I daresay Ashley Cooke is a man who makes musical lists -- lists of tunes, titles, ideas, snippets, pieces, and bits to string together to create marvelous pop that pops.
Wildly prolific and consistently inventive, the one-time Derrero leader is at it again. Man of Lists, out on or about 18 June 2012 on Folkwit Records, is a collection of collaborations with various artists. It's a sort of spoken word exercise but also an experiment in risk-taking. By working with so many musicians to produce these cuts, Ashley Cooke has somehow strengthened his own point of view as an artist. No matter what sonic background bobs-and-weaves behind him, Ash is consistent. This is a new kind of recording.
It's the supergroup by (e)mail. It's a digital "We Are The World" in the land of indie rock.
How do I approach this? Do I go track-by-track and carefully spout-off about each tune?
No. That wouldn't quite suit this. I like to think of how difficult it might have been to assemble all the pieces that make up this record so I'm going to go through it in my review in a sort of haphazard fashion and hope that something coherent results.
It's worth noting that Ashley Cooke's spoken word bits are, more or less, fragments of poetry -- mini-poems in some spots -- and, at first, the juxtaposition between his vocals and the more expansive music behind him is odd. But that semi-disconnect charms. I hope that Cooke keeps making music for years and years to come but this record sort of feels like one of those posthumous records from some dead bloke! Man of Lists feels like leftover vocals that other musicians shaped into focus.
Still, I don't want to make this record sound sloppy or anything. What I'm really trying to work out is how the contrast in each tune ends up giving the cuts focus. That contrast -- lo-fi and intimate vocals and carefully recorded music -- makes the record sound like the world's best mix-tape...with the same bloke doing the lead vocals on each song!
There are 25 cuts on this record and they veer from the Squarepusher-like bleeps-and-blips of "Vital Signs", a collaboration with Scotland's Unexpected Bowtie, to the acoustic and spring-like -- cue birds chirping! -- "Biro by the Sofa", with Butcher's Prime Cuts.
(Psst! I'll let you in on a secret: that's Nick Butcher, head of Folkwit Records!)
Butcher and Cooke team-up a few times on the record, including the Tom Waits-meets-Holger Czukay "Boony Capers" -- atmospherics plus a whiff of Waits' "Trouble's Braids".
The funky and ACR-like "Cabin Fever" rushes by on basslines from Ian Thistlethwaite. The cut is one of the highlights of Man of Lists and it hearkens back to some pre-C86 era in U.K. rock, when pasty white Brits were not afraid to be a tiny bit funky.
Thistlethwaite is back on "Chips in the Rain" where Cooke's humorous lyrics are set against music that echoes both Yello and that first Lilac Time record -- no mean feat!
And, as can be expected, the cuts with the always entertaining Adam Leonard are the little triumphs of this record -- "Oxbow Lake" soars and "Opportunities with Music" casts a slightly sinister spell.
The cuts with electronic wizard Snippet are uniformly good as well -- "Chunk of Blue" with its bells and voices and warm keyboards is a delight!
The record closes with the downright hilarious "Cover Version for the American Market". As a Yank from the land of extraordinarily thick music listeners, I take no offense at the song. It's quite funny, accurate, and speaks to the gulf between the hip and the clueless. Very good indeed.
I haven't done a good job of thinking and writing of Man of Lists as a whole.
But maybe there's no point? Maybe the point of this record is that moments matter? In that sense, this is Cooke's masterpiece. He's spent his post-Derrero years making music in Wales, usually by himself. He's perfected the art of lo-fi indie and the results are always warm and human and charming. Now, he's taken that form to the next level.
This monster of a record -- nearly 25 collaborations -- succeeds on the variety of styles here. You could almost shuffle the track order here and get a new record, a new sense of joy as a listener, a fresh take on this freshest of spins.
Man of Lists is a project and a grab-bag. It's a set of ideas. Listen to 1 or 2 cuts, listen to another 10, or listen to all 25 in one sitting, and the music will work. Each song stands on its own or works as another chapter in this journal of lyrical and tuneful ideas.
Raised on a steady diet of serious rock writers extolling the glories of concept albums, I got bored and came to regard the vinyl 45 as the greatest of art forms; give me a scratchy 45 of "I Can See For Miles" over Tommy.
Long albums are great but the tunes have to work on their own. These do. These are little gems of exactly how to do lo-fi.
Ashley Cooke has found his calling in the musical world. Now tell your friends and get this record.
The Beatles famously cribbed from the Tao Te Ching to sing: "Without going out of my door, I can know all things on earth".
Ash has taken that lyric to heart. Let him stay in his home studio if he can "collaborate" in such a lively fashion as he does on the 25 cuts on Man of Lists.
Man of Lists is out on 18 June 2012 on Folkwit Records.
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