BEST OF 2011: Single Of The Year–The National ‘Think You Can Wait’ / ‘Exile Vilify’

There were plenty of excellent tracks this year, and there’ll be another playlist to that effect in the next few days, but right at the top is this double-header. Having been responsible for my second favourite album of 2010, ‘High Violet’, The National were a band I wasn’t expecting to hear anything new from this year, particularly in light of the expanded edition of the album having appeared to mop up anything else we hadn’t heard.

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But then in March came the quiet release of ‘Think You Can Wait’, from the soundtrack to ‘sports comedy-drama’ ‘Win Win’. It was initially just available as a download and very little fuss was made about it. Which is, frankly, ridiculous. With an echoing piano refrain we’re underway before the vocal delivery so beautifully presented on the slower moments of ‘High Violet’ puts in another appearance. What really elevates this track to greatness is the sparingly used backing vocal of Sharon Van Etten whose lulling tones sit beneath Matt Berninger’s voice as if they were made to be together. Similarly, the melding of strings and piano towards the end of the song is as close I’m ever going to get to describing a piece of music as poetic. Just as certain tracks – for me ‘Lemonworld’ and ‘Sorrow’ – on ‘High Violet’ crept up on you over time, while the big guns initially held your attention, ‘Think You Can Wait’ possesses a slightly hypnotic rhythm, delicately lulling you into submission and provoking the gentle headphone-wearer’s nod. As a one-off single, it had no right to be this good. I felt spoilt.

However, as if this wasn’t enough, in April we were treated to ‘Exile Vilify’ from the ‘Portal 2’ soundtrack. Built around stately piano, topped off with gorgeous baritone backing vocals and anxious strings, it is a wonder to behold. I rarely play things twice in one go. If I’m reviewing an album on a short deadline it might happen but otherwise it needs to be something truly stunning to have me starting it over again straight away. The day I downloaded ‘Exile Vilify’, I think I must have played it nine or ten times in a row, and all it did was make me love it more and more. It moved me to tears, it got inside my head, it left me amazed that this was even better than ‘Think You Can Wait’, albeit not by too much. The whole thing proceeds at a solemn pace, with cathartic swells and great lines like ”You’re thinking too fast, like marbles on glass.” Try listening only once.

Having received such a warm response, the band decided to put these two songs out as a double A-sided transparent 7” vinyl. It’s a glorious little item, released via their website only but it still seems a massive shame that these two songs are destined to become a footnote to the ‘High Violet’ era of The National. Had they been on the album, they’d have been rightly lauded for the fine, fine songs they are. The tracks remain available to download or stream separately, but if you buy the (admittedly not cheap) vinyl pressing you’ll have a delicious physical item and access to lossless downloads of both songs. Treat yourself, it’s Christmas.

By clicking on the cover, as with every Best of 2011 post, you can load the music I’m talking about. However, as they were initially released separately, you’ll need to go here for ‘Exile Vilify’. It‘s worth it.

BEST OF 2011: 4. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

I wasn’t sure what to expect from album number three. ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ was an utterly irresistible debut, blessed with a little naivety and some grand tunes. Then ‘I Speak Because I Can’ arrived, with Marling seeming to have aged fifteen years since its predecessor and taking far bolder steps and inhabiting characters far from what we’d come to expect from her. Largely no bad thing but slightly easier to admire than truly love. With talk of a second album of new material only months behind it fading quickly, it was still a relatively swift turnaround from the early 2010 release of that record and the September 2011 unveiling of ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’. My review copy arrived just as we were knee deep in house hunting for a cross-country relocation. As a consequence, it soundtrack a lot of car journeys and several quiet evenings in unfamiliar locations. It didn’t take long for it to become a comforting friend.

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However, certain aspects of this album have prompted dissent, most peculiarly the album’s excellent opening track. The jazzy whirl of ‘The Muse’, sounding, at times, like a more forceful and jagged ‘Poor Boy’ by Nick Drake, is a stunning statement of intent and the most relaxed start to a Marling album to date. The sense of an artist no longer feeling the need to prove herself runs throughout these ten songs, and it is clear that the transition to songwriter of note begun on ‘I Speak Because I Can‘ is now complete. The fact that it doesn’t sound like anything she’s previously done struck me as a good thing and quite why it garnered accusations of smoothing out her sound or even trying to sound like Norah Jones is baffling. Listen to the thing. Then do it again. It’s not got easy listening pop smash written all over it, has it?

Beginning delicately, ‘I Was Just A Card’ unfurls magically, with Marling shaping and pushing her voice in new directions. The vintage Joni Mitchell comparison point is, by now, utterly undeniable but it’s a source of inspiration rather than a simple sense of imitation. Lyrically, her ability to inhabit a song and deliver a story remains beautifully intact, the line “my mother, she’s the saviour of six-foot of bad behaviour”, in ‘Salinas’, curls magically around the melody. This bluesy number builds to a crescendo which then seems to abate with the quiet start to ‘The Beast’, only for it to explode into the most malevolent sounding thing Marling has ever released. ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ really feels like an album, rather than a collection of songs, and an album of two halves at that. That Marling has been increasing her vinyl collection of late at a rate of knots is perhaps no coincidence. There is a real focus on how things sound together, be it the tremendous force at the conclusion of ‘The Beast’ to end side one or the wonderful way in ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ changes pace so as to descend smoothly straight into the beginning of ‘Salinas’. Ironic, then, that the picture disc vinyl included in the deluxe edition of this album sounds so indefensibly shite.

Gorgeous single ‘Sophia’ is elevated to greatness by the introduction of her band at its midpoint, another of those magical moments in songs that I so like banging on about, while ‘Night By Night’, one of the rare solo moments on the album, is a wonderfully balanced, emotionally loaded commentary on love. The album ends on the upbeat sing-song ‘All My Rage’, one of the tracks with which she seemed most satisfied during her recent cathedral tour.

A third wonderful album, then, and a sign that Marling has transcended the “nu-folk” tags, not to mention associations with Mumford & The Doom Sons, and carved her own magnificent identity. Where she goes next, I’ve no idea, although she recently declared that she’s entering her “electric phase” so expect something different again. One thing I can say for certain now is that a vast catalogue of wonderful music lies ahead, as Marling has asserted herself as singer-songwriter of rare talent. Here’s to that.