Thursday, December 23, 2004

Singles of the year

Or, 50 reasons why 2004 was the best year for singles since, ooh, 1987. Most of them came out on vinyl, too, and most amazingly of all, nearly all of them are British! What price that ?

1. Cappo presents "Resilience" (Main Rock, 12")

As a rapper, Cappo no longer needs an introduction to readers of this blog (i.e. the writer of this blog) thanks to his top Zebra Traffic debut "Spaz the World" and approx. 6 billion subsequent collaborations. However, "Resilience" was my introduction to the double-P's skillz as a producer, curator and mentor, as he teams up with Leicester brothers Eyezofman and A Bomb, as well as Nottingham legends Lee Ramsay and Mr 45, for this blazing EP. Such is the quality that the weakest tune here is Cappo's own solo effort, "Reap What You Sow": somehow, despite a heavy guitar sample, he doesn't quite spit the venom that such a title promises. "It's Going Down", however, his tune with Eyezofman and teen wonder A Bomb, is just as good as the trio's collaboration "The Authorz" on the former's "Lost Kingdomz" EP (another 12" you need to have, not least for label boss Dap-C's contribution, even if it couldn't quite place in this year's stellar ilwtt rankings); here, the lads keep it real with lines like "My chariots a Punto and a white Escort". But but but the reason that "Resilience" rides so high here is that even on top of these more-than-trifling appetisers it contains not one but two upfront contenders for the year's best tune - yes this 12", limited to a frankly daft 500 copies only (and how can that be right ?) allows L.R. and 45 to step out of both Cappo and Scor-zay-zee's considerable shadows and produce their best ever works, with Ramsay's "Verbal Latitude" and 45's "Freedom" cuts. Both songs are superbly produced, clean, and could sustain serious airplay rotation if anyone out there could be bothered to take one step further beyond the more radio-friendly - and admittedly quality - D. Rascal Esq, of Bow (or Fulham's equally deserving chart postergirl and pint-sized pop princess Estelle...) Ramsay is the more exuberant, repping freely and cutting it up nice with some dizzying stuttering in the chorus, while 45 leans back to give us the gen on his upbringing and some free contraception tips. What makes both these songs so fiiine is not just the flows of either rapper, but the quality of the arrangements and production: if Cappo was truly responsible for orchestrating the mix, and this isn't just some "executive production" assignment, then he has major talent in that direction too.

2. Forest Giants "Postcards" (Invisible Hands, 7")

A winner from the first listen, from the first bar. Can't tell you how happy I am that records like this are still being released in these times - it's what the kids have wanted (well, should have wanted) for years, being a pop song (fab tune, guitar hooks, pulses, New Order-ish guitar lines) but recorded in authentic indie stylee, and reminding us most markedly of the likes of the Flatmates, Korova Milkbar and Salowka and Charman-era Wedding Present - oh, and caked in lyrics of longing and regret sung with a plain, awkward boy-next-door air that makes you want to reach out and try and hug them through your speakers. Then, after delicious, contemplative verses, it ends up in a feast of layered guitars. Selecta.

3. Hoodz Underground ft. Big Critz and Ricochet Klashnekoff "How Do You Feel ?" (Trackshicker, 12")

After "The Hard Copy" EP, which was bursting with ideas, comes the first real flowering of that great potential from the Sheffield crew. The moment this really becomes a surefire contender is actually the moment that the great Klashnekoff gets rollin' with the final verse - his anger ("That's why I got the gun name..." being as understandable as it is menacing), but this is just a great demonstration of how worthy topics (how does it feel to be a black man in Britain ? - see also Minority Rules' "Black Folks", from the Leeds trio's v. promising "Don't Stop" 12" on Invizible Circle) can still sound urgent and head-noddingly addictive as the various MCs take in everything from Stephen Lawrence's murder through the Ellis / Shakespeare shootings in Aston to the BNP's tactics in northern cities. On the flip side, the cheerier "Havoc" likewise refuses to let up, again interspersing brass samples with rhymes like "Taliban / McManaman". Oh, and a line like "With more spit than El Hadj Diouf" = genius indeed.

