John Grant – “Remixes Are Also Magic” (2019)

I debated on whether to join my buddy Travis in line at Easy Street Records today for RSD. He planned on getting down there at 5AM, two hours before the store’s 7AM opening. I did it last year and we had a good time (they serve bacon and coffee to those in line), but this year the weather was shit and it had been a long week at work… so the last thing I wanted to do was to wake up at 4:30AM and stand around in a cold Seattle drizzle for a few hours. Besides, there wasn’t much on the RSD list that excited me. Holly and I figured we’d sleep in and stop by later in the morning and see what we could snag.

Fast forward to 9AM and we arrive at Easy Street to find the line is still around the corner and half way around the block… and not moving. I guess I kind of get it – after all, Pearl Jam’s Live At Easy Street was getting the vinyl treatment for the first time and all the kids in Seattle want to get their hands on a copy. But I’m mostly ambivalent about PJ, so we went back to Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood and Silver Platters which had just opened for the day but is massive inside, so at least we were in out of the rain and cold. Holly dropped me off and ran some errands. I wasn’t even sure I’d buy anything since I couldn’t find the Green River of John Grant albums I wanted, but there was enough to capture my interest and I grabbed a few Madonna 12″ records, a cool Gruppo Sportivo compilation, some dub, a U.K Subs 10″, and the Stiv soundtrack before making my way to the back of the endless line. Thirty minutes later I was about halfway through when she returned and decided to go double check to see if the A-Ha release was out there somewhere and I had overlooked it. I hadn’t. But then she texted me from the other side of the store with a picture of the John Grant record, which I had missed! Wife points earned.

Unlike so many RSD records Remixes Are Also Magic is a legitimately limited release – only 300 copies of this bad boy were pressed. (♠) It’s comprised of four remixes of songs from Grant’s last two albums, Gray Tickles, Black Pressure and Love Is Magic. As an added bonus one of the mixes is by Carter Tutti. Needless to say it was my best “pick” of the day, even if I wasn’t the one who actually found it. As an added bonus a sticker on the inner sleeve includes a download code, the ONLY of my RSD purchases to have one. Why codes aren’t included with all new vinyl, I have no idea.

Nik Colk Void’s spin on “Preppy Boy” is bleepy-bloopy chip-tuney, bouncing up and down like a deranged Q-Bert, offset by foghorn-esque blasts of deep bass. The whole thing has a frenetic quality, the build-ups coming on top of what is already a hyperspeed base. Blancmange’s “Touch and Go” prominently features Grant’s vocals, though with a similar chip-tune approach to what Void did on “Preppy Boy”. On the B side the Carter Tutti mix of “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure” takes things in a darker and heavier direction, one that befits the original song. Deep and lush, the mood is somber and serious, the low end pulsing like a heartbeat. The collection closes out with Anna Meredith’s version of “Voodoo Doll”, it’s simple organ opening with Grant’s voice echoing off in the distance setting the stage for a languid, dreamy journey

Remixes Are Also Magic is a fun re-versioning of some of Grant’s recent tracks, one likely to primarily appeal to the fan of Grant’s more electronic side. And this one actually is limited, folks, so get it while you can.

(♠) By way of contrast, the two “limited edition” Madonna 12″ records I bought were in editions of 12,500 and 13,000. Hardly limited by any definition. Unless of course your definition allows for more something to be limited if you make 13,000 of them…

John Grant – “Love Is Magic” (2018)

After a few listens my initial impression of John Grant’s Love Is Magic was one of inconsistency. The first and last thirds of the opening track “Metamorphosis” struck me as a sort of updated version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, and I think that might have tainted my ears. I wasn’t even sure I was going to write about the album because there were only a couple of songs that I liked. However, this is John Grant we’re talking about, and since I’m a disciple of the Advanced Genius Theory and believe that Grant is sort of circling around Advancement right now, I know better than to trust my own opinions.

So I put it on during my long evening commute the other day. And I was almost immediately blown away. I still think “Metamorphosis” sounds a lot like Joel’s quirky #1 hit from 1989, but then the title track came on and enveloped me like a Snuggie on a cold afternoon as I curl up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate and watch the snow falling out the the window. “Love Is Magic” is an easy song for me to love because it’s the track on the album that would most easily and seamlessly fit into Grant’s seminal Pale Green Ghosts, a record that is on my All Time Top 5 list. And this, my friends, is a big part of my personal John Grant objectivity problem, because I view everything he does through the lens of that near-perfect 2013 album. Which is, of course, patently unfair to John Grant the artist, who continues to develop as a musician and a human being, bringing his new life experiences to his music. Unconsciously what I really want is recapture that feeling I got from hearing Pale Green Ghosts for the first time, the pure magic and exhilaration of something so unexpected and brilliant. Love Is Magic isn’t the problem; I’m the problem.

Come play Tempest with me,
Or maybe Millipede,
We can while away the hours…
— “Tempest”

“Tempest” opens with Gusgus-esque beats before taking us in a more dreamy direction as Grant seeks the solace of the video game arcade, somewhere he can play Tempest (or maybe Centipede or Millipede…) and escape from the things that bother him. And you’re invited to come along if you like… maybe we can hang out together and just play some games. Because that would offer a respite from life. I love everything about this track, right down to the video game samples at the end.

Lest one think that Grant lost his capacity for snark, Love Is Magic treats us to numbers like “Smug Cunt” (Now you’re just a smug cunt / Who doesn’t even do his own stunts / They just let you in / ‘Cos you won’t shut up) and the mild absurdity of “He’s Got His Mother’s Hips”. He walks the line between loquaciousness and vulgarity with the deftness of a Wallenda, placing each “fuck” with the precision of a Steph Curry 3-pointer and lacing the humor with arsenic.

The most intriguing track is “Diet Gum”. The cadence reminds me quite a bit of Ghostland Observatory’s “Codename: Rondo”, though instead of a telling a bizarre story instead it’s just a pure insult fest.

By the way, your bedside manner is reminiscent of a chuckle of hyenas,
Except… yes, it is a chuckle of hyenas, Dr. Turdface
It’s a collective noun,
Do you even know what a collective noun is, Stupidzilla?
— “Diet Gum”

By the end, though, the narrator finds himself sheepishly apologizing to the target of his jibes. Grant is willing to eviscerate others, but he also turns that scalpel on himself either overtly or subtly. No one is spared.

Once again John Grant has delivered an album that is parts poignant, funny, and honest, one that only reveals its complexity and depth to those willing to put in the time to truly listen. Love Is Magic is worthy of consideration on any year-end list; it’ll certainly be included in the conversation when I sit down in December to work on my personal Top 5 list for 2018.

Hermigervill – “I” (2014)

We first became aware of Hermigervill via his work with the synth-pop maestro Berndsen, only later catching onto his awesome solo work. We’ve seen him live a couple of times and he probably has the best banter with his audience of anyone we’ve seen at Iceland Airwaves over the years – his English is impeccable and he has a quick wit and great sense of humor, always coming across as genuine and spontaneous.

Released in 2014, I is Hermigervill’s most recent solo album. Primarily an instrumental work that could be described as electro-disco, Herigervill does bring in a pair of guest vocalists to mix things up a bit. The R&B “2D” includes Uni Stefson of the late, great party band Retro Stefson, while the incomparable John Grant makes an appearance on “Between Wolf and Dog”. While I love Hermigervill’s electro beats on their own, his true genius is when he composes for vocalists, creating great sonic foundations for those artists to explore.

The Best of 2015

Man, 2015 was an absolutely fantastic year. Holly and I got to do some traveling, going to Portland (OR) and Salt Lake City to see concerts, doing some record shopping in Ireland and Paris, and of course attending our seventh consecutive Iceland Airwaves Music Festival. We went to shows with friends, listened to new music, and discovered new bands. So with all that in mind, here’s a recap of Life in the Vinyl Lane’s musical year.

