1999. A playlist shaped and sculpted by statements of familiarity. Albums by Arab Strap (Elephant Shoe). By The Auteurs (How I Learned To Love The Bootboys) and Belle And Sebastian (Tigermilk); acts this blog is forever banging on about. In my day job, I’m a spokesperson for The Dawn Of The Replicants Appreciation Society (Wrong Town, Wrong Planet, Three Hours Late, released in 1999). In my day job, I saunter about town armed with placards declaring Blur’s 13 to be their high water mark, an album of clever, obtuse art rock. Come On Die Young by Mogwai – that hit the record stores in ’99. Record stores – remember them? Actual shops with real, three-dimensional product. Those were good days; they should bring them back.
Somewhere in the piles of vinyl here at LGM Towers I’ve an album of female German performers from the 60’s, which includes Inga Rumpf’s cover of Sonny & Cher’s ‘The Beat Goes On’. I have a real penchant for German language cover versions – Wiedehopf Im Mai: Sandie Shaw Singt Auf Deutsch is a fantastic listen – and I’d suggest that Rumpf’s version is the definitive. Light jazz exponent Buddy Rich also released a cover soon after the original, and it’s this source that provides the sampled backbone to the final interpretation of this song that I’ll be mentioning today – that on Pickled Eggs And Sherbet by The All Seeing I. It’s extraneous, unnecessary, and not very good. Which is also a great pity, as I have the rest of the album filed under “poptastic”.
It’s a simple, perhaps unoriginal concept, the strident, melodic (and slightly off-kilter) electronica performing the role of canvas, across which various guest stars daub their lyrical vignettes. But what elevates this way above generic celebrity dance-pop is twofold. The All Seeing I were a trio from the Sheffield scene who came together for only a brief time, yet by employing Sheffield artists for the vocal duties – Jarvis Cocker, Tony Christie, etc – produced such an emphatic love story to their home city. And secondly, Jarvis himself penned many of the lyrics, his witty, kitchen-sink narratives ideally suited to the dark pop inclinations that lay beyond Pulp.
Two specifics highlights. ‘1st Man In Space’ is a maudlin affair, sung by The Human League’s Phil Oakey, that delightfully blends the sheer wonderment of space travel (I’m floating like God in his heaven / High in the stratosphere) with anti-climax (Where was the ticker tape civic reception? How come no-one wants to know what I saw?) and a mundane, suburban skein of observation (How are you supposed to open these new milk cartons? Why don’t they make Golden Nuggets no more?).
Secondly, the double-header that is ‘Nicola’ / ‘Plastic Diamond’. Both tracks are built around the same solid, synthesizer motif, and they segue together as if a single track. But the clever aspect: ‘Nicola’ is Tony Christie’s wistful birthday message to a daughter he’s never met, whilst ”Plastic Diamond’ is a caustic, hungover assault, written and performed by Stephen ‘Babybird’ Jones to a completely different vocal melody. Wonderful stuff.
Is there a dirtier, more sinister album than Avant Hard, the third LP from analogue pioneers Add N To (X)? I really enjoy The Contino Sessions by Death In Vegas, the electronica bolted together with sleazy, psychedelic epithets; I’m also rather partial to the dark energy of Atari Teenage Riot’s 60 Second Wipeout, but Avant Hard makes them both sound like a trip at the zoo with Uncle Bobo. Hewn from the wires and diodes of obsolete synth hardware, each track is dangerous quirky, laced with dark funk, sharp humour, and phalanx after phalanx of weird bleeps and buzzes. A delicious, Mad Scientist record, in which one track in particular – ‘Revenge Of The Black Regent’ – is capable of triggering the sleaziest of dark-drama nightmares.
In fact, 1999 was quite the year for sleazy sounds. I’m thinking specifically of the horns on Beck’s Midnite Vultures. The saucy, waspish sentiment hiding beneath The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs (more of which in a future post). In complete contrast,The Amateur View by To Rococo Rot has a distant, refrained quality, the electronica sparse, alluring, statuesque. I recommend listening to this, followed by For Beginner Piano by Plone – both music for discerning adults.
Finally, LGM’s album of ’99 is Ágætis Byrjun. It feels somewhat counter-intuitive, writing about Sigur Rós in the context of something new, fresh, implicitly exciting, such is their status as a global brand as much as a band, their music plundered and left to soundtrack any TV show in which adversity is overcome or baby otters don’t die. Yet I still vividly recall first experiencing this record; the serendipitous stumbling across a (then) obscure Icelandic album – no expectations or preconceptions – and feeling utterly blown away by the stark, pristine, otherworldly scenery. So much has been written about this band – a sound so delicately sculpted – that adding feels like cliché; we all know about melody as landscape, about the wide spectrum musicality, about what to play when that eagle chick takes its first, hesitant flight, or as Maureen bravely overcomes her doughnut addiction. All I know is that ‘Staralfur’ remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard; a track holding so much compressed emotion, it never fails to blossom into exotic, intricate shapes when it arrives on the stereo. Goosebumps, every single time.
The All Seeing I / Nicola
Add N To (X) / Revenge Of The Black Regent
Sigur Rós / Staralfur