Sunday, December 25, 2011

Song for Sunday

Mercury Rev – Holes

Band/artist of the week: M83
Song of the week: All India Radio – Rippled

Best albums of 2011

1 Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
In the past, when people have asked me who my favourite band is they would get a long and quite possibly boring disquisition covering a number of candidates for this honour, but also the difficulties of making a definitive judgement due to variations dependant on mood, selection criteria and associated weighting and how much I am trying to impress the person who asked the question.

But from now on I am just going to say Mogwai.

I can still clearly remember my first encounter with their singular genius in the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street. They had Ten Rapid on a listening post on the first floor and something about the striking cover design featuring a small square photo of a freeway bridge with railway lines underneath and a large white m drew me to pick up the headphones. About twenty minutes later my then girlfriend eventually found me and insisted that it was time to leave. Unfortunately there was still another thirteen minutes of the album to go, so she ended up leaving on her own. I am not saying this was the main reason, but the relationship ended quite soon after.

Luckily Mogwai have been a lot more understanding and our relationship is still going strong fourteen years later.

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is their seventh album proper (not counting live albums, EPs and compilations) and it is, it has to be said, a triumph. For a band that deliberately limits their sonic palette they still manage to make the most bold and adventurous music.

From the opening delicate arpeggiated guitar of White Noise to the dying chords of You're Lionel Ritchie every single track is a glorious demonstration of their vision and power as a band. White Noise builds from the delicate beginnings to a swirling crescendo, underpinned by some lovely piano and Martin Bulloch's solid drumming.

Mexican Grand Prix is as close to pop as they are going to get with its hazy vocals, shimmering organ riffs and pumping beat. Back to more familiar Mogwai territory for Rano Pano and its monster distorted guitars and driving percussion.

The delicate and beautiful Letters to the Metro opens out onto the joyous and bouncy George Square Thatcher Death Party. The vocals make a reappearance here and although you can't comprehend the lyrics the sentiments are clear from the title. In my alternative world this would be the Christmas number one this year.

How to be a Werewolf takes a while to get going, but when the drums kick in and the warm tender bass line comes to the front of the mix it irresistibly draws you in and, although joined by a bit of searing guitar and crashing cymbals they remain constant under it all, to be revealed again as the rest of the instrumentation fades away at the end.

The final track, You're Lionel Ritchie, references the classic Mogwai template with almost silent quiet passages interspersed by some of the heaviest and lumbering guitar lines, before dying away in a cloud of distorted chords.

Valhalla Dancehall gave this a good run for their money, but for the sheer exuberance and enjoyment the band have for their music, the way they manage to keep refining and honing their sound to push their boundaries and for their singular vision it had to be Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Best albums of 2011: competition!

Numbers ten to two have been unveiled, almost time to reveal what my favourite album of 2011 is, but first it is time for everyone to take a guess what it might be. Anyone that gets it right will be rewarded with a copy of said album, or if (as is highly likely) you happen to already own a copy, any other album of your choice on the list.

And I know you are all waiting to hear what number one is before weighing in with your own personal top tens, but I still want to know what is on everyone else's lists.

Best albums of 2011

2 British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
Over the last five or six years British Sea Power have gradually become one of my favourite bands. I had heard a bit about them earlier than that, but 2005's Open Season was their first album I bought, beguiled by song titles like North Hanging Rock, Victorian Ice and Oh Larsen B combined with a fiercely intelligent indie rock backing.

Third album Do You Like Rock Music? continued the trajectory with songs about The Great Skua, Canvey Island and eastern European immigration. The music was still loaded with tuneful, catchy indie rock, reproducing all the best bits of their legendary live shows in the studio, but with a bit more light and shade than on Open Season.

In Valhalla Dancehall they tackle the current state of British politics and society. Released in February the first song Who's in Control sounds eerily prescient about the summer riots, decimation of public services and occupy movement:
Were you not told?
Did you not know?
Everything around you's being sold
Do you not care?
Were you not there?
Everybody else was going spare
What's yours and mine?
Does this escape you all the time?
Sometimes I wish protesting was sexy on a Saturday night
It is also a superbly exhilarating bit of crunching, jump around rock music with a nod to 70s punk like the Clash. Second song, We are Sound, ups the energy even further before winding it back a little on the slow building Georgie Ray. Another furious charge through Stunde Null and Mongk II, before another respite on the sparkling Luna and soothing Baby. Living is so Easy's scathing commentary on rampant consumerism and its corresponding apathy brings us back to the state of British society.

A couple of more abstract songs, one angry burst of sub-two minute punk and we hit the twelve minute epic Once More Now which builds gently for about seven minutes, before collapsing under its own weight and then gently dissipates over the remaining four minutes. Album closer Heavy Water has an elegiac, melancholy feel, but is oddly uplifting with its worries about being on the wrong side. Valhalla Dancehall certainly proves that they should have no worries on that count.

Best albums of 2011

3 M83 – Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
A huge great sprawling double album with everything and the kitchen sink thrown in, made by one man. There are saxophones and slapped basses, walls of synths and I wouldn't be surprised if there was a key-tar in there somewhere. All things I normally hate and the opposite of most of the albums I have loved this year. And he is French. (I am not one to disparage a whole nation, but it is a truism – the French and pop music don't mix. How many great French rock stars or albums can you name?)

However, this is amazing: 22 tracks and not one dud. Quite an achievement. It is so improbable that I keep disbelieving it myself, but every time I put it on I am totally transfixed. I suspect it is a good old-fashioned concept album, only I have no idea what the concept is. The music moves from thumping, big synth-dominated dancefloor fillers to delicate acoustic lullabies and stories about frogs.

The first and last tracks are labelled intro and outro and that seems exactly right. You enter this extraordinary different world, travelling through this incredible imagination, before gently returning to reality. I find it almost impossible to explain why it is so good, so I will just recommend that you get a copy and lose yourself in this alternative world for an hour and a quarter.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Best albums of 2011

4 Gil Scott-Heron – I'm New Here/Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx – We're New Here

I know, I know I'm New Here was actually released in 2010, but I didn't find it until well into this year. And I can justify including it here by pairing it with his collaboration with Jamie xx We're New Here which was released this year and offers a brilliant counterpoint to the original. I still prefer the original version, but the updated record offers some fascinating different angles on these songs.
I want to make this a special tribute
to a family that contradicts the concepts
heard the rules, but wouldn't accept
and womenfolk raised me and I was full grown
before I knew I came from a broken home
Bookended by On Coming From a Broken Home parts 1 and 2 these two tracks sketch out a wonderfully vivid picture of Scott-Heron's upbringing and the early influences that shaped his life. Part 1 lays out the facts and from there we move straight into the next phase of his life with the ominous Me and the Devil. With a minimal backing of clanking percussion, handclaps and a supremely unsettling, needling synth he takes you right into the head of that young man struggling with and not making the best decisions.

The soothing acoustic guitar of I'm New Here provides a welcome change of perspective and has one of the best lyrics I have heard for a long time, including the wonderful line:
I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason
Your Soul and Mine steps back into the darkness again, but like a story that you would tell a child to keep them out of mischief, and there is a sense here that there may be a way out, some way to resist. This is reinforced with the short spoken word interlude about descendants and into the next track I'll Take Care of You. Beginning on a pure string note, backed up with chiming piano chords and its lovely protective promise to look after the unnamed lover or child. 

The demons return on Where Did the Night Go and New York is Killing Me, which sound like the descendants of those old Delta Blues songs, with their simple sparse backings and tales of sleepless nights and yearning for the Deep South.

Running sounds like a funeral procession and at this point the hard-won wisdom has been gained, but also knowing that time is running out. Nowhere left to run, running out of time, no point in running for cover. Turning even deeper into the dark The Crutch builds from a lone heartbeat into a swirling, desperate final reckoning.

