I’ll Never Subscribe to a Streaming Service…

All right, we’ve got Netflix and Amazon Prime but then I’ve got kids and there’s Ninjago and Paw Patrol and, god help us, Horseland… And The Good Wife, Designated Survivor, Jessica Jones, Touch, Sense 8, but that’s beside the point. I mean, I’ll never subscribe to a music streaming service. 

I like to own my music. I like to feel the product in my hand, to run my fingers along the fissures in the brittle jewel cases, to read, braille-like, the indentations in the squidgy cardboard sleeves born in the early-00s. There’s no substitute for battered bits of plastic and paper lying around, their erstwhile contents getting scratched as careless hands replace them in the wrong boxes.

Then my phone provider (EE, to give them a call out), sent me a message inviting me to access Apple Music for free for six months. In the process, not only have they committed me from July 2017 to paying £10 per month to access my music, but they have re-invigorated my interest in “new” music. I say “new” because little of it is truly “new” but rather is those albums that, in the last twenty-years or so, I was never quite ready to splash hard-earned cash on. Those albums that, when faced with in the CD exchange in Wimbledon never quite made it to the top of the list – often leapfrogged by albums I’d never heard of by artists I knew only by association through written reviews in Uncut, the Sunday Times and the Guardian.

So, now I am truly hooked on this nagging Apple drug, here are the top five discoveries I have made – and should have made (for the most part) 10-20 years ago…

Can – Ege Bamyasi

I really don’t have the musical vocabulary to describe Can. Suffice it to say that the album sounds ahead of the curve, insistent and infectiously flirtatious; frighteningly danceable rhythms, fluid and free – no Can, no Pavement, no Siouxsie, no mid to late period Radiohead (or a thousand other bands now at the forefront of modern “post”-“rock”). It is almost impossible to believe you are listening to an album from 1972.

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

I don’t really like what has come to be known as R&B (as distinct from rhythm and blues), and while iTunes has it that Freetown Sound is an “alternative album,” it has strong elements of what I think of as that genre. But, what I really hear is soul. Curtis Mayfield’s version of soul, with something of his intensely political but affirmative voice, guided along the pathways opened by Massive Attack and refined by Dev Hynes in his Blood Orange guise. 

It’s not an album designed, I think, to speak directly to a middle class, middle aged white man like me, but like Janelle Monàe’s The ArchAndroid, it transcends my limitations. I don’t understand it. The reference points I do get – Michael Jackson, 80s funk… – are not highlighted on my musical map. But, damn, it’s great to listen to.

Calexico & Iron & Wine – In the Reins

Phew. After Can and Blood Orange, I feel like I back on familiar terrain. Guitars? Check. Shuffling drums? Check. Pedal Steel? Check. Calexico is one of those Uncut championed bands I never quite got around to. I had a few tracks from the magazine’s Unconditionally Guaranteed CDs and, whenever they came up, I nodded along and thought “I like this.” Similarly, Iron & Wine was a band I knew more as a reference point for bands that I liked than because of any particular listening experience.

Listening to these two bands working collaboratively has led me to downloading more of each back catalogue, but this is the album I’ve most frequently come back to. I suppose at 28 minutes, I should probably call it an EP rather than an album, but it feels whole and complete. The harmonies between Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Calexico’s Joey Burns are tight and prove more than the sum of their parts, the bursts of stax horns on History of Lovers have the transformative quality that I find in all my favourite songs.

Case/Lang/Viers – Case/Lang/Viers

Skimming through my record collection reveals a soft spot for singer songwriters, and specifically for the literate, intellectually engaged ones, such as Thea Gilmore, Cat Power and Sara Watkins. And here are three of them, working together: Neko Case, KD Lang and Laura Viers.

I know each to some degree or other, with Neko Case being my strongest suit but Lang perhaps the best known. I know none well enough to easily pick out who might be leading each track. But that hardly matters where there is no weak link (in absolute or relative terms) and the true magic is the way they blend their voices in service of the material, the harmony’s recalling Jenny Lewis’ collaboration with the Watson Twins, while never allowing one voice to stand above. 

If the Case/Lang/Viers moniker suggests the dusty offices of a regional firm of accountants, there is nothing about the songs that sounds as if bean-counters have been at work. Each song sounds crafted, the songwriting and arrangements mapped out to punch in the right places and lull in others, the guitars, bass and drums foundation supplemented by inventive string arrangements and pedal steel. Just beautiful.

Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker – Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour

I first heard of Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker via Jim Moray’s Low Culture Podcast. Like Moray, C&W take folk music in a direction where more is seen as more. However, where Moray is, on occasion, a folk McCartney with no-one to hold him back, C&W introduce a little more light and shade, though mostly shade. NCBBTH is a melancholy listen, but not a depressing on.

The key hooks here are the clarity of Clarke’s vocals (neither overly mannered, in the way that makes us impure-folkies cringe a little, nor a faux American sop to Anais Mitchell’s reviled “poppers” in Hadestown), the musical complexity of Walker’s guitar lines and Clarke’s multi-instrumental flourishes. Added to these, traditional arrangements aside, Clarke’s lyrics are thoughtful, the glass half full, but still filled with a sweet liquor. Time moves on, losses are felt and it is well worth joining Clarke and Walker on the journey.

So, I was wrong. I owe my friend Pip an apology for being so absolute in my conviction that nothing good would ever come of music by subscription. And I owe EE for dangling Apple Music before me. I will still buy music that enthrals me so that I can hold it and turn the pages of the liner (something digital has yet to provide with any great facility). 

That aside, the entity I will doubtless end up owing most to is Apple. From what I can see, Apple Music pays artists around the same as Spotify, within a band running from around $0.0010 to $0.0019 and, according to data on http://www.informationisbeautiful.net, has a reach exceeded only by Spotify and YouTube. 

Is that enough? I’m not sure and those that can afford to challenge the business model should do so. Doubtless the market will finally assert itself over the artist, but there is little doubt that, through Apple Music, I will listen to a wider variety of music, more often than I would have done without it. Maybe that’s a contribution of sorts.  

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Lambchop at the Roundhouse, lightly grilled

Photo (c) Andrew Lynch

As Kurt told us, it’s not over ’til the fat lady gets home. Well, the little fat man got home at 2am on a bus masquerading as a train. And yet, the memories of Lambchop’s gig at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm remain, well, not fresh exactly, but warm, sentimental and somewhat romantic – but then, it’s a Lambchop gig, so that should come as no surprise. 

This was a much smaller line up than when I saw them at the Barbican playing their way through the whole of Nixon, the album that brought their commercial peak. Tonight, bass, drums (digital and acoustic, with a smattering of synth noodling), piano (doubling up on stand-up routines) and Mr K Wagner Esq. on Gibson archtop, synths, midi-controller(?) and vocals, played mostly from the songbook of new album FLOTUS – a reference to Democratic political activist and former record shop owner Mary Mancini, whose husband just happens to be the Lambchop front man. 

FLOTUS is not an album I know well yet, suckered as I am still most often by the charms of What Another Man Spills, which is where Lambchop started for me in 1998. (Even at 21 I was essentially 42). If pressed, I couldn’t write out a set list for last night, not least because many of the new songs are built on similar foundations: lightly brushed drums, intricate but mellow bass lines, deft piano accents and Kurt’s voice, swamped in analogue delay and a softly doubling chorus that substitutes for the album’s experiments in autotune.

And it’s a unique voice: a rich, mellow (there’s that word again) baritone. Settled in a comfortable mid-range, words are half sung, half spoken. It might become monotone if not for occasional swoops from subterranean Isaac Hayes rumble to highfalutin’ Curtis Mayfield yelps. In truth, over the last few albums, Kurt’s vocals had, to my ears, become more staccato and compressed. Here, the swathes of delay fill out the sound until it becomes truly organic, despite its digital support. The side effect is that many of the words are indecipherable, which for a band benefiting from Kurt’s unique, sharply observed and very funny view of the world, seems a shame initially. But on the FLOTUS songs, the voice is treated as another instrument in the mix and I couldn’t be absolutely sure there were actual words for which to strain. Of course, just occasionally clarity broke through the soup and when it happened my companion and I were reduced to fits of giggles as a perfectly created and witty image was skilfully sketched in a handful of words.

If FLOTUS really is the album Kurt wrote in the hope that Mary might find room for it in the car alongside her more modern pop sensibilities, then I hope she only plays it on journeys without a pressing time of arrival. As the band settles into each casual groove, moving along with impeccable taste and little haste, the audience is lulled into a meditative state. This is music for travelling at a steady 55mph on a die straight highway with the wheel locked off, roof on, lost in thought. Some people took the chance to sleep. And it was quiet enough to sleep. Never have I heard a band delight in playing as quietly as Lambchop. Had the set continued until 1am, none of the Roundhouse’s neighbours would have had cause to complain. 

After a solid hour and 40, the gig ended with an encore straight out of Lambchop playbook. Would they play the big hit (if there is one, it is probably Up With People from Nixon) or maybe wheel out the cover of Young Americans that wowed the Barbican audience back in January 2015? The band shuffle back on, drop into a easy groove and another low key, soulful gem emerges: Lambchop please by doing things their way and sincerely hoping you like it. And that’s that. Warm appreciation all around, received and reciprocated with typical Southern charm. Then we’re off, Lambchop most likely to sip a beer in silent companionship while I savour the delights of the train and the bus. 

I’m with the mutants across the road

On Sunday just gone, Teddington Theatre Club (TTC)’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man” won (jointly) best play at the Richmond-Upon-Thames drama awards (the Swans) for 2010/11. That achievement reflects the excellent efforts of the cast and crew and rewards the decision of TTC’s artistic committee to both suggest and back the production. It also rewards the commitment we made, cited by the judges, to craft a production that was a sensitive treatment of disability and difference that a modern audience would grasp and, hopefully, reflect on. It seems appropriate in that context to republish here my programme note by way of thanks to all those who made the production possible.

Director’s note

Eighteen months ago I read Armand Marie Leroi’s book “Mutants”, in part in preparation for “Elephant Man”, although it has since taken on a broader importance. I have since read it twice more. If I’m honest, my understanding of the science of genetics probably reached its peak about a third of the way into the second reading – and will never progress further – but my appreciation of the story has continued to grow. There is a key theme, building on Francis Bacon: mutants – those people with genetic difference arising from errors in the code by which they’re programmed – are central to understanding what we are, why we develop in the way we do and why our bodies malfunction and die.

Or in summary, if we understand those people who are different from ourselves, we understand ourselves better.

Leroi tells this story through a mixture of modern science, teratology – the archaic study of monsters – and descriptions of early genetic experiments from splicing newt DNA in Freiburg just prior to the second world war to experiments on dwarves in it; there are also case studies of some of the more celebrated mutants throughout history, including Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.

Merrick’s doctor, Freddie Treves, late of Dorchester, friend of Thomas Hardy and physician to the wealthy and successful, wrote his own case study of Merrick, famously misnaming him John. It is from this text that much of the material for Bernard Pomerance’s play is drawn. Indeed, David Lynch’s film draws from much the same source as the play, although the two are not linked otherwise.

In the film, of course, John Hurt’s Merrick comes replete with prostheses, beautifully rendered in crisp, brightly lit black and white. In the play, Pomerance proscribes the use of prosthetics and, whilst the actor must approximate the physical form and recreate the initial difficulties Merrick faced in making his speech understood, his physical deformity is of secondary concern.

That might seem a strange thing to say of a play about the Elephant Man. It’s Richard III or Quasimodo without their hunched backs; Leroux’s Phantom without the mask. The question perhaps is what we’ve come to the theatre to see.

Many of the mutants whose stories Leroi recounts were amongst those collected by the high ranking nobles of Europe for display at court: piebald Javanese children, people covered from head to toe in luxuriant hair, conjoined twins. They were there, as Merrick was, to be stared at in amazement and with amusement. Those highborn courtiers responded in much the same way as their lower born counterparts responded to the freak shows of Barnum and others. People, it seems, are always drawn to extremes.

But Pomerance’s play is not a freak show. And a reasonable question is: do the prostheses in Lynch’s film assist or detract from the story of the man beneath them? Perhaps there’s a zeitgeist-y parallel here: when Susan Boyle sang on Britain’s Got Talent, did you also think, in the words of Amanda Holden, “I wasn’t expecting that” – by extension, a “beautiful” voice to come from someone who was unattractive physically? To make up our Merrick with lumps and bumps would be to present the audience the opportunity to betray itself with the thought: I never expected something so ugly to see so much beauty in the world. It’s an instinctive thought, and one that I’m sure we’ve all had. And it does majority a disservice. Most of us feel the immediate guilt that follows.

There should be no need for guilty consciences here. My hope is that you will note the physical difficulties Merrick faces – they do, in the end, lead to his death – but to think about what he says about the world around him, his lack of bitterness and his capacity for love and faith, and to focus on what Pomerance wants us to see: just another man, with his challenges to overcome, poorly treated by those around him but doing what we all do best: become a little better every day.