Posts from December 1999

Dec 99

9. PRIMAL SCREAM – “Come Together (12″)”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Primal Scream never made dance music, no matter who was turning the knobs: the ten-minute organ-drenched lope of Andrew Weatherall’s “Come Together” mix (AA-Side of this 12″, and also used on the Screamadelica album) is just as ‘rockist’ as any of their Stones pastiches or Stooges take-offs. It’s a different kind of rock, is all: slow, funky, shot through with gospel and built mostly out of samples. But up on stage performing it, Bobby Gillespie never wanted to be anyone other than Jim Morrison or Wayne Kramer.

Maybe that’s why the Screamadelica moment was the only time it really felt like rock would mutate, would be forced to come to terms with the new thing. Nirvana sorted the kids out on that one sharpish, and in truth the dance influence on rock since has been minimal or less, limited in both directions to the theft of a few licks or tricks. I wouldn’t have it any other way: Screamadelica, like most publically important albums, works better as a one-off.

Like I said, though, for a moment there I swallowed it, or it me: “Come Together” sums up that moment best. In its seven-inch Oakenfold version it’s a flimsy, runtish song, Gillespie’s reedy star-child whimperings and the gutsy gospel parts grotesquely mismatched. On Weatherall’s mix, though, Gillespie is completely absent (as usual he’s a much better conceptualist than singer) and the song is allowed to loosen up and drift a little. The samples, impeccably chosen, carry the track: “Today on this program you will hear gospel. And rhythm. And blues. And jazz….we know that music is music…”. As a manifesto for the strange free world of dance music you couldn’t do much better. Except….it was still a very classic-rock version of the music, still a way of trying to contain it by acknowledging its roots instead of its newness. Even as “Come Together” turned indie heads like mine the pop charts were being overtaken by some really rough, confrontational, uncontainable sounds. I didn’t know it, but Screamadelica‘s big melting-pot statement was dated the moment it hit the shops.

That can’t dampen the brilliance of “Come Together“, of course. It’s one of the best-constructed records ever, Gillespie and Weatherall applying everything they’d ever learned about how to work and inspire a crowd and coming up with a combination of stadium lighter-waver and Balearic anthem, an all-time feelgood track which still lights up any room it’s played in.

Dec 99

10. LL COOL J – “Mama Said Knock You Out”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Everyone likes the idea of music being economical or minimal or haunting, or groundbreaking or sensitive or profound, but when you come down to it I don’t think there’s a single music lover on this planet who doesn’t sometimes want a bit of stupid, eye-popping, excess. And LL Cool J is more than happy to provide. “Mama Said Knock You Out” goes far over the top, then builds a whole new top just so it can go over that too.

Yeah, there’s this whole tradition of battle rhymes in hip-hop, it’s a music that wouldn’t even exist without them: the act of boasting about your skills being the perfect demonstration of them and all that. But this isn’t just a battle – J comes on like a pro wrestler before a match, ranting against anybody, everybody, everything. He’s like a circus wild man and his ringmaster, both at once, he sounds like Henry Rollins looks. The relentless chanting, the ants-in-the-pants rhythm, the whistle-blowing, the blackboard-screech “Yeeeeeah”s and beefcake “Huhh”s, the dismissively brutal scratching, the crisp snap of the beats – just musically this is high-octane, berserk stuff: sports as war, war as entertainment.

On top of it all LL flexes his vocal muscles until the veins are fit to burst. He starts savagely enough, but still in the boundaries of battle-rhyming sanity. But then, sometime after he tells us not to call it a regular jam, the man starts to lose it – the amazing thing about “Mama Said…” is the way it builds in aggression and never plateaus, the way it manages to get more ridiculous every minute but more effective too. After the breakdown he goes completely into warp-spasm, his metaphors increasingly deranged, drowning every vowel in violence: “Shotgun blasts are hearrrrrd….when I RIP! and KILL! at WILL!”, leads to the outrageously voluptuous “Ooooooh! Listen to the way I SLAAAAAAAY your crew”, and then to the breathless yells of “Damage! UH!”, and then to the simply awe-inspiring call and response where LL in his bloodlust decides to bomb a whole fucking town. It’s an unbelievable performance, like the Incredible Hulk decided to make a record – and he thanks God at the end of this? Not that I’m, uh, arguing with him or anything. Oh no.

