Caught by the River

Radio Red

1st September 2023

Like radio masts blinking into the night, Laura Groves’ first full-length album in 14 years is a record of connection, transmission and reception, writes Anton Spice.

When it came to dividing up the belongings that my grandparents left behind, there were two items I was particularly keen on: the green plastic desk lamp under which my grandfather would spend hours after dinner arranging his stamp collection, and a large wooden Philips radio with a record player in the lid, that I never saw either of them use. I thought it looked like a stage prop, as so much from the middle of the 20th century now does. A reminder perhaps that the 1960s are as far from where we are today as the Victorian era was then. It had a triangular cabinet speaker the size of a fridge to be placed in a suitable corner, and a flying saucer high-end that could orbit freely anywhere within the reach of its fraying chord. 

Most of all, however I was drawn to the dials and display. Backlit like a vaudeville stage set, it looked like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the frequency dial as solid as a steering wheel, guiding the needle down a highway of chance encounters. Displayed above it was a constellation of European cities – names of places you might find in the novels of Stefan Zweig or Thomas Mann, evoking other people’s memories of night train compartments and flickering streetlights. I was in my early teens. They were places I imagined myself going, bringing into focus a world outside, beyond, bigger than my own. It did not matter that I couldn’t hear them in that moment. Knowing they were there was enough.

When I spoke to Laura Groves about her 2020 EP A Private Road, she would often return to the idea of the paths overlapping, writing over traces of past lives onto the city, accumulating memory like a palimpsest on a manuscript. Thinking of this radio, I wondered whether it too might have been inscribed with all the news bulletins, comedy sketches, talk shows, football matches and Top 40s to have passed through its dodgy cables over the last sixty years. Moments of serendipity, coincidence, and occasionally, complete chaos. Unarchived, irretrievable moments. A lesson in living for the present.

I have a complicated relationship with streaming. For all its infinite promise, more often than not I find that having to create my own world, aligned seamlessly to my desires, is a burden not a freedom. In contrast, my radio habits remain uncomplicated in the extreme, limited to the five pre-sets on my kitchen Sony. More than the channels themselves, I enjoy the luxury of not having to choose. Of tapping into a wavelength that will continue when I stop listening.

One evening earlier this year, I was doing the washing up and listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme about making radio. Specifically, the programme concerned those news readers who wrap up the live broadcast at the end of the day. The ones who, between 12am and one in the morning read the Midnight News, introduce the Book of the Week, deliver the Shipping Forecast and hand over to the World Service in a tone that seems to get quieter and quieter as it recedes into the distance of the night. One of these news readers said it was his favourite part of the day. When, like a night warden, he would draw the curtains, turn off the lights, lock the door, and head for home. If I were him, at that moment I’d reach for Radio Red.   

In a way, I’m sorry I’ve spent so much of this review talking about radio. Laura Groves’ Radio Red is not a concept album about radio, even if its nocturnal musings do share some of the moodiness of Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly (originally intended to be called Talk Radio). Instead, it feels to me like an album about being a part of something — of connection, transmission and reception. So much of Groves’ music thrives on this sense of intimacy. 

When I see Groves perform at New River Studios in August to mark the release of the album, she does so alone, to a relatively small audience who feel like they’ve stayed up late to listen in. Over the fourteen years since her last full-length album (as Blue Roses), Groves has taken things slowly, built up meaningful relationships and refined her sound in a way that feels totally out of step with the demands of the streaming industry. Watching her captivate this crowd, I’m sure she could fill bigger venues. And yet, we all know why we’re here and there’s a comfort, as she once said, in knowing the roads.

Groves has spoken about the album taking its cue from the two radio masts outside her studio window, blinking their red lights into the darkness while she worked. In this scene I recognise some of the feeling I had staring at that backlit Philips display. A feeling of projecting oneself out into the world and hoping to be met there by a whole load of people also searching for the same thing. 


‘Radio Red’ is out now on Bella Union.

Follow Anton Spice on Instagram here.