#534 ‘Sleep the Clock Around’ by Belle & Sebastian

Album: The Boy With The Arab Strap, 1998

Justification: You know how every so often you’ll hear a song and get a sudden rush of intense, crippling emotion? This came up on my Spotify playlist the other day and I was briefly paralysed.

Belle_sebastian_-_the_boy_with_the_arab_strapI’ve talked about it a lot on here before, but back in the late 90s/early 00s most of my social life revolved around a club that my then-girlfriend-now-ex-wife and my youngest sister (two different people, just to make clear) DJed at in Adelaide. B&S were a frequent favourite on the CDJs back them, and this got more than a few spins.

And for a moment on the 431  to the city from Glebe Point Road I was back in the smoke-filled environs of Stix Pool Hall on a Thursday night in 2001, surrounded by people I loved and naturally figured I’d be friends with forever, drinking watered-down beer and dancing to a large chunk of my record collection.

That group has now scattered to the winds – London, Montreal, San Franscisco, New York (and, for one of us, currently Cebu in the Philippines) – and those of us still in Australia mainly live in Melbourne and Sydney now. I’ve no idea if Stix still exists, and I’m in infrequent contact with most and zero contact with a few of those people. But for a while there, it was glorious.

Belle & Sebastian, meanwhile, are no longer making records that I particaularly love, certainly not to the degree of their first three, but dear god they’re good live. Speaking of which, I’m pretty sure the version on this fan video is the BBC Sessions take, which is about 20% more lively than the original.

SONG YOU SHOULD HAVE REDISCOVERED THIS TIME IN 2010: PiL were comprehensively declaring that ‘This Is Not A Love Song’.

SONG YOU SHOULD HAVE REDISCOVERED THIS TIME IN 2012: The late, great Elliot Smith and ‘Son of Sam’.

AND HERE’S THE LAST FIVE…

530. The Lightning Seeds: Ready or Not (11 July)

531. The Shangri-Las: Give Him A Great Big Kiss (23 Aug)

532. Guided by Voices: Teenage FBI (27 Aug)

533. The Cowboy Junkies: Sweet Jane (1 Nov)

534. Belle & Sebastian: Sleep the Clock Around (8 Nov)

#523 ‘The Ballad of Tom Jones’ by Space and Cerys Matthews (30 Jan)

Album: Tin Planet, 1998

Justification: OK, this is going to sound like some weird and sinister foreshadowing, but it’s not, honest: this song was a regular karaoke showstopper when performed by my ex-wife and I in the late ’90s.

Still kind of sucks as a cover, you know. Nostalgia, you've failed me.

Still kind of sucks as a cover, you know. Nostalgia, you’ve failed me.

And sure, you could say “really, Andrew? You and your ex-wife used to duet on a song all about a couple trying to murder each other? No longer together, you say? Wow. Your life is the most badly-written dramedy ever.” And I’d definitely agree with the last bit – I’m pretty sure my life is just one diamond heist or kooky neighbour away from  turning into a 80s straight-to-video effort at the best of times – but the fact remains that we did a killer version of it, despite the fact that Lara is more or less tone-deaf. That’s the beauty of singing Cerys Matthews vocal lines: husk it up enough and the notes don’t really matter.

Space lasted longer than you realise: they didn’t split until 2005, despite all the hits you remember (this, ‘Avenging Angels’, ‘Neighbourhood’, ‘Female of the Species’) being released between 1996 and 1998 – and they reformed in 2011 and are still technically active, though guitarist Jamie Murphy quit in 2012 and original drummer Andy Parle died in weird, collapsing-in-the-middle-of-the-road circumstances in 2009.

I was never a fan of the band, and nor was I especially fond of Catatonia (Matthews’ band, which you are about to curse me for since you now have ‘Mulder and Scully’ going through your head). But I can still remember Lara and I grinning broadly at each other, mic in one hand and beer in the other, as we declared “You stopped us from killing each other / You’ll never know, but you saved our lives”.

Good times.

SONG YOU SHOULD HAVE REDISCOVERED THIS TIME IN 2012: Jellyfish made their one and only bid for relevance with the mighty, poptacular ‘The King is Half Undressed’.

