Tag Archives: twee

Oh Lori – Alessi Brothers

The Alessi Brothers (or Alessi as they are sometimes billed) are not one-hit wonders. They had two hits, albeit different ones in the UK and the US. Oh Lori was their big British hit, a number eight in 1978 (Savin’ the Day, from the Ghostbusters soundtrack, was their US hit. No, me neither). Oh Lori is one of those songs I feel like I’ve always known, as it was an inescapable part of the BBC Radio 2 playlist for a couple of decades at a time when the music I heard was governed by what my parents wanted to listen to. My mum’s choice, Radio 2 was then home to voices I only dimly remember now, those who (unlike the late Terry Wogan and the still on-air Ken Bruce) didn’t survive James Moir’s cull: John Dunn, Derek Jameson and Jimmy Young.

Billy and Bobby Alessi were signed to A&M in the label’s 1970s heyday. It was an appropriate home for them, as A&M was not, and never has been, a hip label. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss were good guys, but they were constantly behind the curve of music fashion and their rock roster has rarely been better than embarrassing. The quintessential A&M rock band (on their books during the label’s 1970s peak) were the Police – a band that comprised a jazzer, a progger and a schoolteacher in punk drag, a little too old to be convincing, a little too dextrous to be authentic, with identical bleach-blond haircuts. Alpert especially (a successful recording artist in his own right with the Tijuana Brass) was one to put his trust in old-fashioned virtues like graft and instrumental ability. Yet despite this, perhaps in a desperate effort to contemporise, they signed the Sex Pistols when EMI dropped them, famously letting them go a week later, after Sid Vicious had smashed a toilet in their offices and Johnny Rotten had harrangued the employees.

The Alessi Brothers were a far more typical signing: cute identical twins singing in jazzy falsetto. Like the brothers Gibb, to whom they owe a substantial debt, Billy and Bobby Alessi are consummate hacks, in the nicest possible way. They’ve maintained a career over 40 years as recording artists, songwriters, vocal arrangers and jingle writers, constantly employed, not often in the foreground, but always somewhere to be found if you look hard enough. Their hackwork is barely distinguishable from their best days at the office. Whatever they’re doing, they turn it out to a high standard.

But Oh Lori finds the brothers at the top of their A game. They may have broken the needle on the twee-o-meter with this song but they’re so damn sweet and doe-eyed about it – their idea of romance seems to have come from the same era as their chord changes: ‘I want to ride my bicycle with you on the handlebars’ indeed – that all but the most cynical listener forgives the shamelessness of the manipulation.

Somewhere on his farm in Scotland, I suspect, Paul McCartney – no stranger either to the jazz pastiche or to doe-eyed audience manipulation – heard this and nodded his approval.

Alessi
It was the seventies. Hair like this was acceptable then

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At the Lost & Found – Marine Research

I saw Marine Research play at the Garage in Highbury, London, in 1999, promoting their one and only album, Songs from the Gulf Stream. They were, along with Joy Zipper, supporting Quasi, who were just about to release Field Studies. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to: total indie-pop heaven.

At the time I didn’t know anything about them, and it was some while before I was able to piece any of the story together (this is pre-internet, remember). The band had its roots in a twee-pop group from Oxford in the 1980s called Talulah Gosh, a sort of English Beat Happening, with the dungarees, hairslides, lollipops and let’s-do-the-show-right-here enthusiasm that has  always been and remains the hallmark of twee-pop bands the world over. However, the affectations and faux-naivety that make, say, Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson insufferable were strong in the Gosh, too, so they were divisive among music writers and fans. This sort of music always was; as many people were embarrassed by C86 as embraced it.

Talulah Gosh ran its course and in late 1989 the core of the band reconvened, this time calling themselves Heavenly, singer Amelia Fletcher and her colleagues dropping their rather precious stage names (she had been “Marigold”; Turner Prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price was “Pebbles”; Fletcher’s drummer brother Matthew was “Fat Matt”). While still apt to annoy music fans who want overt and easily understood shows of rock’n’roll rebellion, Heavenly demonstrated noticeably improved instrumental abilities, and were no longer the most shambolic live band in Britain. And if their music was still not ambitious for itself in the manner of the Manchester bands of the same era (or a few years later bands like Blur and Suede), the idea that this stuff might appeal to a wider group than anorak-wearing Peel listeners no longer seemed utterly fanciful.

