The Pet Sounds Office, 2005.
In Radio you are always looking for that bit of magic. When Dylan was recording Blonde on Blonde he called it “that wild, thin mercury sound.” It’s an elusive combination of all the elements: the voice, the lyric, the instruments, the production the sound. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it. It is here, on A Murder of Crows, in spades
When it happens, when someone pulls it off, you are stopped in your tracks. It’s like a JFK moment; you can remember where you were. It has happened to me for albums such as Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker (in my office at home), Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black (on air studio at TodayFM) and the Modest Mouse track ‘Float On,’ (my desk in Today FM, then head quartered in Jervis Street).
This particular afternoon I was in that same Pet Sounds office with Jedda Downey, my producer at the time. We were, drinking tea, joking, answering emails, working through the post and putting the show together. I’d been expecting Joe’s album, having been a fan of Ten Speed Racer and having heard some early singles. But I wasn’t expecting this. I slipped it on and we worked away.
Three songs in I stopped working. I turned around to stare at the stereo. I’d stared at the radio the first time I’d heard ‘Pretty Vacant’ and here I was again staring at a speaker. I was wondering what on earth was going on? It was ‘Charlie For a Girl,’ from the album that you are holding in you hands. It was transcendental.
Jedda, too, had turned around. “Is that Joe?” she asked, “My, my!” We were nervous, we anticipated a misstep, a moment where you realise its one great track but not many others. That moment never came. It never put a foot wrong. Always the right note, sound, change, it was an album on a mission.
I was excited to play the album that night, excited but again nervous: what if no one else shared my enthusiasm. I needn’t have worried. It became part of what defined the show. I played it a lot, it was an A list album. You could count on its inclusion each night like Badly Drawn Boy’s Silent Sigh, or Doves’ There Goes The Fear. Tracks you had to restrain yourself from over playing.
In the weeks that followed I often found that when I played it Jedda would burst into the studio: “Oh my God!” she would effuse, almost tearfully, “It’s just so beautiful.” I could understand that, the album had an emotional heft to it, that wonderful melancholy undercurrent so prevalent in our favourite bands, Big Star, Teenage Fan Club, The Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout et al.
I loved its lightness of touch, Joe’s plaintiff lyrics, the backing vocals, the clever arrangements, the simple but inventive instrumentation. It put you in mind of the Beatles Revolver era. You heard bits of Brian Wilson in it too but mostly you heard Joe Chester, and Ireland, and being alive, and his fellow musicians, largely from Ten Speed Racer.
End of Year polls for 2005, the UK ones, were dominated by the arrival of Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and Sufjan Stevens into the world. They all made great music that year, but reading those polls I couldn’t help but wonder how enriched they would have been by the addition of an album like Joe’s. A Murder of Crows is easily good enough to sit cheek by jowl with those others. It was the UK’s loss.
Eventually, as is the way with radio, Joe was invited in to do a session and have a chat. I was more nervous now. How did he pull this off? Where had this wonderful album come from? What was the secret behind the magic? I pried gently around the meaning of Charlie for a Girl. It was unexpectedly poignant. I pried no more. It resonated for a reason, and that was enough.
Joe has been a touchstone in so many projects since this album. He is someone that people like Gemma Hayes, Hozier, Mundy, A Lazarus Soul (another classic album) or Shane McGowan can turn to for production in the knowledge that they are facing a kindred spirit. They know too that he will bring something out in them. He makes them bring their A game.
His subsequent solo albums too have developed into wonderfully profound and moving works, his latest, The Easter Vigil, being a particular high. Critics queue to heap praise: “genuinely breathtaking,” “truly transcendent,” “melody incarnate.” the list goes on and on. It’s already quite the body of work, but there is more to come.
But this record occupies a special place in my heart. Some great music captures that point in your life, youth I think it’s called, when the world is alive with optimism, energy and hopefulness. But even better music captures that moment when the future is still dizzy with possibilities but is yet somehow tempered by our human frailties and the knowledge that it doesn’t always go to plan. This is such a record, gorgeous from beginning to end.