AND HERE’S THE LAST FIVE…

518. Beastie Boys: Hey Ladies (26 Oct)

519. Elliot Smith: Son of Sam (8 Nov)

520. The Birthday Party: Nick the Stripper (22 Nov)

521. The Stone Roses: Elephant Stone (7 Dec)

522. Gene: Be My Light, Be My Guide (25 Jan)

 

#509 ‘ROYGBIV’ by Boards of Canada (22 Aug)

Album: Music Has The Right To Children, 1998

Justification: Oh, what a song.

I think I’m right in saying I first heard the Scots duo BoC on a Matador compilation, most likely their triple-disc Everything Is Nice which had a whole lot of freakin’ amazing music and an electric blue cover. In any case, I remember buying this album for my then-girlfriend-now-ex-wife at Borders in Rundle Mall ahead of Xmas 1998 and feeling very conflicted about it.

This album cover has fuelled a lot of my nightmares over the last decade or so…

Borders, you see, had just arrived and were threatening to shut down all the indie record and book stores in Adelaide with their huge range and low, low prices – I know, it sounds mad, but this was during the late 90s flowering of big box stores who hadn’t noticed that the internet was a thing – and given that said girlfriend worked for Mary Martins Bookshop on Rundle Street, even going into the shop was effectively an unforgivable act of treason.

Furthermore, I had no intention of buying it or any other album from anywhere but Big Star, the indie record store chain for which I had once worked and around which my entire purchasing life revolved (not least because I got a handsome discount). But Big Star didn’t have it. Neither did Muses, Blue Beat or B#, which were the other indie record stores I hit up in my quest. Sucking up my pride, I even looked in the CD racks of the very new JB Hi-Fi (which I’d sworn never to buy CDs from, only games and DVDs). No joy.

And so, in a last ditch effort, I looked in Borders. And there it was.

I cannot tell you how I wrestled with my conscience over this purchase. I knew Big Star would take a couple of weeks if I ordered it through them, and that would be too late. I knew that I could try out some of the more dance-specific record stores and hope that some Boards of Canada had slipped in with their Warp orders, but I’d already done two laps of the CBD thus far. I was footsore, desperate, and knew what I had to do.

And so I bought it.

And now almost all of the places named above – Big Star, Muses, B#, Blue Beat, and of course Borders – have closed down (The Muses still exists online, technically): it turns out that the internet was coming for all of them – although JBs lives on, as does Mary Martins. So, um, happy ending?

And despite it being a gift for Lara, I seem to have kept it along with all the other Boards of Canada discs. Whether that was me being selfish or her throwing a present back in my face, I honestly can’t recall. Knowing us both, probably neither.

Oh, and you know the title is an acronym for the colours in a rainbow, right? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Which isn’t really accurate, but there you go.

And it’s a fan-made video too, but a nice one.

SONG YOU SHOULD HAVE REDISCOVERED THIS TIME IN 2011: ‘Hieronymous’ by the Clouds; and my, what a song it is…

AND HERE’S THE LAST FIVE…

504. Luna: Superfreaky Memories (6 Aug)

505: The Stairs: Mary Joanna (8 Aug)

506: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on You (10 Aug)

507. Iggy & the Stooges: Search & Destroy (13 Aug)

508. The Jazz Butcher: She’s on Drugs (15 Aug)

#433 ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ by Ben Lee (24 Feb)

Album: Breathing Tornados, 1998

Justification: In my professional opinion, Ben Lee’s The Rebirth of Venus is one of the most terrible albums ever made by humans. The songs are ghastly, the lyrics hilariously inept and the tunes just plain not there. And it astonished me because dammit, Ben Lee can write a song when he wants to.

Like this one.

Kids, remember that dentistry is best not performed in desert conditions. Now spit.

This was one of his biggest hits, reaching #2 on the 1998 Hottest 100 and remaining one of his most loved tracks. it’s also one of the first times that I’d really noticed the use of autotune as a way of fixing an artists’ intonation. Listen to that keening self-harmony in the chorus, or the way his voice holds for unnaturally long in the coda. It was to get much more subtle for a while there, although of course nowadays not only do people not mind if singers sound eerily robotic – you literally won’t get a song on the radio without it. Heavily quantised autotune is going to be to the 00s what gated snare sounds were to the 80s and low-register-free albums mixed during mad cocaine binges were to the 90s.

