Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Soundtrack to Winter

I love Winter. It’s the booze and salty-snack season. It's also a great bird-watching season. The birds are often easier to see: less foliage to hide those pesky passerines; ice forcing things like Water Rail and Bittern out to feed… And there’s the added bonus of there being fewer people around clogging up the countryside. Unfortunately, the birds are often harder to get to during winter, thanks to family commitments, fewer daylight hours, and the odd hangover.

We're having another proper winter this year - record low temperatures and snowfalls. It's usually around this time of year that I find I’m drawn to certain music that seems inherently associated with the shorter days and colder weather. Generally, it’s music I bought or listened to previously, during a particularly memorable winter. As the nights draw in, I start listening to those same songs again. I guess this reinforces the association: it makes winter feel more like winter when I hear them. Does everybody do this, or is it just me?

Here is a list of some of this music, with an attempt at explaining why I just have to listen to it once winter kicks in. I’m guessing it's available for free on Spotify or somewhere out there:

Saturn Ascension Experiments by Union Wireless - A few years back, I spent a weekend in Scotland roadie-ing for Leeds band Chest, and this beauty was the only tape in the Transit. We decided to set off back to Yorkshire just as a blizzard was hitting the Borders, and after around 15 hours of snowdrifts and swaering, and a fair few listens to this album, we arrived home. Now, whenever I'm sat in a vehicle driving through snow, this LP plays over in my head. Released on the Spanish label, Elefant Records, it has a great lo-fi 70s feel to it, very organic and tube-driven. Each song has a nodding grove, with simple guitar drones and sparse stoner vocals. Someone once described it as Krautrock Moody Blues. Hmmm.

Wire Tapper 10 Compilation - The Wire magazine has produced loads of these great compilations over the years - they are gold mines of wierd and wonderful music. Wire Tapper 10 was given away with the mag’s October 2003 edition. I first listened to it in depth on a trip to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, that December, on my way to witness a friend getting married on the beach. Among the many brilliant memories of that trip, every track on this double CD became lodged in my mind, forever associated with the east coast of Yorkshire in winter. It’s got some cracking tracks on it, in fact the only slightly dodgy one is by Ui. Even the Laibach song is great, if only because it’s so po-faced as to be completely risible.

Victorialand by The Cocteau Twins - I’m not going to go on about this. It’s my favourite album of all time, and I’ll listen to it at any time of year. A friend of mine once described it as sounding “smudged” - he meant it in a good way, and he’s exactly right. The beautiful songs have a vague, blurry production, so you try to bring them into focus as you listen, adding some of your own character to the music in the process. It’s cold-weather credentials stem from the album title: Victorialand is a reference to an area of Antarctica. The song titles also seem to refer to the Artcic and Antarctic regions. But you never know with the Cocteau Twins.

Varde by Elegi - Now this really is about the Antarctic, but there’s no blissful dream pop here. Inspired by the rescue mission to find the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott, it’s slow, gruelling, modern classical music. Despondent, mournful strings play over ice-picks, shovels and hard breaths – I find it both wretched and seductive. Mark Riley played it on his BBC Radio 6 show last year, and it just made me stop in my tracks.

A Stable Reference by Labradford - I used to listed to this on tape on the train on the way to Falconetti rehearsals. We spent a winter rehearsing in a run-down old mill, where we would need to wear gloves to be able to play. This wonderful record, from this overlooked band, was the ideal soundtrack to a journey by rail through a frosty countryside of moors, rivers, and narrow valleys. I've lost that tape now. Maybe Santa will bring me a new copy for Christmas. Talking of which...

Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album - In a not-so-secret other life, I am a total Star Wars geek. I love practically everything about it, but even in a post-ironic galaxy, far, far beyond kitsch, this record is dreadful. I should have realised that before I introduced my daughter to it. Now it’s on several times a times a day throughout December. I love Star Wars, but not that much.

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