Scotland. Funny old place. Rains rather frequently. Stunning topography – all glens and lochs and mountainsides – yet Jesus choose to populate such invigorating scenery with characters Irvine Welsh pulled from early drafts of Trainspotting for being too unrealistic. Silly Jesus.
Oh, and they have bands, too. Wet Wet Wet – they were good. The Bay City Rollers, The Proclaimers. There’s little I enjoy more than a generous helping of ‘Dignity’ by Deacon Blue smeared all across the stereo speakers (no, seriously… look, this is my unsarcastic face). It’s even better experienced via an impromptu sing-a-long from a roomful of indigenous Scotch people. ‘Sail away, sail away, sail away,’ they’ll croak and growl, and if it wasn’t for the empty cans of incredibly strong lager strewn around the room, you really could feel as if you’re at sea.
And with the lame national stereotyping for alleged comedic effect dispensed with; significant albums, and a commonality hewn from Caledonian bedrock.
Writing about certain bands or specific records is a fairly straightforward task, in that the parameters come pre-defined, the contexts relatively narrow. Attempting to conjure words upon the rich and urgent seam of creativity sited at the core of the Scottish indie aesthetic since (at least) the time of Orange Juice and Postcard Records and the Sound Of Young Scotland – that’s a far harder challenge. The notions are vague, the links often tenuous, the length of time under study not conducive to an easy narrative. Why is it that this small country is the backdrop to so much evocative, inspiring, and just plain essential sound? I don’t know – it’s not even as if jangly guitars are specifically ubiquitous. All I’m certain of: nowhere else is quite this vibrant.
Or quite this drunk.
(And just for the record, this is a music blog based in Scotland – albeit one that can escape charges of partisan opinion as I’m neither Scottish, nor based in these parts back in 1998. So there).
I make it five terrific Scottish albums released in ’98, each worthy of a record of the year accolade (it would have been six, but for the arcane qualification criteria that excludes compilations – the Beta Band’s The Three EPs will be featured in future dispatches, instead).
That the Delgados never made it huge is beyond my comprehension; second album Peloton ripples with that “important record” vibe. Delicate and melodic, there’s a definite poppy sentiment on display – except that it’s framed in such an intelligently slanted fashion that the word crafty comes to mind. The tunes so catchy, the subtle instrumentation and the Emma Pollock/Alun Woodward dual vocals so warming, you only realise just what sharp exponents of the minor key this band were on subsequent listens. Apparently the recording sessions weren’t especially harmonious, and yet for this inter-band tension not to have leaked through to the finished item is testament to the strength of the songwriting. A record that never grows tiring, this.
Next, Arab Strap. Philophobia. A band whose back catalogue I’ve had to frequently re-evaluate –and this album in particular, such is its low-key, anti-immediacy, Aidan Moffat mumbling his wryly-observed and vaguely pornographic soliloquies over Malcolm Middleton’s sparse, alienated accompaniment. It’s a record the listener has to work hard at, yet it’s incredibly rewarding should you put the effort in; a refined, rainy beauty lies there-in.
All of which links nicely to The Boy With The Arab Strap. He had a stroke at the age of twenty-four sings Stuart Murdoch on opener ‘A Brilliant Career’. It’s a typical Murdoch lyric; an act of subversion, the souring of the sugar. This is a Belle And Sebastian album – it’s not going to turn into Slayer half-way through – but it’s also far more of a collaborative effort than their first two LPs. It’s wider, more expansive, the vocal duties shared around (check out Stevie Jackson on the elegant, slow-burning ‘Seymour Stein’), the moods more complicated. The best B&S long-player? Probably.
Idlewild; now, there’s a band it’s easy to feel underwhelmed by. There’s a slightly inoffensive quality to their sound. A somewhat derivative edge, whilst I fail to grow enamoured at their later material – say anything after 2000’s 100 Broken Windows. A wee bit too safe, perhaps, any sense of adventure not robust enough for this listener. And yet Hope Is Important makes the Significant Albums list. It’s a puppyish LP, full of energy and exuberance, a little bit all over the place but endearing because of it. It’s also probably the least Scottish of these Scottish Record Of The Year nominations, pulling its influences from US college radio as much as from the streets of Edinburgh; a zesty combination that probably shouldn’t work, yet inexplicably does (especially on the single ‘When I Argue I See Shapes’).
All of which leaves one record remaining. And it’s an astonishing one. The band in question’s début, in fact, and never surpassed. A remarkable individualism (if that makes sense in the context of a band). An ambitious application of quirky memes and statement, in which the tricks and feints are entirely unpredictable yet always enriching. LGM’s Album of 1998 is One Head, Two Arms, Two Legs by Dawn Of the Replicants (pretty much ignored by critics and public alike, incidentally). Fifteen tracks of perfectly-crafted sci-fi geekiness. Nonsense lyrics that come across as exotically profound and necessary. Unorthodox chord changes, divorced harmonies, unsettling nuggets of sound and texture embedded across each track (‘Ten Sea Birds’, sat beneath these words, is a song of such immense, otherworldly presence that half of this article has been written with the track on constant repeat). Paul Vickers has such a distinctive vocal style, it’s as if he’s a precise component of both the orchestration – a cor anglias, perhaps, or some slightly smoke-damaged retro synth – and the general, glorious sense of clutter on display. Messy records have a habit of being – well, somewhat on the messy side. What One Head, Two Arms, Two Legs manages to pull off is mess as a liberating construct. Constantly intelligent, eternally interesting, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that this album is sentient, and once I’ve gone to bed (or passed out of an evening), it enjoys weird Czechoslovakian animation from 1971, and scans that skies for signs of extraterrestrial radio signals. Lovely.
The Delgados / Pull The Wires From The Wall
Belle And Sebastian / Seymour Stein
Dawn Of The Replicants / Ten Sea Birds