Sixty for 60: 22. Penfriend

To celebrate my 60th birthday, I asked my social media friends to nominate a favourite song from 2021 – 60 to commemorate the fact I am 60. This isn’t one of them, though. This is some downbeat, beautifully introspective bedroom electronica – think Pet Shop Boys, think oh I don’t know Sarah Blasko or the great La Roux with some early 1980s Atari computer noises and recalcitrant drum machines thrown in – a kickback against this impersonalised Zoom World we now find ourselves in, with no seeming way out.

Recommended to me by Dan Thompson on Facebook, who writes “This might appeal. The new album by Penfriend is about 500 sales away from the Top 40. Do it for DIY culture. Please RT too!”

DIY culture. Yeah, I mean I’m into that and everything, and anti-the corporatisation of everything, most especially dance crazes (like dance isn’t the most vital, important, individual human activity ever), but does it have a good title? Yeah, it has a great title. ‘Exotic Monsters’. Love the title. Makes me want to listen to David Bowie or something. Makes me want to dance to the beats of Laura Kidd. Slowly.

As the artist puts it:

Sparked by a throwaway phrase from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Exotic Monsters” is a laundry list of asynchronous human needs and desires; a reflection of our increasingly confused, disconnected and polarised lives. A timely reminder of the practice of cultivating gratitude through meditation, the song is an attempt to examine our internalised inconsistencies; the “facts” we pile up on our own backs throughout lives bombarded by airbrushed images and ads for the unattainable baubles we’re informed are essential for true happiness.

Yep. All of that. Synth wave. Go on. Treat yourself. Buy a copy of Laura’s album. God knows you deserve it. It comes on green vinyl with a small yellow vinyl supplement and some ace drawings.

Fun fact: “Exotic Monsters” features several Creative Commons drum samples created by the European Space Agency, recorded at their European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands. Using sounds from space on a song about feeling disconnected from life on earth just felt wildly appropriate.

Love it.

10 Least Read Entries on How NOT To Write About Music (February 2020)

Vira Talisa Dharmawan

These are all drawn from the last six months on this blog, five from the last two months.

Sigh.

1 (-) How NOT to write about music – 147. Vira Talisa Dharmawan
I have had cause to comment on my delight on the way YouTube algorithms can work in my favour, but man. This is a delight. Laid back Indonesian pop with a slight jazz inflection that goes for a walk on the beach and turns its shoulder just when you think you might say hello.

2 (-) How NOT to write about music – 105. Georgia
This is boss. This is banging. This is heavy metal. This is my frontal ear lobe, distorted out of shape by the sullen repetitive beats. This is Cristina. This is a (train) ride to nowhere. This is one too many late nights out spent shimmering in a dislocated spotlight, propped up by the bravado brought on by too much alcohol. This is knowledge. This is fantasy.

3 (-) How NOT to write about music – 115. Sarah Blasko
Gorgeous space. Gorgeous voice, too. Here, have a taste.

4 (-) How NOT to write about music – 117. Remember Sports
This makes me want to trace elephants, tumble down the aisle with a ring of commuters holding my hands, cartwheel across infinity and scream into the silence. This music makes me miss whole forbidden areas of Australia. This makes me to dance the street, chant the underground, race the fading taillights.

5 (-) How NOT to write about music – 154. Bloods
Just glorious rock’n’roll like I believed it should always be played… by females (and the occasional man). Just glorious, straight up.

6 (-) How NOT to write about music – 120. Victoria Monét
Everyone saying its a low budget video but their clothes probably cost more than my house

7 (-) How NOT to write about music – 136. Kim Petras
A good song is a good song; if you give me a couple minutes more I could nail the songs below remind me of; maybe it could be a capsule game for you instead – write in and join the community!; any problem I have with the idea of power ballads and soft rock long since evaporated and I feel all the happier for this

8 (-) How NOT to write about music – 148. Tom Waits
Not so much a blog entry, more a game of Spot the Connection.

9 (-) How NOT to write about music – 123. Låpsley & DJ Koze
Lifted out of my Great Pop Mixtape November 2019 for a little more emphasis, a little more oomph, a little less conversation a little more action on this cold wet miserable grey cold (have I mentioned the temperature yet?) Tuesday lunchtime.

10 (-) How NOT to write about music – 151. U.S. Girls
There is a sense of urgency, isolation, regret, no release, a late Seventies shuffle, honey-sweet vocals all the more disturbing for their honey-sweetness, a sax solo at the close.

How NOT to write about music – 115. Sarah Blasko

Sarah Blasko

This is reprinted (without permission) from The Friendly Critic, but I am sure they won’t mind. I am reprinting it now, not because I expect it to generate vast amounts of traffic on this blog (it won’t) but because sometimes, just sometimes, I write something that I feel proud of, that I can say about go say yeah! THIS is how to write about music (if you so choose). The teaching weeks have started again at BIMM and so I am mindful of my students, the example I set. There is some killer use of hypertext right here, even if I say so.

