IN WHICH your narrator discovers that the Jardin du Luxembourg and environs are a most agreeable environment for listening to Heresy, Comet Gain, Jim Reid, I Ludicrous and others… and reflects with sadness that the man who introduced him to all of them is now two New Years gone.
I knew that I would start to uncover loads of diverting records from 2005, but not until after the last trails of the new year fireworks over Trafalgar Square had finally died in the air. And so it proved. What I probably wasn't expecting was that one of those records would be on an imprint I've always felt somewhat hit and miss, Track & Field. There was that time when some wind-up merchant dared to suggest that Track & Field were the new Sarah, and, well, I had to hurt him. (I'm still barred from the Newman Arms, you know).
Anyway. The album in question is "City Fallen Leaves" by Comet Gain. Now I've never strayed more than centimetres from the view that Comet Gain, at their finest, can hold their own in the most illustrious of musical company. One only has to listen to the divine "You Can Hide Your Love Forever" or the pulsating, aspirational "Strength" to know that their talents have been far too often slept on. They can flirt with the Orange Juice-ish pure-pop indie-funk heights ("Million And Nine"): or storm the barricades of agit-alt rock: see the thrashy, urgent "Orwell Liberty Dance". They might compose close to the perfect tearjerker ("The Ballad of the Arms of Cable Hogue"): or settle for reinvigorating a northern soul standard (last year's "If You Ever Walk Out Of My Life"). And, right from the start - "Baby's Alright", say - they have been able to make a noise that felt like it mattered, without losing the tunes, without losing their thread. On the whole, though I know views differ on this, I still think they have managed to be literate without being prissy, raucous without being vacant, sensitive without being sloppily, slushily sentimental. And 60s-influenced without being rubbish.
But with CG albums - and hey, there have been a few now - something altogether strange happens. Rarely do I hear one and love all that I hear. Instead, I always think, "mmm… half of that was brilliant, but the rest was a bit ropey." Repeated listening, however, invariably reveals that I was talking rubbish - how could I not have realised the full-on quality of "Casino Classics" or "Tigertown Pictures" first time round ? I even thought "Magnetic Poetry" was only semi-fantastic the first time I heard it, which was frankly insane. I should have been sectioned there and then.
So I feel a little stupid for suggesting that, if "City Fallen Leaves" had half the tracks, it would be twice the album. Feel a little ungracious, given that at least half a dozen tunes are frankly sublime, and there's probably a full first XI of solid popsongs. So it's impossible to resist the Rachel-led "Gone Before We Open Our Eyes", a beauteous indie-folk amalgam which transports me to the same corner of my memory as, ooh, "Sad Kaleidoscope", say... Or there's "Days I Forgot To Write Down", in which it's David's brittle voice that anchors a soft, dreamy ballad, again backlit perfectly by strings. Both songs liltingly tapering themes of regret - when David sings, referencing "Realistes"'' opener, "And the kids at the club are all sitting in pubs / Still looking for love / As if that was enough", anyone near me risks being severely hugged. "The Fist's In The Pocket" is angrier, but still rails with passion. "Your Robert" appropriately enough throbs tenderly with echoes of early Go-Betweens, especially when it reaches the chorus. Even the country tinge of "From Seven Sisters to Silverlake" refuses, thanks largely to its sympathetic narrative, to yield entirely to the saccharin wiles of a fairly traditional arrangement.
And then there's the closer, "Ballad Of a Mixtape". Fair all the reasons I love Comet Gain distilled into six minutes of knowing alchemy. Boy / girl reverie of records and fanzines and cassettes and dansettes and photos, a violin that creeps up on the outside when you're at your most vulnerable. It's a celebration of all the music that ever meant the most, all the people you miss the most. And when you think it can't get any better, the fuzzy guitar pounds in and propels the album to an utterly compelling close, David singing "We found the sound of the underground / And we felt so proud to be underground". And at these moments you cannot look past Comet Gain. You merely feel you could forgive them anything.
