#29: Shakira - "Laundry Service"

There are two ways in my life in which anything of consequence gets done, and they are: with great enthusiasm; and a little bit later than planned. And so it was that I cycled through four different albums this week, before finally, on Saturday morning, settling on this one. And as soon as I did, it became obvious that this is where I’ve been heading all along.

You guys, it is Sunday morning. There is not much time left. But let us take what we have and embrace the most natural thing in the world: this week is Shakira Week.

Shakira is one of those artists I always seem to completely underestimate, because she does fast beats and her hips don’t lie, and that’s really about as far as I tend to get. (I tell a lie - do you remember that thing she did with her leg in the "She-Wolf" video?) And it’s a bit of a shame that I never really got much further, partly because of all the attention I have given Enrique Iglesias’s back catalogue over the last few years, but mostly because her music is infectiously, dramatically good fun.

Who's for some Argentine tango? Let's have some Argentine tango.

I feel like there’ve been quite a few po-faced acoustic boys on this blog in recent times, so on that basis I’m particularly delighted to be here, but also it’s nice to have someone who smashes their various influences together with gay abandon. There are beats and instruments from so many different sources – I’m notably awful at pinpointing which sources, exactly, but “Poem to a Horse” feels to me like it’s responding to a lot of things I half-recognise. “Eyes Like Yours” has a Middle-Eastern feel and backing vocals in Arabic; “Underneath Your Clothes” could be a Gloria Estefan song if it weren’t for Shakira’s spot-it-from-sixty-paces vocals; and “Fool” has a touch of the Colombian Alanis Morissette about it. “The One” could just be a power ballad, but to me it sounds like the kind of song that belongs a third of the way into Act II of a musical. Surprising no one, I'm right at home with it.

But where Laundry Service comes into its own is when Shakira is back in familiar territory – which is to say, singing in Spanish. I picked this album in particular because it was her break-out one in the English-speaking world, and you can tell it's her first big linguistic departure from something that she's really extremely good at.

Here is a piece of advice for you, that is useful in very, very limited circumstances – but what the hell, one day you might be in them – and it is Never Go To An Opera That Has Been Translated Into English. Because it is always pants. The English libretto never quite scans as well and always seems a bit underpowered. I’m telling you this like I know anything at all about opera; I did tech for a production of Carmen once and let me tell you, the Toreador’s Song in English is awfully silly. Likewise, why would you have a version of “Wherever, Whenever” where the chorus goes “I’ll be there and you’ll be near / And that’s the deal, my dear” when you could have proper actual Spanish? On an album with both versions, there’s a clear winner. And where there are some songs in each language, it’s pretty easy to spot the difference between “things that are quite good fun” and “wall-to-wall absolute bangers”.

That being said, my low-key favourite (I always have one) is “Eyes Like Yours”, which might be in English on this album, but which started out as “Ojos Así” and to which I have listened at least five times over the last twenty-four hours.

Speaking of things that don’t translate quite so cleanly, apparently it’s called Laundry Service because of some guff about love and music being a cleansing combination like soap and water. Shakira, everybody; forever blowing bubbles. More of this sort of thing. It’s exactly what I wanted this week.

#28: The Courteneers - "St. Jude" (2008)

Courteneers were not always known as such. Back in 2008 when they released  St. Jude, they still went by The Courteneers but well before that, in their initial iteration, they went by the moniker of their frontman, Liam Fray. Fray wrote all of the lyrics and music for every song the band have released, even creating the minimalist portrait of Audrey Hepburn that graces the cover.

Unsurprisingly, being fans of The Smiths and also living in Manchester, there are smatterings of references that would do Morrisey proud. Morrisey himself has enthused about Fray et al at any chance he could get. But the tone of St. Jude is distinctly more wry than wretched. I can't help but admire the chutzpah of a band that named their debut album, winner of the inaugural First British Album from the Guardian, after the patron saint of lost causes.

