Tuesday, 18 April 2017

brand new start

A lot of words but no one talking
I don't want no part of that
Something real is what I'm seeking
One clear voice in the wilderness

Being of unsound mind, I continue to put myself through the absurdity of an annual coach trip to Les Arcs ski resort in France. This involves packing a coach full of mad skiers, drinkers and reprobates who have all come together to form a huge family for a week. The coaches are always uncomfortable with the bare minimum of legroom and, for the second year running, no working air conditioning (as in, it's either in El Azizia or brass monkey mode). However, the camaraderie and the fact that once your skis are on the coach, you don't have to try to carry them and a boot bag and a suitcase as you would if you were flying (as in our trip to the Pyrenees in February), make it all worthwhile. Still, it seems a bizarre way for grownups to behave.

Now, I'm sure you've all at some stage in your life made at least one long distance coach trip, so you will be aware, gentle reader, that at some point in the journey some fellow traveller will demand to be entertained with a dvd. I have suffered some awful films over the years on various forms of transport. Probably the worse was a film called The Wolf of Wall Street which had most of the passengers lose the will to live. This year it was decided  on the return journey - a journey even more feared than the return one - that they would show Deadpool. For the uninitiated, this is a violent potty-mouthed comic book aimed at kidults. Not to be caught out this time, I had made sure that I had charged up my faithful iPod fully and brought along my headphones instead of the little 'earbuds' that have a tendency to fall out of your ears every few minutes and don't manage to cut out any of the soundtrack to the usual in-coach entertainment: often a musical or appalling Hollywood 'comedy' about grown men behaving like 18 year olds. I chose to bring along a pair of reconditioned Bose headphones that I bought in the States a few years ago. 'Reconditioned' means that they were second hand and cheaper but guaranteed, and that was fine by me. Now, I need to point out here that unlike just about the rest of humanity, I don't walk around ignoring everyone else all day with a pair of headphones on. Or earphones. I listen to music all the time but mostly through speakers. I'm sure some of the people I see must sleep with headphones on.

So there we are, a coach full of uncomfortable big people - some with sporting injuries - being forced into listening to the soundtrack on a sound system  that would have put Led Zeppelin to shame and a a screen the size of a Colombian Bolivar 10 cent green postage stamp somewhere in the far distance. For one thing, I didn't have a pair of binoculars with me, for another, I had no interest anyway. On with the Bose headphones and my trusty iPod Classic. This didn't entirely alleviate the constant pain from twisting and contorting my legs into positions haven't been seen much since a Victorian freak show of the world's most bendable man stopped performing, but it stopped having to listen to Ryan Reynolds swearing for about two hours. But what to listen to?

Often there are certain albums I want to enjoy whilst trying to pretend to sleep on such journeys but I made the decision to listen to something I was familiar with but hadn't really listened to on headphones much. I chose Paul Weller's Wild Wood, which is an album that unbelievably came out twenty four years ago. That's right, it came out last century, only five years after I moved down here to the East Coast. Where has all that time gone? Anyone unfamiliar with the album perhaps need only be aware that the former Mr Angry of Woking had settled into some sort of rural bliss after listening to much 1970s music and smoking a few Jazz Woodbines. The music he had been listening to appears to mostly consist of the Island Records catalogue: Traffic and Nick Drake featuring heavily. Generally, the album is seen to be an "organic blend of styles - rock, folk, psych, R&B*" which was also probably more daring then than it may seem nowadays.

Now, Mr Weller is a fine songwriter and guitarist. He obviously, like most guitarists, takes a lot of care over his tone and effects pedals. He also trusts the other musicians he works with, particularly his co-producer Brendan Lynch. The album has a definite rural feel having been recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire. Late night writing sessions and a family of reliable musos collected around him allowed him to record in a fairly relaxed way. The resulting album is fairly dreamy with a lot of acoustic and slide guitars, keyboards and occasional a very laidback jazzy feel (that'll be the Woodbines then). As I have said, this is an album I'm very familiar with. What listening to it yesterday on headphones did though, was to open up a whole load of other layers that I was only really vaguely familiar with. It appears that the aforementioned Mr Lynch likes to add lots of other sounds and effects to his productions. Well, certainly the ones he's made with Weller. The stylophone is one instrument used, for instance. Now, the good old stylophone is best known for its appearance on Space Oddity and, er, that bearded Aussie chap we don't mention anymore. Other than that, there are loads of wibbly noises and buzzy bits along with various synthesizers no doubt playing backwards as well as forwards. There are no doubt plenty of bits of mellotron on there too. All very seventies.

Now, the main point here isn't to review the album or even to get interested parties to check this particular album out (although that would be a good thing). I guess the point I'm making here - in a very long-winded way - is that we can often be pleasantly surprised when we experience something familiar in a new way. I used to listen to music through headphones a lot when I was younger. I think the quality of my headphones is better now. I've already mentioned that I see many people wandering the streets and in public places wearing them all the time. Maybe they are all experiencing constant epiphanies due to the beauty of the wonderful music they bathe themselves in twenty four hours a day. I strongly suspect many of them don't given the snatches of computerised algorithmic AI-created drum beats I've heard them listening to.  Remember, I've just come back from France where they have the most abysmal  music played loudly booming across the ski slopes. Someone needs to be told that constantly repeating a phrase over such a beat for about 10 minutes doesn't really constitute a song. Still, back to the point. I feel that my often jaded listening patterns have just had a bit of a kick up the backside.

I feel now that I want to re-think my attitude to the use of electronica in my own musical experiments. I'm going to dig out my old stylophone and Digitech Synth-Wah pedal and add a few wibbles and boings to some songs to see what sort of atmosphere a well-placed noise lower down in the mix might create. Listening to a rare Weller track, a version of Nick Drake's River Man, is proof  that atmosphere can be created with well-placed and well thought-out ambient textures (oh, and a Beatlesesque raga feel), whether it's successful or not.

Tongue back out of cheek, though, listening to music more intensely in a more solitary manner can provide new insights into the music making process. It's just nice for a change to find something new in such a familiar artefact. Maybe the constant re-selling of older albums by remastering them is just a cynical ploy but, occasionally, there are benefits to us as well.

*Neil Spencer Uncut Autumn 2012

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