I guess then it's churlish to mention that over 16 tracks and over 50 minutes, the magic gets spread too thinly, even occasionally lost. That "The Story Of The Vivian Girls" sounds a bit like I, Ludicrous, but without the vim. That "Bored Roar", despite a verse of the Mary Chain's "Fall" and a chorus which is the Primitives' "Sick Of It", can't lift itself out of about third gear. That the lively "Daydream Scars" burns itself out during a guitar solo recalling Joy Division's "Failures". That "This English Melancholy" eventually flowers into a heady, rushing popsong, but only after a two-minute false start. That "The Punk Got Fucked" just doesn't work.
...Yes, it is churlish. Being made up of more beauty than dross, "City Fallen Leaves" helps redress the balance in life generally, which tends to the opposite. Plus, if experience is anything to go by, by the end of the year I'll like it all anyway.
Anyway, to prove that the signing of Comet Gain (and, in fairness, the recent release of Kicker's "Our Wild Mercury Years", which is pretty much a family size, copper-bottomed selection of future indie-pop standards) are no fluke, T&F have now snapped up returning Bristolian heroes the Beatnik Filmstars, and I'd had the privilege of enjoying their live Friday night comeback at the Water Rats, where family favourites like "New Boyfriend in Black Suit" and "Bigot Sponger Haircut Policy" commingled happily with various offerings from the 20+ track forthcoming album. My initial instinct, from enjoying their sprint through a set that happily featured, amidst the guitars, a fair bit of tambourine and still more loudhailer, is that Andrew Jarrett's prolific songwriting, and gift for (a) a melody and (b) then being able to tie that melody to a savage, skewed lo-fi musical narrative, has not in any way diminished since the lay-off.
Funnily enough, the last truly great record I had heard on Track & Field before the recent batch was probably Tompaulin's "Give Me A Riot On The Summertime", an EP that not only featured production duties from Jim Reid and Ben Lurie, but also owed a stylistic debt to the Jesus and Mary Chain that made it feel that little bit more memorable than, say, the "The Town and the City" album. Now, on the restrained, super-minimal two-chord low-key official Jim Reid solo debut "Song for a Secret" (on Transistor Records), East Kilbride's joint favourite son merely sleepwalks through a distinctly everyday piece of filler Reid bros-by numbers that probably wouldn't even have made it as an out-take on a Mary Chain album. We know this. And yet... and yet... even this sub-par "Stoned and Enthroned" soundalike is still a more beautiful, more appealing, more revelatory ballad than virtually anything else that has been put out in this barren, Harper Lee-free past 12 months or so, and treads with hobnail boots over the likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's recent and abysmal attempts to meet him halfway. There is absolutely nothing here we haven't heard before, but even around the cusp of starting his fifth decade (I presume), James still truly has a voice of such soothing and warmth ("and it's all right..." he calms) that it effortlessly turns ice to snow, snow to streams of sadness and brightness, cold London January to glowing hearth. In short, he still makes music to fall in love both with and to. (Jim's) Sister Vanilla commits another J&MC out-take, co-written with brother William, to the B-side, which is not quite as cherishable, but still has the glowing feel, the fin-de-siecle flourish, of terminally underrated last album "Munki". So long as there are Reids making music, there is still some kind of order to the world.
Inestimable Croydon duo I, Ludicrous next. They've had to self-release "Deadpan Alley", a comp of their first two albums, as a 'bootleg' Cd-r - but there's no skimping on the quality.
"It's Like Everything Else", their first album, was probably the only one they ever released to truly a willing audience outside their core support - produced by Joe Foster, it earned them more Peel plays, on the back of flickering media support and the cult status of preceding flexi "Preposterous Tales". What's striking about its 8 tracks now, more than ever, is that, while the humour you would expect is very much intact, you don't have to venture far to find sensitivity (the absorbing layers of "A Pop Fan's Dream", with Field Micey guitars and keyboards, frame Will Hung's tale, still fairly topical, of a competition winner enjoying Sunday lunch chez Geldof) or real darkness ("Fabulous" and "Trevor Barker", all scathing sarcasm and angular guitar and drum machine, are closer to some of the Wake's later, bitterer essays than anything else).
