Imperial Teen, “The Hair, The TV, The Baby & The Band”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #86 – released August 21, 2007)

Track listing: Everything / Do It Better / Shim Sham / Baby and The Band / One Two / Room With A View / It’s Now / Fallen Idol / Sweet Potato / Everyone Wants To Know / 21st Century / What You Do

Although better known than Eric Matthews or Tompaulin, Imperial Teen are easily one of the more obscure artists appearing in this project. Most famous for sharing a member of platinum-selling metal/rap weirdos Faith No More (keyboardist Roddy Bottum, who primarily plays guitar and sings here) and finding one of their songs, “The First” unexpectedly pop up in a Pizzeria Uno commercial (of all places) a few years back, this boy-girl-boy-girl quartet made five albums between 1996 and 2012; all of ‘em were admired by critics and all sold diddly squat (the first two even coming out on a Major Label.)

Initially a scrappy post-grunge, pop-punk outfit (with greater emphasis on the pop part), the band was arguably more recognized at first for its openly gay members (Bottum had memorably come out on MTV a few years earlier) than its music, even if “You’re One”, a song about Kurt Cobain from their debut Seasick briefly snuck on to some alt-rock radio playlists. By their third album On (2002), they’d evolve into a tight power-pop combo, flush with miniature masterpieces like “Ivanka” where their melodic prowess, rhythmic attack and interlocking vocals all coalesce into a whole that thrillingly builds like the band is careening forever closer to the edge of a cliff without falling off.

I got to know Imperial Teen through their fourth album, The Hair, The TV, The Baby & The Band; its title cheekily refers to what each member had been up to in the five years since On. Respectively, bassist Jone Stebbins found side work as a hair stylist, Bottum scored the short-lived ABC series Help Me Help You, drummer Lynn Truell was currently an expectant mother and guitarist/vocalist Will Schwartz had his own musical side project, hey willpower. One suspects Schwartz might’ve also been the driving force for getting Imperial Teen back together, as he sings lead on all but three of the record’s dozen tracks.

It’s likely I would’ve become a fan had I heard any of the band’s previous albums first, but I consider myself lucky that I came on board here—The Hair… could be one of the all-time hookiest albums I’ve heard, packed front to back with nothing but clever, concise and supremely catchy tunes. Call them a queer, co-ed, semi-acoustic Ramones, but even that description would obscure the complexities in their countermelodies and overlapping vocal harmonies.

Opener “Everything”, a thrillingly sped-up take on “Be My Baby” grandeur carefully crafts a mini-wall-of-sound without a hint of Spector-ish pretentiousness—it gleefully employs cymbal crashes, a one-two-three-four! count-off, a heart-stopping chord change at its middle-eight and rhymes such as “democracy” with “hypocrisy”. It sets the stage for a slew of likeminded ravers: “Shim Sham” (with lead vocals from Truell), which emulates the trash-culture party aesthetic of early B-52’s (albeit with very different vocalists); “One Two”, a call-and-response shout-out that chugs along rapidly without seeming to ever break a sweat; “21st Century”, teeming with ecstatic cries of “Count! Down!” and angular guitar stabs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sleater-Kinney song.

My favorite of these scrappier garage-rock numbers is “Sweet Potato”, where a lovably stoopid, nay, remedial guitar riff and matching beat backs up one killer lyric after another: “They put her in the bottom three for singing ‘Tea For Two’,”; “Got a backstage pass but she doesn’t want to meet the band,”; “The carpool lane is open but she’s takin’ the bus.” Each one is followed by the song’s title, but the chorus is arguably even better: “Anyone, anywhere, anyway, LET’S GO!,” repeated over and over, not holding any hidden meaning but immensely enjoyable just for the sheer fun of it.

Fortunately, Imperial Teen are as effective when they cut their pop-punk with more varied, dynamic sounds and tones. “Do It Better” retains the brisk pace and fervent passion of their rowdier stuff, but deepens and agreeably softens things a little with its omnipresent flute-like keyboard and excessively melodic guitar riffs. “It’s Now” utilizes that tried-and-true soft-verse-then-loud-chorus construction but does so expertly whether you prefer their primal exclamations of “It’s NOWWW! It’s NOWWW!” or that moment where they rhyme “ceiling” with “Darjeeling”. “Everyone Wants To Know” goes the mid-tempo-with-power-chords route but keeps it lively with no lack of melody or lovely harmonies. “Fallen Idol” even takes a stab at loungey piano pop reminiscent of early ’70s Todd Rundgren with its major-7th chords, oompah rhythm and da-da-da’s (while still managing to sneak in a cheeky “Unabomber/Dahmer” rhyme.)

As proficient they are at creating great characters like “Sweet Potato”, Imperial Teen’s best songs often concern nothing so lofty as themselves, and, in particular, the plight of indie-rockers approaching middle age. The album’s title track (shortened to just “Baby and the Band”) could double as a band theme song as if they were to star in their own sitcom or Saturday morning cartoon; indeed, Bottum’s lead vocal, far more gentle than Schwartz’s, could almost be peak-period Donovan. A stop-and-start rhythm adds a little spice to the track’s affably bubblegum melody, while its lyrics are full of irresistible wordplay (“The wheels will turn / The top will spin / for me / for she / for her/ for him,”) and disarmingly clever rhymes with the song’s title, such as “Eight hands pound on the Concert Grand,” or “Fresh fruit’s best when it’s ripe and canned.”

“Room With A View” is just as catchy but cuts a little deeper. “We are working so hard / and we’re betting the farm / Charge it all to the card / Seventh time is the charm,” Schwartz trills in the first verse and, whether strictly autobiographical or not, you can’t help but want to believe he’s singing about his band. In the second verse, he almost wistfully adds, “Do our best to pretend / we’ll be twenty for life,” and the phrase hits like a dagger. Meanwhile, the Vince Guaraldi-esque piano lead is as charming as the one Belle and Sebastian built “Seeing Other People” around, while the rest of the band’s backing vocals (especially in the extended breakdown before the final chorus) serve as a reminder that they’re all in this together with Schwartz. “Room With A View” sounds like a lament that’s also a manifesto of sorts, acknowledging the passage of time (“We no longer smash guitars”) but also accepting it gracefully, particularly in the chorus: “And now / all we got left is a room / I didn’t mean to assume / we got the room with a view.”

As is their wont, Imperial Teen returned another five years later with their fifth album, Feel The Sound (whose title comes from The Hair’s… delicate Bottum-sung, closing ballad “What You Do”.) With production much fuller and airier than any of their previous work, it was thoughtful and mature, but not nearly as much fun (apart from “Out From Inside”, which could’ve been lifted off an old Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? episode.) At this writing, their website hasn’t been updated in four years, so they haven’t officially broken up. Still, given their track record, it would not surprise me to hear about a new Imperial Teen record tomorrow. Even if they have long since ceased smashing their guitars, I’d still be curious to hear how middle age is treating them.

Up next: Still a Weirdo.

“Room With A View”:

“Baby and The Band”:

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Charlotte Gainsbourg, “5:55”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #85 – released August 28, 2006)

Track listing: 5:55 / Af607105 / The Operation / Tel Que Tu Es / The Songs That We Sing / Beauty Mark / Little Monsters / Jamais / Night-Time Intermission / Everything I Cannot See / Morning Song / Set Yourself On Fire* / Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping*

*Bonus tracks included on later editions.

Technically, 5:55 is not Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first appearance on 100 Albums—she’s on the cover of her father Serge’s 1971 LP Histoire de Melody Nelson, albeit in the form of her mother Jane Birkin’s four-month-old baby bump (strategically concealed by a stuffed animal.) Also, 5:55 is not even her debut album, for that was actually 1986’s Charlotte For Ever, featuring the single “Lemon Incest”, which Serge wrote and produced as a duet with her two years before when she was thirteen. We also partially have dad to thank for her subsequent acting career, as he created a feature-length vehicle for the two of them, also called Charlotte For Ever. After his 1991 death, she’d gradually establish herself as a world-class actress with major roles in films like Felix and Lola, My Wife Is An Actress, 21 Grams and The Science of Sleep.

As the offspring of a French singer/songwriter and a British singer/actress, it was inevitable that Gainsbourg would return to making music as an adult; fortunately, the results far exceeded your average actress-wants-to-sing-too kind of effort, even if the methodology wasn’t all that far off from when she worked with her father. Deftly noting that she didn’t possess substantial credentials as a songwriter or a musician, she found superlative artists in each field to assist her. Thus, 5:55 plays like a three-way collaboration between vocalist Gainsbourg, lyricist Jarvis Cocker of the then recently-defunct Britpop group Pulp and French electronica-lounge male duo Air, who wrote and arranged the music.

