Claire Birchall’s album PP – her second, and the first in eleven years (there was another by her presumably former band Paper Planes inbetween) is a serious contender for the best of 2012.
The strength of Birchall’s extraordinarily adept and captivating songs are demonstrated by the fact that the two covers on the record – Prince’s song for the Bangles, ‘Manic Monday’ and Will Oldham’s ‘Riding’ – are two of the four weak tracks on the album (the other duds are the nonsense ‘Texas’, about which the less said the better, and an untitled joke hypnotic-synth hidden track at the end). It would have been better if these errors of judgment had remained in the hypothetical stage; but happily they are at least at the beginning and end, leaving a seamless core of truly great originals as the other 2/3 of the album.
Birchall made a sound and style for this album which cocks numerous snooks at the hi-fi possibilities of home recording, and shows up the dumb lie of the MP3 as some kind of approximation of crystal clarity (with standard ambient noise, your iPod appears to give you a sound with depth; Birchall’s take on 2012 listening preferences takes the whole back to its origins in musical birthday card tinniness). Most tracks feature distorted drum machine, synthesizer and feedback guitar; you could say it’s the Cramps meet the early Human League. Birchall is a singer-songwriter; she’s not making spattery soundscapes or exploring the artistic potential of distortion. The sound is a (wry?) background to a series of near-perfect compositions.
The first of the seven great songs is ‘Loser’, a carnivalesque ballad which might hypothetically go on forever (it fades out with Birchall still singing). ‘It’s all about the music’, is part of the (sarcastic or at very least sardonic) lyric; the central figure is probably part-hero, part dick, but this listener is consistently distracted by the siren-like hook of the chorus and the evocative chugging of the plodding rhythm – evocative of the music machine, whoever he or it may be.
The second is ‘Same Old Mess’, an epic power-glam disco track which packs a definite punch in the intro to its chorus; the verses are increasingly overlaid with plaintive, sinuous and writhing guitars. Birchall sounds hungover, restive and agitated. It’s followed by ‘Move On’ (ostensibly the ‘single’) which owes nothing to Joy Division’s ‘Isolation’ but initially hits the listener that way. As it transpires, the song is more of chugging and Stooges-y than anything anything any tired goth could muster. Here’s where the drum patterns, keyboards and guitar finally merge: it’s virtually impossible to tell where one of those three instruments ends and another begins.
‘Leaving this Town’ could be a Scott Walker tune from the late 60s, had it been written and sung by Scott Walker. Birchall intones against a keyboard figure of dynamic simplicity, folky in the chorus and bluesy in the verse. A persistent, irritating (but infectious) faux cymbal or tambourine beats throughout. If ‘Move On’ reminds me of ‘Isolation’, I have to say that – unfair as it feels to mention it – ‘It’s a Monster’ reminds me of ‘Zombie’, by The Cranberries. That might just be because it’s metaphorically ‘about’ something very unacceptable, personified (well, in truth, it’s fairly difficult to know what it is ‘about’).
‘Really Got Me Down’ is another classic plodder (on the wavelength, musically, of the cover of ‘Riding’); this and ‘Got the Blues’ are as bombastic and caustic as anything Neil Young and Crazy Horse mustered in the early 70s, and indeed the latter could almost be some great lost track off Everybody Knows This is Nowhere but Neil held it over for another album because it was too good (and then got distracted). Weirdly, the multitracked vocal gives it the feel of an time earlier than 1969 and at the same time, of ‘Long May You Run’ (!).
Ultimately, then, in the world of rips and downloads, a success story is born: the mildly entertaining covers and jokey songs can be enjoyed briefly then dispensed with, and they disguise the delectable kernel of a great album hidden within. Alongside the exceptional Paper Planes CD and singles of a few years ago Claire Burchall is revealed ultimately as a genuinely brilliant songwriter who should be lauded more frequently and play live more than once a year. I hope this happens, though in the meantime selfishly I’m just happy I have a copy.