Listening Without Writing: Music From the Past Three Month – Part I (May/June)

As you will have noticed, I haven’t written much about music over the past few months. However, I have certainly been listening! I finally have some time now, taking a couple of ten-hour-long train trips across Europe, to wrote down my thoughts. This is the first post in a (hopefully) two-part series, of which the second part will (hopefully) be published next week. Here I cover albums and EPs released in June and towards the end of May; July and the start of August are next.

There’s no prize to win, but the unofficial Album of the Months is Hardly Electronic by The Essex Green. Also discussed are Tugboat Captain side-project The Groke, the second  Let’s Eat Grandma album, and Bandcamp discovery Echo Ladies. The next instalment of this mini-series (hopefully) features Primo, The Ophelias and more! And if you’re not old-fashioned enough to listen to full albums, I have been updating our New Music playlist on Spotify regularly – see below to listen and subscribe for weekly new music!


The Essex Green – Hardly Electronic (Merge Records)

Even before we started our attempts to move out of our first shared apartment, Kim and I had already had Hardly Electronic on repeat for days on end. Still, hearing the opening lines of ‘Sloane Ranger’ go “Pack it up” while filling up plastic boxes was a sadly serendipitous moment. And while we are (or were) Oxford, not London-based (and Cowley definitely isn’t Kensington!), for an American band The Essex Green manage to describe our strange English lives surprisingly well. For London, although not her current city, is the place where I’ve visited Kim for three years at places with post codes variously starting with ‘E’ and ‘W’. And so, more than most music, did Hardly Electronic become our music.

Part of the fun with The Essex Green’s first album in over ten years is to trace the connections and references to the music from the 60s and 70s that has inspired them. So could ‘Modern Rain’ easily be mistaken for a lost single from the early 70s, with it’s Electric Light Orchestra keys and Lennon-esque guitar solo outro. ‘In the Key of Me’ and ‘Slanted By Six’, with Sasha Bell on vocals, remind me Renaissance’s pristine prog-rock tales on Scheherazade And Other Stories.  And Chris Isaak is silently present in the melody of ‘Patsy Desmond’, whereas the underdog anthem ‘January Says’ has that Avi Buffalo vibe written all over it. This filling in the x and y in ‘sounds like y‘ is not a pretentious game to keep the music afficionados busy (not just that, in any case); it is the process of embedding what is new and unknown into a pre-existent bed of connections made out of melodies knotted to memories. And so, more than most music, does Hardly Electronic become part of a tightly woven net that always breaks the fall – and more.

And unlike moving out, this is always a generative process. Sure, the web might and will be altered, tightened or even stained, but it doesn’t contain bin bags brought to charity shops or temporary wardrobes in the form of suitcases filled with clothes. Thus the memories of those transient materials are transferred to the solidity of this immaterial net. And so the end of one thing – a house, an era – can become the beginning of something new. And so, more than most music, is Hardly Electronic as much a start as an ending.


Tracyanne & Danny / For Esmé / Sudan Archives

Going all the way back to May then, there are three albums I’d briefly like to mention. Firstly, the epynomous Tracyanne & Danny, rising from the ashes of Camera Obscure. I refuse to acknowledge that there is such a thing is a pop song too sweet, but if there is, then this would immediately qualify. Tracyanne Campbell’s voice is as beautiful as ever and the swirling violins on a track such as the ABBA-esque ‘It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts’ melt like chocolate, but overall the album is a bit too mellow for me. Given that, it’s the up-tempo tracks like ‘Cellophane Girl’ that I like most. Still, for fans of Camera Obscure this is unmissable.

For Esmé’s Righteous Woman opens with chamber pop violins, but on the rest of the album it’s synths galore. For most of the duration, it feels like For Esmé is holding back, like a down-beat Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s only at the end that the pace picks up with the trio ‘Doubtmouth’, ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Didn’t Ask’, catchy hits with a clear feminist message.

Sudan Archives’ sound remains singular in the current pop landscape. At times catchy, at times deranged, Sink, like Sudan Archives previous EP, is a varied work somewhere on the spectrum that ranges from R&B to trip-hop. The distinctive finger-picking violin is a further dimension that at the same time holds the music together as wll as making it sound like the songs are falling apart. ‘Nont For Sale’ is the track on Sink most resembling a single with its sort-of chorus, but ‘Beautiful Mistake’ is the one that really showcases Sudan Archives’ talent. It starts aimlessly swaying, like a jellyfish under water, but, analysing this lostness from the outside, ends with the somewhat self-affirming declamation “I’m a beautiful mistake”. If you hadn’t heard it yet, Sudan Archives’ earlier epynomous EP is as good, and perhaps not as dark, as Sink.


The Groke – Dedicated 2 U (Uncollective Records)

The Groke is the solo project of Alexander Sokolow, of Tugboat Captain fame. His first album, Dedicated 2 U, details the fallout of a breakup in excruciating detail. Soundwise, it’s a stripped-down version of the sailors’ quiet yet communal indie pop. Between Tugboat Captain and The Groke some of that group spiritis lost, but the knack for songwriting clearly remains.

The lyrics are, in a word, painful. There is certainly omething admirable to the plain honesty of Sokolow’s texts. On the other hand, the simplicity of his lyrics can border on the cliché (“I wonder what you’re up to every night”, “I don’t wanna be like everybody else” – though Sokolow is well aware of the limits of these expressions when he parodies them on ‘The Moonins’, singing “I go to the Sainsburys – remember we did that too?”), and while these feelings are universal and perhaps truly inexpressible, a mere statement of them doesn’t give me, as a listener, much to work with. There’s also a slight sense of stalkerishness and the question of consent – how far is a songwriter allowed to go in writing songs about a third person without their permission? – is never quite resolved. The album raises questions about the way we use social media to communicate and document our lives, and one of the more interesting aspects of Dedicated 2 U is the way in which it critises this tendency by itself painstakingly documenting the clichés of heartbreak for everyone who is or isn’t interested.

The Groke therefore doesn’t excite me as much as Sokolow’s full band, despite the sense of over-the-top self-relativising humour found on a song title such as ‘staring at the ocean with you instead of socially engaging at the party’ or the myriad softboi indie band references on ‘1000 songs’. But I understand some of the songs on Dedicated 2 U will be re-recorded for Tugboat Captain’s second album, and I look forward to giving tunes such as ‘Sorry Not Sorry’ and the title track a second chance.


Echo Ladies – Pink Noise 

Pink Noise was a find through the Bandcamp twitter account that I’ve been enjoying a surprising lot. The album lies somewhere at the intersection of Disintegration-era Cure, The Courtneys and Chromatics. Call it melancholy dream-wave. It’s not particularly original, but well done. It’s also another album with millenial pink cover art, this time a seeming nod to Loveless. And I can see how the phrase ‘pink noise’ is an apt description: the music is warm and sticky, somewhere between a fire and candy floss. ‘Almost Happy’ is the best track on here, and ‘Darklands’ the worst. ‘Overrated’ isn’t overrated either. Worth giving a listen!


Yuno – Moodie EP
Yuno’s Moodie EP is a nice mix of genres, combining high-brow electro-indie à la Vampire Weekend with hip-hop beats and bits of rap. It is interesting how the EP comfortably falls in between mellow listening and slightly darker indie rock – the middle ground between Broken Bells and Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse, as it were – but despite the title Moodie still works best in a chill setting. ‘No Going Back’ is my favourite track, but ‘Why For’ is the best one.


Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears

I have to say I was slightly disappointed by I’m All Ears (and I think I wasn’t the only one). There was a sense of freedom present on I, Gemini that seems to be mostly lacking on Let’s Eat Grandma’s second album – though with exceptions. Part of this might be the influence of SOPHIE, who has co-produced ‘Hot Pink’ and ‘It’s Not Just Me’, two exceptional tracks which yet fail to be truly original; joining the movement that has sprung from PC Music comes at the cost of relinquishing some independence. Undoubtedly, part of the let-down is also due to unreasonably high expectations. Looking back, I, Gemini was an album of varying quality with more than a few duds, but its new, eclectic sound made us forget that.

Above, I mentioned exceptions. The first three ‘proper’ tracks on the album, the aforementioned two singles as well as ‘Falling Into Me’, are a great start, but it’s the two longer ones towards the end that evoke the same sense of an expanding space of possibilities as the best tracks on their debut. Especially the 10-minute epic ‘Donnie Darko’ manages to pull the trick of expressing the claustrophobia of the mind while at the same time breaking free of the frames that society has set for us. It might very well be my favourite Let’s Eat Grandma track yet, and makes me look forward to whatever they’ll come up with next.

-- Caspar Jacobs, August 22, 2018