2018 Rewind

Last year’s experience of assembling a simple list of what I considered to be my favourite albums of the year didn’t appeal this time around, so I’ve broken down my 2018 into four categories – concerts, interviews, events and albums. As ever, these are all chosen from personal (and often highly personal) vantage points; it doesn’t mean that other things aren’t better – it’s just that these things appeal to me more.

Concerts

Reed & Caroline, Pianos, NYC, May 2018

Last year I wrote gushingly – and, to some, perhaps offensively – about Reputation by Taylor Swift, and this year we saw Ms Swift twice, once at Wembley and once at the Raymond James stadium in Tampa, FL. Mrs S. cried throughout both concerts (I got emotional too, okay?) and, after Wembley, our impressionable eldest / almost-teenage daughter immediately asserted, via the medium of her WhatsApp status, that Taylor represented someone whose values meant a huge amount to her. I don’t even know how to use emojis, let alone add a WhatsApp status, but I will say this (again) – Taylor Swift writes fucking great songs, is an incredibly important role model for young females, and is a sensational live performer. Feeling the concrete vibrate under your seat high up in an American football stadium as thousands of people register their enthusiasm is pretty hard to beat. Weirdly, I was asked some questions about my unashamed love of Taylor Swift (among other things) for The Electricity Club, which you can enjoy here.

I go to fewer and fewer concerts these days, but GoGo Penguin’s strobe-heavy show at the Royal Albert Hall was incredible, as was Barry Adamson’s confessional / big band performance at the Union Chapel, as was Daniel Blumberg at our local gallery in Milton Keynes, as was Nadine Khouri at Rough Trade East. Having a rare dad-and-daughter night out with our eldest daughter to watch Erasure in Aylesbury was a treat, as was her watching me interview Andy Bell for Clash by the bins at the back of the venue during a fire alarm immediately beforehand; it gives new meaning to the fabled ‘bring your daughters to work’ day. Watching Reed & Caroline’s cosy show at Pianos on New York’s Lower East Side in May was another memorable event in so, so, so many ways. More on Reed & Caroline further down the page.

Interviews

Daniel Blumberg by Angela Beltran

As a writer, you always strive to get an opportunity to tell those stories which deserve to be told but which somehow get overlooked. This year I was fortunate to be able to write some really important stories for Electronic Sound, from the weird circumstances of Ciccone Youth’s ‘Into The Groove(y)’, to the still-unreleased synth-heavy ‘Rubberband’ sessions convened by Miles Davis in the 1980s, to Space’s ‘Magic Fly’, to the DIY recordings of Thomas Leer and Robert Rental.

The piece that I’m most proud of, though, was an interview with Daniel Blumberg for Clash. Blumberg’s Minus was one of the albums that caught my attention the most this year, situated as it is on the crossroads between improvisation and Townes Van Zandt-style balladry. Interviewing Blumberg about his creative impulses in his kitchen / non-kitchen for two hours, watching him drawing in front of me, and having the opportunity to piece together his disparate interests while tearing up every question I’d prepared was a profound experience, and one I will never, ever forget. A few moths later I rewatched an interview with David Bowie on the Dick Cavett show around the time of Young Americans, and some of Daniel’s mannerisms reminded me of that, convincing me yet further that I’ve been privileged to have spent time with an absolute artistic genius. The Blumberg piece for Clash is here.

Events

Andy McCluskey – Sugar Tax Interview CDr

April, 2018, an Irish bar in deepest Greenwich Village: not unlike the three witches at the start of Macbeth, Reed Hays, Vince Clarke and I are scheming intently, over, variously, pints of New York tapwater, Diet Coke and Stella. We are talking about how we might promote the new Reed & Caroline album, Hello Science, which would eventually be released in July of this year.

Other than profound enthusiasm, I can’t say I really brought anything new to the table (other than maybe a round of drinks) but it was a massive privilege to have worked with Vince’s VeryRecords on that record nonetheless. After lots of conversation among us and with Caroline Schutz about the song’s hymn-like qualities, at some point I managed to get permission to share ‘Before’ from the album with the music teacher of my my eldest daughter’s school, culminating in a mesmerising performance by the choir at a very special evening event in June which you can see below.

Another professional privilege was being asked by Mute to host a live Q&A with Barry Adamson at London’s Rough Trade East in early November to support his Memento Mori career-spanning compilation. This is the second such event I’ve hosted for Mute, and I can’t express how much of an honour it is to be offered the chance to support the label I’ve been a fan of for so long in this way, other than to say, humbly, and rather feebly, that I feel incredibly lucky. The Q&A, which I cheekily described as “Memento Mori Jackanory” (to the amusement of myself and one other person), was also a form of redress for an earlier Adamson interview I’d conducted just as he left Mute, representing one of the first Q&As I’d ever done, which I still cringe at today.

This year I interviewed OMD’s Andy McCluskey for the second time. The conversation, focussed exclusively on the album Sugar Tax, will never get written up, and the recording will never be heard beyond three people – myself, my mother and my father. The catalyst was my father’s January diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and the significance of Sugar Tax was that it was an album he and I would often listen to in the car on Saturdays while he drove around our home town working his own second job. I cherish those memories so much, and am so grateful to Andy for consenting so readily to sharing his own, highly personal recollections of that LP so directly with my family and I.

Alzheimer’s has made 2018 a tough year for our family, but music has often been the salve to the suffering we have all felt since his diagnosis.

Albums

The album I spent most time with in 2018 was O.Y. In Hi-Fi by Optiganally Yours, a duo of Optigan aficionado Pea Hicks and vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Rob Crow. By way of quick summary, the Optigan was a Mattel home organ / pre-sampler keyboard that utilised discs of pre-recorded loops that you could use to make your own songs. I’d have known nothing of this this duo were it not for the enthusiastic recommendations of Reed Hays, who used an Orchestron – a kind of grown-up, professional version of Mattel’s 70s keyboard project – on the aforementioned Hello Science LP.

For O.Y. In Hi-Fi, Hicks dusted down the original master tapes of the sessions that produced the various LP-sized discs of Optigan loops (hence the ‘hi-fi’ reference in the title), meaning – deep breath – that this album samples original material that would end up being used as lo-fi recordings on an early keyboard that sort of used sampling technology as its basis. Honestly, this album contains some of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Well worth investigating, as is a tinker with Hicks’ GarageBand-bashing iOptigan iOS app, just like I made Vince Clarke and Reed Hays do as we regrouped over drinks at that same Irish pub later in the year.

As I’ve said before, so much of album reviewing is, for me, inextricably linked to where I am at that precise point in time, whether mentally or geographically. Reviewing Erasure’s neo-classical collaboration with Echo Collective while sat in a hotel window overlooking Central Park in a reflective and lonely state of mind takes some beating, while listening to First Aid Kit’s Ruins while ‘enjoying’ a freezing cold work trip to Canada also can’t help but leave a mark on you (possibly frostbite).

Daniel Blumberg’s Minus is synonymous, for me, with taking apart and rebuilding our youngest daughter’s wardrobe as we relocated her bedroom in our house, while the fantastic debut Ex-Display Model LP just reminds me of an evening wandering the West End after work, watching while everyone seemed to be having a good time in bars and pubs while I seemed resolutely outside of pretty much everything.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound Issue 47

Electronic Sound issue 47 is now available, featuring a very special in-depth look at Wendy Carlos’s work for Stanley Kubrick’s still-disturbing film of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. This month’s musical accompaniment is a CD featuring exclusive ‘responses’ to Carlos’s soundtrack from a whole bunch of electronic music luminaries, including Chris Carter (who worked on the movie as sound assistant), Factory Floor‘s Gabe Gurnsey, Sink Ya Teeth and Jack Dangers. There’s also a nice chat with Barry Adamson, who Sink Ya Teeth recently supported for his October shows in Manchester and London.

This month I contributed an Introducing piece on violinist Jessica Moss, whose new electronically-augmented work Entanglement is both modishly minimalist and refreshingly maximalist. I also reviewed new albums by SAD MAN, whose ROM-COM is his eleventh release in the past year full of eclectic gestures; Demolition by Brooklynite Robert Toher under his Public Memory alias which has all the murkiness of classic Depeche Mode filtered through trip-hop nous; Defiance + Entropy by FORM, a collaboration between Rob Dust, Shelter‘s Mark Bebb and Depeche tribute act Speak & Spell‘s Keith Trigwell; and Where Moth And Rust Consume by Sone Institute on the consistently excellent Front & Follow.

My favourite album this month was the wonderful sax and synths of Frank Paul Schubert and Isambard Khroustaliov with their hypothetical muzak for “the restaurant at the end of the universe”, a hastily-recorded improvised record full of noise and compelling coarseness. Listen to the stellar ‘Maconte, The Cross-Eyed Agony Aunt’ from That Would Have Been Decent at Bandcamp below.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

In Conversation: Barry Adamson (Rough Trade East, 7 November 2018)

Upon the release of his career-surveying Memento Mori compilation, I will have the enormous pleasure of talking to Barry Adamson at a very special Rough Trade East event on 7th November from 7pm.

Barry Adamson talks to Mat Smith about his 40 years in music, taking in his formative beginnings with Magazine, his time as a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, film soundtracks and his solo career, as a musician and composer.

This will be followed by a short set of songs from his new 40 year anthology ‘Memento Mori’.

After the performance there will be a signing where Barry will be available to sign his new album and items from throughout his career.

Tickets can be obtained through Rough Trade’s website here.

(c) 2018 Mute / Rough Trade

Barry Adamson – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 9 February 2012 (Clash concert review)

To support the release of I Will Set You Free, Barry Adamson played a show at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 February 2012. Adamson and his band – Ian Ross on drums, Nick Plytas on keys, Bobby Williams on guitar and Maxwell Sterling on bass, with the Trinity Strings and Steve Hamilton’s horn quartet – tore through tracks mostly taken from I Will Set You Free and its predecessor, Back To The Cat. Support came from The Gilded Palace Of Sin and comedian Simon Day reading poems as Geoffrey Allerton.

I reviewed the concert for Clash‘s website with photos by Andy Sturmey. The full review can be reached by clicking here.

Barry Adamson live at Queen Elizabeth Hall, 9 February 2012 - my ticket

Thanks to Stuart Kirkham for confirmation of the setlist.

setlist:
1. Destination
2. I Will Set You Free
3. Whispering Streets
4. You Sold Your Dreams
5. If You Love Her
6. Turn Around
7. Black Holes In My Brain
8. Looking To Love Somebody
9. The Power Of Suggestion
10. Psycho_Sexual
11. Civilization
12. Straight ‘Til Sunrise
13. Stand In

14. Jazz Devil

(c) 2012 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash // photo (c) 2012 Andy Sturmey for Clash

Note: this was my first piece written for Clash. Up to that point, everything I had ever written had been for Documentary Evidence or its predecessor blogs.

Barry Adamson – Brighton Rockers (Central Control International single, 2012)

central control | postcard-flexi/dl no cat ref | 03/09/2012


Barry Adamson released ‘Brighton Rockers’ on his own Central Control label in September 2012. Released as a single track download and also as a limited-edition flexi-postcard record, all profits and additional donations are donated to the charity CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which seeks to reduce the suicide rate of men. More information on CALM, its aims and its plans to deal with the biggest killer of men under the age of thirty-five can be found at their website.

The ‘sleeve’ shows an idyllic Brighton blue sky and a pedestrian taking a break on one of the benches dotted along the promenade. The music is a nice heavy slice of solid dub reggae, all thunderous bass, staccato piano and reverb-heavy rhythms and interludes, with some authentic horns and organ lines washing into the mix at times. The inclusion of some soulful, meditative sax and tinkly jazz organ stops this from becoming too dub-derivative, creating a typically noirish Adamson take on the genre, and a hitherto under-explored area of Adamson’s musical interest. The result is something that sounds like an authentic, well-researched take on the dub template, whilst retaining an identifiable distinctly Adamson groove (and, in the title, his trademark wry sense of humour) at the same time.

The summer may sadly be all but over, but this track is just about the best soundtrack I can think of for kicking back and relaxing on Brighton’s pebble beach in the sunshine.

Originally posted 2012.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Barry Adamson – I Will Set You Free (Central Control International album, 2012)


album // I Will Set You Free
central control international | lp+cd/cd/dl cci019 | 30/01/2012

Barry Adamson released the confidently-titled I Will Set You Free, his ninth solo album, on his own Central Control International label at the tail end of January 2012. The release followed an intense three years of shifting directions for Adamson, including writing his first piece of fiction (Maida Hell, included in the London Noir collection, for which he won the Best Short Story prize at Italy’s Piemonte Noir festival), releasing the highly lauded Back To The Cat album, returning to the stage with his first band, Howard Devoto‘s Magazine and releasing his first short film, the disturbing Therapist. During the interview accompanying Therapist, Adamson described feeling like he was treading water in the studio ahead of shifting his attention to the film project, creating music that was more or less Barry Adamson-by-numbers, inadvertently leading to a sense of nervousness about his latest album.

While it would actually be quite nice to hear a cinematic Adamson on record again, it’s evident from I Will Set You Free that recreating the dark mood of his earlier solo self is just not where his head is right now. The album only contains one piece that remotely evokes that forgotten vibe in the clever sound design of ‘The Trigger City Blues’, which includes sampled rainfall and gunshots interspersed with electronic pulses and squirming synth tones. Those poignant, dark alley whispered vocals of yesteryear Adamson usher in bluesy guitar riffs and opening-credit-sequence industrial hip hop beats. ‘The Trigger City Blues’ makes you think of the music to the scene in a heist movie where the bad guys and getting prepped for the big bank job, donning masks and sticking the guns in the unmarked van.

I Will Set You Free was crafted by Adamson (bass, vocals, programming) with Ian Ross (drums), long-standing collaborator Nick Plytas (organ) and Bobby Williams (guitar). Horns come from Sid George (trumpet), Steve Hamilton (tenor sax) and Harry Brown (trombone), a trio capable of turning out pretty much any jazz mood required by their band leader. In the main, I Will Set You Free continues the mood of albums such as Stranger On The Sofa, where Adamson as a front man and vocalist really came to fruition, here striking a balance between the outright acid rock of tracks like ‘Destination’ (released ahead of the album as a free download) with more emotionally sentimental pieces like ‘If You Love Her’. The contrast between the stately croon of the latter with the motorik-meets-white-hot punk of ‘Destination’ provides a neat overview of an album that finds Adamson operating at both extremes, between the loverman and the serpentine voodoo priest perched atop the dangerous, nihilistic bloodymindedness that characterises ‘Destination’.

Further explorations into dark rock come with the opener, ‘Get Your Mind Right’, which finds Adamson pitching in with a vocal somewhere between David Bowie’s archness and the stream-of-consciousness lurching of Shaun Ryder, augmented by typically frazzled organ from Plytas and glam drumming from Ross. In a nice stylistic shift, ‘Stand In’ is a wide-eyed Eighties-referencing towering pop track, replete with a nice elongated synth section that feels like Yazoo covering Kraftwerk; okay, so it feels nearly twenty years too late for a John Hughes movie, but it has a big sound and a catchy chorus that will stick in your head long after the track has finished its emotional motions.

Of the ballads, ‘Turnaround’ is probably the highlight, being an ephemeral, lysergic ballad shimmering with emotional outpourings. Adamson as a crooner is one of the most surprisingly confident aspects to his still comparatively recent development as a singer, finding his honey vocal enveloped with serene acoustic guitar and washes of dreamy synth strings.

Some of I Will Set You Free‘s best moments come in the form of two downright fonky tracks, ‘Black Holes In My Brain’ and ‘The Power Of Suggestion’. The former is delivered in a relaxed, jazzy vibe that for some reason reminds me of George Michael (don’t ask why, but for once it’s not a bad association) and a stretched-out bassline which could have been lifted wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner-City Blues’. ‘Black Holes In My Brain’ feels like a more organic Soul II Soul or another of those eclectic soul-jazz-hip-hop collectives from around the same time, all lumpy beats and soulful breeziness. ‘The Power Of Suggestion’, meanwhile, is sexy and upbeat, imbued with a summery warmth and sublime jazz piano lines. The track shuffles out over thick, chunky beats and and contains a theatrical swing that feels like it would suit a remake of Bugsy Malone.

I Will Set You Free has an embedded self-assuredness that suggests Adamson can turn out a leftfield rock album pretty much in his sleep these days. Whilst irritating reviewers like this one may well pine for those noir days of cinematic classics like Moss Side Story, there’s no denying that the path that Barry Adamson is singularly marking out for himself right now will continue to be littered with obfuscations, contradictions and further questing within his future projects, whatever they may prove to be. The press release talks of Adamson being released from shackles, and that is exactly how this album sounds; free, effortless and typically idiosyncratic.

