Listening without prejudice


As previously revealed, I took home around 20 pre-release CDs – mostly singles; a couple of albums – from my  6 Music pigeonhole last week. I uploaded them all at the weekend and have been listening intently on my ancient iPod ever since. (I’ve noticed that as iPods get smaller, headphones are getting bigger and bigger; my iPod is massive, and my headphones tiny. I’m no follower of fashion!) Anyway, I counted 19 new songs, most of them coming out in February or March. Few had actual paper press releases attached, and if they had information on a sticky label affixed by their plugger, I deliberately avoided reading it, so as to be able to listen to these artists, mostly unknown to me by name, without prejudice. Sometimes, seeing a picture of a band can influence the way you feel about their song.

Now, it’s inevitable that I won’t like everything, or even the majority, in a mass listening session like this, but let’s take out the artists I’d heard of first: Johnny Marr, The Vaccines, Low and The Wonder Stuff. I continue to be underwhelmed to the point of toothache by the Vaccines, who are doing very nicely without me anyway, so I shan’t lose sleep over our lack of a connection. I am already mad about The Wonder Stuff, in person and on record, and fully approve of their From The Midlands With Love project, whose final addition is Planet Earth and Get Up! Johnny Marr’s single Upstarts is OK, confident, driving, but again, he doesn’t need my support. Minnesota’s Low are minor legends, and their new single Plastic Cup is slow, lilting, melancholy and lovely, and its lyric actually has content (“the cup will probably be here long after we have gone”), which is something to cherish in this grey age. Oh, and ex-Beta Bandsman Steve Mason is also well established, and his new single Fight Them Back is effortlessly brilliant.

Since working with Josie two years ago (is it really? yes it is), I have become reconnected with new music, and new artists. So let us praise those songs by bands and songwriters about whom I know next to nothing. The pic at the top is of Tall Ships in action. As I type, I know I really love their coruscating but joyous single, T=0, but I have yet to look them up. They appear English, but who knows? Theirs is the real find of the batch, along with Wanderlust by Cloud Boat. (Nautical theme entirely coincidental.) Again, I know not who Cloud Boat are, or is. But the song is like a mini-symphony, even the three-minute radio edit; I’m getting James Blake, I’m getting My Bloody Valentine, I’m getting early Cocteau Twins … I’m getting something so delicate it makes a kind of mockery of what “a single” is, or should be. I have just found this image of Cloud Boat. Of course they’re in a church.


Of the rest, I was initially quite taken by the sheer bombast of Pompeii by Bastille, even though it seems to be squarely aimed at the charts with its autotuned vocal and singalong chorus. Far cooler seeming are Io Echo, whose Ministry Of Love has real atmosphere, with female vocals far away in the distance, and more than a hint of Goth in its distorted guitars. Disco Sucks by The Computers has a good title, and is driven by old-fashioned rawk grit. I’m guessing they’re American, and very glad that Jack White came along a few years ago. Further up my street is the driving Ocean by Coasts (heavens: more water!), although, again, it sounds as if it has its eye on the post-Metronomy/xx prize. Also good is On The Spines of Old Cathedrals by Shrag, as it sounds like it was released in the early 90s. Spiky male-female vocals, apologetic drumming, but real energy. Unlike Bastille and Coasts, they don’t sound like they care too much whether or not you dance to it in a club.

I won’t mention the new bands whose tracks I didn’t latch onto. What would be the point of that? Not everything is for everyone. And anyway, I seem to have liked exactly half of the songs I uploaded. That’s pretty cool.

And now, to complete my experiment, I shall look up the bands I like, and provide links to their websites.

Tall Ships are from Falmouth, it appears. (I once lectured at Falmouth University – what a fantastic place.) There is another, American band called The Tall Ships, which is unhelpful, and the phrase “tall ships” mainly takes you to tall ships if you tap it into a search engine, but their MySpace page is here, the video is here, and their product is here.
Cloud Boat have their Facebook page (I really can’t get on with Facebook, but you may be more conversant with its workings), and the video for the full-length version of Wanderlust is here. If I was a band, I’d have a website that just showed a picture of me, and said where I was from. (Follow them on Twitter here.)
Coasts are a mystery. I don’t have the disc in front of me, so can’t even check the sticker. Look them up and find nothing as I did. Maybe I’ve got their name wrong. Still like the song!
Shrag have just announced that they’re calling it a day. Brilliant. This is me really getting in at the ground floor – they’ve only released three albums and about ten singles without me noticing. Still, I like the song, their blog is here, and they even have a Wikipedia entry. I’m going to seek out their last album Canines, from which the single is taken. It looks brilliant:

Io Echo are easier to find, as their name is unique. They have a website, and although I can see that they are a duo, and look quite amazing, it doesn’t say where they’re from. They seem to be very new, with a debut album to come. At least they didn’t split up before I “discovered” them. (Their MySpace doesn’t say where they’re from either.)
Bastille seems to be one man. He’s British and his MySpace page is here. Apparently Huw Stephens likes the song, so it might be a hit. I have no interest in the charts or predicting hits.
The Computers turn out to be British, from Exeter in fact, signed to Fierce Panda, and they look like they wish it was the 1970s. Good on them for that, and for looking like a band. They seem to run a club night called Disco Sucks. I don’t think they have a website, but this is them.

