Sleeve notes

Records are more fun when you can see them.

I am in the process of moving house, again. Ever since university, this has involved lugging around huge piles of records to which I rarely listen; I haven't even any idea what the vast majority of them are. I'm thinking of getting rid of most of them. Curb your gasps - I won't be disposing of my 180-gram version of Nina Nastasia's On Leaving, but there has to be a cull: my arms hurt.

The main downside to this is that I'll miss the sleeves. I wander around record shops looking at all the bright colours, moody photos, funny shapes, sultry portraits and bad haircuts, wondering what these albums sound like. On many occasions, I have spent my earnings on these treasures only to return home to discover that I already owned them as faceless computer files.

So I thought I'd look up a few of my favourite new faceless albums. I'll now describe some of them to you, so you'll know what to look for when you're out shopping. On the first, there's a black-and-white drawing of a girl sleeping on a lion. This image doesn't relate well at all with the music inside. The band is called the Finches and their album On Golden Hill (Ulrike Records) is a very pretty and dreamy record that does, indeed, promote the joys of sleep, yet nowhere in the music is there a sense of the kind of anxiety one would feel should one try to take a nap on one of nature's most dangerous creatures. The album is simple and short but very sweet. I think a lion would enjoy it. And, come to think of it, I could imagine trotting around on a lion's back listening to this, perhaps gently stroking its mane.

The Babies have a great new album out. It is also called The Babies (Shrimper) and the sleeve is a rather chaotic thing: lots of junk displayed on a wall, postcards of the American wilderness, religious iconography, fairy lights and home-made models of pyramids. The Babies is a desperate, lost and tired-sounding record, but in the coolest possible fashion: it's full of great, lazy-sounding pop songs. It is also the perfect record to run away to, if anyone is considering that.

Next, a photograph of five serious-looking men sitting outside with a menacing-looking dog, all staring straight at the camera and, consequently, at you, almost daring you to listen to the album. It's called Mortika - Recordings from a Greek Underworld (Mississippi), a compilation of 21 underground Greek folk songs about drugs, sex, crime, poverty and heartbreak. I don't speak Greek, which makes it impossible for me to be shocked by the stories told in these songs.

What I am left with is a series of very innocent, lovable and scratchy-sounding archive recordings that could quite easily be about hugging your mum, eating sweets or doing charity work. Song titles such as "Hash Smoking Chicks" are the only indication that this might not be the case. Many of them are very suitable for dancing along to, but my favourites are those that are so worn that, at times, you can barely hear anything. They fade in and out as though the music is being played from another building and snippets of it keep managing to drift in through your open window. Bliss. l

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This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times