POW! WHAM! SOCK! OOF! – Some Thoughts On Fight Club

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I’m in a central London cinema watching Fight Club: on the screen, Brad Pitt has forced a Korean shopkeeper to kneel in a puddle and is holding a gun to the man’s head. Pitt tells the man he is going to die, then asks him what he most wanted to be in life, and the answer comes back in pitiful blubbery sobs: a vet. Pitt gives the man his wallet back and tells him that in six months he’ll be back to check if he’s taking steps to realise his veterinary dream. The man runs off howling, and all around me the audience start to laugh – throughout the cinema, I hear scattered applause.


Dec 99

11. THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – “100,000 Fireflies”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The only thing worse than breaking up is not breaking up. And the only not-breaking-up-yet pop moment of the 90s worse than when Susan Amway sings “This is the worst night I ever had” on this track is when Steven Malkmus sings “The jokes are always bad / But they’re not as bad as this” on “Here”. But Pavement blow the rest of their song and the Magnetic Fields don’t, not by a long way.

“100,000 Fireflies” is the best song I know about a relationship’s awful decay orbit: the fighting, the regrets, the desperate floods of love, the fighting, and the last useless plans. That’s how I see it, anyway. It’s not a bitter or unpleasant song – it’s witty and poetic, and the last few lines will have anyone who listens biting their lip in recognition – but there’s a bruised melancholy here that Amway’s voice (distanced but rich) carries well.

The lyrics – possibly Stephin Merritt’s best, which is saying a hell of a lot – will stick with you forever, but so will Merritt’s brilliant, idiosyncratic production. Magnetic Fields albums have always made for odd pop listening, and Distant Plastic Trees – this song’s parent album – is in sound perhaps the strangest of all: fragile, ramshackle synthesiser songs, wheezing along and often broached by harsher buzzes and eerier noises. All the tracks sounded like they were recorded on some rococo Heath Williams contraption, fast approaching collapse. For “100,000 Fireflies” everything is trebly and close, the drum reduced to a stern background thud and the song almost completely driven by the cycling, calliope-tinted keyboards and Amway’s cut-glass singing. Like the song and the situation it describes, the result is a perfect mix of intimacy with claustrophobia.

Dec 99

12. APHEX TWIN – “Girl/Boy Song”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

To outrun the 90s, you have to be fast. When the Aphex Twin created “Didgeridoo”, the record that made his name, that’s what he had in mind: to create a dance track so agitated nobody could dance, to turn the music’s own speed against it. Typical Aphex perversity, although he was wrong about the undanceability bit. But that’s typical too: most of Aphex’s greatest tracks are so because they don’t quite alienate the audience enough. In the final analysis, on “Girl/Boy Song” as on “Didgeridoo” or “Come To Daddy” or “On”, Aphex can’t stop himself making pop music, because the contrarian tradition he’s in has veined its way through pop since the beginning. Contrarianism is pop: wanting to be liked and wanting to be hated are just two names for wanting to be noticed.

But what an extraordinary pop star he is! The 90s have been the most self-regarding, self-conscious decade in pop history: everything classified within minutes, judged within seconds, music’s hipster status and semiotic secrets as instantly readable as a barcode. The notorious fissiparity of dance music comes about not just because it’s so creatively fast-moving but because rampant genre mutation and division is its best survival strategy, so long as it’s reliant on cool rather than the respectability and cross-generational appeal of rock. But Aphex Twin goes further than anyone else. He doesn’t play with genre like Coldcut or Beck, he soils it – most of his records can be taken as parody, they infect and disrupt a style every time you start to get a handle on it. “Girl/Boy Song” takes drum and bass and fragments it even further into a palsied beat-skronk which against fearful odds maintains a kind of demented flow. Squarepusher was doing stuff like that too, but “Girl/Boy Song” takes another step, foresees that this giddily nonsensical beat style will become as gray and rigorous as the naff and slick Alex Reece jungle it seemed to be reacting to, and introduces beauty to the mix with a pristine, dazzlingly pretty string arrangement. The result is a marriage of the seraphic and the psychotic that stands as one of the decade’s loveliest and most unforeseen singles.

