Ten years ago, Jacob Lusk was one of the many big-voiced, big-hopes talents on American Idol that hung onto the fading coat tails of his dreams week on week until finally being eliminated at the top 5 stage. A decade later, dreams seemingly smashed, he’s back under the name Gabriels, signed to Parlophone and recording gospel-tinged soul that sounds authentically vintage but is as box fresh as a new pair of Air Jordans. American Idol’s loss is very clearly authentic, soul-stirring, respectable music’s gain.
Sneaking out at the very end of last year, Love And Hate In A Different Time is the lead track from a long sold-out 6 track EP that’s already selling at eye-watering online prices. A low-key soul belter, Love And Hate… is all pounding rhythm, call-and-response, take-it-to-church vocals and snapping handclaps wafted straight off of some talc-dusted floor in a forgotten northern Mecca. Clomp your Weejuns at the appropriate time and you’ll convice yourself it’s 1975 and you’re hopped up on stolen Dexies in the Wigan Casino. It’s the sort of track that I know many of you will be familiar with and love already.
The music is great, on point as a long-lost 45 from the gospel/soul crossover era, the sort of thing Aretha Franklin’s early advisors might’ve had her lined up to sing on. It’s retro sounding, but brought right up to date with those wee synth whooshes – ‘eee-wooo!‘ – that separate the soul fug like a zip running up the middle of a mohair jumper. Not quite right on first impressions, yet unique, individual and totally acceptable once experienced.
The musicianship is one thing; those on-the-one cinematic string slides, the loose ‘n effortless jazz club piano and a snare beat that’s absolutely ripe for sampling, but it’s the vocal that elevates the track to greatness.
Having been pigeonholed as a Temptations’ covering, Luther Vandross loving crooner, those daft judges on the telly couldn’t hear Jacob’s true voice for all it was worth. With a tone that’s soft and rounded, he sounds not unlike Antony/Anohni channeling the spirit of Billie Holliday. Falsetto, yes, but with filling-loosening bass tenor when required, and dusted in the smoky undertone of a God-fearin’, spiritual-hollerin’ veteran.
Free from the naff pigeonholing shackles of mainstream TV and a need to compromise and fit in, he’s able to talk freely of his Christianity without alienating half his TV audience or making those slaves-to-sponsors telly executives jumpy and twitchy. Consequently, Jacob is much happier in the skin he’s in…and he’s unwittingly revealed himself as the most authentic soul singer since…well, add your name of choice here: __________ .
A recent run of UK ‘club’ dates, as they say, was abruptly cancelled recently, including a show at King Tuts. Shame that. No doubt greedy agents and double-crossing promoters are lining Gabriels up for headline shows in grander venues. Catch them before they become too big is what I say.
“We asked 100 people to name a musical duo from Scotland.”
With a TV audience of millions watching and a five or six-figure jackpot prize hanging on your answer, the chances of a clued-in contestant offering up Boards Of Canada, let alone finding them in the list of Family Fortunes‘ half a dozen top answers would be slim to non-existent.
“The Proclaimers!” Ding!
“The Alexander Brothers?” Ding!
“Eh… Arab??… eh… Strap??” Ding!
But not, never, Boards Of Canada. !Klax-on!
Boards Of Canada rarely make videos. Hardly ever (and possibly never) do press. Haven’t played live in over 20 years. The likelihood of them popping up between Phil and Ally to provide an alternative, modern-thinking, left-of-centre soundtrack while Jackie Bird brings in the bells from Edinburgh Castle is about as likely as a statue of Margaret Thatcher being erected in Auchinleck town centre. They are low-lying to the point of anonymity, and I suspect that’s the way, uh-huh uh-huh, they like it.
Formed in 1995 by brothers Mike and Marcus Sandison in the north east seaside town of Cullen, their music has given the world four albums and a handful of EPs. All are different yet all are fairly recognisable as the work of a band steeped in analogue production, vintage synths and the use of unfashionable and outdated technology as a means to produce warm, ambient electronic music that boils and bubbles with all the warm blooded soul of a beating human heart.
2006’s Trans Canada Highway EP may well be the missing link between Radiohead’s more adventurous excursions in electronica and My Bloody Valentine’s self-indulgent guitar manipulation.
Dayvan Cowboy – Boards Of Canada
Opening track Dayvan Cowboy is the band in miniature, its looping whitewash of fuzzed guitars, skeletal percussion and layered windrush of synths nestling murkily inside your head before the musical clouds part and, two minutes and seven seconds in, a bright light of aural sunshine sweeps the room. In dance terms, you would call this ‘the drop’. In Dayvan Cowboy, it’s the drop in reverse, the equivalent of coming up for air after a deep sea dive, a gasp of clean oxygen at the end of a journey living on borrowed air.
Gently broken hip hop beats rattle and ricochet, synthesised strings sweep across the ambient electronica, more rushing wind, more tinkling percussion, lovely wee doorbell-like chimes every now and then; head music for the soul as it peters out to its untimely multi-layered end. Someone should make one of those ultra slowed-down 3-hour versions and stick it on the internet for full-on effect. I suspect it would be just as brilliant.
All in, it’s lovely stuff and it makes even more sense in (slightly edited) video form:
Elsehwere on the EP you’ll find Left Side Drive – (LSD?) – yet more ear-burrowing, creeping electronica that features a borrowed rhythm that may well be a processed version of the beats in Massive Attack’s Karmacoma melded to slo-mo flotation tank music that very possibly was recorded in a dimly-lit bedroom or basement, with a couple of lava lamps and a copy of Pink Floyd’s Meddle for company, perhaps even the fragrant fug of Morocco’s finest curling tantalisingly around the nostrils.
Left Side Drive – Boards Of Canada
Interestingly, or incredulously even, Solange Knowles – Beyonce’s wee sister – recorded a totally unofficial track that features her breathy soulful vocals floating across Left Side Drive‘s wafty ambience. It’s not the best track you’ll hear this week, but nor is it the worst. Chances are, given that it first surfaced in 2011, you’ve heard it before.
Hitting the shelves this week – ‘dropping‘, to use modern parlance – is the eagerly-awaited follow up to the Texas Sun record that Khruangbin did in collaboration with fellow Texan Leon Bridges. On Texas Sun, dustbowl desert guitars gently twanged with ambient reverb across four tracks of gospel-tinged southern soul and, from what has been heard so far, Texas Moon seems to follow in the same rich vein.
If this happens to be your first introduction to Khruangbin (and Leon Bridges too for that matter – a guitar totin’ troubadour with a proper caramel-coated, take-it-to-church soul voice), you could do worse than dip a toe into a pair of back catalogues awash with rippling guitar and beautifully considered complementary bass lines. Let’s focus for now on Khruangbin.
Khruangbin – So We Won’t Forget
So We Won’t Forget wanders in, cocksure and insistent, the result of an unholy alliance between the Bhundu Boys and the near-cousin of Lovely Day‘s bass line ; a groovy, heady mix of chiming, chattering African highline six string and sighing girl group despondancy that carries you away in its cooing breeze for five joyous minutes.
Ideal music for lying underneath an inky black panoramic sky of constellations or for soundtracking the wee small hours as you fight off the urge to fall asleep, So We Won’t Forget is a rare dichotomy of music that sends you to sleep while making you simultaneously want to dance in floaty, unselfconscious abandon.
Khruangbin (it translates as ‘aeroplane‘ in Thai) have undeniable style in clothes as well as music. Focal points Laura Lee and Mark Speer permanently peek from beneath a pair of perfectly-sculpted fringes that even Claudia Winkleman might find irritating.
Their clothes are never less than considered – Laura takes pride in wearing a different outfit for every show Khruangbin plays (600+ at the last count). Mark is the best-dressed drip of water on the planet, poured into rake thin, mile long ’70s lounge suits that might’ve come from the wardrobe department of a Hollywood movie set. The quiet man at the back, DJ Johnson Jnr on drums is more sartorially understated, preferring instead to let his pistol crack snare and rattling hi-hats add the requisite flash.
Khruangbin – Evan Finds the Third Room
You get the impression that the musicians in Khruangbin could outplay just about anyone on the planet; the funk-infatuated drummer, the on-the-one wandering and popping basslines played with great touch and feeling and those free-form bubbling guitar passages, slow bent one moment, rapidly fired the next, that wouldn’t sound out of place on the end credits of an arthouse movie, or perhaps a pivotal slo-mo scene in a Tarantino box-ofice smash.
