Thursday, 20 October 2011

Kula Shaker - K

Artist: Kula Shaker
Album: K
Label: Sony
Original Release Date: 16th September, 1996
Purchase Date: 8th October, 2011
Record Shop: Ben's Records, Guildford

When I was around 10, I had a science teacher called Mrs Gardiner. I can’t remember too much about her, except for her name, the fact she was quite well-spoken and the occasion when she once professed a liking for pop music. How ridiculous – didn’t she know pop music was for young people?! (Like all teachers, she seemed ancient at the time, but was probably in her thirties). The day after her admission, we hit upon a new and exceptionally sophisticated form of comedic entertainment, namely putting on a plummy accent à la Mrs Gardiner, and pretending to ask for songs from the charts. Can you imagine, we thought, a teacher going into a record shop?! The creative peak of this improvisational period was when somebody put on a posh voice and said, “Excuse me, do you have Tattva by Kula Shaker?” We fell about – teachers were the very antithesis of cool but Kula Shaker, being pop stars, were automatically unfathomably cool.

Fast forward five years and I’ve just started reading “proper” music magazines (namely, Q). Despite its main cast still going concerns – Blur, Oasis, Suede and (just about) Pulp – Britpop is long dead. The music press only wants to talk about the new American rock revolution, spearheaded by two very different bands: The Strokes and The White Stripes. I wasn’t hugely interested in either of those bands and I didn’t want Britpop to be gone either. Despite being completely the wrong age for it, I loved it in all its swaggering, lagered-up, going-on-TFI-Friday glory. However, it seemed that the also-rans of Britpop were getting a critical shoeing. Kula Shaker, with their penchant for Eastern mysticism and a lead singer called Crispian who’d said some ill-advised things about the Nazis, were top of the derided list. Could it be true, that Mrs Gardiner was in fact cooler than Kula Shaker all along?

In reality, Kula Shaker were neither exceptionally cool nor a laughing stock and to this day, more often than not, get the thin end of the wedge. Looking back, it’s a wonder they ever sold any records at all. Debut album, K, came out in 1996, not even eighteen months after Jarvis Cocker had told us all that “everybody hates a tourist, especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh.” Here was Crispian Mills, ridiculously privileged, from a theatrical background, attempting to be a voice for a generation. All this went completely over my head at the time, but even today, debates about class and status in pop rage on.

That said, I’ve possibly got more admiration for Kula Shaker now than I did when I was blissfully unaware of what they supposedly represented. Their penchant for Indian sounds could well have come from listening to George Harrison a bit too closely, but surely anyone with a desire to embrace new things and expand their mind should be encouraged, not ridiculed (how Oasis and Kula Shaker coexisted is pretty baffling actually). Plus, try getting songs about the Hare Krishna movement with sitars and Sanskrit titles (Govinda, the aforementioned Tattva) into the charts now.

Looking back on it from a distance, K is a damned enjoyable record, and one that, while synonymous with the Britpop movement, doesn’t really fit in with it at all. As Britpop celebrated the ordinary and every-day, K looked outside of that to a more spiritual plain while happily pilfering from classic rock of the 1960s. While their contemporaries may have been listening to The Doors, Kula Shaker grew up on The Doors and Grateful Dead records.

K is an album that comes with a large amount of baggage. It’s near impossible to discuss without feeling the need to either explain or make excuses (as I seem to have proved here). That shouldn’t let it distract you from what is a great – if patchy – listen and a reminder of when bands had room to manoeuvre, be a bit experimental and still have chart success. I wonder if Mrs Gardiner did ever like them at all.

What happened next?

Kula Shaker released another album (Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts) before splitting around the turn of the century. Crispian Mills then released two albums as frontman of The Jeevas, while the other band members recorded with other acts, such as Johnny Marr and The Healers, and Thirteen:13. Kula Shaker reformed in 2004, minus original keyboard player Jay Darlington (who played for Oasis), replacing him with Harry Broadbent. Since then, they have released two more albums (Strangefolk and Pilgrims Progress) and remain a going concern.

