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Readers And Writers

I wrote a book. A proper, hefty music biography that won’t look out of place between Ziggyology and Head-On and Beastie Boys Book and Songs That Saved Your Life and Revolution In The Head and any of those other essential reads that make up your book shelf.

The Perfect Reminder tells the story behind the songs on the Trashcan Sinatras‘ second album I’ve Seen Everything – a quietly-confident-but-knows-its-place cult book about a quietly-confident-but-knows-its-place cult act. Thanks to a small team that includes a fantastic photographer (Stephanie Gibson) and a Brooklyn-based creative director with an analytical approach to typesetting and design (Chris Dooley), the finished article turned out waaaay better than expected. We got to hold it, feel it, sniff it, on Tuesday night and it was quite the thrill. The book, tactile and glossy and heavy, is also almost three times longer than my initial (now-laughable) estimate of 35,000 words, and far-better for it.

To paraphrase David Byrne, how the fuckdiddilyuck did I get here?

With the long out-of-print I’ve Seen Everything being reissued by Last Night From Glasgow, I chanced my arm and asked if I could write the sleevenotes. I had clout, I suggested. Back in 1992, I’d been around the studio during the making of the record. I was pals with the band. I’d written articles on them for local and national press; my sleevenotes would surely be wonderfully entertaining.

Clout I may have had, but that particular gig had already been promised to crack music critic and life-long Trashcans fan Pete Paphides. You can’t argue with that, I told myself, while Ian from LNFG let me down gently by asking me if I’d like to put together a “small book-type thing, a posh fanzine perhaps” that told the stories of the songs through the eyes of the Trashcans’ loyal and steadfast fan base.

There’s a better story than that, I suggested after a minute’s thought, and reeled off plans where the five Trashcans would tell their own stories of how the songs came to be; from the underwhelming initial writing sessions that filled the band with self-doubt, through to the sparkling finished product, expertly steered and produced by the affable and dude-like Ray Shulman. Despite the band separated by the small matter of the Atlantic Ocean, it would read as if the five of them were sat round a table in The Crown, telling tales of how the album came to be, each interjecting the others with contradictory tales that, when taken as a whole, would tell a version of the truth behind the making of an album that is now considered something of a lost classic, a great Scottish album by one of our greatest bands.

Trashcan SinatrasHayfever

“People want to know how these fabulous songs came to be,” I wagered. “The lyrics – who wrote them, what the songs were about, who the songs were about, and the music, dripping in melody and finesse – what makes it so unattainably magic, how did they come up with that wobbly sound on Send For Henny, why is there no guitar on Hayfever…the important stuff, y’know? They’re not that bothered that Marko fae Motherwell first locked eyes with the love of his life while the clanging thunderstorm of One At A Time played furiously in the background, although we’ll make space for that too. A proper music biography must be written.”

And it was. A hundred thousand words and dozens of arty photographs and eye-catchingly beautiful font later, the book, The Book – definitely anything but small and most certainly booting into orbit the concept of ‘posh fanzine’ – whatever that is – rolled off a Polish printing press, negotiated Brexit-affected customs and landed, finally, in Glasgow. It is currently winging its way to the hundreds – that’s hundreds, Archie – of TCS fans around the globe who placed pre-orders.

It’ll eventually find its way to Waterstones, Mono and a handful of select retailers. The Perfect Reminder  – titled by John from the band before a word had been typed – is very much available for order right now via LNFG. I’d recommend you read it. But you knew that already.

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Homespun

Last year’s lockdown may have meant a temporary end to live music, but it enabled Trashcan Sinatras‘ songwriting bass player Davy Hughes to team up with his artist wife Maree to create a four track audio-visual EP, as pleasing on the ears as it is to the eyes. Part crowd-sourced and part-funded by Creative Scotland, the Homespun EP has just been released. It’s quirky, atmospheric and filmic, with multi-layered stop-frame animation videos featuring butterflies and birds, dragonflies and all of nature’s delights providing the visual wallpaper for the glossy sheen of music that plays in the background, or foreground (depending on where you sit on the audio or visual learner see-saw).

Part ambient filmscore for some imagined film and part pulsing melodic electro, at least two of the four tracks feature moonlighting Trashcans as well as Eddi Reader, her voice instantly recognisable despite the musical accompaniment sounding quite unlike the instrumentation that normally plays behind her.

