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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The Electricity Club: Documentary Evidence Interview (2018)

Those familiar with the story of how this blog came about – Erasure fan; found a copy of Mute‘s Documentary Evidence 4 inside my 12″ of said band’s ‘Chorus’; began collecting the Mute back catalogue; decided to write about it – will find an extended version of that story over at The Electricity Club website in an interview they did with me earlier this month.

I found this amusing, and slightly ironic: way back in 2003, when I started this here blog, I got in touch with Chris Bohn, then editor of The Wire and best known as NME journo Biba Kopf, to see if he’d be open to an interview. Kopf, for me, was synonymous with the Documentary Evidence pamphlet, as he’d written the Mute history that accompanied the catalogue listings at the back, and I couldn’t even estimate the number of times I’d read, re-read and digested those words. His response was along the lines of ‘Er… why?’ and so I shelved that as a bad, and slightly foolish idea. When The Electricity Club asked me to answer some questions, I could suddenly see Kopf’s point, and also my own naïveté.

In any event, I accepted, and the interview is now online here. Head over there and you can read about why Mute matters to me so much, musings on how much I love Taylor Swift (unashamedly), what it’s like to work for Vince Clarke, why I believe people have got it wrong about modern day Depeche Mode, and what electronic music I’m currently listening to.

I wrote most of my answers on a flight to Newquay to visit my father, who gets a mention in the interview. I only realised recently how important my dad is in the story of how I came to fall in love with electronic music… but that’s a story you’ll get to read another day.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 4. Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’

I think it’s rather sad that I feel I have to defend including Taylor Swift in my top ten albums of the year: it appears here with no apology.

I have two daughters, and I’m acutely aware of their need for strong role models – like Taylor Swift – as they navigate their way through the complexities, prejudices and injustices of the world. Even at the tender ages of 11 and 9, Swift speaks to them in a way that other quarters of the pop world don’t, and so they fully embraced the hype around Reputation when it was being readied for release with the same zeal as I would have approached a new Erasure or Depeche Mode album in my youth. As a father, that’s a wonderful thing to see, particular when the artist they’re excited about is earnest and on the right side of the tracks.

The second reason is simple – Taylor Swift’s music brings us closer as a family. This might seem like a bold, overblown statement, but it’s true. We listened to 1989 all the time when it was released – at home, in the car, on long holiday drives; we spent a week driving round Cornwall to the soundtrack of Swift’s Red, complete with all four of us singing along to ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and engaging in critical discourse on which of the two was the better track. We’ve done the same with Reputation, engaging in spirited debates on each track like we’re at a Vienna salon at the turn of the twentieth century rather than on the school run.

But what of the musical qualities of Reputation that means it sits so high in this top ten? Well, even a pop novice can hear that these songs are just a little bit removed from the traditional hallmarks of popular music, even if they are squarely framed in a pop context; they are personal, oblique, a little subversive, bruised, angry, disappointed, political, mature and only occasionally completely lighthearted. The album also benefits from the hand of Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, whose ability to bash out euphoric, massively transformative choruses – as is the case on ‘Getaway Car’ and ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ here – has made his two solo albums such wonderfully intriguing listens.

I could also start a healthy discourse here on where the electronic music I typically write about ends and the electronics of modern pop music starts, but in practice that’s futile. There’s very little difference, even if people desperately want to believe that’s the case. Synths and clever electronic structures underpin the entire breadth of Reputation and not in a way that suggests pop music is appropriating the best ideas from purportedly more serious endeavours.

It’s a great record, by a great artist. Deal with it.

Listen to Reputation here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence