ‘agenda’, as the album title might suggest, is one of confrontation and violence. This is further alluded to in the lyrics of first track True Shred Guitars.

On your knees, on your knees, suffer please.
On your knees, carry me, M16.
If you’ve seen what I’ve seen, bury me.
Burn the streets, baby please, finish me.

But the details of their ‘agenda’ are never revealed. Who or what are they against, if anything? Why the repeated references to self-destruction?

Of course, this metal and death fixation could be part of the fun, it just doesn’t sound like fun!

One of the most appealing aspects of Treats was the interplay between Miller’s guitar work and the voice of Alexis Krauss – sometimes sweet, sometimes sassy. Reign of Terror turns the guitars up to 11 at the expense of the vocals, which makes the already ambiguous lyrics even harder to hear.

Many of the tracks suggest a conflict, with the protagonist both attracted and repelled (often violently) by the subject. Track 3, Crush, is a good example.

I gotta crush on
I gotta crush you
Baby please
I gotta crush on
I gotta crush you now.

And in Road to Hell.

Don’t run away from me baby
Just go away from me baby
Don’t run away from me baby
Just go away from me baby.

There are some good tunes here – End of the Line, Comeback Kid and You Lost Me are all winners – but the lyrics of even these slightly sweeter sounding tracks are just as tortured. For example, End of the Line opens with this grim image.

The nightmare lies in the mourning
When the birds are bleeding.

Not a great way to start the day, I’d suggest.

So – what to make of Reign of Terror? I’m a little disappointed and feel they’ve made a few mistakes. I’d like to see them drop some of the metal clichés and posturing, and stick to great tunes. I wouldn’t class this album a failure by any means; I just think they’re capable of so much more.

Review by Tidy Boy

Everything’s Gone Greenish – New Order in Concert

I saw New Order play at the Thebarton Theatre 25 years ago, and remember being very disappointed. The sound was atrocious, the band seemed pissed off, and they played a short set of obscure album tracks, b-sides and thrashy versions of otherwise likeable songs. The only semblance of a hit was ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’. The event wasn’t quite damaging enough to warrant a sacrificial burning of my New Order collection, but it made me wary of committing to any future New Order live experiences.

In the years since I’ve seen video footage of many competent, even very good, live New Order performances. Was it possible that my 1986 experience was a rare aberration? Did Hooky have a headache? Did Gillian forget to plug in her keyboard? Was the band under some sort of collective trance that made their music almost unlistenable?

Whatever the reason, when it was announced that the band were reforming (minus Hooky) and touring Australia, I jumped at the chance to see one of their shows, assuming that they’d overcome whatever ailed them on their ’86 tour. The temptation was too great! Would they play ‘Your Silent Face’? Would Bernard wear shorts? Would Gillian press the wrong key and summon the Walrus from Hell?

And so, I found myself, along with thousands of others, jammed into the Hordern Pavilion on an unusually wet and cold night in March. The excitement was palpable – fans with greying and/or receding hair donned New Order t-shirts, others wore Gillian masks, while a small minority wore black armbands in protest at Hooky’s absence. I managed to get a seat to the right of the stage – not the best spot for sound, but the view of the stage was good.

After a brief introductory ‘Elegia’, the band launched into a stomping version of ‘Crystal’, followed by the highlight of their ‘Republic’ album, ‘Regret’. From there, the band went from one great tune to another – ‘Age of Consent’, ‘Ceremony’, ‘Temptation’, ‘Krafty’ and so on. While the sound tended to get a bit murky at times, it was mostly excellent, particularly on those tracks with an electronic heart. ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Perfect Kiss’ were all especially good, but it was a version of ‘586’ which was the highlight of the night for me.

The only complaint I had was their insistence on playing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Although it wasn’t so much that they played it, but how they played it. For me, the song works best with restraint and subtlety, allowing the simple melody to shine through. Their version at the Hordern Pavilion was more akin to Status Quo than Joy Division. They even employed a bizarre shriek during the chorus, which was perhaps meant to represent Ian Curtis’s reaction to this horrific rendition.

Despite this hiccup, the show was over too soon and we were tossed out into the rain, humming ‘Blue Monday’ in time to the sound of traffic and water as we plodded towards home.


Something – a Review

Since the release of its debut album, Does You Inspire You, in 2008, a couple of things have happened to Chairlift. Founding member, Aaron Pfenning, has left to pursue other interests. And the band, now just Caroline Polacheck and Patrick Wimberly, have acquired an inspired confidence and sleek new sound.

