24/12/2019 This week I have been mostly listening to

Camera Obscura – Let’s get out of this country (2006). This album is the archetypal example of a slow-burner, as far as it’s place in my collection goes. I first gave it a listen based on the recommendation of someone I went on a date with (which never came to anything) some ten years ago, and have revisited it regularly but only occasionally since. I never went through the intensive early listening phase to get to know the album, so it has embedded itself in my mind very very gradually. Not that I planned things this way, but it’s really paying off now. The songs are straightforward: 60’s influenced, retro but not to the point of pastiche, just the right side of poppy, with some beautiful melancholy lyrics. Playing this album while doing housework, I found myself singing along to almost every song. It did induce a hint of nostalgia, for that time 10 years ago, when I first moved to London – which suitably matches the subject matter of the lyrics: love, relationships and their breakdowns, trying to find oneself in a big city, etc – but luckily not so much that the album is intrinsically and painfully connected with memories of a past time. On a good day, a solid 4 star album.

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works (1994). This might be a classic of Aphex’s discography, and from electronic/ambient music in general, but it’s one I very rarely sit down and listen to in one go. In all, it’s probably the Aphex album I have spent the fewest hours listening to. And case in point, this time I only really listened to the first half-a-dozen off disc 2. I think it’s a bit off an odd one out in his discography – definitely in terms of the volume of beatless tracks (at least three quarters of the album is pure ambient) and in terms of the lo-fi, organic non-digital, non-electronic-ness of the sound. Because most of the tracks consist of only a few melodic or textural elements, if a particular sound doesn’t gel then you’re going to struggle with the track – and for this reason I struggle to actually get through a couple of them (e.g. track 12 on disc 2). Several tracks have a very bleak kind of atmosphere; it’s a feeling Aphex manages to evoke at various points throughout his career (e.g. Icct Hedral on ICBCYD or Gwely Mernans on Drukqs, the latter of which was used to great effect in the TV show, The Virtues). It’s such a desolate feeling, at times mencacing and very emotionally cold and austere. Like I imagine being stuck on your own on a cold mountainside, or buried alone in a crypt…or stranded on Mars, completely alone except for dust and icy wind. Obviously it can be beautiful and haunting, in the way that desolation can, but it can also be harsh to listen to, and certainly not palatable if you’re in a fragile emotional state. So the high number of those kind of tracks put me off regularly playing this album.

But there are a few on here that are up there with his best…though I often forget about them, just because they feel so different to any of his upbeat stuff. Blue Calx (aka #13), Parallel Stripes (aka #14), and Rhubarb (aka #3)are three of the best. Parallel Stripes just sounds so…fundamental. It’s completely timeless, completely divorced from any genre or time period. It sounds like an alien ship beaming a signal at you via telepathy, or like a ghostly apparition of some spirit. Such a beautiful, lulling, soothing noise. This will always be an album I dip into, or listen to in segments, but nonetheless one for the ages. 

Massive Attack – Protection (1994). For years, I’ve always passed over this as the mis-step between the seminal, youthful, smoky, laid back Blue Lines and the oppressive, haunting, smoky, masterful Mezzanine. This album is no doubt maligned by many for spawning legions of imitators, recording watered down, anodyne, ‘coffee table’ trip hop. It’s also suffered from subconscious comparisons in my mind to the Dub remix album by Mad Professor (No Protection) – which is awesome, and Tricky’s Maxinquaye, which features some of the same lyrics (i.e. the parts written by Tricky) and which in my view is a far superior album. But listening to it now, free of any trip-hop associations, Protection is actually a very decent album in its own right. Massive Attack are good at what they do, and great at integrating a diverse range of guest vocalists into their sound. They’re the ultimate hybrid band – the founding members drawing together disparate influences and styles into a blend of hip-hop, soul, dub, and reggae; and the ever changing roster of guest vocalists drawing in yet more styles. Forget about the derivative acts that took this as their starting point – Protection is full of memorable tracks that, although they now sound like so many artists, are uniquely Massive Attack. (And please do check out No Protection and Maxinquaye).

Suede – Night Thoughts (2016). Suede made their triumphant return in 2013 with the well-received Bloodsports, having split sometime after the disastrous A New Morning in 2002. There are now three albums from this latter-period Suede, which I thought it was high-time to get stuck into. So if Bloodsports is a bombastic, swaggering, Coming Up mk2, then maybe Night Thoughts is the darker and more brooding, Dog Man Star mk2. Too early to tell, but listening to this on my way to work, it has that feel of a great album in the making – where the opening track is anthemic and impactful, then track 2 builds the energy even higher, and track 3 maybe changes things up but continues piling on the drama. Too early for a full review yet, but all the signs are good (and likewise for Bloodsports) that this will do Suede’s legacy proud. Although one small quibble – there seems to be a really obvious and glaring use of autotune on Brett’s voice on Pale Snow, around the 40 second mark. Whether it is or not, it’s one of those things that now I’ve heard I can’t unheard. 

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