On first listen, I thought this was pretentious, arty nonsense. There are no obvious tunes, the instrumentation is mostly tinkly, plinky and irritating (although not as offensive as the unpleasant clouds of noxious drum 'n' bass farted randomly over several tracks) and Björk's unique vocal tics are as much to the fore as ever. Listening to her sing reminds me of a small child reading from a book; stopping at the end of every line, regardless of whether that is the end of a sentence or not.

Some of my favourite albums have needed several listens and while there's a place for music that has a real immediacy, it would be very tiring if no music had depth too. So I was determined to give it a chance, but I have to say I wasn't looking forward to listening to it again.

Having persevered, some tracks are beginning to lodge in my mind. "Cosmogony" is a sweet description of different creation stories with lovely backing from ethereal voices and what sounds like a muffled and heavily treated brass band - and benefits from a a discernible structure. "Thunderbolt" has some nice crunchy sounds and, again, a melody that you can remember.

However, too many of the tracks are kind of tone poems, the kind of songs that make me wonder how anyone remembered them long enough to record them. They sort of meander around but go nowhere.  There are plenty of very beautiful moments but only a couple that last more than a few bars. The introduction of what is apparently "breakcore" (honestly, ffs) into three of the songs is just horrible, inappropriate and unnecessary. And "Crystalline" contains the line "blinded by the light" which is unfortunate because it reminds me that music can be much better.

Obviously there's some sort of concept. Before I asked the interweb to teach me all about it, my impression was that it was the story of the development of life itself. "Biophilia" means love of life or of living things. Reading it up, there's all sorts of things going on and, in particular, the album is also available as an iOS app which visualizes it all for you.

As someone who owns no iThings (or has any current intention to), my question then is: does it work as music? Mostly, yes. Do I want to listen to it again? A couple of tracks, yes. Most of it, no. Overall, a disappointment.


The Everlasting Blink


I purchased Bent's first album on a previous shopping trip so the thematic link involved in getting their second album on this jaunt appealed to me.  However, whereas I quite liked Programmed To Love, this is a bit of a disappointment.

It's mostly ambient, modern easy listening such as that produced by Lemon Jelly or Zero 7.  It drifts past your ears without leaving much of an impression.  It's all very well produced but I'm not sure what the point is.

A couple of tracks distinguish themselves amongst the overall wash of sound.  "Moonbeams" has glistening lap steel pealing out over a fairly generic backing, while "So Long Without You" is a nice song.

If I was after something inoffensive to have on in the background, then this would be fine.  But that's about it.


If 60's Were 90's

Beautiful People

I've owned the single "If 60s Were 90s" for ages now, after picking it up cheap somewhere.  It's one of my favourite unknown curiosities - a lazy, dance-y, very obviously of-its-time track built on the shuffling Soul II Soul "Keep On Moving" beat that indie-dance (over) used in the mid-nineties.  In overall sound it's very similar to Moodswings' cover of "State Of Independence" (which features Chrissie Hynde, trivia lovers!).

I call tracks like this "dust bunnies" - those efforts lost under the bed, if you will, of Time itself.

Ahem.  Anyway, here's the unique concept: "If 60s Were 90s" is constructed from a whole slew of samples from Jimi Hendrix - all officially sanctioned, at that.  The guitar samples all come from "Voodoo Chile", while "If 6 Was 9" provides the vocal samples.  It's very, very well done - just like, to use the artist's own description on the video:
... sort of Enigma meets Jimi with 10cc bvs round at The Orb's house ...
That said, I was a little sceptical about the idea of a whole album based on the same idea.  Sure, there's plenty of Hendrix material to work with (particularly if you have the multi-tracks available); and let's not forget that Jimi was so, so far ahead of his time that his music could easily fit into any subsequent decade. But nine tracks of it?

Certainly, the title track is the most cohesive as an overall song, but the album as a whole has grown on me.  The other tracks are more exercises in a groove, without a song structure as such.  But the samples are all well chosen and well woven into the overall feel.  I'm not familiar enough with Hendrix's output to recognise all of the samples (although there's a handy samples chart included) and since the credits include "additional guitar" on some tracks, I can't say for certain what's been added.  It does all hang together though.

Other than the title track, stand-outs for me include "Feel The Heat", which samples the intro from "Long Hot Summer Night" (Electric Ladyland, 1968) and loops it into a really funky riff; the first track, "Coming To Get You", which contains some fantastic guitar; and "Sock It To Me" which weaves the samples around some atmospheric synth sounds and an overall sound that reminds me of nothing so much as Flowered Up's "Weekender"*.

As an overall exercise, it's not an unqualified success, but enjoyable and good fun.

No excuses for the cover art though, it's dreadful.

* While we're on the subject, take a look at the video for "Weekender" - I'd never seen it before.  Here's part 1 & part 2.


Joan Baez

Joan Baez

I bought this as part of my grand plan to listen to lots of classic albums from history (starting in the fifties) and realised that I already knew it.  My parents own this album and I listened to it during my teenage years.  The cover is different for some reason (I think - I don't have my parents' copy to hand) and so this threw me, but as soon as I listened to it again, I recognised every song.

If you haven't heard it before, then the first song, "Silver Dagger" is as representative of both the album and Baez's unique voice as any.  Accompanied only by her own guitar playing, her voice ranges from beautifully soft to ice-clear stridency and back again.  The melody is a traditional one, but you might recognise it because Saint Etienne used it for "Like A Motorway" (from Tiger Bay, 1994).  The other reason I like "Silver Dagger" is that, unlike a number of the other songs, it is sung from a woman's perspective.  When the song is written from a man's point-of-view, that's how Joan Baez sings it (for example, "East Virginia"), which I find slightly jarring.

Other favourites: "The House Of The Rising Sun", which is sung from a female perspective (unlike The Animals' version) and makes much more sense like this (and is the original sense); and "John Riley", a song which I think is very touching.  But all of the songs are good, and worth a listen even if you don't like folk.

Packaged with this album, in the edition I bought (called Songbird) was a version of the album Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square (1959), which was the very first album on which Joan Baez appeared.  It isn't a Joan Baez album, as it contains songs from various singers.  For some reason, only the tracks on which she features are on this version, whereas the original contained more songs.  They all sound a bit bloodless compared to the performances on her first solo album - nice enough but not worth going back to again.

Joan Armatrading

Joan Armatrading

I've owned Track Record, Joan Armatrading's first "best of" collection from 1983, for a long time - in fact, I have it on vinyl, so it must be since the mid-eighties.  When I revived my record deck from its decade-long hibernation a couple of months ago, it was one of the first platters (as no-one actually says) that I played, and full of goodness it is too.

Thus inspired, when I found her first album second-hand on our shopping trip, I snapped it up.  It's a very nice album and definitely worth repeat listening.  I like the slower tracks better, which sound more delicate and better produced.  "Love And Affection" stands out, because you can't argue with its classic status.  But "Down To Zero" is excellent too, and I rather like "Somebody Who Loves You", even though it has a chord sequence very similar to parts of "Love And Affection".

None of these sound dated at all, but the same cannot be said of the more up-tempo tracks, which have a definite seventies singer-songwriter-mild-rock sound to them.  I find them very reminiscent of Tim Buckley's album Sefronia - that laid-back groove and tastefully restrained lead guitar.  It is a good sound but less convincing here than on Tim Buckley's album.


The Suburbs

Arcade Fire

I first heard "Ready To Start", the second track on The Suburbs, when I was waiting for re-runs of  Scrubs to come on E4.  It was in a trailer for Skins, and I had to google it to find out what the music was because I didn't have a clue and it didn't sound like anyone I knew.  Since then I've loved the track but haven't listened to the parent album, so I thought it was about time I corrected this.

There's plenty to enjoy on the album - my favourite tracks are the driving, very rhythmic ones such as "Ready To Start" (of course), "Half Light II (No Celebration)" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" - but there's also too much filler.  The whole thing is over an hour long and could use some editing.

There's also clearly some grand unifying theme - you don't have tracks with roman numerals after them if there's not some concept lurking around - but it escapes me.  Perhaps it's something to do with life in the suburbs?  I'm just guessing of course.


For Richer, For Poorer

Victoria Coren

For some reason, this seems to be the second in an unintentional sequence of books I've read about subjects I have no interest in.  First I read one about whisky, now this, about poker and gambling.  I don't understand poker and can't remotely be bothered to put the effort into working it out - mainly because, if I understand correctly, it's not worth playing without gambling.  And gambling is something I really just don't get.

Anyway, I doubt I would have picked this book up if it wasn't written by Victoria Coren.  My dad was a long time subscriber to Punch and I always enjoyed Alan Coren's writing.  When I first came across his daughter's book Once More, With Feeling I was intriuged, and then amused.  Since then I've always enjoyed seeing her on telly.  So this book definitely seemed worth a shot.

In fact, although the book is very much about poker, it's not just about poker.  Victoria Coren is engaging and very frank about her likely reasons for playing, and what it's taken her from and to.  Maybe it's not just about risking money on the turn of a card, but about community and friends, about finding your own paths.  I can't say I'm much the wiser about how poker works after reading the book, but that didn't stop me enjoying it very much.

Raw Spirit

Iain Banks

I like a lot of Iain Banks's books - and those by Iain M. Banks, come to that.  Enough to name two of them in my top ten favourites.  But although I'd vaguely heard that he'd written a book about whisky, I'd never felt the urge to find it.  I'm not entirely sure why, but I think it's mostly to do with the fact that I can't stand whisky and cannot even understand the appeal.  So what would a book about something I'm not vaguely interested in do for me?  Still, £1.40 in a charity shop and it was mine - I'm a sucker for a cheap book.

And it was very interesting.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.  Along with, I'm sure, many other non-football fans, I really enjoyed Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch despite knowing little and caring less about the game.  A good writer can really animate a subject, and no-one's doubting Iain Banks is a superb author.  After reading about the complexities involved in producing the stuff and the varieties available, I'm  definitely wondering about trying some of the whiskies named in the book.  Maybe I've just never had a good one.

It's not just about whisky though - there's plenty of personal history in there, most of it pretty entertaining.  The book does start to drag towards the end, but there's plenty to enjoy before that.  It doesn't answer one question though: he was commissioned to write a book about whisky, and presumably by a person or organisation connected with the industry.  But who?