And then we are back, full circle to his mother and part 2 of On Coming from a Broken Home. Only, as he says:
I came from what they called a broken home
But if they ever really called at our house
they would have known how wrong they were
We were working on our lives and our homes
Dealing with what we had
Not what we didn't have
My life has been guided by women
But because of them I am a man
And you understand that he has made sense of a chaotic and eventful life, gaining true wisdom, resolving and reconciling his past and heritage.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best albums of 2011

5 Dead Letter Chorus – Yearlings
This was released back in August in the depths of the Australian winter, not that the depths are really that deep (even down at 37°47' S), which is strange because it is one of the sunniest, happiest albums I have heard in a while.

Opening with a delicate acoustic guitar and intertwined male and female vocals Covered by Snow quickly builds into a pounding joyous plea to a potential lover, fading back to almost nothing before winding it all up again. It's the well worn Nirvana quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic, but channeled through this wonderful backing it sounds fresh all over again. Both vocalists – Cameron Potts and Gabrielle Huber – are equally strong and I love the contrast their different voices bring to these songs, sometimes working together other times taking turns.

In Yellow House they share the vocal equally and it is stunning the way various words and phrases bring out one or the other. The acoustic guitars are high in the mix and there is beautifully straightforward electric guitar run in the background that burrows deep into your conscience and has you humming along for hours. Either that or pressing the back button to play it again. Three minutes thirteen seconds of perfection.

There are ups and downs in this set of songs, it would be a bit too sacharine if there wasn't, but their blend of delicate, catchy indie-pop is overwhelmingly upbeat and affirming. There are tinges of folk around the edges and this gives the songs a slightly out of time feel – they don't feel entirely rooted in this second decade of the twenty first century. Not escapist or a retreat from the world of 2011, but a welcome respite from some of its more draining complications.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best albums of 2011

6 Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu – Rrakala
I wrote about Gurrumul's first album back in 2009 when it was on my best of list for that year. That album was breathtaking in its simplicity and beauty. One man, his guitar and the most incredible voice. Songs sung in traditional languages of Arnhem Land, no translation necessary, with the barest of accompaniments.

This is his second album and it follows a similar template to the first. The voice is the same, but the sound is fleshed out a bit with some stately piano lines, brushed drums and understated electric guitar picking. Building slowly on the opening four songs to the catchy and surprisingly up-tempo Ya Yawirriny the album then moves into a more reflective and melancholic phase for the rest of the songs. Although the melodies are just as lovely, they are less stirring and more contemplative. The structures of the songs seem less traditional, building in blocks with repeating phrases and melodies cycling and reappearing later. The eight and a half minute Warwu being the best example of this and, for me, the centrepoint of the album.

As the esteemed Robert Foster notes every addition and overdub that Gurrumul and his producer, Michael Hohnen, resisted only makes the songs sound bigger and increases their power. Hohnen also plays the stand-up bass, almost inaudibly on some tracks, on the album and legend has it that he spent ten years persuading Gurrumul to record that first solo record. If this is true, and presumably he also helped get this one released only two years later, then I am immensely grateful to him. Almost as much as I am to Gurrumul for allowing these songs into my life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Best albums of 2011

7 All India Radio – The Silent Surf
It seems appropriate that the cover artwork for The Silent Surf features a huge moon hanging above a tropical looking sea, as this is undoubtably late at night music. Whereas Burial is to me the sound of after midnight in London, All India Radio are late into the night on warm Melbourne summer streets, just enough breeze to make having the windows open worth it, the sound of distant sirens and occasional boy-racers.

Their music is languid and rolling, with gentle percussion, warm enveloping guitars and occasional fragments of vocal rolling in from next door's radio. On first listen it sounds simple and delicate, but concentrating a bit harder you notice how much depth there is, how many layers need to be accumulated to create such a beautiful balance between all the different elements. As Dean Wareham once said about Galaxie 500's music, it isn't the notes you play it's the space between them.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best albums of 2011

8 Glasvegas – Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\
Since the beginning of time, or at least the music industry, second albums have always been a problem.

First albums sometimes sound completely new and original, crammed with ideas and stories from before the band became stars and set-up sky-high expectations for the next record. A lot of this is down to critics and fans always on the look out for the next big thing, but it also helps that the bands tend to not really know anything about the music industry and just do their own thing without too much record company interference.