First published 2012; edited 2016

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Barry Adamson – Dreams Of A Life (Central Control International album, 2012)

  
central control international | dl unknown cat ref | 10/12/2012

Perhaps it was intentional that Barry Adamson‘s music for Carol Morley’s film Dreams Of A Life went relatively unnoticed. After all, Morley’s film is a drama-documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a beautiful woman with a successful career in finance and early aspirations toward a pop career; someone who was well networked with lots of friends and a surprising number of interactions with celebrities like Ben E. King, Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron, even shaking hands with Nelson Mandela backstage at his tribute concert at Wembley in 1990.

The tragic conclusion to Vincent’s life is, sadly, what she will be remembered for – found in 2006 not just dead, but decomposed, on a sofa in her bedsit in Wood Green, TV still playing BBC1 and rotten food in the fridge dating her death back to 2003. Unpaid utility bills were stacked behind her door; neighbours complained about a smell, but attributed it to the bins from the shops below. That someone could have slipped completely off radar and totally out of the system – effectively disappearing – in today’s hyper-networked times seems all the more shocking, the sense that someone with a wide circle of friends like Vincent could vanish without trace improbable somehow. The cause of Vincent’s death was never ascertained; never a huge drinker and not known to take drugs, the only link to any form of foul play was that she had stayed in a women’s refuge for domestic violence in Haringay in 2001, something that friends suggested was possible given how intense some of her City boyfriends could be.

Adamson’s soundtrack appeared on iTunes in December 2012 but I only found out about it in February when I received an email from Adamson’s mailing list advising that the film would be shown on TV that evening, with a separate link to his soundtrack. Those familiar with Adamson’s work will find few surprises here. There’s the usual rich gumbo of funky basslines, glitches, dub, ice-cold electronica, gospel outpourings (‘Tell Me’), jazzy riffing (‘Profile Of Martin’), organ grooves and noir themes that sound like something from a Seventies blaxploitation flick. Opener ‘The Investigation’ has all the grim urgency of a police drama while simultaneously evoking the mournful, pained observations of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner-City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ from What’s Going On; that track’s main motifs crop up elsewhere on the soundtrack in various different arrangements, giving the whole album a strong sense of coherence, the guitar plucking in particular giving things a folksy, introverted quality. The grandiose ‘Mystery’, complete with ghostly tones and ominous strings, perfectly matches its title’s promise, even if the counterpart ‘Mystery Atmos’ – with far-off rhythms and atmospheric textures – has the greater air of mystique, despite only dealing in semi-audible subtleties.

‘Noir (ish)’, with a chunky, phasing beat, melancholy synths and dirty funk guitars, is the closest Adamson has probably ever got to the sound of early Portishead, a band who claimed to be influenced heavily by the noirmeister, even though there was very little similarity between his music and theirs aside from a whiff of sullen mystery; ‘Noir (ish)’ squares that circle in many ways, and is one of Adamson’s most quietly assured works to date. The moving ‘Joyce Alone’, composed for piano, has a stirring poignancy, the absence of any other accompaniment other than the instrument’s natural reverb prompting you to reflect on Vincent’s three year wait to be discovered; it’s a beautiful, but deeply saddening piece. In contrast, ‘Electro Dreams’ manages to sound like a perfect distillation of Kraftwerk’s every move, albeit covered in a murky sheen of darkness, its inclusion having an urgent car-chase quality which doesn’t necessary fit with the other pieces here, even if it does highlight Adamson’s alarming musical dexterity.

While there are some really excellent pieces of soundtrack composition here, part of me thinks that it occasionally lacks a sense of seriousness and sympathy toward the subject matter. I admit freely that this might be because I’m looking at this solely as a musical response to what I’ve read of Vincent’s life; I haven’t seen the film and so it is often hard to imagine some of these pieces in context, but they just feel a little too playful at times; Adamson has a very prominent sense of humour and I sort of hoped that the challenging subject matter of the film might have curtailed that, but it’s still there, albeit in a relatively muted fashion. There’s also something about some of the pieces here, a dry quality perhaps, that reminds me of a low-budget TV movie.

A detailed piece written by Carol Morley for The Observer on her quest to find out more about Joyce Carol Vincent’s life and death can be found here. A video trailer for Morley’s movie can be found below; Part 10 of Morley’s video diary about the film, an interview with Adamson, can be seen below that.

First published 2013; re-posted 2016

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence