January 31, 2011 § 3 Comments
I spend a lot of time on trains. No, really. Between living four hours away from my boyfriend when I’m not at university (and he lives a train-ride away from the nearest big town anyway), and visiting London a lot from both places I live, and the business of just going home and back again… it comes up a lot. A lot of people seem to be able to work on trains – commuters and Busy Men get out their laptops/ipads and try their hardest to look like yes, they are Busy Men – while it seems fairly common to read, too. I don’t often get much done, no matter how long the journey. I enter some kind of train stupor, stare out of the window listlessly, listen to music/a podcast and just think, aimlessly. For hours. Riding the train feels like nothing else. I like it a lot – possibly because my Dad’s really into steam trains so I spent a large portion of my childhood (well, my life, really) riding on steam trains like they were the coolest thing ever. Our holidays revolve around them. Or possibly because, for me, they are a space to just sit and think and listen and look. Nobody expects you to do much. That’s great. It’s what I need. Especially when you add the anticipating that builds up of where you’re going, who you’re going to see, what you’re going to do when the journey’s over and you’re stood on the platform, holding a case that’s too heavy and peering around through grey platform rain.
Here are some songs.
born on a train
This even sounds sleepy, kind of sedated. It sounds like trains have made him tired, have made him slow down and think about it all. It sounds like he’s still going strong, it’s not his station yet, it’s the night and he keeps seeing car lights but he’s on the train, it’s not a sleeper but he’s almost asleep anyway, who knows, whatever.
this song starts with the taxis all turning off their lights; when they’re hailed by the wrong people, they don’t want to know. but then they’re on a train, and there’s not much else to do, and it’s cold and they’re drinking, but it’s okay. or, it’s not okay, but at least they’re inside and they’re sitting together. there’s that.
Sometimes the train just does what it does. It takes people away, then they come back, and it happens all over again. If you catch the one that comes first, it might be too slow. You’ll be waiting forever as it stops at all these tiny stations whose signs you can’t even read normally – Maryland, Seven Sisters, Stratford, Stevenage. It doesn’t make it any easier for you, but probably for somebody else. Right? And this song even starts with the sound of a train moving, leaving. Sometimes the journeys just don’t end.
Then there are other times. The other songs here are about train journeys, too – but this one is about the night train, starting as the other journeys end. You know you’re going home – or somewhere better than the place you were. It’s like, when you’ve been in London for too long. When you look out of the window and it’s dark but between the stations there is nothing much, not much at all. And you’re going somewhere where it gets dark, where you can sleep and walk and not have to see everything, all night, all day.
my my metrocard
Sometimes you just want to get somewhere fast.
January 8, 2011 § 3 Comments
I got back from Gloucestershire (via London, where money seems to just osmose out of me) today, and on the journey back this song came up on my mp3 player’s shuffle. I then proceeded to play it about a thousand more times. It was written in 2004 in reaction to what people (well, mostly the media, I think) said about the death of Ronald Reagan, but six years on, and despite the fact that Margaret Thatcher hasn’t died (which the song kind of hinges on, but it’s not really about that – more on this later), and despite the fact that the UK’s political landscape has changed (as much as a two-party/two-and-a-bit-party system can) in the intervening years, it seems to pretty much nail what’s happening in UK politics at the moment.
First of all, it’s not a song about the death of Margaret Thatcher. No, really, it’s not. I know one of those when I hear it. It’s about the way that modern political history gets rewritten – the way that politicians who did horrible things while in office start rehabilitating themselves by turning up on the telly whenever it’ll have them. He sings about Steve Norris and Edwina Currie becoming personalities rather than politicians, and all I can think about is Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing, and how awful she is, and how people found her entertaining and funny and voted to keep her in for weeks. She’s against abortion, when she was an MP she consistently voted against equality for gays and lesbians, she voted against removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords, and she doesn’t believe in climate change (that’s a fairly horrible website and I don’t want to give them hits, but I can’t find her actual column anywhere else). If you’re interested, there’s a list of the abhorrent things she’s done here.
He sings these lines, and she dances through my head, while people from the telly say inane things like “you always get a contestant who brings humour and fun to the show. I love Ann”:
All the smiling lying psychopaths we finally deposed
Are now creeping into reality TV and phone-in shows
Yeah. Happening again. And we need to fight it, you know? Because this is the kind of revisionism – the kind of short-sightedness – that allows us to forget what the Conservatives did in the 1980s. The kind of short-sightedness that makes us giggle at a politician who only stood down from her position as an MP in May this year. May! And before Christmas everybody couldn’t wait to talk about how much they giggled at her on Strictly. It’s this kind of revisionism that leads to what features in the next verse in the song, after a description of how “preening pamphlet-headed peacocks” only ever talk about ooh wasn’t his hair glamorous and mad in the eighties etc.:
As if the miners’ strike, the poll tax and BSE never happened
As if Section 28 was never passed into the law
As if Osama Bin Laden wasn’t paid to fight our wars
As if the institutionalised weren’t turfed onto the streets
Into a new society they said did not exist
This is it. This is it exactly. David Cameron showed, earlier this year, how out of his depth he was when it came to gay rights. He wasn’t an MP when Section 28 became law – but he didn’t turn up to the vote to repeal it, either, and in Europe the Conservatives are aligned with a Polish party who are peddling the same sort of homophobic views that we finally managed to expel – at least in law – seven years ago. In 2009, one of his MEPs even defended a homophobic insult used by the party’s leader – claiming it had been taken out of context. As if homophobic abuse is something that can just be explained away. David Cameron mostly just tries to shrug off talk of his party’s past in this sort of area as if it’s a faint but inconsequential embarrassment.
It’s his party’s lying that caused 2010’s second budget to be known as an “emergency” budget, so that they could start a regime of unnecessary cuts, that hit the poorest hardest, no matter what various members of the coalition say. It wasn’t working particularly well when it came to polling day – despite an incumbent Labour government that nobody liked, led by the increasingly blunder-ridden Gordon Brown, the Conservatives didn’t manage to win a majority of seats. But they joined up with the Lib Dems (as was always going to happen – there was a reason that I voted Labour) and their combined “wave of lies”, to use M.J. Hibbett’s words… have kind of beaten the media, and a lot of people, down. Why is nobody other than like Johann Hari, Laurie Penny, and the people at UK Uncut talking about the weird economic lies that the coalition – and the political establishment in general, Labour have done this too, to a lesser extent – use to justify cuts, use to justify the austerity that we’re now facing? They’re all great, and I thank them – but we need more people in the media talking about this, and less just repeating what the politicians say. They’ve shown time and time again that they can’t be trusted. They’re just waiting to retire with their millions and a quick route into telly fame.
The Conservatives cut themselves off from their past – as M.J. Hibbett sings about here, and as Stewart Lee talks about here (go about two and a half minutes in), and this is what allows them to continue to lie, continue to do the same things over and over again. Yes, regeneration is important to any political party, and new leaders and members believe in different things, and can legitimetaly break with what went before. But the Conservative party was unpleasant in the past, and remains unpleasant now – it tries to pretend that it’s not full of old men who rubbish the hard times that people less well-off than them are facing. It tries to pretend that it’s not full of MPs who don’t believe in equal rights for people and couples of any sexuality, but… the evidence keeps popping up, like garden weeds. They said they’d be the greenest government ever, but they’re going to sell off the forests and don’t seem to have started any radical plans to help stop climate change. They’re cutting funding for regional public transport. They’re allowing train ticket prices to rise to the point where nobody will be able to afford them, and will end up just using their cars again. They pretend that they’ve changed when they haven’t, and it’s the short-sightedness of the media and voters that lets them get away with it. Ann Widdecombe is being used as some sort of distraction from what’s really happening. This song recognises what her appearance on the show was really about, six years before she even pulled on a pair of dancing shoes. Because it’s a constant cycle of lies and apologies and every year the same thing.
In his long commentary about the song, M.J. Hibbett says:
It’s a strange experience to stand on stage singing songs about something which feels so current and relevant to me, in front of adults who were only toddlers when it was all happening. Sometimes it feels like a history lesson, sometimes it feels like Folk Music, but sometimes I see people my age with a gleam in their eye when I sing it, and it’s always lovely to talk to them afterwards. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels like his adolescence is being re-written.
I was born in 1989, and I’m writing six years after his own commentary. But I still think this song is important – I think the ideas it contains need to be expressed. I think that what it says is true. It’s what allowed Boris to become mayor of London.
Politicians are not celebrities. I wish the programme controllers or whoever the fuck it is who books people for all these programmes about famous amateurs doing something in a studio every week would fucking realise it. They are, or were, important, and we need to not let personalities and wardrobes and all that shit get in the way. It’s hard enough to understand who’s telling the truth and who is responsible for what without all of this cluttering everything. STOP. Stop now. Don’t help them push their agendas, don’t laugh at what they say. An aide who did a weekend course in comedy probably told them to do it anyway. Just stop.
And finally. Of course this song isn’t about wanting Thatcher to die. Come on. It’s not an empty, earnest, political song, the type that people love to say they hate. It’s so much cleverer than that.
January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment
I know, I know, it’s now 2011 so this is late. But I wanted to tie off my first two posts about my favourite tracks of the year with one last list of songs that I liked. Here are some more songs that I enjoyed from the year just gone, but by no means all of them. Shout at me about those I missed in the comments.
Titus Andronicus – A More Perfect Union (buy album here)
I need to listen to their new album properly – but I’ve listened to this one over and over again. The video’s great, which is why I’ve embeded it, but if you’ve not heard the full seven minutes nine seconds of this that’s on the album then you need to search the full version down (it’s on spotify here). It’s beautiful, uses spoken word samples with purpose, and writes New Jersey as somewhere to be escaped from; at times it sounds like he believes New Jersey needs to change, but really it’s clear that the need for escape is something primal, irrational within the narrator. He wants a ‘cruel New England winter’, yet eventually he wants ‘to realize too late I never should have left New Jersey’. He is stuck inside himself, but he knows this now.
The song’s also full of references to the American Civil War, which I’m not going to pretend to know anything about. Just listen to it.
This is probably my favourite of the millions of songs that Johnny Foreigner released this year (I’m not kidding – their wikipedia lists three EPs, there seems to be even more at their bandcamp, and they released a split 7 inch with Stagecoach, which this song is taken from). It’s short, melancholy, and full of references to a song that was on their debut EP, ‘Champagne Girls I Have Known’; this kind of continuity and reference to what has come before won’t seem alienating if this is the first song by them that you’ve ever heard, but for me… it’s important, it’s almost heartbreaking. In this song, Johnny Foreigner make me want to write their lyrics across my pillowcases/pencil cases/eyelids/fingers/kneecaps. Or just shout them out, loud. Other Johnny Foreigner sings released this year include the amazingly titled ‘Who Needs Comment Boxes When You’ve Got Knives’ and ‘Elegy for Post-Teenage Living’, both on the (take a deep breath) ‘You Thought You Saw a Shooting Star but Yr Eyes Were Blurred With Tears and That Lighthouse Can Be Pretty Deceiving With the Sky So Clear and Sea So Calm’ EP.
The Indelicates – Jerusalem (buy here)
Yeah, I hate the tories too.
PS I Love You – Starfield (buy here)
I’m not sure why they chose this name. It’s a pretty great song, though. And the vocalist’s voice is all weird and thin and jerky, like all the best voices are.
December 29, 2010 § Leave a comment
Here’s the second part of my list (in no particular order!) of my favourite tracks of 2010. The posting of these might slow up for a while, since I’m off to Gloucestershire for a week on Thursday (if the trains are working) and probably won’t pack my laptop, but I’ll try my best to get as many of these done before the new year rings in as I can, anyway. Leave a comment if you agree/disagree/want to share anything with me!
I could easily have picked other songs from The ArchAndroid to write about, but there’s already been a lot of attention paid to Tightrope and Cold War (especially its video, which I love), and this is my other favourite, although it’s more understated than the others – at first, anyway.
At the start, Monae sings over an acoustic guitar, and it feels almost out of place on her album, like she’s suddenly made a retreat to something safer, less interesting. But what starts off quiet and slightly droning – like the rainy day that it describes – suddenly becomes loud, showier than it was at first, and the images that she uses are unexpected and expansive without being jarring or pointless. She asks if the addressee knew that ‘this love would burn so yellow / becoming orange and in its time / explode from grey to black then bloody wine’. The lyrics don’t show off – but they also avoid sounding like anything staid, like any other pop songs.
I know that The ArchAndroid is meant to be part of a wider science fiction narrative that Monae has constructed, and it’s often been referred to as a concept album, but this track, and the other great songs on here, stands alone; the story of love and destruction that it tells unfolds, restrained and sad, amid quietly changing styles of production and instrumentation.
Metric/The Clash at Demonhead – Black Sheep (buy Scott Pilgrim soundtrack here, although it’s got the Metric version on. As far as I can tell, you can’t buy the version with Brie Larson singing anywhere. Boo!)
I prefer the version of this that’s used in the Scott Pilgrim film (which is where the video clip above is taken from, although it’s an extended version of the scene), with Brie Larson singing, over the version that’s just done by Metric, although both are good – it’s slightly less produced (although obviously it still doesn’t sound much like a live performance), and I possibly prefer Larson’s voice. I’m not even sure when Metric put this out, but the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack came out this summer, so I feel justified including it here. Every time I listen to it, I just think, how could I not?
It’s got such a great opening – in the film it works really well having Envy start it with “hello again, friend of a friend”, considering what you’re about find out about Ramona and Todd on bass’s relationship – but, just thinking about the song by itself, I love the way that the vocals sound kind of staccato, almost spoken. It sounds like a challenge. Not sure quite what the lyrics mean, if I’m honest (and neither do the people over at songmeanings.net, but then they never do), but when I hear her sing, it’s clearer. It is a challenge.
Surely the year’s most surprising namecheck has to be in this song, when Craig Finn sings about 90s indiepop heroes Heavenly. But it doesn’t feel like he’s just referencing them for the sake of it – part of their story gets woven into the song, and they become a way of remembering somebody else, somewhere else, something that they are a reminder of.
I don’t think this is thought of as one of The Hold Steady’s best albums – I certainly haven’t got through it much – but I keep returning to this song. I think it’s the opening – there’s something about the repetition of ‘heaven’ in it that tugs at me. Most pop songs seem to rhyme, and so does this one – but when words, or parts of words, are deftly repeated, it helps something paint itself inside my head. These are the two lines that open the song:
She played “Heaven Isn’t Happening”, she played “Heaven Is a Truck”
She said Heavenly was cool, I think they were from Oxford…
It shows a kind of sideways thought process, a way of remembering different things that ‘she’ liked through word-association, rather than by thinking about all of the songs by one band that she liked, or the music that she used to listen to the most. It doesn’t feel like wordplay, but the repetition still helps it become memorable, still works like internal rhyme. The backing vocals (on the studio version) that go ‘baa-baa-baa’ are beautiful, and fade out at the end after the rest of the song has finished – they’re never overpowering or too insistent, which makes a lot of difference in a song, like this, that is not a big dumb pop anthem; it’s too clever for that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those songs; but this one talks about other bands and their myths of origin, about growing up and old, about imagining what you can’t really remember. It’s about listening to music, without being self-congratulatory, nostalgic without being shit.
I listened to it so many times this summer that I’ve created a whole kind of internal life around it; when I hear it I just imagine being in Oxford, sitting on Headington Hill, listening to it on repeat, even though that never even happened.
December 27, 2010 § 2 Comments
I spent a few days thinking about how best to present a review of the music that’s been released this year; I had to compose a personal top ten as part of a staff poll at the student paper I sometimes write for, but I’m not very happy with it and don’t necessarily want to write about each of them. I do really get into a small number of albums, but the only one that’s really grabbed me this year is Los Campesinos!’s Romance is Boring (it’s only a fiver at the moment!), and writing about ten albums as if I know them and have considered them intimately when I like a handful of songs from each would be dishonest and probably kind of boring. Instead, I’m going to write a series of track reviews, in no particular order, followed by a simple list of a top fifteen or so once they’re done. Here are the first few reviews – I hope you like them. As always, leave me a comment if you agree/disagree, or want to discuss anything further. More reviews will follow over the coming week – I’m not sure how many track reviews I’ll write in all, I’ll probably keep writing them until my spotify ‘best of 2010’ playlist dries up (or I do).
Meursault – Crank Resolutions (buy the album here, and there’s a free download of the track too)
I saw Meursault at Truck festival this summer (which was, for the most part, a dreadful experience). I saw a lot of bands there, but I think their set – early in the day, shorter than I wanted – was my favourite. They can repeat one phrase over and over again, and make me feel like I’m being punched in the stomach. This song is a good example; it’s emotional and upsetting, as he sings, slightly broken, ‘as they carry you away’, but it’s not histrionic or overblown. Meursault are never sentimental, but they’re sincere, in a lovely, sad way. The instrumentation is sparing; this makes it all the more moving when the electronics are there, when another member of the band doe sstart playing. It all matters. When he sings “I broke down – on New Year’s Day – and I mixed my drinks – and I lost my way”, and when he yells out after the line ‘they carried you away’ repeats, it makes me ache.
This isn’t the single from Hanlon’s latest album; that’s All These Things, and there’s a charming video for it that’s worth watching. But I think this is the better song; while the other one is a duet (although Hanlon sings more), this is just him, singing about a relationship breaking up. It’s a break-up song, but it feels quiet, not overpowered with grief; the song starts with the lines ‘we earmarked our August vacation / as a fine place to fall apart / then heard that a trial separation / was a quaint idea for a new start’, and it almost starts to feel safe, as if everything was planned, as if no emotions were involved. But as the song develops, it becomes clear that this isn’t the case; towards the end, Hanlon sings the lines ‘I wouldn’t trade one heartbroken minute / for a year’s worth of dull happiness’. He can see the relationship and its end for what it was; he and his partner did fall apart, he was heartbroken – but it was still worth it, for what he felt and experienced. It also allows him to sing, at the very end of the song, that although, he’s moving on, he knows that the person he addresses is ‘worth mourning for’. He can see the good and the bad in what has passed; this is why no one emotion overpowers him. But there’s still a quiet pain in the song, even as he sings about what he has learned. It takes time.
This song contains possibly some of the most ridiculous lyrics of the year, and not in a good way – who can forget Jay-Z saying “everybody want to know what my achilles heel is / LOOOVE, I don’t get enough of it…”, or Kanye West’s ‘put the pussy in a sarcophagus’? But Nicki Minaj just makes this song. Listen to it all the way through once – the rest is still competent, and quite funny in places, although Bon Iver grates – but then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself going back to 3:35 over and over again in order to hear Minaj start her onslaught. She changes her voice’s tone, pitch, accent from line to line, she’s sweetly sarcastic, then she shouts, and then she screams.
Her writing and timing make her untouchable. She addresses an unnamed adversary, incredulously: ‘so, let me get this straight, wait, I’m the rookie / but my features and my shows ten times your pay / fifty K for a verse, no album out? / yeah, my money’s so tall that my barbie’s gonna climb it / hotter than a middle eastern climate’, turning masculine chart-rap’s lyrical obsession with money as a shorthand for status and dominance on its head. But apart from all of this; she’s gloriously fun. She raps about cheesecake and barbie dolls, she shouts that she wears ‘gold teeth and fangs / ‘CAUSE THAT’S WHAT A MOTHERFUCKING MONSTER DO’, and she blithely spells out ‘f-u-c-k’ in a way that had me just repeating it in my head, mindlessly. You’ll want to hear it again. She packs so much in as she steamrolls over what is ostensibly Kanye’s song; it’s instantly catchy, and dense enough to reward twenty, thirty, forty rewindings.