Sadly Heavenly came to an abrupt end after Matthew Fletcher killed himself in 1996. He was only 25. Heavenly decided to call it a day. But they would reform once again, a couple of years later, as Marine Research, and with their new drummer they completed their evolution from indie shambles to surprisingly spiky guitar-pop band.

They only made one record, Sounds from the Gulf Stream, in 1999. It was a low-key, low-stakes kind of record (indie pop released on K Records is low-stakes almost by definition), but it was lyrically darker than Heavenly’s work had been, with a little bit of added aggression and a lot of very adult ambivalence about the world and relationships. Take At the Lost & Found, where’s the singer is caught between affection and disdain for someone she thinks she recognises from her past, and Fletcher imbues the final chorus with something not far from desperation:

I watch your shadow and think
Oh please, oh please
I watch your shadow that talks
And laughs and bleeds
You hunch your shoulders
And I’m weak at knees
At the lost and found

This was grown-up territory that Marine Research were now playing in. Venn Diagram and Chucking Out Time lived in the same place. All three are great, and Sounds from the Gulf Stream was an underappreciated little gem of a record.

Surprisingly for a band who, even in their mature work, were on the naive and childlike end of indie, away from the band they’ve all had suprisingly high-powered careers. Amelia Fletcher (or rather Dr Amelia Fletcher OBE) is a former head economist at the Office of Fair Trading, guitarist Peter Momtchiloff is in the philosophy department of the Oxford University Press, and keyboard player Cathy Rogers was once on TV every week presenting Scrapheap Challenge, before going to the US to present the American version with Henry Rollins (she devised and produced both shows, having previously worked on science shows like Horizon). She later packed in TV entirely and now owns an olive farm with her husband. Talulah Gosh co-vocalist Elizabeth Price (“Pebbles”, remember) won the Turner Prize a few years ago, and was last seen hammering the Tories in the press over cuts in arts funding.

Theirs has been a strange but rather inspiring group of careers.

mr pic

Marine Research, 1999 – Yes, this is the only picture I could find of the band

Recent home-recorded indie soft-of pop

Dear Boy – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ram, released in the spring of 1971, is the highpoint of Paul’s Farmer McCartney phase. It’s not as home-spun and lo-fi as his debut, McCartney, and its mood is strange kind of low-key anger, giving it more kick than its predecessor. Too Many People sees the singer taking aim at those “preaching practices” (Lennon assumed McCartney was talking about him). Dear Boy, which we’ll get to shortly, takes someone to task for not appreciating what they had (Lennon, again, saw himself as the subject).

The early seventies saw McCartney in self-imposed exile on his farm in Scotland. Some biographers have suggested that Paul had a nervous breakdown during this time, while others have seen it more as an alcohol-fuelled episode of depression. The cover shows McCartney holding a ram by its horns; perhaps the subtext of this was less about his contentment with his lot up on his farm and more about what McCartney himself was wrestling with.

What I love about this album is how relaxed McCartney sounds, simply pleasing himself, while tackling weighty subjects and moods. None of the slightly forced jollity and cheap hookiness of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is here present, but the author’s lightness of touch (a trademark of his from And I Love Her onwards) is fully intact. The songs on Ram are as strong as anything he wrote in the latter days of the Beatles if you’re willing to meet them on their own terms and accept that they are designed to be minor pieces, not grand Hey Jude-style statements. And as always with McCartney, there are melodies here that lesser songwriters would kill to have written.

Yet Ram, famously, was not particularly well received by critics on its release (sample review from John Landau: “incredibly inconsequential… the nadir in the decomposition of sixties rock thus far”; sample reviews by Robert Christgau: “If you’re going to be eccentric, for goodness sake don’t be pretentious about it” and “Ram is a bad record”).

This was blatant nonsense, and when I listen to the album I find it hard to believe that anyone with any sort of ear for music could fail so completely to get any of it. It seems like they must have been expecting McCartney to look outwards more in his early solo career – to address the world and its ills in the way Harrison and Lennon had. McCartney’s music must have seemed insular, whimsical and self-satisfied in comparison. But it’s not valid criticism to dismiss a work because it doesn’t conform to your preconceptions of what a record should be. As Ian MacDonald pointed out in his essay on the Beach Boys, Retire the Fences, Pet Sounds is an abject flop considered as a heavy metal album. Ram seems to me as determinedly, modestly small-scale (and yes, as whimsical) as Paul Simon’s first solo record, which Christgau loved. So why the problem here?

