“Floating down the river of life, holding on to you”: May flowers, going down

Famous Problems “Hey! It’s Raining!” (Where It’s At Is Where You Are): The Declining Winter “Chimneys etc.” (Signal): Memory Drawings “Phantom Lights” (Signal): Half Man Half Biscuit “No-One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin' Hedge Cut” (Probe Plus): The Hit Parade “Happy World” (JSH Records): Fret “Silent Neighbour” (L.I.E.S), and more

Welcome back to in love with these times, in spite of these times, the fanzine voted “joint 5th best indie-pop blogtwo years running in the Twee Net polls of 2012 & 13. We’ve not had to buy our own drinks since.

This month’s artwork is Paul Vanstone's "Looking Profiles", apparently carved from Tuscan marble, as it appeared in N1 during the London Art Fair earlier this year. The two heads are probably more used to fresh air and landscaped gardens (they resided at Kew for a while), but we thought they stood out nicely in an urban environment, especially at night as the buses and headlights flitted past.

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Right. Even before the exceptional Catenary Wires and Hate Week 7”s of more recent times, Where It’s At Is Where You Are had cemented its position in the top 20 record labels ever (the rest of that list - possibly - being comprised of Deutsche Grammofon, Ron Johnson, Sarah, Regal Zonophone, UK Bubblers, Slumberland, Subway Organization, Rockney, Matinée Recordings, Son, Summershine, 555, Fashion Records, Reception, Earache, People Unite Musicians Collective, 021 and Decca. And Sub-Bass, unless that counts as a sublabel). Memo to Cherry Red – you may yet join this hallowed list of names if you finally give us a comprehensive Ron Johnson compilation and that Slab! box set we’re sure we were once promised, instead of messing about with infinite Felt re-presses.

Getting back to the programme, the latest treat from WIAIWYA hails from Connecticut, USA. Famous Problems are a splinter faction, of sorts*, from the tremendous but sadly-no-more Butterflies Of Love, a band who just happened to release a bejewelled long-playing guitar pop odyssey thing more than a decade back called “Famous Problems” that we quite liked at the time. And that would probably be enough in itself to draw us in, but actually things get even more star-studded because the FPs rope in glamorous showbiz friends including Pam Berry (gasp), Delia Out Of Mambo Taxi (gosh, we’d forgotten about them, but dug them very much back in our riot grrl phase), David yer main man from Comet Gain (again, gasp) and Sir Mark Flunder of general Sportique & TVPs legendariness (sharp intake of breath, followed by raucous cheer).

And so “Hey! It’s Raining!” presents Famous Problems’ 2018 portfolio, a 7-track frosted clear vinyl 10” on which the Problems get to show off their strength in depth, trading crunchy guitar rock with gin-soaked melancholic pop thrills and coursing ballads. We will bypass, perhaps, the distinctive if slightly bizarre sleeve, which is very purple and features hundreds of mini-Monica Vittis trapped in raindrops.

The most instant tunes are the faster ones. “If You Are Nowhere Then I Am Nowhere” is in essence a pop song, but lovingly buried in a layered smother of reverb and organ fuzz. The title number constitutes regression therapy for ageing indie-kids like me (“lying in a field / holding hands… hey, it’s raining”), a wild-eyed wonder parcelled up in the easy melodies of the young Menck/Chastain and topped off with a surfeit of cheery whistling. Then there’s “Every Girl”, a healthy serving of lean and petite driving pop that sounds like it comes straight from the Bubblegum Lemonade songbook (this is a good thing). Shorter still and nearly as sweet, “Keeping My Mind To My Baby” adopts a different pose again: it’s a feral if fleeting burst of sunglasses and leather, late Mary Chain or Freeheat-style.

But on repeat plays, it’s the gorgeous, slowburning ballads that really turn out to be the highlights. Chief of these is “I’d Do It A Thousand Times”, which simply throbs with hunger and hurt: coated in beautiful piano and violin, it bears witness to the paperback ghosts of Comet Gain as they tearily strum the hits of GW McLennan. “Stop Smiling” flips the dynamic by summoning up the spirit of Robert F. instead, and recalls the grown-up, supremely underrated Airport Girl of “Slow Light” vintage (*damn* once more that their Buffalo Bars gig back then was a lock-out, and that the Buffalo Bars has since been ruined). The strings wrap themselves around you, and pull you underneath the encircling waters. And the lesson endeth with the equally contemplative “Atheism’s Alright”, a wispy and crepuscular meandering about belief and doubt, whether in God or in our fellow man. It would be hard to imagine more of a contrast with the uptempo way the EP begins, but then that nicely demonstrates the versatile musical mastery of Famous Problems.

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We’re oft-teased for our unstinting love for Hood, which has technically now lasted for the majority of our lives, but we would politely retort that (a) there was definitely a point when they were the best band not only in north Yorkshire, but the solar system and (b) there must be some reason why, even now, every single release by Hood alumni (of which there are still a fair few) tends to sell out, very annoyingly, in about 12 minutes. The latest such artefact (both first and second pressings somehow averting our grasp) being a lathe-cut 7” from Yorkshire’s finest indie-folk deconstructuralists, the Declining Winter: a platter called “Chimneys etc.”, which has luckily been given second/third wind via bandcamp for the time being. 

“Chimneys etc.” as a title could almost be a neat in-joke: one can imagine it being Hood’s instruction to Domino every time they asked about the sleeve art. And the five tracks on it do feel in the vein of those early, idea-crammed ‘paths to travel’ Hood 7”s on 555, Orgasm, Fluff and (eventually!) Acuarela as the song fragments and looped refrains fade in and out, albeit with more graceful production values. The cracked bedsit strum of “Risk Of Collapsing Hinders”, the lost-boy vocal and plucked acoustic sheen of “Long Distance Soul Shard” and the winsome summer lament “Why Is It So Elusive?” are all winningly bleak, but the standout song is probably the lonely-hearts closer “Company Required”: given wings by Sarah Kemp's doleful violin, it reminds us of the skeletal emotion in Biff Bang Pow!’s better ballads, a comparison we hope neither band would be offended by…

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Which is probably as good a time as any to mention that, on local election night earlier this month, Joel Hanson’s (Declining Winter-featuring) supergroup Memory Drawings came to our home town, to play a genuinely magical show. We’ve been hawking our written wares in this ‘zine for 19 years now, but never before have we had cause to deploy the adjective “transcendental”. Well, we have now: it was a very special evening, even aside from being the first gig at which we’ve ever heard a sound engineer being implored to “turn the dulcimer down a bit”. We caught some absolutely excellent support, too, from the multitalented Manyfingers plus the lion’s share of a solo set from Mike Bourne. Something fascinating about watching a roomful of people, in turn just staring at Mike, as he stood in the middle of said room basically twiddling knobs, but *what* a sound – bewildering analogue noises that boomed out into the Angel streets and no doubt utterly befuddled the poor shoppers in the 24-hour Sainsburys over the road. And all at a mere £6 for the whole night (literally, the price of a pint). Wow.

The official soundtrack to the gig was a similarly blinding tour EP, “Phantom Lights”, produced to accompany the Drawings’ jaunt around select pockets of the country. There are six tracks, with the title song possibly taking the cake as it expertly pulls melodica, Hood-like bass and a wash of cymbals into the dulcimer weave, but the standard doesn’t fall throughout. “Two Rooms” is springtime, buds unfolding, guitar and violin helping Joel trace new worlds of possibility; “The Final Curtain” builds hypnotically before the warm trumpet peals help bring it to a satisfying plateau. There’s also a welcome return run for “Captivated”, the 2014 single that pushes the boat right out by showcasing Yvonne Bruner’s evocative, vaguely Ivy-ish* VOCALS. And Barnaby Carter checks in to provide a silky remix treatment for “There Is A Last Time For Everything", one that would have graced one of those 555 remix CDs of yore.

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It's a shock to the system when the world is so upside down that amongst the most coherent advocates of sanity in Parliament right now are the Duke of Wellington and the Bishop of Leeds. So it’s essential to have things in life that you know you can rely on, and - especially now that the Fall are no more - we’re truly grateful to hear Half Man Half Biscuit return with their 14th and surely best-named LP. And, more than any other record we’ve heard for a while, there are lyrical tics and couplets here that give us that rare and precious feeling - the gentle tickle of a smile playing round our lips. As with the previous thirteen albums, this one’s on the indefatigable Probe Plus (come to think of it, another candidate for top twenty record labels ever).

I first loved HMHB circa “Dickie Davies’ Eyes” but, in the first flush of youth, I kept looking out for the gags instead of the bigger picture. Once I understood better, and realised that their style was more documentary than sketch show, and that the humour is all there *because* they sing about the human condition, and not despite of it – that their music isn’t escapism or an antidote to hard times, far from it, but a constant tribute to the remarkable everyday - then the secret of their longevity (longevity a mere novelty act would never enjoy) became clearer.

And so here, on, erm “N.O.C.A.Y.C.H.S.G.Y.F.H.C.”, HMHB take a skewer to another bakers’ dozen of deserving targets. Only this band could turn the demise of the Football League Trophy into a petite if eccentric love song (“Swerving The Checkatrade”), spark up a rattling rant about non-improvised bat walks, unsympathetically frame the plight of the humiliated TV-quiz show loser who has to go into work the next day, or turn “get your fucking hedge cut” into a vaguely meaningful refrain. Indeed, Nigel seems a bit more sweary and angry than usual, pulling few punches at times: “what made Colombia famous / has made a prick out of you”, he spits. Meanwhile, in “Bladderwrack Allowance” the narrator is served up with a steaming pint of “Thatcher’s ‘Entirely Blameless’”: the spirit of the 80s has evidently not deserted the band. Though there are some departures from their older records, for these days there are far fewer extended monologues, or references to music biz shenanigans.

On the other hand, the record can still fox you with moments of relative delicacy. “Harsh Times In Umberstone Covert” belies a whimsical title to rank as one of the tenderest HMHB songs to date – it’s moving and full of empathy, quite a shock from the combo that brought you the sweary Papal bon mots of “Vatican Broadside”. And distinct themes of ageing and of loneliness intrude on several tracks, much as these can be lost amidst with the breezy, uptempo rock/folk strums. And should all the trademark punnery and sark get too much for you, just relax with the crossword they’ve kindly provided on the inner sleeve insert.

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Earlier in the year, I fear that our passing reference to the Hit Parade’s “Oh Honey I…” 45 didn't really do justice to it, so we want to make sure we flag more prominently the aceness of their second pristine 7” of 2018, “Happy World” (apparently a Record Store Day-related release, but then every day is record shop day for us). 

The perhaps unsurprising headline is that, not for the first time, Julian Henry has penned a warm, funny, self-deprecating song about being in a band (and all the associated trappings of identity and part-success and failure that come with that, from past scrapes with the indie charts to present day frustration with i-Tunes “corporate land grabs”) but as always the real punchline is that the Hit Parade are actually *next-level* purveyors of gold-standard pop songs, and so this kind of self-deprecation ("I can't sing in tune”, he dissembles) is utterly unnecessary. As the sparkling melodies and craftsmanship of “Oh Honey I…” and a formidable back catalogue of three-minute should-be jukebox classics so amply prove.

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Well, hello. Hoving unsubtly into view comes Fret’s “Silent Neighbour” EP, a 12” on Long Island Electrical Systems, aka L.I.E.S (and of New York, unsurprisingly). This, the second Fret single comes, a tad tardily, some *23 years* after the first (there are comets that come around more regularly than that, for heaven’s sake) but you’ll remember clearly enough - probably from the way the foundations shook - that there was also a Fret LP on Karlrecords as recently as last autumn, one which should give you a pretty big hint about how this EP sounds. Which is… massive, monumental and almost indescribably brill as the four tracks here continue somehow to weave texture and shade whilst simultaneously subjecting the listener to an onslaught of bass currents and pulverising percussive mayhem. This is broken techno, post-industrial, deep-bass sculpture: molten lava flowing across hard ground, seeping up through crevices to uproot entire cities and civilisations. It is not for the faint-hearted.

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This month’s possibly extraneous but certainly heartfelt extra shout-outs go to Joker's terrific "Marching Orders" (maxed-out lethal-Brizzle corkscrew duuub-st3p on green vinyl 12" featuring a v. laidback and nonchalant Footsie vocal), YGG’s “Strikers” single (latest grime confection from the literate but feisty young pretenders, shades of mid-period Newham Generals?), Aleja Sanchez’s “The Acheron Passage” 12” on Illegal Alien (yes, a Colombian-penned, Germanic-sounding EP about a New Zealand body of water, on a Mexican label - Ms Sanchez is one of the most consistent producers out there right now), Destroyer’s “New Age” on Elektrax (unforgiving techno pummel from the Czech Republic), Slam’s “Blue Dragon” (classic, coursing Glaswegian acid-line purism***) and, following on from the 14 Iced Bears re-release last month, another fantastic indiepop vinyl reissue. This time it’s Blueboy’s gorgeous “The Bank Of England”, which on its original Shinkansen release never managed a vinyl outing, not least one suspects because Matt Haynes still needed to eat. However, it’s a wonderful, underrated record which would prove to be their final long-player (one including their swansong singles, “Love Yourself” and “Marco Polo”) and it’s brimful of both pulchritudinous ballads and buzzing pop-thrills. This one comes correct from A Colourful Storm (another label based in two of our favourite cities, this time those being Melbourne and Berlin).

And that's all. Back next month, I expect.

Mmm, footnotes…

* We say “of sorts” because the main personnel here basically ARE the Butterflies of Love, sans the very talented Daniel Greene.
** Ivy (UK) rather than Ivy (NYC), in the parlance of the time.
*** Trivia fact: we once successfully convinced d’Alma that Slam used to be the Bambi Slam of "Indie Top 20, volume 2" fame. Doubt this was actually true though.