Pulp fans, no matter how casual, can immediately pinpoint Cocker’s transgressive point of view in 5:55’s lyrics (previously most eloquently expressed in that band’s classic anthem “Common People”.) Likewise, Air fans will easily recognize the gentle, ethereal, piano-and-strings heavy, near-easy-listening vibe as not at all dissimilar from their own albums Moon Safari and Talkie Walkie. Thus, the wild card here is Gainsbourg, whom, two decades removed from Charlotte For Ever, has no great precedent as a singer. Some may argue she’s (still) not a singer, with her thin, reedy voice and tendency to more often breathily speak the lyrics, restricting the actual singing to occasional songs and passages. Still, you can’t deny she has presence—much like her father, who was hardly technically a “great” vocalist, her delivery just oozes personality without seeming artificial or insincere (credit her acting skills.) It’s also fitting that, as she sings/speaks Cocker’s English lyrics, her British accent renders her his distaff equivalent, even if she displays enough flair and finesse to render her more than just a female Cocker clone.

5:55’s title track opener immediately sets a tone the rest of the album sustains. Piano arpeggios lay the foundation for Gainsbourg’s drowsy, near-whispered vocals. “Too late to end it now / too early to start again,” she winsomely sings, followed by a plaintive chorus that’s entirely the song’s title. One minute in, sumptuous strings first appear, occasionally swelling in the instrumental sections (along with a classy acoustic guitar solo) and at the end, as she sighs, “I sacrifice myself again, and again, and again…” repeating those last two words ad infinitum.

“Af607105” retains the same tempo, only to a trip-hop groove laden with electro sound effects. Clipped, spoken verses alternate with a serene, reassuringly sung chorus—the former a stream-of-consciousness collection of words and phrases (“Cigarettes / frequent flyer / stow away / dislocation”), the latter a confirmation as to what the cryptic title refers to (“We wish you all a very happy pleasant flight / this is a journey to the center of the night.”) It’s simultaneously a story-song, a confessional (“My heart is breaking somewhere over Saskatchewan”) and a mood piece.

The rest of 5:55 similarly vacillates between gorgeous, downbeat ballads and more lucid, hookier songs that nonetheless carry a hint of menace. “The Operation”, a scathing look at plastic surgery (“Our love goes under the knife,” she sings in the catchy, caustic chorus) set to a multi-layered mechanical rhythm is followed by “Tel Que Tu Es” (roughly, “Just As You Are”), a floating, circular waltz that exudes sparkly opulence thanks to its triangles and chimes. Interestingly, it’s the sole song here with mostly French lyrics (written by Air instead of Cocker); her decision to sing in English throughout the album might’ve been a way to distance herself from her (in)famous father, who predominantly sang in French.

Similarly, ‘The Songs That We Sing”, which could be an instant standard with its stirring opening fanfare and clarion chorus of, “And these songs that you sing / do they mean anything / To the people you’re singing them to / People like you,” precedes “Beauty Mark”, a deliberately slow, delicate tone poem. Little details, such a Fender Rhodes electric piano or a lone, spaced-out tambourine bubble to the surface as Gainsbourg eerily croons in her higher register, “I’ll keep it for yoo-ouuu,” while vaguely sinister strings threaten to take it all away from her.

On 5:55’s second half, you can sense Gainsbourg’s increasing confidence and a more pronounced tendency to experiment. The glass-eyed “Little Monsters” is the Air-iest song on the record; likewise, the self-deprecating lyrics are among its most Cocker-ish (“Dirty creatures, tiny animals that crawl towards the light / Don’t you ever change”), but the singer more than holds her own—you believe the sentiment is hers and not second-hand, particularly when she concludes, “Deep inside I’m still the same / Just one more little monster / Making out that she knows the rules / A sincere impostor.”

On “Jamais” (i.e.—“Never”), the music almost unapologetically resembles her father’s, opening with a lazy shuffle-beat, a high melodic bassline and luxuriant piano chords that could’ve all been swiped from Histoire de Melody Nelson. But, there’s also so much more going on here: her vocals modulating up a notch with each line in the verses, the almost-mocking harp glissandos on the middle-eight, the monochromatic buzzing synth that just takes over for where the final verse should be, and of course, a plethora of prickly Cocker bon mots (most memorably, “I stick to the script and I go with the plan / And frankly my dear I never gave a damn / Jamais.”)

Both “Night-Time Intermission”, with its brisk, funky drummer groove and “Morning Song”, a spare, shimmering, inconclusive lament add texture but primarily serve as bookends to 5:55’s true centerpiece. “Everything I Cannot See” begins with a carefully strummed acoustic guitar, soon joined by almost rococo piano trills up and down the keyboard. While no Francoise Hardy or even a Joni Mitchell, Gainsbourg’s voice sounds better than ever here, especially at the chorus. Over repeated, cascading piano triplets, she lets loose: “You’re the rain / you’re the stars / you’re so near / you’re so far / you’re my friend / you’re my foe / you’re the miles left to go,” she gutturally but tunefully (not to mention loudly) spits out before concluding, “You are everything I ever wanted / and you are my lover.” It’s such a great chorus it appears four times in just under six minutes, and a fifth or sixth iteration would not be unreasonable.

Like Black Box Recorder’s The Facts of Life (which aurally, at least, it’s not all that far off from), 5:55 did not come out in America until six months after its initial overseas release, but with two bonus tracks, one of which is essential. “Set Yourself On Fire” plays like a slightly juiced-up sequel to “The Operation”, its motorized beat further enhanced by a treated piano lick; it also allows Gainsbourg to rhyme “ashes” with “asses” and spool off such phrases as “he burned his britches, she burned her bra,” in an irresistible Morse code cadence. The other bonus track, “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping” is at the very least a more satisfying closer than “Morning Song”, evoking loneliness and ennui without heavy despair, ending most of its verses with the couplet, “Human kindness is overflowing / and I think it’s going to rain today.”

Gainsbourg spent much of the next decade dedicated to her acting career, becoming Lars von Trier’s unlikely muse by starring in his films Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Her follow-up to 5:55, 2010’s Beck-produced IRM, sported a title inspired by her head injury from a few years prior (it’s the French equivalent of a MRI) and offered a slew of divergent musical paths, all of them interesting enough but none as indelible as its predecessor’s. She would not return with new music until 2017’s Rest, where, for the first time, she wrote all the lyrics (with the exception of “Songbird in a Cage”, composed by one Sir Paul McCartney!) Influenced by her father’s passing and also the more recent death of her sister Kate, it was arguably where she truly came into her own, now quite regularly switching from French to English and back again, turning out confections like the sinister disco epic “Deadly Valentine” that surely would’ve made Serge proud. Time will tell whether Rest replaces 5:55 as her best album (at this writing, it’s still too new); although the latter’s not a debut, it remains an excellent introduction.

Up next: “They put her in the bottom three for singing ‘Tea For Two’.”

“Everything I Cannot See”:

“Jamais”:

Kate Bush, “Aerial”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #84 – released November 8, 2005)

Track listing: A SEA OF HONEY: King of the Mountain / Pi / Bertie / Mrs. Bartolozzi / How To Be Invisible / Joanni / A Coral Room // A SKY OF HONEY: Prelude / Prologue / An Architect’s Dream / The Painter’s Link / Sunset / Aerial Tal / Somewhere In Between / Nocturn / Aerial

A dozen years is an eternity in pop music—you could stuff the Beatles’ entire recorded output (save those two Anthology zombie tracks) within that frame and still have a few years left over. Look at Kate Bush’s trajectory over her first five albums, from The Kick Inside to Hounds of Love in just seven years. Even considering the particular twelve-year period between her seventh and eighth albums, you can detect sea changes: for instance, compare Radiohead’s 1993 debut Pablo Honey to their most recent album as of 2005 (Hail To The Thief) and everything in between (including OK Computer and Kid A.)

After Hounds of Love, Bush returned four years later with The Sensual World (1989): a departure, it largely eschewed the amped-up phantasmagoria of her back catalogue for more mature, subdued tones, such as the world music-accented title track or the orchestrated piano balladry of “This Woman’s Work”. Her next album, The Red Shoes, arrived another four years after that, mixing state-of-the-art, neo-new wave pop (“The Rubberband Girl”) with typically more thematically adventurous conceits (“Song of Solomon”, the Powell/Pressburger film-quoting title track) and an excess of high profile cameos, from Eric Clapton to Prince. Both albums were good enough at the time, but neither felt anywhere near as innovative or game-changing as The Dreaming or Hounds of Love.

And then, not a peep from Bush for over a decade. She partially attributed this extended hiatus to her mother’s passing prior to The Red Shoes and also to the birth of her son Albert in 1998—right after those of us were hoping for a new album after another four-year interval. A February 2003 MOJO cover story celebrating her career and legacy ensured readers that Bush was working on new material (as when to expect it, she responded via her business manager, “How long is a piece of string?”) After Aerial was finally announced over two-and-a-half years later, I understandably anticipated it like few other albums before. Actually, I honestly couldn’t imagine what new Kate Bush music in 2005 could possibly be: a rehash of or a logical follow-up to The Red Shoes? A record incorporating new, potentially up-to-the-minute sounds and trends? Or perhaps something entirely different from all that came before?