4. Wiley "Wot Do U Call It ?" (XL, 12")

All people of any sanity can surely not do anything but warm to Wiley. I've really never had an album grow on me like "Treddin' On Thin Ice", and while nothing much from 2004 can match up to "Doorway" or any of the self-theorising and verbal diarrhoea that so lights up Wiley's exploration of his inner demons, "Wot Do U Call It ?" was a perfect statement of intent, the most immediate and appetising tune, the icy eski beats at the fore but still almost crushed by the madcap banter and thinking aloud that make Wiley's personality so alternately infuriating and inspiring, and with a great, not-much-budget video to boot. Rarely can a song with so little downside have floundered at number 31 - how could anyone who'd been exposed to this not gone out and bought a dozen copies ? And to add insult to injury, XL seem to have dropped him after the album (LOOK, IT WAS BETTER THAN BOY IN DA CORNER, YOU UNGRATEFUL POPULACE) apparently sold only around 20,000. This country, I ask you.

5. The Wedding Present "Interstate 5" (Scopitones)

Having always been a Weddoes apologist, I am so glad they are back. And it's with some impact. For "Interstate 5" is a road movie, in widescreen, and despite the unmistakable stamp of its very British director, David Gedge, best known for classic past Loach and Leigh-style kitchen sink melodramas like "Anyone Can Make A Mistake" and "Brassneck", the landscapes this time are recognisably American, the sun burning into long vistas of tarmac. So where the "old" Wedding Present rattled blisteringly down unmade roads, and Cinerama swooned through Corniche hills, the new TWP strip out the former's frenetic strums and the latter's ornate orchestrals to produce a dark, menacing monster, that broods and swelters in the way that "Seamonsters" did but without collapsing into an abyss of introspective lo-fi. Instead, David Gedge intones, over the bleak panoramas thrown up by gratifyingly few chugging chords, the bitterness of being cast aside, while oldsters like me rejoice at the fact that the Wedding Present are now officially back after their overextended holiday as Cinerama (albeit one that produced a number of classic pop singles, fairly evenly over the course of their three albums). "Interstate 5" is very much a case of "Hello darkness my old friend"...

6. Psychic Phenomena "Psychic Phenom" (Ancient, 12")

Now, Psychic Phenomena, who produced the marvellous "Slipstream" with Ty on big dog Westwood's UK hip-hop primer of last year, are apparently from Clapham, but rest assured, you really would not know it. This breathtaking title tune, weaved around a single, fabulously repetitive and potentially annoying bass loop, is understated, quietly confident UKHH that shows there is much more to SW4 than trustafarian muppet squads and St.George-waving chinlesses. Much respec / yaaay.

7. Airport Girl "Salinger Wrote" (Where It's At Is Where You Are, 7")

Even more feral than "The Foolishness That We Create Through Love Is The Closest That We Come To Greatness", the single that plunged me headlong into my own tangled affair with Airport Girl, "Salinger Wrote" distils the Wedding Present at their most slacker-americano with, vividly, the frantic rush of Blueboy's "Imipramine", and is therefore fuzzy, scuzzy and - like all good pop songs should be - palpably uptight, like a young Hood at their most anxious. They even manage to get a piledriving cod-metal shakedown and a derailing violin in there without offending the blurry loveliness of it all, Rob Price blurting out protestations like "I was holding out for blue sky" with the voice of a lover whose dreams have been fairly comprehensively dashed... Special.

8. Tempa "Ya Get Me ?" (Sureshot, 12")

Again, with any kind of sustained rotation, this could be a massive hit: the Notts gyal (ex-OutDaVille, but who isn't ?) waxing lyrical bravura over a tune that could have soundtracked a blaxploitation movie car chase towards the tail-end of the 1970s. All the more endearing for starting with a lift from "Straight Outta Compton", but what the heck - I suppose this is street knowledge too. The ubiquitous Klashnekoff turns up again - as does another old friend, Mr 45 - on the AA-side, "Whatcha Gonna Do", but it's definitely "Ya Get Me ?" (on which Tempa and producer Joe Buhdah are strictly the stars of the show) that will have the kids chanting its chorus in the playground.

9. Morrissey "Irish Blood, English Heart" (Attack)

Come on, you would hardly have believed it if someone had told you this time last year that the much-threatened "You Are The Quarry" album, the follow-up to the floundering "Maladjusted" would be critically acclaimed and spawn four hit singles (three going top ten), of which this was the first and biggest hit. Months on now, "Irish Blood..." sounds great to me; at the time I was nervous as to whether I loved the song or the person or the image, but now I just can't understand how so many old-skool Smiths fans will refuse to face up to the fact that the rejuvenated Morrissey is really rather good, albeit having reinvented himself for a slightly less nuanced audience, both lyrically and musically, than catapulted him to notoriety two decades back. The guitars have edge and power, thanks to Jerry Finn's production; Mozza says all he feels he needs to say, with characteristically wide swipes at Labour, Tories and the royals, in two and a half minutes; and it winds up with a quick, heartstopping crescendo of noise. While "First Of The Gang To Die" was also a marvellous single, full of romance and mischievous dreams transplanted to the backstreets of Latino L.A., "Irish Blood" just seems best to epitomise all the reasons why this comeback worked.

10. Skinnyman "I'll Be Surprised" (Lowlife)

The horn sample, coupled with drums that fair burst out of your headphones, are what made this UKHH anthem such an instant success, but things really take off big time when Skinnyman piles in and expresses himself with glee, showing out for Finsbury. For a record so full of hate, fear and loathing, "I'll Be Surprised" is, er, surprisingly accessible: like the follow up single "No Big Ting", also from his "Council Estate of Mind" LP, and which is very nearly as great, it lets Skinnyman express his dreams that he and his friends will rise above the crack-strewn streets of his home. But in the meantime, Skinny makes it very plain that he will give no quarter in admnistering whatever rough justice he can to those foolish enough to get in his way. Memo to America - the game has changed: this is what you need to compete with now. Thank you.

11. Styly Cee ft. Scor-zay-zee "Want What's Yours" (Son, 7")

Look. While something like "Dry Your Eyes" was nothing more than the sound of a cash register lighting up pound signs in Mike Skinner's dilated pupils, "Want What's Yours" is truly tender observation of the (a)cutest kind, atop Styly Cee's piano designs, a foil to the righteous anger of Scor's landmark Daily Telegraph-baiting P Brothers banger "Great Britain" (now if only THAT had been released as a single - despite the hype over a few ill-judged, cartoonish lyrics, it was full of undisputa ble truths -"the BNP still exists in Great Britain... Are Muslims your only nemesis ?... A mortgage wrapped round your neck for years... Watch the adverts and buy shit, Great Britain / Everything on finance for you..." - oh yes, as a description of a godless country living on credit, "Great Britain" reinvented conscious rap - and you could dance to it). It is a major shame that Scor-zay-zee has now retired from the game. But, as a real bonus and no little consolation, the flip side features fellow Nottingham kid DPF coming up on the rails with some of the fastest UK rhyming that we've heard for a while, again over Cee's trampolining beats, in "Once And For All".

12. Pipas "Bitter Club" (Matinee Recordings)

Pipas are like the young Gazza of the indie-pop world: on their day, they tease and excoriate the opposition with all manner of tantalising and jinking overlapping melodic runs, but they are also well capable of resting on their laurels and relying on their past form and winning smiles to justify Pipas-by-numbers. This does not stop them, however, being brilliant, and best of all on this EP, even amongst the dizzying sweetness of "Jean C" and the sub-junglist pop twang of "Sixten", is the title track which lets Mark's voice chime and charm alternately, as he ruminates on "waiting for your e-mail... it never comes" (aaah) and guitars and keyboard swirl around your ears. Pipas are the prettiest, cutest butterfly house you've ever been in.

13. Lethal Bizzle "Pow!" (Relentless 12")

Dan-dan-daah! "Forward" was THE riddim of 2004 and there really was, quite rightly, no escaping from the insanity and inanity of "Pow!" as Lethal B and his mates nearly managed to rise to the chart heights that More Fire's "Oi!" did not too long back. It's taken far too much time for the world to recognise that getting ten young MC's to rhyme over a single, slicing, whirling dervish of a garage rhythm can only equal an unquestionable step forward for musickind. Head noddin'. DAN-DAN-DAAH!

14. Lady Sovereign "Ch-Ching (Cheque 1-2)" (Casual London, 12")

Again, you'd be hard pushed to find a single thing wrong with this. Rhyming "bunking" with "munchkin", mischievously spraying guttersnipe thoughts around at pace over the cleanest, biggest garage beats, Lady Sov's first 12" proper confirmed the genius of the few desperately short seconds she was allotted in the Streets' "underground MC" makeover of "Fit But You Know It". Away from sub-par "Parklife" rehashes, of course, she is much more in her milieu, and utterly beguiling. "But I don't have a cat / It died". You wouldn't get L'il Kim coming up with that now, would you ?