Dear Boy – with its gorgeous harmonies and surprising chord change from Fmaj7 to Bmin7 in the verse – is my favourite track from the album, but there’s an awful lot to like here: the wonderfully daft Heart of the Country (“I want a horse, I want a sheep, I want to get me a good night’s sleep”); the proto-Waits Monkberry Moon Delight; the Beach Boys-esque Back Seat of My Car (though, in fact, the Beach Boys songs that this song most resembles all post-date Ram); the gnomic opening trio of Too Many People, 3 Legs and Ram On.

A recent double-album reissue and accompanying rapturous reviews. Jayson Greene’s 9.2 review in Pitchfork was typical in its assessment of the record’s overall quality, but atypically shrewd in its view of Linda McCartney’s role in them:

The songs don’t feel collaborative so much as cooperative: little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling– whatever it is you did, make sure you’re back there doing it with gusto.

We live in twee-er times than the early 1970s, so perhaps the massive rise in critical and fan esteem for Ram is simply a consequence of that, but open-eared listeners (which is to say, the public, who voted in pound sterling, and sent it to the top of the album chart) understood all along.

macca170512w

Tigermilk – Belle and Sebastian, Part 2

Tigermilk starts with the Belle and Sebastian ur-text and one of their greatest songs: The State I Am In. If you’re curious about the band, have a listen to this shaggy dog story of a song. Your response will tell you whether they are for you or not.

Over the quietest of strummed chords, in the softest of singing voices, Stuart Murdoch delineates the boundaries of his lyrical world and his approach to writing – a combination of knowing ambiguity and mundane specificity – in just a few lines.

I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975
I was puzzled by a dream, stayed with me all day in 1995
My brother had confessed that he was gay
It took the heat off me for a while
He stood up with a sailor friend
Made it known upon my sister’s wedding day

I heard this song for the first time in 1999, when Tigermilk was released on CD, and was knocked out by it. By this time, Belle and Sebastian were already indie favourites in Britain, big enough for kids like me to know about them without having to work too hard. My enthusiasm for the band was shared by a couple of close friends, but not by my wider social circle, who found them twee, precious and wimpy. My girlfriend Mel also finds them twee and precious, and doesn’t get why I like them (or why I’m writing this post).

Belle and Sebastian were an aural palate cleanser for me then. I’d spent my younger teens listening obsessively to American grunge and alternative rock music, and while I still wanted music played primarily on guitars (I was — am — a guitar player), I needed something other than angry guys screaming and playing loud and hard all the time. I was getting it anywhere I could find it. Belle and Sebastian were just one source.

But what does this music say to me now?

When you listen to music from your youth as an adult, it can be hard to listen objectively. Every song on Belle and Sebastian’s first three albums calls up memories for me. Walking to school; sitting at the side of a public tennis court with my friend in the summer holidays waiting for my turn to play a few games; being driven by my dad to my grandfather’s funeral; walking home from Southend town centre on a cold Sunday evening not long before Christmas; writing a philosophy essay for my theology A Level course. I listened to this band a lot for about a year and a half while at sixth form and pretty much stopped when I got to university. I have almost no adult memories tied up with this band.

I put I Could Be Dreaming on my iPod on the way to work the other day and it was glorious. Belle and Sebastian songs have a tendency towards the brisk. It’s part of their charm, as it makes their songs come over like over-excited kids, an impression strengthened by their primary-colour chord changes and simple arrangements, with Grade III-level touches on cello and trumpet. I Could Be Dreaming drops the school-music-lesson instruments and replaces them with a couple of lightly overdriven electric guitars and some beautifully cheesy 1970s synthesiser and beat-group organ. The group’s playing is spirited. The song is at a tempo that faces drummer Richard Colburn with that tricky decision: do you play propulsive eighth notes on the hats or looser, swinging quarters? He went with the quavers, giving the song an oddly Krautrockian feel; Neu! relocated to the Glasgow suburbs. The twee-est group of the nineties end the song having built up a surprising head of steam; Stevie Jackson thrashes away and Colburn bashes his cymbals, while someone (Isobel Campbell?) reads out a chunk from Rip Van Winkle.

