I thought that I’d established my new normal. A middle aged orphan, about to start his own forever home building project in London.
And then along comes Coronavirus to change the affluent world beyond recognition. It already feels odd when I switch on the TV and see pre-coronavirus footage of people eating at a restaurant or shaking hands. It has already changed behaviour beyond recognition. What it will do to those parts of the planet that haven’t got a home to self isolate in, water to wash their hands or food to stockpile – well it really is beyond comprehension.
As I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon, I think I’m recovering from a bout of Covid 19 – persistent cough, aching limbs. I am getting better though and the worst part wasn’t too bad, so fingers crossed that I’ve been one of the lucky ones.
Maybe it was Covid 18.5?
Work remains insanely busy as we develop risk and contingency plans. I keep seeing articles pop up in the Guardian – most bingeworthy box sets, novels that you should now take the opportunity to read, films to watch. Not a chance – it ain’t going to be the time for the Wire, Ulysses and the Irishman any time soon here.
What has kept me going is good background listening though. Something that can be a soundtrack to my home office or late night listening. Nothing too distracting but it still must have substance.
Here’s a few things that I’ve found:
So who went and decided that record stores fell into the category of non-essential? I can countenance that the multiple hands flicking through racks of albums represents a hitherto unconsidered health hazard.
Shops have taken two routes – either keep trading on line (such as Rough Trade) or shut up shop completely.
Renowned Soho dance music emporium Phonica falls into that category. The infrastructure required to get a bunch of staff together in the same place as the merchandise and then get them distributed is proving too testing. They’ve taken the store into hibernation. Before they locked the business down, they posted a couple of playlists on their website.
The one that I’ve been listening to is the “Home” playlist. It’s got some old 90s ambient electronica such as Aphex Twin and the recently reissued Global Communications album. There’s a couple of tracks from Khruangbin’s recent collaboration with Leon Bridges, the heatwave pop of Texas Sun. I’ve struggled a little bit with the opening track by Jon Hassell, who I normally love, so I won’t judge you if you skip this one. Gigi Masin’s laidback keyboards is new to me as is the Linkwood selection. There’s a track from the new Shabaka Hutchings LP for the jazz heads too (which hopefully the postman will bring soon) and some Japanese ambient from the late Susomo Yokota.
As guide, if you enjoy Giles Petterson’s 6Music show, then this could be for you. Whilst it works wonderfully as background music, it is a million miles away from muzak and is sufficiently varied to introduce the listener to new artists or albums.
Next up is a playlist and album by someone whose personal circumstances have been affected more than most by the public health crisis.
I had tickets for Ben Watt’s London show, having bought and loved his recent album, Storm Damage. Ben’s on a more severe 12 week lockdown as vulnerable person due to health issues. This follows his brush with death in 1992, when he contracted an auto-immune disease. The tour is cancelled but he’s been tweeting regularly though and posted just over an hour’s worth of late night classical piano music yesterday. It’s got Debussy, Brahms, Satie – all the usual suspects. It’s transcendent and takes you to different places, with themes that are both familiar and gossamer light.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Storm Damage. It’s grown up rock, beautifully played and recorded with his usual attention to detail that has been evident all the way from Everything But The Girl onwards. It leans toward the early seventies Island Record sound, the one regularly featured Danny Thompson. Ben favours what he describes as an unadorned trio including a double bass and electronic as well as acoustic percussion. It also has a very English expansiveness that is brings to mind Bowie’s Blackstar or post-Sid Pink Floyd.
The ten songs came out of an intense period of personal anguish and political anger. My closest half-brother died unexpectedly in 2016, only four years after my half-sister. I got stuck for a year, angry inside and angry at the political world casually detonating around me. I felt half powerless, half driven. When the songs finally emerged, some were dark, yes, but there is always room for light.From Ben’s own website
It isn’t hard to see why it resonates with me given the last 12 months that I’ve gone through. The sense of anger and detachment followed by hope is pretty much the same road that I’ve personally travelled.
The most approachable song on the record is Irene, the second single to be released. Featuring Low’s Alan Sparhawk on guitar, it is one of the most EBTG-like tracks on the LP. There’s two guitar lines an insistent plucking from Sparhawk alongside Watt’s metallic resonator which picks up the rhythm.
It’s a story song, always one of Thorn and Watt’s strongest suits. The song looks back on an old nightclub and the relationship between a singer and her audience once the scene has shifted on. It’s incredibly affecting – Ben tweeted recently that he was delighted that his son had started playing the tune on his guitar, completely unprompted.
Watt’s shows have been rescheduled to the autumn and I’ll definitely book my tickets again.
It’s pertinent that Ben shared his classical playlist this weekend just gone, where International Piano Day fell (the 88th day of the year, same as the number of keys on the ol’ joanna). The planned live events have been cancelled due to the old youknowwhat virus but Nils Frahm, the founder of the global festival, chose yesterday to drop Empty, via the Erased Tapes website. I’ve written about Nils a couple of times. His show at the Barbican a couple of years ago is one of my favourite ever gigs.
Just about half an hour long, it is eight pieces that were captured in just before Frahm broke his thumb falling out of the bunk bed in his studio in 1992. It features the usual dynamics that you expect from Frahm – the physicality of the damping of the strings is just stunning. It sits brilliantly alongside Solo and Screws as examples of how intimate his solo piano music can be.
Empty is available from Erased Tapes to purchase here. At the moment it is to stream only but most the label’s releases make their way to CD or vinyl. It is vital that we try and support our musicians at this time, so if you are a fan, I’d urge you to buy it rather than just stream.
In the meantime, Frahm has created a Piano Day playlist, which I’m still to digest but it serves as a natural counterpoint to Watt’s earlier selections.
I’m still trying to make my way through the final selection. I’m a regular reader of the Headphone Commute blog which features mostly ambient and instrumental music. Bandcamp recently waived their fees for purchases (another admirable act in this uncertain world) so I treated myself to the mammoth “…and darkness came”.
Originally released as a fundraiser for 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and compiled by Headphone Commute, it features a few bigger hitters that I’ve written about previously such as Clint Mansell and Max Richter. It also includes Nils Frahm and others from Erased Tapes such as Olafur Arnalds and Ben Lukas Boysen.
The tone is very refined and incredibly moving at times, with the occasional slightly more dystopian track than the other playlists and albums that I’ve posted. There is a great deal of beauty on offer within its mammoth content. But at $10 for 83 tracks (yes – eighty three) and the money going to charity, there’s a hell of a lot to get your teeth into and you skip through to something that is much more your cup of tea.
I’ve been playing in the background whilst working in my home office and it just about walks the line between contributing to the ambience and piquing your interest.
I’m sure that there will be more to post as the isolation thing continues but in the meantime, stay safe and much love.
For those of a hi-res persuasion, here’s a few of these playlists on Tidal too:
The Phonica Home listening list (lovely electronica and jazzy world music stuff):
The Ben Watt late night classical music playlist:
The Nils Frahm Piano Day playlist: