A group of friends buying and reviewing albums bought from Amazon Marketplace for 1p. A monthly experiment in reassessing the music that now gets criminally undersold.

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Bought by John for Rhys

Bought because…

The Cold War Kids are one of those bands that should have made it massive. The hype machine was in full swing long before Robbers and Cowards hit the shelves and the obligatory Jools Holland appearance went down a storm with critics at the time (check out Hang Me Out To Dry).

When Robbers and Cowards arrived, I thought it was absolutely amazing. We Used To Vacation, Hang Me Out To Dry and Tell Me In The Morning are as good an opening hat trick of tracks as you could possible want to hear. They really are all stone cold classics. Tell Me In The Morning in particular is a blueprint for indie rock and many lesser bands have built entire careers on much weaker tracks. Saint John matches the brilliance by coupling Nick Cave like lyrics with Jack White like melodies. Sublime stuff.

The rest of the album, although not matching the dizzy heights of these four tracks, nevertheless was good enough to get me along to their anarchistic gigs and I honestly thought the Cold War Kids would make it huge. It never quite happened…. Their second album was a huge disappointment, their third a poor version of Sex on Fire era Kings of Leon and their latest it just plain dogshit.

For one brief moment though, I thought the Cold War Kids were the best band in the world. I don’t expect Rhys to go that far…. but surely he will be seduced by the charms of this frankly amazing album.

The verdict…

There was something about the Cold War Kids that didn’t appeal to me when it came through the door. I don’t know if it was the depressing band name or the miserable looking cover or something else but I really wasn’t looking forward to hearing it. I wasn’t overly impressed when I finally did listen to it either and I dare say I probably wouldn’t have listened to it a second time had I bought it for myself. However, I knew I had to listen to it again so I did and it wasn’t as bad as I first thought but I was still unconvinced. Having put off reviewing it for so long I figured I’d better revisit it a few weeks later but this time I couldn’t stop listening to it; it must have been the only thing I listened to for a week solid.

"Enough jibba jabba and get to the point, What do the Cold War Kids sound like?" I hear you ask. Well, they are an American indie rock band whose sound lies somewhere between The White Stripes and The Strokes with a bit of Ben Folds thrown in for good measure.

At times the lead vocals sound like a poor man’s Jeff Buckley which is annoying as they really don’t need to do go there. One of my favourite tracks is God, Make Up Your Mind but it’s also one of the ones worst affected by this and find myself wondering how much better it would have sounded had it been sung more like another of my favourites Rubidoux.

On this album I generally prefer the more subtle songs like Pregnant and the aforementioned God, Make Up Your Mind to the more bluesy sounding tracks like Saint John or the more straight forward indie-rock of Hang Me Up To Dry and Tell Me In The Morning.

Not an album I would have discovered by myself but I am very pleased to have been introduced to it.

Standout track…

I’ve grown fond of quite a few of these tracks with Rubidoux and Pregnant (any song that starts with whistling gets bonus points off me) both getting a fair share of single track plays but for me the piano based opener We Used To Vacation is an absolutely fantastic track with amazing lyrics about addiction.

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Bought by Rob for Rich

Bought because…

Growing up with a twin was a huge amount of fun – especially when it came to music. While we had similar tastes – and still do to this day – there’s enough differences for us to constantly question each other’s sanity and hearing.

And although today there’s plenty of crossover, we’ve had vastly different paths to this point. Richard (or Dickie as we called him at the time, much to his, annoyance – and he won’t like me bringing it up again) went from metal to punk and hardcore, I went from alternative rock to well, more alternative rock. There’d be the odd band we both liked, but I’m sure there were points as a 15-year-old when he was exasperated with incessant Flaming Lips or Pavement or dEUS as all he really wanted to do was play Bad Religion or The Offspring really fucking loud.

Our Dad certainly made no bones about which camp he was in; my mixtapes ran the risk of being culled the moment violas or Wurlitzers popped up, usually to a call of “don’t you have that one about the cadilac?” or “I like that Boston Tones one, play that.”

It was a losing battle and dEUS’ Roses or Little Arithmetics usually lost more than most.

But, over time tastes change and broaden. Rich’s constant love of anything played at breakneck speed certainly rubbed off, and at university, while I drifted towards alt-country and emo, I’d find myself picking up the odd punk album for a change of pace.

Rich, I fear, never missed the wonky missives of Pavement or The Flaming Lips, so giving him Stars’ Set Yourself On Fire is me testing the water. It’s left-field indie-pop, it’s at times frazzled and angry, at others beguilingly sweet, yet is fantastically played and arranged.

The relationship between vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan crackles throughout – in fact, it always feels as though they’re about four beats away from ripping each other’s clothes off. But it’s also an amazingly constructed battle of the sexes – sexy, spiteful, seductive and just occasionally a little bit racy. Arguably Stars’ finest album, it’s packed full of killer dark romantic pop-songs – and for a penny it really is a bargain.

So, I’m sure I could have gone more extreme in terms of trying to see if Rich’s tastes have changed, but this feels like a good baby step. I’m hoping by the time the quite brilliant intro to Your ex-Lover Is Dead – which features the voice of Torquil’s father, actor Douglas Campbell, and a stunning arrangement of keys and violin – finishes, he’ll be hooked. Alternatively – and I fear this could be the more likely scenario – he’ll give up after two minutes and dig out an old copy of ‘Physical Fatness Vol. III’ or Short Music for Short People and bounce around his Scarborough bedroom. Right Dickie?

The verdict…

Right let’s deal with the elephant in the room. That cover. It’s shocking. Truly shocking, and not in the subversive, excessively graphic way either (although one would imagine that was the intention). It’s just terrible; my description on seeing it as it launched its way through the letterbox, “It looks like a female member of a paramilitary group writhing naked with a candle shaped dildo”. Believe me when I say that makes it sound better than it is. It is potentially the single worst album cover I’ve seen, or could ever wish to see. “Shocking” is an understatement.

And herein lies my first issue with the album; the cover is a massive juxtaposition when next to the jangly, synth-heavy, summer-tune indie pop contained within (that’s assuming you can even imagine that image being attached to music of any sort), although, as this is unusual territory for me, I may be wrong. Such images may be what sell slices of indie-pop in Canada, where Stars hail from.

Drawing comparisons then, it’s useful to start in Canada, a hotbed of alt-country / folk popiness, and say if you like Wintersleep or The Rural Alberta Advantage this could be one to check out. Track 2 instantly reminded me of Miasmal Smoke and the Yellow Bellied Freaks from the former’s breakthrough album Welcome to the Night Sky, with its synth-heavy introduction that is as contagious as impetigo on fresher’s week. Where they differ to the aforementioned Canadian heavyweights though is in their inability to write a killer song. On so many occasions tracks feel like they are building to what should be a killer chorus only to back peddle into safer territory. It all feels too clinical and as if they are trying too hard to appeal to the hipster elite. A couple of the songs just disappear; what could have been a frantic cacophony of cheery noise, just dissipates and meanders to a slow conclusion, which just doesn’t appeal to me at all.

It’s not all bad though, the joint vocals of duo of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan produce some amazing harmonies, and lyrically it’s not too bad (although the listing of months in closing track Calendar Girl is particularly cringe worthy). Also, the album is clearly influential; the single Ageless Beauty, can be heard echoing through Lemuria’s recent Brilliant Dancer, and the group must have influenced those Canadian groups previously mentioned. It’s also not aged, released in 2004 it sounds like it’s only been released in the last couple of years. Certainly, the production is fantastic, and possibly helps to draw the most obvious example to another Wintersleep release, Hello Hum, which allowed the electronica elements to really cut through and this is where Set Yourself on Fire really shines.

I understand why Rob would love this; it’s sufficiently odd and unpredictable and, although accessible, unlikely to have mainstream appeal. For me it’s an album that I’m glad I’ve heard, but one that hasn’t left a lasting impression, and one that I probably won’t revisit. However, for anyone interested in something a little twee and alternative you should check it out, just remember to cover your eyes when picking it off the shelf!

Standout track…

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Bought by Chris J for Liam

Bought because…

I first heard Billy Bragg at a boozy party. When New England came on, one of my friends started singing along quietly and then strangely everyone else went quiet and watched him sing out the rest of the song. Quite blown away by this tender song and moment I sought out more Billy Bragg stuff and ended up with a greatest hits compilation and this gem - Don’t Try This At Home.

I absolutely love this album, probably more so than his earlier stripped down stuff. Although it’s more pop, the lyrics still have a social conscience and the songwriting remains as strong as his earlier stuff. I listened to this album for years before realising what great collaborators feature on it - Johnny Marr, Kirsty MacColl, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe. This album just makes you want to sing as loudly as you can in your best Essex accent.

The verdict…

I was really happy when this album came in the post. I love doing these 1p album swaps for the new music it’s introduced me to, but sometimes there’s nothing better than having the perfect excuse to revisit an album you’ve not heard in a long time. Years ago, Don’t Try This at Home was the album that got me into Billy Bragg; it’s one I’ve happily revisited since its arrival in the post from Chris and one I’ll happily rave about here.

Billy Bragg is a strong character. He has little room for subtlety in his foghorn voice and little room for subtlety in his very vocal politics - both of which can be alienating to new audiences. My wife (and I don’t think she’s alone in this) refers to listening to Billy Bragg as ‘worshipping at the Church of Bragg’, such is his tendency to preach. I feel this too at times, but it’s one of the things I love about him. Whether you come away thinking he’s wrong or thinking he’s blinkered in his views, well,  I’d argue that’s a good thing. The point is that you come away thinking – there are not many musicians who so successfully get people thinking and challenging ideas the way Bragg does. Billy, if you’re reading, next time you’re asked about mixing pop and politics, there’s your answer.

I’d argue that Don’t Try This at Home is the classic mix of Billy Bragg’s strengths – writing about the political, the personal, and the humorous. You get his trademark acoustic pop with a social conscience in the form of anti-war Everywhere, the less-than-subtle pop-preach of Sexuality, and Rumours of War, but this social and political is all brilliantly balanced with the intensely personal.  Moving The Goalposts is as intimate as songs can get (“Heavens above, can this sticky stuff really be love?”) and Tank Park Salute is a beautiful reflection on family, fathers, perspectives of age and death.  Add humour into the mix with God’s Footballer (“He scores goals on a Saturday, and saves souls on a Sunday” and Mother of The Bride (“It’s nice to know that someone was on my side. Best wishes to the mother of the bride”) and you’ve got yourself a great album.

What Bragg balances so well on Don’t Try This at Home is this mix between the serious and frivolous, and the personal and the political. It is all of these side by side that really makes this album. This is not a heartbreak album, or a party album, nor is it a musical manifesto – it’s all of these things. In arranging the album with such an even mix, he adds a subtlety to the album that is absent in his vocals.

If you’ve got a spare penny (well, it’s currently 19p at time of writing) this is an album well worth buying. It’s a great entry to the canon of Bragg falling at a great pop midpoint between his early one-man-and-a-guitar angst and his later more produced full band sound. Thanks for the excuse to revisit it, Chris!

Standout track…

I’m going to break from conventions and go for a couple here. Tank Park Salute for its delicate sadness, and Sexuality for the sheer gall of being a ridiculously cheesy, preachy and clichéd Bragg moment that actually manages to be pop gold. 

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Bought by Rhys for John

Bought because…

Combining hip-hop, rock and country Jason Downs is one of those acts that I love but my friends don’t get at all. However when I met my wife it was playing her this album that made her think I was cool (not sure what that says about me and/or my wife but we like it).

Not sure what John will make of this as it’s a complete Marmite album, but he’s been game for some odd choices in the past so fingers crossed this’ll float his boat.

The verdict…

"What the fucking hell is that?"

My wife is not prone to using such language, but in this instance her deployment of the industrial vernacular was entirely understandable as the first track on this remarkable album faded away.

Rhys has really excelled himself with this one. This album achieves the incredible feat of sounding entirely familiar and yet unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It combines all sorts of musical styles in each of its tracks and yet still sounds coherent, tuneful and listenable.  

At its heart, I think this is a pop album with one eye on lazy afternoons spent with mates and a crate of beer. At times, it veers dangerously close to the kind of ballads that have become cheesy boy band fodder. However, just as you can imagine Downs reaching for a chorus from a bar stool, he drops a sublime rap, some lewd lyrics, a few novel beats, a great pop melody or some gentle guitar playing. And on the one occasion he plays it really straight (Cherokee), he gives us a really potent and meaningful track that out ballads the best.

This is an excellent record.  I’m not sure I will return to it on a regular basis and I don’t feel the urge to get anything else by Jason Downs. However, I do strongly feel that this album will enrich most collections – if for no other reason I guarantee you will pop it on and even those with the most varied of musical tastes will inevitably ask a similar question to that raised by my wife.

Standout track…

I could pick almost anything, but I have to go for White Boy With A Feather just because it’s first thing I heard on this strange album

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Bought by Liam for Dave

Bought because…

If memory serves me right, it was Dave that gave me my first introduction to The Get Up Kids when he put Holiday on one of the regular mixtapes he’d make for me as a teenager. In the summer after leaving sixth form, just before I went to live abroad for a year, I got into a conversation about how much I loved Holiday with another friend who then made me a tape - on side A was their second album, Something to Write Home About, and on side B was Reggie and The Full Effect’s Greatest Hits 84-87,  the side project of Get Up Kids’ keyboard player. That tape then went on to provide the soundtrack to a year abroad, making new friends and missing home – not just for me, but for the circle of new friends I made and passed the tape around. Particularly side A.  

There can be no better album for wallowing in homesickness than Something to Write Home About. Lyrically, it was like someone had tapped my thoughts for material – even though the album’s about being a band on tour, and not an 18 year-old on a year out. Musically, I loved it – it was loud and aggressive to satisfy my teenage angst but melodic and melancholic enough to be more than just a great party album. I still love it and am still, the best part of 15 years later, yet to buy an album that so instantly and deeply chimes with my situation. The synchronicity of listening to Out of Reach and yearning for home is something I’m yet to experience again with another song so strongly and instantly.

Anyway, you can probably tell I was hoping to buy Dave Something to Write Home About; I’d love to read his thoughts on the album that I loved so much and one that he initially led to me getting. As it wasn’t available for 1p I couldn’t buy it as part of 1p Album Club. Instead I found Eudora for 1p, which is b-sides, covers and demos from the same recording period as Something to Write Home About. It’s not got the cohesive feel of a regular studio album, but it’s got some great songs on it, including one of my personal favourites, Impossible Outcomes. I hope Dave enjoys it.

The verdict…

Right from the start, I should highlight one thing: I really, really like The Get Up Kids. Their 1999 classic Something to Write Home About would sit pretty comfortably in my top 20 albums of all time, and I once took a day off work just to travel from Coventry to see them play in London. So, I was pretty excited when this album turned up. Even the realisation that this was a collection of rarities and covers didn’t hamper this, as there are some rarities albums I love: They Got Lost by They Might Be Giants is on a par with a lot of their studio albums, in my humble opinion.

Therefore, it pains me to say that I didn’t love Eudora. The problem lies with the covers that make up 7 of the 17 tracks on offer here. What The Get Up Kids do so well is write nice, simple guitar pop songs. Nothing fancy, just heartfelt tender vocals and earnest lyrics. This earnest nature means that they are too reverential to the originals, failing to stamp their own personality on the songs. Beer For Breakfast isn’t a Replacements song I’m familiar with, but within 20 seconds of it starting, I knew exactly which band this was a cover of: it sounded just like The Replacements, but not quite as good. Their versions of Regret by New Order and Alec Eiffel by the Pixies are equally pointless. Worse still, their version of Suffragette City is actively poor, stripping the song of any swagger or spark.

However, just because I didn’t love the album, doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. The Get Up Kids are still a great band, and it’s the originals here that make the album worth listening to. Opener Up On The Roof is fantastic, the best song here, because it actually sounds like the Get Up Kids. The Breathing Method is a slowburner, building up through a rolling bassline before exploding into life, whilst there are fun alternate versions of Ten Minutes and I’m A Loner Dottie, A Rebel, which stand out like an oasis in the desert of weak covers. With over half the album being good, it’s well worth investing in for 1p - it’s just not a great as I’d hoped.

Standout track…

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Bought by Chris J for Liam

Bought because…

I was lamenting the loss of my university laptop MP3 collection the other day and remembered two great bands that were in there; Stapleton (with a great EP called Chez Chef) and a collection of singles by Stellastarr. Well both bands have 1p albums out there so I thought I would give Stellastarr a go first. I’ve never even heard the album, just those epic songs that were on my laptop - Jenny, A Million Reasons, Somewhere Across Forever and My Coco.

I wondered if the album ever lived up to the quality of those early singles, and thought Liam would be a good judge of that. According to wikipedia Stellastarr are still around. And surely it’s worth buying this album for Somewhere Across Forever alone?

The verdict…

Stellarstarr are a band that completely passed me by. Seeing the name written down jogged a vague memory but only because of the * at the end of their name (I’m still not sure if it’s actually a part of it or a quirky addition for the artwork). I tweeted a picture of the album when it arrived and the replies told me I was in for a treat. Having since listened to little else I can confirm Twitter was right, it’s a great album.

It honestly is a great album, but it’s an odd album. Odd in the sense that so many riffs, melodies and hooks within it sound so similar and derivative of other better known artists, but yet as a whole sounding very original. Perhaps it’s because I’m a fan of so many of the bands I hear within the album that I don’t mind the sound-alikeness. Rather than being bad copyists, I like what they do with the familiar.

To give examples, the slowed pace post-chorus of Jenny recalls The Pixies’ Where is my Mind? while Pulp Song  and No Weather for me bring to mind the vocals of The B52s. Elsewhere I hear David Byrne in the driving vocal delivery of the verse of My Coco as well as Robert Smith at his most passionate.

While their influences are very much on their sleeve, it does become a fresh sounding mix of the familiar. The sum of its derivative parts is a great album that’s not been off my stereo for weeks. This has been a 1p album that’s been completely new to me yet I’ve listened to it more than many albums I’ve bought recently and paid full price for. I highly recommend it.

Standout track…

To be honest, about 40% of the album could qualify as standout – it feels like an album packed with singles – but I think I’ll have to go with My Coco.

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Bought by Joel for Simon

Bought because…

When Simon asked if I’d like to do a 1p album swap, one band sprang to mind immediately. Back in December, Simon compiled a list of 2013’s best sub-two minute songs, and I suggested that he include Score, a short ‘n’ squelchy number from the Young Knives’ rather scary fourth album, Sick Octave.

The Young Knives are a band who have been with me for a while now. My first exposure to their delightful blend of anger and Englishness came when they supported The Rakes in 2006, and since then, I’ve seen them live on more occasions than any other artist. I caught them at a short-lived festival called Cardiff Calling (a.k.a. Get Loaded in the Park, a name that was presumably changed when someone saw it and went, “heh, like with drugs”); I saw them at Reading ‘07, where they previewed some of the songs that would later appear on Superabundance; more recently, I witnessed a rather more confrontational Young Knives set in Clwb Ifor Bach. They played Sick Octave in its strange, experimental entirety while we enjoyed some black and white footage of nude people.

Now, Voices of Animals and Men was the first proper Young Knives album, and it’s a very different beast to Sick Octave. Just because Simon put Score on his list doesn’t mean that he’ll enjoy this record. Still, I’m curious to see what he makes of it; I still think it’s a very good album, and while my hip, Libertines-loving friends were all rather bemused by songs like She’s Attracted To  ("You were screaming at your mum and I was punching your dad!") and Weekends and Bleak Days ("Hot summer, what a bummer") back in ‘06, I’ve always enjoyed this album’s angular riffs and its various expressions of boredom and frustration. Some of these songs are very dark indeed, not least the small-town existentialism of Loughborough Suicideand the post-death musings of Mystic Energy.

The verdict…

I have to admit I was in two minds when the Young Knives CD dropped through my door. I’d only heard two of their songs previously, one of these was Score, a great song that Joel had previously recommended for a sub-two minute playlist I put together last year. The other was Hot Summer which I’d seen as a bit of an irritating novelty song since I’d heard it about eight years ago. Based on these past experiences part of me was excited and the other part of me was adamant I just wouldn’t like the album.

I’ve also always thought that the Young Knives were just a bit wet, about as rock n roll as Scouting for Girls (I have to admit even they have a couple of songs which are quite catchy though). David Mitchell, as much as I love him, wouldn’t look out of place in their line-up. They obviously just weren’t cool enough for me at the time (or more likely it was just me being a twat!).

And that’s the beauty of the 1p Album Club. It’s about driving reappraisal of albums you didn’t think you’d like at the time, it’s about discovering hidden gems and it’s about putting your prejudice of a band’s image to one side and just enjoying their music. By doing that it also proves that one song doesn’t make an album cause, do you know what? I fucking love this album! 
I also think I finally understand what all the fuss has been about over the years - the Mercury Prize nominations, the critically acclaimed albums etc. Really it’s me who has been a bit pants for not getting involved sooner…

Anyway, onto the album. It kicks off with the excellent Part Timer before the momentum continues into the brilliant past single The Decision.
Then comes the moment of truth - Hot Summer. To be honest it’s better than I remember it was, however, I still think it’s the weakest song of the album. The lead singer does his best PiL era John Lydon impression throughout most of it but it’s not bad enough to be skippable and fits very nicely where it is.  Still, I’m surprised they chose it as a single when there are so many other stronger songs on the album.

Moving on and the album just gets better and better, without another John Lydon impression in sight. In the Pink bounces along nicely whilst Tailors proves they are not just a one pace band and that they can write softer songs. The only downside is that there aren’t more of these scattered throughout the album. Then towards the end of the album ‘Loughborough Suicide’ provides the quirkiest and catchiest song about suicide that you’re ever likely to hear.

So, what initially was a slight feeling of disappointment has now turned into an album that I will revisit time and time again. Thanks again to Joel for buying this for me, I will definitely be discovering some more of their back catalogue after this.

Standout track…

Loughborough Suicide for its spoken word / catchy chorus crossover that (apart from my daughter’s ‘Frozen’ soundtrack) is my current earworm

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Bought by John for Rhys

Bought because…

Since joining this most esteemed of clubs, my swapping escapades with Rhys have tended to be restricted to selections that fall within the Indie/Alternative genre. I wanted to try something a little bit different this time round by sending a collection of songs from a bygone era.

Buddy Holly is a musical titan.  I grew up listening to his stuff in the car as both my folks were massive fans. This collection of some of his finest recordings illustrates just how influential, exceptional and visionary he was as a recording artist. Brown Eyed Handsome Man and Bo Diddley are rock and roll stompers that equal anything being recorded at the time. True Love Ways encompasses a bit of studio banter at the beginning before dropping a melody that swoons its way to heaven. Peggy Sue Got Married mocks the three minute pop song by delivering perfection in a smidgen over two.  Best of all for me though is Midnight Shift. Over a chirpy tune, Holly drops a marvellous lyric that still resonates now. Sublime stuff.

I’m not a huge fan of Heartbeat and the opening few tracks lack the strength of the back three quarters of the album. However, for 1p this is an absolute steal from a musician so visionary that even his glasses were decades ahead of the game.

Surely Rhys will like this one…

The verdict…

Buddy Holly is an artist I’ve always had an interest in through references in other things but never got around to investigating further; I love the Weezer track of the same name, I love The Lemonheads cover of Learning The Game, The Young Ones sketch about him is one of my favourites and for some reason I have vague memories of watching a film about him English class at school leading to me and my friends writing alternate lyrics to Everyday for the next few weeks.

I’ve always been put off buying a best of Buddy though by the quality of some compilations released of older artists. Not the song quality but the actual sound quality with fast buck merchants often releasing low quality recordings without any sort of re-mastering, these releases often leave me feeling short changed. Unfortunately its hard to know which releases are good and which are not especially if your knowledge of the artist is minimal.

There is an element of the poorer quality recordings on offer here but that is likely due to the singer’s untimely death which resulted in many demos being mastered and released posthumously, given the circumstances they sound pretty damn good.

This compilation was released in 1994 and was likely as a result of Nick Berry’s cover of Heartbeat from the TV show of the same name. With geek chic being all the rage at the moment and variations of his hiccup style of singing seemingly on every other synth led pop song I heard in all the trendy clothes shops my wife dragged me in today, I think another Buddy Holly revival (sorry but I couldn’t think of a more tasteful way of wording it) is long overdue.

An album crammed with perfect two minute rock’n’roll/pop classics including That’ll Be The Day, Heartbeat, It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, Words Of Love and Peggy Sue, a list that somehow seems even more incredible when you consider he died less than two years after his first chart success, it’s Buddy Holly and it’s a penny - buy it!

Standout track…

Despite fond memories of Everyday and a lot of love for Learning The Game I have plumped for the energetic Oh Boy as it stands out even though I wasn’t too familiar with it before receiving this album.

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Bought by Rob for Liam

Bought because…

Rewind 20 years ago and I’ve just seen (or heard – the exact history at this point is lost to the vagaries of time) Runaway Train for the first time. And it has resonated with me, the shy, timid scrawny 12-year old of a lad that I was, with the force of a neutron bomb. Telling the story of disaffection and loneliness (my parents had almost certainly just split up) it was poignant and heartfelt and left a massive imprint on my developing sense of self.

I saved up my pocket money and bought the record from which the single came, Grave Dancers Union, (we didn’t have a CD player at the time) from the now long-gone Monkey Time Records in Cannock one Friday after school, and have loved this album ever since.

It’s by no means a classic – it’s not even Soul Asylum’s best album – something you can only truly appreciate with a bit of time and perspective, but the reason for sending this album to Liam for a 1p Album Club review stems from a brief discussion about their finest moment in my opinion, And the Horse they Rode in onfollowing the announcement that the chaps at 33 1/3 were looking for new submissions.

Anyway, And the Horse… was available for 1p at one moment in time, and I was originally going to get it, but it was now up to 4p and as such exempt from purchase. Sitting chronologically next to  And the Horse…, and a kindred spirit in style and sound, Grave Dancers Union was the next logical offering and I hope Liam enjoys it.

There’s definitely plenty to love; Soul Asylum’s story is one of the perennial underdog done good. From humble beginnings in Minneapolis as the third-tier supports to The Replacements and Husker Du, they were loved locally but ignored nationally. As both of those struck big, Soul Asylum floundered at A&M, despite releasing their finest body of work (Hang Time and And the Horse…). Following hiatus, and singer Dave Pirner’s growing hearing problem, the band regrouped and somehow hit the big time with Grave Dancers Union, ironically achieving far more success than their Minneapolis peers in the process.

It’s something of a double-edged sword though. Even today many people think of Grave Dancers Union as Soul Asylum’s debut, meaning their largely excellent back-catalogue of post-punk/proto-grunge alternative rock goes criminally ignored – and yet I’m somewhat propagating this myth by plugging the ‘safe’ option. But for me, this album is always about far more than just the music. This was my gateway into first The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and the Afghan Whigs, then Pavement, Dillon Fence and the Gin Blossoms. Even now, at the age of 33, it’s hard to find another album that has had such a profound impact on my listening habits.

The verdict…

Before this arrived my knowledge of Soul Asylum was limited to Runaway Train. I’d always mentally pigeon-holed them as 90s one-hit-wonders but when I tweeted a picture of this album on its arrival, the response showed that maybe I was wrong – there was a lot of love for Soul Asylum. A quick Google also showed that they have a career almost as old as me, so one-hit-wonders they are not.

Somebody to Shove is a strong opener with an intro reminiscent of Guns and Roses and the palm-mute and aggression of classic ‘77 punk. While it may have the refrain of "I want somebody to shove” it also has a driving sugary chorus. This and Black Gold, with its reverb-heavy acoustic and power chord chorus, quickly and firmly set the pop-rock tone for the rest of the album.

Runaway Train comes next and, despite it being the one song I already know well, it surprised me how it didn’t jar or stick out - a sure sign for how strong and consistent the early part of this album is. Runaway Train is quite simply a great song; it’s stupidly simple, stupidly good, and brought back many memories.

While the album opens incredibly strongly, it does fade off into patchy territory after track four. Keep It Up may have soaring sing along chorus you can imagine being played alongside Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, but it’s followed by the slightly too cheesy and cliched Homesick.

Get On Out comes next and is a fairly nothing song that just sounds formulaic. The general theme of the lyrics is "I tend to worry about stuff, but I should really stop that." Its the 90s pop rock equivalent to a Keep Calm and Carry On poster. That said, it’s nothing compared to April Fool - a cheesy song in which Dave Pirner awkwardly pretends to be drunk and sings of "doing anything to be cool". Its a shame as it’s got a phenomenally great chorus, but it also has the nauseating moral vibe of the episode of Saved by The Bell when they all sit around talking about saying NO to drugs.

Grave Dancers Union is a funny album. On the whole I’d have to say it’s a very average album but with some well above-average songs. As an album, it’s patchy, front-loaded and dated in parts, but it feels wrong to dismiss it as merely ‘average’ as the album’s strong points are really strong. The first four tracks are truly excellent and sadly it’s the fact that the rest of the album doesn’t live up to this that makes it hard to get too excited about. A band I’ll definitely be checking out more of though - a great introduction for a penny. Cheers Rob!

