Alison Moyet – Other (Cooking Vinyl album, 2017)

Other should be heard as a companion album to Alison Moyet’s The Minutes from 2013. Both carry with them a sense of freedom and experimentation thanks to the fluid working method Moyet has serendipitously developed with Björk and Madonna producer and classically-trained multi-instrumentalist Guy Sigsworth. Moyet herself believes these last two albums represent the best material of her career, and, in the case of ‘Other’ specifically, proves a contended reflection on what it’s like to be a middle-aged woman observing the world instead of being observed in the limelight of success.

Central to Other’s, er, otherness, is a deeply poetic approach to lyric writing and phrasing that means these songs are loaded with intrigue and complex, often impenetrable and highly personal ruminations. Moyet prefers not to explain the themes at play in her songs, and that somehow adds to the slightly curious way these songs appear to us as listeners.

However, we know that the languid, soulful trip-hop of ‘English U’ is a tribute both to her mother and the English language generally; that the stirring, towering ‘The Rarest Birds’ deals with diversity and the right to be whoever you want to be, and was a product of watching life go by in her adopted home of Brighton – the evocative line ‘navigate the city walks by gum-grey constellations’ coming after watching a woman walking along a gum-strewn pathway in the town. References to Brighton also pop up in the deeply affecting reflections etched into ‘April 10th’ and the opener ‘I Germinate’, itself a metaphor for new life, something which feels apt given the way that upping sticks to the south coast seems to have given Moyet something of a creative rebirth.

If Other showcases the many fibres and facets of Moyet’s voice – the raw, bluesy intonation, the complicated balladry, the West End-honed chanteuse – musically, we find Other delving carefully into electronics, atmospheric soundscapes and clever, almost glitchy beat structures which enrich these songs with varied textures and hues. For anyone desperate to know what a 2017 version of Yazoo might sound like, the skittering, dense, moody synthpop of ‘Reassuring’ or the angsty, stop-start disco euphoria of ‘Happy Giddy’ are about as close as one might ever get.

The talented Sigsworth, like, say, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, is adept at blurring the lines between the programmed and the organic, imbuing these songs with as many pianos, strings and guitars as he does carefully-wrought electronics. The vaguely dubsteppy ambience of ‘April 10th’ sets a spoken-word poem to an exciting tapestry of noises and non-rhythms, with cadences in Moyet’s delivery that would have made this a compelling addition to Rufus Wainwright’s recent collection of reimagined Shakespeare sonnets. The creeping, edgy ‘Alive’ that concludes the album nods to Sigsworth’s work with Massive Attack, setting Moyet’s aching vocal to a haunting, cinematic noir-ness that feels like it’s where her voice belonged all along.

With an album as deftly-executed as this, It would be all too tempting to see Other as Alison Moyet’s creative nadir; instead it has the feel of a new beginning, of an artist working furtively with a like-minded collaborator and approaching her unique talents – as a vocalist and as a songwriter – in utterly unexpected and enthralling ways.

This is the second of three pieces I wrote to coincide with the release of Other, but it is only now being published. The first was a full interview with Moyet that ran in the issue 30 of Electronic Sound. The third piece, which focuses on her influences, will be published in a later issue of Electronic Sound. The two feature articles were drawn from an interview with Alison a bar in Chelsea in May 2017.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Originally written for This Is Not Retro – previously unpublished

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Documentary Evidence 2016 Top 10 Albums: 4. Reed & Caroline ‘Buchla & Singing’ // Erasure ‘From Moscow To Mars’

I felt a little conflicted about including these two on my list, for reasons which I will attempt somewhat clumsily to explain. I then reasoned that this is my list, I’m kind of really proud of what I’ve done to support both these releases, and so on the list they shall remain. I’ve also linked them together for the purposes of convenience.

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“It might have the look and feel of a futuristic tombstone, but From Moscow To Mars, as its title from the oft-forgotten single ‘Star’ indicates, represents a thirty year journey – a journey that the duo are very firmly still on with a new album in the works and plenty more rocket fuel left in the tanks.” – This Is Not Retro

“What emerges here is a distinct sense of loyalty – from Vince Clarke and Andy Bell to one another, and to the enduring art of writing emotional pop music.” – Electronic Sound

First up, the mammoth and some would definitely argue long overdue Erasure box. This was finally released in December after production delays and I reviewed this – atypically for me – for two places: Electronic Sound and then a slightly more personal piece for This Is Not Retro. I am, and forever will be, a massive Erasure fan first and foremost, so my ability to be objective about From Moscow To Mars is one possible conflict of interest. Personally, I think I pulled it off, but you can judge for yourself. The review for This Is Not Retro can be found here. Back issues of Electronic Sound are over at www.electronicsound.co.uk

The second reason for feeling slightly conflicted came in November when I found myself in Birmingham as a guest of the Erasure fan club at the official launch party for the boxset. I was there nominally as a guest but found myself helping out in a couple of ways – blowing up some very sorry balloons (I apologise to anyone who attended and laughed at those) while listening to Vince Clarke and Andy Bell soundcheck their set (including a new song) and then helping out with three hours of meet and greets. It was a special, and slightly surreal experience.

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Second, Buchla & Singing by Reed & Caroline, a charming album of compositions for the Buchla by Reed Hays with beautiful singing by Caroline Schutz. The album was released on Vince Clarke’s Very Records back in October to universal acclaim. I didn’t get to review this one, but trust me, had I done so I would have called it out as very special indeed.

I wrote the press release for Very Records for this album and enjoyed a very pleasant Skype chat with Hays in order to prepare that. Of all the things I have done this year, getting handed that job and helping support the release of Buchla & Singing – in a way somewhat different from just scribing a review – was right up there as a major career highlight, and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity.

One of the best tracks on the album is ‘Henry The Worm’. Reed and I spoke about that track at length but I just couldn’t find a way of fitting it into the press release, so here is that little off-cut. I thought it was a nice story. Music sometimes needs to take itself less seriously.

“Around the time my son was born, I wrote a song that’s on the record called ‘Henry The Worm’,” explained Reed. “We named Henry, my son, after a little caterpillar that was crawling around a Mexican restaurant. When we saw the first sonogram I thought he looked like a little caterpillar.”

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Andy Bell – Torsten The Beautiful Libertine (Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red album, 2016)

  

Erasure‘s Andy Bell has recorded the follow-up album to Torsten The Bareback Saint, written by Barney Ashton-Bullock with music by Christopher Frost. Bell performed the first chapter in the life of the colourful polysexual Torsten at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 and will perform this next installment during March 2016 at Above The Stag in London’s Vauxhall.

I reviewed Torsten The Beautiful Libertine for This Is Not Retro. My review can be found here. Also on This Is Not Retro is my interview with Andy from last year and a review of the Variance remix collection.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

A Conversation With Erasure’s Andy Bell

  
I recently spoke to Erasure‘s Andy Bell about his role in Barney Ashworth’s musical theatre show Torsten – The Bareback Saint. The show ran during the 2014 Edinburgh Festival and was accompanied by an album of the songs from the production, released via Strike Force / Cherry Red.

Upon the release of Variance, a collection of remixes and new versions of songs from the album, and ahead of Bell treading the boards again next year for the follow-up instalment, Torsten – The Beautiful Libertine, I interviewed Andy for This Is Not Retro. The conversation can be found here.

Anyone who knows me remotely well will know that Erasure have always been, and always will be, my favourite band. To get the opportunity to talk to someone whose work you’ve literally grown up with is always a privileged moment, and I am continually grateful for such chances.

I had always intended to write up a review of the performance of Torsten that a friend and I watched in Edinburgh last year, but never did. In its place, these are the rough notes I took at the time, along with a text message to a friend, all of which would have become a review if I’d just bothered to finish it.

Andy Bell – Torsten The Bareback Saint, Edinburgh 13 August 2014

In the introduction to the programme that accompanied Andy Bell’s first Edinburgh Festival show, he described taking on the role of Torsten in this song cycle as a challenge. As he climbed up the stairs to the small stage in full top hat and tails while singing the song ‘Teacher Teacher’ it was pretty obvious to the twenty or so people in the lecture theatre-cum-studio that this came pretty naturally to Bell.

‘It was really good. He came on in hat and tails, at one point was in heels, a vest and a sparkly pair of pants and ended up killing himself in a dressing gown. Very dramatic, quite funny, stirring and emotional. Boy can he sing! Only about twenty of us there.’ – text to a friend immediately after watching Torsten The Bareback Saint on 13 August 2014.

Suicide. Robin Williams.

Sax

Showgirl headgear.

Snarl. Disgust. Rage.

Weston-Super-Mare.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence // interview (c) 2015 This Is Not Retro

New Order – Music Complete (Mute Artists album, 2015)

  
New Order release their tenth studio album – their first for Mute Records – on 25 September.

I reviewed the album for This Is Not Retro. You can read my review here.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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)

Electronic Sound: Issue 8 Reviews & Other Recent Writings

Electronic Sound - Issue 8

I haven’t updated Documentary Evidence for a while but that’s not because I haven’t been busy with other writings.

The latest edition of Electronic Sound for iPad is now available. This issue features my reviews of Erasure‘s excellent album The Violet Flame, Olivia Louvel‘s mesmerising Beauty Sleep (featuring one track based around a sample of Recoil‘s ‘Stone’) and a major interview with Simian Mobile Disco about their new ambient album Whorl.

Issue 8 also includes a feature on the fortieth anniversary of Kraftwerk‘s ‘Autobahn’, which includes input from Mute‘s own Daniel Miller.

To read more go to the Electronic Sound website.

Just lately I’ve found myself spending some time at the Milton Keynes concert venue that’s literally on the doorstep of the village in which I live (The Stables) and in the last month I’ve reviewed three gigs at the venue. This marks something of a tentative return to reviewing gigs after a long break. The first was something pretty special for me – Nik Kershaw, whose solo acoustic show I reviewed for This Is Not Retro. Kershaw’s music was what I grew up with and Human Racing, his first album, was the first album I ever owned. My review for that concert, with photos from the Worthing gig on the same tour by my good friend and talented photographer Andy Sturmey can be found here.

I’ve also written two pieces for a local Milton Keynes site – TotalMK – of my other two recent Stables gigs. Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans found the jazz drummer performing pieces from Subterraneans, which sees his band work through jazz versions of tracks from David Bowie’s Berlin period. Howe is a hugely talented drummer who has worked with many different acts in the jazz and rock world, including Nick Cave, for whom he drummed on songs to the soundtrack for I Am Sam with The Blockheads. The other Stables gig was Tom Baxter, well known for getting picked by movie and TV producers when a stirring song is ever required for a soundtrack.

As well as that little lot, you’ll continue to find my reviews in Clash each month – the latest issue includes a piece of mine on the latest Thurston Moore album, which is more than likely the closest we’re going to get to a classic Sonic Youth LP anytime soon.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence