BEST OF 2016: Songs Of Loss

It was interesting to hear Francis Whately this week confidently asserting that David Bowie didn’t stage manage his exit quite as perfectly as the timing of events makes it so tempting to assume. Johan Renck, the director of both the ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ videos, confirmed in Whately’s ‘The Last Five Years’ documentary that the setting for the latter’s visual representation had been decided prior to Bowie hearing that his treatment was to be concluded. It’s an almost instinctive reflex to think that some of the performance was altered as a result or that aspects were plotted with knowledge of the likelihood of his circumstances in mind, but we’ll never know for certain. Interpreting the ‘real’ meaning behind art is tricky enough at the best of times but, when it comes to scrutinising work born of grief and manifestations of mortality, our tendency to apply additional layers of interpretation from a distance in the future, laced with comforting hindsight, is almost unstoppable.

Three of 2016’s finest albums fell into this bracket for me. Two appeared to confront their maker’s demise, one more literally than the other, while the third seemed inextricable from the tragic loss of a child. Only ‘Skeleton Tree’, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was released with the audience fully aware of those additional, meaning-distorting events. Both ‘Blackstar’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ just made it out into the world prior to their creators’ final breaths. Re-reading reviews of Bowie’s final album published just prior to his passing, it’s startling to be reminded of the theories around ISIS and shunning fame when scrutinising the lyrics. Whereas Cohen’s words were less oblique and had a finality suggesting at the very least a second retirement, it was simply unthinkable that Bowie – only recently returned from a lengthy absence and seemingly in prolific form – might be talking about himself. The difference in listening to ‘Dollar Days’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ on Friday January 8th 2016 and on Monday January 11th 2016 spelt this out as clearly as any words can do now, some twelve months later.

By the time ‘You Want It Darker’ emerged, David Remnick’s remarkable piece on its author had been published in The New Yorker. It was clear from his encounter with Cohen that Remnick saw the reality of this man’s situation. Much coverage was generated by a comment about some new lyrics, “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” If there had been any uncertainty about the meaning behind some of the songs on what would soon be confirmed as his final album, and there clearly was from reading advance reviews, then this largely put paid to it, coating it in a layer of grave meaning too heavy to shake.

I’ve still not watched ‘One More Time With Feeling’. I intend to, but couldn’t quite bring myself to attend a late night screening on my own of something I knew would likely dislodge certain emotions. The imminent DVD release will do for me, but coverage of it and ‘Skeleton Tree’ have hardly held back on the curious nature of the subject matter, with most of the lyrics written prior to the death of his fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, in the summer of 2015.  Some of the seemingly prophetic imagery is disconcerting and it’s pretty clear that the sonic palette of the record reflects the conditions of its creation, even if the raw materials had been crafted in advance of them. It is a staggering record, both ugly and beautiful at different times and sometimes simultaneously both. Else Torp’s majestic presence on ‘Distant Sky’ offers the closest thing to balm, while ‘Anthrocene’ seems consciously grubby in its production. The overall effect of ‘Skeleton Tree’ is less oppressive than one might expect and certainly not an album that one avoids because of its raw emotions. It is, as with all three of these records, great art from adversity.

After the comically awful artwork for 2014’s nevertheless pretty decent ‘Popular Problems’, it would have been reasonable to assume that Leonard Cohen was unlikely to ever add another classic to his beautiful but sporadic output. Not only were the visuals pinpoint perfect for ‘You Want It Darker’, but the thirty-six minutes of music serve as a quite magnificent farewell. The proximity of its release to my own loss perhaps played a part in this becoming so resonant and affecting, but it will be as tied to 2016 for me as ‘Blackstar’, despite the lack of a modern jazz band. The arrangements are sparse but specific: no lack of attention to detail for this final statement. ‘Leaving The Table’, ‘Travelling Light’ and the title track are particular high points, each addressing the subsequent departure in their own particular ways. However, the track to which I keep returning is represented in two parts. ‘Treaty’ appears to be a reflection on his relationship with God, Cohen’s low rumble stating rather wearily, “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.” A deeply powerful track, no matter how many times you return to it, even its creator couldn’t resist revisiting it before pulling down the final curtain, concluding things with ‘String Reprise / Treaty’, elevating the refrain to elegiac status and allowing one final trip around those aching emotions. The procession concludes and a remarkable talent is lost to the world.

Like many others, I’m braced for the curious emotions of the media commemorating Bowie during the week marking one year since his death. While Cohen’s departure felt sad but at least plausible, the sudden switch from an imagined immortality to complete absence in the case of the dame was so hard to process. I have been watching endless YouTube clips of him pretty much ever since, lunging at each rediscovered interview from several decades ago and absorbing anything I didn’t already know about him. Adam Buxton’s ‘Bowie Wallow’ podcasts were a soothing treat and a righteous celebration, while Steve Schapiro’s book of photography offered fascinating snapshots from one of my favourite eras. My iPod has pretty much the entire discography on it, just in case there’s something obscure that I need to reach for at any given moment. The immersion in his work that was prompted by his passing faded a little over the months, but not a lot. ‘Blackstar’ didn’t leave the car for over a month after the news, ‘Station To Station’ soundtracked the journeys to and from the hospital during my dad’s final days and there was a week in the summer when I played almost nothing but ‘Low’, over and over. ‘Blackstar’, however, has been picked over time and again and I fear I have nothing new to say about it.

Having gleefully dragged my wife into the living room after she arrived home from work to hear the line “Man, she punched me like a dude” delivered with such gusto at the start of ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ on the day of the album’s release and puzzled over the references back to ‘A New Career In A New Town’ on closing track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, we then spent an hour or so the following morning flicking through the ‘Best Of Bowie’ DVD, still in awe of the man. The weekend around the release of ‘Blackstar’ was as Bowie-saturated as any I had had in some time. It made the winding sensation upon being told on the following Monday morning by a colleague that he had died all the more sickening. Unlike some, I didn’t avoid the album as a result. It was a way of dealing with the news. A focal point for a potent range of emotions. And so began the process mentioned earlier, of applying hindsight to a set of songs that had already begun to assert themselves according to one set of rules only for everything to change entirely.

Blackstar’, ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘You Want It Darker’ have little in common musically or lyrically. They are linked by circumstance and by theme. They are all subject to the distortions of their audience but they all rise to the challenge rather than buckling under such weight. They bring comfort in times of distress and offer perspective when clarity is lacking. They are inseparable as my albums of 2016 and their potency remains undiminished.

BEST OF 2016: Suggested Listening – Part 1

As is the nature of these things, I said I would write about some of my favourite albums of the year, rather more informally than normal, across the past month. I really intended to, but only the piece on the Villagers made it to the site. Now, with only two days of 2016 remaining, I’m going to resort to several summary pieces. The first of these can be found below. Click the album titles if you want to have a listen to anything. A second summary piece and a rough rank order will follow. Probably.

Meilyr Jones’ excellent solo debut, ‘2013’, was an early highlight, mixing hints of Randy Newman and Morrissey’s better side. 2015’s taster track ‘Refugees’ didn’t exactly set the scene, although subsequent singles have had the same pleasant problem. It sounds like a best of that ranges across the various eras of an artist’s career rather than the product of one period of writing. It makes for heady listening and pay close attention to the little details, including some beautiful field recordings.

A late addition to the list was The Radio Dept.’s ‘Running Out Of Love’. An emphatic recommendation from Totnes’ ever splendid music emporium Drift, this Swedish group’s fourth outing occupies a space somewhere between Erland Oye’s solo album and a fair chunk of New Order’s output over the years. It appears to have upset some of the faithful because of the reduced use of guitars, but it’s a magnificent record and one which works majestically in its entirety. Had it not escaped my attention on release it would likely be higher up my list.

With ‘Super’, Pet Shop Boys once again showed that they’re not ready for the  smooth, elegiac descent that ‘Elysium’ implied, continuing the fine form of ‘Electric’ and delivering one of their finest ever singles in ‘The Pop Kids’. It’s a short, lively record that isn’t perfect but which indulges a fondness for high camp and almost comically excessive harmonies to a remarkable degree.

Although not really a 2016 release, or even 2015 if you go back to its original French language form of 2014, Christine & The Queens’ ‘Chaleur Humaine’ is a very special album indeed. You’ll know the glorious single ‘Tilted’ and may have been lucky enough to see some of her magical performances across the year. These are songs with a social message, a powerful, particular voice and a genuine purpose, as well as some of the finest pop hooks I’ve heard in an age. Most of that could also be said about Solange’s  ‘A Seat At The Table’. Vintage soul grandiosity is a touchstone, but there’s no mistaking when these songs were made, adding all sorts of alternative, jazz and electronica references across its 21 tracks. It’s as fine a critique of modern America as several dozen lengthy New Yorker pieces will ever give you. I’ve still not quite fully got my head around it, but I already know it’s great.

Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Here’ offered welcome autumnal sunshine, marking their finest album since 1997’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’. Mid-paced jangle and soothing textures are the order of the day and ‘I’m In  Love’, ‘Hold On’ and ‘Live In The Moment’ are useful ways in for the unitiated. Georgia Ruth broadened the sonic landscape of my album of 2013 to craft ‘Fossil Scale’, co-producer David Wrench adding yet another triumph to his collection, as her strident folk melded with a little more electronica than of old. Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ provided several of my all time favourite songs of theirs, not least the exceptional ‘The Numbers’, which has an oddly jazzy looseness to it that is utterly stunning. The deluxe edition was a right con though and the mastering left more than a little to be desired.

Michael Kiwanuka made a fair old leap from his rather lovely debut ‘Home Again’ on ‘Love and Hate’, being to the orchestral soul sound of the 1970s what Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ was to the emphatic propulsion of 1960s Motown. It’s an album that needs taking in its entirety and it will hypnotise you over a decent pair of headphones. Another which suits that method of consumption, but also served to be one of my preferred driving records of the year, was Ryley Walker’s superlative ‘Golden Sings That Have Been Sung’. His previous album had already shown a fairly remarkable talent in the making but this was a tour de force, underlined by the bonus edition containing a forty minute workout of ‘Sullen Mind’ that pushed and pulled the song all over the place. Lyrically great and musically full of confidence, there were still shades of Tim Buckley but with added touches of Jim O’Rourke and Wilco at their most strung out. It’s an album with an evocative atmosphere across its duration, slightly out of step with the times of its creation.

 

BEST OF 2016: Villagers – Where Have You Been All My Life?

It all hinges on ‘Wichita Lineman’, a piece of music so ubiquitous that one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s impossible to do a bad version of it. There is some truth in that, in as much as a truly great song will eke out a shallow breath even after some fairly brutal treatment at the hands of a careless producer or inept vocalist, but it’s actually a little more complex. In fact, what is so often the case with songs like this is that the really tricky thing is doing a version that is genuinely, sincerely great. It is at the other end of the scale where so many artists flounder. The song is golden and they’re dab hands themselves, so what could go wrong? As it turns out, after half an hour of rummaging around on Spotify, quite a lot. I’ve always been partial to R.E.M.’s raw live take released around the time of their finest album, ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’, and there’s a Smokey Robinson & The Miracles version that I didn’t know but now rather like, but most of what remains would make for a fairly mediocre lift experience. Johnny Cash’s late period approach almost flattens it, Sergio Mendes rips out its heart, Tom Jones over-emotes it in a way that only a man who believes he’s far sexier than anyone else does could do and whatever the hell botoxed Marti Pellow thought he was up to is not immediately clear. In short, ‘Wichita Lineman’ can make some of the best, and Marti Pellow, sound like X Factor third week evictees if it’s not treated well.

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All of which is a lengthy way of setting the context for this overlooked gem of a record that crept out on January 8th. As was the case for most things released around the time of Bowie’s death, it had little chance of catching the public’s attention. Add in the fact that it was a collection of intimate re-workings of mostly previously released material, recorded in a day, and it doesn’t sound like one to set the world alight. A quick dash through the tracks upon release was arrested after trialling yet another take on the aforementioned Jimmy Webb-penned classic about the lonely worker. Conor O’Brien’s tender, creaky delivery breathes new life into a song that’s had more than its fair share of outings. As an album closer it is majestic and it is a compliment to his own material that it sounds entirely in keeping with the fifty minutes of music that precede it here.

Opening with two tracks from 2010’s ‘Becoming A Jackal’, it becomes immediately clear that there is a logic behind this endeavour. While that debut holds up six years on, the refinement on show here serves to recast some of those tracks as modern torch songs. ‘Set The Tigers Free’, with its hushed drums and lulling synth is a glorious opener, conveying the fact that O’Brien’s voice is a much more nuanced vehicle for these words than it once was. The descending piano part on ‘Everything I Am Is Yours’ extracts one of the glorious but subtle elements of the original and foregrounds it as the whole thing speeds up and take off.

Songs that might have otherwise been regarded as pleasant parts of previous records suddenly appear fully realised. ‘My Lighthouse’ benefits from a sparse performance, with just a little light flugelhorn and dramatic reverb taking it somewhere other than its incarnation on 2013’s ‘{Awayland}’. ‘That Day’, from the debut, loses its zip of old and instead becomes all the more forlorn and enveloping, the final minute one of those magical examples of an artist and their band slowly removing themselves from the landscape note by note and decibel by decibel.

The Soul Serene’ is one of the more grandiose moments on a largely demure set, imbued with a little more energy than the version on 2015’s ‘Darling Arithmetic’, while ‘Memoir’ makes its first appearance as a Villagers song, having originally been written for Charlotte Gainsbourg. A nimble shuffle with a beautiful chorus, it should serve as another incentive for anyone grumbly enough to feel like the logic behind this release isn’t worthy of their time. The burbling electronica of 2013’s ‘The Waves’ makes way for the alchemical fizz that can emerge from a small group of musicians playing in front of each other, lost in the moment. In crafting a cohesive palette for all twelve songs, O’Brien has arrived at something truly special.

Perhaps most telling in my assertion of the quality of ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is the fact that none of Villagers’ previous albums have made it into my end of year countdowns. This spontaneous performance became a perfect storm. From the title and artwork right the way through to the final studio ambience that concludes ‘Wichita Lineman’, this is a musician in his element, portraying the strongest examples of his work in the most magical of lights.

Where Have You Been All My Life?’ is out now on Domino.

2016: Taking stock

I know I am not the only person who is going to be rather glad to see the back of 2016. The political events of the past twelve months would be enough to warrant such hostility towards this particular year. Add in the loss of some totemic musical giants and it feels like it wasn’t enough to simply see a rise in the bad – we had to lose so much good as well.

In October, with only minimal warning, my father died. He went into hospital in late September and didn’t make it back out. It tipped the year off balance and skewed my perspective on so much but it happened in such manic times that I’m still not sure how much I’ve processed his passing. It was all the more painful considering the delight he had shown when, in early spring, I had told him that my wife and I were expecting our first child. Elin arrived last week and she is curled up on my arm as I type this. Sadly, the two were never to meet and, as much as preparation for a new arrival was a welcome distraction during the times that followed dad’s death, it’s yet another reason for 2016 to move along now.

In amongst all of this, as well as with increased commitments at work, I took the decision during the summer that I was done with giving my writing away. I remain enormously indebted to Paul Du Noyer and Jude Rogers for taking a chance on me at The Word all those years ago, to Nick Annan, Mike Diver and Matthew Bennett who oversaw some happy times during the print era of Clash Magazine and to Dan Stubbs who commissioned my sole appearance in the NME. That ‘Anatomy of an Album’ piece on Gene’s ‘Olympian’ made my teenage self very happy indeed. As the music press contracts and online drivel expands, there isn’t much of a place for my writing in the current climate. There are still vital writers doing wonderful things with words – Dorian Lynskey, Pete Paphides, Sylvia Patterson, Laura Barton, John Mulvey, Laura Snapes, John Doran, Peter Robinson, Emily Mackay, Jazz Monroe to name a small selection – but the platforms are limited and the battle for our attention has never been fiercer. I’ve been lucky to have the experiences I have had, but nobody needs me to be churning out another philanthropic 600-word online album review in my minimal free time apart, possibly, from the place so keen to take advantage of the willing for so long. This really isn’t meant to be self-pitying, no matter how it sounds – and, frankly, if you’re going to take that approach I’d lead with the dead dad stuff, personally – but it seemed the right time to say it and a writer has to write about not writing, surely?

All of which brings me to the fact that I’m not doing a fancy looking top 30 countdown this year. For a start, I haven’t got the time to craft the necessary words to deliver the usual format in between changing nappies and not sleeping. Secondly, I’m not convinced I can refine the rough list I assembled a few weeks ago. Finally, I think I’d rather do some longer pieces on a selection of truly special records that have meant a lot, especially in the last few months. Some of them have had more words than you could ever wish for committed to them already, but I’m not going to let that stop me. As you can see, this blog has lain dormant since last year’s list ended and we have all coped, haven’t we?

In a world where people object to paying £20 for an album over which an artist has toiled for a year, £10 a month in order to stream most of the music ever made or £5 for a magazine full of witty and passionate cultural writing, the value of creativity is wobbling. Yes, giving your work for free is a foot in the door and a way to get noticed. It’s the right way for plenty of new writers to get started but it shouldn’t be a business model and fuck all of those people scraping by on advertising spends built entirely upon the benign charity of people who deserve better. I know what it feels like to have to write. There are days when your fingers hover over the keyboard, ready to unleash fizzing prose. But the increasing willingness to be one of many is diluting our cultural dialogue and blunting the critical word. If a site only exists to get its fanboy boss onto guestlists, it’s unlikely to ever take a purposeful swipe at something that is legitimately awful in case it offends a PR company. If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product.

The internet is full of writing about music, but I don’t recognise much of it as belonging to the actual genre of ‘music writing’. The tipping point came earlier this year when my access to the latest PJ Harvey album came so close to release that I had already read at least a dozen reviews before I was in a position to file mine. Is there an album in recorded musical history that needs more than a dozen different reviews writing about it? We have to be careful not to mistake an increase in choice for an increase in quality. The internet is a massive tumbler in which we can, theoretically, make an enormous glass of squash, but there’s still only the same amount of concentrate in the first place. I’d rather have that glorious hit of sweetness every so often than be submerged by piss weak lemon and barley.

So, I’m hanging up my 7/10 autofill and declining the chance of several frantic listens, because online coverage is served as close to release as possible, in exchange for enjoying music again. An interesting print option is on the horizon for 2017, but we shall see where that goes. In the meantime, there will be a number of pieces over the coming month on some of 2016’s finest music, but as and when I feel like it and I hope you’ll take the time to read them. And, if you’re reading this now as someone who gives away your creativity: stop.