I was never consciously a fan of the band at the time but listening to St. Jude is an eerie experience, constantly recognising refrains that I swear must have accompanied countless soundtracks of the TV I was watching - which was a lot. St. Jude swells with the giddy guitars that characterised the indie rock of the period - which was a lot. So much so that it's often referred to as "indie landfill". Bland and wasteful. The louder, up-tempo offerings do veer towards this - you can practically see the Skins house party scene as they thump away - but what sets The Courteneers apart from their peers is the maturity and insight of their slower numbers. "How Come" is a remarkable song, calling out toxic masculinity before the term existed, whilst "Yesterday, Today & Probably Tomorrow", is a heart-wrenchingly endearing meditation on the real promises made in relationships. 

The Courteneers didn't have to shout to make themselves heard. They did it so much better with their ballads. I'll be watching what Fray does next with keen interest. I wonder who his patron saint is now.

#27: Marvin Gaye – "Let’s Get It On" (1973)

Celestina Marbella Heloise Smith pushed her glasses up her nose and wiped her hands on her thoroughly-not-girly-at-all overalls, which she had totally been wearing to go camping earlier. She moved the final chess piece across the board, and in a voice tinged with the merest hint of defiance she said, “Checkmate!”

On the opposite futon, Joshua Adlington Manley-Piper stood up. He was the younger son of a viscount, so he’d definitely inherit a fortune one of these days, but also he was a self-taught astrophysicist and secret bleeding heart liberal, which meant it was okay. Celestina could tell he was impressed by her intelligence, though it would have been more than his pride was worth to admit it.

He frowned. “Hang on a minute. Celestina? Are you sure you aren’t one of Fiona’s Mary Sue self-insertion characters from when she was fourteen?”

“Mary Sue wasn’t even a term when Fiona was fourteen,” said Celestina. It definitely was, but saying this made her look clever, like she knew about literary terminology, or something. “Anyway, Josh, aren’t you forgetting something?”

Josh pushed his fringe artfully out of his eyes, and stood up, even though he’d already done that several paragraphs previously. He went over to Spotify – which, by the way, definitely wasn’t a thing when Fiona was fourteen – and hit play.

“Is that Marvin Gaye?” said Celestina, who knew all about music too. “Wow, I love him.”

The third in line to the viscountcy said, “Yeah, he’s pretty good.” He licked his lower lip, nervously. “He… he feels about women the way I feel about you, Celestina.”

“Oh, Josh! Stop talking over him!”

“But my darling, it doesn’t really matter if you can’t hear the words. They’re mostly the same, anyway. What matters is the music. And his voice. Isn’t it sublime?” He was sort of dancing a bit – but being both a gifted scientist and a minor member of the British aristocracy, he was crap at it. There’s no helping some people. Celestina pretended not to notice.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“Marvin Gaye is actually identical twins. One of them is Snakehips Marvin, and the other one is Lost Love Marvin.”

“Is that so?” said Josh.

“Oh yes,” he said, phlegmatically. “There he is. Actually, there’s a third Marvin as well.”

Now this was interesting. “I didn’t know that!” cried Celestina.

Carefully making exactly the right amount of eye contact, Joshua Adlington Manley-Piper switched the track.

Josh! Turn that off, immediately! I thought you loved me for my mind!”

#26: Mogwai - "Hardcore Will Never Die (But You Will)" (2011)

Living in Glasgow, there's a reverence around Mogwai that even the mention of the name has a unifying, argument-ending effect. This isn't a phenomenon solely located in the Dear Green Place, as I have gone through life and a couple of countries with many an acquaintance left slack-jawed at my confession of not prioritising a listen of any of their albums. One of my friends views his Mogwai gig-induced tinnitus simultaneously as a warning to others and as a particularly devastating badge of fandom. Recently they collaborated with Mark Cousins on his film Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, played extra loud in some cinemas, including my local. My anxiety at permanently damaging my hearing stretched to wearing earplugs for the duration, as well as treating my aforementioned tinnitus-afflicted friend to a ticket, a futile personal attempt to address the karmic balance. But, y'know what, the score ended up being my favourite part of an invigorating assault on the senses but an unsatisfying meditation on the complexities of human technological endeavour.

