Neal's Musical Express - September 2016

When I wound up “Album of the Month” in May and caused mass panic among the legions seeking musical guidance, I gave readers enough clues to suggest that it was more of a hiatus than taking off the headphones permanently. When music forms a cornerstone of your existence and life is unthinkable without it, well, you can never stop listening. My DNA is preprogrammed so that whenever my ears wrap themselves around a great tune, my spine starts tingling, everything must pause for a moment. And there have been plenty of "tingles" in 2016, which is rapidly turning into a golden year for music.

Before continuing, let me detail how this column has been “remixed” over the summer. Whilst I remain loyal to the album format, since my musical musings began back in 2003, the means by which we consume music has irrevocably changed. We all know that. Where once music was a physical entity that we clutched in our hands, digitization renders most music as pure sound. For certain, I rue that future generations may no longer listen to an album from start to finish, hold that cherished, life-saving 7-inch to their breast. On the other hand, there has been a counter-reaction with vinyl sales continuing to increase, the successful annual Record Store Day events and burgeoning communal listening parties such as Classic Album Sundays. What could be more satisfying than closing your eyes and enjoying your favorite music on a top-end audiophile system with like-minded friends? It beats church. Contemporaneously, 2016 might be looked back upon as the year that the album format questioned its own definition. Once an album was a two-sided piece of vinyl spinning at 33rpm and then a silver disc read by a laser. Now major artists are stretching the idea of album: Beyoncé (the long-form video album), U2 (downloaded onto your iPod whether you like it or not), Björk (the multimedia sensory tsunami), Kanye West (let’s muck around with my incredible new album even after release because I am God) and most recently, Frank Ocean (the dual package release with Apple music tie-in and limited edition magazine, coupled with existential angst drip-fed onto the net).

Some have worked better than others.

My monthly music coverage still includes a selected album that has caught my attention. However, I am expanding the scope to include older releases that are worth (re)discovering. I will also comment on visual mediums: music videos, television and film, even interesting Youtube clips. And there will also be opinion pieces where I will mount my soap box and write about whatever is piquing my interest. Furthermore, each month I will provide a curated Spotify playlist consisting of tracks mentioned in this column so that you can gauge how inspired or how awful my recommendations are. I have notoriously eclectic tastes. Only the very seriously open-minded will appreciate everything, but I hope readers will discover something of interest.

2016: Good or Bad (So Far)?
So we have reached Earth, Wind & Fire's favorite month of September by which time I usually have an inkling of its musical pedigree. Are we enjoying at a classic year the likes of 1966, 1971, 1989, 1994 or 2013, or are we adrift in the musical doldrums as we were in 1960, 1984, 1990 or 2014. The challenge is to survey the music scene without the benefit of hindsight and place it within the context of a constantly mutating art form that has ebbed and flowed since the birth of rock ‘n roll circa 1956. Songs of our childhood and in particular our teenage years impact far more greatly than those in adulthood, which is why you can remember all the lyrics to a song 30 years ago, but not where you left your keys 30 minutes ago. At some point our hunger to discover and appreciate new music evaporates, because it no longer means so much. We become biased towards the songs that sound-tracked our growing pains, our hedonistic years. For some curious reason, though they don't have the sentimental attachment, I am just as excited by new artists as my pet-faves of old. I'm lucky that way. 

So far, 2016 has been an abysmal year in terms of artists reaching the end of their mortal coil. I agree with those that propound the theory that David Bowie held the world together. Since his demise back in January, there followed a cluster of deaths and the world turned even shittier. Frankly, I still cannot accept that Prince is no longer with us and discovering the news five minutes before tutoring a Matter of Taste event in London was bad timing. Did the passing of so many immortal icons signal the end of music? As Sterling Void once sagely reminded us: the music goes “on and on and on and on...forever.” In an odd way, this cluster of deaths prompted music to get its act together. There has been a slew of outstanding music. Postpone the last rites! We have already been blessed with: Radiohead (just how beautiful is "Daydreaming"?), Frank Ocean, Lisa Hannigan (and just how elegiac and beautiful is "Prayer For the Dying"?), Kaytranada, Iggy Pop, Anohni, The Strokes (their cruelly underrated last “Drag Queen” EP), Underworld, Brian Eno, Christine and the Queens, Paul Simon, Minor Victories, The Avalanches... Add your own artist who has delivered the goods. To that, list I will add August's "Album of the Month" by Glass Animals, which can read by scrolling to the bottom of this page.

Song-wise, I am making shapes (privately) to the new “Justice” banger “Safe and Sound,” clearly indebted to Daft Punk. When that bass line kicks in at 50 seconds, then I'm off. Hopefully the forthcoming album will be up the same standard. I’m also enjoying “Doing It To Death” from “The Kills” – a nice bit of stop-start, sludgy indie, upcoming grime sensation Lady Leshurr’s deliciously frenetic “Where Are You Now?” and a gorgeous slice of shoe-gazing guitar courtesy of "Cogs" by the fabulous Minor Victories.

When I was inputting reams of Burgundy 2013 tasting notes the other da,y I decided to wade through early 1980s Simple Minds. You can't beat a bit of Kerr. Their critical high point, 1982's “New Gold Dream” has just been re-released in deluxe format on multiple vinyl discs, though nothing beats the original. Their stadium behemoth status and earnest bombastic anthems have obscured their roots as first a punk and then experimental new wave band whose influence is thankfully now being recognized. New Gold Dream is the nexus between this period and commercial success and songs such as “Someone Somewhere (In Summertime)” and the title track sound both cinematic but affecting. I remember buying the 12-inch of “Promised You A Miracle,” their commercial breakthrough in the UK charts, though when I was a DJ, I flipped it over and spun the b-side instrumental, the outstanding “Theme From Great Cities.” It was resurrected when Chicago house swept across the country a few years later, sampled in tracks such as The Real Life by "Corporation of One." Anyway, it's good to see that Simple Minds are cool again and "New Gold Dream" is well worth revisiting.

That is all for now. Enjoy the playlist below. Never forget that your favorite song ever might be released tomorrow.

Album of the Month
I am presently slightly obsessed with the recent release from Oxford quartet, Glass Animals, “How To Be A Human Being”. Think Wild Beast vocals, (I mean falsetto is all the range these days), think Vampire Weekend quirkiness and think Beck at his catchiest. Maybe even a soupçon of late-period Talking Heads? One of the standout singles this year is opening track “Life Itself,” distinguished by its insistent tribal percussion that makes it pop out of the radio whenever I hear it. It comes with free killer chorus that you will not be able to get out of your head for weeks. The video is always worth checking out. Glass Animals' videos are usually left open to interpretation, though the story is replayed albeit with a different perspective in other promos connected with the album. Clever. There is something very knowing about Glass Animals - it is intelligent pop music whose lyrics you could spend days trying to decipher. But what's the point. Just enjoy the sounds of this, one of the albums of the year.

What I Am Watching
Oh look. This is a new bit. Neal never covered television or film before...did he? Well no, I didn't. However this square-eyes does take a very active and unhealthy interest in both television and film. So why not shine my insignificant light upon the visual as well as the audio? This week I binged my way through six episodes of the curiously titled comedy, "Fleabag." It enjoys cult status at the moment, though word of the mouth is prodding it into the mainstream and doubtless would gain many more viewers if it was not so damn rude. It began life as actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge's monologue at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Like all the best comedies, from Hancock's Half Hour to The Office, the humor sucks you in and be warned, it is about as crude as television permits. Our central character, whose name is never revealed, is a sassy cosmopolitan young woman, pretty and clever. Most comedies would set her up as some kind of successful lawyer. Instead Fleabag's life consists of useless boyfriends, unfulfilling sex and a business on the verge of bankruptcy. The central theme could be described as "aren't men crap?" which is perfectly true. However, the humor is a Trojan horse. As the storylines twist and turn, characters are fleshed out and darker themes take over, so that topic such as friendship, dysfunctional families, loss and death are broached in an unflinching manner, catching the viewer off-guard. Waller-Bridge uses the fourth wall ingeniously, speaking straight to camera in a knowingly natural manner, her comic timing is impeccable. She has an expressive face that says more than words. A mere raised eyebrow in the middle of sex says all you need to know about how she feels. The supporting cast are top grade: Hugh Dennis, Bill Paterson and a brilliant (as always) Olivia Coleman who obviously relishes playing the nightmare stepmom. Trust me, Fleabag will be up there with the best programs of 2016 at the end of the year as masterpiece of comedy.

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