November Music #5

November 1998

So we were looking for a new house. I’d lived in my two bedroom terraced house since it had been built in January ’94 and while it was ideal for a single person, it wasn’t really ideal for a couple. Not least because the second bedroom was uninhabitable due to the large (and ever growing) collection of music – records, CDs, magazines, instruments. We wanted to find a house that was closer to Newport town centre because it was a pain for me to catch a bus into town then a bus out of town to get to work, and the same for the journey home. Not forgetting the many nights I’d stayed at her parents until 10:30 to rush to the bus stop to catch the last bus back to my house. Yes we needed somewhere bigger and closer.

Every night in October and November I would catch the bus to her house and we’d walk around the streets around there looking at the houses and wishing one would come on the market for us to buy. Then as the chill air would freeze our breath we’d scurry back to her house to stay warm before the last goodbye of the day and a cold walk to the bus stop and the last bus back to my house. Once home I’d ring this long telephone number to send a message to a pager she had to let her know I was home and safe. Then I’d go to bed with my headphones on and listen to some more music.

There was one street we were particularly keen on, and we’d walk up and down it wishing a house would come on the market. It had to be in the right place though – too far up and the garden would be too hilly, too far down and it would back onto the main road, and not on the left side because of the fields behind. So there were really only about ten houses on the street that were suitable. In early October an ideal house within those ten came up, we had a look at it and liked it but it was sold within a few days. We were disappointed, and kept walking and walking. Then at the end of October we noticed the “Sold” sign had changed to “For Sale” again and we contacted the estate agents. It turned out the sale had fallen through, and it was being sold on behalf of Barratt Homes – the old homeowners had part-exchanged it for a new build elsewhere in Newport. We looked around the house again, now it was empty. It looked like it needed a lot of work doing to it, half the carpets didn’t fit, and the lovely people before had taken umbrage about Barratts or something and smashed every plug socket and light fitting. Still, it was perfect for us – three bedroom semi, the right location, we made an offer, it was accepted then we had to sell my house….

And there was a soundtrack to all of this, of course. There were three albums I was listening to on my walkman during those nightly bus rides, and each album had a key song. Firstly there was “Gran Tourismo” by The Cardigans. I’d loved their two previous albums, their cute sixties styled Euro-pop so this seemed a natural album to buy. I wasn’t expecting such a dark record, but it fitted the times. There was an emphasis on minor key melancholy and the lyrics dealt with escape and paralysis and personal demons and erasing the past and starting again. That fitted with me. The key song on the album for me was “Hanging around”. Now I know the song’s about an alcoholic, but at the time I took it differently – I took it to be about displacement, being and feeling different. “I wonder what it’s like seeing through your eyes,
You’ve offered me to have a try
but I was always late. The filters that I use give me an excuse. I take away what’s real. I feel it and it blows my fuse.”. Not being able to face reality… I knew something was different, I saw things differently to others. But no…and the music itself is tension building, sharp edges of guitars and siren synths – and at the end the tension is released in two simultaneous crazed guitar solos while the band thunder away and then it stops dead, cut off in mid-step. The rest of the album is good, and it seems deliberately dark and moody, and I sometimes think it was an influence on Goldfrapp but that song. It hit nerves in me.

The next album was “Weird tales” by Golden Smog. The previous year I’d started listening to records by Wilco and The Jayhawks and loved them, so a new album with Gary Louris and Jeff Tweedy working together with Jody Stephens from Big Star and a few other people – well of course I was interested. And it was a good album. Admittedly Louris’ songs were in a class above everyone else’s – “Until you came along” is a great love song full of crunchy overdriven guitars and a cute quote from “Maggie May” at the end, and “Jane” is a lovely bittersweet acoustic ballad. Tweedy had a few good songs – the song from a fan that is “I can’t keep from talking”, the stark “Please tell my brother”. There’s some shaggy dog stories – the rollicking travelogue “Keys”, the hallucinogenic stream of nonsense “All the same to me”. Tweedy, Louris and Stephens work together on the lovely “Fear of falling”, some gorgeous harmonies there. However the closing track is special. At the end of the album lies “Jennifer save me”, one final Louris song. It’s odd, I’ve been playing this song for fifteen years and it’s only just struck me that it’s an homage to Big Star’s “Third” – or the more out-there songs like “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust”. It sounds casual, there’s a false start, then buzzing synths echo round and the song starts properly. And it’s got that lovely lazy end of the night feel – like “Las Vegas Basement” or “After hours” or “XYZ” – they’ve been playing all night now they’re just playing for themselves, expressing themselves. Louris’ vocal is soft and caressing, he’s waiting for salvation in love, and the music rolls along roughly – the whole band sound half asleep and towards the end instruments drop out or collapse. And throughout the song there’s weird stuff going on in the background – a heavily distorted guitar feeding back, that buzzing synth almost like a theremin flying up and down scales, sometimes touching on the melody but hovering on the edge of dissonance. And there’s a slightly random piano which pops in from time to time, leading the band into the bridge but also randomly throwing notes in during the verse. The whole song is bathed in a lovely glow of reverb and as the song rolls into the last minute everything seems more desperate, more random, more crazed and it just falls apart on the spot. A totally gorgeous song, and one that soundtracked those late night walks to the bus stop.

Anyway, we’d put in an offer on the house and had to sell mine. I contacted an estate agent and he assessed it, priced it at a nice profit to what I’d paid for it only a few years before, took some pictures to put in the local paper and disappeared. A day later he rang back – a local property tycoon was interested already, he viewed it that day and put in an offer the next day – my house was sold before it had even been advertised. We hastily negotiated a new mortgage for the remainder of the price of the new house and it was all going too smoothly. By mid November I was packing boxes and throwing out black bags full of music papers and magazines (shame!). And still we walked up and down the same road every night, breathing frosty air, looking at our new house and not quite believing how easily it was progressing.

And it was this point in mid-November when one more album soundtracked my last days in the old house. So much so that the album went on both sides of a C90 which would be played right through to Christmas, which was appropriate enough for one song there. That album would be “Deserter’s Songs” by Mercury Rev. I’d heard the single “Goddess on a hiway” on the radio and liked it enough to buy the album, and then immersed myself in it for the rest of the year.

“Deserter’s Songs” exists in its own world – both in terms of the songs and their performance and instrumentation. Musical saws, theremins, choirs, string quartets, Chamberlain string machines – these were not typical instruments for a late 90s album. The album is the opposite of the way I like albums to be – I like albums to get darker and / or slower towards the end, this album starts slow and quiet and graceful and gains velocity (which is the right word – speed and direction) as it progresses, until the light at the end of the tunnel is revealed in the closing moments. “Holes” sets the scene, there are intimations of bad dealings, and singer Jonathan Donahue’s frail Neil Young-like voice falters on the high notes. “Endlessly” sounds like Christmas to me, the soaring melody and the Disney-esque arrangement – the lyrics alternate between “leaving you again” or “leading you again”, and then as if it didn’t sound enough like Christmas already the melody quotes from “Silent Night”. “Hudson Line” has two members of The Band guesting and rolls like a train towards its destination – again little details in the arrangements stand out – after the line “Mercury is fall” there’s a sound like mercury falling. I’d not spotted the ecological theme behind “Goddess on a hiway” until now – maybe I wasn’t listening hard enough. The album closer “Delta sun bottleneck stomp” perfectly describes itself in its title – it’s a sound like pure joy, reaching the end of the rainbow, crazed guitar and Italo House piano “Waving goodbye, I’m not saying hello” – a farewell to the past, a welcome to the unknown future. Yes there’s a few odd instrumentals on there too, and other songs but thematically the album works well.

And then there’s “Tonite it shows”.
It starts like a dream – tiptoeing bass, descending into sleep, heavenly melodies, harps and strings. Then the words come in. “Into a dream I took a turn and promised to return…” Painting pictures of a strange meeting. “You had to choose a side to lose and divide yourself in two…” Oh no. There’s a lot of untold hurt in that line. There’s a whole world of stories in that line but not for now. “But you forget where the road goes and tonight it shows”. Oh dear – losing my way again? By now the tears are welling up. And at 2 minutes and 33 seconds there is a huge rising orchestral swell in the music and the tears overflow. Every time. Every single time it gets me. It takes me back to walking those streets, sorting out the old house, organising mortgages and doing everything on my own, with her and without her. It’s a beautiful lovely song, but it hits too many nerves. I always come away from it teary eyed and shaking. I’m actually glad of “Endlessly” being comfort music next.

At the end of November we exchanged contracts and the house was mine. It had been remarkably easy. I organised a van and some friends and moved house, causing Paul from the Cloud Minders permanent back damage in moving the washing machine. And the first thing I sorted out was the hifi. I have a little rule from the first house move – the last record played in the old house is the same as the first record in the new house, which is the first Spoonfed Hybrid album. It’s the law, you know. Anyway the house was in a terrible state and everything was thrown into the main bedroom while I slept in the back bedroom. The central heating barely worked so the house was frozen, I had to get an electrician in to sort out the sockets and put extras in, the decor was horrible and would soon be stripped away. But it was mine, and it was ours, and it was all a dream – so quick and easy, so perfectly placed, so handy for town and her house, and now there was just a late night walk from hers to mine and no last buses home. That walk was five minutes – just enough time to play “Tonite it shows”, dancing between lamp-posts with tears in my eyes. “But you forget how the song goes, and tonight it shows…”

Next time : 2001 – hints and allegations.

1 thought on “November Music #5

  1. Lovely piece Rob, we’re further down the road in our life -this is our third house we’d been here for nearly three years by November 98 and our eldest son was two and a half. I was reviewing albums for a local magazine and was the second person in the country to get a review out on Deserters’ Songs. I distinctly remember listening to it for the first time (obviously earlier in the year); a late delivery in the post that I didn’t expect a great deal from. Totally blown away. As a lovely consequence of the freelancing I was receiving lots of freebies, including Golden Smog. I don’t know if I’d forgotten that it was Tweedy and Louris or if I never knew but every so often I come across it again and love it. I’m listening again now.
    The walking in the cold and wanting to be together? Yeah, we all know that one I think.
    Glad you published it.

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