BEST OF 2015: 1. Daniel Knox ‘Daniel Knox’

Once a week, around lunchtime on a Tuesday, renowned journalist and broadcaster Pete Paphides takes to the air of Soho Radio to host two hours of wonderful music, largely from his preferred format of vinyl. As it has developed, the show has featured some riveting and often elongated interviews and performances by some of the world’s finest musicians. Free of advertising and formats, Paphides plays what he likes and chats for as long as is wise. It is, predictably, a brilliant listen. Despite airing at an unhelpful time, all of the shows are archived via Mixcloud and they are well worth exploring. Back on March 31st, when I happened to be enjoying a week off work and wanted something to play while I rearranged my records, I had the great pleasure of hearing one of the shows that featured American artist Daniel Knox. He proved suitably engaging, both in conversation and performance. Advance to just prior to two hours here and you’ll be similarly transfixed. The inevitable result was an enduring love affair with his self-titled third album which is my favourite of this year.

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His label boss talks of Knox’s determination to avoid any pigeon-holing and in the interview I mentioned above he expresses a desire not to describe his own music. As someone who is called upon to find such words, I’m inclined to agree. There are hints of the 1920s and 30s influences which are more obvious on his earlier releases, but one is also reminded of Nilsson, Scott Walker, The Divine Comedy and, in his quieter moments, Tindersticks. Primarily built around the piano, these ten songs have a beautiful sense of space to them, notes drawn out and pauses left as is appropriate. The record as a whole is captivating and it’s refreshingly difficult to do anything else I’ve heard in 2015.

Incident At White Hen’ grows from a burbling synth into something rather grand, the machine gun fire of distant, reverb-coated drums and shimmering percussion elevating the piece to wondrous heights. For a man who pointedly doesn’t retread the old cliches of love songs, that’s not to say this music can’t be stridently emotional in its power to connect. An instinctive and emphatic performer, Knox is a rare talent.

High Pointe Drive’ advances in ceremonial fashion, all elongated vowels and ominous piano, evoking a sense of Scott Walker at his most sonorous. It forms the album’s centrepiece and, at almost seven minutes in length, it perfectly demonstrates Knox’s knack for knowing where to take each song, as there are stylistic switches all over the place.

Don’t Touch Me’ is imbued with a glorious, high-camp sense of the dramatic in its account of the artist’s fear of germs. ‘White Oaks Mall’, meanwhile, is about driving past a familiar location on numerous occasions and how it has provided a similar experience to so many people, twitchy strings gradually building to a soaring, atmospheric wall of sound on a par with Knox’s vocal.

Still working as a projectionist in the Music Box Theater in his base of Chicago, it’s clear that points on the map matter and place names and businesses feature across the record. Casting back to his childhood, ‘Lawrence and MacArthur’ is an intersection in Springfield, Illinois, where he grew up, known for its copious accidents. Knox would sit and observe, studying the people who emerged and filming footage of what ensued. The two minute song of that name has been released with a video crafted from some of those recordings, but it’s also musically fascinating with its drawn out drum sounds and delicate, lulling delivery.

Blue Car’ opens the record, flittering synths hinting at a rather reserved piece, only for Knox to unleash his stunning voice at its halfway point. It’s an out and out hairs on the back of the neck moment and all the other tired old phrases I’m meant to avoid but which perfectly allow you to grasp what I’m getting at. Apparently, it’s a response to perceived time travel, when ten year old Knox encountered a driverless car at his house and assumed it must there be himself coming back to say something to his younger form. It’s a staggering statement of intent and a piece which is revisited on the penultimate track, ‘Car Blue’, beginning a little like ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ with a resonant, closely mic-ed piano. The strings soon emerge, doing little to dispel the comparison, but also referencing the melody of the album’s first track.

Events conclude with ‘14 15 111′, excerpted from a longer piece by the same name Knox wrote to accompany footage shot by artist John Atwood. A lyrical callback to ‘Blue Car’ is notable before a choir burst in and take the record somewhere else entirely only moments before it ends. It’s an enjoyably odd way to round out these ten songs but entirely fitting when one recalls Knox’s reluctance to be labelled.

With songs culled from several other projects and recorded en route to the final part of a trilogy he has been working on for the best part of decade, ‘Daniel Knox’ is a genuinely incredible album. It received minimal coverage upon release but all I’ve encountered who have heard it seem to love it. All of which suggests that it’s just a matter of connecting it to the right ears and letting these wonderful songs do the rest. My album of 2015 has little to tie it to its year of release but it is a true highpoint of what has been a very fine time for music.

BEST OF 2015: 2. Low ‘Ones And Sixes’

Some bands possess alchemical elements that ensure that their music is distinctive and compelling. The Smiths had Marr’s peerless guitar work, The National have Bryan Devendorf’s otherworldly drumming and Low truly take off when the voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker combine. Twenty-one years after their first, the Minnesotan trio have crafted an eleventh album that employs new textures around those magnificent vocals and deviates from a path upon which they seemed to have settled. My album of 2011, ‘C’Mon’, is a beautiful, at times luscious, record and the clarity of 2013’s rather subdued ‘The Invisible Way’ suggested that the scuzzy, unsettling sounds to which they had gravitated in the mid-Noughties were consigned to the past.

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Ones And Sixes’ is sequenced so as to ensure such assumptions are quickly shattered. Sparkhawk has spoken recently of his restless desire not to plough the same furrow too consistently and, while it might make a neat quip to describe this as their last record channelled through the noise of 2007’s ‘The Great Destroyer’, there’s rather more to it than that.

The subterranean bass that drives ironically titled opener ‘Gentle’ is so ferocious that it partially obscures Parker and Sparhawk at various points. The weary march of the distorted drums sets the tone for what lies ahead, flagging up the chaos out of beauty motif that runs throughout ‘Ones And Sixes’. Many of these songs may well have worked with the gentle Jeff Tweedy production of their last outing, but here, with B.J. Burton at the controls, they are pushed, pulled and mangled out of shape to devastating effect. Early teaser ‘No Comprende’, with an insistent jagged riff initially setting the brooding pace, is torn apart at the three minute mark, Parker’s vocals eventually offering some balm after moments of turmoil.

Despite the shift, the textures are far less ugly than their previous noisier endeavours, with the harmonies and melodic uplifts of recent work still very much in play. ‘Spanish Translation’ starts like the synth breakdown in a house track before the band’s vintage wall of sound heft thunders in on the chorus. The electronic pulse of ‘Into You’ sets up a multi-tracked Parker vocal on one of a number of songs which seem to tackle the highs and lows of the intimacy necessitated by twenty-two years bound together by band and marriage. The finest of these is ‘What Part Of Me’, on which vocal duties are shared to predictably beautiful effect around a naggingly catchy chorus.

The album’s most notable moments come in its final quarter. ‘Landslide’, clocking in at almost ten minutes, is a shape-shifting epic which brings to mind some of the most mesmeric mantras from Spiritualized’s career, torn asunder by some ferocious guitar work by Sparhawk. It’s breathtakingly ‘big’, especially in contrast to the studied calm of ‘The Invisible Way’. Despite this grandiose landmark, the true treasure comes just before it. ‘Lies’, occupying a far more modest four minutes of the record, is another of the duets, although Sparhawk sits far further forward in the mix. Its true beauty, however, comes from the ascending synth line which peppers the chorus. It’s a trick that Low have never deployed previously and it is, however implausibly, as emotively powerful as the vocals behind which it resides.

There will be those who favour the delicately rounded corners of the band’s recent work ahead of the scuffed up layers present on ‘Ones And Sixes’, but don’t be fooled by any early disorientation. The band’s strengths are here in abundance, but they are reimagined, twisted into new shapes and given a visceral intensity that is utterly irresistible.

BEST OF 2015: 3. Natalie Prass ‘Natalie Prass’

Towards the end of album opener ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’, Natalie Prass repeats the line “our love is a long goodbye” numerous times, each iteration slightly more pained than the last. It’s stirring stuff, but the bit which told me pretty much instantly that this would become a favourite record is the slightly fidgety “waiting on the train” that cuts across that phrase on several occasions. It’s delivered high, putting the spotlight on Prass’ unusual but affecting voice. It’s a fitting way to set out the stall for an album which, while driven by quite the musical collective, is all about a singular artist.

