BEST OF 2011: 24. Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat –Everything’s Getting Older

Bill Wells has released some wonderful work in various different guises. His two albums as leader of the Bill Wells Trio are borderline essential listening for anyone with an ambient-jazz leaning. His release with Isobel Campbell is worth seeking out and he’s played his part in some fine albums in association with Annie Whitehead, Stefan Schneider and Barbara Morgenstern. It’s not all glory, but his strike rate is pretty good. His new solo outing, ‘Lemondale’, is right next to the turntable as I type and will likely get a play in the next day or two. I’ll happily predict that it’ll be pretty decent at the very least. And all this before we even get to the wondrous talent of Aidan Moffat: one half of Arab Strap, magnificent solo artist and thoroughly endearing raconteur.

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Emerging from the instrumental opener, ‘Cages’ comes on with disturbingly frantic strings and a trademark malevolent narration from Moffat. It’s excellent stuff, elevated to greatness when it slides into the chorus, which features the lines: “A change is just a new routine, a new function for the same machine. Are we ever truly free?” The combination of Wells at his playful best and Moffat at his, well, playful best is a potent force and this is not an album designed for shuffle. Clear forty minutes in your day, open the alcoholic beverage of choice and sink into a comfy chair. It’s like theatre. Moffat’s always been a master of lyrical storytelling and he’s in both fine form and voice on ‘Everything’s Getting Older’.

Side one concludes with ‘The Copper Top’, for which Wells throws himself into mournful swoops of strings and plaintive piano and over which Moffat tells us of the purchase of a three-piece suit for a funeral which, he muses, can then be used for next week’s christening too. For all the gleeful swearing and sexual aggression that can bubble wickedly in Moffat’s work, this simple track is an absolute joy and manages to be one of the ultimate highlights amongst superb company.

Next thing you know, normal service has been resumed with ‘Glasgow Jubilee’, the album’s other breathtaking moment. The resolute thud of the rhythm section on this is something of a shock to the system after what has come before, but the thrusting talk of whores and lying which sits atop it wouldn’t work any other way. It contains several lyrics which will make you laugh out loud, but repeated plays will reveal a masterfully constructed track and one of 2011’s finest songs.

If you didn’t take to Arab Strap then it’s unlikely you’ll be utterly smitten with ‘Everything’s Getting Older’, but, for the rest of us, it’s a joy to behold. Moffat, one of Twitter’s finest late-night, booze-fuelled, sweary-faced ranters, has already hinted at the pair working together again and it’s hard to think why they wouldn’t on this evidence. Here’s hoping.

BEST OF 2011 25. Frankie & The Heartstrings – Hunger

Shameless jangly indie is a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s rarely done in an especially exciting way. With so much mediocrity shlopping away in this genre – oh yes Viva Brother, I am looking, nay, staring at you – when you find a  band who really know what they’re doing, you cling to them dearly. Throw in a charismatic frontman with a distinctive yelp and you’ve sealed the deal. Imagine the Housemartins doing a cover album of Strokes singles and you’ll have some sense of what ‘Hunger’, the debut offering from one of the most adorable indie bands of modern times, actually sounds like.

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The whole record oozes that raw, manic indie sound which has been one of the main forces in popular music’s alleyways and backwaters – with a brief outpouring in the mid-Nineties – for over thirty years now. Yep, it’s more music about love chased, lost and briefly enjoyed, delivered by lads in skinny black trousers. Not quite a state of the nation address this one, then. Unless the state of the nation is fuck it, let’s dance. Which could work, I suppose.

The album’s title track, a reworked version of their first single – angular, frenetic and blessed with charmingly blokey backing vocals – is some statement of intent. ‘Fragile’, the album’s most cerebral moment, is a sprawling, emotive beast which gradually splinters into a raucous finale befitting of the lyric “if you’re going to break down then just break down.”

‘Tender’ continues the great tradition of indie false starts, coming across as achingly twee before erupting into another hyperactive sprint to the finish line. The album is blessed with plenty of “woos” and “woah-woah-woah” backing vocals, delivered free of irony and shame, safe in the knowledge that they simply sound bloody great. ‘Possibilities’ swaggers along at a speed which seemingly threatens imminent collapse, before the guitars are unleashed and some form of regular time signature emerges. You get the impression that they don’t want you to sit there chin-stroking and admiring the chord changes when you could just be leaping around.

The Eighties indie credentials are further enhanced with production from Edwyn Collins, lending it that thin but urgent bounce which made listening to the gorgeous Orange Juice boxset such a delight. To top it all off, they give good quote. Take this classic from drummer Dave Harper, which drew me in: “I could walk 50 yards from here and find 10 musicians who are a million times better than us, but fuck me they’re boring. There’ll be a band in Newcastle one of these days with so many fucking delay pedals you’ll have to stand in Hartlepool to hear them.” Even if the tunes weren’t already so good, you’d have to like them anyway.

BEST OF 2011: 26. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Since completing my list, the monthlies have published their End of Year countdowns and both Mojo and Uncut have plumped for this, with even Q realising that it needed to be fairly close to the top, even if they did feel that Florence had more to offer on this occasion. It’s certainly a very fine record and one which, in terms of scope and subject matter, Harvey finally felt able to attempt at this stage in her career –  an album which has been described as a state of the nation address for 2011. The lyrical content will certainly prompt several theses, a couple of pretentious retrospective pieces in the music press in five, ten years from now and the cry that this is essential social commentary for our times. Forgive me if I just like it largely for the tunes.

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The bugle atop ‘The Glorious Land’ is completely at odds, not to mention out of time, with the jangling guitar below and, while its presence opens up various interpretations as to the track’s message, I just find myself wishing I could stick with the brilliant song beneath. There’s no doubting that the lyrical comment here is sharp, often staggering, with talk of a soldier “walking on the faces of dead women and everyone I left behind me,” and it’s hard not to be caught up in the atmosphere at the heart of this album. However, this has led to a number of reviews saying that this album is bleak and a hard listen. Unwanted bugle aside, I just don’t hear it that way. The surgery-on-a-live-and-awake-puppy singing style of ‘White Chalk’ was often difficult to listen to, but ‘Let England Shake’ is a tremendous juggernaut of an album; well-paced and beautifully produced; it is a captivating experience. I can already imagine this being one of those albums which vinyl foragers will clutch excitedly when a pristine copy surfaces in the racks in thirty years time.

‘Let England Shake’ works incredibly well as an album of two halves – whether intentionally or not – with the stop-start flow of ‘On Battleship Hill’ bringing side one to a close, accompanying the message “cruel nature has won again.” Side two commences with the relatively subdued ‘England’ – “to you…I cling” – before building up, once again, a fierce sense of purpose. It’s purposeful, it’s relentless and it’s exciting!

The sound isn’t always big in the sense that it’s bursting out of the speakers, nor big in the sense that it is a particularly heavy album, but the spacious production and the waves of music which fill the room suggest that it isn’t quite as haunting and murky as some would have you believe. Although that may be because I’m listening on vinyl – ahem. What I’m essentially driving at is that some of the descriptions of this record – often with complete sincerity and largely fascinating insight and interpretations – have made it seem cold, forbidding and hard-going. I can only speak for myself, but those are adjectives which wouldn’t necessarily send me scurrying to the shops. On ‘Let England Shake’, PJ Harvey has found a different voice, both literally and lyrically, and crafted something very much of our time and yet completely out of time.