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 bass lines 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 Australians 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.
Some years ago my band opened a few shows for Richmond Fontaine, an alt-country group from Portland, Oregon. They were touring an excellent album called Post To Wire. I remember chatting backstage about our mutual loves, one of which was The Replacements. They were nice guys. I was interested to learn that their lead singer Willy Vlautin was moving beyond writing lyrics and into the world of literature. I was eager to see what kind of novel he would publish...
Willy Vlautin - The Motel Life (Faber & Faber, 2006). Vlautin's alcohol drenched debut novel tells the story of Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, two brothers from Reno, Nevada. It's a wonderfully written, atmospheric and heartfelt tale about being down on your luck - a road story brimming with warmth and compassion, in which a drunken Jerry Lee accidentally runs over and kills a child, forcing the brothers to flee. The characters are fleshed out well, you believe in them - get the sense they're real and inevitably root for them as the narrative unfolds. The plot is strong and engaging, you'll feel compelled to keep reading from the get-go. Recommended for fans of Raymond Carver in particular, who will enjoy Vlautin's gritty, matter of fact prose style, embellished throughout with cute and topical illustrations care of Nate Beaty, it's a hell of a ride. I couldn't put it down.
The Motel Life was recently adapted for the screen by the Polsky Brothers, starring Emile Hirsch as Frank Flannigan, Stephen Dorff as Jerry Lee and a supporting cast including Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson. If you're a reader you tend to find movies rarely do their source material justice but I enjoyed this film. I felt like the core elements of Vlautin's novel translated well to the screen and the cast portrayed the characters believably. Certain scenes aren't as powerfully depicted in the movie, such as one of the highlights of the novel where Frank rescues a neglected dog from its owner, but for the most part it's solid, entertaining, well acted and nicely shot. Definitely worth a watch.
R.E.M. - Murmur(I.R.S. Records, 1983). Debut albums don't get better than this. It's thirty years old and, for me at least, the finest record the band recorded. It's well conceived, great song upon great song, flowing seamlessly from start to finish and like all the best albums it cultivates a unique atmosphere, making you feel connected to the music. Mitch Easter's glorious production highlights the elements that made the band special from the get-go...
Peter Buck's arpeggiated guitars jangle in a fashion reminiscent of The Byrds, while Mike Mills adds great, melodic bass lines, vocal harmonies and lush piano parts - the perfect counterpoint to Bill Berry who serves each song beautifully with his measured and wonderfully presented stick work. Michael Stipe's distinctive vocal delivery is more of a murmur, as suggested by the album title, making his lyrics near impossible to decipher. It's impressionistic, mysterious and alluring. You end up with no idea of what he's on about and that's the charm, the songs still hold together perfectly. It's an album that will never stop growing on you.
I saw R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement, referring to the stage of sleep where dreaming occurs) perform live a number of times. The last show I took in, as they neared towards their eventual break up, disappointed me. I left early. I remember hoards of fans chatting impatiently, waiting for them to play songs like Losing My Religion and Everybody Hurts. The band seemed to have lost touch with the elements of their sound that appealed to me and in turn attracted a fan base built around their major label success, not their earlier, pioneering indie work. I guess the problem for me was it seemed like artistically at least, their best days were behind them. Every time I hear Murmur I'm transported back to where it all began and reminded just how great a band they were.
There are perks to writing about the things you love. A few weeks ago I posted about one of my favourite artists Liam Hayes & Plush and the man himself retweeted my blog, catching the attention of a guy called Dan Crawford. Dan emailed me with an invitation to hear an unreleased live recording of Liam from 2008. Dan's band (Owen Tromans & The Elders) had recorded themselves when they supported Liam and managed to capture his set too. I had no expectations. Live bootlegs are often disappointing - performances diluted by crappy recording quality and crowd noise. But to my surprise the recording was stellar and the performance, a solo Liam Hayes singing and playing a Telecaster guitar through a Music Man amplifier, magical. It seemed a real shame to keep something so good a secret. I asked Dan if I could create some awareness about the live recording and share it here on my blog. Thankfully he obliged me.
So here it is. An exclusive, previously unreleased, eight song set of Liam Hayes originals, live at The Railway in Winchester, 02/09/2008. Fans will love these guitar led interpretations of songs from More You Becomes You, Fed and Bright Penny. Liam's relaxed banter between songs makes it an even more rewarding experience. It's half an hour of pure gold.
Take A Chance
If I Could
(See It In The) Early Morning
Soaring and Boring
So Much Music
This wonderful music and all rights pertaining to it are reserved by Liam Hayes & Plush.
My band released a new album this week, so I've been busy doing interviews and playing shows to support it. I'll be posting and celebrating the things I love here again soon. In the meantime check out the music I make...
I See Angelsare an Alternative Rock band from Manchester featuring Paul Baird (Vocals/Guitar/Keys), Martin Cowan (Bass) and Chris Norwood (Drums). New album Your Memories Are You was recorded entirely in basements, bedrooms and on stage. It has a raw edginess about it, a reaction to the studio recorded sound of 2011's self-titled debut album. Stylistically it's diverse and enticing, vital sounding - raucous, smash and grab indie rock collides with experimental programmed beats, lush ballads and beguiling piano tapestries. A must listen, Your Memories Are You is available exclusively at iseeangels.bandcamp.com for name your price/free download now.