15. Kano "P's and Q's" (679, 12")

"Wot do u call it ? Garage / Wot do u call it ? Grime / Call it what u want to call it, I'm fine" says Kano on bonus track "Check 1-2" (now why does that title sound familiar ?): dissing not so much Wiley, who featured him on "Next Level", but pedants like me who much prefer our music pigeonholed and are therefore getting ever more upset at the description of Kano, Wiley, Dizzee or Lady S as "hip hop" when to me the likes of this EP are just pure garage, with a great grime MC, and have little to do with the equally splendid sounds of UKHH: it all reminds me of when the term "indie" was still salvageable as meaning a certain strand of wonderfully shambling guitars - before Our Price signalled the end was nigh by putting the truly dire Wonder Stuff, post-commercial breakthru, in the "indie "racks... Er, anyway, mighty as the cult phenomenon "P's and Q's" ("If u see a me at tha gate wiv my crew believe I'm on my P's and Q's / Even on my own 2 das da difference between me n u") and "Check 1-2" are, the best thing here is the remix of the former, on which guest Lethal B makes a further claim to be the official English answer to Sticky Fingaz, tearing his verses into unrecognisable pieces with all the politesse of a starving bull mastiff. Great stuff.

16. C-Mone "Default" (Dark Whisper 12")

There are few things better than buying a great white label, but one of them must be buying it and finding out it features Nick Stez, Cappo, Scorzayzee and Lee Ramsay backing up C-Mone's self released 12" debut. Three tracks - all great - indeed, this 12" is a much better introduction to C-Mone's dusky charms than her slightly more clinical Son Records debut. Of which more later.

17. Hood "The Lost You" (Domino)

Effortlessly resurfacing with another seamless marriage of hip-hop beats and indie vocal stylings and guitars are the peerless Hood, previewing their forthcoming album with a sample-laden, suitably dislocated single to remind us all that they still remain the band who could become king, if they only ever choose to. Until they do, Hood will continue to treat us to an array of gorgeous, introspective musical melanges from every corner of the left-field, and we will continue to be very happy to bow down and worship at their feet.

18. Tender Trap "Cómo Te Llamas ? (Tell Me Your Name)" (Elefant)

Elefant's best single of the year, with bassist / programmer DJ Downfall's skillz very much in evidence following the pop thrills of his own solo EP. This bilingual singual (sorry) is firmly of the electro-pop lineage of the Trap's own "Face of 73", Pipas' beguiling brews, the lighter, fluffier Fosca and even the peerless early Bis, who I once caught supporting Amelia's Heavenly in '96 - and all harnessed by a catchy chorus (said chorus inevitably being repeated to fade). Before that fade, Amelia and guest Lupe - of the aforementioned Pipas - of course trade verbal jousts and languages with the expected vim.

19. Universal Soldiers "Life's Like A Movie" (Tongue Tied, 12")

Yes, it's Klashnekoff again, this time with fellow Terra Firma crew member Ultra, and with each single Universal Soldiers get progressively grittier. Luckily, "Life's Like A Movie" also has music to match, all echoes and dissonance. In the great tradition of Klash's solo masterpiece "It's Murda", they are direct, too. "Get rich like Abramovic". "Fuck Mis-Teeq at the MOBOs". Unlike Skinnyman's colourful ranting, their threats to cause major league chaos, "from Edmonton to Bond Street" apparently, somehow seem less authentic - perhaps that's because their sound is a little more claustrophobic, less exuberant, not so obviously ringing straight outta London, and also because rhyming "Uzi" with "jacuzzi" got played out a fair few moons back - but as a dark, sub-3 minute rap single, "Movie" is a fair old achievement.

