In late 2011, Oklahoma quintet Other Lives played a show at Leaf in Liverpool. My friend managed to get us on the guest list, so we hopped on a train at Manchester Piccadilly and made our way over there. It turned out to be a great night, we got drunk and made a nuisance of ourselves in the best possible way.
Other Lives were all lovely people and chatted with us over cigarettes outside the venue on Bold Street before their set. We met their manager, Phil Costello - a quirky-looking, well connected gent, lanky with big glasses. He told us stories about guys he knew like Paul Westerberg, to my euphoria - I'm a massive fan of The Replacements.
In 1997 Phil was the marketing guy at Capitol Records who'd had the bright idea of super-gluing promo cassettes of Radiohead's OK Computer into tape machines and sending them to press and radio people in advance of the albums release. The aim was to encourage them to listen to the album repeatedly - the label considered the record a grower and not the ideal commercial follow up to The Bends. Phil's innovative strategy was developed to give OK Computer a head start and in the end the album performed way better than the 500,000 units the label had initially projected it would shift - funny how things turn out.
I remember Other Lives played a great set in Liverpool that night, tearing through songs from their brilliant second album Tamer Animals - imagine Ennio Morricone with a twist of Radiohead and a hint of folk. We were stood among a throng of fans at the foot of the stage in Leaf's spacious and characterful upstairs room with its ornate high ceiling. After the show and the drunken shenanigans that followed, the band invited us to come and see them perform at Manchester's The Deaf Institute the following week.
It turned out to be one of the best shows I've seen. The band were even better than they were in Liverpool the week before and the sound in The Deaf Institute was glorious. That nightfront-man Jesse Tabish and cellist Jenny Hsu told us they'd just got the exciting news that they were going on tour with Radiohead in America - a few of the Radiohead guys had attended their show in Oxford a few days earlier. They explained how nervous they'd all been about it, knowing that members of Radiohead were in the audience and that it had completely blown their minds to meet Thom Yorke and discover he was a fan of their band. I wasn't surprised by this, as we said our goodbyes - if you've heard Tamer Animals or attended an Other Lives show you won't be either.
When I was thirteen my dad handed a demo tape I'd made on an old four-track recorder to Andy Macpherson, the owner of a local recording studio called Revolution - housed in an inconspicuous, ivy-covered building on a busy main road near a high school. This led to me spending a lot of time hanging out there on the weekends, lending a hand during sessions, observing the recording/mixing process, making cups of tea for bands and engineers, running out for groceries, walking dogs and occasionally being asked for my opinion on how something sounded. It was a pretty amazing experience for a school kid, head over heels in love with music.
Of the bands I met during this period I remember Teenage Fanclub, who were making their fourth studio album Thirteen(Creation Records, 1993) the most vividly. This was because they were Scottish and I'd lived in Glasgow for a while as a kid and because, like me, they loved football. I remember them excitedly playing football games on a computer while producer/engineer Andy Macpherson tweaked mixes in the adjacent control room. They were a chilled out bunch of guys who sloped around the studio and didn't mind having me around. There were piles of their CD's on hand for inspiration and reference. I remember browsing through the CD stacks, wondering what the obscure sounding bands they championed might sound like. They'd just finished touring with Nirvana at the time - a pretty big deal then and now. I don't remember them talking about it, Nirvana were one of my favourite bands so I'm sure I must have pestered them for stories - maybe I was too shy or maybe what happened on the road was too explicit for my young ears.
I'm still fond of Thirteen, not just because I like the songs or because I was there - the album reminds me of a moment in time when anything seemed possible. All you needed were good songs, a healthy dose of passion and some like-minded pals to form a band with, start a revolution and conquer the world.
My mum gave me a copy of Smells Like Teen Spirit on 7 inch vinyl in September 1991 - she heard it and thought I'd like it. I remember staring at the mysterious, blurry faces on the cover, I didn't know what to make of it and I couldn't imagine what the music would sound like - I didn't even know what the word nirvana meant. When the needle dropped and those now unmistakable opening chords came blaring out of the speakers I'd love to harp on about how it immediately changed my life but it didn't - it took a few listens before I became slowly hooked. I was barely twelve years old. My world was skateboarding, football, computer games, music and girls, in that order. I loved Prince, The Stone Roses, Michael Jackson, Guns N' Roses and Metallica. I'd already discovered the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Motown and more obscure sounding artists like Nick Drake through my parents vinyl collection. But Nirvana was something new to my ears - a simpler and more primal sound.
It wasn't metal. The electric guitars were more colourful in tone and less about flamboyant showmanship than your typical hair-metal band of the time - it sounded like anyone could pick up a guitar and play this stuff. The chord progressions weren't typical either, something that caught my young ear and enhanced the feeling that this band were channeling something exotic and new. After a few listens to the partially undefinable words, the quiet verse/loud chorus dynamics, the singers seemingly untrained voice and impassioned, raucous screams, I became addicted - I'm still a huge fan.