Further goading expectations, Aerial turned out to be a double album, with each disc sporting a subtitle. The first, “A Sea of Honey” contained seven songs, including the lead-off single “King Of The Mountain”, while the second, “A Sky of Honey”, was a nine-track, album-length suite. The sequencing resembled no less than a supersized equivalent to Hounds of Love, whose first five unrelated tracks were followed by “The Ninth Wave”, a seven-track suite about drowning. One had to question if Bush, after such a long absence was actually making an attempt to top her most acclaimed and best-selling album.

The internet was such that by November 2005, I was easily able to listen to “King of the Mountain” online before Aerial’s release. I remember initially feeling tentative towards it. Rather than an obvious-sounding first single like “The Rubberband Girl”, it was mysterious and open-ended, slowly taking its time to get where it wanted to go. It’s built on a three-note synth hook, just like Hounds of Love opener (and her lone US top 40 hit) “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”, but gentler, airier. The lyrics seem to reference Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll himself; while her deepened-with-time vocals on the verses halfway pay tribute to him, the music sounds not a whit like his, even more so after a reggae guitar hook surfaces from the second verse on. Wind is a constant presence here, both lyrically (“The wind is whistling through the house”) and sonically, with simulated wind noise eventually accompanied by Bush herself emulating it: she emits, “Whoa, Whooahh, WHOAAAAHHHHHH,” at 3:45, reassuring longtime fans just when they might’ve begun to fear she was no longer the glorious kook they knew and love.

“King Of The Mountain” takes a few spins to fully resonate, but it’s a good choice for first track and single, for it establishes a tone the remaining songs on “A Sea of Honey” mostly sustain. Apart from “Joanni” with its trip-hop indebted electrobeats and Bush’s inimitable gravelly humming at the end (still a weirdo, god bless her), these are subdued, curious little song-puzzles. This might disappoint those looking for another “Sat In Your Lap” from her, but she’s already been there, done that—at 24, no less. Now nearly twice that age, it’s only fitting that her obsessions have shifted. Naturally, motherhood is a glaring one, reflected in a gushing but sincere tribute to her son, the chamber-pop fugue “Bertie”, but an entire disc of musings upon her decade-plus domestic sabbatical this is not.

Throughout Aerial’s first half, Bush maintains her reputation as an eccentric often via subject matter alone. “Pi” is a six-minute-long, casually unfolding paean to “a man with an obsessive nature and deep fascination for numbers”—in particular, “a complete infatuation with the calculation” of the mathematical constant that is the song’s title. Over a primarily acoustic arrangement accentuated by an oscillating synth, she delicately trills the calculation’s digits, “Threee… point one four one / five nine two…” one by one up to the thirtieth digit, and that’s the chorus. “Oh, he love, he love, he love, he does love his numbers,” she adds, rendering this the most playful tune about such a subject since Tom Lehrer’s ode to “New Math” four decades before—and possibly the most lustful one, ever.

“How To Be Invisible” scans like a wiser, weathered update on Bush’s old fixations with magic and witchcraft: she lays out peculiar instructions (“You take a pinch of keyhole / and fold yourself up / You cut along the dotted lines / and think inside out”) on how to literally (or is that figuratively?) disappear. That she further combines a slightly sinister, minor-key melody to a lush bed of warm, electric guitars, Fender Rhodes piano and occasional electronic curlicues makes it feel less foreign than oddly familiar. “Joanni” is even more recognizable, almost a direct callback to such earlier real-life tributes as “Houdini”. In this case, it’s about Joan of Arc. “Who’s that girl?,” Bush repeatedly asks, sidestepping most of her subject’s religious and political implications to celebrate her mere presence, noting “how beautiful she looks in her armor.” Meanwhile, the music continually swells and sighs, a perfect complement to Bush’s ever-present romanticism.

“A Sea of Honey’s” two most remarkable tracks have skeletal, piano-and-voice arrangements like little else she’s done since The Kick Inside, only with the added heft of her aged, deepened tone. The first, “Mrs. Bartolozzi”, has an intro providing dramatic contrast to the closing, orchestral notes of preceding song “Bertie” (it also faintly resembles the opening of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds”, of all things.) Then, she sings about doing the laundry for nearly six minutes. The title suggests it’s a character sketch rather than a peek into Bush’s own retreat into domestic life (I assume she’s flush enough to hire a maid—perhaps this is about her?); as always, she appears so invested in her creation you can still picture Bush sorting whites from darks, measuring the detergent and so on. Over a vaguely ominous but captivating melody, she sings the words “washing machine” over and over, hitting a chilling high note on the last “ma-chiiiiine” before equating something so mundane as washing clothes with an act of transcendence like wading in the ocean. “Oh and the waves are coming in / Oh and the waves are going out,” she mesmerizingly repeats—it’s Pure, Unfiltered Kate, as is a latter interlude where she whimsically sings in a wraith-like voice, “Slooshy, sloshy, slooshy, sloshy / get that dirtee shirtee cleeaan.”

The second piano-and-voice number, “A Coral Room”, starts off like a tone poem, all jazzy diminished chords separated by long pauses as she constructs an extended metaphor of “a city, draped in net… covered in webs, moving and glistening and rocking,” those last three modifiers stretched out to umpteen syllables, their liquidity suffused with delicate sorrow. “The spider of time is climbing / over the ruins,” she notes, before a chorus that mentions crashing planes and drowned pilots. The latter ends with a question: “Put your hand over the side of the boat / What do you feel?”

Not until the second verse does she reveals what the song is really about: “My mother / and her little brown jug,” she sings, “It held her milk / and now it holds our memories.” Although Bush included her mother among all the deceased friends and relatives that populated “Moments of Pleasure”, The Red Shoes’ vivid, elegiac tribute to them, “A Coral Room” penetrates deeper and more directly into Bush’s profound loss and grief. “I can hear her singing, ‘Little brown jug don’t I love thee,” Bush recalls, with male vocalist Michael Wood somberly repeating those words.

She goes on, “I can her hear laughing / she is standing in the kitchen / as we come in the back door,” before softly concluding, “See it fall.” After those three words come a series of descending piano notes that are just devastating in their simplicity. “See it fall,” she mournfully repeats over those sinking notes, before singing of “a spider climbing out of a broken jug” and “a room filled with coral”, eventually ending the song and “A Sea of Honey” on that same question: “Put your hand over the side of the boat / What do you feel?” It’s a composition bathed in poetic language and more than a trace of mystery, but Bush ensures that you can’t possibly miss its emotional intent.

***

On some later editions of Aerial (including the one currently on Spotify), the second disc is formatted as a single, nearly 42-minute-long track called “An Endless Sky of Honey”. It makes sense to view it this way, as it’s arguably more seamless and complete a song suite than even “The Ninth Wave”. Still, I’ll refer to it as just “A Sky of Honey”, for that was its original title and it’s obviously easier to write about it as a series of tracks, no matter how connected they may be.

Chronologically spanning the course of a mid-summer’s day and night at an Italian artist’s colony, “A Sky of Honey” increasingly looks more and more like Bush’s masterwork. A subtle, ambitious, carefully unfolding extended piece, it fulfills any hope I had for Aerial as a triumphant return while also recalibrating my perception of what she could accomplish. I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for those new to her—Hounds of Love or even The Whole Story provide a fuller, more direct sense of her as pop music provocateur. What’s most intriguing and somewhat challenging about “A Sky of Honey” is how expertly it builds momentum, little by little, slowly accumulating details until it reaches a sublime, almost euphoric release.

“Prelude” features her son Bertie saying, “Mummy, Daddy, the day is full of birds; sounds like they’re saying words,” over an atmospheric wash of synth, piano chords and avian noises, some of them sampled, others curiously sounding like Bush herself. From there, “Prologue” leisurely unfurls like a late-period Talk Talk song. “It’s gonna be so good, now,” Bush sings, unmistakably in a cadence you could not attribute to anyone else, her voice rich and sweet like honey. About three minutes in, Michael Kamen-arranged strings appear like a rising sun. There’s a verse in Italian, followed by a repeated chorus of, “What a lovely afternoon!” It’s as if we’ve oh-so-slowly awakened, taking nearly six minutes to arrive at this destination.

“An Architect’s Dream” proceeds at the same unhurried tempo but feels more voluminous with its bongo-like percussion and bright electric guitar filigrees. It’s specifically an ode to a painter (voiced by longtime Bush collaborator Rolf Harris) used as a means to comment on the creative process. When an “accident” occurs in crafting a painting, it’s no detriment: “It’s the best mistake / he could make / And it’s my favourite piece / it’s just great,” she sings, lending a palpable emphasis to those last three words that just melts my heart every time I hear them. She describes the act of creation as, “Curving and sweeping, / rising and reaching,” languorously stretching out the syllables of each word; as if in tandem, the song itself also emulates these motions while maintaining a steady pace.

“The Painter’s Link”, a brief orchestral fanfare, follows with Harris lamenting, “It’s raining / what has become of my painting,” a reminder that art is fleeting and often temporary. The music then swells and a multi-tracked chorus of Bushes respond, “So all the colors run! / See what they have become / A wonderful sunset.” The next song begins immediately after that last word, which provides its title. “A sea of honey, / a sky of honey,” she coos, stretching out “sea” and “sky” to well past fifteen syllables, over a melody that briefly appeared in the opening notes of “A Coral Room”. This is not the first callback to the first disc, as “Prologue” also featured vocal cadences and an omnipresent tremolo synth similar if not identical to those heard back on “Pi”—easter eggs, if you will, hinting that the two discs are more connected than they initially appear.

At this point, casual listeners might find “A Sky of Honey” a touch monochrome, its understated serenity offering little variation or conflict. “Sunset” seems to continue down this path, relying heavily on a predominantly acoustic palette. Still, you can’t deny how effortlessly it glides along on its soft, latin-jazz rhythms, or its ample, melodic sturdiness, most evident in the verses ending with the lyrics, “Then climb into bed and turn to dust.” When, near the four-minute mark Bush sings this line a final time, the beat briefly drops out, consumed by a much faster, Balearic-style rhythm. At this crucial moment, both “Sunset” and “A Sky of Honey” utterly transform, as if everything has joyously shifted. Briskly strummed flamenco guitar, castanets and a call-and-response chorus seem to add drama and tension into the mix, but really, those elements have been gradually building up to these final two minutes of the song, and they crucially serve as the suite’s first hint toward some sort of oncoming release.

“Sunset” closes by briefly returning to the more relaxed pace of its first half, followed by another recurrence—the birdsong originally heard on “Prelude”. “Aerial Tal” is a short link consisting of Bush singing along to the sound-waves of birdsong alluded to on the album cover while an electronic four-note loop plays underneath. By the time we reach “Somewhere In Between”, the sun has set and the world sounds darker (certainly bass-heavier) and fuller. Orchestral strings wash over an arrangement lush with drum machines, acoustic guitars, synths and some soulful organ. Whereas “Sunset” glided, this one shimmers, as does Bush when she sings, “It was just / so / beau-ti-full,” her vocal wrapped around the instrumentation like Sarah Cracknell’s. Both slightly foreboding and catchy like “How To Be Invisible”, it concludes with Bush’s choral declarations of “Good / night / sun”, followed by Bertie placidly saying, “Goodnight, Mum.”

As night falls, “Nocturn” slowly rises. After an extended, almost ambient intro that could’ve come from Brian Eno or maybe even Pink Floyd, a mildly funky beat appears and the song proper begins. Over a dreamy, enthralling chord sequence, Bush sings, “We stand in the Atlantic / We become panoramic,” and it’s a premonition of where this eight-plus-minute song will eventually go. These same chords repeat over multiple verses—like the suite as a whole, the song’s impact heightens as it takes its time. You may be increasingly aware that it’s building towards something, even if its groove never wavers, almost coming off like an extended vamp.

There’s a “ting” noise (either a triangle or a simulation of one) during an instrumental break after the six-minute mark. I don’t remember noticing it the first few times I listened to “Nocturn”; once I did, it felt like a rare discovery, a hidden gem of a detail surfacing from the collective din. It sets the stage for the song’s mesmerizing final third, where Bush’s vocals gradually appear louder, more forceful and passionate. So wrapped up in the deliberate procession of it all, you might find yourself caught unaware of intense it now sounds. “It came up / on the horizon… / rising / and rising,” she sings, elongating each “rising” as far as she can while still holding our attention.

Loving declarations of “a sea of honey” and “a sky of honey” return until, at 7:53, she and her now-massed choir startlingly exclaim, “LOOK AT THE LIGHT! CLIMBING UP THE AER-I-AL!!!” Something’s happening: the sun is about to rise. “BRIGHT / WHITE / COMING ALIVE / JUMPING UP OFF THE AERIAL!” they fervently shout, the music hitting a crescendo as they conclude “ALL THE TIME IT’S A-CHANGING! AND ALL THE DREAMERS ARE WAKING!”

And yet, just when you expect that moment of release, she holds back a little further. Aerial’s title track begins with a sole, fluttering instrumental hook—it’s the song’s foundation, but it just repeats itself in ¾ time in perpetual motion as Bush quietly sings the first verse (“The dawn has come…”). Then, 48 seconds in, a loud guitar slash and a stomping techno beat: “I FEEL I WANT TO BE UP ON THE ROOF!,” she sings, over and over, letting go of all tension and inhibition.

The rest of the song vacillates between the tentative verses, the barnstorming choruses and plenty of birdsong (and Bush’s infectious, unrestrained laughter.) “All the birds are laughing / come on let’s all join in,” she implores before a return to glorious exhalations of “UP, UP ON THE ROOF! IN THE SUNNNNNNNN!!! On that last word begins an extended, furious guitar solo, followed by electronic manipulations of those last lyrics where Bush’s words seem all jumbled together, pointing towards the absolute, transcendent bliss of release. A chorus of laughter (AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”) repeats, and repeats until it hits a final, massive “HAH!!!” The music stops, the new day begins, and birdsong just hangs loosely in the air during the minute-long fadeout.

Apart from spanning the entire cycle of one day, “A Sky of Honey” doesn’t necessarily relay a cohesive narrative; then again, for the most part, neither did “The Ninth Wave”, really. The emotional trajectory is what matters, both here and, to a lesser extent, on the seven unrelated but complementary tracks of “A Sea of Honey”. Bush would resurface with two(!) albums in 2011: 50 Words For Snow and Director’s Cut, the latter consisting of re-recording of songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes; neither is essential like Aerial, but Before The Dawn, a triple album recorded at her limited run of live concerts in London in 2014 is a must-hear. It includes both “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey” in full, with extended arrangements and even a brand new song for the latter: “Tawny Moon”, inserted between “Somewhere In Between” and “Nocturn” and featuring vocals by a then-teenaged Albert Bush. Given her sporadic recording history, Bush may or may not make another record as great as Aerial (or another record, period.) However, given that she came up with Aerial after being away for so long, I’d like to think she could do it again.

Up next: Emerging from a(n) (in)famous father’s shadow.

“Sunset”:

“A Coral Room”:

Saint Etienne, “Tales From Turnpike House”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #83 – released June 13, 2005)

Track listing: Sun In My Morning / Milk Bottle Symphony / Lightning Strikes Twice / Slow Down At The Castle / A Good Thing / Side Streets / Last Orders For Gary Stead / Stars Above Us / Relocate / The Birdman of EC1 / Teenage Winter / Goodnight

To paraphrase a classic title of one by Rod Stewart, every album tells a story: it could revolve around hastily assembled contractual obligation or inspired artistic reinvention, announce a new talent to the world or remind a long-uninterested audience what that talent is still capable of. Occasionally, it can even tell a literal story—a concept album, if you will. I’ve written about a few on this blog, from a concise suite about sexual infatuation to a conflation of the cycle of life with the four seasons. Some are predominantly defined by structure or sequencing; there’s also a number that forgo linear narratives for sustained themes such as childhood and parenting, impending mortality or a failed love affair (perhaps the most popular album concept of all.)

None of the three discs I’ve previously covered by British pop trio Saint Etienne were strict concept albums, but they each told at the very least figurative stories. So Tough (1993) served as a collage of early ’90s London sights and sounds, Tiger Bay (1994) combined electronic dance and acoustic folk into a shimmering whole and Good Humor (1998) recreated the 1970s AM radio gold its members Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell grew up with. Their subsequent albums would also hinge upon a common aesthetic or theme: Sound of Water (2000) mostly eschewed the band’s typical pop hooks for atmosphere and texture, while Finisterre (2002) set out to capture London at the crossroads of a new century, linking together a dozen aurally disparate tracks with Michael Jayston’s authoritative spoken word narration. Neither album was necessarily subpar, but something about them felt less immediate and a little tentative, as if in a quest to continually explore new avenues, the band lost some of the luster that those three prior albums emanated effortlessly.

Fortunately, their next record, Tales From Turnpike House pushes their sound to new heights, but with none of that hesitation—it’s assured and complete as anything they’ve ever done. Not coincidentally, it’s their first album to sport an overarching narrative: a day in the life of various residents of a London tower block (for non-Brits, roughly, a high-rise apartment building.) It’s such an ideal concept for this particular band, whose back catalog’s not only undeniably London-centric but also steeped in humanism with a rare ability to find exceptional beauty in day-to-day life. Building upon such a strong, likeminded focal point brings out the best in them as lyricists.

