BEST OF 2011: 12. The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh

The power of music is hard to quantify. How many of us are constantly on the lookout for something revelatory, something distinctive, something special? No matter how many favourite records you have, it’s a reassuring delight to think that there will be further additions to that list for as long as you keep on exploring. Sometimes they ride in on the crest of a wave of media hype, often they just appear quietly, without fanfare, and ransack your ears. For a lucky group of listeners, 2009′s ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin‘ was one such record and its capacity to wow remains undiminished. Picked up by the remarkably consistent Bella Union, after being self-released in small numbers in 2008, The Low Anthem‘s third album became beloved of discerning listeners and bearded music monthlies alike. This time around, there was a sense of anticipation surrounding a new release by the band and ‘Smart Flesh’ had a lot to live up to.

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Largely favouring plaintive, spacious vintage folk, proceedings are occasionally interrupted by Waitsian, muddied, junkyard rock and roll. While the more raucous moments are few and far between, the hypnotic qualities of the slower material are more than enough for this band to merit a place in your collection. Much of the album was recorded in a disused pasta sauce factory with microphones dotted across the floor space and the sound of ‘Smart Flesh’ is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Listen carefully to ‘Golden Cattle’ and it’s quite clear that lead vocalist Ben Knox Miller’s affecting performance is being picked up from afar; emptiness never sounded so good. ‘Love And Altar’ has a similarly airy feel, the attention to detail in creating this distinctive, raw sound utterly staggering. Miller sounds as if his vocal is being left somewhere in the past, the other voices in the band harmonising beautifully around him. It’s impressive through speakers but a listen via headphones left me more than a little choked up. Indeed, the emotions are stirred at numerous points throughout ‘Smart Flesh’, not least on ‘I’ll Take Out Your Ashes’. Talking of a delay in carrying out the deceased’s wishes, it is a sparse lament containing the perfectly captured and hugely evocative lyric, “I’ve combed your Alzheimer’s poetry for all that I wish for it to say.” The slightly detuned radio buzzing in the distance throughout is a bold but remarkably affecting touch, the background hum of life never letting up.

The half-way point is neatly marked by forlorn instrumental ‘Wire’ which, as it slowly unfurls, serves to highlight just how delicate the musicianship is on this beguiling album. There’s an audible intake of breath around the three minute mark and, though there are no vocals, the sense that there is someone in the room with you is there for the duration. ‘Apothecary Love’ is a swooning, strung-out meditation on love and longing, talking of “her sad, sad eyes, the burden she carried” and how “I’ve got the cure for the state that you’re in” only for the situation to be reversed by the time the song comes to a close. It’s one of a number of highlights on the record and a fine example of their ability to set compelling narratives to deft arrangements and lay siege to your mind.

Whether unleashing the musical saw on ‘Burn’ or deploying antique pump organs to emotive effect, there isn’t a note wasted on ‘Smart Flesh’. If it’s there, it’s there for a reason and it’s clear that there is cerebral weight behind this music. Watching the band live, Ben Knox Miller’s endless fidgeting between songs, retrieving instruments and general prodding at cables and pedals, tells the tale of musicians who care about capturing a very precise sound. The opportunities for intricate recording techniques ensure that there are notable differences between their sound in concert and on record, but the moments where the whole band go off mic and sing together at the front of the stage highlight the same obsession with detail.

When a racket is called for, a racket is delivered and ‘Boeing 737’, with its opening line of “I was in the air when the towers came down, in a bar on the eighty-forth floor”, demands a racket. A wash of sound rises up and carries you into Miller’s rasping delivery which doesn’t let up until it clatters to a halt 150 seconds later. It seems a staggering achievement on first listen, but in the context of the whole of ‘Smart Flesh’, the scaling of such heights seems almost ordinary.

The album concludes with its seven and a half minute title track, with Miller delivering an intimate vocal with more than a hint of latter-day gravelly Dylan. Advancing at a pace that would aggravate the driver of a hearse and featuring a quite deliberately sibilant vocal, it is the mark of a band doing things their way. Perfectly measured and heartbreakingly sung, it is a mesmerising way to bring things to a close. Miller quietly growls to the character in the song that “in the end you’ll be alone” before giving the resigned instruction to “smoke yourself to sleep.” The track fades as the music ceases, creating a sense of the band physically retreating as they conclude their business, having given their all.

‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ was a truly special record, and its predecessor ‘What The Crow Brings’ is also worth seeking out, but ‘Smart Flesh’ is a defining moment. An album you’ll buy for other people just because you know they need to hear it. An album you’ll return to time and time again and look for when you need something special to capture how you’re feeling. Joyous, pensive, cathartic and hymnal in equal measure, this is the human condition set to music.

BEST OF 2011: 13. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

I put on ‘Step Right Up’ from ‘Small Change’ and I laugh. To this day, there are lines in that song which prompt real guffaws – partly down to the words, partly the delivery. It’s just magnificent. The fact that it follows the completely different and yet similarly excellent ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ only serves to highlight what an embarrassment of riches that and a number of Waits’ album can be. Similarly, ‘Nighthawks At The Diner’ is another of his records which I find greatly entertaining, with bar-stool Tom in full flow. Sure, it’s a slightly well-oiled character, and one which he has made not inconsiderable use of over his career to date, but it’s undeniably delightful.

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His entire catalogue resides in this house, so I’m not an Asylum years loyalist or anything like that, and ‘Swordfishtrombones’ followed by ‘Rain Dogs’ is an obscenely creative succession of releases. Indeed, ‘Orphans’ is a glorious, career-crossing roll around in the work of Waits and gives a pretty accurate sense of the different voices of this remarkable artist. But things have been a little tough in the last couple of decades, with the sonic experimentation and barking foregrounded a little, culminating in 2004’s ‘Real Gone’, which confused some fans with its wilfully cold sound. However, with a culmination and the clearing of the decks via the aforementioned ‘Orphans’, we find ourselves on the receiving end of ‘Bad As Me’. And it’s great.

Clocking in just shy of forty-five minutes and featuring Waits in fabulous voice, this is a remarkably strong, straight-forward set of songs (hey, it’s all relative) from one of music’s true pioneers. ‘Raised Right Men’ has a gothic sprawl to it, with him sounding sharp and sprightly, but then ‘Pay Me’ comes on like a gentle, accordian-backed ballad, opening with the line “they pay me not to come home.” He sounds world-weary and exhausted – it’s beautiful, and a good demonstration of how this album curiously evokes a sense of those old Asylum records.

Obviously, the wilful erosion of the sound in his songs is a more recent trait and that’s nowhere more obvious than on the twitching, gnarled title track which sounds squashed, repressed and desperate to get out. As the start to the second half of the album it’s very well placed and it works far better in context than it did as a teaser for an album for which it is very much not representative. It’s followed by another minimalistic ballad, ‘Kiss Me’, which has a warmth that’s not been a regular facet of his work for a little while now.

And so, as if to bring things full circle, just as ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ opens ‘Small Change’ with a neat segue into ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘New Year’s Eve’ closes ‘Bad As Me’ with an oddly heartening rendering of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It’s an end I wasn’t expecting to an album I wasn’t expecting from Tom Waits. This isn’t a curio for fans, or ‘another one’ for the pile of Waits albums. This is an incredibly strong set of songs which stands pretty tall amongst a year’s worth of excellent records.

BEST OF 2011: 14. The Middle East – I Want That You Are Always Happy

Having crept quietly into the racks in June, this album’s creators decided to call it a day less than two months later and, as a result, it pretty much sank without trace. Its absence from so many end of year lists is staggering as, much like ‘Last Of The Country Gentlemen’, listening to ‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ is an all-consuming experience. Imagine that Explosions In The Sky had eaten Cashier No. 9 (two bands who just missed the thirty) and you’ll have a rough idea of what this remarkable record sounds like.

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This is one of those albums where it’s hard to really pin down what about it is so good, simply because it does so many different things. The vocals here belong in the world of indie music, even if the band around them aren’t always convinced that things are quite that simple. There are gear shifts aplenty, without it ending up sounding like a compilation of odds and sods. Opener ‘Black Death 1349’ suggests that maudlin, ethereal indie-rock is where we’re going, not contradicted by the unsettling whine which precedes the funereal ‘My Grandma Was Pearl Hall’. But we’re only four songs in when lead-off track and mild alternative radio smash ‘Jesus Came To My Birthday Party’ jangles into life, fuzzy guitar noodling subsiding into lo-fi, low-key Eighties American college rock. You’ll hum, you’ll sway and you’ll put it on compilations.

Land Of The Bloody Unknown’ has a swoonsome, early Decemberists chug to it and ‘Ninth Avenue Reverie’ is a gorgeous, early Seventies-evoking, acoustic number. ‘Sydney To Newcastle’, with  its field recordings feel, accompanied by a spacious piano piece, could fit on a Max Richter album, while ‘Mount Morgan’ is a relatively successful excursion into post-rock. ‘Hunger Song’ possesses glorious harmonies and a drum-beat which wouldn’t scare away Mumfords fans, all folksy-hoedown and plinky-plonky, such as it is. Just – breathe easy – without actually having Mumfords on it.

Whilst at first the fluid approach to genre and sound can make the record seem fragmented, repeated plays give it space to breathe and time to ensnare you. You’ll keep finding yourself thinking “oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that one” for a while, as there’s much to take in. For me, it took a walk in the rain, with the album seeping up from the background noise, for it to suddenly coalesce into something which has held my attention ever since. They may be gone, but ‘I Want That You Are Always Happy’ does not deserve to be forgotten.