Year Without A Summer

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The 'Hauntings' EP by Year Without A Summer

Review

It's been nearly a year since we last reviewed a Year Without A Summer  release in these pages (and the last couple of years have come close to living up to the band's name) when we told you about their single "What You Taught Me (Baby)".

It's unusual to use a plural pronoun about the band as it is generally thought of as a solo project for Joe Wilson (and indeed the last single featured only his talent) but despite all the music on the new ‘Hauntings' EP (their eighth release) which comes out on 10th September being as lockdown generated as "What You Taught Me (Baby)", this time round he is joined by no fewer than four collaborators, though in fact each of them recorded separately in the safety of their own premises. Tenor sax and bass clarinet player Bill Cameron and drummer/percussionist Chloe Lynch are names you should be able to find in previous "Hot Music Live" articles, though I'm not sure we have mentioned flautist Emma Cwyps Cooper nor trumpeter Melissa Reardon until today. Joe himself sings and plays guitars, bass, percussion and glockenspiel.  He also mixed and produced the songs (as well as writing them) while Micky Ciccone played his part in the separate recordings from Coventry, London and Warwickshire.

So let's next reveal what the tracks are called: and the answer is "Spoopy!", "Fly-Tipped Mattress", "Angels at Twilight" and "Decisions, Decisions, Decisions".

So have Year Without A Summer evolved into a full band: what some unimaginative ones might call a "proper" band? Well no, not really. Joe has always added layers of sound (by himself) to songs just as far as he wanted to do to fulfil the track as heard in his head, so it's not true to say that ‘Hauntings' displays a particularly "fuller" set of arrangements: most are as sparse as his songs in the past. The difference is limited to the novelty of the particular instruments added this time around (all of which are acoustic): presumably ones he can't play himself.

EP opener "Spoopy!" is pretty essential YWAS and instantly enriches their canon moving things another jump forwards. What Joe refers to as "..usual jittery anxiety about everything…" is there in spades (he sounds on this one as David Byrne might sound if he lived in Coventry) with the trademark outpouring of words (I have often speculated as to how he not only fits so many lyrics to the music but how on earth he gets them all out so coherently in singing) over a characteristically paranoid arrangement. You might perhaps consider it the outpourings of someone on medication except that he explicitly rules this out in the lyrics… There is, as the title hints, (as well as presumably a bit of wordplay associated with the EP title) some sort of scatological subtext going on (he has "a head full of sewage") which rears its head periodically, but what I think sells "Spoopy!" best is its sheer vivacity: you could easily dance to the song and there is a strange joyousness to the predicament which adds to its oddness. Most intriguing of all is a marvellous trumpet part which gradually asserts itself through the tune, offering a calm counterpoint to the other elements. This song has already had airplay too…..

"Fly-Tipped Mattress" slows the beat right down and if anything is even better than its predecessor. This time it's a flute which adds the extra flavour and makes it all sound a bit late 60s ish underground in style. The main thrust of the song (whose lyrics also supply the EP title) is a sort of bluesy alternative rock one embellished with a sort of Lou Reed sleaze effect (think "Vicious" maybe). Marvellous stuff which I imagine will go down a storm if & when played live. This one too really deserves airplay and maybe a single release?

"Angels at Twilight", which follows, turns the pace down still further and is in complete contrast to what passed before, being an exquisite guitar instrumental and I suppose highlighting Joe's breadth of interest and talents. I can also see how in its own wordless way, it manages to convey a sense of the EP's title, but given the intensity of the other three tracks, maybe this one supplies the greatest surprise of all. It certainly also acts well structurally in giving us a pause to catch our breath between the angst either side of it.

"Decisions Decisions Decisions" closes the EP with a neat bookend complement to "Spoopy!", bringing back the anxieties, which this time round have moved on from the paranoia of feeling trapped in a small space to more global ones of trying to chart a course through the waters of life while being bombarded by input from media of various perspectives and degrees of reliability. Emma's flute is back, offering the complementary voice of calm and reason while Bill's sax vacillates between taking sides with Joe's yelps of stress and harmonising with the flute part.

Joe is terribly worried that he has made some sort of mistake but (perhaps through the reassurance of the flute & sax etc?), thankfully he ends on an optimistic note when "..the sun will shine on you".

If you have never heard a Year Without A Summer record before, this EP could be a useful entry point. In only four tracks there are many of the characteristics to be found on the earlier seven releases: an organic low-fi approach which offers a great deal of authenticity and truth, edgy and barbed music with highly thoughtful and literate lyrics and strange and rather wonderful juxtapositions and dialectics. A lot therefore to engage the mind, yet there is always a pop sensibility at play, most songs are danceable (at least for better dancers than me) and most stick readily in the mind. Little magical details encrust most tracks. There is also (possibly) a thematic continuation with earlier concerns such as 2016's "Ghosthunting with the Happy Mondays" The only thing which seems to be missing are the moths, though perhaps I've just not discovered them yet.

Where ‘Hauntings' perhaps differs from its predecessors, apart from the developed instrumental palette is that in this case, the  world we all inhabit manages to elide with that in which Joe's interior dialogues take place. COVID19 is not explicitly cited, but it's hard not to equate communal feelings of anxiety with those being expressed here, even if only partially. Year Without a Summer I think by choice inhabit a plane of their/his own and though the songs don't always indicate a happiness with that state of affairs, nonetheless it seems something he/they can live with. It's nice however that with this EP, the planes have aligned a little.

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"What You Taught Me (Baby)" by Year Without A Summer

Review

Lots of things make writing reviews of great local music for "Hot Music Live" pleasurable. Sometimes there is a mounting sense of anticipation of a long awaited release (there is one album by a well known local musician I have been listening to now for over a month but I can't tell you about it until next January I'm afraid: you can imagine my desire to do so).

Other times, the opposite can apply: in this instance the unlooked for & unexpected receipt of a new single (which comes out on 12th September). When it is by a band as interesting, experimental & yet as accessible as Year Without A Summer, the pleasure is enhanced & like with a present, I couldn't wait to tear the wrappings off & play it.

I hope you have downloaded & enjoyed "What Happened to the Caterpillars" from our own ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Three' as an introduction to the band if you had not previously encountered their music?  At any rate, they are now sharing "What You Taught Me (Baby)" with us.

 

I say "they": in fact when you listen to the track, everything you hear is by Joe Wilson (though I urge you also to gaze at the striking cover art by Cait Buckley). Created during lockdown but we are assured that it's not about lockdown.

As with the rest of his work, Joe brings an accessible & immediate approach to bear which immediately enhances its impact by minimising the barriers between artist & audience. The sound is that sort of lo-fi post punk one with instruments doing things you can actually hear clearly & from time to time skittering off along interesting tangents which keep you on your listening toes.

What is most remarkable about the song however is Joe's vocal delivery. I wonder if he passed out after the take? A breathless tumble of words delivered at a tempo you'd find hard to keep up for long, thank goodness there is the odd instrumental interlude to save him from asphyxiation.

Not obviously about caterpillars nor moths this time (though given the rush of words I am prepared to be corrected on that point), the song seems a reflection on life's lessons (including those r4eceived from a specific teacher), the capacity to grow & change (it's this bit & the seasonal references which may be any Lepidoptera themed content) and the futility of engaging with negative others.

Work like this represents the best about those working in local music beyond the perceptions of the mainstream media. Not apparently attempting to copy the stylings of the successful to chase fame themselves, it asks questions we probably all ought to be asking ourselves anyway & in a way which is as catchy as any pop song yet not blandified by layers of process & production. It's not wilfully avant garde to the point of pretension & alienation nor could it offend anyone. I really do wonder why bands like Year Without A Summer get pigeonholed beyond the horizon of so many.... It's a real shame that they are missing out.

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'Hindsight' by Year Without a Summer

Review

Thankfully despite the complete lull in gigs to review, the flow of releases continues (though I suspect we are going to reach a point when material recorded Before the Event becomes much more scarce). Equally fortunately, the records which have emerged have been of the usual high quality we have been reviewing in these pages & with many unique points of interest to relate to you.

Not least amongst these is the subject of today's piece, the sixth release from Year Without a Summer which is to say their new album ‘Hindsight'.

Don't necessarily take "their" as signifying plurality though, as Year Without a Summer is the vehicle for the solo work of Joe Wilson and it is he who deserves the bulk of our regard and applause with the remainder going to his fellow Deathsex Bloodbath colleague Sara Beamish for additional vocals. Everything else is pure Joe apart from some drums on one track from the Jim Dooley library

You should, I hope, have enjoyed the track "What Happened to the Caterpillars" whose exclusive remix by Joe appeared on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Three' (it originally appeared in a different mix on 2016's 'Year Without A Summer' EP). You may also know his work as part of the fabulous and aforementioned Deathsex Bloodbath ("Dimension 69's number one glam-garage sex-and-violence dreamboats/shipwrecks") whose "Do Better" appeared on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume One'... Even more recently Joe conceived of & put together the ‘Songs From the Vaults' compilation to raise funds for the Tin which featured (amongst many others) "Hot Music Live Presents" artists  Sophie Hadlum & Ian Todd  and "Hot Music Live" reviewees We Are A Communist &  Batsch.

If not familiar (yet) with Joe's take on the world, a listen to the latter album & the entire oeuvre of DSB will make it very clear that he is most at home in the most alternative (not to say transgressive) forms of music: where the artistic impulse prevails completely over the commercial. These bands really don't get much of a look in on mainstream radio etc. Sadly.

So if you are expecting some sort of "difficult" avant garde musician, I can forgive you as I've just sort of set that up. It's not actually very true. Even with an act as outré as DSB, there is a really strong instinct for the catchy pop instinct (though the lyrics are another matter altogether) and Year Without a Summer fits nicely with this. If you haven't listened to "What Happened to the Caterpillars" yet (and if not, why not?) then you have yet to get that earworm installed in your mind.

‘Hindsight' is, its creator tells us "a record about issues and barriers, but also a record about trying to get better": and indeed it seems to be, being a most humane, gentle & sympathetic tour of various scenarios with quiet often almost whispered vocals throughout.

It is also something of a nostalgically orientated set (the title is a bit of a giveaway) in several respects. The set is bookended by two versions of "Sweet Macedonia": the first (credited to 1996) being a mostly electro instrumental which finally bids farewell to the Balkan state. The album closer, dated to this current year switches to a more traditional keyboard sound and its much earlier entering vocals look back to the writer of the original version & celebrates and reflects upon the journey he has been on in the intervening quarter century.

"Cheating at Rubik's Cubes" has even deeper roots given its connection to the early 80s sensation (like this writer, YWAS admit to having never solved it) and reflects this in an idiosyncratic sound which certainly "feels" retro without being so obviously 80s in detail. As an amusing extended metaphor on the dealing with the world's challenges it certainly brings freshness & originality to, let's face it, a very regular target of songwriters.

However even this song deploys less hindsight than "Voynich Manuscript" which alludes to the highly enigmatic manuscript which could date from anywhere from the 15th to 17th century and which sounds like what Lou Reed might have sounded like if he'd written more about Coventry than New York: it has that strange balance he managed to achieve between menace & melodicism with a lightness of touch which belies the rapier of the wit: certainly it is a favourite of mine amongst the album tracks.

 The Edgar Allen Poe centred "Quoth the Raven, "We've Updated Our Privacy Policy" is a broody seascape of a song with a pair of voices duelling in angst with accusations flying amidst the despair: a Poe element I suppose being the darkness prevalent.

"The Tell-Tale Heart Emoji" is a slightly desperate song, performed at a jittery & rapid pace rather effectively evoking uncertainty & teetering again on the edge of desperation and (since it precedes "Quoth the Raven..") seems to anticipate the later song with its similar feel, images of "navigation" and interlaced vocals, again tripping over each other rather than the polite answering of conventional pop.

"Couldn't Get It Right" sits dead centre in the order and is perhaps the closest the album gets to the glam clang of DSB & it also the lightest touch lyrically: humour(s) of various sorts abound throughout, but on this track they stay pretty good natured. Echoes of bands such as the Velvet Underground or Television Personalities periodically hit your perceptions & the YWAS interest in lepidoptera and similar creatures can be detected too.

Like a lot of the music we are currently lucky enough to enjoy locally & which we try to pick up on in the magazine & through the "Hot Music Live Presents" albums, Joe is an artist not merely with his own well focused vision & values, but also the confidence not to be deflected from his course. He deserves wider appreciation not merely for the principles involved but also, and crucially because this is not just good music but it's also truthful. I imagine he is accepting of his place in the musical margins: he may even enjoy the idea of outsiderdom. However there is no inherent reason why the mainstream should not pick up on ‘Hindsight': it is a set of high quality songs which also have the benefit of sounding different to much of the commercially successful fare.. I live in hope.

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