The trick though, as Khruangbin know fine well, is to consider the notes that aren’t played. Those missing notes are what gives the music of Khruangbin a feel as wide and expansive as the Chihuahuan Desert and a groove that’s positively out-there and gravity-defying.
The Smile could be considered something of a vanity project; a sideways step, an away from the day-job shaking loose and letting down of the hair until regrouping and getting down to the business of Radiohead. Just when your Spidey senses suggest the ‘Head might be due a burst of about-time-too activity, along comes Thom and Johnny’s hot new thing; guerilla gigs and sudden releases and everything.
They’ve just announced a hefty European tour that takes in the grander venues in all major cities throughout the summer months. By the time you read this it’s probably sold out and a healthy second market for over-inflated tickets at what were already over-inflated prices will be on the go and causing internet meltdown. Such is the way of life when the word ‘Radiohead’ is attached to the project.
Had the two tracks released in the past couple of weeks been done so under that day-job moniker, they may have kickstarted a media frenzy and signalled an interesting new direction for Radiohead. Instead, despite being fairly low-key releases, they point to a band that may well turn out to be something more than a distraction until the bill-paying job starts up again.
The Smile – You’ll Never Work In Television Again
The first track to emerge from the wintery darkness was the clanging, spitting You Will Never Work In Television Again, Thom Yorke snarling and swearing his way across the top of a band that sounds like The Police going toe-to-toe with Fugazi; chorus-effected guitars battling for earspace with searing feedback and a drummer that sounds like Animal from the Muppets going downhill without the brakes on.
Had this been the ‘Head and not The Smile, there’d have been a clamour of “they’ve got the guitars out again!“-type hyperbole, a feeding frenzy for the six string-starved Radiohead fan who stupidly, ignorantly lost touch round about Hail To The Thief. Here, The Smile – a power trio! – sound more guitary than yer actual Radiohead ever have.
Even better is the totally different The Smoke. Taking its cue from the skittering and skeletal repetitive beats of Jaki Liebezeit and Can, The Smoke is a bass-led noodling groove, a proper head-nodder in the vein of any of In Rainbows‘ more ambient moments.
The Smile – The Smoke
Thom swaps full force for falsetto, easing himself into the track and wafting across it, winding his way in-between and underneath the fug whenever he sees fit. Synths follow his melody, gently arpeggiated guitars ring across the sparse backing, and woozy, womb-like sounds add muted colours to the heady stew as it plays out with understated majesty. A proper grower and no mistake.
There are a handful of clips online from those guerilla gigs and more to suggest that The Smile might be making a proper go of it in the coming months. And although any notion of Radiohead perhaps releasing new music any time soon is somewhat fanciful, I for one am not complaining
What’s in a name? They may have been The Rolling Stones to plummy BBC announcers and chummy American TV hosts, but by the ’70s, they’d fallen mononymously into just the Stones; a name that suited the music that would come to define them.
The Rolling Stones was all about frantically scrubbed Bo Diddley rhythms and snake-hipped shaken maracas, three minutes of pop r’n’b that when played with a pout made the front row wet their knickers. As the principal players slowed down the gear changes in inverse proportion to the length of their songs and the length of their already-collar bothering hair, they became The Stones; dangerous, devious and undeniably dynamite.
Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone? asked Andrew Loog Oldham in the ’60s? No chance, mister. And there was absolutely no chance you’d want her anywhere near a skinny, sexed-up and strung-out Stone a short handful of years later. No chance at all.
There’s a guitar alchemy in the Stones that you’ll find in no other band since or ever. It’s all over Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street like A-class-enhanced quicksilver; a fluid melding together of Mick Taylor’s straightforward yet beautifully executed 6 string bluesisms and the loose riffing of Micawber, Keith Richards’ mangled Telecaster, bastardised to just 5 strings and tuned to open G.
Mick’s guitar sounded like this, Keith’s guitar sounded like that…and when they played together, they created an unattainable third sound; a new, harmonious chord full of air and promise, a new feel, a new something; magical, otherworldly and impossible to replicate. Sure, anyone can have the tools, but only Mick and Keith had the talent, the telepathy and the feel. (Well, later on, Ronnie would come to disprove that theory, but let’s not let that get in the way of things for now). And it’s only Mick and Keef (that’s the other Mick, the more famous Stone) who have the know-how to turn the rough stuff into polished diamonds.