20. Cappo and Konny Kon "Capkon Entertainment" (Skullsnap 12")

Now this has just got better and better over these cold rainy last few months of 2000 four. Yer man Cappo, with Manchester's KK (Konny Kon, not Kevin Keegan) take a shrill little backing instrumental - reinforced by the gurus of big beats, the very mighty P Brothers - and deliver their rhymes with penalty-box precision. Nothing flash, nothing gimmicky, just straight down the line beats and rhyming that show how the UK still represents the real, rather than the unspeakable horrors now being perpetrated on hip-hop across the waves by its elision into the U.S. and worldwide fashion mainstream. Cappo and KK are worth ten of Young Buck or Lloyd Banks, and I daresay they'd be cheaper to hire for your wedding, party or bar mitzvah... at least right now.

21. Frontline "Poizun Penz" (Illegal Aid 12")

There's sort of something Mobb Deep-esque about "Poizun Penz", another cut which has really grown on me over the course of the year. It's probably the looped piano and scratched-vinyl atmospherics, as well as the constant undercurrent of menace. There are so many records like this out there - probably low pressings and minimal airplay, if any (I suppose nowadays it's 1Xtra if you're lucky), but that should get wider exposure than being reduced to short shrift summaries in blog entries. I don't know where Frontline are from (though London is a good starting guess and I think Chemo may even be a Streatham head), who they are, or where they are going - but I have "Poizun Penz" and I find that does me very well. I could also go on about how "Don't Bizness" on the flip is just as moodily fine, but I'm going to just go and listen to it instead.

22. Roll Deep Crew "Poltergeist Relay" (white label)

Now there's an extent to which you can't ignore Roll Deep Crew if you're the type like me who loves to frequently dip toes in the waters of grime. I prefer "Poltergeist" to "Let It Out" - it's a little less classy and more frantic - but still a great posse cut, anchored by the inestimable Wiley Kat of course.

23. Gang Starr featuring 2 Pac and B.I.G. "Ownerz" remix (White Label)

A few big-bucks stars drop in from across the Atlantic to observe our very British Isles-centred singles round-up love-in. And so Guru profess his "complete ownership" of the game, aided and abetted by a couple of very famous dead blokes who were once less than fond of each other, and between the three of them they let rip over Premier's fine "Ownerz" loop, the title track of Gang Starr's last, still largely worthwhile, long player. B.I.G. manages to dominate from some way beyond the grave with some supersharp rhymes ("Have you seeing doubles like Noah"), but all three contribute in their very individual styles for one of the best bootlegs I've come across for a while, and the best posthumous rapping since B.I.G. himself anchored "If I Should Die Before I Wake".

24. Dizzee Rascal "Stand Up Tall" (XL)

Here's something - while Dizzee Rascal is a major talent (and by a Roman Road the best thing about Band Aid 20!), "Stand Up Tall" isn't by any means the best single of '04 (as you well know now, it's the 24th best: rather worrying that XL are the only label with two songs in our Top 25, but there you go). But for this likeable, busy, danceable electro-grime gem to go top 10 in the national chart remains some kind of warming achievement in a world where the American rap hegemony sends no sign of abating (sorry to mention this every two or three paragraphs, but it's important to me - no-one loves that golden era stuff more than me, or even a lot of early to mid-90s from both coasts, but U.S. hip-hop is so wack right now it makes me guan GRRRRR!!!) although ironically, the space-invader effects and computer blips that transform "Stand Up Tall" into a mini-landmark are not too far from those garagey bleeps that allowed the super old-skool "You Can Do It" to provide the only real joy to have been had from U.S. rap this year, beefin' up Cube and Mack-10's grandstanding for the dancefloor massive. Going back to Dizzee though, "Give U More" on the flip, featuring D Double E, also does a nice job of giving garage a new edge ("Give me some of that grimy sub-low eski" indeed), so I much prefer both sides of this single to "Fix Up Look Sharp", for example, if not necessarily to the uncompromising rangy indieness of "I Luv U".

25. Taz "Can't Contain Me" (Mercury)

Rifled on a pre-release promo from Replay Records in Bristol, "Can't Contain Me" is the irrepressible sound of a teenage sensation at his best (over the whole album, "Analyze This", Taz largely fell short of Wiley's compelling narratives or even Universal Soldiers' gutter-bred "Slanguage" set). Not short on confidence ("Everyone knows I'm the next to blow"), "Can't Contain Me" was a summer smash that should have been powering out of every set of speakers in every Capri or Cortina across London. The staccato, almost disco-ish backing track sample, with choral snippets gently invoking Dizzee's "Just A Rascal" - which Taz of course produced - led the way for Taz's cheeky (ebbs and) flows.

26. C-Mone "Stan Bac" (Son 12")

A buzzing, deep, repetitive loop allows C-Mone to breathe out her confident "official" debut on South London's Son Records - second best tune on that label of '04. Like her Notts compatriot (compatriette) Tempa, "Stan Bac" is really a signpost, a marker, and lyrically it doesn't get far beyond the usual self-promotion: but in a world in which Athlete can have a number one album, we need all the attitude we can get.

27. Shitmat "Full English Breakfest vol 4" (Planet Mu)

How music was meant to be - annoying to purists. Shitmat livened up even a roster as diverse as the late John Peel's show, and on the likes of "4 Soundclashes and a Funeral" it's clear that the constituent parts of the breakfest would all merit further investigation themselves. Even so, it's not half fun to hear them diced and reinvented as a collage of breakbeats and echoey dubs. Best of all is the fantastically named "Theme From the 1988 Morris Dancer Massacre" which sees Eurogabba, jungle, glitch, Blue Peter and Walk This Way merged in a sprawling hoedown. Mighty.

28. The Fall "Theme From Sparta FC #2" (Action)

And talking of annoying purists (and of delighting JP) here are the Fall, with one of their most confident, striking tunes of recent years, reworking one of "The Real New Fall LP"'s more strident - although, funnily enough, probably not best - tracks. This pseudo-tribute to the hordes of footie fans roaming Europe showed the drear-tabulous likes of Keane, Coldplay, Embrace and Elbow how guitars could and should be deployed.

29. Estelle "1980" (Virgin)

Not even we were prepared for how seamlessly "1980" entered the pop mainstream, debuting in the Top 20 and spending much of the year as a jingle for both 1Xtra teasers on BBC and the goal segments on Match of the Day. Picking up the playground and schoolyard lyrics of "Excuse Me", "1980" was serviced by an irrestistible string sample and Estelle's homely demeanour as she spins tales of strange neighbours and, of course, growing up playing Connect 4. I was always yellow.

30. Blade "A&Rsehole" (691 Influential 12")

Inflammatory, and probably enough to take one of the UK's groundbreaking MCs full-time off the menu of the major labels, but Blade has always has been an honest MC. This is an ill-advised and hence brilliant put-down of the label that dropped him (some time ago, mind: he's obviously finding it hard to get over it). Blade goes steaming in to slag off Virgin Records - what must Estelle be thinking ? - and the lyrics are even coarser and more unsubtle than the sleeve, which shows him and his mates, in a scene from the first verse, literally and liberally inserting a baseball bat into the artist and repertoire backside. On garish orange vinyl (tastelessness overload ?) Blade asks "How about this for one of your really really really catchy choruses?" he asks, as he shouts "Arsehole", inbetween a catalogue of digs at those who hired and then fired him and the reasonably wry assertion that it's ironic that a label with such a pure name are fucking their artists. The bass and the tune, though, make "A&Rsehole" musically much more attractive than the oddly restrained tameness of much of "Storms Are Brewing". No presents from Richard Branson though this year.

...and a few more to ponder....

31. Ant & Nick Grater "Emergency Red" (Maximum Minimum 12")
32. Morrissey "The First Of The Gang To Die" (Attack)
33. Skinnyman "No Big Ting" (Lowlife)
34. P Brothers ft. Imam T.H.U.G. "Across The Planet" (Heavy Bronx 12")
35. Cappo / Zero Theory "The Get Out EP" (Breakin' Bread 12")
36. Dirty Diggers "Diggers Don't Get Days Off" (Zebra Traffic 12")
37. Eyezofman and A Bomb "Lost Kingdomz EP" (NGU 12")
38. Ice Cube featuring Mack 10 and Ms. Toi "You Can Do It" (All Around The World)
39. Trembling Blue Stars "Southern Skies Appear Brighter" EP (Elefant)
40. Nancy Sinatra "Let Me Kiss You" (Attack)
41. Zygote featuring Sundragon / Hug "Grizzly" / "Rachael Corrie" (Boot 12")
42. Blade vs. Million Dead "Pop Idol" (691 Influential 12")
43. Salvo "Uncontained Rage" (Last Minute 12")
44. Future Pilot AKA "Love Music Hate Racism EP / Mein Nehi Jana Versions" (Geographic 12")