For a short while it felt like Nirvana were my secret. Then I began to notice other kids at school getting into them too. Then after a while it felt like every kid I knew liked Nirvana. Even the kids who didn't really like the band were pretending to like them just to fit in - such was the speed and scale of Nirvana's rise to fame.Three years later when my mum told me Kurt Cobain was dead I remember pretending not to care.
Driven by the stellar songwriting of Greg Jackson, Manchester's Glass Ankle make dreamy and ornate sounding indie-folk music. Earnest and lovingly crafted, Fragments EP showcases their knack for delivering the kind of grand dynamic surges, starry melodies and rich orchestral washes made popular by the likes of The Bends era Radiohead and The Boxer Rebellion. It's a winning formula that shines through on tracks like the sultry, guitar-led, Secondary Now.
Brimming with sonic splendor, Unlike You follows suit. Its folky motif rolls and sways, patiently building towards a soothing and hauntingly plush chorus. Embellished by a swell of strings. Jackson's angelic, plaintive voice sits pretty, cajoling you to stop whatever it is you're doing and pay close attention. Packing a blissful hook that sticks in your head and seduces you back for more - this is kingly music befitting of a variety of moods.
Throughout the eighties and nineties Cocteau Twins produced some of the most exquisite dream pop you'll ever hear; an early flagship band for the influential 4AD label, the impact of their heavenly and unique music never ceases to inspire.
Cocteau Twins - The Spangle Maker (4AD, 1984). Despite being thirty years old, the shimmering dynamic magic of the EP's title track and the staggeringly addictive, hook-laden pop-punch of Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops still astounds and captivates. The haunting Pepper-Tree rounds things off in fine majestic style with its slow-creeping atmospherics and ethereal splendor. The heavily effected wash and chime of Robin Guthrie's guitars and Simon Raymonde's melodic, throbbing basslines combine to provide the perfect accompaniment for Elizabeth Fraser's angelic, soaring voice and impressionistic, cryptic phrasing style - no-one sounds like this. Indulge your senses and escape this mortal coil for a few brief, wonderful moments.
Dead Can Dance - Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (4AD, 1987). A spellbinding collection of eight lovingly crafted, keyboard-driven songs and instrumental mood pieces, split between the contrasting vocal styles of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry. From the brooding and beguiling Gothicism of Anywhere Out of the World to the exotic lure and captivating rhythms of Cantara - an atmospheric album brimming with ethereal grandeur, best enjoyed at night.
My first dose of Swedish singer-songwriter Stina Nordenstam came via MTV as a teenager, when the network still played a valuable role in introducing new talent to the masses. The music video for Little Star filled me with intrigue. Here was an artist communicating something unique, mysterious and haunting. Her voice sounded fragile and angelic to my ears. I felt compelled to discover more. There was no easy method to achieve this back then, no internet, no streaming or downloading - a bus ride to the nearest record store was the only way.
I remember the half-hour bus journey home, studying the artwork for her second album And She Closed Her Eyes(Eastwest Records, 1994), wondering how it would sound - hoping I'd like it. I spent all my leftover pocket money on it, saved from working a part-time job maintaining guitars at a local music store on the weekends. I remember taping it and listening to it on my Walkman on my way to and from school. It grew on me. I learnt to love it - still do.
Dynamite (Eastwest Records, 1996), a raw and cathartic recording brimming with fuzzy, industrial sounding guitars/drums and sweeping, emotive string arrangements came a few years later when I was in college. An abrasive and stark sounding reaction to the embellished, jazz-tinged textures of And She Closed Her Eyes, it's an album that reveals itself slowly, rewarding you with each listen. Stina's vocal delivery is intimate and sounds kinda sexy in places - a real treat for your ears. It's well worth investigating.
A weird and wonderful covers record People Are Strange (Eastwest Records, 1998) followed before she returned with This Is Stina Nordenstam (Independiente, 2001), an album of originals that finds Stina re-imagining herself and her sound at every turn - where processed beats combine with haunting and catchy melodies to hypnotic effect. Lead track Everyone Else In The World is one of the most beautiful and sad songs you'll ever hear.
Stina's last album, The World Is Saved (V2 Records, 2004) is imaginative, enigmatic and as strong as anything she's released - a joyous collection opening with the quirky groove of Get On With Your Life - rich with eccentric lyrics it fittingly marks her withdrawal into silence. She appears to have little interest in making records these days, pursuing a love of photography instead. Maybe she feels she's communicated everything she needed to, exhausted her muse, grown tired of the pressures of the music industry - or perhaps her desire for privacy eventually won out? She is after all an artist who never performed live beyond her first album tour, who disguised and reinvented herself at every opportunity, who rarely gave interviews to the press. I hope she's happy but I would love nothing more than to wake up to news of her musical return. I'm as intrigued by her now as I was as a teenager watching MTV. Her silence remains a mystery.