Words about music… I was talking to a friend in Mexico City about important records when the subject of King Creosote arose. And because neither the Scottish folk tradition nor any gleeful subversion of those musical conventions are massive in Mexico, at least yet, we discussed suitable points to begin, should familiarising yourself with the back catalogue be a New Year’s resolution.
Which poses a problem. With most artists it’s possible to isolate a definitive; a track’s recorded, a track’s released, and it’s this version that seeps into its audience’s consciousness, regardless of any convolution behind said track’s genesis, or the layers pieced together from disparate takes. No matter the inability to replicate live, or the proliferation of subsequent interpretations (however honest to original intention).
And yet in Kenny Anderson’s case the above doesn’t ring true – for whilst a song may be captured it’s never confined by the format it appears on, the material fluid and ambidextrous; you think you’ve understood the contours, only for the very structure of the track to be disassembled and recreated elsewhere, by elves. Entire chunks of the King Creosote back cat, and there’s no such thing as a definitive version, only snapshots of each track at a certain point in time, before they appear elsewhere in a different guise.
It’s all part of the folk tradition of course. Material as open-source, provided with scope to mature organically. However, any attempt to identify linearity within the King Creosote canon is further compounded by the manner in which his prolific nature aligns itself to a DIY aesthetic. Something that, alongside LPs routed through conventional channels, has seen him effectively self-release (via his Fence label) entire strings of albums, all but unannounced and in limited numbers, via that most humble of medium, the CD-R.
Oh, yeah… there’s also the revolving cast of collaborators to contend with… and that remodelling of material previously released elsewhere – it all makes lining up a representative playlist somewhat taxing. There’s even an “album” – My Nth Bit of Strange in Umpteen Years – which eschews physical form altogether, existing as a handful of performances which the audience were encouraged to bootleg; cue the gnashing of teeth by us completists, unable to attend every KC shindig in the village halls and front rooms of the East Neuk of Fife.
Not that concepts such as the above should be dismissed as Situationist pranks. Rather, it’s artist as retention of independence, placing an integrity above all other concerns whilst simultaneously prodding at music industry convention (rather infamously he fell out with fellow musician Johnny ‘Pictish Trail’ Lynch, who took on the day-to-day running of Fence Records as their roster expanded – the inference being that KC grew increasingly uncomfortable as Fence threatened to become just another record label).
In other words, you could argue that Anderson is averse to commerciality. But even that isn’t the entire story, his coexistent relationships with labels alongside Fence – first with Warner imprint 679, and more successfully with Domino Records – affording the opportunity to gain a wider audience with albums such as KC Rules OK and Flick The Vs; beautiful discs that retain his trademark playfulness (as well as new versions of historical songs), but do so with major league backing. As such, his profile has never been higher; from Diamond Mind, the Mercury Prize-nominated collaboration with Jon Hopkins, to his most recent LP, 2014’s From Scotland With Love soundtrack, King Creosote is far less localised secret as iridescent on his own terms.
So; where to go with a playlist? Well… if we can’t go with definitive, gut feeling will have to do. Some, though by no means all, of my favourite KC tracks; just don’t ask me if they’re my favourite versions of those songs…
Of paragraphs spent detailing how artist in question dips in and out of the back catalogue as part of a natural evolution in song, when I could have simply written about ‘Homeboy’, which first appeared on Queen Of Brush County, the debut Fence CD-R, and remains a live staple to this day, albeit in totally different arrangements every time I’ve heard it. The version below is taken from 2003’s Kenny and Beth’s Musikal Boat Rides, the first LP he recorded for Domino. And were I forced to pick a KC track that encapsulates the attraction, this would certainly be a contender – an item full of glide, and pulse, and a warmth of manifold proportions.
“I was past 35 before my face made much sense”. That lyric alone is worth the price of admission.
KC covers ‘Grace’
The tribute album can all too often be a rather naff affair. Messy, superfluous, and missing the point. But not 2005’s Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim and Jeff Buckley, which carries a sincerity missing from many other examples.
Alongside Anderson’s take on the Jeff Buckley standard, tracks include Sufjan Stevens covering Tim’s ‘She Is’, Kathryn Williams’ interpretation of ‘Buzzin’ Fly’, and The Earlies – who’ve frequently collaborated with a certain King Creosote – adding dreamy layers to ‘I Must Have Been Blind’. Very much the type of disc that should be sitting in your collection.
‘My Favourite Girl’
And a confession: I can’t abide the piano accordion. Can’t be doing with the timbres they emit. The twee-diddly-dee connotations, the cèildh band gimcrack. The exception, of course, being when said instrument is wielded by Mr Kenny Anderson, of Fife and of records.
James Yorkston’s ‘Tortoise Regrets Hare’… and its b-side
A song in the key of Fife (to borrow the title of Vic Galloway’s recent, rather excellent tome about the area’s rich folk music heritage, available in all good bookstores). Yet another Anderson collaborator, Yorkston’s original, a 2008 single, is measured, methodical, and quite, quite beautiful, the song’s lyrical tendrils and the pacing of his enunciation delivering a most enigmatic context.
And the b-side… well, I’ve featured this before on this blog. Something that recasts the original in a completely different light, mining layers of nuance. The world would be a better place if the flipside of every single was a King Creosote cover of the a-side.
You could split the King Creosote back-cat into two loose categories; the upbeat and mischievous on one hand, the slow and melancholic on the other, and it’s the latter through which atmosphere and tenderness are sculpted, the incredible richness of his voice aligned to lyrical narratives that speak of home, and belonging.
Malcolm Middleton covers ‘Marguerita Red’
On top of everything else, I find listening to King Creosote records to be an affair of extreme intimacy, the textures within the material seguing with events and emotions of my own journey through modern life (I won’t labour the point, but when I let slip that Mrs LGM walked down the aisle to ‘Marguerita Red’, you’ll get an idea of the back story).
Another track that exists in multiple versions, first appearing (I think) on 2000’s 12 O’clock On The Dot CD-R, and given wider exposure when featured on KC Rules OK, backed by The Earlies – although even here there are three different versions of the album, each containing a new interpretation of the song.
And then there’s Malcolm Middleton’s cover, released on his 2008 album Sleight Of Heart, and part of a reciprocal deal where-by KC covered Middleton’s ‘Choir’, the b-side to ‘Blue Plastic Bags’. MM’s version is faster than any of the KC variants, yet also less dramatic… and it’s featured here because listening to song by original artist will probably make me cry again (although I’m obviously not going to admit that on the internet).
‘Saw Circular Prowess’
The final track on Flick The Vs has an epic quality. The type of tune best heard last thing on a Sunday night, with the whisky now dregs and a sorry sleep looming. There’s a sense of bitterness behind the lyrics, and frequent deployment of the F word, but there are notions of empowerment present as well, accentuating the personal nature of both song and album (and also of note: even pissed-off, KC still manages to channel wow and wonderment).
‘On The Night Of The Bonfire’
As straight a pop song as he’s ever released, yet it still conjures that playful gravitas. It’s in the interplay between acoustic and electric. The breezy tempo. The spoken word intermission just the right side of mumble– “The Tate Modern had left you cold and upset.” Late period KC – this first appeared on 2010’s That Might Be It, Darling, a vinyl-only album available exclusively from the merchandising stall at his gigs; a two-finger salute to how digital downloading has cheapened musical appreciation – and whilst the below version is re-recorded for the more widely released It Turned Out For The Best EP, it’s still sits as proof that he’s retained that whiz and brio in abundance.
‘John Taylor’s Month Away’
‘Immunity (Asleep Version)’ by Jon Hopkins
Have I mentioned that the list of artists King Creosote has worked with is long and intricate? A family tree (quite literally, considering his brothers are also musicians) with manifold branches, and whilst I won’t spend hours running through the many acts he’s shared stage or studio time with (buy Galloway’s book if that’s your bag), or detail the 40+ solo albums he’s released, you’ll hopefully have gleaned an essence of his rich musical spectrum, should you be new to all this.
And then there’s Jon Hopkins, who on Diamond Mine took the skeletons of KC’s melodies and etched upon them an ambience most graceful; minimalistic textures that open up each track, like water added to a fine single malt. There’s not much I can add to a track such as ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’, except that it first appeared on 2001’s Disclaimer album; the stark beauty speaks for itself.
As it does on this version of ‘Immunity’, the alternative versions EP of tracks taken from Hopkins’ 2013 album of the same name. Haunting, reflective, ice-cold beautiful; insert adjective here.