45. Chris Liberator & Ant "The Big Shot" / "Demon" (Yolk 12")
46. Rodney P "Trouble"(Riddim Killa)
47. Arms Length "Metropolitics" (Kemet 12")
48. Death Before Dishonour "Bout Time" (Ninth Letta 12")
49. Wiley "Pies" (XL)
50. Defisis featuring Blade "It's Like That"(SFDB 12")

So happy Christmas "everyone". Peace and respect going out. For once I think it's been a really good year for music. Do you agree ?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Harper Lee "All Things Can Be Mended" (Matinee Recordings)

There was a time when I would write a Harper Lee review and people would read it. Not many, obviously, but hey. It was a wonderful sensation knowing that I could communicate something I cared about and that "the reader" (glib impersonality ahoy!) might even be prompted to investigate the record and fall in love with it - not as completely as me, for sure, but enough to add a new name to their list of favourite bands to trip off the tongue next time they were asked for their flavours of the month. Now, of course, I can be much more selfish when I hear a new Harper Lee record. I can enjoy it, not having to worry about how to describe that just-so guitar sound, or having to bother elucidating on the wispy sprawls of synth which wrap Keris Howard's words in a blanket of minor chords, or worry about whether I should buck the trend of every other review and complete it without mentioning the word "maudlin". Ook, too late.

The New Record by Harper Lee starts in delightfully perverse manner with "Everybody leaves", which is definitely one of the highlights, not least with Keris' vocal being a little quicker and higher pitched, recalling the early joys of "Next summer", as guitars nervously clang, the drum machine flitters about in the manner of past top pop hit "So you said" and keyboard strings cascade around it. "Left-handed", on the other hand, swirls in keys and acoustic guitars amongst the tugging likes of "I'm really not sure I've the fight...", percussion intruding where it dares, a little fill-in sucking us into a gorgeous plucked final instrumental, with clashing epic drums at the end. These two stunning openers are then followed by perhaps my favourite song here, "I don't need to know about your wonderful life" - this time, the guitars and drums are tight, picked, clear, like those on every great past tune from "Killjoy" to "This better life". And atop it all, words that will choke you.

"I love you... since when has that not been enough ?"

"Let me know" is a little more mechanical, though grandly ensconced in more fake strings, but how about this for a classic Harper Lee lyric, so cutely sung - "I won't find anyone else, let's not kid ourselves. Not that anyone cares..." And while I don't want to compare Keris to Eamon, at least any more than necessary, he blatantly then sings "Let me go, ho". Whatever the lyric sheet says. It is some compensation for the lack of the cussing we have otherwise come to expect from Harper Lee records. Incidentally, I still think the lyric sheet is a shame - I don't know why - but as with Trembling Blue Stars' "Alive To Every Smile", it just seems to detract from the beauty and the mystery. As it would had Sarah or Factory records - two of the key components of Harper Lee's sound - wrapped their output in mere words. As if mere words could do justice to music this... just right. Especially the soaring instrumental finish. And we're only four tracks in.

"Stupid" has a more Hal-like feel, with the sequencer doing a good impression of extremely fey acid house behind yet another wondrous if desperately sad lyrical construct ("Maybe there's September... maybe there's just aching") and even finishes with some "ba-ba-ba's", of the type we've heard little since Brighter's Sarah debut, "Inside out". The guitar is a bit "Darklands", but there is sequencer and low-in-the-mix jangling as well as a singalong chorus, kind of Harper Lee at their most Richard Marx-ish (don't worry, this is not very, it just reminds me of "Right here waiting", which says a lot more about my need for psychological reappraisal than HL's musical influences). The press release suggested elements of "electronica" in this album, presumably thinking of the serviceable drumbeat that flits in and out of "Stupid", but although Harper Lee can make even barren solitude seditiously danceable, frankly it would have been more accurate to describe Slayer's "Reign in Blood" as containing elements of reggae.

The second half kicks off with "Autumn", which originally appeared on a Matinee sampler. Soundwise it seems more akin to the previous album than the rest of this one, which may not be surprising given that its cold, New Order-ish beats and groovalicious bassline motif are suspiciously like those of the mighty "City Station". Which was also, unsurprisingly, ace. Oddly, though, the lyrics betray real hope inamidst the coming cold - "I've dreamt of days as good as these..." - whereas in "City Station", set a little later, in a London December, Keris could only feel " my soul is waving goodbye to me". "Autumn" also reminds me of the Windmills' "Summer snow" a little: again, this can be nothing other than good. And nearly two-thirds of it is an extended instrumental passage of no little melodic delight that eventually fades into...

"Isn't this where we came in ?" is one of the most lyrically accomplished tracks - again, the vocals are delivered quickly, as if the protagonist thinks he can make his situation sound more upbeat by hitching them to the relative pace of the backing track. Although having dropped an octave during the 1990s, Keris can still sometimes sound oh-so-young, even if the memories remain the currency of the lyrics: "I remember how you had your hair, the clothes you wore, the drink we shared, like it was today..." then "we've wasted time on idle dreams, our half-lived lives, and stupid schemes..." You could cut the atmosphere like a knife. For some reason, after a slightly odd trumpet-sound solo, the closing keyboard really grates on your ears, but until then it is genius."This is the sound which a heart makes when it's breaking", on the other hand, is bleak but sparkling, fragile and beautiful as Dartington crystal, not changing in tempo or feel throughout, but it could not be more aptly named. You can almost imagine that the song was originally an instrumental and a listener observed what it sounded like. It's Brighter's "Frostbite" recalled in the twenty-first century, although like that song it could do with the oomph that would have been engendered in its last third had someone picked up the pace on the percussion.

"Everything's going to be OK" provides another twist, the rather-late title track to the previous album, introduced with strange miaowing guitar effects, as whimsical as Harper Lee every get. Again, there is an optimism in the lyrics, although "Think it's going to turn out nice" almost suggests it's all tongue-in-cheek.But the optimism, of course, if it is real, has all been built up in order to be snatched away at the end with the self-explanatory "There is a light in me that's gone". Again, like "This is the sound...", it settles early into a single pace and just keeps going until the tears and the self-doubt have been able to assemble fully. There is even a faintly discernible backing vocal from Laura (I do worry that I go on about Keris Howard too much when praising Harper Lee: after all, it can hardly be coincidence for someone to have been, however fleetingly, in Hood, Boyracer and Harper Lee, three of the greatest bands of the post-c86 era, as well as Kicker, one of the more decent bands of the last few years. I have tried to redress this imbalance by, alongside my "Keris Howard" MD compilation of Hal, Brighter and Harper Lee tunes, putting together a "Laura Bridge" comp. It's got Kicker, Harper Lee, at least one Boyracer early tune off "B-sides and Besides" and a couple of those very early Hood tunes when they had lots of drummers. Hopefully she's on those. She is in my world anyway). The song works best when, late on (this time we're recollecting yet another Brighter tune, "Maybe") the drum machine does what it should have done two tracks earlier, kicking in harder and dragging the album off into a slow, aching fade.

And the rumours, then. Is this Harper Lee's last ever album ? True, it it has that "epitaph" feel, although so many of Keris' records have had. And if their light really has gone out, it is hard to begrudge them after three albums of preaching mainly to the converted and failing to turn the heads of the unititiated. If perhaps their fight has just gone, there is something inherently romantic about providing such pleasure to comparatively few people and then stopping before hope turns properly to despair. And this New Record by Harper Lee (remember, such a thing is an Event in my life) seems to be getting better even on repeated repeated repeated listens. Rather like Wiley's "Treddin On Thin Ice", which also frames avenues of snowy introspection.

On the other hand, this is still not a perfect album. It is yet another great piece of work, at least as solid as its predecessor (both of which in retrospect tower a little over their patchier first record). Harper Lee do, however, definitely have a perfect album in them. If they were to make another record, perhaps that would be it. Or perhaps they will leave things as they are, and in 30 years time someone will rediscover this great underrated band and put together a little compilation of treasures like "Train not stopping", "Dry land" and "I don't want to know about your wonderful life", not to mention Keris' previous triumphs like "Killjoy", "Hope springs eternal" and "Election day", and only then will it dawn on civilisation exactly what they were missing now.

And I would still fight - to the death - anyone who claimed to be a bigger Harper Lee fan than me. Because they would be lying and threatening my integrity and my fantasy and my self-image and there would be blood on the car park before long. Harper Lee are all about that certain sadness, that uncertain smile, that other bands just can't communicate. I earnestly implore you to buy all their records.