Maybe that spoilt me for Hardcore Will Never Die (But You Will). Listening to this album after experiencing Mogwai as a superior soundtrack that elevated and made sense of a barrage of images left me aching for an accompaniment. Each track brims with promise, implying some epic soundscape, climbing up a slight but long incline but that build snuffs out. There's an unshakeable feeling throughout that this is a good but dampened rehearsal in a parents' garage. Multiple listens do not reward much when looking for resolution. Lacking the pounding, juicy hooks of fellow Scots Remember, Remember or the awe-inspiring progressions of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Hardcore Will Never Die (But You Will) comes up short on the suggestions of its title, making you feel more like you've been caught in a lukewarm downpour rather than teetering on the uncanny brink of existence itself.

Surprising no one, my favourite track on Hardcore Will Never Die (But You Will) is Music for a Forgotten Future. Topping over 20 minutes, it was written as the soundtrack to an installation. I have no idea what that installation looked like but I can picture it or - more accurately - feel what it would have been like to be there. That is no mean feat but if an album cannot stand as a work in its own right, I can't say that it is a successful venture. But I'm first in line to see the film that this would score with an impressive subtlety. 

 

#25: Dolly Parton - “Coat of Many Colors” (1971)

A scary thing occurred to me, a couple of songs into Coat of Many Colors, and in the end it chewed and chewed at me so much that I had to know for sure: has my comfort music for the last decade been secretly right wing?

I spent the next few days working my way through the annals of seventies-thru-early-nineties British folk that I mostly listened to while writing a dissertation of some form or another, and I was genuinely a bit scared about what I was going to find. And it turns out it’s okay - by and large, they’re as lefty as they’ve ever been.

But you never know with folk, do you? It’s got that weird combination of being avidly anti-authority and heavily associated with protest and the fate of the downtrodden, and then at the same time looking backwards for its stories and influences, and having that endless fascination with pretty maidens down by the hedgerow on a May morning. In England in particular, being backwards-looking is a dangerous game to play, because it can end up being a dogwhistle to certain utter reprobates - I remember back in 2010 when Nick Griffin of the BNP (super right wing UKIP-precursor for those of you mercifully unaware of them) tried to tell people that he really liked English folk music, and English folk music told him unequivocally to fuck off. But they did have to say it, sadly: nostalgia and conservatism can quite easily go hand in hand; and the careful treading of that line is something I’ve always particularly liked about this particular genre. How can nostalgia be radical? Say no more, friends - it exists and I love it. But there is an undercurrent to music about common country folk of yore that could lurch very far to the political right if it isn’t careful.

Which brings us back round to early ‘70s Dolly. Vocally, she’s a knockout. In terms of how Coat of Many Colors *sounds*, we are smack bang in the middle of my comfort zone. It’s like a warm bath - I’m a sucker for that acoustic storytelling, with the fiddle and the bassline and that strong, interesting voice. But also, I am not sure that this is an album whose writer would have, at time of recording, told Nick Griffin to fuck off.

Or maybe I’m being too harsh: after all, “Coat of Many Colors” was inspired by Parton’s own youth; she’s well known for her charity work; and, lest we forget, I’m not in fact the boss of her. But equally, you know, there’s a worldview here, and on this album, it is centerstage.

You know. “One is only poor, if they choose to be.” “If I Lose My Mind”, which is about a lady who comes back to live with her mother after a man… well, either he fancies someone else and tries to tell her to go away, or there’s a full-blown orgy, you could interpret the lyrics either way. “She Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like)” which is what would happen if the narrator of “Jolene” grew a spine and decided to throw Jolene under a bus. And then, “The Mystery of the Mystery” which is a full-on God break, right where you’d change sides on the LP. One of those things is a set piece. All four of them and then some, on a ten-track CD that lasts just under half an hour, and now we’re getting into the territory of having a specific audience in mind.