"Preposterous Tales" is back too, in the slightly higher-fi form that festooned the recent Rough Trade Indie-Pop vol. 1 - it's still unusual for many nights at the local to end without some kind of quotation from it. "Ludicrous" shows more starkly their debt to the Fall, but with Foster coiling snarling guitar behind Hung's estuary E.-Smithism's, it is the Fall at their sharpest and grimiest. Perhaps the finest track now though, especially viewed through the telescope of time, is one where they were completely original - "Three English Football Grounds". It could pass for an unremarkable instrumental at first - but the slight loop of bass and familiar guitar fuzz build into a sympathetic pattern, and then comes the entirely spoken vocal - nothing more than a warmly-observed precis of, well, 3 English football grounds. The fact that since its recording two of the grounds have been abandoned and the third overhauled seems to sum up a lot about the duo's prescience and eye for nostalgic detail, as well as the unstoppable 'development' of our national game.
The other album you get here is "A Warning To The Curious". This one doesn't necessarily hang together so well, although the lyrical themes remain - growing old(er), workaday living, and, um, being stuck in a lift with Noel Edmonds (then ubiquitous, now a more faded ex-celebrity, who has also been the subject of tunes by Half Man Half Biscuit and Harvey Williams, I suspect amongst others).
Some interesting musical comparisons are brought to mind - the choice rattle of "Britische Architect" being part-Fall, part-TVP's circa "Part Time Punks", the oddly touching "Moynihan Brings Out The Hooligan In Me" could almost be early Felt (much as Lawrence would never have lyrically contemplated defending the much-maligned football fan: yes, lest we forget, football was once much-maligned, rather than materially and self-servingly over-hyped, and not that long ago). "House Beautiful" picks up where "Ludicrous" left off by basically being a hommage to the Fall, albeit by one of the few bands who can weave stream-of-consciousness, storytelling and oblique social commentary in the same way. But the most imposing track on "A Warning" is "We Will Fall". From nowhere, Hung ditches the jokes and launches a steely tirade against the gathering clouds of capitalism and our obsequious acceptance of its excesses, while the Fallisms are limited to the title and to the Stooges-like menace of the guitars ranged behind him.
The clutch of bonus tracks include the original, mucho shambling "Preposterous Tales", and its follow up single, the perky, not radio-unfriendly "Quite Extraordinary", the 12" of which is only otherwise available once in a blue moon from Record and Tape Exchange. It is a timely reminder that I, Ludicrous justify this site's ongoing obsession with them.
Someone else who spent the old days making music that reveals itself now to have been way ahead of the Britpop sludge that came later is self-styled urban warrior Alan Parker. When Chuck D called Flavor Flav "a rebel in his own mind", he could easily have been speaking of Parker, the missing link between Joe Strummer and Jimmy Pursey, with his righteous obsessions with "truth (not lies)", London, radical problems (and solutions) and his fierce dislike of "-isms". Yet Simon Munnery's comic creation, with the compilation "Blast From The Past" on Little Matey, reminds us of a number of cracking tracks that made what I still think was one of the best series ever on Radio One, still has relevance in an age when, as he laments, "Everyone's smiling and laughing / They don't want to talk about punk, and they should do".
Whether it's sounding like a very lo-fi Cockney Rejects (er, most songs), a bit like the Smiths (the delightful "Relationship", which suddenly reveals a rather sensitive musical side), Chumbawamba ("Sunday Evening") or like well, no-one else (the fiercely agitated, individual "Tube Station Lies" where Parker gets uptight about blatant misnaming on the London Underground), Parker is more fun than anything he is parodying. "Grey" copyright-threateningly relocates "Little Fluffy Clouds" to Watford, in doing so improving it hugely, while the joyous "Bus" is Al's Fall tribute (worth mentioning here that fellow stand-up and Fall fan Stewart Lee is Parker's guitarist on this oddly entertaining CD), mixing "Hit The North" with "Shoulder Pads" for its own bus-related ends. Then there's the self-explanatory "Band": when Parker yells, "I'm in a band!" with excitable glee, you only wish that most people who were had the same energy and enthusiasm. It can be rubbish too (the half-thought out t(h)rash of "I Hate Men In Sports Cars" or "One O'Clock News"). But, as someone whose own stage experience peaked with a frankly career-threatening karaoke "If The Kids Are United", I feel I can emphasise with Alan more than most. In many respects, considerations of credibility being one, I wish this wasn't one of my favourite releases of the last 12 months, but it so is.
