Lockdown Listening 3

June 3, 2020

The final instalment!

The podcast with Mr Wilson, The Album Years, has been dominating my listening choices of late, so I thought I’d draw this extremely short series to a conclusion.

I’m pleased to say that the random Covid-19 giveaways are still in place in my neighbourhood (with an excellent Flannery O’Connor short story collection being this week’s choice find), and outside of my podcasting duties, I’ve managed to continue to listen for pleasure and sustenance.
Stay safe.

Tim Bowness – Late Night Laments (2020)

Album sequence and mixes sorted, I still had the masters to approve (courtesy of Calum Malcolm and Steve Kitch). As a result, several more rounds of Late Night Laments have been assaulting my exhausted ears. Luckily, the 27th (!) sequence stuck and, at the moment, along with Together We’re Stranger this feels like one of the albums I’ve always wanted to make rather than just an album I wanted to make. I hope listeners will feel the same way.

Kevin Coyne – Room Full Of Fools (2000)

I bought this after realising that I hadn’t heard much of Coyne’s later work beyond Sugar Candy Taxi. Luckily, like Sugar Candy Taxi, Room Full Of Fools features a full-throttle Coyne. Room Full Of Fools is a great fusion of KC at his most endearingly batty, accessibly tuneful, Hard Rocking, sweet and tender, and truly deranged. After 15 years in the creative wilderness, Coyne had a full-blown artistic re-birth in his last years. My favourite albums of his remain the ones he put out in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but this deserves to be placed alongside them. His son Robert Coyne proves a decent and sympathetic collaborator.

A true original.

Thomas Dolby – The Golden Age Of Wireless (original UK edition, 1982)

This may not be the best Dolby album, but for me it’s the most consistent sonically and emotionally. It’s also the one I come back to most often.

I always saw Wireless as a very vulnerable and very human addition to the mostly cold Synth Pop genre. With his unaffected Estuary-tinged singing, often disarmingly honest lyrics and sophisticated chord vocabulary (closer to Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan than Classix Nouveaux), Dolby created a very different kind of Electro-Pop music. The engaging hooks and underlying poignancy of the likes of Flying North, Radio Silence and Airwaves are tremendous, but the unabashed beauty of Weightless and the grand Cloudburst On Shingle Street (with its achingly beautiful coda) remain personal favourites for me 38 years on from the album’s original release.

Jack Hues – Primitif (2020)

In my guise as Burning Shed A&R, I get sent a lot of music. This year, the likes of Kavus Torabi’s versatile and gently melancholy Hip To The Jag and Noise In Your Eyes’ cinematic self-titled debut album have been definite highlights, but Jack Hues’ Primitif has been my personal favourite.

Never having more than a passing knowledge of Wang Chung or Strictly Inc, this came as a real surprise. Primitif is a double album which showcases a musically open mind and a genuine talent. Fusing influences from Post Rock, ECM Jazz and Minimalism (Steve Reich references aplenty) with a melodic Pop sensibility (think Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby or the Finn Brothers) and some heartfelt lyrical observations, the album alternates between sophisticated short songs, dynamic mini-epics and hushed Ambient Jazz flavoured instrumentals. Hues’ voice has a light touch with none of the affectation typical of many singers from the early 1980s.

A version of the Bacharach & David classic The Look Of Love ends with an unexpectedly long and beautiful coda, and the highly personal Margate Train and pummelling Whitstable Beach are also amongst the highlights on this recommended album.

Rush – Permanent Waves (1980)

Rush is a band I’ve long respected for its individually and collectively distinctive sound(s) and for its ability to creatively change with the times. The band’s run of albums from 2112 to Grace Under Pressure remains an impressive one. Between 1974 and 1984, Rush evolved rapidly, and convincingly changed from a Cream/Hendrix inspired power trio into a sophisticated Zeppelin-esque Hard Rock band and from there into a distinctive Progressive Rock combo that ended up as a New Wave-tinged Art Rock outfit.

Even in the band’s guise as a fully-fledged Progressive Rock unit – on 2112, A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres – there was a uniquely neurotic intensity about Rush’s delivery (particularly Lifeson’s razor-edge guitar riffs) that seemed as close to Post-Punk sounds to come (The Banshees, John McGeogh, The Sound and Stuart Adamson) as it did to the band’s obvious influences (Yes, Genesis, and The Who).

At the time PW was released, I was slightly disappointed that the band hadn’t taken the fearless excess of Hemispheres even further (as Hemispheres had taken the extremes of A Farewell To Kings several notches higher), but in retrospect, along with Moving Pictures, it’s something I’d now cite as a Rush career highlight.

The music on the album effortlessly compresses the band’s signature sound into a combination of micro epics and ballads. Freewill and Natural Science sound like Hemispheres in miniature, but the brooding Jacob’s Ladder, the hook-laden euphoria of Spirit Of Radio, and the tender Different Strings show different sides to the band. The latter, in particular, displays a relaxed sense of space and emotional tenderness that perhaps only Tears, Madrigal and Losing It also hint at.

Permanent Waves is the thrilling sound of a band in transition.

Sparks – Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)

Another band that has managed to navigate the changing times brilliantly, Sparks were one of the first artists I became a fan of.
At the age of 10, hearing This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Us was an astonishing thing. Complex, hypnotic and infectiously memorable, the song lingered in my mind for years (along with the sight of the perpetually unsmiling Ron Mael). In my mid-teens, the glittering reinvention that was The Number One Song In Heaven became a huge favourite (along with its accompanying Giorgio Moroder produced album). In the mid-1980s, Change marked another massive shift in direction (part ZTT, part Laurie Anderson/Peter Gabriel, all Mael madness). The Minimalist Classical Operatic Pop of 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven offered yet another remarkable departure.

Although Sparks have produced Art Rock, Glam Pop, Electro-Pop, Disco, Heavy Metal, Big Band Jazz and much, much more, due to Russell Mael’s voice and Ron Mael’s witty lyrics and staccato keyboard rhythms, the band have always been instantly recognisable.

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins arrived after a six year period of inactivity and sees the band stamp its identity on a set of sophisticated Synth Pop pieces that revolve around ideas of fame / infamy. Although echoing aspects of what the Pet Shop Boys and Momus were doing in the late 1980s / early 1990s, this is still very much its own album. With its generous selection of demos, remixes, b-sides and associated projects, the recent 3CD deluxe edition offers an even greater insight into the band’s creative process at the time. Rather than detract from the main album, it shows the great thought that was involved in selecting the final order. Unlike many odds and sods compilations, it also contains many a piece to equal songs on the finished album.

Toivo Tulev – Songs (2008)

Another random Covid-19 giveaway found in a box. Confronted by two CDs by Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, I couldn’t resist and home they came in my bulging pockets. The Powers Of Heaven concentrated on 17th and 18th Century Estonian choral music, while Songs collected pieces by contemporary composer Toivo Tulev.

Drawing primarily from church music / Gregorian traditions, Tulev’s work also contains an atonal avant-garde undercurrent and an interesting use of tuned percussion. The epic Leave, Alas, This Tormenting is for me the strongest and most original piece on this compelling collection.