Monthly Archives: January 2013

Ham hock and onion rarebit

Over the last twelve months or so I’ve become rather enamoured of ham hock; a cheap, tasty cut of meat that needs some work but which is amazingly rewarding. It’s basically a pig’s front shins, I gather, and not the most sophisticated purchase; even our local, award-winning, reputationally expensive butcher sells them for only £3.50 each – I got about 450g of meat off the last one we bought after I’d stripped it off the bone, which makes it cheaper than any sliced ham or bacon you’d get, pretty much.

Because hock’s on the bone, and fatty too, it needs some serious cooking. I’ve taken to parceling it in tinfoil with a splash of olive oil, some bay leaves, sage and thyme, a few cloves of garlic, a shake or two of allspice, half an onion, and whatever else I might have laying around, plus half a cup of water. I roughly seal the parcel, and put it in a roasting tray in the oven for about 4 hours at 160 degrees; after two hours, I check it and maybe add a splash more water (I’d use cider if we had any around).

After time’s up, take the ham hock out of the oven, let it cool for 30-45 minutes, and then have at it with a couple of robust forks and your fingers – tear the meat off the bone and pull it out of the fat, get into all the joints between the bones with your fingers and make sure you waste absolutely none of the incredibly tasty, deep-red flesh. (If you’re feeling lazy, you can buy little trays of ready-pulled ham hock from the supermarket; it’ll cost you more, but save you time. Will it be as tasty? Not quite.)

You can use the pulled ham hock for whatever you want – it works well in sandwiches, though it’s more value, I think, in a puff-pastry-lidded pie with some seriously sweated leeks, or in a quiche with yet more leeks and a savoury custard and mature cheddar, or added to a sage and onion stuffing mix for a turkey. But my favourite thing to do with a ham hock was decided a couple of weeks ago; put it in a rarebit.

Now rarebit always seemed a little pointless to me; cheese on toast is so simple and so good, why would you want to fart around with roux and mustard and a tiny splash of beer? Then one day, for some unknown reason, I decided to try a recipe for onion rarebit (I think by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, although I can’t find which book it might be from right now), which seemed a little more substantial and therefore more worthwhile spending some time on. So I browned some onions, made a roux of some melted butter and flour, added milk, grated cheese, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a hint of nutmeg and a splash of beer…

Sure enough, I found it absolutely delicious, and, as Emma had no interest in trying it, it made enough to leave some in a pot in the fridge for the next day (and even the day after that). Since then I’ve made it a number of times, and, as with any recipe, have got confident enough to mess around with it if every ingredient isn’t to hand in exactly the right quantities; red onions instead of white, no onions at all, baby leeks instead of onions, no beer, etcetera etcetera.

So it seemed almost painfully obvious to combine ham hock with beautifully browned onions in a rarebit the other week, especially when I had the last dregs of my Christmas keg of Doom Bar to hand. It was, if I say so myself, one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

a knob of butter
a finely-chopped white onion
another knob of butter
a tablespoon of plain flour
a big glug of milk
a handful of grated mature cheddar cheese
a handful of pulled ham hock
a teaspoon of Dijon mustard
a shake of ground nutmeg
a couple of slices of bread, lightly toasted on the underside

What to do
Get a medium-sized pan on the hob at a low-to-medium heat, and melt the first knob of butter. Add the finely chopped onion, and keep it moving in the pan with a wooden spoon until it goes translucent and golden with flecks of brown. Professional recipe books will pretend that this take 5 minutes, but it doesn’t; it takes more like 15 or 20, but it’s worth it. There are few things finer in the world than slowly cooked onions that have gone properly golden-brown. Just making them go translucent white isn’t good enough – you want the sugars to caramelize and add amazing depth to the flavour.

When the onions are ready, add the second knob of butter, and when it’s melted quickly stir in the flour. Melted butter and flour makes a roux, which is the basis for pretty much any sauce. It’ll make a yellow-y paste around the onions, and bubble a little.

Once it’s bubbling, turn the heat up a little and slowly add the milk – depending on the amount of butter and size of the onion and how much flour you use, it could take between a couple of hundred milliliters and a pint. Stir constantly, so that the roux absorbs the milk and it becomes a sauce.

When your milk is all in and you have a smooth, thick consistency, add the cheese, mustard, splash of beer, and nutmeg, stirring all the while. Then add the ham hock. Once the cheese is melted in and the ham hock is spread through nicely, it should be more like an emulsified paste than a runny sauce; it should be able to sit on top of toast and need to be spread out over it with a spatula, and it shouldn’t ooze or slip off the top.

So, obviously, spread it on the untoasted side of your bread, and stick it under a medium grill for a few minutes until it goes mottled and brown – it wont bubble like regular cheese on toast, so keep an eye on it and don’t let it burn. If you make enough or the rarebit topping, it’ll keep in a sealed container in the fridge for two or three days. Serve with a glass of chilled beer, and eat it standing up in the kitchen, or while wandering around the garden if the weather’s good. Honestly, there’s nothing better.

