Posts from 12th September 1999

12
Sep 99

Spearmint – A Week Away

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Are You Scared To Get Angsty?

You don’t decide to listen to this kind of music: it chooses you. Indie kids are born not made, see, and one day at the crossroads, after the seventeenth pointless, exhausting infatuation, after the twenty-fifth rebuff, and the thirty-eighth black-souled tramp across town with a walkman glued to the ears, a band like Spearmint comes up to them, taps them on the shoulder, and says “You’re mine. You don’t have to sell your soul, though. Just your life.”

At my age you get to blame it all on adolescence, when the penny drops that some of the pretty kids liked this music too, and then you feel a bit embarassed by how much the stuff meant to you. “The most passionate songs are the lonely songs, so easily outgrown” , as the personal guru of my teenagerdom put it. But it’s too late really, your emotional circuits have been rewired, and it doesn’t take much to take you back up to the bedroom with the C90s and the lyric sheets, just a boy with his heart in his throat and a sharp turn of phrase. Once the sensitivity bug’s bitten you, you’ll always walk around with an invisible bunch of daffs in your back pocket, no matter how often you buy Maxim and pretend otherwise.

And then you get to Shirley Lee of Spearmint’s age (pushing forty, apparently) and you’ve still not outgrown those lonely songs, so what the hell do you do? Making a record as catchy, clever and intimate as A Week Away seems like a good start. Shirley’s a boy, by the way, but then Big Daddy’s name was Shirley too: born not made, like I said. If I was to also say that A Week Away is pitched precisely midway between the Wedding Present’s strummed, strangled conversational confessionals and Pulp’s mass-observation art-pop, I’d be doing Spearmint a bit of a disservice, but only a bit.

I’d also be giving fair warning to the hordes of readers for whom pitiable whiteboy soulbaring is musically tumourous. Spearmint are not innovators, miles from it, but they are doing something that’s not been fashionable since the Stone Roses came along and convinced everyone that attitude was where it’s at and it was much better to wear something groovy on your chest than get something off it. Ten to one Spearmint won’t be fashionable either. Evens they don’t care, “Sweeping The Nation” and its success-or-bust ecstasies notwithstanding.

Spearmint play pop, but they don’t believe in pop as meat-rack or pop as role-playing glamour game or pop as craft, they believe in pop as the best way to inject a bit of honesty into the world. Sincerity’s not in general something I value in music, mostly because I’ve heard more than enough music which tries to excuse its pomposity or banality or overreach by coming over all heartfelt, and also because I can never hear enough music which uses its blatant money-making insincerity to cloak a stealthy stab to the heart. But Shirley Lee is either dangerously honest (almost every song bristles with authentic-sounding proper names in compromising situations) or fakes it well, and I like him whichever.

Maybe I like him because his kind of honesty isn’t all it seems – lovelorn pop like this tends to be about using pop as a trojan horse, to say things (generally to girls) that you wouldn’t dare in real life. That’s why so many of these tracks will end up on fearfully inappropriate compliation tapes destined to gather dust in the cupboards of unwitting and unwilling beloveds. A thousand passed-over casanovas reach for a thousand biros when they get to the end of “Start Again” and hear “And I’m sorry…to be so blunt / But that boy… is a cunt“, and an indie star is born.

Who am I kidding? I live for this stuff too. And while the angst and the wit and the thrashy, simple tunes are what pulls me in to A Week Away, there’s plenty there to suggest lasting appeal for Spearmint. That involving attention to detail that makes them fill their songs with names and places and stupid everyday incidents, for one thing. The snappy soul samples they love to use, for another. Shirley Lee’s breathy, up-close voice, unflinching but never over-the-top. The way he makes sure all his songs peak and resolve. The whole of the gleeful “We’re Going Out”. And the rueful sense of perspective Lee brings to his classic indie-pop themes. We’re older now and we’re clever swines, but part of us is always going to be sixteen, and when that part next surfaces, let nature beat nurture and buy this album.

75. THE JUSTIFIED ANCIENTS OF MU MU – “It’s Grim Up North”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Even before they put their money where their matches were, the KLF, also known as the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, furthermore known as the JAMMS, were the most brilliant pop-artists of the decade. They were witty with the left hand and baffling with the right; they had a sense of timing and event like nobody since Maclaren; they appeared to not give even the merest hint of a fuck; and they made records which were the best shotgun wedding of concept to rhythm this side of Kraftwerk. Ladies and gentlemen, they were a quite extraordinary band.

The general dreadfulness of their big-hit album The White Room and their typically quixotic decision to delete all their product on the day they called it quits has left pop’s memory of them fuzzy, and a couple of legend-sullying comebacks haven’t helped either. But before they quit in 1992 they never, ever, put out a bad single, though they did put out a couple of incomprehensible ones. One of which is “It’s Grim Up North”, which….well, which starts with steam train noises and keyboard shrieks, and turns into a list of Northern England towns and counties (“Grimsby…Glossop…Hebden Bridge…”) recited in an urgent, sinister Scottish accent over crashed-sequencer squiggles and a juddering bass pulse. A voice repeats the title over occasional clattering crescendoes, and then, gradually, the dance music drops away to be replaced with an immense orchestral arrangement of Parry’s “Jerusalem”. And as that too swells and recedes, we’re left with the sound of the wind across the moors and the occasional crake of a lone crow.

Maverick and compelling, “It’s Grim Up North” may be some kind of tongue-in-cheek tribute to the glory of the North, and if that’s the intention it works. As a Southern jessie born and bred, I’ve put it here for two reasons. Firstly it makes for a gorgeous sound. Bill Drummond’s delivery is syllable-perfect, reciting the history-steeped placenames like a great psychogeographical spell; the music which backs him up is restless and grand; the segue into the hymn is funny, audacious and surprisingly powerful. But secondly, “It’s Grim Up North” is a document of one of pop’s most individual bands at their imaginative peak. It boils down to a man in his late 30s, and a mate, doing exactly what they want to do, without fear or compromise or cant, and getting it into the Top 40 to boot. And that makes this not only an excellent single, but a genuinely inspirational one.