BEST OF 2011 – 27. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis – Smoking In Heaven

My, there’s been some shite written about this band and this album this year. Several reviews in particular appeared to have decided that the album was an embarrassing pastiche with little to offer before even playing the bloody thing. I say this with some confidence as I cannot understand how anybody who experiences that little rush, that almost indescribable feeling that spreads through you, when something ace happens during a song, could not end up smitten with ‘Smoking In Heaven’. You know what I mean, be it a guitar solo, a drum pattern or just the way the vocalist sings a certain line or word: it just makes you feel amazing. And this record takes about ninety seconds to do that. So there.

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Sounding fifty years out of time and traversing genres without concern, it is unlike anything else you will have heard this year. And you really should hear it. Don’t be put off by the fine, if unremarkable, debut which marked their arrival several years ago. This is a band now fully at ease with their sound. Obsessed with the minutiae of analogue sound, this trio are sticklers for an authentic approach and whether it wears its influences on its sleeve or not, when the songs are this good, who cares? Their problem, whisper it now, is that they really don’t fit with any current scene nor convey any particular sense of cool. I don’t imagine they lose any sleep over it but it has made them keyboard fodder for many a scabrous journo over the past few years. While they may have had a scintilla of a point with their aforementioned and slightly anaemic debut,  this superlative amalgamation of a fine, fine record collection is hard to fault.

Boldly commencing with the ska-infused ‘Tomorrow’, the album ranges from straight up rock and roll through raucous R’n’B and folksy swing. There’s a New Orleans piano feel to ‘Paan Man Boogie’ which evokes the gargantuan spirit of Professor Longhair. The utter joy at the heart of these songs is conveyed explicitly throughout, most notably on ‘Messing With My Life’ and ‘Don’t Make A Fool Out Of Me’. Forget the fact that Jools Holland probably loves this and console yourself with the fact that Mark Lamarr is also probably quite keen too.

Standout track ‘Messing With My Life’ struts along, all jangly guitars and sassy vocals, until a delicious yet understated key change finally confirms what a tremendous little track it is. If you’re only going to judge this record on one song, make it this and turn it up. If you’re not sold after that then I’d be amazed.

BEST OF 2011–28. Iron & Wine–Kiss Each Other Clean

Iron & Wine’s ‘Passing Afternoon’ is quite possibly one of the most delicately constructed songs ever made, containing the lyric which brought about the name of its parent album, “there are things that drift away, like our endless numbered days.” Plaintive piano keeps time as gentle guitar lines provide subtle accompaniment to Sam Beam’s beautiful vocal. Nick Hornby once described Teenage Fanclub’s superlative record ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ as “the next best comfort food you can buy if you’ve already got ‘Rubber Soul’.” To that list you could arguably add that pristine album.

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Things took a curious turn with 2007’s ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, which pushed and pulled in different directions as Beam attempted to simultaneously explore and wilfully muddy his signature sound. Whilst it broke fewer hearts than its predecessor, it pointed the way to an intriguing future. But things were quiet for some time thereafter, save for the excellent odds and sods collection, ‘Around The Well’, which only served to remind the listening public of the more sparse songs of old.

Some concern was expressed at early remarks from Beam suggesting that ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ could be described as a “pop record”, adding that “it sounds like the music people heard in their parents’ car growing up… that early-to-mid-’70s FM, radio-friendly music.” While the sharper edges of ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ have been smoothed over, this was never one to have Adele and Olly Murs quaking on the shelves of your local supermarket. Yes, things sound a little different but there is no cause for alarm. Quite the opposite, in fact, for studio album number four turned out to be the second essential Iron & Wine album, and the first for new label 4AD. The musical backdrop may continue to change, but the beguiling constant – Beam’s voice – is just as alluring as ever.

These ten songs ooze warmth, littered with classic rock gear changes, acoustic thrums and shuffling bass, but the rhythmic schizophrenia from the last outing still remains intact. Although ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is yet further down the road from ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, it is still quite distinctively Iron & Wine. That said, if early outings left you cold and wishing that there was a little more meat on the bones, then this might be the time to commit some cash for a re-evaluation.

As has always been his way, the lyrics offer a darker undercurrent in contrast to the more saccharine surface layers. With his knack for illuminatingly detailed description, Beam once again defines the album’s landscape. Opening track ‘Walking Far From Home’ offers the unsettling imagery of “saw a car crash in the country, where the prayers run like weeds along the road,” while ‘Rabbit Will Run’, accompanied by a suitably unsettling soundtrack, declares that “judgement is just like a cup that we share, I’ll jump over the wall and I’ll wait for you there” as part of a tale of wrongdoing and recriminations.

Just as the act of dressing Brian Blessed like the Pope wouldn’t stop him having Brian Blessed’s voice (another day, another tortured example), the broader approach to musical arrangements which have graced more recent Iron & Wine outings do not in any way diminish the presence of Beam’s remarkable vocals. ‘Godless Brother In Love’ and ‘Tree By The River’ are the two shining examples of uplifting harmonies and pop classicism, delivering on the earlier claim to sound like music played by people’s parents. Provided said parents liked a bit of Beach Boys.

Having seen some of these tracks performed during Beam’s heartening headline set at this year’s Green Man Festival, their strength was reaffirmed and I found myself returning to the album again after its initial appearance. While he is prone to a little excess when onstage, this is beautifully textured and expertly produced outing. ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is a curiously comforting record. Even though heart-warming lullabies can then be followed by squelching funk, the overarching sense of warmth in this sound makes for a deeply satisfying listen. A pair of headphones and a cuppa should seal the deal.