Opener I Don’t Know What’s Going On (I Only Know It’s All Gone Wrong Again) is the greatest track Public Service Broadcasting hasn’t yet recorded. Carried by a plummy-voiced sample that repeats the title throughout, it glides on linear synth pulses and post-punk guitars, keyboard swells and tingaling percussion. The accompanying video features much of Maree’s signature art; felt people, leaves and flowers, fluttering creatures in flight… an audible and auditory trip.

It’s the middle two tracks that I reckon will appeal most to fans of the Trashcan Sinatras.

Sea Made is the missing link between Talk Talk and the Blue Nile that you never knew you were looking for. Ambient and gyroscopic, it eases itself in gently, wafted along by tinkling keys and the sampled autumnal breeze from Irvine harbour. Frank’s voice is sleepy and mellow, the perfect foil to Eddi’s octave-surfing harmonies. With a multi-coloured video featuring sea creatures, scooners and some backwards spelling, it’s quite the package.

Can You Hear Me? is all understated minimal techno; vibrating electro bass, sparse percussion, programmed and processed beats, on top of which the Trashcans’ Frank sleepwalks his way through a beauty of a duet with his ghostly-voiced sister, half hidden in the shadowy background.

Do.

You.

See Me?

Can.

You.

Hear Me?

Huge, wobbly, tremeloed guitars add dollops of colour to the proceedings, little arpeggios and long notes that burn off out into the ether bringing to mind the more ethereal moments in the Trashcans’ forever-underrated back catalogue. It’s a quiet, slow-building beauty that, after half a dozen plays, unravels and reveals itself to be a work of melodic, atmospheric genius. It’s music for space travel, Jim, but not as we know it.

Closer Made Up Story features a slightly sinister video, with reflected impish creatures giving the effect of multiple Rorschach inkblots that give way to a cut-out girl who seems to fall forever until the track’s end. Vocal-less, Made Up Story features a repeating bass riff and an airy high-up-the-keys hook that bring to mind any number of those old early ’90s electronic records. Papua New Guinea, Yeke Yeke, Chime… you get the idea, but unwinding, slowed down to flotation tank levels of urgency. 

As an EP and as a visual medium, Homespun urges you to slow down, take a breath, reset. It’s pretty great.

You can support the arts and buy the EP at the Homespun Bandcamp page here. All profits will go to Irvine-based music charity Freckfest.

 

 

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Hauser Music

Keeley Moss is a Dublin-based musician and blogger. When she’s not leaving lengthy comments to many of the blog posts round this parish, she can be found blogging at her own Keeley Chronicles where she is committed to keeping the name of German student Inga Maria Hauser at the forefront of conversation. Murdered in Northern Ireland in 1988, Hauser’s killer is still at large. Since first taking finger to keyboard and hand to fretboard, Keeley has dedicated her writing and music to Hauser. Uniquely, every song she writes is connected in some way to Hauser’s story. Not so much, ‘This record is dedicated to…‘ as ‘This record is dedicated.’

Recently signed to London-based Dimple Discs (home to a noteworthy Irish contingent including Cathal Coughlan and Damian O’Neill), Keeley’s second single, the Brave Warrior EP has garnered praise and plays from all the best corners of the internet and beyond. Features at the end of last year in the Irish press eventually trickled their way over the sea and a steady stream of postive reviews has led to a tidal wave of enthusiasm for her latest release.

KeeleyThe Glitter and The Glue

Lead track The Glitter And The Glue has been playlisted by 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq and is exactly the sort of short, sharp guitar-based indie rock that Lamacq has long-nailed his thinning floppy fringe to. Glammy, trashy and instantly singable, it surfs along on the same snappy riffage that Johnny Marr has employed in recent years – more bite, less jangle, all up-stroked choppy chords and snaking counter melodies. I think you’d like it.

Elsewhere on the EP you’ll find the electronic whoosh of Last Words, Inga Maria Hauser’s story set to music, the embryonic Never Here, Always There and the effect-heavy and self-explanatory You Never Made It That Far. If y’like conscientious indie rock with its roots firmly planted in the early ’90s, you could do worse than check out the EP for yourself. Live dates – remember them? – will follow no doubt…

 

You can find the Brave Warrior EP at Keeley‘s Bandcamp page here.

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My Best Ideas Are Borrowed But They’re Never Half-Baked

Yard Act may well be the most important new band of this year. Judging by all that can be found online, it’s quite possible that they’ve written just four songs, but all appear on their super-limited, super sold out debut EP, Dark Days.

D’you know those two choppy minor chords that play behind the chorus on Roxy Music’s arty, decadent and oh so European Love Is the Drug? Yard Act have nicked them, welded them to Joey Santiago’s fire-spitting Uriah hit the crapper guitars from Pixies’ Dead and, by adding a sullen, gobby vocal, half Mark E Smith and half John Cooper Clarke, have gone about creating the most thrilling of title tracks on an EP that’s bursting with originality, vim and the odd sweary word. I think you’d like them very much.

It’s a never-ending cycle of abuse, I have the blues and I can’t shake them loose, goes the singer, spitting piss and vinegar through a megaphone for good measure, choppy basslines and a no-frills drummer holding it all in place. The vocals, all northern rap and Yorkshire tang are what sets it apart. There’s no singing in the traditional sense, until the choruses, when the monotone dark days title is repeated by the rest of the band. It’s a fat-free track, bereft of any superfluous nonsense. There are no obvious overdubs, no gimmicky production, just bass, drums, one guitar and the vocals on top, all in clear separation. Repetition is discipline said Mark E Smith and on this track…this EP…Yard Act have proven themselves to be the most disciplined of all.

Peanuts is two songs welded together in a spoken-word sandwich; the noise-clash first half, all discordant, cheesegrater Telecasters and drawling vocals that sound as if they’re being orated through a mouthful of Juicy Fruit, before giving way to the spoken word second half with a weeping Disney ambience in the background. Great punchline too, before the band kicks in for the last wee bit. I can guarantee, you haven’t heard a track like this ever.

Fixer Upper takes Jarvis Cocker’s take your year in Provence and shove it up your arse sentiments to the next level. I can’t believe I’m a two home owner, proclaims our protagonist, it’s a fixer upper though. The Polish builders’ll take care of it, cash in hand like. You can be sure of that. Great wee bit of percussion at the end too.

The Trappers Pelts grooves along on a bed of fuzz bass and hip-hop drums, not a million miles away from those Pixies again, twisted electric guitar sound effects and a vocal about, what, exactly? Entrepreneurship in the 21st century? The gig economy? You’re really all so desperate. Desperate! Despera-tuh! (Subtle influence clue there). HMRC, pay as you feel! I’ve no idea what it’s about, but in a head-nodding-to-the-groove kinda way, it sounds fantastic.

You might listen to all four tracks as they play on the Bandcamp app above, but can I suggest you watch the session below. All the visual clues point to the band’s peerless influences; a set dressed like The Smiths’ This Charming Man video, a Curtis/McCulloch grey mac, a singer that’s humourous, intelligent and charismatic, leading a band where each player knows his part…Yard Act are, like all the best bands, the sum of their influences and something inexplicably more. It’ll be interesting to see where they go next.

Check the band’s Bandcamp page for merch, music and suchlike.

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Non-Rock, Non-Roll

One-man/one-woman bands tend to be easy to pigeonhole; talented multi-instrumentalist + laptop x headful of ideas = nattily-produced, hastily-manufactured, self-financed album, a bit scuffed at the knees, perhaps, a bit frayed at the elbows maybe, the rough charm grudgingly accepted as part of the deal. ‘Hey! I’m on my own here! I don’t have a record company behind me, I can’t make money from gigging and I just want to get my songs out there.’ We’ve all heard these musicians, more than ever in the current climate, earnestly bashing out their cottage industry wares into an overcrowded ocean of flotsam and jetsam for whoever happens to pass along at the right time. It’s admirable to the point of lunacy.

I’m not alone in this. Every second post on here since the turn of the year is another chapter in my own ‘book seeks publisher‘ serialisation of an admittedly flawed young adult novel. The irony of my opening statement is not lost on me. Fail we may, sail we must, as a great philosopher once said.

Blowing the preconception of the one man band clean out of the overcrowded water is Andrew Wasylyk. The nom de plume of Andrew Mitchell, sometime Idlewild bass player and guitarist/vocalist in Dundonian four piece The Hazey Janes, Wasylyk is a supremely talented individual. The Hazey Janes’ neat way with a twisted melody and an Americana-tinged acoustic arrangement has found favour in all the right places, yet despite tours with artists as disparate and massive as Wilco and Deacon Blue, the group never quite made the leap to the next level that might have been expected of them, and by them. Not that Andrew seems to mind.

For the past few years, Wasylyk has quietly gone about working on a loose triptych of gorgeous, free-flowing instrumental albums that study the themes of architecture, the Scottish coastline and the light on the land. Unlike anything remotely connected to his two bands above, these albums meander between neo-classicism, library music, sophisto-jazz and the off-kilter filmic soundscapes of David Axelrod. The most recent release, 2020’s Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation was 6 Music’s Gideon Coe’s album of the year and, had I discovered it at the time of release, would very likely have been one of mine too.

The album was promoted through the second track, Last Sunbeams Of Childhood, an evocative title that is reflected in the pastoral groove within.

Wobbly Fender Rhodes, staccato bass and rippling jazz guitar ease you in on top of a soundbed of far-off playground shouts. Wandering saxophone and honeyed, textured brass add the requiste colour before the breakdown and the low-in-the-mix, wordless, chanting female backing vocals that elevate from somewhere below the surface. Layer upon layer of non-rock upon non-roll, it’s lovely, somewhere between Colin Tully’s Gregory’s Girl soundtrack and the orchestral sections in Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly score.

Save string arrangements from long-term collaborator Pete Harvey, it appears that Andrew Wasylyk has performed everything on the album himself. I mean, wow! Surely not?! This would elevate him immediately to Stevie Wonder levels of prodigiousness. Oboe, harp, flugelhorn (?), drums and percussion swirl around his cascading guitar and multi-layered pianos, adding light and shade, melody and counter-melody to what is a modern day, stone cold classic in its field, with nary a scuffed knee nor frayed elbow in sight.

Really, it’s great. Such was Wasylyk’s and his label’s (Athens of the North) limited expectations, both vinyl and CD are currently out of print, but I’d imagine a repress is very much in the works. Keep your eyes and ears peeled. I know mine are.

Support Andrew Wasylyk via Bandcamp

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Double Thumbs Up

Where are we going, fellas?

To the top, Johnny!

And where’s that, fellas?

To the toppermost of the poppermost, Johnny!”

That tag at the top of this page – ‘Outdated Music for Outdated People‘ isn’t there for nuthin’ y’know. Joe Kane‘s latest project The Poppermost is exactly the sort of forward-thinking, retro-tastic music that floats this particular lockdown boat.

Released worldwide today, The A Piece Of The Poppermost EP is Beatles For Sale-era Fabs, all monochrome graphics and monophonic thunk. The attention to detail is obsessive; the structure and arrangements, the playing, the sentimentality… it’s all there alongside the in-jokes (Parlophoney – yes!!) and super-obscure references that even the most Beatle-obsessed Beatlehead might not spot first time around.

Borne out of a one man mission with his roots firmly planted in all things Fab – Joe has Rutled with Neil Innes, switched from right hand to left (such is his dedication and obsession with the minutiae) to play McCartney in all manner of Fabs ‘n Macca theatre acts – and he’s only gone the whole hog by recording his own music so in thrall to his idols as to be genuine rather than pastiche.

Not bound by such hinderances as, y’know, actual bandmates, The Poppermost finds Joe in his garage studio playing everything himself. Utilising an array of instruments, microphones and recording techniques, all glued together by bargain basement analogue junk – ‘shitty is pretty‘, says Joe, your innermost Fab Four desires will be sated by an affected Lennon-like ‘you wanted the werld and I gave you the werld‘ here, a woody McCartney bassline there, a multitude of 12 string chiming George middle eights, with everything held in place by multi-tracked handclaps and a Ringo-perfect compressed backbeat.

The EP is trailed by a terrific promo clip for the upbeat, clipped guitarisms of The Laziest Fella In The Realm. It’s quite spectacular.

See what I mean?

Elsewhere on the EP you’ll find Well I Will, a chugging, Beatle-wig flipping I Saw Her Standing There for the 21st century, replete with on-the-money Fab Four backing vocals, an era-defining guitar break and enough spontaneous yelps, woos and general Maccary to warm the heart of even the fiercest of Beatles naysayers. Great cowbell too.

The PoppermostWell I Will

The EP takes a minute to gather its breath with the downbeat and ballady Get It Down, all sharply ringing acoustics and pitter-pattering I’ll Follow The Sun rhythms before rounding off in ballsy rocking manner with In & Out, a mid-temp head nodding Cavern Club stomper, all descending guitar runs and tumbling vocals throughout. Joe’s claim to be the self-styled King of the cunning coda would appear to be spot-on, given the overlapping, overloaded Fabisms in the final half a minute.

If you like your Fabness pitched somewhere between the lo-fi authenticity of The Stairs and the technicolour dreams of Jellyfish, you could do worse than head straight over to The Poppermost’s Bandcamp page to pick up your copy of ‘A Piece Of The Poppermost‘. An album will follow in June.

 

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Captain Hook

You don’t know this yet, but Gorillaz are the band that passed you by. Damon Albarn’s cartoon collective of rappers and rockers will turn (blink!) twenty years old this year. That’s almost as old as the cor blimey mockney Cockney band he’s still synonymous with.

Since their Clint Eastwood single made number 4 in the charts in March 2001, Gorillaz have released no less than 7 studio albums (with an 8th just around the corner) and 43 singles. Go on – name some! Then there are the trio of compilation albums, the remix album, the double figures-worth of EPs. From somewhere, from nowhere, Gorillaz have created quite the back catalogue. You should dive in.

He’s clever, that Albarn. Gathering together the cream of a world far-removed from Blur and featuring them on Gorillaz records instantly takes him to a whole new audience.

From Grace Jones to Mick Jones, the list of Gorillaz collaborators reads like a who’s who of the great and groovy in music, an ever-shuffling iPod lassooed and coralled under the Gorillaz umbrella; Neneh Cherry, Terry Hall, Simonon, Snoop and De La Soul, Benson, Womack, Elton John, Mavis Staples, the list goes on…..the real Lou Reed and Dennis Hopper, Mark E Smith before he came a cropper…

…every one of them has been on a Gorillaz record. The clout of Albarn is mightily impressive.

On Gorillaz most-recent album, Song Machine Season 1: Strange Timez (‘Season‘ – tsssk!), party mode Beck rubs shoulders with a downtrodden Robert Smith, St Vincent sits side by side with Joan As Policewoman, Slowthai and Slaves battle it out in a noisy, sweary fight to be top dog… and everything is underpinned by the happy/sad signature sound of Gorillaz – sing song choruses to lift the mood after Albarn’s melancholic verses, a ripple of chiming electronic percussion here, a rumble of electronic bass there, room-shaking phat beats throughout. I’m not sure what wizardry Albarn employs to produce such glossy, shiny contemporary sounds, but whatever it is, it’s really great.

Thematically I suppose, the album runs a bit like a 6 Music show; you’re not going to like everything that’s on it, but there’s always a beat or a melody or a wonky background noise worming its way into your head and setting up camp in your cerebellum. You’re never all that far from an unexpected cracker.

The standout on Song Machine is Aries, the collaboration between Albarn, producer/rapper/drummer Georgia and Peter Hook. With her dad being half of Leftfield, rhythm is in the blood for Georgia, and once welded to the instantly recognisable sound of Peter Hook’s bass, it all makes for a fine noise.

Gorillaz feat. Peter Hook and Georgia Aries

Hook is in full-on, low slung Viking mode on Aries, his imperial, mercurial bassline slinking up and down the frets like prime time, box office New Order. The section at two and a half minutes where he plays in confident abandon could quite easily have flowed straight off the grooves of Power, Corruption and Lies or Low-Life, leather keks, Triumph Motorcycles t-shirt, beef with Barney…the lot. He even adds his spoken voice – ‘Aries!‘ to the start, much as he did in the past with those ‘You got love technique!‘ vocals on Fine Time.

Albarn knows a hook when he hears one. And who better to provide the hook than Hook himself?

FYI, there’s a regularly updated list of Gorillaz contributors here.

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Velvet. Underground.

phenomenon
[fəˈnɒmɪnən]

a remarkable person or thing.
“the band was a pop phenomenon just for their sales figures alone”

I’m annoyed at myself. I’ve somehow managed to miss the two Sault albums that were released at pivotal points this year. It’s only now, as the movers and shakers and barometers of hip opinion are revealing their favourite albums of 2020, that I’m discovering that a band I found quite by fortune a year ago via a succession of blogs and Bandcamp links (snapping up both albums LIKE THAT) has released another two albums – both doubles! – in 2020.

Sault, it would appear, are a proper phenomenon.

They arrived a year or so ago with no fanfare or front page spreads. They have next to no online presence. No press shots exist. There appears to be no record company at work. Their artwork is sparse, dense and free of information. They are, like the good old days of yore, a proper underground sensation.

That a band can slip under the radar in a world of streaming and playlists and metatags and analytics and appear at the top of the tree above your Bruces and Bobs and Idles and Swifts is both remarkable and admirable. Phenomenal even.

They are, we have worked out, a collective of anonymous musicians, possibly a group of megastars, possibly a collaborative of home studio boffins or a mixture of both, with their music fine-cooked into its heady soulful stew by the hands of ace producer Inflo, the man who steered Michael Kiwanuka’s most-recent album to Mercury success and healthy worldwide sales. Urban Gorillaz, you might say.

Their music is eclectic, taking in straight-ahead, knee-dropping soul, sample-heavy gospel funk and the sparse, skittering sound of New York’s post-punk No Wave scene, that on-the-one bass and chanting sound pioneered expertly by ESG and their sing-song nursery rhyme vocals. In short, it grooves. And, short ‘n sweet, the songs never outstay their welcome. The albums – those first two at least – beg to be played again immediately after the needle has hit the run-off groove on side two.

SaultDon’t Waste My Time

Their first album – teasingly titled ‘5‘ (did this mean there were another 4 releases before it? I looked, believe me) is everything that’s great about the band; expert playing that treads a fine line between an ‘is it real or is it a sample‘ conundrum, interesting/weird synths and ambient noise, insanely catchy and street-sussed, super-confident vocals, sulky as hell one minute, smooth as velvet the next but always irresistible.

SaultWhy Why Why Why Why

SaultNo Bullshit

Their second, ‘7‘ (they’re messing with us now!) popped up a month or so later and continued in the same vein. No drop-off in quality, no less essential, no more clues as to who Sault actually is.

Sault Smile And Go

To discover that they’ve released another two albums – four sides of guaranteed-to-be wonderful music – is both frustrating and exciting. I should have known about this! I didn’t, though, so there’ll be some good new music to look forward to and there’s nothing better than that, is there?

A quick search led me to an Alexis Petridis review in the Guardian. Even he has been caught slightly off-guard as the review is built around this year’s two releases, both untitled (yet both titled.) How very Sault.

Untitled (Black Is) came first, a record apparently put together in the hours and days that followed the George Floyd murder. The follow-up, Untitled (Rise) crept out just a few weeks ago. It is, for those in the know, the album of 2020.

Jeez. I gotta hear it.

Them.

But, look! Their Bandcamp page is sold out and the eBay scalpers are having a laugh. Yeah, you can play the soundfiles to your heart’s desire – and there’s a superb Kiwanuka-voiced Afrobeat belter amongst them, but we need physical product man! Surely a quick repress is on the cards? Everybody loves you, Sault! Everybody! (You knew that already though).

 

 

 

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Grandmaster Smash

Years ago I was doing supply in a school where they dedicated a whole Friday afternoon to the learning of new skills; baking, woodworking, knitting, glass staining and so on. The kids loved these afternoons. The dinner ladies helped with the baking, the janny helped with the woodworking and experts from the local community came in to impart their considerable knowledge in the art of growing root vegetables and making stained glass. With each new term, the kids could pick a different skill so that over the course of the school year they got to partake in four activities.

Being the supply teacher, I was right at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid and I watched, pained, as first the blogging and then the guitar groups were given to two teachers who couldn’t care less. Each subsequent activity was assigned to a nonplussed teacher until, finally the head teacher looked at me with a thin, watery smile and handed me a box of battered, rattling chess sets. “Chess Club!” she confirmed. “I doubt many will pick it, but it’s an option.” She never asked if I played chess, if I understood the rules, if I wanted to be in charge of the chess club. I just was.

I did know how to play chess, as it happened, but it was years since I’d done so. Anyway, I took the chess sets, fumbled together half a dozen complete sets out of the ten or so ancient boxes I’d been saddled with and set about turning my classroom into a (cough) Chess Club.

On the first Friday, seven kids – there’s always an odd number for these things – turned up to see what all the fuss was about. None of the kids I knew. Six of them were curious to see this new teacher in the school – a man! – and the seventh was sent to play chess because he’d already tried to stab someone’s hand with a gardening fork outside. Grrrrreat. First thing I did was draw the blinds to create an ambience that encouraged studied quietness.

After that I Googled an arty monochrome picture of Bobby Fischer eyeing up the board, typed ‘Chess Club‘ on top of it in an interesting font and displayed it on the smart board, a reminder to the players of where exactly they were. Then I rejigged the tables so that the players sat in a square around the sides of the classroom, allowing me to stand in the middle and explain the object of the game and so on, helping the kids as they took their first unsteady steps into the geek world of chess.

As they slowly began to understand the whys and wherefores of the board, I introduced music. Classical stuff sometimes, an Erik Satie piano piece or two, but mostly jazz, mainly John Coltrane or Oscar Peterson but always Miles Davis. Sometimes I’d branch out into the blues, helping some poor cornered soul get out of a chequered funk as John Lee Hooker boomed out at a genteel volume in the corner.

By week three, the ‘Chess Club‘ image of Fischer had been edited to say ‘Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club‘. By the following week, this had been shortened, in loose homage to CBGBs to ‘Chess AJABs Club‘. No-one complained. None of the school management noticed. I was having fun and so were the kids.

I taught them the one fancy move I knew, learned from my dad when I was 10 or 11, about the same age as them, where you could put your opponent in checkmate in three moves. More fool me, as after that, they all wanted to play white. One time, the garden fork boy got so enraged at being put into checkmate before Miles Davis had parped his way out of his first solo that he tossed the board and all its pieces into the air and stormed off. “There was no need for that, Mr McAllister,” said his victorious opponent in a world-weary voice that suggested she’d seen all of it before.

Over the weeks, the chess kids progressed to a reasonable standard. They played one another, they challenged and beat me, they seemed to enjoy themselves. In fact, when the time came to renew activities at the end of term, half of the kids chose to stay at the chess. And on their return in January, a couple of them told me excitedly that they’d woken up on Christmas day to a new chess set under the tree. One of them even got a ‘Best Of Jazz’ CD too. As it turned out, Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club was alright.

We’ve binged recently on The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s seven-parter that tells the story of a young girl’s rise to Grandmaster level. It’s ace.

Set against a backdrop of 50s and 60s Cold War America, it is, on every level, a triumph. Visually, it’s stunning. From the trippy, imagined chess pieces that emerge from the ceiling each night and play combinations of winning moves that the lead character Beth Harmon commits to memory, to the period-perfect set design, every episode has the appearance of being filmed through a particularly agreeable Instagram filter. The more poetic of us might even suggest that the muted tones and dull pastels of the actors’ clothes that contrast with the glossy shine of hardwood and chrome are metaphors for the opposing sides on the chessboard itself.

The cars – big, American gas guzzlers, all sleek fins and whitewalls, cruise across the background like gliding bishops picking off pawns. The houses, with their mod cons and perfect lawns, bordered by subtly territorial picket fences, are the very symbol of nuclear family success. ‘Stay out,’ they scream silently, ‘or I’ll take you out.’ It’s a world at odds with the lead character – supremely played by Anya Taylor-Joy – yet here she is.

Quincy JonesComin’ Home Baby

The hotels where the chess matches are played, especially as the series progresses and the competitions become more exclusive, are grand affairs. Jet-setting across the continents, Harmon and her mother enjoy nothing less than the good life. Expensively-wallpapered corridors and opulently furnished dining areas are accessed via long-winding and never-ending Art Deco staircases.

There’s a terrific scene set in Miami where the swingin’ Quincy Jones track above perfectly soundtracks Harmon movin’ on up to the competition floor, sashaying confidently to another crushing victory against an awkward and embarrassed male player, all the while looking like Jackie Onassis’ cool half-sister.

A horrendous childhood and a less-than-smooth passage into adulthood comes at a cost to our young prodigy. To cope with all that life has thrown at her, Harmon has developed a fondness for tranquilisers and booze. Her numerous breakdowns and spirals into addiction are soundtracked by period-era deep cuts. If she’s not kicking off a three-day bender by dancing like no-one is watching to Shocking Blue’s Venus, she’s discovering pot to the sound of Gabor Szabo.

Gabor SzaboSomewhere I Belong

The throb and thrum, the slowly spidering guitar line, the creeping paranoia and electric dischord are just the thing to simulate an out of body experience, no?

Or how about Gillian Hills’ 1965 slice of fingersnappin’ French Yé-yé mod-pop?

Gillian HillsTut Tut Tut Tut

Druggable yet fruggable, Tut Tut Tut Tut features during another particularly memorable scene, bursting through the stately piano that is woven through the soundbed of each episode, as joyously unexpected as the ever-attacking Harmon choosing to play the Sicilian Defence.

To be perfectly honest, every scene with Taylor-Joy in it is memorable. Usually, a blink of her dark almond eyes is all it takes to hook you in. She plays perfectly the ever-spiralling Harmon with a magnetism that should win her whatever awards are going these days for Netflix dramas. 

The Queen’s Gambit is a masterclass in stylish home cinema. As the year creeps to an undignified close, we may well have found the best thing about it. Watch it. Now!

New! Now!

Paul Well-ooh-arr

An extended period of working from home has allowed me to indulge in the wee pile of new releases I’ve never quite got around to giving my time to. Paul Weller‘s On Sunset is this week’s Home Office Record of the Week. It’s mainly terrific – the emphasis on mainly – a well-produced collection of tracks that finds Weller continuing to stretch and reach further than a man of his vintage should ever need to. He could easily be sitting back in his Chesterfield, admiring the reflection of his grown-out feathercut in the satisfying glow of his numerous gold discs, Patrick Cox-ed feet up and taking it easy, but no, he’s gone all out to create an album that’s soulful, full of substance and sonically brave.

The opener Mirror Ball is kinda the album in minature.

Paul WellerMirror Ball

A seven and a half minute epic, it starts understated – Disney-by-way-of-Mercury-Rev – before, curtains thrown open, it bursts into 21st century sunshine soul, taking in Beatleish mellotron, Isley Brothers guitar, Curtis Mayfield strings and rinky dink Philly riffing.

It’s essentially his Starlite single from a few years back, filtered through a late Summer heat haze and laid out on a bed of scorching white Californian sand. No bad thing at all, especially when it shimmers towards its grandiose end on a bed of overlapping vocals, random radio bursts and the funky squelch of Dre G-Funk keyboard lines. As far as album openers go this year, I can’t see it being bettered.

The album continues in similarly grab-all manner, Weller’s autumnal voice wrapping itself around Faces Hammond, honeyed Stax horn blasts, pastoral folk, a nod and a wink to Slade’s Coz I Luv You, and Gil Evans wandering piano lines. It’s easy to play spot the reference, wrapped up and re-positioned somewhere north of the Style Council and just to the left of those first couple of solo albums, glistening in state-of-the-art production and flying with confidence. Weller wears his influences proudly on his sleeve but makes them into his own thing. Always has done, always will do.

As it continues to spin, On Sunset builds itself up to be quite the classic…until the runt of the litter makes its appearance.

A right clunker and no mistake, Ploughman pops up near the end and it’s unintentionally hilarious.

Paul WellerPloughman

Channeling his inner Wurzel, Weller eschews the tailor-made pinstripe suit and cashmere sweater for a boiler suit and flat cap, ditches the classic open-top for a John Deere and climbs aboard. He flicks his 20th Benson & Hedges of the day to the side, jams a sheaf of wheat between his teeth in replacement and, with balls of steel, begins to sing in a full-on zider drinkin’ West Country accent about ploughing his earth and living a menial but honest living. The subject matter is fine. The musicianship  – even the flown-in Inspiral Carpets demo that masquerades as a hook line – is fine. The delivery though is unintentionally hilarious.

Who at the record company let this pass muster? Are the folk around Weller too scared to point out when his quality dips? With a career such as his, you are of course excused the odd faux pass – whole albums in some instances, but Ploughman finds our hero aimlessly ploughing a ridiculous furrow all of his own, less Modfather and more Modfarmer. What were you thinking Paul Weller? This aberration just knocked a potential 10/10 album down to a 9.

(That opening track though…. that’s a cracker.)

Weller this evening. Tractor not pictured.