Avant-Past

I just bought an album on vinyl, Graham Coxon’s Spinning Top. This album has had a profound effect on me to say the least and gave me pause to consider what I feel is truly wrong with modern music and just so we understand each other, I believe there is most definitely something wrong with modern music.

Spinning Top got buried under the wave of Nostalgia (we’ll get to that later) created by the reformation of Blur, something I succumbed to, they being one of my favourite bands ever, and this was criminally unjust. In advance Coxon is undoubtedly my favourite living guitarist. His playing style is a beacon of innovation and substance over style in a mire of power chord, angular, jangly rubbish that passes for guitar based bands today (if any one even mentions Muse I will hook you up to a car battery). His previous solo albums have ploughed the same furrow for the intervening ten years since he split from Blur. I have loved them all, Kiss of the Morning being my personal favourite, but they have conformed to type in that he favours an angsty, grungey sound (again no bad thing) but Spinning Top is a real departure. Essentially it is a folk album but is so much more than that.

Coxon’s guitar playing is a summation of influences that are mainly electric based, i.e. Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend, etc but he clearly decided some brushing up was required as his guitar playing on this record is exemplary. The album shouts its influences as Nick Drake and John Martyn and his playing reflects that. Acoustic and electric guitars, as any guitarist knows, are totally different animals and must be treated as such, something almost no guitarist does. I knew Coxon must have been prepping for this album a few years back when I discovered a friend of mine, Alister Atkin, was building him an acoustic very much styled for finger picking and then heard my Dad’s old mate Ralph Bown was making him one too. Now Dad’s Bown guitar is a family heirloom and Ralph doesn’t make ‘modern’ style acoustics so Coxon must have had something very different in mind if he was getting one of these guitars and he surely did. Nary a song goes past on this album without an acoustic on it and they are all incredibly well-played without being self-indulgent. There is very little “noodling” either, the playing is dexterous but not showy. Sure, there are still the token Grungey numbers but they all have a folk song struggling to get out inside them and they are few and far between. The songs themselves tick all the folk boxes as well-being about birds and forests and the sea and love and going away to war. The whole shows just how much Coxon knows, understands and really loves this particular genre. But here is what makes it special; He has a healthy contempt for it too.

Coxon has always been wilfully subversive, a trait I love in any musician. Nothing is sacred and should be treated as such. Coxon takes the template of a classic folk album and dumps his own Spin on it (pardon the pun). The production is at times pure Nick Drake but then he’ll dump heavy riffs, swirly flange, plonky pianos or whatever he thinks should be on there, into the track with the same glee and musical ear the Beatles had in the mixing room. The chord sequences are equally deliberate in their dissemination, ending on discords, switching violently between sunny pop and melancholy twang. The construction of this album and each track is very carefully considered.

Folkies would say this isn’t a folk record due to this but everyone reviewing will be calling it a Coxon’s “Acoustic Folk” record – “Or as acoustic as Coxon gets” I’m sure one will say. The truth is it is both and neither. It IS a folk album; lyrics like “you can shake a whole field” and “like a starling in the moonlight fair” attest to that and it is a grunge album “Caspian Sea” sees to that, yet by merging them both he creates something that is neither. And THIS is what I wanted to talk about.

First and foremost Spinning Top is an Album. As in, it works best as a whole piece and has a distinct and apparent musical narrative with ebbs and flows throughout. There are standout tracks that I have listened to alone but it is most pleasing to just sit and listen to the whole thing. Attention has been paid to the track listing and song content for this very reason which gives it an overall “vibe”. Since the invention of what we now call an album in the sixties when albums were just collections of singles, they have had a steady decline. They peaked somewhere in the seventies with all the super concept prog rock albums but these days the idea of an album as one complete piece, like say The Love Below by Outkast, is stamped with the label “concept album” or an album with a “conceit”. This I think is wholly incorrect. Singles are called singles for a reason. Albums should have a structure, like watching a film, reading a book, viewing an exhibit, their start through to their finish are carefully manufactured to create weight and depth. Why have albums become exempt from this rule? All my favourite albums are “vibey” albums and that is why I love this one. Spinning Top has a vibe and a great one too. What vibe is that? It is FRESH.

Avant-garde is a term oft misused (normally by lazy critics and journalists) that does not mean an atonal, hard to listen to, aleatoric mess but actually just means “at the fore front”, literally derived from the word ‘vanguard’. Spinning Top is very avant-garde. Graham Coxon is very avant-garde. He has taken a very hard-bitten genre, jealously guarded by traditionalists and dusted it off and breathed new life into it. Coxon clearly does not hold with the idea that Folk music must be this that or the other, he has used the tools and conventions he knows so well and bent it to his own insane ends and the result is just joyous. As a guitarist he has always been a trailblazer with utterly unique and typically subversive sounds that hearken to his many influences yet sound just different enough and this album is no different. WHY ARE MORE MUSICIANS NOT DOING THIS?

Pop music was the very melting pot for new ideas once upon a time and now what do we have? An endless cycle of sound alike bands with nothing to offer musically or emotionally just a shared fucking nostalgia for an era their core audience probably wasn’t even alive during. The 80’s (my most loathed of all decades in almost EVERY respect) invades every aspect of culture at the moment but none more so than the pop sphere. I HATE THIS. Listen to the new Kaiser Chiefs record. It is utter, derivative, turgid, shit of the highest order but the producer is my stalwart favourite, Ethan Johns who has produced some of my favourite records of recent years. Do you know why he couldn’t polish that turd? Listen to it. Dare ya. To Johns’ credit it sounds exactly like the period of the eighties every other band has tried to copy. Yet this is 2011! Why are we recycling SHIT that was CRAP the first time around?! I listened to Adele’s album too. I won’t lie, girl got pipes but even when people are trying to recycle my favourite eras or periods they just bloody ruin it. I’m sorry Adele, you can try all you like you’ll never be Dusty or Aretha and everyone else you are imitating. Even the ‘Underground’ music has changed little in 20 years. Dubstep, Trance, House, Garage, Hip Hop have all remained unchanged for so very long, most artists still using a template laid out in the late eighties/early nineties. Why don’t you take those influences and make something new? Because, I’m told, that won’t make money. Well fine. Then we’ll just stay in a culture bereft of anything new and ignoring those that try. Whoopee.

I was crestfallen when Winehouse died. She had a great voice, brilliant songwriting talent and got lucky with her producer. Back in Black is without doubt the biggest, best and most popular albums of the last 10 years. And why is that? Might it be because she took classic sounds of jazz, R&B, Blues, Gospel then used the conventions of Stax, Motown and Atlantic Labels, used modern vernacular and vocal styles and put it all through bleeding edge, pro tool digital technology to give the songs phat beats and thudding bass? For the love of God YES! She took what was familiar and pushed it further than it was meant to go with the result that it sold by the millions and won every award going. She is a sad loss and I had hoped she would forge a new path with another album but now we’ll never know.

In short, I want music to move forward please and stop the conveyor belt of sound-a-like bands. I like so little music available today but the bands/artists I do like are the ones who really care about all kinds of music and feed their own with it to make it grow into something new. Like a really cool compost of traditional ideas and toolsets put in the bed for a nice fresh plant to grow. Bands like the Guillemots, Lily Allen, The Streets and (loathe as I am to admit it) the Arctic Monkeys really do try with their music to take the old and breathe into it new life. I admit there is nothing ‘new’ only the old, so why not improve it? All the greats of yesteryear did it, why do we merely insist on recycling not renewing?

Anyway. Spinning Top for me is one such album. I loved it and it has returned me to some old music I love and made me think about my own music in a new way and has got me all excited about it. In addition I would like to point out more albums should be made on vinyl these days. This album was gatefold and contained several pieces of Graham’s own artwork which looked wonderful as part of the sleeve and would have none of the impact on CD. The sound rendition was also exceptional. I have pretty good kit, I admit but even so the sound reproduction was crystal clear but with that lovely warmth and creamyness of vinyl with none of the pops and cracks. The vinyl itself was nice and light but sturdy and immaculate. The whole experience of the album was helped by it being on vinyl and I think if anyone else is thinking of making an “Album”, put it on Vinyl as well as CD.

I’ve rambled long enough I think. I just wanted to get all that off my chest and that is what this blog is for.

What’s your favourite album? Does it have a “vibe”?

In the meantime well done Graham Coxon, I look forward to your next album and you should all listen to this record while out for a walk in the sunshine or sat, tucked up warm at home. It is a very rewarding experience.

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