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Much has been written about how this album ended up waiting on the shelf at Spacebomb Records after the unexpected success of Matthew E. White’s ‘Big Love’ several years back. ‘Natalie Prass’ was ready to go back in 2012, the same musicians working on both records as part of the label’s house band. Looking to do something not dissimilar to the classic soul labels of the Sixties and Seventies, White and producer Trey Pollard developed a knack for making limited resources stretch quite remarkably and the same luscious sound that greeted our ears with the co-founder’s debut is also present here.

Essentially a soul record with a few nods to musicals and country, ‘Natalie Prass’ documents heartache in impressively pithy fashion. The expansive rhythm section and warm orchestration that the Spacebomb team lend to proceedings make for something truly special. Some of these songs can be found online in early demo form and, while their charms are still evident, they have come a long way. ‘Your Fool’, in particular, had an openly retro twang that is some distance from the strings, horns and percussive strut it possesses in its current form. “You’ll come back to an empty house with a note signed sincerely, your fool,” is quite the refrain, especially when you learn that many of these songs were co-written with an ex. So effective is this particular lyric that it emerges again as ‘Reprise’ towards the end of the record, spaced out aspects of the original whirling around a  narration of those same words. It’s a curious, timeless manoeuvre which serves to further underline the old-school ethic at the heart of the Spacebomb project.

Each and every one of the tracks on the album are worthy of comment, for one reason or another. ‘Christy’ is a dour, string laden lament to a helpless love triangle, Prass’ vocal a part-sung, part-whispered ache of confusion and resignation. ‘Why Don’t You Believe In Me‘ is the most Matthew E. White-y of the songs here, initially evoking memories of the second half of ‘Brazos’ from the end of ‘Big Love’. For this, Prass uses the full range of her voice, building up to an accusatory chorus that demonstrates resolve in the face of sadness.

Violently’ starts quietly, light piano and some weaving electric guitar intertwining, only for the line “break my legs because they want to walk to you” to cut through as strings emerge from the background and convey a snarling frustration. They soar across the song as Prass explains “I’ve had enough of talking politely. The red is there, it’s all over me. It’s overlaid eloquently.” The rousing orchestration seems a little at odds with the message, but it’s a magical combination and one of the album’s numerous highpoints.

Never Over You’ and ‘Bird Of Prey’ both do the mid-paced swagger to great effect, the latter possessing a swooping chorus and some neat, understated ‘oooh-oooh’ back-ups in the middle-eight that will get under your skin. The record manages to be remarkably cohesive considering the willingness to nip about stylistically. Most striking is the final track, ‘It Is You’, which melds harp, flute and vintage, saccharine strings to sound like a defining moment from a musical. It should be jarring but it is an oddly apt way to draw together the beguiling strands of Natalie Prass’ talents. A piece which highlights the rather otherworldly quality of her voice underlines just what it is that makes the record such a compelling listen. It’s hard to imagine anyone not warming to this album. While it made for quite the summer record in 2015, it could well also prove a neat way to unite the family in the claustrophobic festive fug of the next fortnight. Wonderful songwriting, soul-tingling musicianship and truly affecting delivery make ‘Natalie Prass’ a genuinely special album.

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I should also flag up the marvellous ‘Side By Side’ EP that was released recently. Recorded live in the Spacebomb studios, it features fresh takes on ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’ and ‘Christy’. Perhaps more noteworthy, however, is the choice of cover versions included. Anita Baker’s ‘Caught Up In The Rapture’ works neatly, Grimes’ ‘REALiTi’ is played straight, its modern jazz leanings pulled to the fore, but the third selection is arguably the best. Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound Of Silence’ finds the funk and builds around some wonderful organ playing into something irresistibly joyous. A curious diversion it may be, but a welcome additional release for those already smitten with the fabulous album.