February 4, 2018

Birthday Albums: Bonus Bonus Bonus – Room 29

The stretchiment of the Birthday Albums project has reached its limit. What started as a pure vision, the mission to review all the CDs that I was given for my birthday, has warped and twisted and now sits shrieking like the hideous result of a genetics experiment gone wrong. What was intended to be the perfect super soldier is actually an immortal frog turned inside out. It started off small, as it always does – I had a gig coming up, so I thought I could get away with reviewing the band’s latest album. But twas the thin end of the wedge, and before I knew it, I was reviewing an album that I was given a few years previously, but never got round to listening, and then an album that I was given for christmas, and now an album that I was given neither for birthday nor christmas, but merely bought for myself a few weeks later because it was on my wishlist.

This has gone on far enough. Too much, I say, too much. This is the last one. I am so sorry for outstaying my welcome.

Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales – Room 29

Since Pulp, Jarvis Cocker has been a little bit all over the place, with a mixture of solo albums, collaborations and other miscellany, and it’s often a bit of a lucky dip what you’re going to get. Room 29 is certainly a bit of a departure, that’s for sure.

My very first listen was a very positive experience, and to explain why, I need to go into a little personal history. Many years ago, I had concerns about my hearing. I was finding that in noisy environments – pubs and such like – I seemed to be struggling to hold conversations, even more so than other people. I went for a hearing test, and the result showed no hearing loss. The audiologist suggested that the likely cause was something called Obscure Auditory Dysfunction, nowadays referred to as Auditory Processing Disorder. Not much is known about this, but one of the possible causes is having glue ear as a child, which does apply to me. As a consequence of this, it does affect the way that I listen to music. Obviously I have no way of knowing how other people perceive music, so I’m hypothesising wildly, but I suspect that my ability to hear and decipher lyrics in songs is vastly impaired, compared to most other people. You may have noticed in my reviews that I write a lot about how a song sounds, or how it’s produced, but very little about the lyrical content. That’s because hearing the lyrics to a song takes a serious and conscious effort on my part, so a lot of the time, I don’t even bother. The song An Open Letter To The Lyrical Trainspotter, by Mansun, with its line:

The lyrics aren’t supposed to mean that much,
They’re just a vehicle for a lovely voice

…has become a kind of motto for me. Tangent ends.

Now, Jarvis Cocker has always been one of those lyricists for whom I’ve found it is worth taking the effort to listen to the words. I still recall how in the sleeve notes of Different Class (and, indeed, other Pulp albums) how it would say “Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings”. At the time, silly teenage me wondered why this was, and if it was maybe some sort of copyright-related thing, but eventually I figured out it was just because Jarvis felt that the lyrics needed the musical context to make sense. He goes into some detail in his annotated book of lyrics, Mother, Brother, Lover, in which he recollects a personal story of buying Dark Side Of The Moon and poring over the lyrics while the record played, finding that this process of deconstruction spoiled them.

Room 29 is a much sparser album than anything he’s ever done before. The core instruments are just a single piano and Jarvis’ voice, with additional strings on a lot of the songs. But even at its most hectic, there’s enough room for the vocals to punch through the mix and land upon my eardrums uncontested. As a result, it takes no special effort for me to listen to the words, which is a very novel experience!

It’s something of a concept album, based upon the Chateau Marmont Hotel. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Jarvis’ perspective on this Hollywood hotel, haunt of the rich and famous, is going to be far from glorifying. Some of the songs really have quite a lot of fun with the topic, most notably Belle Boy which describes all the shenanigans that the poor long-suffering bellboy witnesses.

Unfortunately, while I can listen to the words happily all day, the musical side of things start to grate after a while. The piano I can stand, but when the strings come in, it has a tendency to sound a bit like a second-rate west end musical, and many of the songs such as Clara and Bombshell have, for me, reached the point of unlistenability. Which is a shame, but eh. You’ve got to be philosophical about these things – some albums stand the test of time, and are still listenable 8,133 days after their initial release, and some aren’t.

Best Song?

I don’t have an answer to this, it’s not an album that I can easily deconstruct in that way. Attempting to tease the songs apart one by one results in them being noticeably less than the sum of their parts. Best to leave it as one big imperfect bhaji.

What’s Next?

Weren’t you paying attention? Nothing’s next. That’s it. Finito. I have run out of albums to review for you. We’re done here. Say goodbye, Ewan.

Eat my farts


January 30, 2018

It’s oh so quiet…

My insomnia is well-documented, and Uborka has a good number of insomniacs on what would once have been called its blogroll. Owing to lack of sleep, I can’t describe the history of my sleeplessness, but I do know it got worse after having a child, which was partly inevitable but 11.5 years in that really ought not to be an ongoing factor.

A few things have helped. The most significant of these was getting a bedside clock with a display I could turn off. I discovered that much of the misery of sleeplessness was actually anxiety about not being asleep at such-and-such an hour; if I can’t see the time, this is much reduced. Getting out of bed and going downstairs for a drink often helps. And there is an optimum temperature, but this varies from night to night, and sometimes I can’t find it.

Last week I was staying in one of the nation’s lovely purple inns, unable to sleep as is usual when in a strange bedroom. At some point in the early hours, I thought to myself, what about an app? And randomly chose one called Shhh!

Shhh! plays a combination of white noise, wind chimes, and sort of rainy tropical sounds. It says use your headphones, but who wants to sleep with headphones in? I just set it going on the bedside table. I fell quickly into a doze, but returned to consciousness every now and then, perhaps when the sounds changed, or when there were noises from outside. I woke up feeling disorientated and wondering if I could still hear it or if I was dreaming.

I’ve used it most nights in the last week, with mixed success; and of course without a control me who is not using the app, who knows whether I would have slept that night or not? I need a lot more data. I did find that it didn’t work at all on Saturday when I had overeaten and was particularly anxious about something Pete had said just before he went to sleep, the git.

I’m interested in the lack of information available about the app, who made it, or how it works. Is it stealing my brainwaves while I sleep? And what would happen if I selected ‘Power Nap’ instead of ‘Night Sleep’?

  • Comments: 2
  • One summer, the heat became unbearable and we purchased several electric fans. I put one ... - asta
  • Incidentally, if anyone can correctly guess what it was that I said to Karen to distress h... - Pete
January 25, 2018

Birthday Albums: The Bonusing Continues – Beat Routes

Pearl’s Cab Ride – Beat Routes

While the title of Beat Routes is enough to raise a wry smile, I have to confess to being mostly underwhelmed by everything else about this album. It opens with The Only One, which takes the iconic descending bassline of Glory Box by Portishead, speeds it up slightly, and doesn’t really do anything sufficiently novel to sound like anything other than a bad, one-dimensional cover version. It does merge in a certain Moloko influence, which is an element that recurs throughout this album.

The brazenness of this introduction acts as a bit of a distraction, and it’s once the next track, Jill Of All Trades, begins that you get an idea of the shortcomings of this album. The thing is, I can entirely believe that Pearl’s Cab Ride are a fun, energetic acid-jazz party band. However, the production on this album is, and it’s a few years since I’ve had to crack this phrase out, a “bag of wank”. Not in an obvious way, but in a more subtle way.

Let’s start at the root – the vocal performance could have been so much better. For the most part, it hits the notes (though not totally – the chorus of Jill Of All Trades is very, very uncomfortable to listen to), but the soul just isn’t there. If I were to hazard a guess, it sounds like the singer was so caught up in the function of being in a studio that she forgot to relax and have fun. A lot of these songs need to be sung with a smile, and it’s patently obvious that there was no smiling going on behind the microphone that day.

Moving on to the production side of things, the vocals don’t sound like they’ve really been given the requisite care. They frequently disappear into inaudibility, and they sound very dry, like they’ve been recorded in a cold, sterile environment. Sticking with the production flaws, the bass player got a really rum deal on this one. The sound has been rolled off heavily below about 160Hz, so while the midrange of the bass is still just about audible, it’s totally lacking in guts.

You may notice that I’ve only mentioned the first two songs by name. The reason for that is that it’s not really an album that offers much in the way of surprises. Track two pretty much sets the tone for everything that will come afterwards.

It’s really such a shame, because my suspicion is that I would really enjoy one of their gigs. But as far as this album is concerned, I think that now that I’ve written this review, it’s unlikely that I’ll listen to it again.

Best song?

For this I’ll nominate the album closer, Sunrise. It’s quite out of place on this album, in so many ways. And that’s part of it’s strength, because all the up-tempo funky jazz songs start to sound a bit samey, and this is definitely something different. It’s slower, more thoughtful, more sentimental. It’s also one of the few songs in which the vocalist’s definitely-not-smiling delivery is appropriate.

What’s next?

Periodically I ask myself “what’s Jarvis Cocker up to these days?” Turns out, last year he did something called Room 29. I’ve listened to a little of it so far, and it’s fucking out there. There’s some lounge-type piano, and some of Jarvis’ idiosyncratic Sheffield drawl. I have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

  • Comments: 3
  • Hello I agreed with some of your comments about this album - it didn’t capture our live ... - cactusboy
  • Do you have any thoughts you would add to my review? Anything you disagree with? - Pete
  • I got that too. Aren't we lucky. - Nick
January 6, 2018

Birthday Albums Bonus – What Went Down

This project has gradually tumbled out of its structure like a thin paper bag full of vomit. The rules have been flexed and then broken, a once-beautiful thing crazed and weatherbeaten into something that we barely recognise any more, something that we can’t control, something that we’re not even sure that we like any more. But hey ho, gotta keep on keepin’ on.

Foals – What Went Down

As previously mentioned, the reason why this album has snuck into the birthday albums project is that I was given it for Christmas two years back, but it must have been a Christmas that was particularly rich with CDs, and it’s taken me until now to get round to listening to it.

It doesn’t get off to the most promising start, in my opinion – the eponymous opening track is a bit of a racket, there’s no other way to describe it. Not the worst racket I’ve ever heard, it’s true, but it’s a strange choice to go first. There was a similarly aggressive song on Holy Fire too, but it was track number 9, which strikes me as a much more sensible place for this sort of chaos.

As far as I’m concerned, the album properly gets going with track two, Mountain At My Gates, which is a far more Foals-y sort of song, with shimmery guitars, groovy serpentine bass, and a thick, bombastic drum beat. At the other end of the spectrum is the more ambient-sounding Give It All and London Thunder, and throughout this gamut they provided a range of sonic environments that evokes everything from Coldplay to Echo And The Bunnymen and even a non-entirely un-Royal-Blood-like experience in Snake Oil.

Best Song

Well, you know me, I like a nice jolly bouncy bassline, and both Mountain At My Gates and Birch Tree definitely fulfil in this category.

What’s Next

Well, my Christmas haul of CDs didn’t match the copiousness of the birthday lot, but the one album that I did get is from an obscure Hull-based band called Pearl’s Cab Ride who don’t even have a page on Wikipedia, that’s how obscure they are. So how could I resist?

I imagine that by now you’re wondering if this series is ever going to end, or if I’m going to keep finding weak excuses to prolong it indefinitely.

January 5, 2018

Maisy On A Box

The cat balances on a box
A slightly too-small box
On top of another box.
The cat shifts a hip
To the other corner of the box,
Twists into an @
Extends a paw
Points her whiskers the other way
And counterbalances – just right – with the tip of her tail.
The box wobbles
And tilts her off,
Which was exactly what she intended.
Nothing to see here, right?

December 18, 2017

Shed Seven

If you like, you can consider this as a sort of bonus episode of the birthday albums project. Or, if you’d rather not, then don’t.

Last week I was listening mostly to the new Shed Seven album, Instant Pleasures. Now Shed Seven, if you’re not familiar with them, were big around the time of Britpop, and while not necessarily at the forefront of the scene, I can definitely look back on them with fondness. They never had a number one, but the single Going For Gold, and the album A Maximum High from which it was lifted, both reached #8, which were their greatest successes. They split up in 2003 but reformed in 2007 and have been touring on and off since then, though this year’s album is their first since 2001. And you know what, it’s good. It more than meets the standard set by their earlier work, and so I’ve had no problem playing it on repeat all last week to make sure that I’d be well-prepared for their Saturday night gig at Brixton Academy.

It’s been many years since I’ve been at Brixton Academy but it hasn’t changed a bit. The foyer still gives you that theatre-esque vibe, and the interior still has that five degree slope that gives your hamstrings a good workout.

Playing support were another great Britpop band, who are also enjoying a bit of a resurgence with a new album this year, Cast. In fact, it’s slightly odd that Cast were supporting and not the other way round, as arguably they were the bigger band at the time. They had actually started playing by the time we arrived, as we had dallied in Canova Hall for a second round.

Cast at Brixton Academy, 16th December 2017

It’s depressingly frequent these days that the sound mix for the support band is awful, and Cast might have been the worst victims of this that I have ever, ever known. All the power of the PA was being poured into making the kick drum as loud as possible, so there was no room left in the lower half of the sonic spectrum for anything else. I can’t state with even a single percentage of certainty that the bass guitar was plugged in at all. I moved down to the front in the hope that I’d be able to get a better mix with the sound bleeding off the stage, but even at close range, the kick drum overpowered everything. I felt embarrassed for the sound man, and great pity for the band.

Shed Seven sounded much better, though I still think that with a lighter touch on the kick, they could have sounded even better. I didn’t take any photos from the down the front, though I did get hit by a flying drink while I was down there. I’m not quite sure what was in the cup – with no noticeable aroma, I’m totally stumped. However it can’t just have been water, as it definitely made my hair go a bit crunchy. This is a mystery that we may never get to the bottom of, and maybe that’s for the best.

Shed Seven at Brixton Academy, 16th December 2017

The band put on a good show though. Rick Witter has just the right balance of cheekiness and friendliness to bring a smile to your face, and his singing was on point. The whole band performed excellently, though once again the sound balance ruined things slightly, as I know that there are loads of really tasty basslines on their latest album, and absolutely none of that detail was even remotely audible in the room.

After the gig, 5000 people spilled out into the streets, repeating the chorus of the gig closer, Chasing Rainbows, ad infinitum. I leaned casually against the bus stop and waited for the 345. I didn’t take any photos of that bit, more’s the pity. I also bought the last chicken and chorizo pasty at Clapham Junction station at about 11:45pm and it was surprisingly tasty.

What’s Next?

Never satisfied, you are. Well, here’s the thing. I think I’ve found an album that I was given for Christmas about two years ago and somewhat embarrassingly totally forgot to ever get around to listening to. So, in the interests of padding out this series (and hey, maybe this’ll take us right up to Christmas, and I’ll get more CDs, and the whole jolly thing can just keep on going forever) let’s listen to What Went Down by Foals.