Tigermilk is a fine album throughout, with only one misstep, Electronic Renaissance — not a bad song as such, but one that could scarcely be more out place, with its Boys of Summer drum machine pattern and Pet Shop Boys synthesisers. But even great songs like I Could Be Dreaming are not without their flaws. Something about Murdoch’s lyrics, which I used to think were brilliant, now rub me the wrong way. Other people’s sexual confusion, physical abuse by a partner or sexual abuse as a child are invoked in startlingly throwaway fashion, as if Murdoch’s unaware these things do happen to real people, and that they are not trivial events or mere grist to Murdoch’s lyrical mill. He sounds, being blunt, like a child trying to seem grown up, or a sheltered young man trying to seem wordly. But he was, still, a (fairly) young man then, possibly not knowing too much of where he wrote, and this tendency is less marked in what I’ve heard in his later songs.

This lyrical weakness aside, Tigermilk still sounds charming to me, and stronger than the two albums that followed it in quick succession. If You’re Feeling Sinister is hampered by too many songs of one tempo and key (E) and a drop-off in the album’s home straight (I really don’t get the high regard in which Judy and the Dream of Horses is held). The Boy With the Arab Strap, meanwhile, has some absolute belters (Dirty Dream Number Two, the title track), some charmers (Is it Wicked Not to Care?, A Summer Wasting) and some unbelievable dreck (Chickfactor). So I’d recommend Tigermilk as the only Belle and Sebastian you need to get if you’re only mildly curious, but B&S don’t tend to attract that many casual fans — rather, an equal proportion of haters and devotees who base their worldviews and aesthetics on their favourite band’s. Years after I last listened to them seriously, I can still hear why.

Tigermilk – Belle and Sebastian, Part 1

This is Stowe School.

stowe house

Stowe is a private school in Buckinghamshire in England, opened in 1923. It’s based in Stowe House, which was built by Sir Richard Temple in the late 1700s. The Temples were an enterprising bunch. As each son married shrewdly (that is, married an heiress), they became first the Grenville-Temples, then the Nugent-Temple-Grenvilles, and by the late 1800s the Plantagenet Campbell Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenvilles. Really. The really smart members of the aristocracy have always known there is more to be gained from making a good marriage than raising an army.

When I was about 16 and my friend told me that about a band called Belle and Sebastian, he told me that they formed at a school called ‘Stowe’. I didn’t know what Stowe looked like or where it was, but I knew there was a fancy public school called Stowe. I heard Stuart Murdoch’s wispy, somewhat feminine voice, clocked the band’s name (Belle and Sebastian was known to my generation as a rather lame anime that had been shown on Children’s BBC and was based on some French children’s novel that no one I knew had ever read), and figured I had the measure of them as upper-class, foppish and effete.

I’ve harked on before for the benefit of our younger readers how different the world was when you couldn’t necessarily find out anything you wanted to know after 60 seconds of Google searching. What I didn’t know (as if there was only one thing! I didn’t know) was that Stowe School was not the same as Stow College.

This is Stow College (now Glasgow Kelvin College):

stow college

From listening to the band properly I soon grasped that their actual milieu was Glasgow, and possibly the seedier end of it. They had made their first recordings at Stow for the students on the college’s Beatbox course. The school’s record label, Electric Honey, was run by Ken McCluskey from the Bluebells, Douglas McIntyre from Creeping Bent and Alan Rankine from the Associates. Several of the founding band members (Stuart Murdoch, Stuart David and Stevie Jackson) were already in their mid-twenties. Stuart David was only on the Beatbox course on pain of losing unemployment benefit.

Electric Honey usually released a single at the end of the academic year, but Belle and Sebastian had enough for an album. So out came Tigermilk in 1995, selling out its 1000-copy run by word of mouth and bringing them to the attention of fledgling London-based indie Jeepster, who picked them up as their first signing, and released the group’s second record, If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996), which seems to have become the consensus ‘best’ B&S album.

It’s not, I think. I like Tigermilk and The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998) far more.

In part 2, we’ll get into why Tigermilk is the the Belle and Sebastian album you should hear if you’re not familiar with the band.