BEST OF 2015: 10. Björk ‘Vulnicura’

After the accompanying multimedia storm nearly buried the true beauty present across much of 2011’s ‘Biophilia’, it was perhaps fitting that a leak ensured that the music got to do all of the talking when it came to the arrival of ‘Vulnicura’. It is, of course, monumentally shitty when the rug gets pulled from under a release and it still bugs me when my favourite artists fall prey to such early leaks. However, in a deft bit of damage control, a not especially high-fidelity upload was quickly usurped by the real thing and we were able to get to grips with what had already been revealed to be a brutally personal record.

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I can still remember putting on the headphones in the back room one cold night in January, wondering what I was about to hear. The strings at the start of ‘Stonemilker’ cut straight through, prompting the cliched but no less striking hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck response. It is utterly desolate. The arrangement aches and groans, full of foreboding and fatigue. The tone is set in quite remarkable fashion and it never relents. The lyrics unflinchingly document the end of Björk’s long term relationship with artist Matthew Barney like a diary, each of the first six tracks accompanied by their position in a chronological timeline when perusing the lyrics. By ‘Lionsong’, it’s five months before it happens and uncertainty is the theme. “Maybe he will come out of this loving me, maybe he won’t,” she sings, high up in the mix while beats and strings pile in behind. The twitching rhythm seems entirely fitting and it cements ‘Vulnicura’ as an album where its context plays a vital part.

The switch from the sense of imminent loss in ‘History Of Touches’ – “every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time lapse” – with its unsettling synth stabs to the stunningly stark intensity of ‘Black Lake’ is breathtaking. The album’s ten-minute centrepiece, it has plenty to live up to after the opening line of “our love was my womb but our bond has broken.” Not that it proves a struggle, musically at least. Almost three minutes pass before some detached beats briefly skitter across the landscape, prompting a moment of pause. The disarmingly emotive lyrics are delivered almost syllable by syllable, as if to reinforce the sense of a seismic separation. It feels like the shortest ten minute song in the history of recorded music, so enthralling is the story at its heart.

The shuddering beat that presages the stark lyrics of ‘Family’ – “is there a place where I can pay respect for the death of my family?” – is a masterstroke but it makes for staggeringly claustrophobic listening. Thinking back to that January night, I had to put the headphones down for a minute at that point and wander off to the kitchen for a breather. Even now, it still requires an emotional run up.

Notget’, now eleven months after the split, marks the beginning of renewal which informs the gradual ascent to the album’s closer, ‘Quicksand’. The former takes control of the grief, exclaiming “don’t remove my pain, it is my chance to heal,” while the latter argues that “when we are broken, we are whole and when we’re whole, we’re broken.” It’s not quite an emotional release, not least because it’s hard to resist the temptation to dive back into the power of these nine songs again, but it offers light after plenty of shade. Whatever your view of Björk prior to this release, ‘Vulnicura’ stands as a work of art all of its own. From the packaging inwards, it is something truly special.

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It’s also worth seeking out the newly released ‘Vulnicura Strings‘, which pares things back and restructures some of the tracks to stirring effect. There’s also a live album from the abbreviated tour, but it was, initially at least, limited to Rough Trade shops. 

BEST OF 2011: 15. Björk – Biophilia

Having initially crept out, bit by bit, via an interactive app, along with a pile of remix 12”s, by the time ‘Biophilia’ actually arrived, it was nice to just sit and play the bloody album. Once you strip back all of the collaborations, soundtracks and remix projects, ‘Biophilia’ is actually only Björk’s seventh solo studio album. Fresh from the throat-singing and beat-boxing of the unfairly maligned behemoth that was ‘Medulla’, and 2007’s ‘Volta’, which sounded like the building of an industrial fridge, it is a relatively straight-forward affair. Although, everything is relative when it comes to Björk, having given the album its name because she thought the word meant “feeling up nature or something.”

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The glorious chiming of custom-built instrument the gameleste – a bronze take on the celesta, in which traditionally steel tune-bars are hit by various mallets – and pipe organs operated by computer programmes ensure that her habit of sounding utterly unlike anybody else remains very much intact throughout ‘Biophilia’. However, for an album so rooted in new technologies and ideas, it sounds beautifully warm and compellingly human. The processional ‘Cosmogony’, with its pitch-shifting brass mirroring lines like “heaven’s bodies whirl around me,” is a beguiling demonstration of her attempts to meld science to nature.

‘Virus’, a love song from the perspective of the “sweet adversary” itself – “I adapt, contagious, you open up, say welcome” – is quite possibly the prettiest thing I’ve heard all year, completely removed from the harsh, squashed and confrontational sounds of ‘Volta’. When the machine-gun beats do break through on ‘Mutual Core’, they’re augmented by a hymnal organ riff and a soaring, unprocessed and unleashed vocal which will leave you breathless. Her capacity for wondrous lyrics delivered in deceptively simple fashion remains: “my romantic gene is dominant and it hungers for union” she intones on ‘Thunderbolt’, as if trying out each word for size.

While much of the fuss around the album has centred on its innovative and hugely interactive app release, this music really doesn’t need any window dressing because it’s as good a collection of songs as she has put her name to in ten years. Having finished the album, Björk decided she wasn’t entirely happy with it as a purely audio experience, admitting that through all of the twists and turns of making the interactive version she had lost sense of the album as a whole. Deciding it needed a bit more bass and a bit more of a low end thud to it, she held up its release and went back to the drawing board. An absolutely remarkable artist, for whom the terms ‘genius’ and ‘unique’ are not journalistic hyperbole but simple fact, Björk is taking music to a place where we should all gladly follow.

September Reviews–Laura Marling, Bjork and A Winged Victory For The Sullen

Sorry about the wait. Moved house, you see. I’m typing this from the floor of the third bedroom, surrounded by boxes still full of CDs as yet unboxed. Not that you really need to know that. Anyway, here’s this month’s Clash pieces. Two amazing albums and one I suspect I’ll grow to like more.

LAURA MARLING – ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ (VIRGIN)

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With two Mercury Music Prize nominations and a BRIT award in the bag, you might expect Laura Marling to capitalise on the exposure and tweak her sound in a push for the big time. Fear not, folk folks. The jazzy whirl of opener ‘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 songwriting great begun on ‘I Speak Because I Can‘ is now complete.

Continue reading “September Reviews–Laura Marling, Bjork and A Winged Victory For The Sullen”

It’s Still Here

Hello again.

It’s absolutely pissing it down here, and has been for the last 48 hours. My foot’s aching after falling down the stairs, but apart from these things, all is well. I hope the same can be said for you. Amongst the music related post this month was a particularly scary promo item with additional security. Now, I’m used to watermarked CDs – apparently any rips from these discs can be traced back to the original. Not sure if this has ever happened, I would imagine everyone’s too shit-scared to try it – and sealed cases for promos, but for the promo of the new Marvin Gaye reissue set for ‘In Our Lifetime’ it not only had a unique number on the CD, but it was also written on the jiffy bag. I didn’t really feel like I should be opening the thing, for fear of somehow incriminating myself. It’s like when you see a police car and you automatically feel guilty – even though you’ve done nothing wrong (unless we have any drug-barrens or multi-national fraudsters reading). Anyway, I’m pleased to report that the music on the discs is spiffing, containing the original mixes of the album before they were remixed, without Marv’s consent, ahead of finally being released.

Other promo stuff of note – in other words, some bands to keep an ear out for in coming weeks and months – includes Dirk Darmstaedter‘s new album, ‘Our Favourite City’. While his name makes him sound like middle-management in Ikea, the music is sun-kissed indie-soul straight out of the world of Josh Rouse‘s excellent ‘1972’ album. The cover looks bleak and you expect it to be a mopey, singer-songwriter record with ‘woe is me’ written through it and twelve songs that are identical bar the painful metaphors for loneliness. Joyous pop of the highest order. He used to be in a band called, ‘The Jeremy Days’. Poor bugger’s clearly never had any luck with names. See and hear him in action here:

Also, coming soon is the new album by Jonathan Krisp with the quite tremendous title, ‘No Horse, No Wife, No Moustache’. It’s part Royksopp and part Lemon Jelly. It’s that quirky dance music with vintage samples and easy listening sounds peppered with electronic trickery and loops to provoke twattish grins on a hot summer day (and after 48 hours of solid rain, as it turns out). It’s on the Cookshop label, while Dirk is on Tapete.

There’s plenty of vintage soul on the way as part of the Stax 50 celebrations, including the Johnnie Taylor live album, as well as the old Stax/Volt singles boxset reisssued as 9 separate CDs. Those CDs are naturally essential items for any self-respecting record collection and currently going for £5 in that there high street shop that rhymes with, well, shop. Also, ‘This Is Soul’, essentially the FIRST soul compilation has been reissued in a mini-LP-style gatefold sleeve along with a stack of bonus tracks. Nothing new, but they all sound tremendous next to each other – and it looks pretty!

As for the more conventional stuff, there’s some great mainstream releases on the shelves at the moment. People always expect me to be apologetic for liking the Manics, but I stand by the fact that they are rarely anything other than excellent. ‘Know Your Enemy’ was a pile of shite and ‘This Is My Truth’ was a few songs too long, but otherwise there’s much to love. ‘Send Away The Tigers’, their latest offering, is one of their best. Short and to the point, it’s riff-heavy, power-chord-obssessed and epic in a way that every other writer is comparing to ‘Everything Must Go’ – can’t see any point in disagreeing for the sake of it. If you’ve had even a passing interest in the band in the past, you’ll love it.

Wilco‘s album got a mention last time out, and it’s finally in the shops now. It’s possibly their best, and so I will briefly talk about it again. The heavyweight vinyl edition is on the way, as their 180g vinyl pressings for their last two studio albums were quite something, and this one will suit that treatment just as much. Not much more to say other than buy the bloody thing.

Say it very quietly, but the Travis album’s quite good. It’s their best since ‘The Man Who’, if not their best ever. There’s bit more kick on some songs and they’ve ditched the two things that have held them back in recent years. (1) Fran’s desire to be politically active in his lyrics, despite this sounding really rather crap (2) A constant determination to keep making songs that sounded like the old, successful ones. ‘The Boy With No Name’ sounds much less forced and is all the more enjoyable for it. Still not the greatest lyrics, mind.

Tiny Dancers have an album called ‘Free School Milk’ out in a few weeks and it’s barn-storming indie-pop to listen to whilst chewing on a bit of straw and putting on an embarrassing and potentially offensive ‘farmer’ accent. 80% enjoyable album from a band who are almost frighteningly eager to please. If you’re after future eBay profits, then picking up their early singles now mightn’t be a bad idea.

The Maps album, ‘We Can Create’ is a thing of electronic beauty which will wash over you at first, and runs the risk of not being recognised as the classy collection of tunes it is. Mark Ronson‘s ‘Version’ is worth picking up for the Amy Winehouse take on ‘Valerie’ and a funk/soul instrumental take on Coldplay‘s ‘God Put A Smile Upon Your Face’. There’s also a re-worked version of Maximo Park‘s ‘Apply Some Pressure’. Their latest album, ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’ reminds me of The Jam and Gene at times – no great surprise that they’d be linked – and in no bad way. It’s got some intriguing lyrics, a number of which I’m still not sure about – Profound or Shite? An example: “Nightfalls, And towns become circuit boards“. Listening to it the first time, in the rain, it charmed the pants off me, but when I listened back to it I was less sure. Anyway, it’s a decent little record that I’ll keep returning to.

Oh, and Bjork‘s new album’s out. It has to be said that listening in surround sound to her music makes me even more convinced that sounding like a mad fucker on your records must make it quite fun in the studio. At times ‘Volta’ is beguiling, but at other times it’s plain scary. I’ve no idea if it’s any good yet – does anyone else feel like listening to Bjork is a little like homework? You know you should do it, but it’s hard motivating yourself to do it properly, or to get to the end. Hmmm, and the packaging’s a sod to get into.

More soon. Much sooner than before. No really.

Speak soon,

Gaz

(Cross-posted to the blog in the hope of you nipping over to the site)