In the fifth part of our series of artists and their sole exciting albums, we go beyond this blog’s usual musical scope and explore some ambient electronica, looking at one of the more underspoken albums of a cult classic music act.
I’ve had a thing for electronic music ever since I got properly into music, but that crush has rarely blossomed into true love if we venture beyond the typical verse-chorus-verse synthpop stuff. Largely because I’m a picky arsehole and often find myself more in love with the concept rather than the actual music. I have a huge thing for various forms of dance music, though you’d never guess it from how little I have it in my collection and my aversion to clubs and other natural habitats of the genre tree; it’s a genre largely based on individual songs, which somewhat chafes against an album nerd like me. IDM and its various offshoots fascinate me as well, but often things get a little bit too abstract for my small mind. But ambient – ambient I adore. Always have done. I’m a huge sucker for atmosphere (in case you couldn’t tell from how that word is one of the most frequently appearing words in this blog) and ambient is all about atmosphere. It’s music to sink into and my god do I love to sink into my music.While full-on electronic material is a sadly small minority in my music collection, I’ve ended up picking up a fair few ambient albums along the way.
The recently resurfaced Boards of Canada haven’t had a large career in terms of release numbers, but they’ve managed to establish themselves as the go-to names for electronic music/IDM/etc. Most of the applaud goes to Music Has the Right for Children, their debut album – one that, predictably, I loved more as an idea than I did as an actual record. Boards of Canada do gorgeous soundscapes very well, but I’m left cold by the rest of what goes on with the songs which often clashes a bit too much from what I find to be the key element. The difference with The Campfire Headphase, their third album, is that it’s solely devoted to those soundscapes. It’s softer, warmer and more lush than its predecessors – the emphasis is entirely on the ambience.
Two songs. Two electronic songs. Two completely different extremes. Two videos that emphasise imagery over story. Spoiler alert: they’re both pretty excellent.
I’ve always had to resist the urge to describe The Boy Least Likely To as something of a novelty band. There’s nothing malicious behind the thought, but the incredibly adorable sound filled with toy pianos, xylophones, happy-go-lucky guitar strums and cartoon keyboards, as well as the consistent lyrical angle of looking at the cold world and its emotional turmoils through the eyes of a child (or a child in an adult’s body) who’s too smart for his own well-being , has always been a double-edged sword. It’s their very own sound and the reason they appealed to me in the first place, yet one which has from the very beginning sounded like something that simply wouldn’t be able to stand repeated appearances. You can easily see it’s the case just by looking at their past discography – the second album, Law of the Playground, is an enjoyable one but one which rarely gets a play over the debut The Best Party Ever, simply because back then the sound was still fresh and it just didn’t have the same effect on the second-go-round. There’s always been a fear haunting at the back of my head that the duo wouldn’t be able to get past that obstacle and one day the novelty would run out, that the same old trick would be run to the ground and there’d be no hook strong enough to salvage the music.
Perhaps The Boy Least Likely To have realised this themselves and decided that a change is in order before they’d get creatively trapped by their own creation. The Great Perhaps, arriving a good four years after Law of the Playground (there was a Christmas album in the middle though), carries the sound of the eternal children growing up – or at least, changing and expanding their repertoire. The music is still sugar-sweet, ridiculously cute and very twee, but the toy pianos and other quirky instruments are gone, replaced by drum machines and synthesizers atop the traditional guitars and such. Similarly, while the lyrics still carry their fair share of bittersweetness underneath all the bouncy music, they’re not chained to one point of view anymore. It’s all still recognisably Boy Least Likely To in all its colourful adorability, but with a new wind under their wings. Shaking things up has rejuvenated the duo and their music, and shaking away the previous self-imposed stylistic constraints has had the effect of emphasising that we are dealing with a really capable songwriter team.
At its best, The Great Perhaps is a fantastic showcase of The Boy Least Likely To’s skills with handling melodies, details and positively earwormy musical tidbits. This is especially true with the album’s first two singles, “I Keep Falling in Love with You Again” and “Climbing Out of Love” which are genuinely phenomenal pop hard-hitters with their larger-than-life choruses, brilliant production and a strikingly good vocal performance from Jof Owen. They’re great examples of how brand new the band sound again, breathing new life into their music and taking it to a whole new level. Similar sort of refreshening is present throughout: the elegance of “Michael Collins” which is a side the band’s not shown before during their slower moments, the precision-strike backing vocals on “Taking Windmills for Giants” and “Thank You for Being My Friend” and the duet structure of the diabetically sweet “It Could’ve Been Me” (featuring Gwenno of The Pipettes fame) being particularly fetching examples. Sadly though, at its worst The Great Perhaps stumbles clumsily in a way that spoils the flow and distracts you from how good the rest of it feels. While not numerous, there are a couple of points like that and the autopilot ballad “Lonely Alone” and the irritatingly airheaded “Even Jesus Couldn’t Mend My Broken Heart” are on the way of the album being a thoroughly entertaining listen from start to finish.
It is nonetheless a far more positive experience than it could ever get close to negative. The Great Perhaps isn’t a flawless album, or even a particularly brilliant one despite its incredibly high peaks, but it’s a rather good album that not only makes you want to press repeat after it’s finished but which also removes any fear one might have had towards The Boy Least Likely To’s future. Bands with a very, very particular style always risk stagnating if they’re not experts at what they do, but the trick The Boy Least Likely To perform here is to simply loosen the borders a little rather than remove them altogether. It’s all still super cute, incredibly adorable and wonderfully perky (regardless of the lyrical material, although that said this is lyrically their most optimistic and loveydovey to date out of the three main albums), and this time it sounds all fresh again. It feels like they’re on the beginning of their journey once again and it’s all incredibly exciting – something you can actually feel resonating from the music. The Boy Least Likely To being likened to a novelty band? Not anymore.
I Keep Falling in Love with You Again
In the fourth part of our grand tour among albums that have served as the only remarkable part of their respective artists’ output, we stop in Finland where a band that’s reliable to a fault releases their only album that goes forth the extra mile.
Most of the albums featured in these articles are ones where the artist experiment with their boundaries or go through something that has a noticeable impact on their music. Albums that differ from the artists’ usual style and therefore have a higher chance to appeal to someone who wasn’t a fan of theirs to begin with, in other words. Zen Café‘s Helvetisti järkeä is not one of those albums. Zen Café chugged along through the late 90s and the 00s with the exact same mannerisms, thematics and sounds in each of their albums, creating a trademark sound that they never saw fit to move away from and reliably releasing fairly enjoyable songs. What separates Helvetisti järkeä, their fourth album, from its fellow discography members is one simple thing: it does the exact same thing as its siblings, but better.
Rambling Fox is not a political blog, nor does it ever intend to be. I am not a political person and rarely pay attention to it in the music I listen to – if the songs are good, I’m not bothered by any possible conflicting opinions the band might have with my world view. Thus, this post shouldn’t be taken in any way as a celebration of one former British prime minister who passed away a few days ago. I genuinely have absolutely no desire to stir the controversial seas. I may be talking about music made in celebration of Margaret Thatcher’s death, but you shouldn’t mistake the opinions of the EP with my fairly ambivalent, nonchalant stance on the matter.
Rambling Fox is also not a file-sharing blog so people who found this via Google while trying to hunt down this EP, please do not ask about it.
Chumbawamba bowed down respectfully last year after thirty years of great music, but their final release had not yet seen the light of day at the time. Being as politically minded as they were and being so very open about it, it shouldn’t have come at any surprise that they’d have a word to say when Margaret Thatcher died. Thus, the In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher EP was born – written and recorded years before her death, available for preorder until the day she would finally move to another plane of existence, at which point the EP would be shipped to everyone who ordered it and then become unavailable to buy forevermore. The band bid their final farewell before the EP saw the light of day, so somewhat appropriately morbidly the Thatcher EP – released a couple of days ago, as promised – ended up becoming a posthumous final word on someone’s death. It’s officially Chumbawamba’s final release – not recorded the last nor ever planned to be that way, but nonetheless. That’s also the reason why I ordered a copy – not because of any strong feelings for Thatcher.
So, what are the people who didn’t get order it missing out on (presuming that it’s not hanging around on some filesharing site, which to be honest it probably is, but still)?
The Thatcher EP is an enjoyable one but hardly a landmark statement. It’s seven songs and ten and a half minutes long – two interludes/intros, three short song snippets in vein of their 2000 album WYSIWYG‘s short moments and two ‘proper’ songs. All fairly enjoyable, in particular the centrepiece “Waiting for Margaret to Go” – a fully-developed, full-length (colossal four minutes) acoustic ballad that sounds so wonderfully heartwarming and pleasant despite its rather morbid intentions. It’s also much, much less frivolous than you’d expect the EP to be, coming from a band who have always delighted in being openly controversial. It’s not a party EP, it’s not a fully-fledged celebration – it feels like a respectful eulogy to a fallen enemy rather than jester-like giddiness over the demise of a loathed figure. Sure, the words have a sting to them but they’re hardly dripping with the kind of vicious venom you’d imagine when hearing about the EP’s concept. The last song, a short a cappella number “Sleep”, actually sounds genuinely mournful which is something that I would have never guessed to be a part of this EP’s mood.
It’s not an essential release, of course. It was never going to be – the concept screamed ‘curio for fans’ right from the very beginning and when compared to the plethora of other miscallenous Chumba curios throughout the years, it’s leaning towards the less important side of things when viewed strictly from a musical stand point. But I don’t think anyone expected anything more anyway. It’s a good set of songs for the biggest fans to enjoy while they feel a bit special for owning something fairly exclusive.
It does, however, make you properly realise that this is it for Chumbawamba. This was always going to be their final release that was going to be haunting around until that one day in the distant future when it would triumphantly arrive after the big news broke out. And now the distant future is finally here and there’s really no more releases after this from a band who always had something new underway for the past several decades. It makes its own kind of hilarious sense that the band’s goodbye would also be the goodbye to a political figure they’ve clashed with ever since the beginning of their career. For a person who never was all that grabbed by the politics, it’s this sense that makes the Thatcher EP a little bit more special than just a bunch of short, enjoyable songs – it’s the soundtrack to the band finally fully retiring after they’ve had the final word, even if it meant breaking through their own death to get to say it. The final track on the EP is called “Sleep” and yeah, it’s about Thatcher, but it’s such a brilliantly perfect title for the final official song in the band’s chronology (not to mention it works well as a final song musically too). It’s all unplanned of course (I presume), but that somehow makes it even better because it suits this band’s nature to a T.
That is the reason why I’m really glad I seized the chance and managed to grab this while I still had time. Margaret Schmargaret – in memoriam Chumbawamba.
But yes, not uploading it for you. Shoo.
March has had its share of album releases, but none of them had such a huge amount of personal impact or importance that it would’ve warranted a full-on ramble attack. Not to mention that I’ve been so super-busy this month that any larger rambles have had to step aside in any case (such excuses can be forgiven, I hope, for a hobby blog like this). Thus, a set of short rambles is an appropriate way to cap off the month. Beneath the cut: Bowie, Depeche Mode, Sakanaction, Suede.