Trembling Bells drummer and lyricist, Alex Neilson, is back with a new album – the brilliant, bizarro folk rambling, Andromeda.
Previewed by lead single, Haunted House, the LP, which is due out on 17th February, sees the songwriter hold a mirror up at his life – and recalls Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker along the way. These are his Sound & Vision picks:
THREE ALBUMS THAT I LOVE:
Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five – Collection: 1941 – 1944
Over the summer I took a solo road trip to the Lake District and had this album playing in a continuous loop. It’s essentially big band jazz arranged by a maniac. Jordan is a kind of skid row Duke Ellington. But unlike Ellington’s insistence on the sophistication of his style, Jordan deliberately drags his through the gutter- giving names and character references to all the creatures he finds down there.
He critiques and lampoons these lowlifes, creating an ironic distance between what he says and what he means. A kind of double-bluff which allows him to ventriloquise the voices of hapless, alcoholic cads for comic and creative effect, while simultaneously exposing their haplessness and short circuiting our possible responses. Kinda like a pre-bop Stewart Lee.
In I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts of Town he plays the part of a controlling, paranoid cuckold who needs to safeguard his sweetie from the grocery boy and the air-con man. Later in the album he uses the same arrangement to update us on his failure to renew his wife’s interest by isolating her from her suitors in I’m Gonna Leave You On The Outskirts Of Town. He’s not saying ‘These are good ways to behave’ he’s saying ‘These are the ways that douche bags behave under these circumstances’.
The slipperiness of these vantage points helps elasticate the music too. There’s a virtuosic lairiness to Jordan’s arrangements which makes them sound more imaginative and vibrant than his contemporaries. The saxophones sound sexier, the drums drunker, the syncopations more screwball. This slight massaging of the form makes an otherwise generic music seem wild and innovative.
Cat Stevens- Tea For The Tillerman
This is an album bursting with monster hits in spite of itself. As each track ticks by you find yourself saying, ‘Woah, did Cat Steven’s write this?!’. But there’s a spirituality that pulses through it that might not be immediately apparent on Boyzone’s cover of Father And Son. It’s a Blakean Songs of Innocence and Experience style spirituality. One which seeks transcendence through renewed wonderment at the everyday details of the world, while also keeping an eye on the corruptive possibilities of worldliness. These ideas are played out alternately on Wild World and Longer Boats and reach an apotheosis on Miles From Nowhere with the gnostic cry, ‘Lord my body has been a good friend, but I won’t need it when I reach the end’.
But it’s not necessarily the themes of the album that I find most compelling, it’s the conviction by which Stevens sings them with every cell of his body.
Lavinia from Trembling Bells used to complain, ‘Urgh, his voice sounds like he’s got a mouthful of digestive biscuits.’. And, although I don’t know what she means, it kinda makes sense. Stevens’ voice leaps from low growl to keening yelp within the same sentence and often ends with him shaking the line with a violent vibrato as if wringing every ounce of pathos from it. And his decision making is bizarre and doesn’t seem to correspond to conventional wisdom of what might make a song appealing. The rhythms are pouncing and irregular and not anchored by many easily identifiable drum beats. The acoustic guitar is harsh and zealously played. His voice sounds like digestive fucking biscuits. But the album is bursting with monster hits in spite of all this.
Mickey Newbury- Looks Like Rain
Looks Like Rain is a concept album that is barely recognisable as country music as we might understand it judged against even the most outward-looking of Newbury’s contemporaries. There are long passages involving only thunder claps, train whistles, electric sitar and backwards harmonica as if the lights are being dimmed and the sets rearranged between the scenes of a theatrical performance. Newbury’s ornate guitar style owes as much to John Dowland as it does to Johnny Cash. And then there’s that voice. Newbury possesses a tremulous tenor that’s as nuanced and damaging as malt whiskey. This, combined with near subliminal strings and lap steel guitars that trail shooting stars with each up-surging sweep, makes you feel like you’re going to cry tears of pure bourbon.
A FILM THAT I LOVE:
I would have to say The Red Shoes. I adore all Powell and Pressburger, but this is their crowning achievement. It charts the rise and fall of prima ballerina Victoria Page. She is forced to choose between two possessive men- one an obsessive disciplinarian who seeks to use her like a marionette for his ambitious, balletic creations, the other is her lover who wants her to forfeit a meteoric career for a life of romantic contentment. In the end she tries to kill herself rather than be compromised by their clamouring claims for her soul. That’s after she’s figuratively danced to her own destruction in a 10 minute play-within-the-play sequence, during which she performs a stage adaptation of The Red Shoes – dancing in enchanted footwear in an escalating frenzy of virtuosity until she leaves the earthly realm and enters some psychic hinterland where the unseen spectres of her own psychology attempt to annihilate her. This follows one of my favourite themes- that which you are best at is also the thing that will destroy you. All rendered in Powell and Pressburger’s rapturously operatic Technicolor.
A FAVOURITE BOOK:
My favourite book that I have read in recent years is Nabokov’s Lolita. It’s a work of great nuance and complexity and also diabolically funny.
A SONG THAT I LOVE:
Nat “King” Cole – Stardust
Described by none other than Chuck Berry as ‘one of the three truly original songs’ (I think the other two were by him), this is sublime. I once heard Nat Cole’s voice described as ‘talcum powder and razor blades’ and it makes a lot of sense. With his pausing and purring and projection, he uses it like a sculptor uses negative space to create dramatic tension.
There’s a deliciousness to Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement which feels gigantic and hallucinatory- like a fever dream. The meaning of the song always feels on the edge of comprehensibility, but it seems to operate most successfully in the realm of the senses.