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

Tom Ravenscroft's radio show is broadcast on BBC 6 Music every Friday at 9pm

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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.