Lockdown Listening

April 11, 2020

This may be the start of an occasional series or it may just be an end in itself.

I thought it might be interesting to offer an honest, unedited lockdown listening list along with comments explaining some of my thoughts about the music. In effect, a collection of what I’ve been listening to since sitting indoors became the new sunbathing outdoors (alongside my pitiful justifications for making the terrible choices I did!). 🙂

For me, music’s always provided succour and emotional comfort in times of need. ‘Now’ is definitely one of those times where music has come to mean even more (for me, anyway).

I’ve often stated previously that most people’s tastes are far more eclectic and wayward than the media would have us believe (fashionable/unfashionable, obscure/obvious etc). This exercise in self-indulgence may or may not prove that assertion.

John Luther Adams-In The White Silence(2004) /Become Ocean(2014) /Become Desert(2019)

Ever since hearing Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass at the dawn of the 1980s, I’ve been a huge fan of Minimalist music. Over the years, I’ve bought hundreds of CDs/LPs/downloads in the genre and discovered artists such as Gavin Bryars, Arvo Part, John Adams, Meredith Monk, Michael Nyman, Robert Ashley, Ingram Marshall, Max Richter, Andrew Poppy, Glenn Branca, David Lang and many others. While Reich remains my favourite composer (with Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint being a particular favourite release), John Luther Adams’ work has leapt up my personal Minmalist rankings (we all have them!).

In some ways, JLA’s compositions fulfil the role of traditional Classical music in that they’re attempts to aurally evoke natural landscapes. The above three compositions deal with snow, oceans and desert respectively and are exquisitely calming, meditative works with a constantly shifting ebb and flow and, more importantly, a distinctive compositional identity within a sometimes crowded and samey field.

David Bowie – Conversation Piece(2019)

This is a fascinating release collecting Bowie’s material between his Anthony Newley-esque 1967 debut (which I like, so there!) and his first major statement, 1969’s David Bowie/Space Oddity (which I love). With the likes of its title track, Letter To Hermione, Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud, Space Oddity displayed Bowie’s beautiful voice and lyrical observations at their most tender and melancholy. The works ‘in-between’ that this set mostly chronicles are less sure-footed than Space Oddity and still bear the influence of the West End Musical-tinged debut, but there’s still a lot of ground covered. Morphing from Theatre Ballads to Folk Rock via a Ray Davies’ influenced wistfulness and Syd Barrett-esque whimsy, songs such as April’s Tooth Of Gold, When I’m Five and Angel, Angel Grubby Face are well worth discovering.

Tim Bowness – Late Night Laments(2020)

Completed in late March, the album is still scheduled for an August release.

Ever since its completion, it’s been on all too regular rotation as I’ve been trying to work out the most effective sequence. With 52 minutes of new music recorded, the optimal edition appears to be a 42 minute 10 song affair. It’s consistently atmospheric and emotional, but hopefully there are enough sonic surprises to keep it a constantly engaging listen. That said, the consistency of tone is what makes this the most difficult of my solo albums to sequence.

At this stage, the main plus is that it stands as a distinctive statement very far removed from both Flowers At The Scene and Love You To Bits.

Chic – Risqué (1979)

The darkest and sweetest of the Chic Organisation productions. Smooth strings, unresolved heartache, seductive Jazz harmonies, the overwhelming sense that ’the party’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The Cure – Disintegration(1989)

In late 1989, along with my No-Man partner in crime Steven Wilson, I went on a writing holiday to Devon. During that time, we wrote several songs that marked the end of our early ‘ethereal’ phase (the next step was the far from delicate Swagger EP). Most of the songs we wrote have been lost (or were never fully developed), but one remnant of the break is the Speak track Night Sky, Sweet Earth (which was written late in the evening outside the church on the hill overlooking Ilfracombe Bay).

On the trip, our listening consisted mainly of recently released music, Kate Bush’s The Sensual World, The The’s Mind Bomb, Prefab Sprout’s Protest Songs, Steve Reich’s Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint, and the mighty Disintegration by The Cure. We’d both been fans of the band since 1980’s Seventeen Seconds, but this seemed to represent a grand, doomy peak that effortlessly combined the sweetly accessible and the gloriously excessive. 31 years (!) on and it’s still a welcome occasional companion.

Richard Dawson – 2020(2019)

One of the more maverick talents to emerge over the last decade, Richard Dawson’s music isn’t for the fainthearted. His latest release is a maelstrom of traditional Folk melodies, brash Electronics and dislocated, dissonant Rock (topped off with savage / perceptive lyrics about life in contemporary Britain). Though the production is firmly modern Indie/Electronica, (accidentally?) there’s a strong Prog element in the unusual time signatures, dissonances and imaginative genre mash-ups. I may be wrong, but there seems to be more VDGG, Captain Beefheart, XTC, Gentle Giant and King Crimson in the mix than The Fall. Unexpected and refreshing, Dawson may not be an easy listen, but he’s always an interesting one.

Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin(1999) /Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots(2002)

When they were released, I liked these albums (along with Mercury Rev’s not dissimilar delights Deserter’s Songs and All Is Dream). At the time the Rev albums got more play and appreciation, but at some point in 2010 (when my partner was pregnant with our son), suddenly both these albums clicked for me in a big way. First it was Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell and Suddenly Everything Has Changed, and then it was all the tracks on frequent repeat. Wayne Coyne mentioned that the albums were made at a time of intense change and there is a sense of dealing with something bigger than the individual on both releases. Universal, intimate and imaginative, this is ideal lockdown comfort music for me.

