#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.

#21: Paul Simon – “Graceland” (1986)

Friends, you join me today in the middle of one of the worst bouts of writer’s block that I can ever recall having. It’s not that I’m lacking in opinions – no fear of that – just that, the moment I try and write them down, they evaporate like this raccoon’s candyfloss.

Normally, this ought not matter. I can go away and do other things for a bit: read a book, watch a film, just generally soak up other people’s ideas for a bit. It’ll come back. But this time, I have to tell you what I think, which means I have to think a thing, and then somehow actually hang on to it. This time, I have deadlines.

Paul Simon is not helping.

It has taken me a very long time to get around to Graceland. Emily tells me it’s a long-time favourite of hers – and entirely aside from that, by rights, I ought to really enjoy it. I love me some cross-borders world music, some heavy-duty storytelling. You know that I love genre-mashing. And yet here I am, listening to all of those things, and I don’t know what to tell you, except that I am not really feeling it. I have sat at this screen with my headphones on for a very long time.

Part of it, I’m sure, is the pressure. I may not have listened to much of Graceland before, but Paul Simon’s voice is very easy to stumble upon, and he has associations in my head with people I’ve known that I’ve really wanted to impress, and I will tell you that this much time alone with him is tough. The song I most enjoyed is “Homeless”, which is also the one where we hear the least from Paul Simon. Entirely comprised of vocals, it’s soft and beautiful and I just really like the sound of it. Ladysmith Black Manzabo, the group of singers taking centre-stage, also start off “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”, and are, I think, the best thing about that song. It’s a good song. They’re pretty great.

What this leads me to believe is that the best thing about Graceland is the South African influence, and the thing I’m least interested in is the Americana. Other songs are a combination of music that is very listenable to when I don’t pay too much attention to the words, and words that… there’s nothing wrong with them and they’re fine, it’s just that I can’t tune in to them right now. I can’t get on the right level to be interested in them. My mind is a blank slate; I have no opinion here. I have been like this for a fortnight now. It has been extremely irritating.

I mean – look at this. I ought to be lapping this up. It even starts with an accordion! This is exactly the sort of thing I usually go for. On my first listen, I was convinced I’d like it better second time around. But I didn’t, not really.

This is not really much of a review this week, so much as it is a bookmark. I promise I’ll come back to Graceland in a few months, when I can look it in the eye. It’s a good album. I can see what there is to like. But for now, I cannot for the life of me grab on to it properly.

#20: ALVIN LUCIER - "I AM SITTING IN A ROOM" (1969)

This might be one of the longest tracks but shortest albums that we will cover on this project. It could also be said to be one of the most 'out there', as it's not musical in the orthodox sense but is still an artist's intention expressed through sound, recorded and distributed. Reading about Alvin Lucier and I am sitting in a room made me think that reviewing it looked set to be more craic than any of Steve Reich's offerings at least. I fancied delving into something genuinely experimental and came out the other side feeling pretty relaxed. Though that may have had more to do with the fact that I listened to it in the bath. I entirely recommend doing this yourself, incidentally, especially if, like me, you're not much of a bath person either, thereby doubling your helping of experimentation.

The experiment is as follows. Lucier reads out a piece of text, no more than four or five sentences, explaining what he is doing and predicting what will happen. So far, so science. What Lucier is doing is recording his voice reading this text, then playing it into the room that he is sitting in, recording that and playing it into the room, repeating this process until the natural frequencies of the room completely obscure Lucier's voice - apart, he notes, from possibly the rhythm of his speech. The version I listened to is, I believe, the original 1969 recording lasting just over 18 minutes, not the higher-fidelity version recorded in 1981 that is about 45 minutes long. Turns out that 18 minutes is plenty of time to layer ambient frequencies over a human voice to obscure it entirely with a not unpleasant drone and feel sufficiently soaked.

Admittedly, listening to I am sitting in a room isn't super experimental for me in the sense that I've listened to albums of this kind before. As I've told anyone generous or socially obliged enough to have bought me a glass of red wine, The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski is one of my favourite pieces of music and, if the bottle is finished and the whisky brought out, what I hope it will sound like in my head when I die. During a particularly dark time, Basinski found tapes of his old compositions that were beginning to disintegrate. He recorded playing them over and over, recording the act of decay and creating something new. Or was it merely the documentation of something falling apart? The slight rise of hiss and grain that eventually blooms like a fireball and devours everything in its path. A sonic Sorites paradox. When did it stop being that thing and become the other? Repetition's effect on the brain - or mine, anyway - is to accept what information has already been offered and truncate it, skip to the end. But I am sitting in a room helps hold your attention after several goes round because they aren't actually repetitions but iterations with incredibly slight differences that build to something almighty.

Not one for the wedding dance floor playlist but if you have a spare 18 minutes and fancy something both meditative and oddly energetic, run yourself a bath and sink deeply into both. 

#19: Tegan and Sara – “Heartthrob” (2013)

Entirely by coincidence, listening to Heartthrob this week comes hot on the heels of two other pieces of storytelling by lesbian creators dealing with sexuality that I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks. I’m talking about Park Chan-Wook’s film The Handmaiden (he’s not a lesbian, obviously, but it’s based on the book Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, so bear with me), and Careful, the autobiographical one-woman show of Scottish musician Horse McDonald.* Aside from that obvious connection, they’re three very different works: Waters’ book is set in Victorian England, transferred to 1930s Korea in The Handmaiden; Horse’s show begins by talking about growing up queer in 1970s Lanark, all the way through to the present; and then, here, we have Heartthrob. Heartthrob is not overtly, content-wise, particularly gay. It’s about teenage crushes, more or less. And it’s the sort of album which, had it existed circa 2004, I would have memorised all the words to within a week, and probably forced Emily to listen to on the bus.

What I feel like all three things have in common, though – and this is both the point of mentioning Fingersmith and Careful, and also probably where I pull things out of thin air a bit – is their fundamental optimism. In Fingersmith, (spoiler!) the gay ladies win. Horse ends up happy, singing at the Stonewall concert at the Albert Hall, touring her story around Scotland to show younger girls and boys that their sexuality is okay, it’s an important and wholesome and just all round good part of them. And Tegan and Sara Quin have breathtakingly well-adjusted whirlwind love affairs, without once – across the whole album! – descending into pantomime obsessiveness.

Partly this is selection bias on my part, but I hope it’s also a trend, because I’m really rather enjoying it.

The thing that struck me the most about Heartthrob is just how very normal it is. Fifteen seconds into the first track, it’s all synth and beat. This is pop. This is a Top-40 pop album, quite clearly aimed at a younger audience. It’s the type of music I might have listened to before a university night out, with four other girls putting on mascara in four different mirrors. Hell, I might still do that, given the opportunity. This is the sort of music you listen to in the car, with people, because everyone will pretty much get on with it. The Quin sisters can write an earworm, oh my they can.

And yet, for all that, this doesn’t feel like lowest common denominator music. It doesn’t feel like platitudes. The tracks dealing with regret and loneliness don’t feel like wallowing, and they don’t feel unsurmountable. This is, overall, if not a happy album then a mostly contented one. It feels like it knows what it’s like to be young, and still take things seriously. “Drives Me Wild” describes a crush convincingly without cheese or creepiness, for which I would like to award One (1) Gold Star. “I’m Not Your Hero” sounds like it’s meant to be sung in a concert hall by eight hundred people who feel like they have a personal connection with it – and without the shadow of a doubt, I would be one of those people, and being in that hall would make me cry. And my personal favourite, “Now I’m All Messed Up” gets the drama and messiness of heartbreak without going off the deep end. The whole thing is just exemplary. For all that this particular brand of poppiness doesn’t usually get me that excited, in this case I can’t really fault it.

 

*Complete aside here, but I discovered Horse’s work through blagging my way along to review her show – and she’s a revelation. Extremely listenable-to voice, very personable lady. Definitely worth a listen, if you’re looking for something a bit soulful.

#18: DJ Shadow - "Endtroducing....." (1996)

Sometimes you really can judge an album by its cover. At least, with DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... anyway. The cover is an entirely accurate synaesthetic translation of sonic to visual. Two men on either side of a record store aisle in grainy neutrals. The left-hand man cuts a solid figure with his sensible mac and stack of vinyl sleeves under one arm whilst the right-hand man's face is caught in a blur, as if he can barely comprehend the choice on the racks in front of him. A still image that suggests a glut of movement without capturing the action itself, a frenzy condensed into a single frame. 

Listening to DJ Shadow's debut album is the sensation of being wired-but-tired. Though I was only six when it was released - yeah that's right, I'm the millennial she told you not to worry about - I can vividly picture the countless afterparties that this would have accompanied. Between throwing out time and feeling able to stomach food again, Endtroducing..... is pitch perfect. From its title - five periods to an ellipsis and yes, we all see what you did there - to the smoky, jerky rhythms, it's the sound of every good night finishing up and every too-bright dawn descending on your head.

Renowned for being stitched together entirely of samples from the considerable record collection of DJ Shadow (real name Joshua Davis), rumoured to be 60,000 and counting, Endtroducing..... is an unsurprisingly mixed bag but has its own distinctive wah-wah tone that feathers the landing of each track. This isn't to say that everything sounds the same, quite the opposite. Hooks that make you want to wave your arms like a motorway garage inflatable mascot come courtesy of Organ Donor, whilst haunting female vocals and a stuttering bass line that's reminiscent of Portishead are provided by Midnight In a Perfect World and Transmission 3 rounds off itself and the album with the obligatory Twin Peaks sample.

Going back to the title, there is a dash of showing off - "It's like, the end is in the beginning, yeah?" - that is present in the track titles and content. For example, Why Hip-Hop Is Shit In '96 is an instrumental that ends simply with, "the money" whilst What Does Your Soul Look Like (Pt. 4) comes before What Does Your Soul Look Like (Pt. 1) though the three "Transmissions" are in numerical order. These are cheeky enough to just about be endearing but, overall, Endtroducing..... lacks the deeper insight and political statement that the best hip-hop can demonstrate. This doesn't make it any less of an interesting journey through a technical marvel of a soundscape but I couldn't help but be left feeling a little hollow. DJ Shadow combines voices to create a staggering choir. There's so much noise - but I still have no idea what he's saying.