Monthly Archives: February 2014

When you settled for less than I promised you

This band, they come around like a comet.

A couple of years ago I’d resigned myself to the fact that Embrace would never put out another record, and I was OK with that. I’d invested a lot in this band over the years – as well as time, money, and words I poured an almost obscene amount of hope and idealism into them – and I was OK that the adventure, which had some ups and downs like all adventures, had reached its denouement, and that there wasn’t really anything left worth saying or doing. Was there?

Evidently Embrace have spent the last eight years feeling like they had unfinished business. In fact, creatively they seem more fired up than ever. Like they’ve got something left to prove. Things unsaid, unexplained. Bad decisions that need exorcising from their consciences, from our memories.

Years ago Danny McNamara expressed the fear that he felt emotions less deeply than other people. Given that his band are known for being overtly emotional, this seems nuts. Embrace are about wearing your heart on your sleeve, even if it’s not appropriate, or sophisticated, or cool. Or the right heart. Or the right sleeve.

Their last album, although a commercial success, seemed to knock a degree of enthusiasm out of them; they didn’t seem happy with the process that created it or the end product, and although they got to play arenas and were within spitting distance of a number one single, it seemed like a place they weren’t entirely comfortable with. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

Embrace have always been at their best when they’ve retreated, like a wounded bear, and taken time and taken stock, before coming back refreshed and reinvigorated. Their best albums – their second, fourth, and now their sixth – all follow increasingly long lay-offs during which time they went silent; eighteen months, three and a half years, eight years. The third and fifth albums both tried to build on momentum and follow swiftly on from what came before, and neither worked. I don’t believe in creativity being some magical, fleeting thing; there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that yes, you can, if not force it, then charm it, coerce it, manage it, and harness it. But people work in different ways and that approach simply doesn’t suit some. Some people need to retreat. Some things take some time.

They’ve been away longer than The Beatles’ entire career lasted. What does it mean that they’ve taken this long to make a record; does it suggest that something is wrong? I can’t say; maybe something was. Or maybe life got in the way. I can think of plenty of other people who’ve taken as long, and longer, and come back as strong as they ever were – Portishead, Kate Bush, Scott Walker, Bark Psychosis – and in each case that’s fine. As far as I can tell, and I’m an unreliable narrator when it comes to this band, Rik’s basically spent eight years teaching himself how to make an album better than anything they’ve done before. It’s worked.

If nothing else, this prolonged absence proves that they’re in this for the right reasons (whatever they are); they’ve rolled with the punches, ridden out scenes and trends and hype and critical brickbats and come back, again and again, with music. They don’t know how to do anything else. They never moved to London or became a part of the machine, didn’t get programs on 6music or jobs in A&R or start their own record labels or fashion companies or go into acting or anything else. It seems that all they ever gave a shit about was making music and playing it to people. (It baffles and upsets me to this day that some people seem to despise them.)

My musical taste and sense of identity are less passionately interwoven now than they were when I was younger. Having this band, formerly such a strong part of my musical/identity intersection, one that’s given great pleasure and not inconsiderable disappointment, suddenly land back in my life, and in many ways finally be and do many of the things I hoped they would be and do half a lifetime ago, is difficult to deal with, to reconcile to, to understand.

Because seventeen years ago (half my lifetime, now) I set up an array of hopes and expectations for this band, things I wanted them to achieve – things that they seemed to promise, in the way that bands sometimes do – which were unrealistic, to say the least (and which could probably form the basis of a whole article about bands as brands, and the cognitive dissonance that occurs when fans perceive a band to have done something “off brand”). So I struggled with this record at first. Struggled with it quite a bit. There’s a lovely, if slightly strange, twitter account called A Single Bear, which tweeted this the other week: “How can I know what I think I have experienced is truly what I have experienced and not just what I wanted to experience?” Which is a sort of epistemological problem, at root. It’s also exactly how I felt about this record for about the first dozen listens.

The very first listen, about a month ago now, was about phenomenological confirmation: yes, this thing really exists; yes, it sounds really good; no, it doesn’t seem to have any glaring issues. Subsequent listens have been about slowly clarifying and piecing together what’s actually happening. I’ve held off from saying anything about it until I’ve been reasonably sure that it is what it is, and not what I want it to be (and also until I know that copies are out there for the press, so conversation can begin). As far as I can tell (and again, I am an unreliable narrator), what it is and what I want it to be are pretty close.

So what the hell is it actually like? To frame it reductively in the context of previous works, I might say it’s got the songs and drive and passion of their fourth, but it’s also got the creativity and energy and range of their second. But it’s not really like either of those two, or any of the others. Or maybe it’s like the last one, except completely without compromise in quality or approach. Or maybe it’s like I dreamed the first one would be all those years ago?

What’s definitely, defiantly still there is the emotional punch that defines this band. They’ve never been able to do cool detachment or minimalism. The thing that makes people love them is the way that, at their best, their songs punch you in the gut. Some people don’t get that, don’t like it, distrust emotional reactions. That’s OK; different things affect different people in different ways.

Ten years ago they released a b-side called “Too Many Times”, which was a roiling, raging thing with multiple drum kits and a bit of Fugazi’s DNA and a nod towards the tumbling rhythms and layers of Caribou (or Manitoba, as he was known then) in the intro. It was, and still is, one of my favourite things they’ve released, and it’s always saddened and frustrated me that the songs like this, the ones dripping with creativity as well as tune, weren’t necessarily the ones that other people got to hear, that they were hidden away.

But this time out they’ve synergised those creative elements completely with the songs. So this time we have big tunes that are catchy as hell and pack a huge emotional punch and, on top of that, they’re composed of brilliant mad shit; dark disco, nasty tech-rock wigouts, some kind of dubstep apocalypse thing at one point. A lot of drum machines, a lot of slashing guitars, a lot of synth chaos. It starts, confusingly, pleasingly, with a really addictive, satisfying electric pulse and house-y drum (machine) beat. None of this should actually be much of a surprise if you’ve paid attention over the years, and it feels entirely organic and natural, like they’ve been doing it for years; if you consider how long they’ve been making this record, they probably have. And there are plenty of pointers from earlier in their career; remixes, b-sides, uncomfortable mutterings in codas, pre-“Retread” descriptions of the band as Joy Division-esque.

Anyway, many years ago I had the pleasure of hearing an unreleased, extended version of “Too Many Times” which never saw the light of day. This extended version was identical but for a coda; an additional, unexpected key change and a whole extra, different chorus that surged in from nowhere and took the song in a brand new, wonderful direction. I thought it was probably the best chorus they’d written, and when it was edited out of the version released on the b-side of “Gravity” I was gutted. “We’re saving it” was the excuse; this wasn’t the right context, it needed a different song to make the most of it. I could kind of see what they meant. So I waited. But it didn’t end up on the next album or on any of the b-sides. And then Embrace vanished, and years went by, and I kind of assumed this secret chorus was lost to the ether, never to be heard by anyone, and I forgot about it. There are other missing songs like this that few people have heard; one that Aimee Mann was meant to record; one about being effortless; one recorded for the greatest hits compilation, which they made a video for but that got buried for various reasons. I’m sure every band has them.

The first time I played this new record, that brilliant, secret chorus suddenly burst out of the middle of the second song, and my tear ducts exploded. It was the weirdest sensation; instant familiarity, a surge of absolutely unexpected emotion that brought back feelings from a different time, a different life, but which also felt brand new. It was uncanny and euphoric at the same time. It knocked me for six. It’s amazing. And it’s not the thing I’m most excited about on this record. I’m excited about all of it, even after a lot of listens.

So. There are some big, glorious pop songs on this record, but they’re tinged with bitterness, regret, and obsession. There are moments of real savagery and disorientation, and of sublimation and blissful emptiness. There are moments of brittle emotional heft and clarity that will summon tears. And there are plenty of other moments that I don’t fully understand and can’t describe because they blur all these elements together. I won’t go into details too much, because why spoil the fun that’s on the horizon, but there’s a vocal line in one song where Danny hits a note that makes my heart break every time, and there’s a guitar line so delicate and fragile in another that it makes my eyes hurt, and in another there’s this ungodly, nasty, perpetual motion and chaos noise that wont stop until it obliterates itself. I feel like there are a dozen moments in every song that I’m addicted to and want to hear over and over again. Often drums. Or bass. Or electronics. But very often a melody, or a twist in a tune, or a feeling I’ve never felt before but feel like I remember.

I’ve come to distrust artists who don’t pay attention to how their records sound, to take that as a shorthand signifier of the fact that they don’t really care about what they’re doing or their audience. The sound of this record is meticulous without being fussy, the elements coalescing into something blisteringly exciting. It’s almost eccentrically dynamic at points; quiet moments collapse to practically nothing, while choruses surge and explode, and chorus like you haven’t heard anyone manage for a long, long time. It’s like they’ve rewritten a songwriting paradigm that people had forgotten.

It covers a lot of ground but it also hangs together very cohesively. There’s been talk about it being ‘dark’; certainly there’s a lot of desperation, obsession, and self-loathing on show in the lyrics; hyper-melodic songs that hide uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant sentiments. An awareness of bad patterns of behaviour and trying to break them, a fear of compulsive self-sabotage, of time wasted. If Rik’s spent eight years perfecting sonics then Danny might have spent eight years excoriating himself so he’s got something to write about. There’s a hint of redemption in some songs. In others there really isn’t.

There’s a theory that states that our brains work on two systems. System A is instinctive, animalistic, and emotional, governs things like the instinct to fight or flight. System B is the thinking, logical, reasoning, problem solving, intellectual part. Psychologists have done research (I’m a big fan of research; I work in higher education) and reckon we often make decisions with the inappropriate system sides of our brains. What’s the ‘appropriate’ side for listening to music? Is rational choice even relevant here?

My suspicion is that if rational choice gets involved to much, then you end up more defined by what you don’t like than what you do. And that seems pointless to me. But being defined by anything seems pointless to me; being recognised I can understand, signifiers as signposts, but not as limitations. ‘Brand’ is about identity: I am the type of person who listens to music like this; who dresses this way; who drinks this beverage; who goes to this university; who drives this car. But that’s not the extent of who I am. You can, and I do, like Embrace as well as jazz, and minimal techno, and pop music, and krautrock, and hip hop, and weird art drone, and postpunk, and electronica, and anything and everything else. And likewise Embrace can do pretty much anything and still be Embrace: and at times they have; those kazoos again.

Music doesn’t have to be a reaction to what came before. It either makes you feel something, or it doesn’t. Understanding why is useful – it can help you find other stuff that’ll make you feel something, and analysis for the sake of itself, in an autotelic way, is just a good thing – but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. You can’t always control emotional reactions, and, although it’s arguably what separates us from animals, it’s not always desirable to do so, anyway. Catharsis is a good and valuable thing; emotions are fun, and exhilarating. Not everything lends itself to ‘aesthetic contemplation’, and that’s fine; if I only listened to stuff that did that, I’d live a pretty ascetic musical life, and I’ve always been interested in soaking up as much as possible where music is concerned. Try everything twice, in case you get it wrong the first time.

I have no idea how this record is going to be received; I don’t even really understand how I’m receiving it at the moment. Part of me wants to collapse and say it’s epochal; part of me just wants to feel relief that it’s not dreadful. I think the truth lies somewhere in between, if there’s any truth at all; this is a really good record, full of really good songs, done really well. Really, really well. Does it justify all those hopes and expectations I had way back when, and all the bullshit in between? Of course not; nothing ever could. Who cares? It doesn’t matter.

The thing is, this doesn’t need to be my favourite record ever, or the best record ever, or my favourite record of this year, or Embrace’s best record, or anything else at all (and what do ‘favourite’ and ‘best’ mean, anyway?); it just needs to be good, to be worth listening to. And it is. Of course, it’s just a rock record, and I’m not sure what rock is or whether I care about it anymore in 2014; I didn’t think I did. But I am finding myself caring about this, even 30+ listens in, and awful lot, and getting a buzz and an emotional hit from it, over and over again.

So, crazily, unexpectedly, it probably is their best record. How did that happen? They went away and made it happen. Because there wasn’t any point in coming back if it wasn’t.

Oh, and about the actual songs? There’s more to come.


A few words on image, style, band-as-brand, and so on…

I was at a conference the other week all about marketing in HE, and one of the last plenaries started with someone playing “Anarchy in the UK”. They asked us if we knew why they were playing it (their stated reason was because UK HE is basically anarchy at the moment because of govt policy) and I was the only person to pipe up and say “because Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren are outstanding marketers”, and explain that everything I knew about branding and image and loyalty and emotional investment I knew from being into music and following bands.

So let’s tear up Embrace’s image and brand, for a moment.

Embrace’s (really) early image was pointedly of the ‘non-image’ school of thought – long-sleeve v-neck jumpers from Top Man, skatewear shoes, tatty jeans, long, greasy hair, massive corduroy coats – basically they looked like Ride, the complete antithesis of Britpop. (Actually, their ‘really’ early image, way before then, was that they were a bunch of post-Bunnymen goths. Well, they are from near Leeds.) What the semiotician derives from this early image is the message that “we know we look shit but we don’t care; we’re about the music and nothing else matters”, but it’s a little more complex than that; they were mocked for looking rubbish in some areas, and Danny has said, with more than a hint of hurt, that they literally couldn’t afford to dress any better. (Danny clearly got an expensive shirt at one point that he then wore all the time.) I actually really liked this phase of how they looked; it was pretty much how I dressed, it made them feel like a gang, and it made them seem as if they were outside fashion and trends. All of these things appealed.

In comparison at the time you had Jason Pierce wearing a spacesuit; Paul Weller dressed like a 60s Carnaby Street dandy; Noel Gallagher looking like a man from Stockport who owned a race horse and a pub (all signet rings and suede jackets); Blur in their Adidas and Fred Perry and bead necklaces; Elastica in all-black skinny jeans; Richard Ashcroft wearing a pair of Wallabies and a leather jacket over a denim jacket; Keith from Prodigy with his chaotic clown make-up. Embrace, by contrast, dressed like one of the ‘faceless techno duos’ I was so enamoured with back then.

Then there were the EP covers; stock photography of American youths in the 70s, gangs of street kids hanging out, climbing fences, the band not appearing on the cover of one of their own records until the album, which, of course, was shot in New York, and clearly went for that same kind of vibe, but just missed it ever so slightly.

Obviously there’s more to branding than just the band’s image, clothes, and record sleeves, though; there are musical signifiers which represent what a band is (and/or isn’t too, obviously). For Embrace these early musical signifiers, to me, included big choruses, brass (far more so than strings), loud guitars, ba-ba-ba backing vocals, middle eights that took the tune to somewhere new, a disorienting juxtaposition between loud, fast rock numbers and incredibly delicate, slow, sad numbers, and a post-acid-house sense of communality. Oh, and very long song titles.

Embrace’s early brand was also a lot to do with the music they talked about, which functioned as aspirational pointers; wannabe ‘strategic partners’ almost. I’ve always loved mining interviews for ‘influences’ (yes, I know it’s a problematic word), and Embrace’s early name checks were awesome; Sly & The Family Stone, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Beastie Boys, My Bloody Valentine, Elvis, Prodigy; they gave me a huge amount of background listening that helped build expectations, like a manifesto or, you guessed it, brand handbook.

Emotionally there was, to quote Danny, “a ‘Made It Through The Rain’ vibe”, a sense that bad things had hit you but that you’d overcome them. We know now that this was post-traumatic stress disorder, in Danny’s case, and that, emerging on the other side of it, writing the debut album, he was “hearing orchestras everywhere” and trying to squeeze this massiveness and colour into their music. This all amounted to a sense of forward momentum, of leaving the past behind; which is why “Come Back To What You Know”, i.e. a song exhorting some kind of retrogressive safety, felt off-brand to me. When it became their biggest radio hit, it altered the brand perception massively in the eyes and ears of the public. And how people perceive you is as much your brand as how you perceive yourself. Probably more so.

By the second album it was all dreadlocks, organ solos, bright t-shirts, kazoos, and unconscionably baggy trousers; the whole thing, image and music, was attempting to go dayglo and psychedelic, and almost getting there (if it failed it’s because, bar Steve’s acid flashbacks, Embrace have never had any truck with [illegal] pharmaceuticals; beta-blockers are a whole other story, though). Just look at the album and single covers – they documented a literal journey from black & white into technicolour, and while the band are still on the cover, it’s a drawing of them; figurative, expressionistic. At the time it felt exciting, like a prolonged party, a discovery, an epiphany, a realisation that you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, and it’s OK, because life is about change. A rebranding exercise, if you like.

The third album continued the dress sense pretty much (of course; it followed so quickly on) but with the colours muted, the mood toned down. Vaguely moody, atmospheric photography of the band in rural landscapes replaced the drawings and lurid colours on the covers. What did it mean? It felt less fun, but it didn’t seem like a conscious, deliberate move, more an evolution born of necessity and lack of space (or perceived need?) for reinvention. Musically it felt like a muted version of the second album, too; plenty of richness in terms of instrumentation, but the eccentricity knocked out, and the big choruses, when they appeared, felt half-hearted.

The fourth album, after years away and signing to a new label, very clearly saw the band’s image worked over by a stylist; these didn’t look quite like the clothes they would have chosen themselves; haircuts, while still long for some of the band (but never the drummer) looked more expensive, as if ‘product’ was involved (in my day we used to call it ‘gel’). Leather jackets, designer labels, stylised and pointedly professionally lit photography inside the sleeve, an abstract-ish cover photo that is of the band, but not at first glance (and, ahem, they’re ‘embracing’).

Musically, though, they felt galvanised, as if they’d codified their brand-book, as it were; Rik said as much to me during an interview; “songs; guitar; stuff” he explained, as a sliding-scale of significance in their sound. So the big choruses were back, with a vengeance, as were the crashing riffs and chords. That juxtaposition between fast numbers and slow numbers wasn’t though, and tempos instead edged closer together, resulting in a morass of mid-pacedness. (Still faster than the third album though.)

(An aside. The b-sides compilation, which I love and had the pleasure of writing the sleevenotes for, irritates me slightly because the font is wrong for the title and the band’s name; instead of being Arial Bold it’s Arial in bold, or vice versa, or something. Either way it’s not quite right. This is an example of disconnected record companies – it was released by EMI following their merger with Virgin / Hut, rather than Independiente, making for a gap between artist and label – not understanding how important a band’s visual branding and legacy is; because it’s ever so slightly wrong, it feels ever so slightly like a bootleg or an unofficial release, even though the photography and layout works hard to stay on-brand. Such simple little inconsistencies. I bet most people never consciously notice, though.)

The fifth album, like the third, followed on so quickly that little changed; the wardrobe got refreshed, but stylistically things were very similar. Given the timescales (and comments from Rik about tax years) it seems as though they were driven and marched by Independiente far harder and more stringently than they ever when they were signed to a major label; I get the idea they were seen as something of a cash cow by Andy MacDonald. (Notably Independiente have released no music by anyone since 2009, and, now Embrace have signed to Cooking Vinyl, they have no one currently on their roster.)

Fast-forward to now, and Steve wearing a Cardiacs t-shirt, Danny a streak of piss in skinny jeans, Rik in Dr Martens, and the rest of the band looking sombre, and, yes, a little goth; the aesthetic is somewhere between those very early days and the stylist-era. The graffiti’d front cover of “Refugees” is radically different from anything else they’ve released, whilst the back cover is almost Hieronymus Bosch or Chapman Brothers-esque; a mass of writhing, scribbled, gothic bodies. And then the eponymous album cover; a scrawled white tally on a black background that looks more like something from the Ian MacKaye Embrace; what does it mean? Does it represent, figuratively, the band again, the five of them still together, more than 20 years since they formed? I don’t know. Time may tell. But it certainly looks a bit goth. And musically? Well, that’s still to come, almost.

So Embrace, like all bands, are (or have) a ‘brand’; ‘brand’ is an unpleasant, late-capitalist term to use for it. You could say ‘identity’ or ‘self’ or ‘character’; ‘brand’ is just the term i have in my professional toolkit from my day-job. It’s something existential; the interface between how a band projects themselves and how fans perceive them.

The problem with brands, of course, is that we look to them for stability, to an extent, in an inherently unstable world (someone somewhere has probably written a PhD thesis on brands as manifestation of the desire for immortality in the face of death). But the things that make up brands – that’s people, in case you didn’t realise (which is the same thing that makes up bands, of course) – are inherently volatile and given to change. And bands are even more volatile than that. And don’t tend to have brand handbooks or manifestos (well, some of them have manifestos) providing guiding principles and keeping them on the straight and narrow, and preventing the kinds of off-brand activity (kazoo solos; songs written by the guy from Coldplay; dub remixes; football songs) that can and do cause fans cognitive dissonance.

Inspiration for this post comes from BB’s brilliant “Image bands” thread over at ILM.

Missing pieces

Never do anybody a favour? No, that’s a crap motto. And you can’t just do things you ‘believe’ in, either, because how do you ever find out what you believe in, in the first place? And what’s ‘belief’ anyway?

Once upon a time – I forget exactly when but I think it was summer or autumn 2005, and it was in Leeds, or London (a large city, anyway) – I was sitting in a hotel room for a spare couple of hours, and someone gave me an iPod with a load of songs on it. So I listened to them. They were rough – not fully mixed, rather than amateurish – and some of them didn’t have vocals yet, but they were amazing; alive, and unpredictable, and creative, but still loaded with melody and tune. Some were savage and exciting, and others were outrageously direct and poppy.

One of these tracks was called “Mountain Song”, and it was probably my favourite. It started small, with a strange, shlucka-shlucka guitar riff working in one channel, and it grew and grew and grew, and grew some more, somehow avoiding obviousness and cliché along the way. It had no lyrics at this point; no vocals at all. That growth never pushed over the crest into bombast, if I recall correctly; it edged into and remained within tension but never collapsed into release. It was wonderful.

Nearly a year later it was retitled “World At Your Feet” and released as the official single for England’s World Cup campaign. And it was… lackluster. Not unlike England’s performance at that World Cup. Oh the utter inevitability of it.

(Why does the England team need an ‘official single’ anyway? Wouldn’t tactics be more helpful?)

Some context. Steve is the only member of Embrace who actively gives a damn about football; I know this because I asked them back in 1997. They didn’t apply to do the England song; they were asked, and they likewise didn’t write a song especially for it; they adapted one they had leftover from the album sessions. Danny, not knowing or caring about football at all, got Tony, the band’s manager, to help him write parts of the lyric in order to make it obliquely interpretable as being about football. Rik, unhappy with the way This New Day was mixed and mastered, made sure that at least “World At Your Feet” had more air and life in it than “No Use Crying” (which is a great pop song ruined by airless mixing; and lyrically would have been more appropriate as an England song anyway, given the inevitable tears; “Target” would not have been).

Straight away I thought doing a football single it was a bad idea, which is probably why I never wrote anything about it, the accompanying b-sides, or the two singles that followed it and their b-sides, even though those b-sides ended up being more interesting than most of the stuff that made the album, if only because they weren’t so badly mixed and so loudly, shrilly mastered.

I probably only listened to “World At Your Feet” half a dozen times. It felt tired, and wrong, and uncomfortable somehow. A bad decision. Everybody makes them.

But there’s a silver lining, because “Love Order” and “Whatever It Takes”, which accompanied the CD release, are great songs; the former a lavishly-stringed pseudo-disco number, named in tribute to New Order, the latter a strung-out bait-and-switch number that hints at euphoria but actually delivers complete despair. Together, as a pair, they’re amongst the very best b-sides this band have done; if you took them along with the likes of “Flaming Red Hair”, “Madelaine”, “Feels Like Glue”, and “Too May Times”, you’d be able to piece together an album that smashes This New Day into tiny pieces.

To me, “Love Order” is a classic ‘should’ve been an a-side’ b-side, with its sweeping intro and campy, dramatic string stabs. The groove is tight and lithe, decorated with little colourations of synth and other electronics underneath and to the sides of the prominent string riff. Rik plays a weird, non-solo guitar break that shouldn’t work but does. I’m gutted that “Love Order” came too late to get on Dry Kids, but, as with a handful of other b-sides from across both Out Of Nothing and This New Day, faintly glad it didn’t get on the album it accompanied, because the b-sides all sounded better. With hindsight, it points the way slightly towards where the band are now.

“Whatever It Takes” is a strange, oddly structured beast. It starts small, with low-key mumbling and ambience; it’s a minute before the tune proper begins, three minutes before a drum hits (and when they do it’s as part of a taut, unsettling pulse). The vocal from Danny is faintly ominous and questioning to start; the whole song is a series of questions and false promises. The chorus, which emerges more than four minutes in, and seemingly from an entirely different place to the rest of the tune, is an enormous, gospel-esque effort that promises euphoria; a mass of voices asking, “how does it feel to be loved?” But then comes the switch. “I don’t know”, is the response, and it’s sung with such heart-rending desperation that you worry for the singer. It’s monstrous, huge, unhappy, and wonderful.

There were a handful of other b-sides from “Target” and “World At Your Feet”, some of which I don’t really remember (“What Lies Behind Us”, “Run Away”), and some of which were enjoyable dirty rock moments – “Just Admit It”, “Thank God You Were Mean To Me” – one of which is notable for a filthy, bleeped-out lyric and an extravagant, reverberant guitar sound. Another tune, “One Luck”, did something similar to “Whatever It Takes” by riding a strange chorus atop an awkward groove, but with far less emotional clout.

And then there were the pair of b-sides that accompanied “I Can’t Come Down” (the only Embrace single, apart from the too-limited-to-chart “All You Good Good People” 7inch to fail to hit the top 40; that fact that it stalled at 54 made it feel as if the game was up); two live recordings of otherwise unreleased songs. I remember a discussion in an aesthetics lecture about what the ‘essence’ of a piece of music was, the thing that captures the spirit and gets passed down, and a vague conclusion that different kinds of music had different essences: for classical it would be the score; for jazz it would be the live performance (captured on tape, most probably); and for rock and pop (and the various subgenres thereof, from soul to dance to hip hop and beyond) it would be the studio recording, replete with production touches, mixing, mastering et al.

Of course, this is a vaguely reductive conclusion that fails to deal with some things – fusion jazz, modern minimalist classical, the performative aspects of hip-hop like breakdancing – but it made a certain amount of sense to me, as someone who bought in fully to the concept of ‘Platonic essences’, as a useful foundation point. It’s why I care so much about the records, and how they sound – in twenty years they’ll be all we have left, and it won’t matter how good you were live or whatever. They’re your music’s legacy.

So what does it mean when a ‘rock’ song exists only, in the public sphere, as a live recording, replete with crowd noise and the odd missed note? History is littered with examples (many courtesy of Neil Young, plus the entirety of Kick Out The Jams, various James Brown tunes, etc etc), so it’s not that rare, but it does feel strange, unusual, and faintly intangible.

Of course, both these Embrace songs have been recorded in the studio, and I heard studio versions of both of them in that hotel room. “Contender” (“pop metal”, according to Rik) existed in several forms, some organic and punky, emphasis on the guitars and drums, and other versions electronic and chaotic, all drum machines and crazed organ riffs. I loved all of them, and didn’t know which I wanted to eventually emerge. Inevitably the live version that did emerge is all of those different versions and none of them; crazy organ riffs, guitar chaos, the most amazing, insistent bassline, a groove loaded with momentum that seems purpose built to move large groups of people. I’d love to hear a studio version again, but suspect from talking to Rik that we never will.

Likewise I doubt we’ll ever hear anything but the live version of “Heart & Soul”. I vaguely recall the studio version feeling elongated and layered, like a piece of techno, synth melodies building and building. The live version includes a chaotic, almost-jazz-y breakdown as the tune tries to dismantle itself, which I found incredibly exciting. Maybe there’ll be a rareties box one day, a way for people to hear “Effortless Now” and “Fear Fighter” and all those other missing pieces that I’ve caught glimpses of over the years. Except that in some ways we have heard those missing pieces, because they often end up being recycled, filtering into future material so that, even if we don’t know them on their own terms, we can feel their influence. There are rippling future echoes of some of them, and of the likes of “Contender” and “Heart & Soul”, in the band’s new material. And that might be enough.

Refugees EP

refugees-ep-digital-packshot-1024x1024Despite misconception on behalf of some, Embrace were never a Britpop band. In fact, twenty-odd years ago when they started out, they were a dodgy goth band, sort of.

Seriously. Way back when – pre-“Retread” being written – Embrace were a miserable, moping, typically northern post-punk band, of the type that’s seemingly been back in fashion since Interpol et al repopularised wearing black and singing doomily a dozen years ago or more. By the mid-90s, though, Embrace had had a soul music epiphany, become communicative, communal, painted the dark edges into the corners and left those influences behind somewhere.

If you don’t believe me, look up an ancient demo they recorded in 1993, which contains three songs – “Say It With Bombs”, “Overflowing”, and “Sooner Than You Think” – that owe more than a little debt to the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division, and The Chameleons. And then listen to this new EP, which is both the past and future of the band, tied together to make the present.

“Refugees” itself is so comically dynamic that they had to do a second master of it for radio, TV, and YouTube; the opening drum machine disquietingly distant, so as to make the sudden rush into the chorus all the more affecting. Understandably this pleases me no end. There’s been some chatter about Rik’s vocals in the first verse, but that’s not Autotune, as far as my ears can tell; it’s an effect – as much performative as electronic – applied for aesthetic reasons, to create a deliberate mood – specifically one of alienation and fantasy. The fact that it masks who the song is by initially is an added bonus, adding to the sense of weird familiarity later on when Danny comes to the microphone.

“Refugees” is about escape: from a town; a culture; a political mood that’s infecting an entire country. It’s about feeling like you don’t belong, and finding a way to extricate yourself. Or at least it is while Rik’s singing; when Danny becomes the calm centre of proceedings during the final middle-eight and electronic breakdown, the song changes, and becomes about Embrace’s return from the wilderness – “when you settled for less than I promised you / knowing that all of our barrels were scraped” acting as some kind of apology to fans who were left bewildered when the band just disappeared after that last tour and single. Which is why this was the perfect choice as comeback – as well as being a great tune, it builds a meta-narrative, comments upon the bands return.

Even more than the lyrics, though, the sound of “Refugees” is about escape. From streaming the more compressed version with the video I was worried it might just be identikit indie-electro that the likes of Friendly Fires and Delphic have pushed over the last few years, but the bones of the song beneath the aesthetic have Embrace’s DNA run straight through it – the surging chorus, the middle eight that takes the tune somewhere different.

And that arrangement and instrumentation, especially that distant drum machine and the middle-eight, with its pizzicato synth-string stabs, distorted vocals, glitchy details and swirling layers, are as much an epiphany as “Hooligan” was all those years ago; the realization that you can change your voice and still be true to your essence. There’s a real care in the way elements are mixed and layered together to create a rich, almost synaesthetic experience, which says to me that this isn’t a token gesture or desperate reaching for something ‘new’; it’s something genuine and deliberate. It’s that breakdown, and the vocal from Danny that follows, that makes the song complete, that makes it feel like both a homecoming and a breaching of new ground.

And so those other three songs, which despite being new, somehow seem to represent that past. Danny has said that it feels as if the band have come full-circle back to their original set of influences – Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, early U2 – and this is where it most sounds like it.

“Chameleon” definitely has something dark, faintly goth-y and 80s about it, in the stabbing, ominous strings and disquieting electronic murmurations and faintly sneered, self-lacerating chorus. You could read the lyric “I will crowbar all I’m worth” as perhaps referencing back to “Blind” and “Dry Kids”; Danny’s always played with repeating lyrics from song to song. The bass and drums, when they arrive, are harsh and physical, jabbing you in the gut and taking the song up a notch or two of drama than was suggested by the subdued opening. The bass, in particular, is like gunshots.

Like “Refugees”, “Decades” is also about escape. Or more accurately, about being imprisoned, and unable to escape. Get a load of the insistent, rumbling bass, the lyrics about being “boarded up from the outside”, “four to a cell”, and the spectral, post-punky guitar tone; not ‘angular’ but ghostly, the tone that lead indirectly from post punk to shoegaze (and remember that a stated aim way back when was to be “My Bloody Valentine with an orchestra”). It might be about confinement paranoia, a result of locking yourself in a studio for years on end and bloodymindedly refusing to leave until you’ve got to a certain, almost indefinable place. The opening riff is great, but it’s the glorious, swirling, surging chorus that keeps me coming back; even though it’s about feeling trapped it’s somehow euphoric.

Musically it’s actually very close to those ancient demos from 1993 in some ways, but without quite being a heritage reconstruction, either of that period in the band’s career or the influences that bled so strongly through what they were doing back then (when Danny really was singing a lot like Ian McCulloch). Twenty years later, despite the ground they’ve covered – and from “One Big Family” to “Hooligan” to “Satellites” to “Ashes” to “A Thief On My Island” it’s a lot of ground – they have their own character and essence, and that essence is identifiable even if the tools they use to express it vary. So it might sound a little like The Mission or The Chameleons, but mostly it sounds like Embrace.

“Bullets” completes the trio of non-album tracks on the EP in hushed, faintly sinister tones; the lyric could be read as being lovely or creepy depending on your point of view. It’s the most delicate of the new songs, but still retains a degree of physicality, knuckles beneath the sentiment. To be honest, I’m not that excited with these b-sides the way I have been with previous crops. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, mind; they’re three very strong songs, I like them a lot, and would count them without hesitation amongst the best b-sides this band has ever done. It’s just that I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s coming, and I’m far more excited about that.