Magazine – Magic, Murder And The Weather(1981)

Commonly regarded as the weakest album in Magazine’s career, it may be my favourite. A little like The Smiths’ Strangeways Here We Come, it has a greater eclecticism and playfulness than any of the band’s previous albums. From the buoyant Pop of About The Weather to avant-Reggae of The Great Man’s Secrets to the brooding groove of The Honeymoon Killers, there’s a sense of shackles being taken off and anything goes that runs rampant throughout the album.

Ennio Morricone – The Good The Bad And The Ugly(1966) /Death Rides A Horse(1967) /Once Upon A Time In The West(1968)

Three typically striking Spaghetti Western soundtracks with enough invention, beautiful melodies and dramatic dynamics to fill most people’s careers. Death Rides A Horse is perhaps the most experimental and the least known, but is still a fine testament to EM’s astonishing versatility.

Morrissey – I Am Not A Dog On A Chain(2020)

I know, I know x 5000. In the current climate, this does feel a little like me buying a pretty painting by Hitler and saying, ‘Forget the atrocities, look at the brush strokes,’ but…..

Outside of his politics (which I firmly oppose) and seemingly narcissistic personality, Mozzer remains a unique and vital artist. His unmistakable voice is as good as it ever was and on Dog, he’s at his most musically playful and adventurous. Alongside the brilliant and underrated Kill Uncle, this is perhaps the most eclectic and experimental album of his long career.

The ’should I listen to / read / watch the work of despicable people’ argument is one I’m acutely conscious of. I’m also very aware of the fact that from John Martyn to Miles Davis, Stan Getz to Nina Simone, several of my personal favourite musicians were difficult, and frequently objectionable individuals. I do seriously debate whether I should listen to the likes of Small Hours or In A Silent Way ever again, but I feel art can transcend the worst in us. It’s something of a conundrum, but I feel the ‘complicated’ individual can find some redemption in work that provides inspiration too many. That said, I still waver in that conviction and it’s a debate that no doubt will be continued.

John Prine – John Prine(1971) /Souvenirs(2000)

This one’s a C-19 special. I’d never properly listened to John Prine prior to reading about his contracting (and subsequently dying from) Coronavirus. I thought I’d rectify that and bought his debut album and a later collection (where he revisits what he considers to be his best songs).

In some ways, Prine (especially on his debut) is the missing link between early Bob Dylan and late Roger Waters. Add to that the astute character studies of Randy Newman and you have a flavour of these two albums. Souvenirs is possibly my favourite (as Prine’s voice is very much his own by this stage in his career), but poignant songs such as Hello In There and Angel From Montgomery work beautifully in both contexts.

A genuine talent I’m sorry I didn’t discover much earlier.

Labi Siffre – So Strong(1987)

For me, Labi Siffre is one of the great unsung heroes of British music. His earliest albums embrace anything and everything from singer-songwriter, whimsical McCartney-esque Pop, Folk, Jazz and, by the mid-1970s, Funk. 1972’s Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying and 1973’s For The Children would be my suggestions for the curious to start with, though 1998’s The Last Songs is also well worth hearing. Something Inside (So Strong) is an iconic song, but I’d always avoided buying Labi’s 1980s mega-hit album until recently.

In truth, this is an album very much of its time. Shiny synths and drum simulators abound and while it remains an acceptable approximation of the sound of the then zeitgeist, it doesn’t really transcend it or do anything interesting with the musical components. The high points all come courtesy of Siffre’s impassioned vocal contributions and the strength of his sincere songwriting. For some (Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Prince, Jane Siberry, Trevor Horn etc), the technology of the 1980s sparked creative career highpoints, for others (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Paul McCartney), the period led to confused artistic choices. By comparison, Siffre’s 1980s represented neither a peak nor a trough. This is one of those albums I’ve listened to in order for me to get to like it more. So far, it’s not working.

Talking Heads – Speaking In Tongues(1983)

Remain In Light is undoubtedly a more vital and innovative album and it continues to be a brilliant example of unexpected fusions. Despite that, Speaking In Tongues is the Talking Heads album that I come back to most often. It has a simpler, more era-defined (as opposed to era-defining) sound, but a wonderful set of warm, sweet songs and infectious grooves.

Typified by the gorgeous This Must Be The Place, Speaking In Tongues is the most human and approachable of TH releases and yet it never fails to be as interesting and cerebral as the band’s best work.

Van Der Graaf Generator – Pawn Hearts(1971)

Along with King Crimson, VDGG’s apocalyptic music seems as if it was made for the times we’re currently living through. Pawn Hearts (for me) remains the band’s pinnacle. Brutal, beautiful, strange and never content to stay in the same place for even half a minute, the album can still surprise after countless listens.

Yes – A Personal Playlist (1969-1978)

As with the Flaming Lips, the other-worldly sound of Yes at its best is ideal comfort listening in times of trouble for me. Includes Soon, To Be Over, all of Close To The Edge, Heart Of The Sunrise, Awaken, Turn Of The Century, Wondrous Stories, Onward, Madrigal, Sweetness and more.