However, Tales is even more special for the distinct backing vocals and harmonies on nearly all of the album’s songs, which were arranged and performed by Tony Rivers and his son, Anthony. It’s typical Saint Etienne for their members to reach out to a relatively obscure and forgotten-by-the-public-at-large figure like Rivers, a former member of late ’60s sunshine pop group Harmony Grass and a ’70s and ’80s session background vocalist. And yet, the familial, choirboy harmonies by him and his son are arguably the album’s secret weapon. On first listen, they seem more than a little retro and heavily reminiscent of The Beach Boys (a fitting touchstone, since St. Et. swiped the titles So Tough and Good Humor from them.) Over the course of an album, they become a wordless Greek chorus, musically binding everything together, their omnipresence gradually more resonant and profound.

“Sun In My Morning” opens Tales with a quiet but insistent ting-ting-ting percussive sound—possibly a triangle or a chime. Here, it acts as sort of an alarm clock, only softer and kinder (this is a decidedly slow, sweet wake-up call.) Over an acoustic guitar, Cracknell’s inimitable vocal follows, elongating words and phrases to their breaking point: “Made… a list of things to do… today / what a shame… the morning breeze just blew… it all away.” Then, just over thirty seconds in, the song’s title announces the chorus. On that chord change, everything brilliantly comes alive: some soulful organ, a skittering flute, and most prominently, the Rivers’ intricate, overlapping harmonies.

Having had ample time to wipe the sleep from our eyes, “Milk Bottle Symphony” vaults forward, upping the tempo and introducing us to various Turnpike House residents—among them, “Number twelve, there’s Amy Chan / Writing down a line for the candy man,” and “Emily Roe’s at Thirty-One / Twenty minutes left to get her homework done.” Gifted as the band is at pinpointing such minute details (Emily “leaves her cornflakes on the sofa / says goodbye to mum”), they also excel at painting a bigger picture: note the dramatic pause at mid-song, silence ceased by a sweet clang-clang-clang that could be a literal interpretation of the song’s title, or how effective the staccato string section sounds over the track’s driving electronic beat on the instrumental coda.

“Lightning Strikes Twice” is the first of many Tales tracks where Saint Etienne reclaim their status as purveyors of alternate-world number-one hits. Resembling a more earnest, if no less slinky version of synth-pop duo Goldfrapp, the song kicks off with Cracknell in her lowest register, modulating her vocal up a few notches with each line until it reaches the euphoric chorus of “Everyone should have a reason to believe / so I still believe that / lightning will strike twice for me,” dramatically stretching out that first word to “Evvv – ryyyy – one.” An irresistible paean to sustained optimism as a life-force, “Lightning Strikes Twice” goes out on a limitless high, reprising the song’s key-changing middle-eight with the Rivers’ harmonies guiding all into the stratosphere.

The contrast between it and “Slow Down At The Castle” could not be more striking: after a mournful folk guitar intro, it shifts into a minor-key suburban gothic that’s almost a warmer, kinder cousin to So Tough’s similarly-toned epic “Avenue”. Its childlike melody gels splendidly with Cracknell’s phrasing but its complexity comes from a few rather baroque but well-employed touches: a harpsichord break, impossibly lovely backing “bong-bong-bong” Rivers harmonies, even a surprise Theremin solo! The piano melody on the outro mirrors the guitar intro almost identically, adding an exquisite grace note at the end.

“A Good Thing” brings Saint Etienne back to masterful dance pop mode with a vengeance. This album’s second single and a close cousin to their biggest UK hit “He’s On The Phone”, it dutifully sounds ultra-contemporary, downplaying the idiosyncrasies of Tales’ preceding songs (almost nary a Rivers to be heard here.) Happily, even at their most accessible, Bob, Pete and Sarah rarely settle for anonymity. As in many a St. Et. composition, Cracknell remains pragmatic but urgent, droll but serious in advising and furthermore reminding a former lover just what’s he lost. Still, what sounds gloomy on the page is transformed by the music’s continual uplift, so much that Pedro Almodovar, a fan, placed the song in his film Volver and it fit beautifully without receding into the background.

An endearingly fragile bossa-nova practically gliding by on vibes, bongos, spare electro-beats and a whole lot of “ba, ba, ba’s” from Cracknell and the Rivers, “Side Streets” was an unconventional choice for the album’s first single, if only for all the surefire big pop productions surrounding it. The lyrics, about a single woman on her daily commute are also far more complex than your average top 40 fluff. Cracknell sings of taking the long way home, acknowledging but not altogether fearful about dangers lurking within an urban center’s corners. She’s at once defiant (“I’ve got features I quite like and don’t mind keeping”) and matter-of-fact (“I’ll probably get it tomorrow”) but the warmth of the arrangement and her vocal (try not to melt at the way she pronounces the word “bubble”) tempers what in less nuanced hands could come off as merely chilling.

After a somewhat deceptive, slow piano intro, “Last Orders For Gary Stead” suddenly locks into a two-chord glam rock groove, complete with electric guitar, pounding piano and Cracknell sounding like the love child of David Bowie and Dusty Springfield. The first St. Et. Tune that absolutely swaggers, it should be an anomalous fit but it works, especially when it reaches its heavenly, Rivers-assisted multi-tracked chorus. Having briefly met the title figure back in “Milk Bottle Symphony”, Gary serves as a through line for the album’s overarching narrative. Here, he’s at his preferred environment of the local pub, and a figure of amusement to some (listen to how tartly Cracknell sings, “He just cools it down / they should knight him for it.”) Still, he’s potentially a tragic figure as well. “She’s in two minds, maybe she’ll board up her door,” the chorus explains, before resolving itself in a neat bit of wordplay: “He sinks two pints / and that’s how it goes.”

As the band’s dance anthems go, “Stars Above Us” not only bests “A Good Thing” but on some days might even top “He’s On The Phone”. “Stars above us, cars below us / Out on the rooftop, baby,” is its glorious chorus, riding high on a shamelessly disco groove (nearly nicked from Kylie Minogue’s “Love At First Sight”) and Niles Rodgers-like rhythm guitar. Musically, it’s far from their most forward-looking song, but none of that matters when the beat kicks in after that dreamy intro and the chorus comes on full force. “Stars Above Us” is positively transformative, taking one to the best place imaginable; in a nod to their greatest early single, Cracknell sings, “Nothing can touch us, baby,” and it’s awfully hard to disagree with her.

Amazingly, “Stars Above Us” was not a UK single, but Savoy Jazz, Saint Etienne’s then-US record label had the foresight to promote the song and a series of remixes—it became the band’s first top ten club play hit in over a decade. Unfortunately, the label ended up seriously botching Tales’ US release seven months after the original edition came out: not only did they rearrange the track listing, placing the two UK singles at the beginning and thus doing away with the day-in-the-life-of-a-tower-block chronology, they cut out the two tracks following “Stars Above Us” and inserted two new replacements (“Dream Lover”, “Oh My”) randomly into the album’s sequence.

Granted, the two nixed tracks are arguably Tales’ least essential. “Relocate”, a duet between Cracknell and David Essex (sounding far more weathered here than on his ‘70s hits like “Rock On”) reads like a distaff Brit take on the old Green Acres theme (wife wants to move to the country, husband wants to stay put in the city.) It’s charming (love the pointed, irritated way she asks him, “You call this life?”) and fits in with the overall concept, but it’s also slight, its merry-go-round melody a touch too music hall for these sophisticates. Meanwhile, “The Birdman of EC1”, the album’s sole instrumental, is a melancholy organ, mandolin and Mellotron-accented breath of fresh air and little else. However, Tales needs both songs for they provide necessary texture; without them (as on the US edition), the transition from “Stars Above Us” to the album’s two final crucial songs feels jarring and rushed.

Tales enters its most powerful stretch with the startling fanfare of harmonies and chiming notes that announces “Teenage Winter”, one of the most unabashedly heartbreaking songs in a catalog with no shortage of them. In its verses, Cracknell delivers a spoken word monologue, reuniting us with such figures as Gary Stead and other various building residents. If “Milk Bottle Symphony” depicted them with an air of promise and hope, now they’re more wistful, almost melancholic, really. Their world is continually in flux: a chain tanning salon replaces a mom-and-pop bakery, and the internet’s daunting presence lessens the nifty stock for record collectors scouring the local thrift shop. Each person is inevitably getting older, “holding on to something / without knowing / exactly what you’re looking for.” Over melodic triplet notes resembling softly falling snow, Cracknell sings in the chorus:

Teenage Winter’s coming down
Teenage Winter floats a gown
Over every place I’ve been
And every little dream
Forever.

That last word just hangs there, gorgeously resounding through the song’s lush guitar, organ and woodwind arrangement (which also includes a sneakily affecting melodic bassline.) “Teenage Winter” is an incredibly poignant lament, made even more so by the fact that Bob and Pete had just entered their 40s when they recorded it (with Sarah not too far off)—for the first time, one can detect a real sense of mortality in Saint Etienne’s world. Rather than rally at time’s arrow with nostalgia and self-pity, they confront it the kindness, wisdom and acceptance that only comes with age.

It seems inconceivable that anything could top “Teenage Winter”, but closing track “Goodnight” comes perilously close. A simple lullaby, it brings Tales full circle from “Sun In My Morning”. Stripping away all instrumentation, we’re left with Sarah, Tony and Anthony. Hearing just these voices at this point in the album’s sequence and the extraordinarily haunting sound they make together (like a delicate tapestry of onomatopoeia) is almost too much to bear. So is Sarah pleading, “Please sing me to sleep and stroke my hair / I’ll close my eyes and pretend that you’re there.” That little couplet really gets at what Tales as a whole is all about: one can always uncover specks of brilliance in everyday, ordinary things, but real transcendence often comes in dreams, in imagining possibilities and processing pain, and using this learned experience to move forward. These threads run deep through Saint Etienne’s entire oeuvre, but on Tales they push furthest, expressed so eloquently they’re impossible to miss or shake.

In a cruel twist of fate, Tales ended up the band’s worst selling album to date in the UK (as with what happened to Tiger Bay, the botched US version didn’t help matters much.) Perhaps “Stars Above Us” or even “Lightning Strikes Twice” should’ve been the lead single, or maybe, just maybe, Tales was so ambitiously out-of-time with what constituted a hit in 2005. One could argue that’s always been the case with this cult-adored trio; for me, Tales had a larger impact than anything else I heard that year (possibly that entire decade.) It was like I’d been wishing, hoping, waiting for one of my favorite bands to create their masterpiece (despite them already having put out at least three great albums.) And then, they did. What’s more, while Tales was originally to be their final appearance in 100 Albums, as of this writing, I’m confident that’s no longer the case.

Up next: We become Panoramic.

“Teenage Winter”:

“Stars Above Us”:

 

The Go-Betweens, “Oceans Apart”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #82 – released May 3, 2005)

Track listing: Here Comes A City / Finding You / Born To A Family / No Reason To Cry / Boundary Rider / Darlinghurst Nights / Lavender / The Statue / This Night’s For You / The Mountains Near Dellray

Band reunions are tricky, for they come with staggering expectations: Is the old chemistry present? Can they still hit all the right notes? And, what of new material—how does it stack up against the old stuff? From Van Halen to the Violent Femmes, you see previously defunct or on-hiatus bands getting back together all the time with all-over-the-map results. But, for every five or ten shadows-of-their-former-selves or devolutions into nostalgia acts, there’s the occasional reunited band that, against all odds, manages to not embarrass itself and even add something artistically vital to its discography. Sleater-Kinney, My Bloody Valentine and The Dream Syndicate are among those who have accomplished the latter in recent years.

One of the least likely and most satisfying reunions of this young century was the return of The Go-Betweens. When this Australian band, with their core singer-songwriter duo of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan last appeared in this tale, they were coming off an enviable decade-long, six-album run culminating in their 1988 pop masterwork, 16 Lovers Lane. Like all their previous records, it received glowing reviews but failed to score radio hits or break beyond their miniscule audience. As noted in Forster’s superb 2016 memoir Grant and I, a series of misunderstandings led to an acrimonious split in 1990. Forster and McLennan would each spend the next decade cultivating solo careers, but little either of them did separately approached the majesty of their past work together (McLennan’s 1994 double-album Horsebreaker Star, which I briefly considered for this project, came closest.)

As the 90’s wore on, the two men reconciled and started playing live together again. Recorded with a new rhythm section (including Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss on percussion), The Friends of Rachel Worth was the first new Go-Betweens album in a dozen years. Far more stripped-down than the elaborately produced 16 Lovers Lane, it was defiantly a new chapter for the band, although on opener “Magic In Here” one could immediately sense some of Forster and McLennan’s rare, sparkling chemistry again. Another album, Bright Yellow Bright Orange followed three years later, and while it added nothing exceptionally new to the band’s catalogue, it was another solid set of predominantly acoustic jangle-pop.

If anything, these two albums sometimes felt as if Forster and McLennan were gently easing themselves back into being a band again with tentative, if encouraging results. For their third album of this second phase, they brought 16 Lovers Lane producer Mark Wallis back into the fold. Once again fortifying their guitar pop with a layered, Technicolor assortment of keyboards and a few horns, Oceans Apart miraculously ended up more a step forward than a look back, even if a couple of its songs lyrically, at times elegiacally reflected upon past lives and places. Moreover, it just gelled like anything from the band’s first phase and its ten songs were among Forster and McLennan’s strongest and sharpest.

From the count-off that announces Forster’s “Here Comes A City”, you can tell this is a fully-energized Go-Betweens firing on all cylinders. Spitting out clipped phrases over just two chords (but what glorious two chords!), lyrically, Forster is at his most observational: “Just pulled out of / a train station / we’re moving sideways,” he sings, “Passing churches / passing stations / a bustling complex.” Meanwhile, the music fervently chugs along, the guitar solo melodic enough but also hinting at an ever-so-slightly out of control bedlam that seems increasingly present all the way to the boiling teakettle noise accompanying repeated chants of the song’s title near the end. But it feels lithe and wry rather than heavy or foreboding, with such typically literate (and quirky) Forster asides as, “Why do people / who read Dostoevsky / look like… Dostoevsky?”

McLennan’s “Finding You” is just as striking and assured, but entirely different. Beginning with a chiming guitar fanfare worthy of all his best ones on 16 Lovers Lane, it opens with lyrics so romantic and incisive you feel Grant has been building towards them his whole career: “What would you do if you turned around / And saw me beside you / Not in a dream but in a song?” It’s pure heart-on-sleeve declaration, along with the chorus of, “Don’t know where I’m going / Don’t know where it’s flowing / But I know it’s finding you.” Because it’s expressed from such a heartfelt place and wedded to such a perfectly formed melody (and lush arrangement), “Finding You” is not easily dismissed as a silly love song. Its extended instrumental coda even provides time for contemplation of what it means to build and sustain a growing love.

“Born To A Family” finds Forster not for the first time on Oceans Apart dissecting his past. With an even lusher guitar palette than “Finding You” (including a 12-string and mandolins), it moves along on an irresistible folkish bounce as he sings about being “the square into the hole” of a working-class family. Even as a young boy, he recalls longing for art, literature and music. “What could I do / but follow the calling,” he repeats, slightly melancholy but mostly confident that he chose the right path; his breathy, “Uh huh’s” and “yeah, yeah’s” casually further confirm it on the fadeout.

By fiat of its initial resplendent waves of synths, McLennan’s “No Reason To Cry” is another step away from the more austere settings of the band’s previous two albums. Dreamily strummed major-seventh chords solidify into the title chorus (where Forster lovingly echoes his bandmate’s vocals), nearly orchestral in its numerous layers of sound. When he sings, “Been fifteen years since we last spoke,” you wonder whom the song is about—former band member and romantic partner Amanda Brown, or perhaps Forster himself.

McLennan follows the song with another of his compositions, “Boundary Rider”. As much of a confirmation of self as “Born To A Family”, it’s similarly crisp and concise, with guitar arpeggios so immediate and absorbing they seem like they’ve been there since the beginning of time. Still, there’s considerably more conflict and resignation in his voice. “So you reach for things / you’ve never satisfied / you’re running down the years” he sings, amiably but decidedly unsentimental, “And to know yourself / is to be yourself / keeps you walking through these tears.” It sounds like hard-earned wisdom, and it will be important to remember those words later.

Forster’s second song about his past, “Darlinghurst Nights”, kicks off the album’s second half. Epic like nothing else on Oceans Apart (it’s over six minutes long), it’s a vast but focused canvas for Forster to reminisce on a specific place and time via a talisman in the form of an old, unearthed notebook: “I didn’t have to read it / it all came back,” he remarks, soon reeling off long-forgotten names (“Frank Brunetti”, “Susie, who we never saw again”) and wishes (“I’m going write a movie / and then I’m going to star in a play”—he and McLennan did try their hand at screenwriting, although they never got a film made.) Although the same four chords repeat (except in the brief, heavenly middle-eight), the momentum never flags thanks to abundant instrumental and vocal hooks imbedded within. The phrase, “Always the traffic, always the lights” is the song’s North Star, appearing throughout and repeating over the extended coda, later accompanied by a chorus of rousing horns.

