31/01/20 This week I have been mostly listening to

Sparklehorse – It’s a Wonderful Life (2001). Sparklehorse have been on my radar of artists I’m vaguely aware of…probably since he collaborated with Nina Persson on her A Camp album in 2001. I haven’t actually heard that album, although it’s supposed to be good. Anyway for some reason I recently decided to give old Sparklehorse a go. All I really knew was that he was part of the long and storied lineage of reclusive, talented artists who die in tragic circumstances – in this case suicide. At some point there was a serious drug addiction – as there usually is. But what about the music? Well, very nice. The immediate comparison that springs to mind is Eels (not just sound-wise, Eels is another solo project masquerading as a band; amazingly given all the tragedy in Mark Everett’s life I’m not aware that he has been addicted to drugs, and thankfully at time of writing, he is still alive). But yes sound-wise there are similarities: lo-fi production, a cast of antique music boxes, organs, flutes, etc. I found out what an Optigan was from reading about Sparklehorse (see also Optigan 1).

As you would expect from the nature of the artist, these songs are largely intimate and confessional. In fact listening on a crowded morning commute, thanks to my noise cancelling headphones, it felt like Mark Linkous was perched on my shoulder, whispering the lyrics to the beautiful Sea of Teeth right in my ear. So the vibe is definitely intimate, even if the meaning of the lyrics themselves is often abstract – “I’m full of bees, Who died at sea” – no, me neither. I’m still early days into this album, and would like to write a fuller review in time. I love Eels, and the comparison was only meant positively, but Mark Linkous is clearly an artist with his own unique identity – there’s a distinct Southern Gothic vibe woven through the album, from the cover art to the weird lyrics and various mentions of animals: a horse’s head and a tiger’s heart on the, frankly sublime, Apple Bed.

Seba – Return to forever (2008). I haven’t been listening to d’n’b so much in recent times – though it will always hold a special place in my heart until my dying day. Seba has released house tracks on Sweden’s legendary Svek label, but he’s best known as a drum’n’bass producer. This album is almost like a compilation of the various styles of drum’n’bass. Opener External Reality is a dark, stealthy roller (I’m gonna venture Tech Step but I’m crap at d’n’b subgenres), the amens never quite breaking out into an all-out carve up. Wicked way to open the album. Silicone is a jazzy interlude. I try and refrain from skipping tracks on albums as much as possible but I’m afraid I have to for track three, Blaze and Fade Out. I can’t stand those cheesy lyrics, don’t care if it’s d’n’b, prorgressive trance, house, cheesy pop vocals can fuck off out of decent dance music and back to the gym/sports bar/estate agent’s car. Track four is another jazzy one, the sax giving it some real late 90’s soulful d’n’b vibes (I think there are guest vocals here too, as well as a samples – they just about get away with it). Breaks Selection is kind of garagey-housey…don’t know but nodding along with the classic breaks and cheeky bassline is irresistible, Special Ops is back in the slick tech-y style, Crockett is bordering on liquid d’n’b. So a real canter through the suburbs of drum’n’bass – but in spite of all the genre hopping this album doesn’t feel like a mish mash and Seba clearly knows his production. The tracks are polished, there’s depth; none of the tracks here are all-out bangers – and sometimes you don’t want an album that pounds your head in – but you can tell from the reassuring robustness of the breaks on the more kicking tracks that if he wanted to unleash hell, he could do it at the touch of a button.

Clinic – Wheeltappers and Shunters (2019). Ah Clinic. One of my ‘second tier’ favourite bands ever since I came across The Second Line, hearing it on a Levi’s ad, around the year 2000. Thanks Levis, for that, and for Pepe Deluxe who also featured on an ad around that time. I’ve neglected Clinic somewhat in recent years, in following other avenues of exploration but whenever I’ve returned, I’ve never thought ‘why the hell did I listen to these guys?’. They are thoroughly consistent, and they are consistently idiosyncratic. They’ve honed their sound over the years but they’re always unmistakably Clinic – part psyche, part punk, part band of troubadours, singing in their own strange language about oddball characters. I’d like to write a full post dedicated just to Clinic at some point so I won’t say much more here, except that: this is another good Clinic album. Set in the dark hinterland of Britain, the dank underbelly that gets conveniently forgotten about among all the rose-tinted nostalgia so popular right now – look no further than the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, the 1970s TV show the album is named after; set in a Working Men’s Club and hosted by Bernard Manning, say no more.

Lucy – Wordplay for Working Bees (2011). This is dark, ominous, foreboding and forward-thinking techno. A sampled announcer – who sounds like he might be reporting from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – intones over the intro to the record, “whenever we hear sounds, we are changed, no longer the same.” He continues, his voice overlapping with its own echo, “and this is the more the case when we hear organized sounds, sounds organized by another human being: music.” The word ‘music’ echoing and fading out as the album-proper begins. A google of that quote reveals it to be none other than uber-influential music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, from his lecture, the Four Criteria of Electronic Music. I’m not going to ponder on what this says about the producer’s ambitions for this album, or if he just thought it was a cool way to open the album – it is.

This is the dank underbelly of techno, perfectly suited for nighttime urban walking. And although this is techno, there are only really three proper beat-driven tracks on the album, and they aren’t trad 4-to-the-floor. Bein, is a solid, slow-building banger, with woodblock, bass drum and a simple 3-note bass line in oscillating rhythm, like a grandfather clock counting down towards some menacing climax. Elsewhere we have the staccato, dubstep-py Eon, and the judderingly claustrophobic, Lav. These percussive tracks are interspersed with, not so much fully ambient tracks, but moody, disorientating passages, some rhythmic, some fully atmospheric – full of tension, foreboding and only very occasional moments of relief. The sound of a city at night, and not a city that sleeps peacefully. 

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