Anyway, it was a huge sonic difference to the Lee of old, which can be attributed to producer Ed Buller – then on a bit of a high thanks to his work with Pulp and Suede and having some fun out in the colonies messing with the work of artists like Lee and Alex Lloyd (who, in an interview long after the event, told me that Buller was a supercilious prick in the studio). It may have been a big change in his sound, but it got Lee out of the lo-fi cul-de-sac that he’d gotten into recording with US indie coolsie Brad Wood.

From here he did one more album with Modular (hey you yes you) before going indie for the smash hit Awake is the New Sleep in 2005, a good 18 months after [x] is the new [y] references stopped being clever, funny or original. It’s also about where Lee himself stopped being clever, funny or original, actually – and the fact that his biggest success came when he stepped out on his own appears to have given him a delusional conviction about the infallibility of his own genius. But still, I do genuinely love this song.

SONG YOU SHOULD HAVE REDISCOVERED THIS TIME IN 2011: The Flaming Lips’ magnificent, beautiful, heartbreaking ode to life, love and rational thinking: ‘Do You Realize???’

AND HERE’S THE LAST FIVE…

428. The Johnnys: Injun Joe (15 Feb)

429. Depeche Mode: Wrong (16 Feb)

430. Shonen Knife: Riding on the Rocket (20 Feb)

431. The Chills: I Love My Leather Jacket (21 Feb)

432. The Bluetones: Slight Return (22 Feb)

#424 ‘Cry’ by the Mavis’s (7 Feb)

Album: Pink Pills, 1998

Justification: If the early 90s was when Australian music seemed poised to change the world, the late 90s was when the local music industry started grinning madly, rubbing its hands together and declaring “OK, we don’t appear to know what we’re doing – let’s roll up our sleeves and really ruin some shit.”

Many of the young hopes of the 90s died at the hands of stylists and producers – the Clouds and Falling Joys bowed out altogether, the Fauves backed into a cult-band cul-de-sac, Frente! braced themselves for civil war, shored up by warring factions of external songwriters, electro-sample crew Caligula failed to punch the face of whoever said “hey, you know what would really solidify your existing underground credibility? An insipid diddlee-dee cover of ‘Tears of a Clown’!” and The Mavis’s went from Ballarat outcast weirdos to shiny, over-primped androgynes.

I would like to make clear that I come not to bury the Mavis’s, but to praise them. They first came to my notice when I won a community radio competition to see them play in Adelaide on a very early tour in support of their ‘Rollercoaster’ 7″, a piece of rhythmic demo-studio whimsy built with 90% enthusiasm to 10% skill that still has a treasured place in my record collection. The subsequent ‘Thunder’ was their national breakthrough, with Matt and Becky Thomas’ voices harmonising with that uncanny purity unique to singers whose larynxes come from the same genetic stock.

Triple J loved ’em, the scrappy debut album Venus Returning did well, and the folks at White (the doomed Mushroom’s even-more-doomed spin-off label) went “aha, we could make these kids into pop stars.” Cue Pink Pills, sporting one of Australian music’s most jaw-droppingly hideous album covers, lead by the shouty tribal punk of ‘Naughty Boy’ (with Matt getting all cross-dressy and overtly fabulous to camera in the clip – just in case the band’s queer credentials hadn’t already been made clear by this point), and then this – which I’m pretty sure was co-written by Hunters & Collectors‘ guitarist Barry Palmer, then in his starmaker ascendent with Deadstar.* And my problem is not this song, which is the band’s catchiest moment and a near-perfect slice of pop: it’s what it represents.

Yes, in the late 90s a graphic artist was paid human dollars to design this. At least it's not comic sans.

‘Cry’ broke the band onto daytime commercial radio and won them a pop audience, who got real bored real quick. Meanwhile, the community radio brigade were smarting for having had the band metaphorically abandon their annual subscribathon campaigns in favour of miming on Hey Hey it’s Saturday, and the band themselves seemed split on whether they were glistening 90s sex stars from outer space or goofy op shop kids living the post-smalltown B-52s dream. By the time third album Rapture turned up in 2001, the band had imploded under the weight of angry claims of sell-out in national street press letters pages when they lucked into a Hyundi ad tie-in, the likes of which wouldn’t raise any question today except perhaps whether it was an international synch deal or if this was just for the Asia-Pacific region.

The members are all still involved in music in Melbourne, reportedly, and I contend a reunion show would probably be pretty great. And this, the song that both made and destroyed them, would surely close the set.

*Now I mention it, Deadstar also deserve an entry, in lieu of there being any videos for vocalist Caroline Kennedy’s amazing previous band the Plums. How could there not have been a clip for ‘Au Revoir Sex Kitten’, I ask you?

SONG YOU SHOULD HAVE REDISCOVERED THIS TIME IN 2011: Maybe I took a post-Laneway morning off. Laziness, I call it. OK, let’s look at what else 1998 had to offer, shall we?

AND HERE’S THE LAST FIVE…

419. Jellyfish: The King is Half Undressed (30 Jan) 

420. The Rapture: No Sex for Ben (31 Jan)

421. Grandaddy: The Crystal Lake (1 Feb)

422. Kraftwerk: The Robots (2 Feb)

423. Feist: 1234 (6 Feb)

#414 ‘A Perfect Day Elise’ by PJ Harvey (20 Jan)

Album: Is This Desire?, 1998

Justification: Having just been utterly blown away by PJ Harvey live – as I have on at least three other occasions, with three very different concerts – I find myself put in mind of one of her most underrated singles, leading off what’s probably her least-loved album. All Peej LPs have their detractors, although anyone who thinks that Rid Of Me has the slightest thing wrong with it is clearly mad, but Is This Desire? pretty much got a shrug on release and a smaller shrug ever since. Although it’s allegedly the album Polly Jean’s most proud of.

Perhaps controversially, I think that it suffers from the same problem as To Bring You My Love in that the production is all wrong for the songs. Take my absolute favourite song by Ms Harvey – the filthy, snarling ‘Meet Ze Monsta’. On TBYML it sounds sterile and repetitive, but when I saw her open with it on a gaspingly hot night at Thebarton Theatre on the tour behind Uh Huh Her, with two drummers and a bass tone seemingly dragged from the bowels of the earth, I had my tiny mind blown. I’ve got a great bootleg of that tour and that song still kills me every time I play it.

‘A Perfect Day Elise’ is similar in that on record it sounds a bit forced, but live that bassline is sinuous and violent, giving the necessary muscle behind Harvey’s always astonishing voice to allow it to slink through the song like a thief. I still adore it, and it appears I’m not alone: this was also apparently her highest charting UK single.

SONG YOU SHOULD HAVE REDISCOVERED THIS TIME IN 2011: Machine Gun Fellatio’s uncharacteristically sad, dignified classic, ‘Unsent Letter’.

AND HERE’S THE LAST FIVE…

409. The Folk Implosion: Natural One (13 Jan)

410. The Kinks: Apeman (16 Jan)

411. New Order: Bizarre Love Triangle (17 Jan)

412. Faith No More: Midlife Crisis (18 Jan)

413. Garbage: Queer (19 Jan)

#294 ‘Sexy Boy’ by Air (4 July)

Album: Moon Safari, 1998

Justification: Air’s entire reputation is based on a single album: Moon Safari. Sure, up until its release they were a cool up-and-coming French band (and oh, how exotic that seemed in the late 90s!) who combined the oh-so-cool electro with the chill-out that was so inexplicably popular at the time (I swear, 85% of all chill-out compilations have ‘All I Need’ on it, normally bookended by Kinobe’s ‘Slip Into Something More Comfortable’ and some insipid track by either Groove Armada or Zero 7). This was perfect cocktail party music, exotic enough to sound cool, familiar enough not to be distracting, mixing modern beats with vintage sounds without sounding all soulful and inspiring and black like with those Jazzamatazz records. This was safe, milky-white music that everyone [middle-class] could enjoy. And enjoy it we did.

That said, no-one enjoyed it more than Air. They enjoyed it so much that they ensured that they’d never be in situation where anyone would accuse them of eclipsing their classic by making sure everything they did subsequently was as bland and passionless as they could possibly make it. And then, as I discovered at V Festival whatever year they played, they also ensured that they would even take their finest moments, like this single and ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’, and perform them with contemptuous indifference. I have hated few bands more than I did Air during that one, soul-sapping set.