Fugazi – The Argument (2001)

fugazi-argumentMy first exposure to Fugazi was when someone at university lent me a copy of either Red Medicine or End Hits during my first year. The same person also lent me Metal Box, the CD edition that came in a miniature version of the actual metal box the original LP had come in. Both albums were handed over like illicit substances that we didn’t quite know how to imbibe; the Fugazi especially. Fugazi was a name I’d been aware of for years but only vaguely, and it was imbued with a strange otherness and power that scared me off, frankly.

The music press I read barely ever mentioned them – their albums would place in the latter halves of end-of-year polls but I’d never seen an interview or a live review, or read anything which gave me a potential way in. Hardcore, let alone post-hardcore, was alien territory to me, and the culture that existed around it, as far as I could tell, seemed exclusionary and gatekeeperish. I presumed, as an uncool kid from a small Devon town, that I wouldn’t be allowed in. I listened to Red Medicine or End Hits a couple of times and didn’t bite. I wasn’t ready. The first term at university was difficult, and it knocked my confidence in many ways.

Fast-forward two or three years, and The Argument became the first Fugazi record I bought myself. I picked it up in the CD shop (remember them?) that used to be at London Waterloo station. I can’t remember why I’d been in London that day, nor can I remember what confluence of circumstance and opinions made me buy it, given my previous misgivings.

But I’m glad I did, because it soon became a firm favourite. Where I was expecting something ferocious and exclusionary and pious and difficult I got something… that was still all of those things, in some ways, but which was also rich, and clever, and musical, and catchy. I was blindsided by handclaps and female backing vocals and cellos and pianos and acoustic guitars and subtle grooves as much as I was throttled by thunderous dual drum kits and lacerating electric guitars and hoarse-making vocals. I simply didn’t expect songs like “Life and Limb” or “Strangelight” or “Nightshop”, even though I’d vaguely anticipated the likes of “Cashout”.

Pretty quickly I realised that Fugazi didn’t quite fit the mental taxonomy I’d slotted them into, and I bought up chunks of their back catalogue; I loved the brutal minimalism of Repeater and 13 Songs, and the twitchy, catchy experimentalism of Red Medicine. But The Argument, a decade of time and a world of sound away from “Waiting Room” even if clearly the work of the same people with the same passions (albeit wearier, more pragmatic – but no less righteous), remains my favourite. It has a breadth, a scope, which makes it incredibly rewarding to me. I can listen to it anytime and find it thrilling, beautiful, and intriguing (even if I still have no idea what the words are unless I open the sleeve up).

We were lucky enough to get to see Fugazi play live at the Lemongrove (just yards from my workplace at the university) in October of 2002. They were, predictably, scintillating; I remember moving to the side of the stage as much as possible so I could see the twin drummers pounding away in unison, striking the same beats like some weird cybernetic percussion device. Some poor idiot tried stage-diving (as if he didn’t know who he was seeing) and got carried out covered in his own blood from a (minor) headwound when he landed on the floor. We didn’t know it at the time, but after that round of autumn gigs in the UK they would never play live again. I’m so glad I got to see them.

British Sea Power – Open Season (2005)

OpenSeasonCoverSince “Needles In My Eyes” by The Beta Band, I’ve loved the idea, and the sound, of songs recorded outside, where noises of the elements intrude into the soundstage and set the mood. A babbling stream, rustling leaves, crickets, thunder, wind, a distant birdcall. I’m not sure what it is that I like about this uncommon phenomenon.

The centrepiece, to my mind, of Open Season, is “North Hanging Rock”, which builds from absolutely nothing into a beatific tumult, and sounds as if it was recorded in a bird hide far from civilisation. As far as I can tell, it’s about nature photography or wanting to be buried in a biodegradable cardboard coffin or being so distraught at man’s inhumanity to nature or a friend who died young or something else that I can’t identify. It’s produced by Graham Sutton, the man behind Bark Psychosis, whose work I love. It’s one of my favourite things he’s been involved in.

(A reworked, more acoustic, instrumental version of “North Hanging Rock” appears on their soundtrack to the documentary Man of Arran, under the name “Boy Vertiginous”. Just so you know.)

My second favourite song on Open Season is the streaming, tectonic groove of “Oh Larsen B”, which tells, quite literally, the story of a collapsing arctic ice shelf. “Oh Larsen B” sings Yan, “desalinate the barren sea”, which is exactly what the Larsen B ice shelf did to the Weddell Sea when it collapsed and broke up in early 2002.

It took me months after Open Season came out, back in 2005, to realise that I was listening to it all the time, taking it out on my iPod and using it to soundtrack walks along the coastal paths of South Devon. It’s the… gentlest… perhaps, of Britiah Sea Power’s albums. It certainly features the least shouting, and tunes which insinuate themselves in your consciousness rather than try and batter their way in. Tunes like “Like A Honeycomb”, which have wandering pianos and slowly flowering choruses which swell like unkempt allotment weeds, but which are far more beautiful.