The first self-titled Glasvegas album fits this model perfectly. It was a perfect combination of working class Glaswegian stories about absent fathers, social workers and stabbings delivered with soaring vocals and thumping wall of sound that sounded like The Jesus and Mary Chain produced by Phil Spector. I loved it and my favourite song, Polmont on My Mind, made my best of compilation for 2008. Glasvegas made all the best of lists for the year, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and even seemed to sell pretty well. (Later I discovered a download of the demo tapes for the album and amazingly most of them are even better than the final re-recorded versions that made the album. Do a search for 'Glasvegas artist promo' if you don't believe me.)

Following a first album like that is always going to be trouble and what normally happens is that bands in this position start writing songs about how difficult it is to be in a successful band, take too many drugs and start taking the record company's advice seriously. Glasvegas certainly looked like they were following this script with the band decamping to Santa Monica, lead singer James Allen disappearing for five days when he was supposed to appear at the Mercury Music Prize awards, their drummer leaving before writing had even started and super-producer Flood drafted in to oversee the recording.

Given the background it's not surprising that Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\ can't really be described as an un-qualified success. The songs are more vague and ambiguous, less specific and consequently less powerful. The music also ups the bombast and further polishes off the rough edges, losing a bit of the variety and charm in the process. Luckily though they prove the old maxim that you can take the boy out of Glasgow, but you can't take the Glasgow out of the boy. The stories here are more personal and shift the focus more firmly onto James, but they are completely lacking in self-indulgence and the usual rock-star concerns. As the title suggests many there is a lot of pain and heartache here, relationship troubles and shame about sexuality in a young life without many options.

The album starts with Bladerunner-esque synth lines and a voice intoning the title Pain Pain Never Again in French before James' voice arrives with the English version, building slowly into a menacing deluge before kicking straight into the anthemic The World is Yours. There are plenty more big anthems and even a power ballad – Whatever Hurts You Through the Night – that could stand in for Take My Breath Away in the proposed Top Gun sequel. Penultimate track Lot's Sometimes is the cathartic big finale, but subverted by placing the low-key Change as the album's last track. The one track that probably wouldn't sound out of place on the first album, this is an emotive pledge to turn his life around from a young man being released from prison to his mum. James' mum contributes a spoken reply which ends with her advising that 'before you change for me, change for you'.

Song for Sunday

Destroyer – Savage Night at the Opera

Band/artist of the week: British Sea Power
Song of the week: British Sea Power – Remember Me

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best albums of 2011

9 Holly Throsby – Team
It seems that there is only room for one female singer-songwriter in my affections at any one time. Last year it was Laura Marling, but even though she released another excellent album this year my affections have been stolen by Holly Throsby.

Not to be confused with that other antipodean songstress called Holly, this Holly specialises slightly off-beam songs about relationships and their associated trials. The lyrics are always interesting and her backing is generally exquisite: simple guitar and piano lines filled out with delicate touches of strings, cello, double bass, drums and vocals that are looped and layered.

In the album opener What I Thought of You she is looking back on a relationship and wondering how different things look in hindsight. A couple of kids piano chords start things off, with a quick scratch of cello before the guitar riff starts, setting the scene perfectly for the this bittersweet recollection.

The absolutely gorgeous strings and a slightly breathy vocal delivery on It's Only Need cover up a desperately sad brush-off to an unwanted partner, while Here is My Co-pilot is more up-tempo and seems to be recounted from a more positive perspective. The vocal layering looping around the background is particularly effective here and builds to a lovely gentle crescendo.

The remainder of the album is more low-key compared to the superlative start and the later tracks dip in intensity a bit, but still offer up plenty of charms if you are paying attention. Also highly recommended is the singer-songwriter supergroup album – Seeker Lover Keeper – which Throsby recorded with Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann.

Oh, and we've got a washing line exactly like that in our back garden ...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Best albums of 2011

10 Wild Beasts – Smother

This record snuck up on me and I am still not completely sure what it is that I like so much. It's also one of those albums that I find it hard to recall what individual songs are called and which tracks are the ones I really like. Not that the songs sound the same, but more that there is a definite feel to the whole album which pulls you in and seems to induce a lack of caring about such trivia.

Initially I found the vocals just a bit too mannered, but was won over by the combination of disconcerting and outlandish lyrics with the wonderfully lush, laid back musical backing.
Our love, Frankenstein in nature and design, like the Shelleys on their very first time, when our bodies become electrified, together we bring this creature alive ...
The music reminds me a bit of The Blue Nile at their luxuriant and velvety best, but without the chilly digital constructions. Wild Beasts are more louche dive bar than shiny, spotless cocktail bar. Happily, they also look like a fantastic live band and do a great job of recreating the sound and feel of the album. (Have a look at their performance from the Other Voices festival if you need any convincing. Before watching, however, I feel I have to warn you to view with caution if you are of a nervous fashion disposition. Oxblood leather jacket with polo neck, that's all I am going to say ...)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Best albums of 2011: the near misses

Only ten days to Christmas and I still haven't started on the best of lists. If I've calculated correctly we can still fit the top ten album rundown in before falling asleep after Christmas lunch, but I'd better get organised ...

Just to heighten the anticipation here are three favourites that just missed out on the final ten. Looking forward to hearing all your lists and, as last year, there will be prizes for anyone that can guess the number one. No clues, but it is probably a lot easier to guess than last year's choice.

Trembling Blue Stars – Correspondence EP
It is only called an EP, but at over thirty minutes it would have been an LP in olden days. The Trembling Blue Stars were another band that I thought had probably split up ages ago and now, apparently, after this record they have. First track, The Light Outside, starts with about six minutes of swirling static and interference which almost coalesces into the sort of love-lorn, minor key track that is their stock-in-trade before dissolving into the background mist again. It is an oddly wonderful effect and every time I hear it is like overhearing a beautiful gem of an unknown song on someone else's radio that leaves you with the knowledge that you've heard something magical, but without being able to say what it was or anything about why it was so special. The rest of the songs are more traditional Trembling Blue Stars, but all demonstrate why Bobby Wratten is one of the most brilliant British song writers of the last twenty years and I still can't fathom why he is so cruelly overlooked. There is also a fantastic cover version of Wire's Kidney Bingos which on its own is worth the price of the whole album; all shimmering guitars and stunning male/female harmonies.

Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
A big old blast of early 90s shoegazey indie-rock repurposed for 2011? Not everyone's cup of tea admittedly, but for someone who still listens to those old Ride records regularly this will do nicely. As far as I can tell these guys weren't even in primary school in 1990, but they have obviously been paying attention and this is a near perfect slice of noise-pop. Bet it goes down a storm at all the indie discos, if such things still exist.

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
They could easily have been in the top 10 (and not just because I am feeling all sentimental about them splitting up), but they had to spoil it by including a couple of howlers like Mine Smell Like Honey and Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter. There are about five tracks on this album that remind you of the days when they were not only the most interesting band in the world, but also one of the most successful. Überlin and Oh My Heart are probably the two best songs they have recorded since Automatic for the People so I shouldn't complain too much, but if they had released a record with ten tracks as good, then they really could have retired as the best band in the world.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ghost libraries

Lovely short piece about ebooks in the November 3 London Review of Books (I am only currently one issue behind in my reading, which for me is pretty good going, but anyway you don't read the LRB for its topicality ...) by James Meek. It is only short and you can read it in full on their website, but some choice quotes below.
Once there were private libraries; then there were public libraries; now there is the ghost library, where poltergeistic fellow readers may not only be reading the same book as you at any moment but actually underlining the page of the book you are reading seconds before you get to it. They may be next door; they may be in Kamchatka; they may be anywhere, so long as they have Kindle and wifi.
The lightness of the ebook medium, literally and figuratively, holds a terrible allure and an insidious threat to the heavily booked-up among us. How many marriages, seemingly held firm by the impossibility of moving several hundredweight of vinyl or CDs out of a family-sized home, have already foundered post the digitisation of music? How many more will break if apparently inseparable and immovable matrimonial libraries become something that anyone can walk out with in their pocket?
The last paragraph is particularly lovely, but I will let you read that for yourselves.

Sunday, December 4, 2011