I wasn’t expecting this. By which I mean I wasn’t expecting 2011 to introduce so much new music into my life. Nor was I expecting Rob St. John’s debut album Weald to arrive, halfway through November, and make a meaningful claim on my Top 5 albums of the year. Song, By Toad is just one small label I have been introduced to in 2011. (Visit their website if you like.) Edinburgh-based, it grew out of a blog and seems to throb at the centre of a whole DIY scene, putting many of its releases out on vinyl. You may have heard Meursault – they’re on Song, By Toad. Rob St. John makes melancholy, pastoral folk-blues, his voice as deep and meaningful as Ian Curtis’s, or Stuart Staples’, and Weald seems to be something of a concept album linking his Lancashire birthplace with his adopted Edinburgh. It’s haunting and elegaic and sad, and I can’t stop playing it. It’s out now, on vinyl, but you can hear two tracks, among others, on the label’s Soundcloud.
The blame for this reawakening of my appetite for new music on small labels can be pretty much laid exclusively at the doorstep of Josie Long. Ever since being thrown together by 6 Music, Blind Date style, in June, I freely admit to being infected with her enthusiasm for independent music from the fringes. It’s not that I ever forsook indie, but this century has beaten a lot of that previously cherished bias towards the independent sector out of me. As “indie” has mutated from a state of mind, an ideology, into a catch-all term for guitar music by young men who don’t shave, I have grown weary of it. Meanwhile, I’ve found getting to the end of a whole album increasingly difficult. I’m sure it’s me and not music, but since the turn of the millennium I’ve become more and more picky about what I’ll listen to. But this year, my whole attitude to the 6 Music pigeonhole has changed: I now sift through all the advance CDs I get sent and make a concerted effort to select up to a dozen to take home, usually the ones from small labels. That’s affirmative action. If something has a sleeve, or a photo, I’ll often overlook it. A handwritten note will catch my eye and earn at least three minutes of my time. This is how I’ve discovered Jonnie Common, Ian Humberstone and Rob St. John on Song, By Toad. And Lymes on Mollusc records. It’s how I ended up listening to Death Valley Screamers, We Have Band, Tom Eno, Mint Julep, Fireworks Night, The Lovely Eggs, Martin John Henry, Letting Up Despite Great Faults, Heart Kills Giant and, only this week, Naomi Hates Humans. (I also listened to countless others that I didn’t like. There’s still a door policy.)
Hey, my tastes are pretty vanilla in other respects. You know I like Adele, and she’s one of the biggest selling artists of the year. I also hold a torch for Elbow, and Manic Street Preachers, who are played on Radio 2. And Metronomy, Ghostpoet, the Horrors and Anna Calvi are all straight off the Mercury Prize nominations list. But I will say that letting the output of small labels into my life has coloured it in a bit. And Rob St. John’s Weald is just one of those colours.
I am of an age where cynicism is a way of life. I have a tendency towards grumpiness that is definitely index-linked with my advancing years. I am in many ways blasé and jaded. But adolescent excitement is, it seems, still a possibility.
Josie and I will be on until December 17. After that, we don’t know. But it’s been an enjoyable run that has done my greying soul the world of good.