Aphex Twin became famous because he was a character at a time when dance music was notorious for being ‘faceless’: the pop press latched onto him hungrily, and bit off much more than they could chew. Aphex didn’t just turn his life into a series of ripping rave-age yarns (tanks, bank vaults, lucid dreaming) he took the idea of being techno’s ‘face’ to a hellish extreme, using his mad-eyed stubbly grin as an obscene brand, creating a world in which recognition, the currency of 90s pop culture, was ruthlessly perverted and interrogated. His masterful videos are attacks on all other video, his music at best an inspired denial of the styles that spawned him: Aphex Twin understands his times better than any other musician, and for that he deserves our respect and fear.

Dec 99

13. GANG STARR – “Just To Get A Rep”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

No single less glamourous has ever seen release. Attacking gangsta rap, matching its deadly braggadocio with a self-righteousness just as bombastic, was and is easy. Guru could have played this story of pointless ghetto death for tears of rage or sentimentality – instead he takes pop’s last secret emotional taboo and sticks a boot through it: on “Just To Get A Rep”, Guru sounds bored.

Rap gets played up as the new poetry: fair enough, to a point. Any decent rapper has a poet’s joy in the texture of words, a gleeful immersion in the play and bubble of rhymes. But it’s much rarer to find a rapper with an interest in the weight and nuance of words: Guru has it, though. “Brothers are amused by other brother’s reps / But the thing they know best is where the gun is kept.” is a perfect opening, deflating an entire genre with one blast of chilly-eyed detachment, and the contemptuous effect is down to that one impeccably chosen verb: “amused”. Later on, when Guru raps “He’s at the peak of his crazy career / his posse’s a nightmare, mackin’ jewels and crazy gear”, the repetition of “crazy” and the aimless non-specifity of “gear” underscores the frantic futility of the lifestyle described.

And that’s before you even consider the brilliant lounge-groove steal that’s being sampled as backing, now revived as part of the easy-rehab movement and vamping up a cinema near you. The finest, most chilling part of “Just To Get A Rep”, though, is the ending, where Shorty’s fate catches up with him around the same time Guru’s boredom does, and Gang Starr just cut off the track, let it wind down with shocking suddenness. You could never make a record this plain-spoken and despairing if you imagined anyone was listening, after all.

Dec 99

14. THIEVES – “Unworthy”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

David McAlmont can’t sleep. He glides through the house, imaginary conversations playing in his head, a vision of misery in a purple suit. Outside it’s late enough for him not to want to know the time. And as he walks he sings. The song is poised but passionate, regretful and vengeful too, nostrils flared and on the brink of tears – “this self-indulgence could kill a boy” he sings, anger flashing in his voice, “it’s no good, I want you”.

In a way, it did kill him, because anybody who’s heard “Unworthy” is going to judge every other record David McAlmont makes against it, and find them all wanting. McAlmont was the singing half of Thieves, Saul Freeman (later to make fractured, delicate and forgettable drum and bass with Mandalay) handled the music. They made two singles and then fissured before an album could come out. You can find reference points for “Unworthy” without too much trouble – it’s the Cocteau Twins fronted by a torch singer, it’s soul baroque, it’s Butterfly Child’s Joe Cassidy forced to write a Broadway showstopper – but mostly you don’t need them, and you don’t want them. “Unworthy” smoulders away all precedent, is all melodrama and flounce but is at the same time desperately, hopelessly sexy. McAlmont may start reasonable, tender almost, but by the time he gets to the chorus he’s burning“Of all the things to say to me / Don’t tell me I should try and get some sleep!” – and he sings it like a slap.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the chorus is sold-gold unforgettable, that the production is rich and dreamy, that if Macy bleedin’ Gray were to turn her throat to it “Unworthy” would no doubt be number one forever. But with no disrespect to Freeman, this is McAlmont’s show. McAlmont was made for stardom but it somehow eluded him: maybe the times weren’t right for him, maybe his mayfly attention span told against him. And maybe he peaked too soon: “Unworthy” was marketed – barely – as an indie single, and of course vanished, neither boundary-pushing or traditional enough to find much of an audience. The greatest piece of pop theatre of the 90s, it deserved better.

Dec 99

MOVEMENT – Layo and Bushwacka ‘Low Life’

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Revelations, even small ones, hit you unexpectedly. Mine comes about halfway through ‘Spooked’, the third track on Layo & Bushwacka’s Low Life, when, having explored some rather tasty crunchy electronic sounds, punishing bass and snappy breaks, the track suddenly pivots on a completely unexpected funk groove and is sent careening back in the direction from whence it came. Intelligent? Probably. Does it make me want to dance? Definitely.

In the world of dance music, the successful artist-based album is something of a holy grail, especially for those dance acts who make music you can, you know, dance to. Generally stabs at the form result in little more than compilation releases, or conversely towering follies of overreaching ambition. The successful attempts (Dig Your Own Hole, Remedy etc.) have generally been great party albums, but while the dance world has always talked about making ‘meaningful’ dance albums, the results have usually been dire. Leftfield came close to something that worked with Leftism, and were so afraid to try to repeat even that partial success that after a four year silence they went electro instead. So it is wonderfully refreshing to find Low Life, Layo & Bushwacka’s first full-length album, to be an artistic statement curiously light on pretension.

Layo & Bushwacka are part of emerging group of artists including BT and Hybrid who, in the wake of jungle’s current demise, are attempting to combine the rhythmic futurism of drum & bass with the sophisticated textures and melodies of techno, house and trance. Unlike their more trance-based peers though, the duo were originally purveyors of tek-house, an exquisitely produced but often generic sounding substyle drawing from both techno’s mechanistic preoccupations and house’s sensual pleasures. It’s a genre that yields excellent producers, but few significant artists.

As a result, the group’s use of breakbeats differs greatly from the almost rococo patterns of hyperventilating beats preferred by their peers: instead they keep their breaks simple, precise and brittle. They’re far more interested in constructing a groove, in reinforcing the all-important relationship between the bass and the beats (which are pleasingly inorganic and grainy, distinct from current jungle’s flat authenticity) and then discovering what works well on top. To use a jungle analogy, while artists like BT and Hybrid resemble Goldie and Omni Trio in their romantic ambition and grand, complex arrangements, Layo & Bushwacka remind me of Roni Size’s early best work. The focus is always on the effect of the breaks and the bass; the added melodic and textural detail merely reflects the emotional resonance of that minimalist grounding.

What Layo and B realise is that dance music’s power to emote has little to do with either conventional ‘musicality’ or the intelligence of the arrangements. So ‘Dead Man Walking’, for me the emotional center point of the album, consists of little more than sharp but simple breaks, floaty keyboards and the most boomy, reverberant bass heard since LFO or the early days of jungle. What makes me teary-eyed is the strange melancholy the duo produce through the warp and weave of these contrasting elements. The serene and sunny keyboards rub up against the aggressive beats to create a creeping sense of unease and mournfulness miles away from the bombast of current trance and jungle. Similarly, ‘Low Life’, the album’s only vocal track, begins with a startlingly sparkly disco-funk opening, but then quickly plunges into a twilight zone of wobbly bass and creepy atmospherics. The duo relegate Robert Owen’s mumbled vocals into the background and concentrate on the groove, ruining chances for any crossover pop success.

Could you accuse Layo & Bushwacka of being ‘too subtle’? ‘Tasteful’, even? Of course, and you’d be absolutely correct. The release these songs offer is guarded – no sweet refrains, no sudden bursting synthesiser lines that sound like the heavens opening up. The songs pivot on morphing bass lines rather than catchy samples. It’s easy to resent the album for being at once too commercial for genuine experimentation, and yet too clever to offer any visceral thrills. But the truth is that the ‘science’ in Layo & Bushwacka’s approach is about zeroing in on what makes all their influences great dance music, and then exploiting it. On the dance floor this stuff sounds even more relevatory than it does using headphones. And then the duo will throw in an odd ball, like the Freq. Nasty-meets-Basement Jaxx of ‘Bad Old Good Old Days’, or some explosive (and surprisingly catchy) techstep drum & bass in the form of ‘Perfect Storm’, and ‘tasteful’ no longer seems to apply.