Top 5 New Releases in 2015

1. Halleluwah – Halleluwah
2. Lífsins Þungu Spor – Dulvitund
3. .A:A. Mix. 1 – Alexandra Atnif
4. II – Albino Father
5. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – John Grant

A lot of great music came out in 2014, and I had a hard time whittling down my initial list of a dozen albums to pick the Top 5. In fact I thought I had my list ready to go until I played Lífsins Þungu Spor for the first time about two weeks ago, and it actually bumped another album off of the list. I was confident in my choice of Halleluwah for the top spot because I’ve been playing their debut (not available on vinyl at this time) a ton, and it’s actually the second time they’ve made my year end best of list, with their 10″ K2R (which stylistically is miles away from Halleluwah) held down the #4 spot on my 2012 list. Dulvitund, Alexandra Atnif, and Albino Father were all performers I encountered for the first time in 2015, and John Grant rounds it out with his second appearance on one of my Top 5 New Releases lists.

I’m particularly happy with this list because, unintentionally, all the performers fall into different genres. Halleluwah brings a sort of old school popular music sound, something that reminds me of an updated version of Edith Piaf; Dulvitund is electro darkwave; Alexandra Atnif creates some edgy experimental industrial beats; Albin Father is the second coming of garage psych rock; and of course John Grant is John Grant in all of his loquacious brilliance. There’s something for just about everyone on that list.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

1. Alexandra Atnif (US/Romania)
2. No Stayer (US)
3. Captain Moonlight (Ireland)
4. SGNLS (US)
5. Kælan Mikla (Iceland)

This was a super-tough list for me this year. The first two choices were easy. We discovered Atnif this summer when we picked up one of her split tapes at Amoeba down in Los Angeles, and acquired two more of her cassettes over the course of the year. She’s super talented and isn’t afraid to experiment with some very severe sounds. No Stayer also came to me via a cassette (Rogue) when my friends over at Philadelphia’s Sit & Spin Records sent it my way. I was down with their style of hard rock/metal, but then sort of forgot about them for a bit before re-discovering them on my iPod a few weeks back, and I’ve pretty much been listening to them every day since. Captain Moonlight’s working class, Irish-issues-themed hip hop was a refreshing return of hip hop to being social protest music. I enjoyed SGNLs synth punk enough to pick up two of their records this year, SGNLS and II (not to be confused by the Albino Father album of the same name). Kælan Mikla was sort of a darkwave dark horse on this list, because they don’t currently have any physical releases (though they do have a track on Iceland Whatever, Vol. 1), but I was very impressed by their live show at Airwaves and can’t stop thinking about them.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

1. Philly’s Dopest Shit, Vol. 1 – Various
2. Lengi Lifi – HAM
3. Hype! Boxed Set – Various
4. W.C. Monster – Bootlegs
5. Great White WonderLes Rallizes Denudes

OK, I’m cheating a bit here, because my top choice is a cassette, and my #2 pick is a CD. But both of those were important additions for me this year. Philly’s Dopest Shit turned me on to a ton of great bands like No Stayer, SGNLS, Ruby Buff, and Spent Flesh. Lengi Lifi is a very difficult to find, CD-only HAM live album and was the last one I needed to complete the HAM discography. The Hype! Boxed Set was an opportunity for me to reconnect with some great Sub Pop 7″ records and exorcise those demons that still haunt me after selling my Sub Pop singles 20 years ago. W.C. Monster is a collectible Icelandic thrash record, while the Great White Wonder box set is just a flat-out psych noise trip from Japan’s Les Rallizes Denudes.

Top 5 Live Shows

1. The Kills – Roseland Theatre, Portland OR
2. Bubbi & DIMMA – NASA, Reykjavik
3. Bo Ningen – KEX Hostel, Reykjavik
4. The Sonics – Easy Street Records, Seattle
5. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Pioneer Park, Salt Lake City UT

This is the second consecutive year that The Kills (right) have taken the top spot in my Top 5 Live Shows, and I kind of feel like any year that I see them live, they’ll probably be my number one pick – they’re quite simply that damn good. At Airwaves the combination of Bubbi Morthens and DIMMA was a perfect blend of old school punk rock and new school technical metal, while Bo Ningen played the most insane, high energy set of crazy that I’ve ever seen. Easy Street Records crammed 200 people into their shop for show benefitting KEXP radio, and The Sonics played along with a veritable who’s who of Seattle rockers, including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. And BRMC… well, they’d been at the top of my list of bands I wanted to see for years and years, and this summer we were able to use some airline points to basically get down to Salt Lake City for free to see them live, and they were outstanding.

This was probably the toughest list for me to put together, because we saw so many great shows this year. Agent Fresco, Hot Chip, Thievery Corporation, Steel Panther, HAM, Halleluwah… there were just so many awesome performances to choose from. But the five that made the final cut all had something special about them that took them to that next level and made them more memorable.

Top 5 Favorite Places to Buy Records

North America
1. Easy Street, Seattle
2. Silver Platters, Seattle
3. Diabolical, Salt Lake City
4. Fingerprints, Long Beach (CA)
5. Amoeba, Los Angeles

The Rest of the World
1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2. Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
3. Bell, Book & Candle, Galway (Ireland)
4. Syncrophone, Paris
5. All City, Dublin

Easy Street and Silver Platters are my regular local haunts, so it will be hard for them to ever get knocked out of the top spots. The same is true for Lucky and Reykjavik Record Shop – any year that we make it to Reykjavik, these two are likely to be at the top of list. One thing that all these places have in common is that they’re very supportive of their local scenes, and that’s important to me because when I travel I like to look for local music. Plus they had some cool and knowledgeable people, people who are obviously passionate about music.

Top 5 Music Books

1. Girl in a Band: A Memoir, by Kim Gordon
2. Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, by Brendan Mullen
3. For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutique, by Dan LeRoy
4. The Truth of Revolution, Brother: The Philosophies of Punk,  by Robin Ryde, Lisa Sofianos, and Charlie Waterhouse
5. Crate Digger: An Obsession With Punk Records, by Bob Suren

I probably read about 15-20 music books in 2015, and the above were easily the best of the bunch. And of these five, Kim Gordon’s was by far the most compelling, probably more so as the story of an artist’s life and struggles than for anything specifically related to Sonic Youth. Truth be told, I’ve never owned a Sonic Youth album, and I couldn’t name single one of their songs if I tried (I may have to give up my music blogging card for that admission, but whatever), so I wasn’t particularly predisposed to feel any particular way about Girl in a Band. The Truth of Revolution, Brother is a pretty unique project, one that I sponsored via Kickstarter. Part of the appeal was that a couple of OG Icelandic punks were interviewed in it, specifically Einar Örn Benediktsson and Jón Gnarr. It was an interesting take on punk philosophy, which resonated even more so after hearing Einar Örn talk for a few minutes prior to a Ghostigital show about what being a punk means to him.

 

This year Holly asked if she could contribute a few lists of her own, and it seemed like a great idea to me since her perspective is often quite different from mine. So with minimal commentary, here are some of her top musical picks for 2015.

Top 5 New Releases in 2015 (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1. Dodge and Burn – The Dead Weather
2. FFS – FFS
3. Born Under Saturn – Django Django
4. Adjust to the Light – Fufanu
5. “Inside Paul’s Boutique”

We didn’t have any albums in common in our Top 5 lists, and in fact she only had one album I’ve even written about on hers! Number five is an outlier – it’s the roughly 12 hour incredible show that KEXP radio did in which they deconstructed all of Paul’s Boutique, literally playing in full every single song sampled by the Beastie Boys on that album, in the order they appeared on it. It’s epic. Don’t believe us? Check it out for yourself HERE.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1. East India Youth (UK)
2. Islam Chipsy (Egypt)
3. russian.girls (Iceland)
4. Alexandra Atnif (US/Romania)
5. Operators (US/Canada)

Again, not much overlap between the his-and-hers lists, only Alexandra Atnif. That being said, all four of the other bands here made it to my initial list as well, they just ultimately didn’t crack my personal Top 5.

Top 5 Live Shows (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1. The Kills – Roseland Theatre, Portland OR
2. Thievery Corporation – Showbox Sodo, Seattle
3. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Pioneer Park, Salt Lake City UT
4. East India Youth – NASA, Reykjavik
5. Bubbi & DIMMA – NASA, Reykjavik

We actually have quite a bit of overlap her, and both Thievery Corporation and East India Youth made to to my short list. There were just so many good shows in 2015.

 

So there you have it, ladies and gents. Another fantastic year is almost in the books, and I can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store for us. And since we’ve already purchased our tickets for Iceland Airwaves 2016 and to see Devil Makes Three at Red Rocks in Colorado in May, I suspect it’s going to be pretty excellent.

John Grant – “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure” (2015)

John Grant’s recently released Grey Tickles, Black Pressure was one of those albums for me. You know the ones. The next new album put out by that artist you fell in love with after first hearing their previous record. What will it sound like? How will it affect me? If it disappoints me, will that somehow make me like Pale Green Ghosts less?

These are, of course, ridiculous thoughts, but they are real if you’re a music obsessive like me. But Grant provides a bit of applicable wisdom in the title track, “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure,” which is a laundry list of things you can feel bad, or more precisely sorry for yourself, about. And, as always with Grant’s lyrics, he’s pretty damn blunt about it.

And there are children who have cancer,
So all bets are off,
‘Cause I can’t compete with that.

It’s Grant’s use of language that defines his art to me. It’s not just his personal delivery style, which is very conversational, but in the way the he obvious loves playing with words. He has admitted in many an interview that he is very interested in language, and if I recall is fluent in German and Russian, plus has working knowledge of a handful of others (and is working on his Icelandic). But it goes beyond that. It’s the obvious joy he takes in using specific words, not because they make him sound smart, but just because of how they sound, how they roll off the tongue. Decoupage… luxuriating… obsequious… ocelot… words that don’t need to appear in the songs (though an ocelot does have an important and recurring role in the TV show Archer…), but are just perfect in the way he delivers them. He gives us a few words and phrases in languages other than English too, and name-drops all over the place, from the literary like Dostoevsky and Frances Bacon to actresses like Madeline Kahn and Angie Dickinson to the downright unusual like my personal favorite, self-destructive punk rock icon GG Allin. It’s quite the list. I feel like I need a Cliff’s Notes guide and a thesaurus just to follow along. Stockholm is a place that I adore / But the syndrome by that name / Is one that I abhor. Seriously, who else can write like this and put it into a song and make it work?? Grant is the only person I can think of who can pull off tricks like that.

I was curious about how Grey Tickles, Black Pressure would compare to Pale Green Ghosts musically when I leaned that Biggi Veira (of Gusgus fame) wasn’t involved in the new album. Biggi’s sonic fingerprints are all over the earlier record, and I thought that perhaps his absence from the new one represented a shift in direction. However, that’s not the case, at least not entirely. There was an incredible richness to much of Pale Green Ghosts, perhaps nowhere more so than on the title track, and while there’s a level of musical density to Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, it feels a bit simpler, which puts more of the focus on the vocals. The differences are subtle – the overall composition still has an electronic base to it, though with a wide range of instruments playing their roles. This doesn’t feel as much like an “electronic” album.

Normally on Life in the Vinyl Lane I give my initial impressions of an album, often after just the first or second listen. I know that’s not how a reviewer is supposed to do things, and that may no always be fair to the artists, but initial impressions are still important ones. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is an exception to my usual modus operandi – I probably listened to it all the way through around 10 times before I finally sat down to write about it. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I know that upon my first listening it didn’t sound like a John Grant album to me, though that impression faded immediately the second time through. Grant throws so much at you lyrically that it can be a bit overwhelming, and I think he simply overloaded my brain circuits during that first listen as I tried to make sense of what he just said while continuing to follow along with what he was now saying.

I enjoy Grey Tickles, Black Pressure quite a bit, and I find it growing on me with each listen. I doubt it will ever eclipse Pale Green Ghosts for me, but that was part of the enormously powerful first impression I had of Grant after seeing him perform live at Iceland Airwaves in 2013, and it’s almost impossible to replicate that kind of experience with an artist as you become more familiar with their work. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure strikes me as more mature and less raw emotion than Grant’s prior record, which is neither a positive nor a negative but simply an observation about this development as an artist and a man. I respect his lyrical honesty, even when it makes me cringe.