I wont make any great claims for British Sea Power; they’re a good band, blustery and passionate and sincere but also a little strange, promontorial, as isolationist as they are communal. People who know better than me say they’re in the lineage of Echo & The Bunneymen or The Chameleons. I cannot confirm or deny. Open Season is by far my favourite of their records, perhaps because it swoons more then it screams, or perhaps because it has the best songs, or, perhaps, simply just because it was the one that arrived in my life when I was most ready for it. Or perhaps because it has a bear on the cover.

Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

In_RainbowsI’m not meant to like Radiohead much – I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 16 years moaning about them not being as good as people say they are – but I’ve come to realise over the last four or five years that I really quite like them, especially In Rainbows.

I was largely nonplussed by OK Computer way back when – some of my friends went gaga for it, but I was smitten by Spiritualized and Orbital and Aphex Twin and DJ Shadow and Björk, which made Radiohead’s 1997 output seem a little prosaic, even as it was lauded to the very highest heavens by people keen on canonical rock albums and desperate to anoint something of their own (remember that Q readers poll in 1998 which voted it the greatest album ever?). (I did, and still do, love “Airbag” and “Paranoid Android”, though.)

Three years later, at university, I’d fully embraced Miles Davis, been extraordinarily excited by XTRMNTR, explored Warp Records’ 90s output even further, tasted Fugazi, read Debord and Deleuze, and basically had my horizons stretched massively, which seriously diluted the impact that Kid A had on me, even as it seemed to seismically realign other people. Over a dozen years later, though I love “The National Anthem”, it still feels like a strange beast to me, neither fish nor fowl – nods to avant-garde and experimental music and electronica and jazz, but still sounding and feeling and touching and smelling like a rock record. (I’m convinced that, were it sequenced differently, without “Everything In Its Right Place” and the title track and “Treefingers” so frontloaded, that people wouldn’t think Kid A is quite as weird and radical as its reputation suggests.)

Later, Amnesiac struck me as the outtakes record many criticised it as being (albeit quite decent outtakes), and though Hail To The Thief contained some songs I loved instantly (“Where I End And You Begin”) and others I grew to love (“There There”), it felt long and unfocused, oddly sequenced and incomplete.

So I wasn’t excited when Radiohead announced the imminent “pay what you want” release of In Rainbows in the autumn of 2007. I’d been swept up in Caribou and LCD Soundsystem and Battles and Patrick Wolf and Spoon and a dozen other things that year, and so I paid 1p for the Radiohead album, gave it a cursory listen, picked up the CD out of a sense of obligation when it arrived, and put it to one side.

I liked “Reckoner” from the off, heard it as a compressed, consumable version of Talk Talk’s mystically beautiful “New Grass”, and I enjoyed the rush and push of the opening pair of tracks, which felt physical and enervated and almost, for once, vital, which Radiohead had never felt to me before. The rest of it, I didn’t much care for at all. But slowly, over the years, I’ve found myself going back to it a lot, often picking it up as I walked out of the door to play in the car. Which isn’t my usual optimum listening situation, but, y’know. It’s practical.

And In Rainbows is a very practical album, somehow. It’s very listenable, very functional. Utilitarian? Possibly. I’ve often daydreamed about finding a ‘perfect album’, which would obviate the need (the desire?) to ever listen to anything else ever again. This is a crazy, pointless daydream, but occasionally, I wonder if In Rainbows might almost be that record – it has a little bit of almost everything I like about music, its songs and structures are listenable and rewarding without ever seeming to become predictable or over-exposed.

I never feel like I get tired of or fed up with In Rainbows. I can put it on regardless of my own mood, and enjoy where it takes me; which is nowhere, almost, in some ways. I don’t get transported by it like I might by, say, The Seer, but I do get distracted by it, in a good way – I want it to distract me, to involve me, but maybe not too much. I don’t love In Rainbows, it doesn’t strike me as a radical and amazing piece of art, or even as a catchy and appealing piece of entertainment; but it is a rewarding and compelling thing in its own right, somewhere in between. Neither fish nor fowl again, but in a good way.

In terms of the actual music, I haven’t a clue what Thom Yorke is singing about here, and don’t really care – he uses his voice much more effectively and with greater understanding here than he has before, layering it beatifically on “Nude”, finding jitteringly compelling space on “15 Step”, edging towards sublimation on “Reckoner”. The influence of electronic music melds truly symbiotically, at last, with more organic approaches; songs and textures and rhythms are in pretty equal balance, and it works amazingly well.

And oh, those rhythms – Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood are the stars of this album, for me. In fact, it’s on the tracks they’re not overtly (or at all) present on (“Faust Arp”, “Videotape”) that I feel the record wanes. On the other eight songs, though, Selway plays almost jazz-y, nervously ticking hi-hat patterns and propulsive motifs, and Colin Greenwood smashes huge waves of bass through the foundations of the songs.

For a long time I think I objected to Radiohead on the ideological grounds that they got more attention, despite making less interesting music, than a lot of the artists and musicians that they talked about, many of whom I adored. As I get older and more pragmatic, I’m starting to think that, actually, what they’re able to do is take the music they love, and build something different and accessible with it; that they act like both a gateway drug to and publicist for (rather than exploiter of) their own influences. Getting Four Tet to remix them, dragging Caribou on tour, sounding a bit like Talk Talk, name-dropping DJ Shadow… it’s not who you steal from, it’s how you steal?

So I might not love In Rainbows the way I love Laughing Stock or Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, or Ege Bamyasi, or In Sides, or any of many other albums I could name, but I do almost certainly listen to it a hell of a lot more frequently these days, which has to count for something.

The Knife – Silent Shout (2006)

silentshoutI bought Silent Shout not long after it came out in February 2006, enticed by the rabid hyperbole being thrown its way on messageboards and blogs. The idea of atmospheric, intriguing Scandinavian dance music seemed like it would be right up my street, and, indeed, I loved the opening title track from the off. But it stopped there. Something about Silent Shout rubbed me up the wrong way, and I took against it vehemently, and cast it out. Or, at least, let it gather dust on the bottom-shelf.

Partly I think my antipathy was to do with the thickness and density of the sound; in early 2006 I was at the height of my anti-compression campaigning (I’m much more pragmatic these days), and I think I was looking for spacious, intricate, architectural sounds more akin to “The Box” by Orbital than what Silent Shout actually offered. Something nagged me about it; I wanted to understand what the fuss was about, to catch a glimpse of what I was missing and worm my way in. When I loved the Fever Ray album from the off, my desire to get Silent Shout only intensified.

Though it’s just as creepy and strange as “The Box”, Silent Shout gets there by different means; by and large it’s an album of direct, thumping, dancefloor-focussed electropop, irresistible beats and synth riffs (just get a load of the crazy, hook-laden opening to “Like A Pen”, which could be off Debut by Björk), but that thick production allows an array of startlingly cold, unnerving, and edgy textures and melodies in almost by the back door.

And then there are the voices; processed, performative, unrecognisable and alien. Both Karin and Olof sing, but it’s often hard to tell who is who, or if either of them are even human, let alone what the actual words they’re enunciating are. But when you do start to notice the words (or, you know, look at them in the sleeve), and you realise that you’ve been dancing to a song about domestic abuse or tapping your steering wheel to a song about childhood alienation. It’s… discomforting, to say the least.

But that’s Silent Shout’s genius, like a lot of great music; it has the push-me/pull-you dynamic that so much great music has (Public Enemy always being my instant example; the grooves to capture you, the sirens to push you away), beats and hooks to lure you in, textures and atmospheres to make you feel uncomfortable. Finally, half a dozen years later, the crazy synth arpeggios, alien delivery, and emotional tundra made sense to me.

As an aside; when The Knife released Tomorrow, In A Year, their bizarre, collaborative electronic-opera about Charles Darwin in 2010, I was, by contrast to Silent Shout yet again, immediately taken with its disquietingly ululating choral arrangements and cavernous drum sounds; here, straight away, was the architectural quality to their sound that I’d wanted. The songs aren’t as singular as those on its predecessor (as an opera / soundtrack, rather than a pop record, I doubt they’re intended to be), and listening to its vast expanses in one sitting is a demanding, draining experience, but it offered yet another way in for me.

Bloc Party – Silent Alarm (2005)

silent_alarmBloc Party’s management was done by the same people who managed Embrace, so, after being intrigued by hyperbole and early singles, I got sent Silent Alarm pre-release, and listened to it over Christmas 2004. Played quietly, late at night, it reminded me of Disco Inferno somehow, shorn of the sample-crazy genius which marked that band out as something utterly extraordinary. Played louder, the rhythm section revealed themselves as a hell of a unit, the guitarist as something a little more textural than the common-or-garden ‘angular’ post-punk revival numpties who were popular with NME at the time. And the singer? He reminded me of Luke Sutherland from Long Fin Killie; at his best, a sensual centre of the maelstrom.

Looking back from eight years on, Silent Alarm now feels flawed; over-stuffed, over-long, a victim of its own self-importance, as manifested in Kele Okereke’s lyrics, which somehow became even more pompous and ridiculous on the band’s second record, A Weekend in the City. (Their website at the time described them not as a band, but as an “autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day.” Of course.) But there’s still an excitement that manifests when I put it on these days; a memory of youth, of urgency, or feeling that something is desperately, hopelessly important eve though you don’t know exactly what. I think, at the time, as a 25-year-old, I was already a little too old to be taken in fully, but the memory of past passions is a powerful thing.

So despite the fact that it’s about three songs too long and ludicrously self-serious in tone, Silent Alarm is also thrilling; as well as the obvious post-punk and mid 00s indie signposts, there’s a big bite of “Airbag” by Radiohead running through Bloc Party’s sonic aesthetic of cacophonous, tumbling drums, tactile basslines and lightning guitars, pushing them further into genuine modernism than many of their unashamedly retro peers. So Russell Lissack’s guitars swerve from the spiky signature of post-punk to a keenly emotional, effects-laden futurism, while Gordon Moakes and Matt Tong together make a furiously propulsive and hysterical rhythm section which prevents Silent Alarm from ever seeming anything less than utterly contemporary.

It would be easy to take Bloc Party as all aesthetic, all bluster, and little heart. But that bluster combines with something beautiful on three occasions – “Blue Light”, “This Modern Love”, and “So Here We Are” offer tantalising glimpses of genuine emotion (still driven by too-fast rhythms which prevent that emotion ever seeping into the kind of mawkish sentimentality of Coldplay, for instance), but the likes of “Price of Gas”, “Plans”, and “She’s Hearing Voices”, whilst exciting to me all those years ago, now seem gauche and clumsy. Such is the folly of youth, I suppose.

Caribou – Up In Flames (2003) / The Milk of Human Kindness (2005) / Andorra (2007)

cariboucoversI give algorithms a tough time, but they can be useful: it was a “Like this? Try these!” suggestion from Amazon that introduced me to Caribou’s music (then released under the moniker Manitoba); I’d rated Four Tet’s second album (Pause) and because of this the rainforest kindly thought I might like Start Breaking My Heart. Following that algorithmic introduction, Dan Snaith, as his mum calls him, went on to consistently make just about my favourite music of the noughties.

I liked Start Breaking My Heart, a sequence of gently glitching, sweetly melodic, jazz-inflected laptronica vignettes, well enough, but two years later I was absolutely blown away by Up In Flames. I’d practically forgotten Manitoba, but I saw an early review in a music magazine (I don’t remember which one) which got me excited. I can still remember my first listen to it, in the spare bedroom of my parents’ house which I used as a listening den; my hi-fi set up at one end, CDs down either wall, a crappy sofabed knackering my spine as I listened. From the moment it started I was squirming in my chair with delight, as excited, clattering drum rolls, jazzy skronks of brass, washes of shoegazey noise, and floaty, whimsical vocals tumbled out of the speakers in a fabulous psychedelic mess. There are only about five albums I can vividly remember my very first listen to, loving them utterly on first contact, and this is one. (The others? That’d be telling.)

Follow-up The Milk Of Human Kindness took a lot longer to appreciate – it probably wasn’t until a year or more after its release that I realised it had wormed its way into my brain, and that Em and I would both use it as a go-to record. It was, very deliberately, the first record we played in the flat when we moved in, and we bought a vinyl copy to keep in a frame on the wall too. In contrast to Up In Flames, which reveals its hectic charms quickly but is a little too chaotic for me to play often, … Human Kindness seeps into your affections slowly; all the same ingredients are still there, but balanced with an evolutionary subtlety, space between the elements, songs happy just to groove for a moment rather than explode ostentatiously.

And then came Andorra, where all the previous elements of Dan Snaith’s music came together perfectly. Part summery 60s psyche-pop homage (think Zombies, Beach Boys, Nuggets), part laptop jazz-rock soundscapes, part edge-of-chaos digital excursions, it boasted ‘proper’ ‘songs’ (“Melody Day”, “She’s The One”, “Sandy”), delicious (in)organic jams (“Eli”, “Sundialling”), and hints of the electronic head-dance music that lay in Snaith’s future with Swim and Daphni (“Irene”, “Niobe”.) Bar the closing two tracks, it’s a seamless experiment in making a record that sounds like a band playing, but which, on closer inspection, couldn’t possibly be; something in the impossible drum fills, the intricate layering of sound, the subtle noises that simply couldn’t emanate from a traditional “rock” instrument.

I’m not keen on picking all-time ‘favourite’ records, because my mind changes almost constantly, but Andorra is up there. I’ve played it to death, and it didn’t die. It works on headphones as well as through speakers. It also works, bizarrely, when played live, Snaith and his band recreating these machine-tooled, software-composed, sounds-like-a-band-but-couldn’t-be-played-by-one tunes with a traditional four-piece band (and a laptop, and a synthesizer). Sometimes, I get joy just from thinking about listening to it and being glad that someone made it.

And just for the record, yes, if this list was taking in 2010, I’d be including Swim here too.

Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000) / Summer Sun (2003) / I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)

yolatengocoversgifSometimes I feel like all of Yo La Tengo’s albums, which are all very, very long and sound almost exactly the same as each other, are each almost exactly as good as each other, too. Which is why I’m picking three of them here; it would seem churlish to leave any of these out, and the only reason it doesn’t seem churlish to ignore 2009’s Popular Songs (which sounds almost exactly the same as each of these, and is almost exactly as good) is because, for whatever reason, it never struck me as much as these three did.

As an aside, I remember buying 2003’s Summer Sun in Exeter HMV, and the guy who sold it to me asking: “What’s this like?”, to which I had to reply, rather more abruptly than I would have liked: “I don’t know, I haven’t listened to it yet,” which I thought should have been self-evident from the fact that it was still shrink-wrapped. We were, I guess, in post-Napster times, but even a decade on I still like to buy albums having not heard anything from them yet.

Buy anyway.

No matter what style Yo La Tengo, who celebrate their 30th anniversary as a band in 2014 I believe, turn their hand to – buzzing noise rock, country, jazz, Velvets chug, Motown soul, soporific ambient, straight-ahead indie pop, infinite drone, etcetera etcetera – and no matter which band member sings, all their songs sound exactly like Yo La Tengo all the way through (a confession – we have all the records from Electr-O-Pura onwards, but nothing from before, so early stuff may not adhere to this rule). Their records are like a warm blanket, or a big bowl of mashed potato, or a Chocolate Orange at Christmas – familiar, comforting, not exactly exciting, but, when you want one, absolutely the best thing in the world.

To differentiate between the three named above, though, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is the quietest, most gentle of the trio; practically an ambient album, laced with gently reassuring hooks and melodies, crepuscular textures, and all played at a pace which makes a Slow Loris look like Usain Bolt. It’s wonderful, beautiful, and soporific, which in any other context could be read as a pejorative adjective, but honestly isn’t here.

Summer Sun, by contrast, is upbeat, poppy, jazzy (and well over quarter of an hour shorter), while at the same time still being stately and mature. At the time it seemed like people felt a bit disappointed with it, but for the life of me I can’t see why; possibly it was the first time a new Yo La Tengo record just sounded like “a Yo La Tengo record”, but the songs, to my ears, are as strong and melodic as anything else I’ve heard by them.

The faint disappointment that greeted Summer Sun lead many to declare I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass a “return to form” (which often, in my experience, means “I’m sorry, but I was into something else there for six months when you released your last album”); whatever, it’s the most raucous of the three, starting with a squalling 11-minute guitar-noise epic with a crazy title (“Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”) and a relentless groove, which is followed by seven perfect, memorable, eclectic, melodic, elegaic pop songs in a row (which take in brass, feedback, Farfisa, bongos, and more), then another groove, then some noisy songs, and finally another elongated epic (“The Story Of Yo La Tango”, sic). If I’m totally honest, I seldom make it past “Daphnia”, the wonderful central groove, and at the time I felt like the whole record was mastered a touch too brutally. But those first 9 tracks (which last about 48 minutes) are so good that I can let the album’s failings as a whole go without much consternation.

Yo La Tengo aren’t a band I would or have ever got passionate about; I don’t feel any profound sense of ownership of or connection to their music, and suspect I never will. They seem to have hit upon the default formula for or platonic essence of the sound of American alternative rock music, their albums both historical records of and blueprints for an entire aesthetic and ethos. They’re pretty wonderful.

Electrelane – The Power Out (2004) / No Shouts No Calls (2007)

Electrelane albums gifI miss Electrelane. Though they recently returned briefly to playing live, they split as a record-making force in 2008, after four albums and ten years together. Whether they’ll make another record together or not I don’t know, but for now they leave a pretty unimpeachable discography – tight and consistent to the point of being myopic, some might say, but incredibly high quality.

A name I’d known for years, I got into them properly during my crusade against dynamic range compression in 2006, after having them recommended to me as a band who’d made some wonderful-sounding records with the aid of engineer (never producer) Steve Albini. Sure enough, The Power Out and ‘Axes’ were beautifully-rendered, dynamic records of grooving, driving, krautish rhythms, alternately spindly / chugging guitars, careening organs, dabs of piano, and occasional yelps of punkish joy or drunk-sounding remorse, or Spanish poems, or lyrics in French. People often talk about records as sounding like they were recorded “live in a room”; this is never, ever the case more than with Electrelane (especially ‘Axes, which pretty much literally was improvised on the spot, I gather).

(Emma had a pre-The Power Out, pseudo-eponymous EP from after their fully-instrumental debut album; it featured “I Want To Be The President”, produced by Echoboy, a whirling swirl of electro-kraut that explodes in undulating pulses and buzzing plateaus of organ and bass, which is the first time they’d used vocals on a track. So, as with most things good in my life, it seems I nicked Electrelane off my wife.)

After a couple of months I was decidedly in love with Electrelane, and then news of a new record for 2007 emerged. I got in touch with their PR and arranged to be sent a promo copy so I could review it at Stylus – one of the few times I proactively sought out a record like this (I never felt like I had the authority of a proper music journalist; I was always just a particularly vocal and gobshitey fan in my own mind, even – especially – when I had an article reprinted in a book next to an article by David Byrne).

(David fucking Byrne!)

(I mention that here because it was the article about dynamic range compression and how we listen and what records sound like and how the sound and the listening affect each other – because that’s how I fell in love with Electrelane.)

They sent me some badges too, which I pinned to my rucksack, like a teenager. I was approaching my 28th birthday and in the process of buying a flat. No Shouts No Calls was recorded sans Albini, but still had that live, exciting, band-in-a-room sound, so live and real and raw and unlike the sound of mass(over)produced studio ‘rock’ records that we’ve come to know in the noughties that it (like their other records) could almost seem amateurish; the drums sound weird because that’s what drums actually sound like if you don’t compress them into a fraudulent smoosh.

No Shouts No Calls became my most-listened-to album of 2007, which is a hell of an accolade for a year that also saw the release of Atlas, Andorra, The Magic Position, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, The Sound Of Silver, and a whole host of other amazing records that you can read about elsewhere in this list. It feels like the most “song based” of their albums (where ‘Axes’ is the most “jam based”, possibly), the most emotionally honest and communicative. In part because it is an album of love songs – about moving to Gdansk, about what an heirloom from your grandmother means to you, about having to stall a relationship because it’s not quite working. There are groovy, saw-toothed instrumentals, of course, where Farfisa lock horns with guitars, but for the most part if feels like a collection of songs written together, about the same set of emotions and experiences. It might not be, of course. (Also, it has just about my favourite cover art of the noughties.)

The Power Out, despite coming before either, feels like a bridge between the songs of No Shouts No Calls and the grooves of ‘Axes’. It’s short and concise, and feels like the most philosophically experimental of their albums (‘experimental’ doesn’t just mean long songs, improvisations, and moodiness – though that does, inadvertently, describe ‘Axes’ pretty closely; apart from the bits that sound like a German punk incarnation of Penguin Café Orchestra). Partly this is because the aforementioned Spanish poem and French lyrics are on The Power Out, and partly because so is “The Valleys”, which is a thing of absolute wonder and spiritual wealth, one of those rare songs where I wish I’d been in the studio whilst it was being recorded, because it surely must have been spine-tingling and magical. If you’ve never heard it, it does this thing with some drums and some bass and this extraordinary, sublime, a capella choir over the top of it; you simply must, must, must seek it out.

I’d vaguely, tacitly promised myself I’d not choose more than one album per artist for this list, as it seemed silly to deny other artists. I compromised (with myself) to bundle albums by the same artist together, and focus on the one I liked best. If push came to shove, I’d probably pick The Power Out, but I’d much rather have them both. And ‘Axes’, and the EP too. (The debut I got much later, and liked well enough, but it seems like a rehearsal for the real thing next to its successors.)

On the long demise of HMV

On Sunday I went in HMV Exeter desperate to spend £20 (that I don’t really have, because it’s January) on season 4 of Breaking Bad on DVD. I vaguely hoped it might be in the fire blue cross sale. It wasn’t, because, they didn’t have any copies of it. I asked at the counter. They didn’t offer to order it in or tell me if they were expecting restock of it. For what are now obvious reasons. (They were pretty obvious then, too.)

I’ve written about my family affection for and recent frustration with HMV before, of course, because this has been a long time coming. If HMV goes, there will literally be nowhere in Exeter to buy a DVD on the high street, apart from Sainsbury’s.

I’m pretty sure I ordered a copy of Ege Bamyasi in my Local HMV, at age 16 or 17, and picked it up from the shop the next week. That’s how things worked then. Not long after that they got a copy of Tago Mago in, possibly inspired by the fact that some enthusiastic kid had ordered in another CAN album, and I bought that, too. I bought the remasters from that bloody rainforest though.

I had a little Twitter spat last September when Grizzly Bear’s album was released and Exeter HMV didn’t have a copy for me to buy until the afternoon, because stock hadn’t come in yet. I’ve been into HMV with a vague wishlist of things I’d like to buy; acclaimed (if sometimes esoteric) new releases, back catalogue stuff. They never had anything. We spend somewhere in the region of £750 a year on new music, on average (at a quick calculation for the last three years or so); my tastes aren’t that weird or leftfield.

I gather HMV moved to central stock ordering sometime in the late 90s, which would have thrown local knowledge and product specialism out of the window as far as staff go, and turn them into little more than cash-register operators and shelf-stackers. Ludicrous. For the last two, three, five years, HMV Exeter piled Kings of Leon albums and Lord of the Rings DVD sets higher than you could reach to pick up the top copy. Doesn’t everyone who could possibly ever want to own Lord of the Rings on DVD already own it? Do people who go into HMV really want JLS badges and One Direction mugs and jelly sweets?

Phil Beeching had HMV’s advertising account for 25 years, and wrote an eye-opening piece last August about how clearly he’d pointed out to them, 11 years ago, what the threats to their business were (online retailers, downloading, and supermarkets, of course), only to be angrily dismissed by the then MD, told that downloading was “a fad”. Three quarters of UK music and movie sales are still physical media, but come on. Consider that HMV decided to try and sell consumer electronics at the same time as the high street retail of consumer electronics collapsed.

We’ve been quietly boycotting Amazon for a few months now, partly because of them remotely deleting customers’ Kindles, partly because of distaste with general e-book DRM and proprietary format issues, partly because their ‘next-day’ service is nothing of the sort, partly because of their massive tax-avoidance, and partly because, these days, they seem like a baddie, and boycotting baddies seems like what responsible people ought to do. I fear that, increasingly, we can justify anything in this country, this culture, by either making or saving money. Tax avoidance? But CDs are a couple of quid cheaper, so who cares. Abusing kids in a hospice? He raises lots of money for us by running marathons, so who cares. Yes, I just compared Amazon to this country’s most evil serial child molester. Like I said, they seem like a baddie.

Before Christmas, on the Monday after ATP weekend, we went to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf, and I nipped into Rise Records and happily, quickly, spent £40 on Fugazi, The National, Liars, and Local Natives records that I’d been vaguely hoping of coming across in our local HMV (or Fopp in Bristol, which I’d checked futilely a few weeks before) for ages, but never seen. The week before Christmas we went to Totnes’ The Drift and spent another £30 on Perfume Genius, Fiona Apple, and Julia Holter albums. HMV Exeter doesn’t have a marker for Fugazi anymore. They didn’t even have the new Fiona Apple album in. Acclaimed, loyal-fanbase, major-label Fiona Apple, appearing high in end-of-year lists all over the shop, and I couldn’t buy her CD in Exeter in December. (To be fair, I could, and did, buy the Deerhoof album.)

We’ve decided that we’re going to make monthly music-buying pilgrimages this year, alternately to Rise in Bristol and The Drift in Totnes; keep a wishlist of what we’re after, and buy a bunch of albums all at once. Chat to the staff. Have a browse. Make an impulse purchase. We might also buy some stuff direct form record label websites, where they’re transactional and I haven’t seen stuff in either Rise or The Drift; we’ll try and support the shops first and foremost. Because they seem like goodies. I’d like to be able to walk into Exeter and buy the records I want, but I can’t.

Because these independent shops have embraced online retailing, have taken to social media, are run by and staffed with people who care about music, who can describe the Perfume Genius album cover to the new girl at the drop of a hat so she can see if she can see if it’s behind the counter because they’ve not put the new stock out yet. They understand that music can (should?) be about community and communication just as much as it can be about anonymous online transactions and listening in commuter silence via headphones. The Drift send a monthly newsletter to email subscribers recommending their favourite records of the past four weeks. Before Christmas they published a list of their favourite 100 records of 2012 online and in printed, fanzine-esque form that you could pick up in the shop. They sell turntables. Their stock is curated like a gallery rather than lumped together like a warehouse or piled high and cheap like a supermarket. They run a listening club (possibly inspired by ours!). They recommend music to you in any number of ways. As NickB asked on ILX, “Can you even listen to sound samples on the HMV website?” No, you can’t. They’d rather sell you some coasters than some records, or so it feels. Has felt for too long.

Michael Hann wrote in The Guardian today about visiting the Oxford Street branch today, and reminisced that he had probably realised the game was up for them a few years ago when Fleetwood Mac were touring and he popped in to pick up Tusk. “The biggest record shop in Britain did not have a copy of a legendary album by one of the world’s biggest bands even as they were on tour in the UK.” I’ve repeated his experience dozens of times in microcosm, the last time being the Fiona Apple failure.

(As an aside, I completely empathise with Michael’s fondness for the big chain in the face of sometimes snooty and elitist indies – it echoes some of my teenage experiences.)

Bob Stanley wrote brilliantly a year ago, and republished today, a piece about the things HMV could have done to stave off what many are talking about as being inevitable. None of these things are outrageous – they’re happening under HMV’s nose, practically next door.

I won’t miss HMV, because I’ve barely bought anything in there for years. But I will miss the act of going in a record shop every Saturday in the hope that something would catch my attention and fire my imagination and make me fall in love. Because that used to happen; didn’t it?

(I know, of course, that the entertainment industry wont let HMV just die, that branches, that the brand, will live on somehow, but allow me this moment of drama and mourning. Even as I write, Canada might be coming to the rescue. Whatever the salvation, though, things will have to change.)

(I ended up buying season 4 of Breaking Bad from eBay. I literally didn’t know where else to get it from.)

(When I say ‘records’, obviously I mean CDs, because they’re just better than vinyl, aren’t they? But there you go. The fact that vinyl sales have been on the up for years, and HMV in Exeter, as well as other branches I gather, failed to stock any vinyl at all, is yet another reason we’re nailing their coffin shut, metaphorically. Let’s hope we bury them with a claw hammer so they can fight their way out.)