Neal's Musical Express - November 2016

This month's selection features the first "Wine Journal Album of the Month" to feature an Master of Wine. There was I, assuming this coveted title would be given to Jancis Robinson, whose "grime" alter-ego "Tasterz Wiv Attitude"  (T.W.A.) with MC Huge Johnson remains a closely guarded secret. The monthly playlist adopts a theme, November being the seasons, whilst I offer my views on the latest series of Charlie Brooker's dystopian drama, "Black Mirror".

Album of the Month: Umbrellabirds, by Umbrellabirds

The eponymous debut from "Umbrellabirds“ is produced by a gentleman by the name of Alex Hunt, a good friend that I met many moons ago back in the days when we offered our fledgling palates for the sadly departed “Wine” magazine. We bonded over a love of wine, music and a silly sense of humor. He would blush at the mention, but Alex is a bit of a polymath. Like Prince, he seems to play every instrument invented, although as far as I am aware the Minneapolis maestro never became an MW. In recent months Alex had told me that he was doing some production work for a hitherto unnamed group and duly “Umbrellabirds” appeared in early November accompanied by an e-mail inviting me to check them out. Friendship notwithstanding, trust me, it is an excellent debut, even if finding background information on this London-based “folkestra” (the term I found on their Facebook page, possibly inspired by Johnny Marr’s “guitarestra”) proved challenging. I managed to discover that they consist of Sam Blickhan and Lewis Daly, who subsequently recruited Alex as a full-time member during recordings over the last two years. This thereby makes Umbrellabirds the first Wine-Journal album of the month to feature an MW. Their sound? A bit like Gillian Welch on “Georgetown”, Ray Davies on catchy opener “I Don’t Want To Be A Mockingbird” and maybe Laura Marlin on “The City”. “Nature Documentary” and “Lou” are two of the most gorgeous tracks; their sparse pastoral sound filled out by a violin quartet that elevates both to a higher level, in my humble opinion rendering them more melancholic and affecting. The former is crowned by a melody that Chris Martin or Ed Sheeran would have loved to write, were they not partying with Jay-Z. There is something a little maudlin about Umbrellabirds' sound, albeit in an affecting way. Perhaps I would have liked a couple more upbeat numbers seeing as they carry them off so well, but that is a minor quibble. I should find out more about them. I could easily contact Alex and request their inside leg measurements, but why lose the mystique in this age of info overload (see Black Mirror commentary below)? I’d prefer to encourage others to give Umbrellabirds a listen and judge the music themselves. Oh, and by the way, there is such a thing as an “umbrella bird”, which inexplicably made me feel happy.

What I Am Listening To

A couple of people have mentioned that my last two Spotify lists have been so discombobulating and eclectic that I thought maybe we should introduce a theme, à la Bob Dylan’s “Radio Hour” that he used to present on BBC Radio 2. In the future it might be an artist or a genre of music, a specific year or maybe something obtuse...I bands Essex-born bass guitarists. Since I have been discussing the 2015 Burgundy growing season ad nauseum with numerous winemakers in recent weeks, this month’s selection can be entitled “seasons”, starting with springtime since that’s when the vines’ vegetative cycle kicks off.

There is no better way to start that Mel Brook’s deliciously un-PC “Springtime for Hitler”. What I like about this song is that aside from the lyrics, it’s a brilliantly composed show song in its own right, the earworm chorus lodging itself in your brain. Doubtless many people must have been caught unawares singing the praise for the Führer. Where to go from here? Well, straight into some spangle-tastic disco courtesy of Donna Summer from her 1976 album, the aptly-titled “Four Season of Love” replete with soft-focus breathy vocals and funky bass-line, dovetailing into Saint Etienne’s “Spring” from the early-1990s classic album “Fox Base Alpha”. There were plenty of choices for summer. For me, the quintessential blissfully hot July afternoon tune is Roy Ayer’s signature song, the languorous “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” that segues into Sly Stone’s stoned-out “Hot Fun In the Summertime.” Now we’re totally chilled out, we need something wake us up. “Feel Good Hit Of the Summer” is probably Queens Of The Stone Age’s best song from their breakthrough 2000 album, Rated R, boasting the finest stuttered lyrics since Bowie’s ch-ch-ch-changes.