“Lavender” is the closest thing to love song for Forster here. Over a slinky reggae groove (rest assured, it sounds nothing like UB40), he describes a woman in a series of near-enigmatic phrases like, “She’s got a pair or black boots that kick stones / She’s got black moods she calls her own,” and also rhymes “good in bed” with “well-read.” The title is not her name, but her favorite scent and the song is not really as arch as it sounds, but rather sweet, with clarinet and flugelhorn providing elegance and an unexpected grace notes near the close.

McLennan’s “The Statue” shimmers into focus, its reverberating electronics like a sun rising over the water, its electric guitar hook practically euphoric, leading the way towards a sea of swaying romantic gestures. The lyrics build a metaphor around the titular figure with multiple uses of the word “touch” in different contexts, but it’s the melody that pushes everything forward, perhaps right towards McLennan’s next song, “This Night’s For You”. The previous track’s brightness lingers here but at a breezier, poppy tempo (dig those “ba, ba, ba’s!”.) A genuinely silly but blissful and transformative love song, it cleverly pairs descending verses with an ascendant chorus whose best moment is a call-and-response slash of guitar chords that bespeaks its author’s proficiency in stacking hooks upon hooks while allowing all of them to shine profusely.

“The Mountains Near Dellray” closes Oceans Apart with slow, dramatic grandeur: gradually fading in with guitars, keyboards and a massive sense of space, it’s half majestic ballad, half meditative tone poem. As Forster sings the song’s simple melody and plainspoken lyrics (“And when you make a wish / and you get the wish”), he exudes calm and acceptance that’s in extraordinary contrast to the hubbub and encroaching chaos of “Here Comes A City”. “Never let it go, it’s no struggle,” he concludes, and those words could apply to a myriad of things—what they actually are is less significant than the notion itself. A design for life, if you will, enigmatically inserted within a pop song.

A perfect ending to the album, “The Mountains Near Dellray” would unintentionally serve as a wistful finale to The Go-Betweens themselves when, almost exactly one year after the album’s release, McLennan died suddenly from a heart attack at age 48. While I’ll always long for all the music he and Forster might’ve put out on the momentum and goodwill Oceans Apart generated (a few songs they had begun working on would surface on Forster’s 2008 solo release The Evangelist), I’m grateful they ended up going out on such a high. “And to know yourself / is to be yourself,” is as modest and profound an epitaph as McLennan could ever have written for himself; a decade-plus later, as I edge closer to 48, they are words I increasingly take to heart as well.

Up next: Everyday People.

“This Night’s For You”:

Kings Of Convenience, “Riot On An Empty Street”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #81 – released July 27, 2004)

Track listing: Homesick / Misread / Cayman Islands / Stay Out Of Trouble / Know-How / Sorry Or Please / Love Is No Big Truth / I’d Rather Dance With You / Live Long / Surprise Ice / Gold In The Air Of Summer / The Build-Up

Read enough criticism and you’ll inevitably come across the phrase, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (or some variation thereof.) It has been credited to everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa, though multiple threads point towards actor-comedian Martin Mull, of all people, as its originator. Regardless, this simile uncovers a truth about music most critics would rather ignore or better yet, transcend: sometimes, it’s a challenge to fully articulate why we like (or hate) a particular piece of music. Obviously, it’s not impossible—at this writing, I’ve spent four years of this blog going on and on about eighty-plus albums. Still, I fear that what I want to express about my love for all this music might occasionally get lost in translation: how can mere words recreate exactly what I felt the first time I heard side two of Abbey Road or the moment when Since I Left You clicked as a whole for me?

I’m reminded of this phrase whenever I try to explain why the music of Kings of Convenience hits me where I live. A Norwegian duo made up of former classmates Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe, they’ve put out three albums of hushed acoustic folk-pop full of close-knit harmonies (somewhat accented but always sung in English) and delicate, nylon-stringed guitar work. Simon and Garfunkel are their most obvious antecedents—their best songs exude the same intimacy of something like “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”—but they also neatly slot in with such liked-minded contemporaries as Elliot Smith or early Belle and Sebastian. Released in the same year as The Strokes’ Is This It and The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, their debut’s title, Quiet Is The New Loud (2001) read like both an introduction and a provocation: here were two guys playing indie music not especially in sync with the garage rock revival times, which fit in well with their just plain unfashionable appearances on the cover.

What is it about KOC’s terminally untrendy, relatively simple folk-pop that I so strongly respond to? Øye and Bøe are far from the only duo to ever forge a career together out of songwriting, harmonies and acoustic guitars; arguably, they’ve done nothing as innovative as what The Everly Brothers (or, if you wish to be less charitable, Chad and Jeremy) accomplished decades before. And yet, when “Homesick” opens their second album with its clarion melody and rare, crystalline electric guitar lead, whatever irritations or distractions I’m feeling instantaneously dissolve. It’s calming but also instilled with wonderment approaching awe in the presence of seemingly endless beauty.

All of KOC’s limited oeuvre is worth hearing, but Riot On An Empty Street is the one to get because it builds upon what they established with Quiet Is The New Loud, honing their songwriting craft to a very fine point. As pretty as this music initially appears, it has considerable substance if you look beyond the placid surfaces—not that KOC is in any way dark or depressive, but once you consider the album title’s irony and apparent contradiction, it’s apparent how there’s so much more at play here than unassuming (if not silly) love songs. “Homesick” itself features a narrator whom describes home not by family or friends he’s left behind, but as fleeting memories made flesh by music: “I can’t stop listening to the sound / of two soft voices blended in perfection,” (hmm, whom does that remind you of?) they sing, “From the reels of this record that I’ve found.”

That’s not to say KOC aren’t all-out romantics, but they approach themes of love and infatuation with a pragmatism that bespeaks their Scandinavian background, not to mention the resignation of residing in a place with short-to-nonexistent winter days. “Love Is No Big Truth”, they conclude via one song’s title, while at least allowing for the possibility that “Love comes like surprise ice at dawn,” in another. On “I’d Rather Dance With You”, they lay out the law with ample charm, proposing to sidestep all small talk: “I haven’t read a single book all year / and the only film I saw, I didn’t like it at all,” they confess, so why waste time yelling over the din of the dancefloor and instead use the space as nature intended?

“I’d Rather Dance With You” is rather danceable itself in an indie-disco way, featuring a propulsive beat, banging piano and a lead viola riff. In the album’s midsection, it arrives after two songs that also manage a brighter, fuller, leaning-towards-contemporary sound without feeling at all out of place. On the aforementioned “Love Is No Big Truth”, Øye and Bøe somehow manage to resemble a rootsy New Order, entirely swapping that band’s synths and drum machines for guitars, pianos and live drums rhythmically manipulated to have a similar effect. Likewise, with its chorus eloquently turning on the guys’ harmonies, “Sorry Or Please” crisply shuffles along as if it were trip-hop played on real instruments, accented by strings, a trumpet solo and even a banjo.

Also widening the band’s scope are two guest appearances from Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist (more commonly known by just her surname), shortly before her own breakthrough album Let It Die (and three years prior to her scoring a surprise top ten hit.) On both “Know-How” and “The Build-Up” (which she co-wrote with the boys), she’s deployed as a secret weapon, nonexistent until each song’s second half when her bell-like vocal suddenly takes over. She’s especially effective on the latter track, a pensive dirge that begins with Øye emitting plaintive phrases one by one. Then, the melody changes, perking up ever so slightly as Feist warbles her verses. Still, her album-closing lyrics, where she sings of a sound, “Written on your ticket / to remind you where to stop / and when to get off,” just seem to mournfully hang there, leaving a haunting afterimage.

There are hidden complexities throughout Riot On An Empty Street that can easily catch one off-guard. “Cayman Islands”, with its tranquil, wistful air, sounds like it should be a gentle account of time spent in a tropical paradise, but it’s more a metaphor for pondering the unexpected, labyrinthine path to love and closeness (“How someone could have chosen / to go the length I’ve gone.”) “Misread” wraps its scrutiny of intent and cross-wired communication up in such an alluring bossa-nova package you can get away with playing it at brunch, even with lyrics like, “The loneliest people / were the ones who always spoke the truth.” Meanwhile, “Stay Out of Trouble” affably re-writes Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” for a kinder generation (its narrator simply notes, “Try not to think about me too much,”) but doesn’t ignore a breakup’s pain (“I was alone and freezing / still trying hard to understand you.”)

However, for everything gestating within this music, I get the most pleasure from how it sounds and the tone it settles upon. As the album’s penultimate track, “Gold In The Air Of The Summer” also serves as the apotheosis of these qualities: the warmth of the guitars and piano and how the latter positively shimmers and sparkles in the brief instrumental break; the slow build up and back down again; the air of mystery withheld (opening line is, “Without giving anything away…”), followed by the promise of something found (“And now you and me are on our way,”); and most of all, the silence underscoring Øye and Bøe singing “You’ll shine like gold in the air of summer,” over and over before the piano and guitars resume and the song delicately comes to a close.

KOC returned five years later with a third album, Declaration of Dependence—initially, a minor let-down for simply being more of the same. Fortunately, its impact has deepened over repeated listens to the point where I now consider it nearly equal to its two predecessors. I’m not sure how much more they can eke out of this template, which may be why (at this writing) a fourth album has yet to appear (though they’re apparently working on it.) Still, if there’s one thing I can fully articulate about why I adore this duo, it’s the timelessness of their music—as fresh now as it was fifteen years ago. Much as I also love Simon and Garfunkel, could they even make that same claim fifteen years after their heyday?

Up next: A Reunion.

“I’d Rather Dance With You”:

“Gold In The Air Of Summer”:

Tompaulin, “Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #80 – released March 22, 2004)

Track listing: Slender / It’s A Girl’s World / North / Second Rate Republic (Demo) / Wedding Song / Swing Low Stuart / Ballad Of The Bootboys / Them Vs. Us / The Sadness Of Things / My Perfect Girlfriend (Demo) / My Life As A Car Crash / Give Me A Riot In The Summertime

In Spring 2003, I became a staff writer for indie music website Splendid!, which differentiated itself from Pitchfork, PopMatters, etc. by vowing to review anything submitted to it. I was required to write three reviews every week: one in the 300-500 word range of an album I liked, and two 150-200 word capsules about albums I didn’t necessarily have to like. Every couple weeks, I’d receive a box of fifteen or so CDs, some with press releases, others with handwritten requests from the editor to review them right away. And, I had to write about every last one.

Occasionally, I’d encounter a disc from an artist I’d actually heard of (Arab Strap, Sufjan Stevens, Beth Orton) but a majority of what I got was previously unknown to me. Over the next eighteen months, I was exposed to everything from Native American folk music to masturbatory prog rock, much of it relentlessly mediocre or just plain awful (such as a band named “Shugaazer” that had fuck all to do with My Bloody Valentine.) Most weeks, I’d strain to find a disc that I “liked” enough for the required lengthier review. However, once in a great while, something exceptional surfaced. For instance, I heard TV On The Radio before practically any other non-critic via their debut EP Young Liars. It remains in my regular listening rotation to this day, along with albums from other Splendid! discoveries like Swedish pop star Marit Bergman, winsome Aussie folk-rocker Tamas Wells, and American singer-songwriter turned film scorer Paul Brill.

Apart from Seven Swans, my all-time favorite Splendid! find was UK-based band Tompaulin. Arriving in my mailbox in March 2004, Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt compiled tracks from all of their singles to date. Named after a Northern Irish poet and having borrowed their album title from Kurt Vonnegut, I anticipated a strong literary bent to their sound (their first studio album, 2001’s The Town and The City (itself named after Jack Kerouac’s first novel) has tracks called “Richard Brautigan” and “All The Great Writers and Me”) but I had no other expectations. Nearly a year into my Splendid! tenure, I’d learned to be open to hearing anything on one of these discs submitted for review in terms of genre, sound, tone and quality (especially quality.)

EWBANH’s opener, “Slender”, commences with a soft hum of atmospheric sound, soon joined by a trembling, almost tentative guitar strum. Vocalist/lyricist Jamie Holman then sings, “All that I remember / is your wrists / and they were slender,” his delivery slightly-but-not-overbearingly-fey with a noticeable Lancashire accent. An electric guitar plays a countermelody, and a softly thumping drumbeat enters at the second verse. The song’s title cleverly shifts as Holman sings, “By Monday morning, I won’t even remember / your chances are slender.” All the while, the song has only two chords, which repeat measure by measure.

At the third verse, female vocalist Stacey McKenna takes over from Holman. The sudden switch to her voice, pitched somewhere between Belle and Sebastian’s Sarah Martin and Neko Case, is striking. She answers Holman’s words, eventually concluding, “My chances are slender.” The music, continually building momentum from the start, keeps growing fuller and louder until, at 2:35, crunching, majestic electric guitar chords enter the right channel like a beacon of blinding light. McKenna returns, a few bars later, with the climactic lyrics, “And now you won’t hear me / won’t speak and won’t come near me,” sung over and over. It’s thrilling, it’s heartbreaking, it’s everything I could ever want from a pop song, up until it concludes on a final, tranquil grace note.

“Slender” is an ideal introduction to Tompaulin’s tiny, contained oeuvre—for sure, their greatest moment, but far from their only great one. The next two songs reinforce that this is a band worth your time and attention. “It’s A Girl’s World” weds confectionary pop full of strummed acoustics and twinkling keyboards with incisive, wry lyrics, rhyming “Walkman beat” with Exile On Main Street and dropping observations like, “She’s a fat girl / but she’d give you the world / in her ginger curls.” Similarly inclined phrases at the very opening of “North” cascade by in such a breathless, near-euphoric rush that they provide neat contrast to the chorus: a series of descending, clipped phrases (“Oh / when you go down / to the center of town / stay down”), followed by a steady string of trumpet-enhanced ba-da-da-da’s.

But remember, EWBANH is a singles comp rather than a greatest hits album, which means B-sides make up roughly half the selections here. True to form, some are demos, like a pretty but far-from-essential first take on The Town and The City’s closer, “Second Rate Republic”, or “My Perfect Girlfriend”, a deliberate goof which sounds like it was recorded in a cigar box and consists solely of McKenna singing “Debbie, Debbie Harry, Debbie Harry” repeatedly over rudimentary if punchy new wave guitar-bass-drums. There’s also pleasantly wispy stuff like “Wedding Song”, which dutifully emulates “Cemetery Gates”-era Smiths, and “Them vs. Us”, which does the same for late ‘80s Sarah Records twee pop.

Still, just because it’s a B-side doesn’t necessarily make it a castoff or a throwaway, as Pet Shop Boys and Saint Etienne have proven with numerous, above-average B-side compilations of their own. “The Sadness of Things”, for instance, could’ve comfortably fit on The Town and The City with its quotable lines (“She says she likes The Rolling Stones / but she’s only got the Greatest Hits”) and cozy, if melancholy allure. Conversely, “Swing Low Stuart” is a B-side for another reason. Over a sing-song melody, McKenna tartly notes, “Stuart’s the epitome / of white boy, middle class monogamy; / He’d like to know some deviants / he invested in some leather pants,” (one could only hope she’s singing about Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch.) Sounding as agreeable as early Black Box Recorder, it takes a left turn halfway through as guitar feedback slowly creeps in, wave by wave until it consumes all else and you’re left with a cacophony of nearly Metal Machine Music-like proportions.

However, such experimentation is a diversion rather than the norm with this group. Given their unaffected vocals, slice-of-life lyrics and propensity for using two or three chords at most, they most often resemble a punk band, albeit one curiously beholden to pastoral and chamber-pop arrangements. One discerns such tension in this comp’s final two tracks, both of them highlights. “My Life As A Car Crash” is almost ridiculously simple: it expertly shifts back and forth between wordy, subdued verses and wordless, caffeinated five-alarm choruses while keeping both parts urgent-sounding and razor sharp. Holman, meanwhile, expands on the title metaphor’s subtleties without ever mentioning it by name. Closing track “Give Me A Riot In the Summertime” neatly bookends “Slender”, gradually barreling across the volume spectrum from soft to loud; its minor key but ultimately rousing protest pop made immortal by a McKenna verse as impassioned, triumphant and fun as the best of Sleater-Kinney or one of The B-52s’ classic Kate-and-Cindy showcases.

Tompaulin would release one more studio album, 2005’s downbeat but pretty Into The Black before breaking up two years later. Given their perpetual obscurity, you can’t blame them for not carrying forward, but as I wrote about The Go-Betweens many entries ago, you also can’t blame the world for not knowing about them. Had it not been for Splendid!, I doubt I would’ve ever crossed paths with this music, and therein lies a predicament of the internet age. In the past few decades, music production and dissemination has skyrocketed to point where so much more is destined to fall through the cracks or remain obscure than previous.

My time at Splendid! encouraged me to keep one eye on those infinitesimal few musicians who manage to break through all the clutter and the other eye always open for those unknown quantities like Tompaulin, forever patiently awaiting discovery. The challenge is mustering up time and effort to sift through it all to get to those ultra-hidden gems, and I admit that it’s easier said than done—after less than eighteen months, I quit Splendid!, altogether burned out on finding new things to say about albums that were mostly mediocre-to-bad, week after week. The website itself folded a little over a year later, suggesting that its inclusive approach to music criticism sadly wasn’t a sustainable pursuit. Thankfully, with YouTube and a bevy of streaming services, we now have seemingly boundless means to get lost in rabbit holes, forever making our very own discoveries.

Up next: Singing Softly To Me.

“Slender”:

“My Life As A Car Crash”: