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Album Of The Week

Insight Specific: Bas Jan’s Yes I Jan
Yes I Jan Anna Wood , February 9th, 2018 08:06

Synths, violin, drums and a wonderful voice: day-to-day stories full of uncanny pop punk magic

This album starts like a sparkling groggy morning, like a pleasant hangover, with light synth drones, eerie wobbles and a gentle siren. Then opening song ‘Tide Me Over’ kicks in and it’s like ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘9 to 5’ thrown into a genius 2018 blender: our hero is young(ish) and floundering in the city, struggling to bridge the humiliating gap between aspiration and reality, the lyrics a gutsy-desperate pileup of cliches: “I’ve got a lot on my plate, A lot of balls in the air / I’m going to strike it lucky, they won’t see us for dust round here.” The kicker is the haranguing-encouraging backing vocals: “Make a go of it! Come on, make a go of it!” They sound like the nagging demon on your shoulder, or the voice of parents to their grown child, who’s a feckless member of the precariat, borrowing money for rent, stumbling towards some non-specific creative career. The supportive, exasperated, optimistic parents; the livid, humiliated, skint adult-child. All this in less than four minutes, and it’s catchy too; it’s perfect pop music, really.

The partner to that opening track comes in the middle of the album: ‘King Of The Holloway Road’ is a wildly cheerful song about the relief and joy when you’ve finally been paid after weeks of being the skint one among your friends and family. Or, as the first line has it: “I just got paid, I’m the king again.” There’s a fragile giddiness in the striding-down-the-street rhythm of it, because these riches won’t last; it reminds me of a recent ‘finance diary’ article by an endearing woman who also clearly has a love-hate relationship with money - entries included “9pm: Get to the pub. Immediately buy a round of tequila shots for myself, two friends plus someone who is not really my friend but has just come back from living in Japan, so I feel, inexplicably, that I love him. I am full of cheer” and “12.30am: Order an Uber to another pub. People ask to split-fare with me but I shout ‘No! no!’ as if I am some sort of king/oligarch and am insulted by the very idea of splitting.”

There’s a sadness in this song, too - especially in the Smiths-y “Take me out tonight” refrain and its crooning swooning backing vocals. Serafina Steer’s old-fashioned English voice is full of melancholy as well as mischief. She is the leader of Bas Jan; Emma Smith plays violin and Rachel Horwood plays drums, although this album was mostly made with the previous trio, which was Steer with violinist Sarah Anderson and drummer Jenny Moore. Whichever combination (I’ve seen the newer trio live), they play with steely delicacy, rage and playfulness, a bit like a sci-fi Slits.

Steer has been described many times as whimsical; her work is playful and funny, that’s true, but whimsy does not cover the weirdness and the rage herein. She’s also been compared to Joanna Newsom, most obviously because they are both women who play the harp (though she’s on synth and bass for this album), but in both cases I suspect we see the delicacy and tenderness and beauty of their work and don’t quite notice how experimental and uncanny and forthright it is. Maybe we need to reassess what we think anger sounds like - as Mary Beard suggests we rethink what power looks like - or at least make room for all these ways of being livid, frustrated, disappointed. Some of the songs here remind me of Bet Lynch’s great line: “It’s not a smile, it’s a lid on a scream.”

Not that this is a record just full of rage - there is plenty of joy and delight, desire and tenderness. There are so many compelling feelings in this album, elegantly half-submerged. ‘GSOH’ is a tumbling lullaby, a little heartbreaker of a song; ‘No Sign’ is a jaggedy ode to a flatmate who disappears for nights on end, out partying, like a parallel-universe more-fun self or a hedonist Bartleby; ‘Let’s’ is two songs in one, tickling around the practicalities and delights of sex; ‘Sat Nav (Tom Tom Mix)’ relishes the cosmic in the mundane through driving directions, dreams of space hardware and soaring sci-fi wig-out twangs, like Ivor Cutler getting drunk with a synthesizer. Final track ‘Corner Of Studio’ starts like wind whistling through grass and turns into a catalogue of memories, moments of sex and romance - frantic shagging up against that sink, watching the sunset through this window - specific moments that pull up complex thoughts and excellent music, with lyrics that are sweet and surreal, at once fond and slightly mean: “Seeing your face contorted / That’s a very vivid memory.”

It’s rarely easy to parse just one feeling from these songs, there’s usually two or three or more, spinning in circles and overlapping. Like: Isn’t life disappointing? Or maybe you’re what’s disappointing. Isn’t life stressful? But also fun and wonderful, so full of possibilities! Let’s have a dance and a cuddle and a good fuck, and isn’t the sky beautiful tonight?