LIVE REVIEW: SARAH BLASKO @ UNITARIAN CHURCH, BRIGHTON

Gorgeous space.

I’m nervous, forming these words. Sarah Blasko’s music – particularly her gorgeous five-star 2018 album Depth Of Field – has helped me through some stressful times. I was explaining last night that I must have listened to it a hundred times, the soundtrack to keeping tedium away, to hold back tears, to coping with vulnerability, loneliness, awkward silences. A hundred might be an exaggeration, but 50 is not.  The fellow writing the review in The Guardian put it far better than I ever could:

A phantom limb: this is what Depth of Field feels to me right now. Songs like the swirling ‘Heaven Sent’ and beckoning intimacy of ‘Read My Mind’ race around my head like a real friend, or a forbidden lover. I have carried this album almost everywhere with me for weeks now. Whether it is playing through my headphones or not, Blasko’s cajoling, sensational voice soundtracks the inner sadness and mundane reality of the 10.09 train to Guildford. Another half-hour delay? Another chance to listen to Blasko.

I believe the paper may have edited out the part where the reviewer claimed Blasko was awarded an ARIA (the Australian equivalent of the Brits) on the back of his review of this elusive, awkward Sydney icon’s previous album.

I digress.

Gorgeous space, a chapel built in 1820 with a ceiling way up there and shafts of light. The chapel demands attention: not that this stricture is required from Blasko’s devout. Applause lasts an extra 30, 50 seconds for each song – almost uncomfortably so, bearing in mind the spellbound stillness that takes place during the glacial, awkward, beautiful, stripped-back, delicate, slightly melodramatic, haunting, teasing songs Blasko is giving us. Just her and a piano. Just her and a guitar. Just her and a microphone. Just her and a heartbeat.

Just her.

I digress. Shortly after I moved to Brisbane in 2008, I formed a concept band with a couple of future Sex Drugs Rock N’ Roll teachers – The Thin Kids. We were wonderful, frankly. Supported several name bands (The Cribs, Kate Nash, The Deadnotes), toured Australia to bemusement from Australia’s notoriously prickly music press and released two split singles with La Nash. Our first album back in those heady days of 2008 was to be called The Song of Sarah Blasko Performed the Way She Always Intended Them to be Performed. Sadly, it was never to be; but the thought of pitiful me tackling the songs of An Artist Of Such Grandeur kept me awake at night laughing and trembling in equal proportions.

I lie.

I digress.

Gorgeous space. Gorgeous voice, too. Here, have a taste.

She performs this song tonight, just her and a piano and a phantom heartbeat, spilling magic across the awkward silences and empty plains. She sings this song, and the fatigue-destroying ‘A Shot’ – betrayal built into the start of every relationship because you know that deep down you’re not worthy, you’re never worthy of another person’s love – and ‘Leads Me Back’ and ‘Heaven Sent’, and I slip back, thinking of my second-born Daniel (now age 8), the way I needed to talk him down earlier from a high plateau of actualised alienation at his mother’s house and I managed that by having him try and guess my movements during the day. Diversion.

I digress.

“This next one,” she laughs nervously but nerves assuaged, “is about religion so hopefully I won’t get struck down.” She’s packed out the Sydney Opera House before now: tonight, we number not much more than 60 but crucially, it is through her choice. I know where I would rather be.

She moves her hands theatrically to express her sweeps of emotion, the haunting. The beauty.

She takes a little self-deprecating mock-bow at the end of each elongated bout of applause.

Here is my first encounter with Blasko, 2009:

Tuesday affords us of our first live sighting of the charming Sarah Blasko – slightly overwhelmed by the six musicians thumping out an indie beat on violins and keyboards. Blasko comes as sharp relief to the hordes of sweaty, unkempt, Australian Alpha Males grunging the good grunge all around her, rocking the Julie Andrews look in sensible shoes and high-collared black dress with long vibrant strips of colour down the front. (I wouldn’t normally comment on a lady’s attire: Blasko, however, clearly gives thought to her stage presence.) She dances like you’d imagine a Victorian china doll would, minus the preciousness. Her song ‘Hold On My Heart’ is magical, delirious. The backing on ‘Turning Back’ is one part Dr Who, another part Eleni Mandell. There’s a stand-up bass, the mood is vaguely sea shanty. It’s a little bit early Cardigans (it feels delightfully Mod), a little bit latter-day Björk (Blasko can clearly control her voice)… and is that a slight Irish inflection I hear?

It strikes me that Blasko is so much better now she understands her real strength. Herself.

I digress.

My notes state that tonight in Brighton, “she transforms”.

That’s it. She transforms.