When it came to autumn, the only song that immediately came to mind was The Kinks’ playful, skipalong “Autumn Almanac”. Then I discovered two more wonderful tracks, the stunning “Autumn Hill” by electronic ambient producer Jon Hopkins, who has worked with Brian Eno and Coldplay amongst others: 160 seconds of gorgeousness. To complete the autumnal trio, Tindersticks’ “This Fire of Autumn” from 2012s’ “The Something Rain”, where lead singer Stuart Staples sounds eerily like Ian Curtis. What with Leonard Cohen’s passing, we need singers with distinct voices and this group continues to be rather overlooked since their feted eponymous debut in 1993. We move into winter with The Pipettes' “A Winters Sky”. I am probably the only person in the world who considers their only album, 2006’s “We Are The Pipettes” to be a lost classic of that decade, even though I garlanded it my album of the month back then. I guess they were a bit too retro, perhaps a bit twee? However, their album is stuffed with great songs and I’d rather have the Pipettes back than bloody “Little Mix”. Penultimate track is “Winters Kiss” by Blossoms, a group that have deservedly won much praise for this year’s debut. This song actually comes from 2014, the “b-side” (if there is such a thing) of “Blow” and was hint of great things to come.

Last but not least, “Winter Winds” by Fotheringay. You might not have heard of them since they released just one album in 1970, essentially a short-lived offshoot of Fairport Convention, featuring one of this country’s greatest female singers, Sandy Denny. I rate Fotheringay’s album as one of the best English folk albums, another “lost classic” that deserves attention (it includes an awesome cover of Dylan's "Too Much of Nothing".) I’ve included an alternate take here since it highlights Denny’s wonderful vocals more than the album version. I guess the next thing she did after this was record Battle of Evermore with Led Zeppelin.

Then we are back to spring and a new vintage is upon us. 

What I've Been Watching...

Not wishing to lavish hyperbole where not necessary, but “Black Mirror” has been one of the most important drama series in recent years. Scabrous screenwriter Charlie Brooker’s ingenious standalone episodes glimpse into the not too distant future and the slight temporal shift renders the often dystopian predictions about technology, the omnipotence of the Internet and its cause célèbre, social media, all the more frightening. Mise-en-scènes are usually rooted in the present day with tropes that we all recognise, ramming home the uncomfortable but all too feasible scenarios of what they future might hold, dire warnings of what lies ahead. Check out “White Bear” in series two or the time-mincing Christmas special featuring Mad Men’s Jon Hamm that commence innocently enough and yet twist and turn until you dread what comes next.  

Channel 4 made the first two series on a limited budget however series three saw the series shift to Netflix, a company with deeper pockets and pursuing a global viewership, not least in the US. There is some parallel in this transfer of “Black Mirror” from terrestrial television to streaming - it could be part of a Black Mirror storyline. Instead of sitting down to watch the next episode on a Sunday, viewers can binge on the entire series simultaneously, even if that risks screwing up the mind.

The results are mixed and at this point, I should forewarn that there are SPOILERS coming up. The larger budget means that some episodes have a glorious cinematic quality, especially the first episode “Nosedive” with its eye-popping pastel hues. Famous actors can be budgeted for, this particular one directed by Joe Wright (Atonement and Pride & Prejudice) and starring Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help and Jurassic World). The plot is typical Black Mirror: a society where the entire population incessantly ranks each other via their mobile phones so that an individual's mean score dictates their quality of life. (Yeah...I know...there are parallels with this very publication!) It's a fine premise, yet whereas in series 1 and 2, the plot could have spun into several dark directions, here it felt predictable. Thereafter the episodes range from inspired. The best include the afterlife lesbian love story of “San Junipero” sound-tracked by killer mid-80s dance anthems, and “Hated In the Nation” replete with apocalyptic twist courtesy of swarms of nasty drone bees. Then again, the Hammer horror fantasy of “Playtest”, albeit brilliant acted my Wyatt Russell, felt a bit uninspired, lacked the ingenuity and intellect of other episodes. 

 If you have not seen “Black Mirror”, you should. It asks pertinent questions about where society and technology is heading, whether we like it or not. That plots are always intriguing and it has set such a high standard that maybe I am being pernickety. “Black Mirror” is a stunning visual feast that  can leave you feeling utterly depressed about the future, but at least you will think twice next time you walk down a street like a zombie glued to your iPhone, post something spiteful on Facebook in our interconnected, rabidly hectic post-truth world.  

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