The following artists are well-established, but I liked their songs, and will provide links anyway, since I seem to be running an online fanzine all of a sudden. Steve Mason is here. Low are here. And The Wonder Stuff are here.

Sorry to namedrop but I was having a heated conversation with genial Martin Freeman at the Radio Times party on Tuesday night. He’s a massive music fan, as you probably know – indeed, I first met him when we were teamed up on the Radio 4 music quiz All The Way From Memphis, and had him on Roundtable a number of times – and only a few years younger than me, so we’ve both experienced that awful realisation that modern music doesn’t quite do it for you in the same way that modern music did in the past. Martin wanted to know if it was an age thing, something we all inevitably go through, or whether his feelings about modern music have something to do with the poor state of modern music. I think it’s a bit of both, but more of the former.

True, the singles charts are unrecognisable to me now, with everybody “featuring” on everybody else’s record and slick R&B and autotuned identipop dominant, but without Top of the Pops, I’m disconnected from them anyway. (If it was on, I guarantee I’d watch it every week, and know more.) I’m not in any way disinterested in new music, as I hope this experiment has proved, but even though it’s easier than ever to access music, for free, I find I need a curator, a filter, a third party to keep me up to date. And I have a pigeonhole! (I think Spotify is a smashing thing, but it’s too big. Where to start?)

What do others think? In the meantime, I say hooray for Tall Ships, and Cloud Boat, and Shrag, and Steve Mason, and Low, and The Computers, and a band I’ve not yet heard of who are going to blow me away. (I also got the Palma Violets debut album, which I’m still investigating, but I liked them on Later as they seemed to be young men who’d heard the first Clash album)


12 thoughts on “Listening without prejudice

  1. As I approach my mid 30’s I am starting to feel the same way, I still follow the charts weekly, but am finding that I’m only liking 3 or 4 tracks out of the 40. Plus they never seem to move, tracks are hanging around the top 10 for months. You would think in this age where everything is instant this would be the opposite.
    Spotify is excellent, I use it by subscribing to playlists from people or stations I respect.

  2. I think what I find most depressing about the British music scene is that there just doesn’t seem to be any alternatives anymore It’s all so blrrraghh.

    As someone who’s musical awakenings went from Glam Rock, to Prog and then to punk all before I was 16, I don’t want a return to the TOTPs v OGWT segregation days again. But it’s like everyone wants to be a little bit indie these days, a little bit alternative. No one is prepared to be Pop anymore and I miss proper honest pop music.

    Even the likes of yer Ed Sheeran seem desperate to be taken seriously as ‘credible’ artists; 20 years ago he’d have been a pop star and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    And it’s all so terminally middle class. I know, I know, it probably always was but at least Joe Strummer had lived a ‘working class’ existence and had something to say about it. They don’t even pretend these days. I refuse to mention Fred Mumford and his Rent-a-ghost folk rockers directly because thankfully we all know now don’t we? But they seem to typify the people who can be arsed to get into the music scene now. Them and fucking Alt J and all the rest of the ‘special needs singers’, who seem to think you have to sing like you’ve had a stroke so that people will mistake it for authenticity.

    It’s coming to something when we have to rely on the like of British Sea Power, a band who must have been around for over ten years now, to show some ambition. Some desire to be different.

    How many US films have used British indie music of the 80s and 90s as it’s sound track in the last twenty years to emphasise how cool and alternative they are? Do you think they’ll be doing the same with the likes of Ellie Goulding 15 years from now?

    I haven’t had time to get stuck into the wave after wave of insipid low-fi female singer / songwriters who haven’t lived a life and have nothing to say. And I include the indefatigably smug and pretentious Laura Marling in that. None of them are fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Kate Bush.

    Yes I know there are exceptions to the above and I could give you a decent list myself – the Vaccines aren’t all that bad if you need someone to fill the post Libertines void, Mystery Jets are terrific and I’m quite hopeful about Savages even if they can’t hold a candle to The Slits just yet, to name just three – but you can’t deny things are getting progressively worse.

    And it’s not my age. But I have rambled, sorry.