Much like Basement Jaxx’s Remedy, Low Life fires most of its hard-hitters early (the speaker shredding funk-noir of ‘Spooked’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, complete with Bushwacka’s even more intense remix), and then starts playing around with different styles, dividing rather neatly between all-out breakbeat assault (‘Bad Old Good Old Days’, ‘Perfect Storm’, which is better techstep than most in the jungle community have been able to make since ’97, and the polyrhythmic closer ‘Ear Candy’) and softer, more soothing textures. They don’t always pull it off; ‘Kusekhaya’ is a pleasant but pointless stab at world music, and while I really enjoy ‘Brass’ with its dubby bass line and kitsch Rhodes keyboard licks, I disapprove of it on the grounds of its dangerous proximity to acid jazz.

‘Deep South’, though, is nine-minutes of slow-building deep house bliss. Layo & B manage to replicate house’s endless hypnotic pulse using breakbeats, ending up with something not too far from 2-step garage. But whereas 2-step is sparse and skeletal, ‘Deep South’ is a bath of sound, complete with bottomless bass, luscious keyboards, timestretched insectile percussion and a sexy trumpet solo. The duo cleverly combine this with some fantastic gospel samples (much more successfully than I found Moby’s heavy-handed approach to be), evoking sweltering summers in bayous overflowing with fecundity. It’s the kind of thing Larry Heard would be making if he hadn’t faded into insignificance.

Low Life probably wouldn’t be the best dance album of the year even if Basement Jaxx hadn’t made Remedy. It’s too diffuse and indistinctive artistically, and Layo & Bushwacka have some way to go before they escape the ‘Leftfield who occasionally go jungle’ tag. But to me, even more so than Remedy, it is a sign that dance music, like rock music, is all the more healthy for its lack of direction. That Low Life, which should be overworked and over the top, reveals itself to be beautiful, fun, and above all the most eminently listenable album of 99, is a minor revelation.

Tim Finney

15. TREMBLING BLUE STARS – “Abba On The Jukebox”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The saddest songs are often the simplest songs. “Abba On The Jukebox” is seven minutes long and feels like a miniature, a Zen sketch of heartbreak. A short, high-toned guitar phrase over tick-tock drum-machine beats, sighs as backing vocals and a list of memories: that’s all you get. “Land’s End at dusk, a day of churches, her getting her hair cut…” What Rob Wratten discovered with the Field Mice is that if you say something plainly enough, your words work harder and you can give the most ordinary phrases the emotional weight of novels. As pop listeners we’ve got used to the idea that the best way to express a feeling is to be artful or poetic or clever, so songs as naked as “Let’s Kiss And Make Up” or “Anyone Else Isn’t You” could slip under your defenses and take you over. What he discovered with “Abba On The Jukebox” is that you didn’t even have to go that far – what makes this song so poignant is that the loss between the lines, the knowledge that these things he’s desribing can’t ever return or be remade, goes unmentioned.

Speaking literally, “Abba On The Jukebox” needn’t be a sad song at all, but you’d have to be stony-hearted and obtuse to mistake this limpid, keening music for any sort of celebration. At best it’s a coming-to-terms: the song’s litany of places, snapshot moments and tiny private actions is a way to map out a love by looking at its edges, to understand the shape of something too bright and raw for direct inspection. Halfway through the memories run out and we’re left, like the singer, with a future devoid of event. It lasts three minutes or so, it might as well last forever: it is not, precisely, unpleasant, which of course makes it all the more terrible.

SIGHS MATTER: The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs

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A triple album box set, three hours long, containing 69 songs, covering almost as many genres – well, it has to be crap, hasn’t it? Surely it must betray signs of Prince-like lack of quality control? Amazingly, it doesn’t. The Magnetic Fields – masterminded by Stephin Merritt, the artist formerly known as Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths and the Gothic Archies – have produced the best album of 1999.

69 Love Songs does exactly what it says on the box. There are 69 songs, and they’re all songs about love. But they’re also about the love of songs. More specifically, American songs. There are references to Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Billie Holiday and those who toiled in the Brill Building.

