Letter from Sheffield - A Summer Roundup

All the old favourites are there: Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, The Mighty Terror. A particular highlight is  King Timothy’s Football Calypso where we hear which football club has the right to call themselves the best in England.

Greetings from Sheffield where, somehow, the nights are already drawing in. At least the summer has finally awoken from its slumber and what better to enjoy it than to jump around like a daftie. Now the album I’m choosing to jump around to has had a great deal of ink spilt over it; with nearly all of the reviews being complete piss. And it is perhaps typical that British press has a bit of a hard time dealing with Vampire Weekend.

To get the easy bit out of the way: Modern Vampires of the City is a great album. Previous albums always had the tunes and the hooks but what singles MVOTC out is the production. It’s still an identifiable pop album but the production is both more muscular and more playful. It’s the product of a confident band who know exactly what they are doing. A whole load of stuff gets thrown into the mix – bits of hip hop, reggae, modern classicism, rockabilly and much more – but none of it overshadows the songs themselves. It manages to be fun, smart and with a depth previously lacking. In short it’s a perfect pop/rock record.

But that’s not good enough for the British press. Because, well, there’s something a bit, you know, preppy about the band. They might be from well-off families. At least, they appear to sing about well off kids and surely that’s just as bad. They’re probably a bit clever. Too clever. And they, you know, appropriate sounds. Ripping off that nice Paul Simon.

Only in Britain could a band be treated with suspicion for not being working class. (Punk, anyone?) I wouldn’t mind quite so much if all the hand wringing didn’t come from painfully middle class journalists. And then, of course, when a ‘working class’ band like Arctic Monkeys does come along said journalists thought there was a secret svengali figure in the background because a young Sheffield kid couldn’t possibly write such mature lyrics.

So ignore all the guff and just enjoy the album. Single Diane Young is brash and entertaining, Unbelievers is catchy as hell, album opener Obvious Bicycle a low key grower. The real interest comes towards the end of the album with Ya Hey and Hudson. Hudson is a strange and disquieting track, all intrusive, skittering, drums and ghostly choir. Ya Hey is an odd one in that it has an incredibly annoying pitch-shifted chorus. And yet the song is so good it doesn’t matter: it’s madly infectious and includes a rousing choir along with name-checks to Desmond Dekker.

Whilst we’re hovering around the ‘V’ section, and thinking of summer, I should mention Van Dyke Parks’ new record, Songs Cycled. Punning Van Dyke Park’s debut album, Song Cycle, the album mixes new work with some recycled material that you might have heard on his other records over the years.

VDP will be forever associated with Smile,  and that’s a shame, because anyone unacquainted with his work should dive straight in with his debut (too right - Ed) . It is without doubt a work of genius. Other albums are fun, brilliant fun, but it felt as though he poured all his creative powers into the ornate and oblique Song Cycle. Songs Cycled still has the trademark VDP wit and sophistication. And the arrangements are, of course lovely. But…there’s something of the air of the cocktail bar about the whole thing. It feels a terrible thing to say as the album has been lovingly put together and does, of course, have its moments. To repeat: initiates should head to VDP’s debut.

Now! (Think of it as the 60’s version of Deserter’s Songs, if that helps.)

If I can’t quite put my finger on what is missing from VPD’s latest there is not mystery in working out what is missing from Foxygen’s album We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic. It’s music from 1970 onwards. The album feels like a distillation of American poprock from 1967 – 1969. In fact, at times it sounds like Mick Jagger fronting a West Coast psychedelic pop band. Lyrically we get San Fransicso, cups of tea, soldiers, flowers, dope, hotels… At times it really sounds like a 1967 tribute act.  Which leads one to the question: how good can an album be that is so shamelessly situated in the past? Let’s be clear: this is really good album: effortlessly fun and jammed to the rafters will great tunes. Admittedly, if they were slightly better they would be sued by a whole host of the sixties greats. So we’re left with a thought experiment. Take your favourite pop/rock artiste: in my case I’m going to pick Scott Walker. If someone could create Scott 5 so perfectly that you could believe it was a lost album from 1970 would you hate it because it was created by a non-Scott in 2013? Authenticity aside, why?

Well, the fact is that it is pretty much impossible to do. Easy to get 90% there but the closer you get the more obvious the gap, and the failure, becomes. Foxygen fail, of course, but it is fun to hear them doing so.

By the way... ‘Til The Band Comes In was called Scott 5 in Japan. The whole shooting match of Scott 67-70 has been reissued on heavyweight vinyl and a fancy booklet. There’s no need to sell Scott to you but Universal have done a decent job of keeping it simple: no extraneous bullshit.

Whilst we’re wallowing in the past, volumes 5&6 of London Is The Place For Me have been released by Honest Jons. Albarn has much to answer for but this series absolves him of a great deal. All the old favourites are there: Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, The Mighty Terror. A particular highlight is  King Timothy’s Football Calypso where we hear which football club has the right to call themselves the best in England.

He said, my friend, I’ll give you my views
We’ve got an ace right winger called Matthews
He is so fast, no one is faster
That little man is really a master
Then out of the blue came the cutest voice
There’s only one team that makes me rejoice
Nearly every match to date they have won
My heart is with West Bromwich Albion


Elsewhere Aiden Moffat’s alter ego Lucky Pierre has returned with The Island Come True. Always an interesting proposition, it would seem that this time around Mr. Moffat has been listening to The Caretaker. And why wouldn’t he?  The result is an album that retains something of the Scottish fishing village flavour, but now with added vintage loops, crackle, and atmosphere. It’s probably his strongest work, atmospheric and eerie though without (perhaps inevitably) the rigour of The Caretaker.

Anna Von Hausswolff’s album Ceremony has been getting a bit of press recently. (From me - Ed)  It’s easy to see why: it is a deeply strange album. Not strange in the sense that it is bananas, but strange in the sense that it seems to veer all over the place. Simply put it is a kind of gothic pop album dominated by a church organ. Album opener Epitaph of Theodor is an austere instrumental, redolent of Philip Glass. Epitaph of Daniel really sounds like Philip Glass’s Candyman soundtrack until, midway through, it merges with the love theme from Twin Peaks. Not all songs are indebted to Glass: Mountain’s Cave has a less blissed out Beach House feel to it. Some of the songs are great, but some are banal and clunking. Similarly Hausswolff’s singing is all over the place. At times one hears echoes of Kate Bush, at others Carole Decker. It has a tendency towards the operatic and overblown and, in truth, hobbles a fair few of the songs.  

Akron/Family have returned (hooray!) with Sub Verses and it is a lot more focussed than previous album S/T II:The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT  which I thought was rather dissolute and squandered various promising openings. In fact, the whole album really could have been one mammoth track such is the cohesive feel of the album. Not that the songs are much of a muchness: as ever with Akron/Family the album veers from the pastoral to the wig out. At the centre of the album are the vocals: nearly always harmonised, the lyrics based around simple, vaguely spiritual, messages. Around this the band build epic songs that manage to incorporate pretty much every genre. Chroral, punk, free jazz, doo wop, rock, folk, electronica, drone: all are here. And yet, as stated, all are somehow subsumed into the Akron/Family sound to make the cohesive album mentioned earlier.

The final words should go to Michael Gira, who knows the band well. “It seems to me lots of groups these days view the whole history of music as fair game for their palette, which might be understandable, since it’s all there at easy access now, but most of it seems like playing dress up to me, and certainly it exists in inverted commas. There are no inverted commas in the world of AK. They’re inside the music, grinding it, fighting it, chewing it, digesting it, then spewing it up to the sky in a multicolored spray of endless sound and love.”

Just a final brief note to welcome other returns: Colleen’s The Weighing of the Heart is, as one has come to expect, a thing of fragile beauty. Atom TM has returned with a very different album to his previous work on Raster-Norton. HD is an electo-pop album, beautifully produced, but suffers from a surprisingly straight cover of My Generation.  Last, but definitely not least, The Pastels return after 16 years with Slow Summits. Similar in style to their collaboration with The Tenniscoats, the band’s youthful joie de vivre is a thing of the past (no Speeding Motorcycles here). Instead the mood is mainly wistful, the music, though more proficient, still wonderful.