As good as Does You Inspire You was, many of the songs were clunky and awkward, if not lyrically, then in arrangement and execution, sometimes both. But the last thing you could say about Something is that it is ‘clunky’. In fact, most of the songs are so sprightly they literally bounce out of the speakers.

Early single, Amanaemonesia, provided a preview of this new direction. With its funky bass-line, busy vocal layers and soaring chorus, the song probably would have been a hit if its title had been a little easier to spell or pronounce. And whereas the arrangements on Does You Inspire You were rudimentary, the sound of this track is bubbling with invention.

Amanaemonesia is one of the highlights of Something, but it has plenty of fine company. Opening track, Sidewalk Safari, is as good as they come, with its squiggly synth and shuffling rhythm, the song is so catchy you forget the fact that it’s about trying to run someone down with a car.

When songs sound as effortless as these, you know something is going right for a band. Track three, I Belong In Your Arms, shimmers and skips, with gorgeous melodies and another glorious chorus.

Cause the world goes
On without us

It doesn’t matter what we do
All silhouettes with no regrets
When I’m melting into you
I belong in your arms

Lyrically, Something avoids the quirky topical concerns of the first album (health, environment, earwigs) and concentrates on that perennial favourite – love. If the song isn’t celebrating love, it’s about the lack of love, or the difficulties of love. But for the most part, the band has enough verve and personality to pull it off.

Another highlight is second single, Met Before. Unlike most of the tracks on Something, the vocals are way back in the mix, beneath layers of big 80s synths and a thumping Motown beat.

Curiously, after a long sequence of up-tempo tracks, the album ends with three slower songs. They are all decent tunes, but after such a dizzy string of dance treats, it can’t help but sound like an anti-climax.

The second of these, Turning, is mainly instrumental, a Cocteau-like affair of atmosphere and suggestion. While final track, Guilty As Charged, chugs and coughs beneath Polacheck’s deceptively sweet-sounding tale of paranoia and desire.

The album, then, is a success. Dripping with hooks, fine melodies and inventive arrangements, the album would have been a sure-fire hit if released in 1983. The unfortunate thing about today’s fragmented music world is that many people won’t get to hear it.

But I’ve given you a tip, so check it out – Something is something else.

Just Kids – a Review

Just Kids – Patti Smith’s award-winning book – is not your typical rock ‘n’ roll bio. In fact, Smith’s emergence as a fully-fledged rock star is only touched upon in the last quarter of the book. Instead, the focus of this autobiography is Smith’s relationship with photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe – her close friend for over 20 years.

The book begins with Smith’s childhood in New Jersey, where she develops an early fascination with poetry and art, interests she will eventually share with fellow outsider, Mapplethorpe. As a teenager, unhappy with life in rural South Jersey, she scrapes together enough money for a one-way ticket to New York, and with little more than a suitcase of belongings, heads to the city in search of a more like-minded community.

Patti Smith’s trials as she doggedly follows this path are often harrowing. Naïve and socially awkward, she lives on the streets, sleeping in doorways and scrounging for money and food. A job in a bookstore brings some relief, and it is here she meets Mapplethorpe. Like Smith, he has abandoned his life and family in the suburbs for the big city. They become friends, then lovers, forging a partnership devoted to their passion for art.

After establishing this bond, Just Kids, follows the couple as they struggle to stay afloat. But while day-to-day life remains difficult, Smith and Mapplethorpe keep true to their artistic vision. And after several years on the periphery of New York’s art scene, their arrival at the Chelsea Hotel eventually delivers the opportunities and connections that will bring them fame and success.

Smith’s vivid and imaginative description of late 60’s New York is just one of the many pleasures of Just Kids. The hellish Allerton Hotel ‘reeking of piss and exterminator fluid, the wallpaper peeling like dead skin in summer’ becomes a kind of purgatory for lost souls. While the fashionably seedy Chelsea Hotel ‘was like a doll’s house in the twilight zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe’.

The book is filled with the unique personalities that made New York the centre of alternative Western culture – the Beat Poets, the Warhol crowd, the Woodstock generation of rock ‘n’ roll stars. Smith has a gift for portraying even the most outrageous characters with great generosity.

Ultimately, though, the story is devoted to Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s hero and soul mate and, as he nears a premature death, the final section of the book reads as a kind of elegy.

Just Kids is a fascinating depiction of time and place, a moving tribute to a lost friend, and a recommended read for music fans and general readers alike.


The Music of 2006

With 2006 all but over, it’s time to reassess the year’s music. It was not a year of upheaval or radical change; yet saw the release of two key albums (TV on the Radio’s ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’ and Joanna Newsom’s ‘Ys’) whose influence may be felt for some time to come. Both albums found new and interesting ways of saying things in an increasingly sterile and generic pop music landscape.

Elsewhere, it was a year of singer-songwriters, whether of the alternative (Amy Millan, Neko Case, Beth Orton, Cat Power) or evergreen variety (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen). The neo-psychedelic folk movement continued to gather force and fans, while the puff finally ran out of the post-punk revival. This was not before we were provided with perhaps two of its finest exponents – UK’s Arctic Monkeys and Young Knives.

2006 also saw the return of three British pop icons – Morrissey, Green Gartside (aka Scritti Politti) and Jarvis Cocker. All three released albums that proved they still have much to offer the pop world. identified four key albums for the year – Dylan’s ‘Modern Times’, Arctic Monkey’s ‘Whatever You Say I Am…’ and the aforementioned releases by Joanna Newsom and TV On The Radio. Other strong performers were albums by Gnarls Barkley, Clipse and Ghostface Killah.

The major magazines offered few surprises in their end of year lists. Bob Dylan topped both the Uncut and Rolling Stone lists, while the Arctic Monkeys album was number one for both NME and Q Magazine. Mojo placed the Raconteurs’ lp ahead of both Dylan and the Monkeys, while Pitchfork chose the otherwise ignored ‘Silent Shout’ by The Knife as its top album.

The Nausea team has listened to about 150 new albums in 2006 – only a fraction of the total number released. The Nausea Top 25 (see below) cannot, therefore, hope to be a comprehensive record of the year. Perhaps, instead, it can be seen as an overview, bringing to your attention something that you may have missed during the year.

Meanwhile, 2007 looms, with key releases from Bloc Party, Air, Field Music, Apples In Stereo, The Earlies, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Shins and !!! all due out early in the New Year.

Here’s to another good year in music!

The Nausea Top 25 Albums for 2006

1. TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
2. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Letting Go
3. Hot Chip – The Warning
4. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
5. The Rapture – Pieces Of The People We Love
6. Belle And Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
7. Cat Power – The Greatest
8. The Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics
9. Guillemots – Through The Window Pane
10. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – Ballad Of The Broken Seas
11. Howe Gelb – Sno Angel Like You
12. Joanna Newsom – Ys
13. The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldiers
14. Morrissey – Ringleader Of The Tormentors
15. Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche
16. Herbert – Scale
17. Jarvis Cocker – Jarvis
18. The Dears – Gang Of Losers
19. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
20. The Young Knives – Voices Of Animals And Men
21. Sparklehorse – Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain
22. The Sleepy Jackson – Personality
23. Charlotte Gainsbourg – 5.55
24. Scritti Politti – White Bread, Black Beer
25. Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country

bubbling under – The Pipettes, The Knife, Howling Bells, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Scissor Sisters, Mates Of State, Beirut, Beck, Thom Yorke and Tapes ‘n’ Tapes.

Songs for Christmas – a Review

Sufjan Stevens has never been one to shy away from the big projects. His earliest musical endeavours included concept ‘albums’ about The Nine Planets and The 12 Apostles, while his second album, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, was a suite of symphonic songs about the Chinese Zodiac. And, of course, there is the 50 states project, an epic undertaking, which should keep him busy well into the second half of the century.

It seems only natural, therefore, that he should collect a series of Christmas songs, produced for family and friends over a period of six years, and issue them in a five disc box set, together with songbook, comic, essays, stickers and other goodies. In one of the accompanying essays, Stevens hilariously describes the dysfunctional family Christmases of his childhood, and confesses that this project has been a way of rediscovering both the good and the bad about the holiday season.

For us, it serves another purpose, as the five discs, originally conceived as individual EPs, were recorded (apart from 2004) on an annual basis, and allow us to chart the artist’s progression from folksy guitarist to chamber-pop genius.

There are 42 songs here, from traditional Christmas carols and instrumental favourites to quirky pop tunes and silly seasonal sing-a-longs. Those familiar with Stevens’ treatment of tribute album contributions and cover-tunes will know he is likely to bring freshness to whatever he touches, and that is certainly the case here. One such highlight of the earlier discs is ‘What Child Is This Anyway?’ while the usually cringe worthy ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is substantially transformed.

It’s an eclectic bunch of songs, with highlights dotted across all five discs, but it is probably the most recent two that feature the real treasures. ‘It’s Christmas Time’, with its layers of fuzzed-up guitars, is the least Christmas-sounding song on the set, but among the best. Later on the same disc, Stevens asks ‘Did I Make You Cry On Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!) – a deliciously comic (and quite moving) take on the awful holidays of his youth.

