From time-to-time I reluctantly emerge from my alcoholic stupor to pen ill-conceived diatribes for whatever remains of the music press. Sometimes they even give me cold, hard cash for the privilege – the suckers.
This year, I wrote a long op-ed piece about Varmints by Anna Meredith. Followed by a live review, a lengthy interview with the lady herself (she was modest, engaging, generous with her time, and really rather lovely), and for dessert: another Varmints op-ed where I espoused exactly the same opinions as op-ed #1, only using completely different words.
Or perhaps exactly the same words, but in a completely different order.
I have written on other musical subjects during 2016. At least I think that’s what happened. But either way, as I start drafting yet another Varmints op-ed, I can’t help but feel slightly unsettled, as if those crazy cats at Operation Yewtree are about to knock on the door and drag me away for stalking Ms Meredith via the medium of adjective.
Thankfully, this is a record that naturally attracts adjectives. “Playfully erudite,” I declared a while back. “Varmints reveals an acute confidence in how sound sits together.”
Considering that Meredith’s primary medium is classical composition – a Royal College of Music alumni, her CV includes a stint as composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – possessing an acute confidence in how sound sits together is not exactly a revelation. However, what is surprising (and refreshing, invigorating) is the grace by which the context of that primary medium unfurls against a pop backdrop.
When the vistas of pop and contemporary classical overlap the interaction tends to be on the former’s terms. If it’s not AOR stalwarts declaring they have a symphony in them, it’s pop taking a daytrip, returning with its Day-Glo charabanc stuffed with ‘borrowed’ motifs and cadences – even when serious classical types engage with this other form (the Bowie reinterpretations of Philip Glass, say), the suspicion that it’s pop’s prestige being puffed tends to linger.
Hence one of the joys behind this long play foray into the maw of left-field electropop; there’s no exclamation of prestige or pretension; zero indication of artist slumming it, or tuning the dial away from Radio 3 with a fake, knowing grimace on her face. Instead, Varmints represents a respect for the traditions of pop music, and – by appending the sonic structural fluency of day job – not only has she neatly framed the natural parallels of what can (incorrectly) be perceived to be conflicting genres, but has – more importantly – arrived at a debut album of remarkable depth and originality.
If there are recurring themes behind what I write, they tease at the sacrosanct relationship between listener and sound; uphold pop’s alleged disposability as a virtue – it helps to explain I why I adore The Pastels, Stephin Merritt, and ‘Open Your Heart’ by The Human League, for instance. Varmints slots neatly into that narrative because drama, intrigue, unorthodoxy (how many other pop records can you name that contain this much tuba?), geekiness (which is a good thing), pace, flight, and a suppleness hewn from the quarries of 80’s electro-pop are precisely what this disc is about.
“Yes, the driven, arpeggio-fuelled single ‘Taken’ is immediately arresting,” I scribbled during op-ed #1. “But elsewhere its patterns are akin to architectural sketches. The ziggurat brass timbres of opener ‘Nautilus’; the fluted arcs of electro-ballad ‘Something Helpful’; ‘R-Type’, all shimmering surfaces amidst the sunlight. And as with many a great building, neither is this a record afraid to take ideas from elsewhere and position them at different angles, the ‘80’s feel discernible yet constantly shifting in texture.”
(I also compared mid-point track ‘Dowager’ as “sounding like ‘Russians’ by Sting, only good.” I may have been tipsy when writing that, but my point remains valid).
It’s not just me that finds Varmints such the temptation; garnered accolades include the Scottish Album of the Year award (even if I’d already been banging on about the record for months by this stage – no doubt a massive influence on the judging panel). But then again, this isn’t about prizes; playing this record is representative of why I’m addicted to playing records in the first place – it’s as simple as that. A physiological reaction. Affirmation at 33rpm. Yes please.
(And I here-by promise to never write about Anna Meredith again).