Jeff Buckley – ‘Grace’

There are some albums where I can remember the exact time and place I found them, or they found me. Or someone introduces it, like James whilst smoking his full strength Malboro in the processing room at MVC Bournemouth. He found it, shouted about it and from my recollection it was an escalation of appreciation from most staff members over the next few months. In September ’94 Jeff Buckley’s Grace hit quite a few of us very, very hard.

I had heard of his dad, Tim, but had yet to discover his music so I was unaware of that part of the family’s legacy. Grace is an album where elaborate superlatives are nowhere near enough. The music contained within the ten tracks is of such extraordinary quality that simply describing what you hear will always fall short. Of far more importance is the music’s overwhelming effect on your emotions, your soul and your senses. Goosebump level is always a good indicator of a great album and Grace scores ridiculously high on never-ending skin tingles. So, apologies, I’m going to fall short.

There’s something about Jeff Buckley that feels so undeniably veracious and real, and about Grace that feels so unquestionably convincing. Every single second of Grace sounds like he has to make it count, there’s not a moment where the intensity drops or the music lacks anything other than total conviction. Opener Mojo Pin is almost a tease, suggesting Buckley’s genius before the title trace Grace confirms it with a last two minutes that just erupt. The range of his vocals within these ten tracks is sumptuous, but to call Buckley’s soaring multi-octave vocals angelic or ethereal would be just too simple, just too lazy. The depth of emotion is everything, and it’s everywhere.

The album’s covers are impeccable. Lilac Wine, Corpus Christi Carol and Hallelujah do more than highlight Buckley’s vocal prowess; he’s taken great songs and with stunning arrangements made them his own, and as far as musical contrasts go in successive songs, Corpus Christi Carol into Eternal Life just shows Buckley’s full range. Eternal Life is the nearest Grace gets to grunge, but for me this rides all over the genre. It’s intense, thunderous, and utterly beautiful. Finally, Dream Brother sums up the brilliance of Grace. It has everything; a dreamy and transcendental feel which just radiates the sort of excessive depth that you just want to sink into.

Grace is my favourite album since the 1970s. That’s over forty years of great artists and albums, and this one tops the lot. David Bowie once claimed Grace to be among his favourite albums ever made, calling it the one album he would take to a desert island. Jimmy Page called Grace close to being his favourite album of the decade and Bob Dylan named Buckley one of the greatest songwriters of the decade. Says it all.

William Orbit – Strange Cargo III

As 1994 progressed and more friendships formed, my out of work adventures escalated. The boorish ‘lad’ culture was everywhere, and Bournemouth’s roaring ‘80s pub and live music scene was fast changing to accommodate the booming wine bar and club culture. Dance music was dominating the charts; the late ‘80s acid house scene kicked it off before branching out into dozens of sub-genres and by ’94 it went from mainstream to literally underground, depending on where you were at.

For a few years in the mid ‘90s it’s true to say I ‘partied’. My first party was with my flatmates in autumn ’94 and I had a great time. The dance scene in Bournemouth was huge; Bump N Hustle became the king of clubs with the likes of Bob Povey and Jon Coomer playing the widest spectrum of the finest house music. Jazz Juice was an authentic and colossal night of ‘70s funk and disco, Big beat clubs were playing Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and all sorts from the Skint and Heavenly labels and the Hothouse and others were there for alternative, indie and britpop. Mod and soul nights were around too, one of which would soon become my second DJ residence. I went to them all, and I went with much gusto.

Those same lovely flatmates with whom I partied had fine taste. They played me Strange Cargo III by William Orbit. For those years of dancing my ass of at clubs of every variety, my perfect music to play when ‘unwinding’ would be this absolute gem of groovy ambient electronica. Listening to Time To Get Wize, The Story Of Light and his magnum opus, Water From A Vine Leaf takes me straight back to that flat and those happy, playful times. It brings a smile to my face.

Featuring the angelic Both Orton on vocals, Water From A Vine Leaf would be the one song that encapsulates those years of excess and indulgence. The mid ‘90s were heady and exhilarating times and William Orbit shines over all of it, like a soothing dreamscape of paradise. Strange Cargo I, II and Hinterland followed and added to his legend, but for me Strange Cargo III is where it was at. Press play, close your eyes, switch off and enjoy the bliss…

Counting Crows – ‘August And Everything After’

By mid ’94 and with my MVC career a whopping few months old, many new artists and albums were being discovered. The two managers had a thing for country, which opened up a whole heap of new options for me, most of which I dismissed but already my ears were taking in sounds I’d previously pushed aside due to nothing but ignorance. That’s the good thing about shop play; you can’t turn it off just because you don’t like it. You have to listen to it, sometimes endlessly even if it was something you’d never usually consider. Unless it’s Robbie Williams or the Spice Girls. Or Toploader. Average albums would be come good albums and could become great albums. Sometimes it’s the best albums that just take time to win you over. My social life was good too, with new friends, a new flat and post-work drinks in the Hogshead, which was to become our very regular watering hole. My flat was three minutes up the road, which helped.