The Stones – Tumbling Dice
My favourite Stones track will always be Tumbling Dice. It’s got everything; telepathic guitars, horns, soul, swagger, groove. That slinky, double-stringed opening riff is suitably louche and rakish, a setting out of the stall like no other.
As Keith is wont to do, he had been toying with the riff and feel of the track for a year, leaving it aside, allowing it to stew and marinade in the swill of Stones’ rehearsals, coming back to it time and again until the Stones found themselves avoiding tax in the south of France when, by this point, it was a tune ripe for recording. Initial versions were faster, less-focused and featured a hackneyed Jagger vocal that he’d be quick to abandon.
The Stones – Good Time Woman (Tumbling Dice early version)
The whole of Exile On Main Street is a masterclass in studied looseness and the session track above plus the finished Tumbling Dice is the epitome of this. It might appear ragged and funky, but that sure takes a lot of practise. And alcohol. And drugs. And beautiful women wherever you turn. To have been a Stone in ’72…
Keith plays it initially with a gentle touch, feeling his way in with the opening riff until his band arrives – a decidely unusual version of the Stones for once. There was no Bill Wyman for starters. He’d gone AWOL somewhere in the south of France, fed up while the others worked all night and slept all day. He’d be back, just not in time to add his signature to what would become the lead single from Exile On Main Street. Bass duties were taken instead by Mick Taylor. To compensate for lack of rhythm guitar, Jagger himself was encouraged to get on board. Once they’re locked in and zoned out, Keith plays harder. Charlie follows, swinging the groove with understated power. And Keith plays harder again. Chugga-chugga-chugga. It’s rock’s most famous (some might say cliched) riff, played exactly the way you’ve been trying to master it since it first kissed your ears. Five strings, open G, remember.
The Stones worked up the slack rhythm track in Nellcôte, their rented French villa, but it wouldn’t be until Jagger had a random conversation with his housekeeper in L.A. about gambling that he’d have a lyric he was happy with. Dropping the ‘good time woman‘ lyric of the initial version, Jagger instead compares the sins of gambling to the sins of cheating and creates a lyric in simpatico to the music.
By the time Exile… was released, the Stones had overdubbed Atlantic soul brass courtesy of honourable Stone, Bobby Keys and piano, courtesy of the ubiquitous Nicky Hopkins. The ace in the pack was the three-girl choir, sashaying in on a riot of “ooooh-yeahs” and harmonised “bay-bees”. They duet with Jagger throughout, he rubbery, with a mouthful of mid Atlantic Cockney vowels – “yeo caaahn be mah paaaa-tnah ein cra-ah-aha-ahm” – and they stately and majestic, just on the right side of controlled.
Factor in the dueling guitars, the breath-gathering drop-out, the slide part that I’m not even sure is there but sounds like it is and you have one of the very best – the very best, if y’ask me – Stones’ tracks. Not Rolling Stones. Stones.
I was going to call Midlake‘s The Trials of Van Occupanther a modern classic, until it dawned on me that it’s a full fifteen and a half years old. That would have been obvious if I’d stopped to think about it, as the album provided much of the soundtrack while our youngest was bathed, breastfed and brought into this musical household in the autumn of 2006. So classic, yes. Modern, not so much. Sobering as it is, it’s a bit like calling Abbey Road a modern classic in 1985.
You don’t need me to tell you that entire bands come and go in fifteen years. Even Midlake themselves are presently anonymous, on hiatus with the constituent members working on various projects – and nothing disappoints more than bands members ‘working on other projects’ rather than sticking with the band that made so much magic, eh? Never mind, Midlake. We still have The Trials of Van Occupanther. And maybe a new album in ’22 if the rumours are correct?
…Van Occupanther is a phenomenal record, stuffed full of plaintive narratives sung atop rustic, organic instrumentation, the vocal arrangements evoking prime time Laurel Canyon and played by a shit-hot band who’ve clearly spent the months leading up to the record honing and refining every little element of their songs.
It sounds like it could’ve been recorded in the mid 1970s in one of those classic analogue studios, possibly Sound City, possibly Village Recording, with Neil Young next door, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash smoking pot on the swing on the stoop, The Eagles working out a three-part harmony between punch-ups by the Coke machine, but much of the subject matter suggests the roots of the songs date back to the previous century; to rustic, gold rush America, of bandits and bordellos and when bearded trappers worked the land, when everything was handmade and when life in them thar hills was much harder but oh so much simpler.
Stone cutters made them from stones….mountaineers gathered timber piled high… goes opener Roscoe, all fuzzy warmth and chugging chords, a hint of Christine McVie in the into-the-ether chorus, the spectral, chiffony swirl of Stevie Nicks floating around the edges of the harmonies.
Midlake – Roscoe
Nature and hard work, it seems from the off, are the central themes of the record.
While we were out hunting for food they sing between the piano lines and bluesy runs on Bandits, a song about wishing to be robbed of your worldly possessions by bandits so that you can start life over again (with a rabbit and an ox, no less.) Not many bands write such subject matter, and fewer still manage it with melody squeezed richly from every pore, cascading piano and acoustic guitars ringing and sparkling brightly.
Bring me a day full of honest work and a roof that never leaks and I’ll be satisfied they profer on the very Mac-ish Head Home, all throbbing bass, Californian coke haze vocals and a no-note-wasted, tasteful and lightly toasted guitar break before the final chorus – exactly where the Big Book of Classic Rock Guitar Solos suggests you place it. Bonus ’70s points for the weaving Fender-bending interplay in the long drawn-out coda. FM rock reimagined.
Midlake – Head Home
My young bride, why are your shoulders like that of a tired old woman? With a face made for porridge and stew go the opening and closing lines on Young Bride‘s rootsy minor key hoedown, the bass line revving up and down the fretboard as the Appalachian mountain violin does its best creaky door impression. Trivial fact – both Tim Burgess and Paul Weller love, LOVE!, this song.
I saw she was busy, gathering wood for the fire, they sing on the woozy Americana of Branches before the payoff and clincher; We won’t get married, she won’t have me, she wakes up awfully early these days. By the end of the song, the vocals are tumbling over themselves in an overlapping rush of sepia-tinted melancholy, the piano and woodwind providing the requisite sombre arrangement while the drums batter and clatter to a subtle, banjo-enhanced fade out. The equal of anything by the similarly rustic and on-point Fleet Foxes, it’s fantastic stuff. Fleet(wood) Foxes, anyone?
Midlake – Branches
There’s not a note out of place on …Van Occupanther. Delicately plucked Martins ring out, as deftly picked as a McCartney melody then give way to lean, mean, fizzing and spitting guitar solos that are short enough to defy ‘muso’ cries, but are intricate enough that they could sit in the middle of any Abba or Steely Dan or Supertramp up-tempo number from back in the day and not seem at all out of place.
The whole album comes enveloped in an honest, pensive yet placid melancholy, the aural equivalent of one of those Instagram filters that allows you to make a Lana Del Ray video or your phone snap from an Ibizan beach look like a bleached-out Polaroid from half a century ago…exactly the ‘look’ that the band was going for, I’d wager. America was a country forged from hard work, toil, tragedy and overcoming setback. It’s all there in miniature on The Trials of Van Occupanther. A modern classic by anyone’s definition.
There’s a great little authentic soul scene bubbling just under the surface, a handful of artists who’ve strode proudly in on the back of Michael Kiwanuka’s door-opening wide lapels and wormed their way into the more discerning listeners’ ear space thanks to their abilities to take the best of those late ’60s/ early ’70s soul pioneers (Stevie, Curtis, Marvin) and re-present them as shiny new things, played and produced with effortless majesty. At the forefront are the excellent Black Pumas, previously featured here, along with the also-featured Curtis Harding and Leon Bridges.
The newest cool chops on the block belong to Boulevards, the name by which North Carolina’s Jamil Rashad preferes to go by. He’s not new to this. Bandcamp throws up some self-released tracks that are a good five years old, but in the interim he’s thankfully thrown off the questionable and gadsy Kravitzesque approach to what constitutes ‘retro’ and reimagined himself as a pimped up, cooled out Blaxploitation soundtracker.
His fourth album – Electric Cowboy: Born In Carolina Mud, due out in February ’22 will perhaps be one of the early go-to albums of next year. If you like the references above, I think you will, as Shaft was wont to say, dig it.
Better Off Dead floats in on a lush tapestry of whacked-out wah wah and paranoid orchestration, pistol crack snare and movie-esque synths. Boulevards takes the first verse – sumthin’s wrong wit’ me, I can’t barely breathe – singing the tale of the after-effects of a week-long bender and, just as you’re falling into hungover step with him, guest vocalist (New West labelmate) Nikki Lane eases her way in on a shimmer of silver strings to tell her side of the story – noses start to bleed…when can I take a seat?…I need a hit you see…tell me I’m alive… It’s Lee ‘n Nancy ‘n Isobel ‘n Mark for the strung-out post-millenials in your life and it’s utterly fantastic.
Those chords are great; luscious and creamy major 7ths with just the right amount of echo and reverb, and when they make way for the slow burning solo, it’s exactly what you were wishing for; a string bent, multi-phased, morphine-dripping long-lost cousin of the Isleys’ That Lady. You can practically see the technicolour flow from the speakers as it floods the room. Reading the credits alongside the press release here, it would appear that it’s the work of Black Pumas’ talented Fender bender Adrain Quesada, a neat way of squaring the circle, of passing the baton on to the latest trailblazers in the soul underground.
Fill yr Boulevards boots at New West Records here. You should also take the time to investigate Nikki Lane. A bit country, a bit Southern Soul, she is, apparently, the real deal.
Reissues. Man! All those albums you bought 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 (even) years ago are back out again in a dazzling array of coloured vinyl, with extra sets of alt. takes, outtakes and half-arsed half-takes, all boxed up in tactile packaging, with hardback coffee-table books to accompany almost every one of them (yes, the irony is not lost on this particular author of one of those very books). The music fan – not yr Spotify streaming, playlist loving, iPhone blasting freeloader – but yr forever record-buying, empty walleted polyvinyl addict is being mugged on a weekly basis.
Let It Be. Screamadelica. Nevermind. New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Sunflower/Surfs Up. Urban Hymns. All have recently been afforded (afforded being something of an oxymoron) the privilege of the deluxe treatment. ‘kin Urban Hymns?!? At what point is an album considered such a classic that it needs a 6 LP box set? Urban Hymns is a good album ‘n that, but only good, and very of its time; Spandau Ballet in a bucket hat – some killer, some filler, hey ho. How they’ve managed to fill 6 LPs – 12 sides! – is dazzlingly baffling.
Even Radiohead are at it. When they recorded the tracks that made up Kid A and Amnesiac back in the early ’00s, they chose to release them as two separate albums, with Amnesiac following Kid A by six months or so. A brave new direction for the band, Kid A took a while to grow on many and, just as it was beginning to unravel and make sense, along came Amnesiac which, despite being recorded at the same time, is a very different record. Together they would have made for a very sprawling and very difficult double album.
Many would argue that this is exactly what these brave new pioneers of music should’ve done at the time, so they must now be thrilled that Radiohead have repackaged both records as one, and not as a double album, but a triple – on white or red vinyl if you were quick enough (and plenty of you were, as it’s now all over eBay at silly prices) – with a third record of alternative versions, forgotten oddities and the odd dangly carrot of an unreleased beauty to hook you in. Madness, silliness and of course, you need it all. The record companies know it. They buff it up. You shell it out. And everyone’s a winner.
That lost Radiohead track is a beauty, right enough. Sparse, atmospheric and unravelling, If You Say The Word is neither electronic enough for Kid A nor obtuse enough for Amnesiac. Folk who tell you they liked Radiohead until they got weird (yawn) will love it. It sounds as if it was recorded in the big, airy Capitol Studios in LA, Sinatra at the lectern, Hal Blaine playing jazz paradiddles on the kit and the ghost of Nelson Riddle arranging it all behind the scenes.
Radiohead – If You Say The Word
Forget strings and orchestration though. The ‘Heid do things differently. Where Nelson Riddle might write a string line, Jonny Greenwood plays understated, minimalist Fender Rhodes. Where Sinatra might look to the brass for the melody, Radiohead ride in on the back of Ed O’Brien’s complex, wonkily-timed guitar arpeggios. Where a sweeping orchestral line can pick you up and carry you off, Radiohead coat their symphonies in icy blasts of Radiophonic Workshop found sound and arctic ambience.
Underpinned by subtly wandering bass lines (think Holger Czukay playing Andy Rourke on Stars In Their Eyes) and layer upon layer of counter melodies, a centre-stage Thom sings his angsty, existential lullaby in a swirl of space dust and atmosphere. You must wonder what other beauties Radiohead have hidden in the vaults, queuing up to be drip-fed with every subsequent super-deluxe release. The crafty bastards.
How are your eating habits these days? With COP26 taking place a couple of farmers’ fields and a few country miles over the horizon from my back window, I, like everyone else I suppose, should be making more of an attempt to cut out the red meat. Our eldest is full-on vegetarian, something I’m proud of her for having the conviction to stick to, but it does make dinner time a mess of multi-cooking. As a family we try and have a couple of meat-free meals a week, but we could be doing more. Mike Joyce (clang) told me that when Morrissey (clang!) pointed out to the other Smiths one day that you wouldn’t eat a dog, so why would you contemplate eating a cow, he had no answer to it and turned vegetarian there and then. I nodded earnestly while in a non-preachy way Johnny Marr (clang!!) outlined the benefits of veganism and urged me to “give it a try for a bit“, but an hour later I was in a chip shop stuffing a smoked sausage supper down my brass neck. Shamefully and with a side dollop of regret, I must say, but still…
Someone I doubt very much who, in their early days, gave much thought to being carbon neutral and eco-aware is Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin came galloping into town like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, cruising on the jetstream of The Starship – their own private Boeing 720, crash-landing only to pillage and plunder and play some rock and roll before gallivanting out again in a haze of hennaed hair and the sighing swoons of every female within radius. Simpler times the ’70s, so they say. Eco-schmeco.
I met Robert Plant once. July 1995. I was working for Our Price, helping train the counter staff to use a new-fangled barcode scanning stock control system we’d invested in. The job took me everywhere from Inverness to Leeds and many places in-between. I travelled mainly by rail, read a ton of books as I did so and spent the duration of the job finding out where my £15 a night meal allowance would stretch to best. (The Qismat Tandoori in Elgin, if you’re interested.) In the July I was to go to our new shop at Glasgow Airport and begin training the staff on the ins and outs of our new payolla-proof system. Emptying my bag at my mum’s, I dumped most of the stuff I now deemed unnecessary for my time at the airport, including, crucially, my well-thumbed copy of Hammer Of The Gods, the infamous, unauthorised Led Zeppelin biography that dug the dirt on groupies, snapper fish and the physical and metaphorical muscle of Peter Grant. Of course, the first customer – the first customer! – through the door was only yer actual Robert Plant. As he arrived at the counter and the wee stack of CDs he was buying were being rung through, I engaged him in conversation.
“I’ve just being reading a book about you.”
“Oh yeah?” he said, genuinely interested.
“Yeah… Hammer Of The Gods…” I offered.
“Oh!” he said, with a wry smile, looking straight at me. He didn’t quite twirl those golden curls through his fingers the way he absent-mindedly did mid set in ’73, but he might as well have done. He was still a bit of a looker. The light from the Albert King CD he had been inspecting glinted in his clear blue eyes – rock god eyes that have seen more than you or I will ever see – and he spoke his words of wisdom.
“Yeah… Jimmy didn’t come out of that one looking too good, did he now?!”
It was at this point I was wishing I could get him to sign a CD, but with the counter being small, narrow and unpassable, there was no opportunity to squeeze past the most famous rock star I’d ever met and pick one from the racks. And by now I was cursing myself for having dumped the book from my bag. Then, out of the blue, the girl serving him presented him with the shop’s autograph book. “Yeah, sure,” he smiled, taking the pen she had offered.
Whoever had the foresight to stick an autograph book at the till in an airport record shop deserves a medal for quick thinking. It was full of all sorts – Bjork, Keith Floyd, Robert Downie Jr. There was even a wee Rolfaroo in there. Can we still mention that? Anyway, Robert happily obliged, adding his name in a large, swooping, blue inked signature. I noticed at the time (and can still picture in my head now) that it looked very similar to the ‘ZOSO‘ logo on Led Zep IV. A neat coincidence.
