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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2014: End of Year Wrap-up

First Aid Kit 'Stay Gold' album artwork

2014 was a year where I probably wrote more than any other year, but hardly any of it was for the Documentary Evidence site that began my journey into music writing over a decade ago. The year saw me start what turned out to be a slow and not exactly fun process of moving content from my original site to a new WordPress home, a process which will have to accelerate soon given that all of my archive writing for DocEv is now offline.

Most of my writing this year was for Clash, where I continue to contribute three of four short album reviews each month. This year I made a conscious effort to diversify who I write for, and lucked out when Electronic Sound gave me a last-minute opportunity to cover Jonteknik‘s debut Apt album for the innovative iPad magazine (I know Jon hates end of year round-ups, but Jon, I owe you a beer for that album and the door it opened for me with Electronic Sound – thanks.)

Since then I’ve delivered a number of pieces for the magazine, culminating in a major feature on Simian Mobile Disco in the summer. It’s an absolute honour and privilege to be working for Electronic Sound. The magazine’s team includes two people who undoubtedly shaped my interest in music writing back when I read Muzik as a teenager, back when I had no aspirations toward writing at all. Through their guidance I’ve become a better writer. I’ve also learned the value of full stops again.

I also started going to concerts and writing live reviews again this year. I reviewed Laibach, Nik Kershaw and Erasure for This is Not Retro (all with typically brilliant photos by Andy Sturmey), as well as a clutch of gigs at my closest music venue, The Stables, for a local Milton Keynes site (TotalMK) – Dylan Howe (my first jazz piece), Tom Baxter and Martha Wainwright.

2014 saw me write the least I ever have in the last five years about Mute releases. I covered the latest Cabaret Voltaire compilation, Erasure’s The Violet Flame and the Plastikman live album for Electronic Sound, Liars‘ Mess for Feeder and a couple of albums for my own Documentary Evidence site, but on the whole I’ve largely ignored Mute releases this year. Partly this is because I’ve been busy with other music writing, and partly it’s because I have struggled to keep up with the sheer volume of albums that the label have issued this year.

Critics are afforded the opportunity at the year end to come up with their favourite album of the year and so I feel justified in doing the same. Head and shoulders above everything else, for this writer it was Stay Gold by First Aid Kit. As is so often the case with the albums that capture your imagination the most, this was an album that I was hardly interested in when I read the press release.

I came back from a three and a half week vacation in New York and Florida in May and immediately found myself being asked to review a clutch of new albums by bands I’d mostly never really heard of before with hardly any time between them being commissioned and the print deadline. One of those records was Stay Gold. First Aid Kit are two sisters from Sweden and the press release seemed to lump them in with a folk scene that I am not always comfortable with, so I wasn’t exactly excited about covering this one.

Sitting on the train on a sunny, May morning, still feeling jet lagged and wondering why I ever signed up to write the reviews when I was so jaded and missing America, I decided to start with the First Aid Kit album and within seconds – the slide guitar sweep that quickly ushers in the opening track, ‘My Silver Lining’ – I was hooked and alert. Something about the music just talked to me in a way that lots of music never has before and I still can’t put my finger on precisely why; it’s possibly the combination of youthful innocence mixed with a sort of mature worldliness with which First Aid Kit approach their songs that got me, possibly the close harmonies of the two sisters, possibly the stirring quality of the title track ‘Stay Gold’ – I still don’t know, really.

What I do know is that a pair of lines on ‘Master Pretender’ – ‘Oh the streets of New York City / Look so pretty from way up here‘ – seemed to capture everything that I missed about New York and tapped into the way I was feeling as I closed the door on an incredible family holiday and went back into an uncertain work life.

Toward the end of the year I found myself listening to a lot more female singers – Martha Wainwright, Addie Brownlee and a singer called Natalie Prass, who I was introduced to by the same PR chap that sent me First Aid Kit (thanks Nathan), and whose debut album is really, really impressive; the sort of sound that might see this young singer scale the same heights as one Amy Winehouse did, all soulful sensuality of a style that has – criminally – more or less fallen out of favour. Check out ‘Why Don’t You Believe In Me’ below.

Oh, and in the last few days I’ve been playing a Canadian band called Viet Cong whose self-titled debut (out January) made me get all nostalgic for classic Interpol again, even if their debut knocks spots off my beloved New York band’s 2014 El Pintor effort.

Wishing all the readers of this blog a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Favourite sounds: First Aid Kit Stay Gold, Conor Oberst Upside-down Mountain, Ryan Adams Ryan Adams, Fats Waller, jazz, ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ by Gershwin, soundtracks to Woody Allen films, The Residents ‘Santa Dog’, Ghostly International, Front and Follow, my eldest daughter playing Latin guitar, my youngest daughter whistling or practicing her keyboard

Least favourite sounds: the announcer on X Factor, ‘What Does The Fox Say?’, arguments and shouting, alarm clocks

Record shops visited: Resident (Brighton), Rough Trade (New York)