    • Nah. Not even Strummer. Daddy was a diplomat and he went to a very posh private boarding school. Nice white middle class private school boy. Who got his jollies inciting soccer violence cos it tickled his need for violent anarchism…
      Kate Bush. She is God/dess.
      Me? This former Indy-kid is defeated. There are no alternatives. There’s only music. Some shit. Some not so. Jeez I’ve even started listening to my son’s electro dance club remixes. And nodding.
      Though Io Echo seem worth another listen. As did Shrag. Doh.

    • There’s always something a bit special about the bands you grew up with that acted as the soundtrack to what are for many people some of their most exciting years of their lives – realising there is a world outside your village, discovering sex, drugs and rock and roll, being old enough to drive, vote, marry, fight for your country, get a job, go to college etc. at no other point in your life do so many opportunities become available. It is a massively exciting time.

      I used to go to listen to Peel, janice long, go to hundreds of gigs in my teens and twenties, got to know quite a few bands, and music was a sefining characteristic of mine. But I reached a point where I failed to be excited in my thirties. My era was The Smiths, the Bunnymen, the Mary Chain. How could modern music compete?

      Now, in my forties I’ve fallen back in love with music. There are plenty of great bands out there, you just have to look for them. Listen to Marc Riley and Gideon Coe and you’ll soon find there are more great albums out there than you can afford to buy, more gigs than the time you have available for.

      My kids are getting older and I’m getting out to see tonnes of bands. This month I’ll be seeing The Wave Pictures (again) and Villagers. I’m also going out to see Dinosaur Jr in half an hour, and Thurston Moore next Tuesday.

      You won’t find the good stuff on Radio 1, which you would have done whilst growing up. I’d also argue daytime on 6 Music can also be a little restricting with the playlist.

      And yes, Shrag were bloody brilliant!

      Music isn’t any worse, we just go through stages of bothering about it. Don’t be a grandad!

  3. I’m sure there’s loads of good stuff that doesn’t get played on 6 Music but as I get older I don’t have any need to “own” the music or bands I’m listening to. By which I mean I don’t expect to impress anyone with my knowledge of early EPs by The Chigley Squires or whoever. I do still buy new records but… not so often. (Plus money’s going less and less far these days.) So, I listen to 6 Music and I find enough new stuff – particularly on Marc Riley’s show – to keep me happy. And at least by doing this, I knew who Shrag are and that they’re splitting up.

  4. From the comments above we can rightly assume that there are at least two people, both called Richard, who’ve read Andrew’s latest blog entry, who agree that:
    • The British Music scene is depressing
    • There are no alternatives
    • My musical awakenings went from Glam, to Prog, to Punk
    • I don’t want a return to TOTPs v OGWT type segregation
    • Everyone wants to be ‘indie’
    • No one wants to do honest pop anymore
    • Ed Sheeran should stick to being a pop artist
    • British music is terminally middle class but in truth…
    • …probably always was but they don’t even pretend otherwise anymore
    • Fred Mumford & Son are not worth worrying about
    • Alt J typify the new wave of ‘Special Needs Singers’
    • Singing like a recovering stroke victim doesn’t make you sound authentic (unless you are one of course)
    • Mainstream US films have been obsessed with UK 80s and 90s music for the last 20 years but won’t be 15 years from now because…
    • …Ellie Goulding and the rest aren’t up to it
    • There is endless conveyor belt of insipid low-fi female singer / songwriters who haven’t lived a life and have nothing to say
    • Laura Marling is smug and pretentious
    • Kate Bush is a lot better than many newer artists
    • The Savages are promising but not yet as good as The Slits were (but I shouldn’t really need to just compare female with female, she’s better than blokes too)
    • Things are getting progressively worse
    • It’s not because I’m knocking on a bit that I feel this way
    • But my original post was a bit rambling and incoherent
    However we have to assume the word ‘huh?’ wasn’t just the noise of Richard II coughing something up. He was probably expressing some doubt on the following:
    • “Joe Strummer lived a working class existence” – not brilliantly put admittedly but he did slum it in a London squat for quite a while and his previous band was named after one of the places he stayed in.
    • “The Vaccines aren’t all that bad” – self-evidently and inarguably true. The opposite would make them evil personified and that clearly isn’t the case. If an argument was being made for them being somewhere in between then it needs some expansion.
    • “Mystery jets are terrific” – I’ve seen them and they were terrific and Hale Bop alone is all the evidence you need.
    • “We have to rely upon British Sea Power to be different” – willing to concede this one, clearly we don’t need to ‘rely’ on anyone, we can just carry on putting up with the same old re-heated, re-hashed and revisited blokes with guitars formula (only the length of the guitar straps and tightness of trousers will vary) that we’ve had for the last 40 years.

    Not a bad strike rate of in terms of things we 100% agree on.

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