I’m not a rock fan by any means – all that pillaging and plundering and bare-chested daftness and whathaveye – but I do love a good amount of Led Zeppelin; those first four albums mainly, plus selected parts of Physical Graffiti. They’ve had their shameful moments, well-documented in that (genital) warts ‘n all book, but sometimes – most of the time? – it’s OK to separate the art from the dubiously-moralled artist. And shallow as I am, I am a sucker for a sloppily-played, turned up to 10 guitar riff. Sometimes, when the urge strikes, and usually only if the house is empty, nothing other will do than a proper baws oot blasting of Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin –Custard Pie
Custard Pie is the perfect example of that tight-but-loose label that Led Zep acquired, Jimmy’s guitar to the fore, slapdash and funky but ultra-together, propelled by a wall of thunder behind, the drums almost leading on the off-beat, John Paul Jones riffing around on a clavinet or something similar in the gaps in-between. Robert opts for a restrained guttural croon, rockin’ yet soulful. Swathes of wah-wah and wailing harmonica carry the song to its conclusion, a no-frills, no nonsense rock and roll boogie, Jimmy up the frets and playing to the very limits of his abilities.
Custard Pie is the riff my fingers fall into whenever I pick up a guitar these days. It’s a beauty, ideal for stretching the pinky and working on the timing of the right hand, although I usually give up sometime around the first notes of the lightning flash solo. I’ve no patience for cock rock wizardry such as that. Nor have I much truck with the outdated and iffy subject matter (a Plant-based diet of a very different sort). Great rockin’ tune but.
My Bloody Valentine damn-near bankrupted Creation to make an album only a fraction as exciting, as intense, as self-indulgent as Faust‘s Krautrock, a track so good they named an entire genre after it. Julian Cope, in his worth-stealing Krautrocksampler book, called the track ‘a continuation of (Faust’s) whole trip‘. He’s right, of course. A dozen minutes of head music; expansive, noisy and pretty, pretty essential. Kosmische!
It lurches in on a slur of stretched 3″ studio tape…or perhaps a divebombing whammy bar…and layered fuzz guitars, overlapped and saturated to white noise levels of intensity, fall into a snaking groove pattern, panned from left speaker to right and back again, an instant head trip.
Der-der-derder-der-duuh…Der-der-derder-der-duhh. From underneath the blanket of restrained, compressed noise creeps a tambourine, its steady rattling jangle enhancing the drumless, beatless rhythm that’s unfolding in front of your ears.
Here comes the bass…woody and electric, looped and repetitive, recorded in an era long before Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall and even loopers themselves were a thing. Disciplined, repetitive and worming its way into your consciousness, it’s now the lead instrument, a counter-rhythm to the relentless guitar noizzze that came before. Dum-deh-dehdeh-deh-dum…Dum-deh-dehdeh-de-dum.
But wait…is that a vocal? Is it? A sort-of chanted, Tibetan monk-influenced calling from some far-off metaphorical mountaintop? Remember when John Lennon had this idea – and he had it first, by a good eight years – for Tomorrow Never Knows? This is what I think he had in mind, if indeed a vocal is even here at all. I mean, I think there is. I’m sure of it. I think I am.
And now there’re drums. It’s Keith Moon tripping up and falling down the stairs, landing the right way up and falling straight into the beat; propulsive, steady, not in your face but driving the whole thing ever-forwards.
That guitar ambience that kicked it all off? You’d forgotten about that, hadn’t you? It’s still there, of course, aural background wallpaper, the splashes of colour in an otherwise steady and unshowy room. But as soon as you remember the guitars, there they are, suddenly at the fore again; fizzing static bursts of beamed-in-from-the-outer-edges art rock and long, howling notes bent out of shape by distorted wah-wah and studio trickery. Just as your mind alters to the staggered groove – are we at the end of a bar or midway through? – a keyboard floats in, keeping time with its Farfisa parp. Or is it actually a manic Velvet’s violin, noise-as-art aesthetic, screeching/keeping time like John Cage on Black Angel’s Death Song, trying painfully to be heard above the apocalyptic din? Maybe it’s both. Who knows? Who cares?
Shh! Listen! That quiet, respectful popping noise you hear near the end is the sound of Stereolab crying into their Rice Krispies, totally defeated. We’ll never be as good as this, they admit, though they’ll continue to give it a good try.