Disc five, recorded just this year, contains six Stevens originals, the best of which would not be out of place on ‘Illinois’ or ‘The Avalanche’. The organ-filled ‘Get Behind Me, Santa!’ gets the nod for the silliest song on the set, with some hilariously irreverent Christmas lyrics, but both ‘Jupiter Winter’ and ‘Sister Winter’ are gorgeously melancholic. ‘Star Of Wonder’ is similarly beautiful, a swirling rush of organ and woodwinds. That Stevens is able to bring so much to what could be considered a somewhat slight project is a testament to his talent as a songwriter and arranger/producer.

It could be argued that one could distill the best of this collection into one particularly fine album, but I think that would be missing the point. ‘Songs for Christmas’ is about the whole lousy, wonderful, stupid, heartwarming, saddening experience we know as Christmas, with its excesses, tackiness and (yes) its beautiful moments.

So, as Santa Sufjan suggests, ‘It’s Christmas, Let’s Be Glad!’

Jarvis – a Review

In the five years since Pulp’s last (and probably final) album, the underrated ‘We Love Life’, Jarvis Cocker has kept a pretty low profile. Apart from writing the occasional song for Nancy Sinatra or Charlotte Gainsbourg, there’s been an uncharacteristic silence. Such a long gap between projects can often lead to the undoing of an artist (e.g. The Stone Roses).

It’s somewhat of a relief, therefore, to discover that Jarvis Cocker’s first solo album is quite splendid. Musically, the album is not dissimilar from Pulp, unsurprising perhaps, given that the instrumental core of ‘Jarvis’ is Richard Hawley, Steve Mackey (both of whom played with Pulp) and Cocker himself. The lyrics contain plenty of the self-deprecating wit we’ve come to expect from Cocker. The mood of the album is generally bleak and the outlook pessimistic, but like his compatriot, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker is somehow able to subvert the misery, and find relief in the comic image or clever turn of phrase.

After a short instrumental intro, the album launches into its opening track, the ambling yet anthemic ‘Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time’, in which Cocker offers the following advice to a close friend or potential lover.

Cos the years fly by in an instant
And you wonder what he’s waiting for
Then some skinny bitch walks by in hot pants
And he’s a-running out the door

The next song ‘Black Magic’ is just as good. A kind of 21st century reading of the 60s hit ‘Crimson And Clover’. A sample of the original tune augments the sparse instrumentation, along with strange synthetic sounds and rhythms. It’s not entirely clear what ‘Black Magic’ actually is (a drug, a person, a type of chocolate), but it’s one of the few things that Cocker seems to like.

We can’t escape; we’re born to die
But I’m gonna give it a real good try
Because nothing comes close and nothing can compare
To Black Magic – Yeah, yeah yeah

After the slightly perfunctory ‘Heavy Weather’, comes another highlight, the gruesomely titled ‘I Will Kill Again’. Over delicate piano and flute sounds, Cocker lists a string of pleasant images –

Build yourself a castle
Keep your family safe from harm
Get into classical music
Raise rabbits on a farm

And then the twist …don’t believe me if I claim to be your friend…I will kill again.

The irony is turned up for the following track ‘Baby’s Coming Back To Me’ (originally written for Nancy Sinatra), which features a similarly pleasant sequence of images, but doesn’t come with a punchline. However, it’s clear to everyone but the song’s singer that ‘baby’ isn’t coming back at all.

‘Fat Children’ is the album’s ‘rock moment’. Here, Cocker hilariously recounts the robbery of his mobile phone by a gang of children, over crunching guitars and drums.

Fat children took my life. Oh.

‘From Auschwitz To Ipswich’ is probably the bleakest song on ‘Jarvis’ (not counting the bonus ‘hidden’ track ‘Running The World’). Its mood is summarized by the opening lines.

They want our way of life
Well, they can take mine any time they like

Cocker goes on to renounce his lifestyle, comparing the Western World to the Roman Empire, and encourages others to do the same.

It’s the end: why don’t you admit it?

In contrast, the music itself is quite gentle and pleasant, with string sounds, rhythm guitar and a distant bubbling synth.

This contrast between sweet-sounding music and grim lyrics is maintained throughout the rest of the album. The final track ‘Quantum Theory’ sounds particularly uplifting, with its swirling strings and moody guitars. On the surface it appears to be a celebratory song, with Cocker singing reassuringly ‘Everything is going to be alright’. It is only on closer inspection that we realise he is not talking about our world, but one in a parallel dimension.

Jarvis, it’s good to have you back.