And this is the point where my brain gets scrambled a bit, because I want to say that it’s a cultural difference between British folk and American country. Both of them tend to talk about ordinary people, often in small towns or rural places. Both of them look backwards as well as forwards – picking up their eighteenth-century stories alongside their rock or jazz bass. (In Coat of Many Colors, that’s “Early Morning Breeze”, which is a full-blown May Morning Early number.) But I want to say British folk has a good dose of anti-authoritarianism to it, whereas American country comes from this completely different base, this Tennessee or Oklahoma or Texas base of social conservatism and religious roots, with an emphasis on the American dream that I just find… jarring.

That base is there, of course. But I feel like Bruce Springsteen would have words with me if I tried to paint with that broad a brush. American folk is significantly broader than just that hallmarkedly southern approach. So I will just say this: that there is more than one way of rooting for the weaker person, the poor, and the disenfranchised. Coat of Many Colors makes different base assumptions to the ones I expected from the sound of it. Which means that… what I had previously thought as quite a broad range of musical experiences, is not in fact that. I’ve landed right back in my little ideological echo chamber again, whether I meant to be there or not. To me, Dolly Parton felt like her priorities were all wrong, all out of kilter. But I’m not going to turn around and tell her - forty-plus years into the past - that she’s not thought about things hard enough. I don’t want to call Coat of Many Colors wrong when it’s just not what I anticipated.

There’s a cliché, which is people describing their musical taste as “anything but rock or country”, and I’ve always thought that it’s code for “anything but misogyny and barn dancing”. This week, I’m turning that over in my head, and seeing where it leaks. Maybe it’s just not much fun to have your echo chamber unexpectedly broken.

#24: SLEATER-KINNEY - "CALL THE DOCTOR" (1996)

Though I was due to review a different album this week, I recently finished Carrie Brownstein's memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I was loathe to miss out on the opportunity to finally crack into some Sleater-Kinney with Brownstein's take on her time in the band fresh in my mind.  Much of the book deftly handles the nuances of both being an individual as part of a group and a band as part of a movement, acutely describing the isolation and confusion that can occur in each. Brownstein mourns the passing of certain cultural signifiers into commodification, encapsulating the paradox of being at the centre of a movement whilst also sensing a distance from inevitably bearing witness to that movement.

I preferred the book. Call the Doctor is the album that garnered Sleater-Kinney critical acclaim, could even be called their breakthrough hit, during the wave of Riot Grrrl bands entering the American consciousness. There is energy and anger here aplenty but it's distinctly of its time and place, more specifically, mid-90s Pacific Northwest, which acts more as a barrier than a signpost. As a time capsule, it's endearingly paradigmatic but its rawness feels unhemmed rather than pure. Corin Tucker's voice is distinct and challenging but is lost amongst the other instruments. As Sleater-Kinney were putting themselves forward as having important things say, it's a bizarre choice to drown the lyrics - the literal voices - amongst the rest of the noise. When the lyrics can be heard, they're a little on the nose but it's undeniable that they're played with a personal significance but, beyond the ringing in my ears, they don't manage to resonate.

For sheer tenacity of youth - Brownstein was 22 when this album was released - this album deserves the punkiest accolades. At a break neck 30 minutes, it won't take up much of your time but it doesn't reward your attention as I expect later offerings of the band might. Exciting as it may be at points to listen to something with so much dynamism, when that isn't matched with a songwriting maturity it can simply steamroller you, leaving you flattened and wondering how you'll stand up again. 

 

#23: Vampire Weekend – “Vampire Weekend” (2008)

Four tracks into my first listen of Vampire Weekend, I threw my pen at the wall. It sounded familiar.

I checked the Mighty Spreadsheet of Albums. Did I do this deliberately, and forget about it? Apparently so – apparently after a fortnight ago I have Paul Simon on the brain.