August and Everything After by Counting Crows was released late the previous year, and it became a very regular player at MVC. I’d heard the single Mr.Jones and dug its driving American alt-rock country jangle, with romantic imagery of the dreams of undiscovered musicians…

“Mr Jones and me
Stumbling through the Barrio
Yeah, we stare at the beautiful women
She’s perfect for you
Man, there’s got to be somebody for me
I wanna be Bob Dylan
Mr Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky
When everybody love you
Oh son, that’s just about as funky as you can be.”

More than anything it was the strained, vulnerable and downright anguished vocals of Adam Duritz that got to me. Man, he sounded hurt. I loved it. Nothing sounds anything less than pained and a focused, uninterrupted listen would be a strain emotionally, but worth every agonising second. The production was flawless, courtesy of the legendary T Bone Burnett who despite the lyrical down regularly kept the tempo or musical mood upbeat. Mr Jones, Rain King and Murder Of One are romps compared to the starkness of Perfect Blue Buildings or the stunning Raining In Baltimore. But, as was my want it was the more downbeat that really grabbed me:

“I wanted the ocean to cover over me
I want to sink slowly without getting wet
Maybe someday, I won’t be so lonely
And I’ll walk on water every chance I get.”

– Time And Time Again

And the brutal simplicity of Sullivan Street. I’d sing it with as much emotion as I could, knowing it would make me sad.

“I’m almost drowning in her sea
She’s nearly crawling on her knees
It’s almost everything I need
I’m down on my knees
I’m down on my knees.”

Their ’96 follow-up Recovering The Satellites had a near-impossible job in matching its predecessor. It very nearly did, but for me the time, the place and the excitement of the discovery could not be matched. That summer, Blur released Parklife and Oasis Definitely Maybe. Both were selling bucketloads and epitomised the Britpop scene with an iconic, quintessentially English sound. Like the Mondays and Roses five years earlier I listened loads and liked lots, but couldn’t fully get on board with the hype. For a fella that was enjoying his job and a new lease of life, whose social life and friends were bringing such happiness, I still had a yearning for music that hit my emotions the hardest. Songs of heartache are such sweet joy.

Nina Simone – ‘Here Comes The Sun’

I came back to Bournemouth from the south of France via a month in Paris in late ’93. I had just split from my girlfriend and I was a bit lost and a lot unemployed. Looking back, streaming tears on a crowded train back from Paris whilst listening to Neil Young’s Birds seems like a faintly masochistic thing to do:

“When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It’s over, it’s over.”

Compared to the young, relatively shy, pale man who existed in early ‘90, the years I spent travelling and working abroad had changed me. I was more confident. I was happy with who I was. I had a raging suntan and a Brad from Neighbours kind of look. I’d like to think that look disappeared quickly but it probably hung around longer than the suntan.

So, what next? After an eventful few months of meeting some old friends and making some new, and playing some extremely good golf, I got a job. With MVC. The Music and Video Club, and I’d work for them for the next eleven years. Aged 27 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I had retail experience and a passion for music, so a job in a music and entertainment shop? Yeah, I might enjoy that. Enjoy it I did. Well, most of it thanks to the dozens of nerds, musos and funsters I’d get to meet and befriend. MVC took me to Bournemouth, Poole, Penzance, Fareham and Weymouth. I worked with many lovely and a few not so lovely folk, and my musical enlightenment was about to go up a few gears.

I have a strong memory at MVC, after just a few days in the job somebody stuck on a Nina Simone CD. I heard her incredible version of Here Comes The Sun and it blew me away. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard it before, though I soon realised there were endless other amazing songs, albums and artists I’d not heard and that would be a never-ending joy of the job. But Nina Simone stands out. It is a rare thing, hearing a Beatles song that’s better than the original, but here was one that managed that with its sheer, overwhelming beauty.

Nina’s voice is more than enough. But her tender piano, the brushes, strings and perfect percussion make this a sensory joy that radiates happiness. Those first few months at MVC were exciting times. Working in a record shop (okay, a CD, DVD and games shop) was, for a music nerd, a great place to be. But more than the music it would be the friends I’d make that would have a huge impact on my life. The travels had ended, but another ride had just begun.