POPTONES 1*

13 Jul

*The first in an occasional series of reviews

This week-

SOFT CELL- NON-STOP EROTIC CABARET

THE HEAD AND THE HEART- THE HEAD AND THE HEART

THE HORRORS, SKYING

I had a funny old time last week. I met my ex-girlfriend for a possession-swap, I went back to my old school for a day, and then spent Sunday in Hyde Park waiting to see Pulp**, almost a full decade since the first time in Newcastle on the We Love Life tour.

This should by all rights have been traumatic and thrilling in equal measure, but everything came and went without much incident- which, enfin, I’m rather happy about.

In a week of happily fuckalling around town, watching movies and cooking inedible “asian-inspired” food for my flatmate, I’ve had but one obligation, a simple task that plunged me into the rather less-than-epic saga which follows;

My father, who henceforth shall be known to these pages as Big Jim, was down in town last weekend, and, as is customary on his occasional visits, he dropped into Rough Trade.

Big Jim has been a regular at RT since the Kensington Park Road shop opened in 1976. He’s on good terms with Nigel, the guy who runs the show, which is great for me- prereleases, free stuff, even the occasional loyalty discount (crucial if one is to become a regular shopper at Talbot Road). Nigel’s recommendations usually wash down pretty well, and with this in mind, Big Jim was talked into buying a record by a Seattle group called the Head and the Heart.

Big Jim went back up North on Monday, and two days later I received a parcel containing the aforementioned CD and a note-

DIG, RETURN THIS SHIT TO ROUGH TRADE, IT’S UNLISTENABLE. GET ME SOMETHING GOOD.

He wasn’t wrong, either. I burned the offending disc onto my computer, and listened to it as I made my way up to W11. Rarely have I been so utterly, disarmingly violated by a record’s awfulness. To say the Head and the Heart are twee just doesn’t come close to the novelty-jumperism of their CD. It’s ghastly, cloyingly cute, like Barney the Dinosaur having a caffeine-free tea party with Zooey Deschanel and the Hello Kitty logo. It’s music for the kind of people who describe Terrence Mallick’s recent shitestorm The Tree of Life as “moving”, which in itself is rather like calling a tumour a physical embellishment.

I can’t actually bring myself to listen to it again, and thus an objective review is completely out of the question. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not risking what remains of my sanity for the sake of psuedo-journalism.

Anyway, the record on its own shouldn’t be a cause for concern- what is is that it’s symptomatic of the grievous polarisation of American indie rock. The new bands are either overly precious and icky-sicky or, on the Brooklyn side of things, exasperatingly clever-clever, lacking in any sort of warmth whatsoever. Ugh.

The middle ground, otherwise known as sex appeal, seems to have been obliterated. Sure, EMA‘s album fell just the right side of wankerdom, and Girls transcended their cutesiness with tunes and arrogance, but otherwise, what else is there?

It’s catching on over here, too.

As I walked back down Westbourne Grove, the sonic fetor of Bumford and Sons floated from the open windows of a gastro pub. I felt suffocated by these most mild beasts of ersatz authenticity, and ran up to the nearest bus stop to untangle my headphones. There was only one thing for it…

SEX DWARF!

Phew. Soft Cell’s debut is still the touchstone of sleazy listening. I’m a relative newcomer to its questionable pleasures, and while there’s a definite mid-album lull, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is the definitive antidote belt-and-braces borefest that is nu-folk. What’s more, the songs hit the perfect balance between gutter filth, and, yes, genuine empathy. I’m as profoundly touched by Say Hello, Wave Goodbye as I am nauseated by Bumford’s Little Lion Man. It’s compassion itself in a gimp suit.

While at Rough Trade that afternoon, I did manage to swap the Head and the Fart for two Bowie records (both of which Big Jim rather confusingly already owns, and I have yet to post to him), and also got my hands on an advance copy of the Horrors’ new one, Skying.

After an appropriately sweaty, Soft Cell-soundtracked tube journey back to Vauxhall (in the course of which I forgot about the Northern Line closure at Tottenham Court Road, and thus had to endure the hell of changing at Oxford Circus at rush hour), I charged Skying onto my iPod, sunk down a tension-killing gin, and rushed off to Stockwell station to meet a friend, headphones blazing.

Still giddy from the initial wash of the gin hit, Skying grabbed me by the frontal lobes and dragged me down the Clapham Road at something approaching 20km/h, which is pretty quick for a pedestrian.

After catching a bit of their set at Hyde Park last Sunday, I’d expected great things from the new Horrors album, but the moment where the synths take flight twenty or so seconds into You Said is a pop memory I shall never, never forget hearing for the first time. These moments are, to quote Alex Turner, rare as a can of Dandelion and Burdock- and on Skying, they just keep on coming and coming and coming.

Changing the Rain, which opens Skying is not a showy first track. It’s nice enough, if no tour de force, but the Horrors have been clever here. For me, and a lot of other people who wanted to like Primary Colours a lot more than they actually did, that album peaked with its opener, Mirror’s Image, and never even approached its urgent gothic glory over the course of the next nine songs. On Skying, Changing the Rain doesn’t set such high expectations, and thus what follows is all the more joyous.

There’s the sheer euphoria of You Said, the epic aggression of I Can see through you, the assured grandeur of Still Life, and best of all, the 8-minute Moving Further Away. The latter is a sort of grown-up version of Sea within a sea, a canopy of elegant analogue synth with a titanic Klaus Dinger beat for an undercarriage.

For all the superlatives I could continue attaching to this record, there is one thing that baffles me- Skying is for nine tenths of its duration a near-perfect album, but on Monica Gems, the penultimate song, the Horrors make a claim for the ugliest song of 2011. There is no way that anyone in their right mind could have considered Monica Gems worthy even of B-Side material- it’s self-parodic, and not in the fun, campy sense that characterises their début album. My theory is that this is their record collection in-joke, a grim acknowledgement of the fact that every “classic” album has its Sloop John B– but perhaps I’m just reading too far into it. Whatever the case, Skying would’ve worked much better with nine songs. Or perhaps not- Monica Gems, for all its failures, gives the rest of the album a context to shine against, and illustrates pretty well just how far the Horrors have come since in the last five years.

The Horrors began as everything a cult rock’n’roll band should be- all that was missing was any hint of a tune. I loved them in principle, but couldn’t bring myself to sit through a single one of their sub-Birthday Party blasts of garage-rock conservatism. Their image, though, was as exciting and fun as every other bargain-basement indie band’s circa 2007 wasn’t.

Happily, the Horrors have kept their visual brand intact while separately developing a glorious musical style that for all its debt to the past is very much their own. It’s deathly dull to analyse the influences on Skying, but every music hack in London seems to have a theory about which combination of overcoat-rock bands the Horrors most resemble, so for what it’s worth, here’s mine:

The Horrors have become the band Suede could’ve been had they explored the fascinatingly crepuscular territory of their 1996 b-side Europe is our playground rather than the anthemic, simplistic (if still rather brilliant) comeback single Trash. If this doesn’t sound like praise, you need to get hold of the first couple of Suede albums sharpish.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. If this gets any more fanboyish, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look myself in the mirror again. See you next time for another load of over-intellectualised drivel…

**See link to some gig-ruining arsehole cameraphone-wielder’s video of the Do you Remember the first time

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