2018 Rewind

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

Concerts

Reed & Caroline, Pianos, NYC, May 2018

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

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

Interviews

Daniel Blumberg by Angela Beltran

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

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

Events

Andy McCluskey – Sugar Tax Interview CDr

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

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

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

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

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

Albums

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

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

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

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

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Daniel Blumberg (Clash interview, 2018)

I have concluded that Daniel Blumberg is probably one of the most important signings to join the Mute roster in its entire forty years of releasing records. His debut solo album, Minus, written after immersing himself in London’s improvised music scene, towers above just about everything else around it, capturing a visionary songwriter and musician tearing up his own rule book for the sake of furthering his art.

To coincide with the release of ‘Family’, an unreleased song from Minus sessions, Clash have today published an interview that I did with Daniel Blumberg in July, wherein he explains the genesis of the album and the impulses that drive him.

In my humble opinion, it tells a story that needed to be told, and provides an insight into the mind of a prodigious talent; I am enormously proud of this feature.

Read the interview here.

Watch the video for ‘Family’ here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Stuart Kirkham for confirmation of the setlist.

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

14. Jazz Devil

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

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

Start To Move: A Short History Of 1970s Wire (Clash feature, 2018)

On the occasion of last week’s release of deluxe hardback reissues of Wire’s three 1970s albums, I was asked by Clash to contribute a short piece reflecting on the (perhaps overlooked) importance of those albums. Sections of the piece appeared originally on the first version of the Documentary Evidence website about ten years ago and haven’t ever gone back online; the original piece formed part of a longer bio covering the three chapters in the Wire story.

The Clash feature can be found here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith for Clash

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 6. Depeche Mode ‘Spirit’

“Not an album to listen to if you are remotely worried about the state of the world right now… The kind of album that is necessary for shining a light on our basest traits and for encouraging us to think differently all over again; in that sense, for the first time in a long time, Depeche Mode have judged this just right.”
– Clash

Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about Depeche Mode‘s Spirit album. Partly it was because it was billed as being political, and I’m not an outwardly political person and nor do I especially gravitate toward albums with obvious political content. I was asked by Clash to write a piece explaining that Depeche Mode had always been political on some level, which seemed like utter nonsense until I started writing it. That piece can be found here; I won’t rehash it again but it’s a piece of mature analysis that I am particularly proud of.

‘Where’s The Revolution?’ did nothing for me when it was released, and I didn’t hold out much hope for the album. Being political had become trendy, with bands using music as a platform to make a political point, and I couldn’t get on board with it at all. But spending time with the album to write a review, also for Clash, unlocked something that I hadn’t especially expected to find.

My earliest drafts for the review were uniformly negative. I couldn’t reconcile lyrics about impoverished members of society with a band whose members variously live in Manhattan apartments and Californian mansions; it somehow seemed hypocritical on a very obvious level. But as I spent time time with Spirit I began to hear parallels with a very different album – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – and a certain similarity of poise began to emerge, especially in Martin Gore‘s lyrics for ‘Fail’ at the very end of the album.

Spirit did much to allow me to reconcile issues that I didn’t even know I harboured toward Depeche Mode, a band that have been part of my life since my teens. Consequently, I’m convinced that when, in decades to come, writers like me are asked to assess Depeche Mode’s legacy, Spirit will stand out as the band’s surprising yet defining late period statement.

Listen to Spirithere.

My review for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 9. RAC ‘Ego’

“Pop music really shouldn’t be this clever.”
Clash

There will be more on this topic later on in this countdown of my favourite albums of 2017, but these past few years have found me migrating back toward pop music, while at the same time maintaining a continual push toward music’s outer edges.

I reviewed producer and songwriter André Allen Anjos’s second album as RAC for Clash and found myself listening to it over, and over, and over for a decent chunk of the summer. In a world where countless producers co-opt guest vocalists to provide the vocals for songs they can’t sing themselves, Anjos stands out not through his black book – Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, Rostam from Vampire Weekend, St. Lucia – but his approach to a brand of smart pop that has a mature, enduring sensitivity as well as some very fine melodic credentials.

Listen to Ego here.

My full Clash review can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Jono Podmore – Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory And Practice Of A Master Drummer (book, 2017)

Jaki Liebezeit, photo courtesy of Jono Podmore

Metamono‘s Jono Podmore (aka Kumo) has arguably done more than anyone else in recent years to keep the legacy of Can alive, whether in groups like Cyclopean with Can members Jaki Liebezeit and Irmin Schmidt, or remastering the Can back catalogue and sundry unreleased cuts with Holger Czukay and long-standing Can supporter Daniel Miller.

To those initiatives can be added a new book that Podmore has assembled with US music journalist John Payne, Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory & Practice Of A Master Drummer, which seeks to document the unique approach practiced by Can’s late drummer, who passed away in January of this year. The book is currently subject to a crowdfunding campaign via Unbound which can be found here.

I wrote a news piece for Clash which explains more about the book and which can be found here.

In the process of putting my news piece together I asked Podmore for his recollections of working with Liebezeit, and that insight can be found in the Clash piece. “While we were having dinner one night, I was putting on some music,” Podmore also recalled. “At one point I put on some Charles Mingus. Without looking up, Jaki said, with a mixture of confusion and disgust, ‘Jazz? Been there. Done that.’ With that in mind I asked him if there were any other drummers that interested him. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘808 and 909.'”

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash