Tag Archives: James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Borders (Cruel Expectations) – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Six months ago, I wrote about the Spirited Away EP by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar.

Since that EP’s release in June, we’ve also released an album, Borders (Cruel Expectations), but I didn’t post about it at the time. At this remove, I can’t remember exactly why, but I suspect I felt like I’d been plugging my stuff too frequently, as I’d also put out a single and an EP with Mel during lockdown. But Borders deserves a plug or two, and it’s way overdue, so here goes.

It’s the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record, and it’s quite unlike the others. Previously, the band had been James, me and whoever we could rope in to help for live shows and recording. The songs on the first two albums were tracked at my dad’s house, my flat, James’s flat or One Cat studio, with a revolving cast of musicians. James and I were pretty creative with production; arrangements feature violins, double bass, pedal steel and touches of keyboard, as well as guitars, drums and electric bass. The downside was, though, it was hard to replicate some of the arrangements in a live setting and there was a noticeably different feel from song to song – inevitable when some of the tracks were recorded one instrument at a time by James and me, while others were tracked by a full band playing live in a studio. It’s amazing, frankly, the records are as coherent as they are, much of which is due to James’s talent for sequencing (and an excellent mastering job from Ben Zushi Rhodes on No Peace for the Wicked).

For his third album, James wanted to do something a bit different. These time, we set out to record all the songs live, with all the interaction between musicians that entails, and to retain the same band on everything. Jon Clayton, from the band Hurtling, was the recording engineer. The rhythm section was Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) on drums and Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union) on bass. Singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic.

James’s vocals were overdubbed, as were occasional keyboard parts. Chris, Jono, Matt and I all pitched in with harmonies, as did Mel and singer/songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Basia Bartz from Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band played violin on two songs. But basically, it’s more of a rock album than a singer-songwriter record, especially compared to the previous two.

As I’ve written previously, progress on final mixes was slow until I was furloughed last April. Borders was the first project I finished during that period, and we released the record at the end of July last year.

I’m really proud of it, as I am of every album I’ve worked on with James. He’s an excellent singer and writer, and he covers a pretty wide stylistic territory. This album has hints of country, gospel and soul, as is usual for James. But there are also songs that suggest the Clash (on Home on High, there’s some of that London Calling swagger in Jono’s drumming), Haircut 100 (In the Twinkling of an Eye has Heywardian major sevenths and brass) and the Smiths (some Marr-esque jangle on Wine Dark Seas).

Borders has some of James’s best songs, and it was so cool getting to mix the songs and become really familiar with all the details in the other guys’ playing – stuff that you don’t quite get to hear in reheasal. They’re all really fine musicians, and I miss playing with them so much. I’m hoping we’ll get to reconvene in the summer when, hopefully, the worst of the pandemic is over and music venues (the ones that survive lockdown) are able to reopen.

Things are pretty worrying here right now. Transmission, hospitalisation and fatality rates got scarily high just after Christmas, and while they’ve receded a bit, they’ve not gone down all that much. Not enough. Mel and I are fortunate – we both work from home, so we just leave the house to buy food and to go for walks a few times a week. And happily, my mum and my dad have both had a first dose of the vaccine now. But life still feels on hold, plans are all provisional.

In the meantime, working on music (writing music, recording music, making plans about what do to do with the music I’ve recorded) is one of the things keeping me sane. There are a few things going on, which I’ll be able to say more about soon, I hope. Borders is out now, though, available on Spotify and Bandcamp, and it’s a fine piece of work, if I say so myself.

The NME is fragile; no more print editions of the NME

Obscure David Bowie reference for you there. Before we turn to the NME, I just wanted to let you know that James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar, have just released a new track called Rocks and Pebbles. And here it is. A full EP to follow in June, then an album. All mixed by your genial host at this weblog.

And now to the NME.

The NME lost me in the early noughties, when it became obsessively focused on the Strokes, the White Stripes, Interpol and, slightly later, their inferior British knock-offs. I simply wasn’t interested in a paper that could find nothing more worthy of discussion and analysis than Pete Doherty. It seemed to me then, and still seems now, that Conor McNicholas (the paper’s then editor) had driven them into a cul de sac, and was at some point going to have to reverse out of it, allowing his writers to turn their attention to something beyond retro indie rock.

When the NME did pivot away from indie towards pop, it was far too late.

But wider forces are at work here, of course. Chief among them is that, for all McNicholas likes to think his paper “owned” that cultural moment, and he’s been quoted plenty saying that it did, all the initial heavy lifting that made Brooklyn indie into the dominant form of rock for a decade was done online, by MP3 blogs, webzines and the young Pitchfork.

Like any long-lived print publication, the NME did not think digital. It’s now a web-only publication and it still doesn’t. Of all the music-writing portals online (they are legion, and some are spectacularly good), none has an uglier, more badly designed website than the NME. They’ll need a total site redesign immediately to have any chance in such a saturated market.

There’s also the thorny issue of music fans not needing gatekeepers to tell them what is and isn’t worth listening to, when they can do it themselves on their phones immediately and at no cost other than data. Oh, and the whole issue of editorial focus. These are not partisan times, musically. We all listen more widely than 20 years ago, because it’s so easy. The NME needs a staff who know stuff, can offer insight and analysis. If all they’re going to do is publish lightly edited press releases or stories off the wire, they’ll be completely dead inside 18 months.

I never knew the NME in its glory days, whenever you consider those to be. But I grew up with the NME still a thriving, widely read publication that could set an agenda, and seeing it slowly crawling to its end is a deflating experience. I hope those working for it are able to find new work, but my gut tells me that most of them won’t be able to find gainful employment in a similar sphere. The online ad market won’t support the number of titles it’d take for everyone to keep their jobs. The issue remains, how do you make money from something that everyone can get for free and that no one’s willing to pay for? And if you can’t get people to pay for music writing, how can you pay the people writing it?