I adored – and still adore – this song, and most of the album (though ‘All I Need’ can fuck right off). And while there are moments of Air magic subsequent to this (let’s face it, ‘Playground Love’ is amazing – and that’s Thomas Mars from Phoenix singing on it, by the way, under the pseudonym Gordon Tracks), they never made another decent album again. Look at your iTunes playlist, doubters, and try to tell me that Talkie Walkie or Love 2 has gotten a single spin outside the week you got it. I’ll wait for you over here.

THIS TIME IN 2010: Weekend, so let’s look at 1998 in more details, shall we?

#203 ‘Hi Cs’ by Screamfeeder (1 Feb)

Album: single, 1998; Introducing Screamfeeder compilation 2004

Justification: I came to Screamfeeder late – and like so many bands, only after playing on a bill with them and going “…how the fuck have I missed out on this?” but this is my favourite Screamfeeder song. The Pixies-esque three-chord cycle, Dean Shwereb’s extended drum rolls, Kellie Lloyd’s authoritative bassline (and dear god, that’s an amazing sound she’s getting), Tim Steward’s buzzsaw guitar and the “can see a pattern forming” vocal hook – look, it’s just a superbly economical piece of songwriting. It’s hard to choose between Screamfeeder singles – ‘12345’ and ‘Dart’ almost beat this out – but this is the song that first did it for me. And I believe Kellie got an MTV video award for this clip.

They’re doing some shows at the moment. This pleases me.

Oh, and until very recently my former bandmate Todd Hutchinson was playing in Tim’s other band We All Want To. Go Todd!

#172 ‘Every You Every Me’ by Placebo (29 Nov)

Album: Without You I’m Nothing, 1998

Justification: Some songs have no sensible explanation for the way they sneak into your psyche. This one bugs me on a number of conscious levels – like so many Suede songs, the lyrics veer between cliché and nonsense – and the music is irritatingly unspectacular. And then it drops to the major root midway through the chorus, just before the title line. Gets me every damn time.

When their singles compilation came out I discovered that I like Placebo a lot more than I’d realised, or at least more than I’d necessarily admit. Still, ‘Nancy Boy’ – there’s a hell of a tune.

Oh, and also note that this is a hideous, hideous video clip. Nothing says “we weren’t anticipating this many singles from the album” like a clip made of live footage.

#169 ‘Girls Like That (Don’t Go For Guys Like Us)’ by Custard (23 Nov)

Album: single, 1998; Loverama, 1999

Justification: When I first heard Custard I was fairly sniffy. “Oh,” I said smugly, my music journalist muscles just beginning to flex, “I too enjoy the music of Pavement and the Pixies,” and then probably adjusted my monocle or something. And then I saw them live and went “…ah.”

For Custard were the best kind of loose on stage: a rock-solid rhythm section of bassist Paul Medew and drummer Danny Plant – and then Glenn Thompson – giving frontman Dave McCormack and guitarist Matthew Strong the foundation to build their Malkmus/Spiral Stairs loose-and-messy guitar double act upon. It helped that McCormack wrote great songs (and still does: get his Little Murders album right now, if you haven’t already) and while I may have come to the party late I got damn near obsessed with them for the last few years of their life.

This was the closest they came to a hit, nabbing them an ARIA for Best Video (beautifully referenced in the deliberately awful clip they made for their final single, ‘The New Matthew’), marking the poppier end of their still-superb swansong, Loverama; although the fact that its as strongly McCormack-focussed probably should have clued people into the fact that the band were perhaps not as solid a unit as one might have hoped. By the time ‘The New Matthew’ limped out it was all over bar the solo careers.

Having lived in Sydney’s inner west for the last few years, this video just seems like home to me. On a related note, one of the reasons I made the somewhat arbitrary decision to move to Newtown after my marriage disintegrated was McCormack’s debut solo single ‘The Inner West’, released after the split of his post-Custard band The Titanics and the end of his marriage to Titanics bassist/awful columnist Emma Tom. For the inner west, he assured me, it had the beautiful girls. He was right.

Also: I had one of the most painfully drunken nights of my life after running into the effusive trio of McCormack, Thompson and Perry Keyes at the Town Hall bottleshop and being invited back to Thompson’s place with them. Just thinking about it makes my liver wince.

Is it wrong that seeing the reunited Custard is one of the biggest drawcards for my attendance at the Meredith Festival in December?  The correct answer is “yeah, a bit”, though that’s not going to stop me trying to convince them to play ‘Kinder Whore’.