A 2CD+DVD deluxe re-master of K to celebrate the album's 15th anniversary is now available to buy.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Sleeper - The It Girl

Artist: Sleeper
Album: The It Girl
Label: Indolent
Original Release Date: 4th May, 1996
Purchase Date: 25th September, 2011
Record Shop: Music and Video Exchange, Notting Hill

As Tammy Wynette once sang, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” It seems unlikely, but maybe she was talking about the testerone-fuelled Britpop movement that would arrive around 25 years later. It’s reductive and unfair to dismiss Britpop as dumb, misogynist and ruled by knuckle-draggers like Oasis, but there’s no denying it hit its stride in the era of FHM, ladettes and football coming home. The It Girl was released in May 1996, just a month before England hosted the European Championships.

As such, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Sleeper were led by Louise Wener, who was – and still very much is – a woman. In more recent interviews, Wener has remarked how annoyed she was that every article on Sleeper focused on her gender and that all she wanted to do was play in a band. However, it was clearly playing on her mind around the time of The It Girl; more than one song is a third-person look at the life of a woman, with the opening line of Lie Detector telling us, “She’s a movie star arrangement,” before asking “How come everyone suspects her?” More female frustrations are released on single, What Do I Do Now?, which tells the story of a break-up and wonders, “Was it when I said I wanted to have children?”

What tends to be forgotten – and let’s be honest, I’ve not mentioned it until the third paragraph; I’m no better – is that The It Girl is a very listenable record with some great songs. It contains four singles (Sale Of The Century, What Do I Do Now?, Statuesque and Nice Guy Eddie) which are synonymous with the Britpop era and rattles through its playing time.

I’d imagine that if you were a teenage girl in 1996 (I was neither teenage nor a girl), Louise Wener would have been just the kind of big-sister role model you’d have wanted. Simply because in a male-dominated industry, she didn’t trade in on being a woman yet didn’t shy away from talking about being one.

Anyway, I’m one of those terrible right-on types who’s so afraid of being seen as discriminatory I’m liable to go completely the other way and make an idiot of myself, so let’s talk more about the band. Sleeper were a second-division Britpop band, but that’s really no bad thing. While Pulp and Suede can play triumphant reunion gigs, Sleeper have to make do with being fondly remembered by a select few and the odd blog entry. The It Girl stands the test of time remarkably well, and it’s difficult not to sing along to the singles, even after all these years. If you’ve got it, dig it out (it’s on Spotify too, though strangely, the track listing isn't in the correct order and the year of release is wrong) and give it a spin, I bet you’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy it. Wener’s often-hushed vocals are distinctive and although she’s no Jarvis Cocker, she chronicles twentysomething life in 90s Britain with a keen eye for detail.

What happened next?

Using writer’s friend, Wikipedia, it looks as if guitarist Jon Stewart is now teaching at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music. Original bass player Diid Osman is now an artist manager, having briefly joined Dubstar after Sleeper (now there’s another band worthy of a blog entry). Wener has written four novels and an autobiography as well as teaching. She recently cropped up on a Word Magazine podcast talking about her part in the Britpop wars, which I can highly recommend.

What's it all about then?

So, why have I started this blog? The most obvious answer, of course, is "why not?"

That aside, I spend a fair amount of time in second hand record shops, and I'm constantly seeing albums that I want to write about. A fair proportion of these albums are British records made in the 1990s, the decade in which I truly fell in love with music. Despite being a pre-teen during those years, I loved Britpop as much as other pop music, and in hindsight, it seems remarkable that Britpop bands could invade the charts the way they did then.

So, in this blog, I will ONLY be writing about records I buy in second-hand shops (no articles on Different Class or Dog Man Star, I'm afraid). I'll write about the record, the context and - if applicable - any personal relationship I have with the music.

I can only write about records as I find them but I'm always open to suggestions, so if there's something you'd like to see included, let me know and I'll do what I can to track it down.

Oh, and if you're wondering where the title comes from, click here.