Merritt had originally intended to release an album of 100 songs, but then settled for a more realistic 69, both for its sexual connotations, and its "typographical possibilities". He mocks himself in (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy: "I took a pen in my own hand and wrote you a hundred tunes. Now, I’m crazy for you, but not that crazy."

If you have never heard the Magnetic Fields, you may be wondering what this album sounds like. Merritt’s morose bass voice is a bit Leonard Cohen, a bit Tom Waits. Doing Erasure. And country. And improvised jazz. And 18th Century Scots reels. And world music. And disco. And Broadway show tunes. And ABBA…

Merritt doesn’t just mess around with genres, but with genders, too. On When My Boy Walks Down The Street, he sings: "Amazing, he’s a whole new form of life, blue eyes blazing, and he’s going to be my wife." On the country ballad, Papa Was A Rodeo, Merritt sings to someone called Mike. At the end of the song, we discover Mike’s a woman: "Papa was a rodeo, mama was a rock’n’roll band, I could play guitar and rope a steer before I learned to stand. Home was anywhere with diesel gas, love was a trucker’s hand, never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand."

Stephin Merritt is gay. By all accounts, he’s a bit of a loner, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is a bit of an obnoxious twerp, a shy, intelligent, social misfit. I can relate, y’know?

He sings about love in all its many-splendoured forms: about being unloved, about looking for love, the first flush of love, falling head over heels in love, true love, and – at length – about the end of love: "Meaningless? You mean it’s all been meaningless? Every whisper and caress? Yes yes yes, it was totally meaningless." Or, hilariously, in a duet that sounds like the couple in I’ve Got You Babe thirty years on: "Do I drive you up a wall? Do you dread every phone call? Can you not stand me at all?" "Yeah! Oh, yeah!"

He is not the first songwriter to wonder who wrote the book of love, but his book is a more realistic one: "The book of love is long and boring, no-one can lift the damn thing. It’s full of charts and facts and figures, and instructions for dancing."

There are loads of instantly catchy ditties, but repeated listens continue to pay off. You’ll be walking down the street and suddenly realise that for the last three minutes you’ve been singing to yourself a song about shooting an early 20th Century Swiss linguist to defend the honour of Motown’s finest songwriters.

And then there are the little oddities, rubbish really, but too constructed to be mere filler. The thrash trash of Punk Love, or Experimental Music Love which consists solely of the title repeated, echoed, phased and bounced, and then there’s this one: "Wi’ nae wee bairn ye’ll me beget, untwinkle little ee. My ainly pang’ll be regret, a maiden I will dee." Hmmm, yes…

Merritt’s songs may be calculated, but they so badly want to be loved, even if they pretend they don’t. They confess all without telling you anything they don’t want to. They are hugely admirable, bloody clever, but hard to actually like, to choose as something to spend your lunch hour with. Too clever for their own good. And all the better for it.

I’ve always loved those recommendations in some magazines and record shops. "If you liked Mariah Carey’s album, you’ll like this one by Whitney Houston". "If you liked REM’s Automatic For The People, you’ll like Semisonic". What would they say for this album? "If you like 69 Love Songs, you’ll like" – what? "Nothing else"? "Everything else"? "A few very carefully chosen records which no-one else likes, and anyway, you’re a total cult"?

There is so much to say about this album. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that there are four other vocalists apart from Merritt (Claudia Gonson, Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol). I haven’t raved about the fabulous camp disco of Long Forgotten Fairytale. Or how No One Will Ever Love You is meant to sound like every track on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album all rolled into one. And succeeds. Or that it’s available either as three separate discs or in a box containing a 72-page booklet. Or how Merritt’s next project leans towards European cabaret and features Marc Almond, Neil Hannon and Momus among others.

69 Love Songs is Merritt’s most successful release yet. The entire first pressing sold out on the day of release. Laura Lee Davis recently made it her featured album on her GLR radio show. She played three tracks from it, and I thought to myself, "not those three tracks, they’re hardly representative." But no three tracks could possibly convey the breadth of this project. This is an album which needs to be listened to in its entirety. And loved. But are you ready for that kind of commitment?