This week, I am thinking about tracking other people’s thought processes along. Because without wanting to go all first-you-must-create-the-universe on you, nobody makes anything creative out of nothing at all. There is no such thing as a work without influences, only work where those influences are harder to spot. And sometimes, as in this week and a fortnight ago, two groups start from a similar point and walk a similar path of fusing the familiar and the foreign, but twenty years apart from each other. They’re related closely enough that tone-deaf sods like me can hear it, and everyone else can point it out, but those twenty years make a difference. Twenty years on and you get this (with warning for language and also for the directorial thumbprint of Richard Ayoade):

This week, I am thinking about trying to do something that has been done before, in a different cultural climate, with better access to electronics, and not nearly as nice a voice (sorry Ezra Koenig – it’s just a bit grating, and not really for me). And on one level, it seems like a foolish thing to do, because the original exists and this world contains quite enough crap remakes for the time being.

On another level, I think there’s certainly space to take ideas that have been done once before, and to bring them on another outing in a different context – that’s how you find new facets of meaning. So on balance I don’t really begrudge Vampire Weekend their auditory palette, their east coast small town stories, the fact that they seem to have a knack for giving their drummer something interesting to do. In fact, those things are all recommendations.

What I do begrudge them, however, is that terribly indie thing where you take nonsensical or cryptic lyrics and put them to jaunty background music. Why do they do it? What is it for? Is this another thing I have to thank the Gallagher brothers for popularising? Will somebody please explain this to me?

And then, you know, with Graceland at least Paul Simon seemed to recognise that he was doing something overtly political. All I can find about Vampire Weekend is a hundred and one band profiles where they insist they’re not WASPy or colonial – which, fine, but that does also distract from the fact that there is something inherently political in the kind of cultural fusion they’re doing. And all you’re going to do is remind people that technically you’re allowed to do it? Live a little, darlings. Perhaps I should have listened to Contra, their second album, which is more overt about its sources and also contains a wider range of voices and instruments. Maybe that would have been more interesting.

Vampire Weekend made me think a lot of things – or rather it fitted in with a lot of the other things I was thinking this week – but it didn’t really make me feel anything (except occasional mild confusion). I can see why you might feel things? I can see why other people would love this album? But it and I are vibrating at different frequencies. It sometimes happens. Carry on, everyone.

#22: RICHARD AND LINDA THOMPSON - "I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT" (1974)

As you may have gathered by now, folk is not really how I'm musically orientated. In my teens I didn't go much further beyond listening to Nick Drake. Even that was mostly at night, as his seemed to be the only voice that could dampen my brain during a particularly bad bout of insomnia. The rest seemed to be dusty warbling about fairies. Unfair of me, I know. But thanks to this project I'm unfurling, with caution, towards dispelling my prejudices. I have not been all that well recently. You know, in the head. I won't go into details here but what does tend to help is discovery. Finding something unexpected, sticking with it and seeing what it has to tell me. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight helped.

There aren't too many overtly folk references - or at least, not the totemic concept of folk that loomed in my understanding - to be found here. Some thieving, some yellow hair, some twiddly-sounding pipes and strings but nothing to overwhelm a folkophobic like yours truly. Linda Thompson, nee Peters, has a voice that carries such attitude and strength whilst singing, essentially, about giving up, that the contrast makes for an invigorating and pithy listen. The title track, for example, manages to capture the determination and regret of wanting to get really, really drunk. Wanting things you shouldn't want, knowing that and doing them all the same is something the Thompsons do a good line in. Catchy, too.

What struck me is not only how modern but also nuanced the tone of the whole album is, harking back to England's musical heritage but presenting contemporary concerns. Perhaps it helps that I am uncharacteristically prepared in writing this, so when I began listening on Monday, the mere mention of the same day's claustrophobic effects on opening track When I Cross the Border made me feel immediately in sync with the Thompsons. That they were speaking to me now. That the frustrations they describe and the sensations they evoke are nothing new. Disenfranchisement, apathy and resigned cabin fever all feature. Oddly comforting, the cyclical nature of these things. 

If that's what folk has to offer and I've missed that, that's on me.