Standout track…

It just has to be

Text

Bought by Jonty for James

Bought because…

The latter part of the 90s - a period when the whole Britpop era/thing was collapsing under its own stupidity (Be Here Now is still totally unlistenable and the less said about the show I saw on that tour … ). There was an endless stream of bands desperately referencing The Beatles but sounding like nineteenth-rate Oasis copyists. It was a horrible period in (British) pop generally.

I was desperately trying to find music that didn’t sound like sub-Liam vocalists and sub-Bonehead rhythm guitarists at the time and in one of those slightly serendipitous moments I picked this album mostly because I liked the cover which I found strangely enigmatic. Santa Cruz only released this one album (and a song which was on the cover CD for The Big Issue’s 6th anniversary – obscure, huh?).

It starts with what sounds like the rumble of train wheels on tube tracks and brakes being applied, followed by a fascinating mix of classic early 90s baggy drum beat and a John Squire-like guitar line. That’s Sail On. That initial blast of music settles down to an album dominated mid-tempo tracks, lyrically mostly about someone else but expressed indirectly. Musically I can hear bits of the Beatles, Crowded House, Stone Roses, early 80s lush pop (ABC, that kind of thing). It’s this refusal to adhere to one particular genre I liked about the album.

The key song for me is Vultures – just a guitar and a lyric that captures a certain kind of Anglo-melancholy which I’ve always found deeply attractive (Starsailor’s Love is Here picks up a similar theme). It’s on an old mix tape that I rediscovered a couple of years ago and brought roaring back memories of an old unrequited love from that era. This is why I picked this album out – it’s a snapshot of a memory of that time in my life. I still wonder what happened to Lyn in the years since.

Like James’ first choice, I can’t tell if this is a good or bad record, it’s too entangled in my memories with the emotions of the time. Our next respective choice, however, will be a bit of a bromance, I fear!

The verdict…

Disagreeing about music’s half of what being a music nerd’s about, right? I hadn’t seen Jonty’s ‘bought because’ section when I first stuck on Santa Cruz, and when opener Sail On hit the first chorus, that vocal slur just screamed Liam Gallagher to me. Equally, though, that isn’t quite such a negative for me. Though I was born in the early 80s, my education in music is very much as a 90s child. The first album I ever owned was Oasis’ What’s The Story (Morning Glory), which I still consider exceptional. I rate Blur too, and Pulp are an absolute shoe in for my top five bands of all time, even above the two aforementioned giants.

This Santa Cruz album, of course, comes from the era when even us Oasis fans can admit that the band’s quality was already on a downward slope that was to continue right up to the point where High Flying Birds and the cringe fest that is Beady Eye seemed like a good idea. I wouldn’t like to lump Santa Cruz in with that: Way Out is definitely better, but it carries that same hopeless, dour lyrical tone, laced with a modest hope. See my personal stand out Rocket Man, a Stone Roses-esque pop song that closes with an unlikely bleeping future scape of digital effects, a love/hate tracks that hints at the power shift that was to change British politics from then on.

Way Out could only be British: while I’d never heard of Santa Cruz before this dropped on my door mat, it reeks of our inbuilt melancholy; the outlook of a nation that prefers the expression ‘not too bad’ to ‘great’ when asked how we’re doing, and finds a certain comfort in the distinctively minor key style of acts like Joy Division, Radiohead, Portishead and Suede.

Do I like it? The most honest answer is probably that I would have liked Way Out a lot if I’d heard it 17 years ago. I can appreciate how it might worm it’s way into a psyche, like it did for Jonty, and tracks like Scissorman and Vultures still stand up to modern musical standards fairly well for me. It’s well produced, as you’d expect from a major label release, and has a nice sense of completeness as an album.

The low points – like 30 Degree Below – sound seriously dated. I can’t picture myself spending a lot of time with Way Out, but equally it’s not an album I find less than a perfectly pleasant listen. Like many albums of its era, repeat listens have suggested to me that it’s style sounds better through poorer quality speakers. Not a ringing endorsement, admittedly, but the tinny edge to my PC’s built in gurglers actually fits the tone.

At the very least, I’d give ‘Rocket Man’ a spin. It’ll take you back.

Standout track…