Right. Heresy. Quite where there is a market (aside from me) for a new series of reissues from this great mid-80s midlands hardcore combo, I know not, but if Boss Tuneage want to meet this apparent public need, that's just fine by me. (Heresy arrivistes should still probably start with the "Voice of Fear" double-CD, but if you already have that, then this release - which boasts extensive sleeve notes and lyrics - should be next on the list).
"1985-1987" - have I ever mentioned they weren't bad years for music ? - kicks off with the seven tracks of their first ever demo, and it was well worth scraping the cobwebs off that cassette. Starting with the first version of the great "Never Healed", the demo sees them mixing the great riffage of that and "Mentally Conned" with the breackneck thrash of "Deprived" or the start and end of "Cries of Want", where the vocals are a Siege-ish holler, or the self-titled instrumental in which the drummer attempts to break the sound barrier, egged on by a guitarist attempting to pack in about four chord changes a second.
The next tracks, indie-kids will be delighted to hear, were originally released on a flexi. "Disfigured World" is preceded by a minute of twirling, only slightly detuned arpeggios, making it the perfect soundtrack for your dinner party, gathering or soiree, while "Never Healed", the flexi's title track, is next - another chance to hear one of the greatest mid-tune riffs in the Britcore canon, as well as the unbelievably distorted drum sound in the fast bits, where it sounds like the engineer has decided not to bother even trying to keep up. One feels at song end there was probably smoke rising from the cymbal. Similarly, a fretboard may have gone up in flames after the 73 seconds of "Despair". I'm still a bit of a sucker for the 'slow' bits though, which means a soft spot for "More Blood Is Shed" and its opening one and a half minutes of unabashed, uninhibited grind, before the land speed record attempts start again.
The likes of "Paths To Decadence" and "Visions of Fear" are previousy unreleased, but don't best illustrate Heresy's talents so much as the v. muddy production which bedevilled their releases intermittently. Given that they were recorded live to 2-track, we shouldn't be altogether surprised by this.
The last few tracks see us move to a renewed line-up featuring Mitch Dickinson, also of Unseen Terror, Intense Degree etc - a C.V. to rival Embury, Fletcher, Webster, Rippington, Harris and the rest of the in love with these times in spite of these times rock Hall of Fame. The lyrics even move away from Discharge-style concerns of total nuclear annihilation, which is no bad thing: particularly on "Acceptance", still my favourite Heresy song.
"Acceptance by those who demand nothing / Means nothing to me"
And just like, hey, Comet Gain, Heresy never sold out. And I find myself inspired. I go back to the T&F website, I read the runes again. "We're talking about soul as an emotional force. When you hear the record, does it convince you that everybody involved in the making of that record truly believes what they're saying".
Yes. That's it. And Comet Gain are a soul band. Heresy were a soul band. I Ludicrous are a soul band... possibly. And I am especially excited that Beatnik Filmstars are a soul band. My faith is restored. I think that 2006 is going to be a good year.
On the way to school, I have also been listening to:
The Ruts "Babylon's Burning" (Black Star Liner mix): This is from a Ruts remix thing, a CD called "Babylon's Burning Deconstructed". While listening to 16 consecutive remixes of "Babylon's Burning" is not quite as good as just listening to the original 16 times in a row, it is no bad way to spend your downtime. There are a few great remixes - Fun da Mental's also springs to mind: and, as you'd expect from the source material, no bad ones.
Felt "Roman Letter" (from "The Strange Idols Pattern And Other Short Stories" CD): Nothing particularly tricksy, just swimmingly nice indie-pop.
Cro-Mags "We Gotta Know" (from "Sunday Matinee" NYHC compilation): Most enjoyable. Unlikely to be played at HDIF, so you may need to track down your own copy.
Vacaciones "Imperfecta" (from that album on Elefant): Quite a punchy, noisy track - a bit Free Loan Investments-y: excellent, roaring pop.
Beatnik Filmstars "Pop Dramas (Camp It Up)" (from "Boss Disque" LP): Recently inspired into splurging the back catalogue. One of many smile-raisers.
Conflict "The Final Conflict" (from "There Must Be A Better Way" compilation): You can say what you like about Conflict (and you're wrong, ooh, 90% of the time), but this song is the one of theirs that does deserve to transcend the usual criticisms. A great, punk, rock, statement, even in 2006.