BEST OF 2018: Part 2 – 20-11

It’s curious how Wilco have sort of become like the latter days of Woolworths. Something warm and familiar to which one dedicates time whenever convenient but hardly essential. Dependable and tied in with many memories, a source for shock and sadness in the event of end times. Hopefully, the former are some way from their 70% off everything days, but ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Schmilco’ are albums I have in my collection without really being able to hum a note from either. This is not true, however, of Number 20: ‘Warm’ by Jeff Tweedy. As well as publishing a fine memoir, ‘Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)’, he also delivered his finest solo effort to date and his strongest set of songs since 2011’s ‘The Whole Love’. There’s some country twang in there, ‘I Know What It’s Like’ and ‘Let’s Go Rain’, along with some plaintive croaking evoking memories of turn of the millennium Wilco, ‘Bombs Above’ and ‘How Will I Find You’. It’s an album that best suits being heard in one sitting and which bears repetition, but it’s a quiet beauty and one not to carelessly overlook under the assumption its contents are obvious.

Keen readers will have noted the absence of ‘Humanz’ from last year’s Best Of list, despite my unashamed love of all things Albarn. I didn’t get it. Still don’t. Some decent things there but it really isn’t an album. This was, perhaps, best highlighted by the ludicrous 14×12″ vinyl box set which paired each song with a bonus track, completely disrupting the flow of the record. Then came news that another album had been recorded around the same time and it had plenty of the key ingredient that had been so conspicuously absent from most of its predecessor – Damon vocals. Honestly, Number 19: ‘The Now Now’ by Gorillaz would make it into this list for ‘Souk Eye’ alone, the closing track with eighties dance stabs, a gradual ascent to an all out house crescendo that never comes and a nimble melody that I have returned to so very, very often this year. It’s easy to dismiss Albarn because of how much he puts out and the expectation that it will all be of a certain standard. And he doesn’t help himself with some of his media appearances but I think the Damon: Twat or Not Twat ship has long since sailed for anyone who cares. ‘Idaho’ is a shimmering delight, ‘Tranz’ is a flat out banger. ‘Humility’ has a tremendous, hiccuping beat and ‘Kansas’ has a light R&B strut to it. It may have been forgotten by many, but there is much to love here.

Some records defy adequate description. Some records absolutely do not suit every mood or every time of day. Some records are just obviously genius from the song titles onwards. ‘It Get Be So Swansea’ and ‘Dealing With Hoarders’ confirm that Number 18: ‘Now (In A Minute)’ by Audiobooks belongs in the third category and even a cursory listen should convince you of its credentials for the first two also. Art student and musician Evangeline Ling and wondrous producer David Wrench are an unusual pairing but it is alchemical from the off. These warped pop songs are joyously bizarre. ‘Hot Salt’, for example, is a track I like to imagine as a duet between Cassie and Sunny from ITV’s Unforgotten. Seriously, listen and see what I mean. It works, right? The aforementioned paean to the twenty-fifth largest city in the UK is a giggly, vocoder-driven mid-paced electro-pop corker and ‘Friends In The Bubble Bath’ rides high on glorious synth stabs. Just listen to it, buy it and thank me later.

Opening up like a vintage folk album and progressing with staggering attention to detail, Number 17: ‘Wanderer’ by Cat Power is a record upon which there is not a second wasted. Chan Marshall’s voice remains a visceral thrill and the largely sparse arrangements here give it the kind of platform that was missing from 2012’s variable ‘Sun‘. ‘In Your Face’ and ‘You Get’ are both twitching, percussive wonders while ‘Horizon’ is a delicate wash of shimmering sounds that is all over most of my compilations (or playlists, if we really must) from this year. A fabulously sincere cover of Rihanna’s ‘Stay’ is utterly at home in the centre of the record and the chiming piano of ‘Nothing Really Matters’ is almost hymnal. An album that already sounds like a classic.

When the promo email came through announcing a new Spiritualized album, I was impatient for the follow up dispatch with a download link. Thankfully, it wasn’t far behind and the music was, frankly, surprisingly great. I can’t have been the only one wondering if Jason Pierce had it in him to make another great album after the fits and starts of his output since the early Noughties. But Number 16: ‘And Nothing Hurt’ by Spiritualized put that worry to bed. Opening track ‘A Perfect Miracle’ was a sweeping, slow-building epic in the customary mould and it was like revisiting an old haunt and finding one of the few places that remains how you remember it. ‘I’m Your Man’ has a light swing to it while ‘Here It Goes (The Road) Let’s Go’ is a classic exercise in euphoric mantras and counterpoints that stirs the soul. Even the sax is acceptable on that. ‘On The Sunshine’ is a standard ‘everything at 70mph, into a strong wind, towards a blinding light’ cacophony and thoroughly delicious as a result. Lovely artwork too.

When I first drew up the end of year list, this album had just snuck in but its impact on me has been reignited in recent weeks thanks to a quite brilliant documentary film about the band responsible. Number 15: ‘The Blue Hour’ by Suede is a curious, unashamedly grand record and, in my review around its release, I described it as “unlikely to win Suede many new followers, but it should convince any fans of old that their vitality is restored and they are at the peak of their powers once more.” I’m not sure I can put it any better three months later, but I am adamant about its charms. ‘Life Is Golden’ is one of their very finest songs ever while ‘The Invisibles’ and ‘Flytipping’ are both majestically scored pieces that only improve with time. The aforementioned film, ‘The Insatiable Ones’, did such a fine job of traversing their career with honesty and excitement that it sent me crawling back over the entire catalogue. ‘The Blue Hour’ held up well in such company and it really does warrant some serious attention.

I wasn’t entirely sure about ‘International Blue’ at first. If 2010’s ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ was “one last shot at mass communication” (followed by two blisteringly different but equally brilliant album in ‘Rewind The Film’ and ‘Futurology’) then what the fuck was this glistening, radio-friendly pop jangle all about? It has since grown on me massively, helped considerably by witnessing it performed live in Cardiff back in May. The band were on fine form and Number 14: ‘Resistance Is Futile’ by Manic Street Preachers was a welcome return from one of my absolute favourite bands. ‘Liverpool Revisited’ is a crisp and brisk encapsulation of Nicky Wire’s love of Liverpudlians and their dignity while ‘In Eternity’ is up there with St. Vincent’s ‘New York’ on my list of excellent Bowie tributes. In my review of the record, I referred to ‘Dylan & Caitlin’, a beautifully realised pop duet featuring The Anchoress, as The Beautiful South Wales and I stand by it. They were open about aiming for a ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ feel with this track and it certainly paid off en route to this melodic triumph. ‘Broken Algorithms’ is a bit shit, but ‘Vivian’, ‘Hold Me Like A Heaven’ and ‘A Song For The Sadness’ are all prime Manics tracks and very welcome additions to the soundtrack of an obsession lasting well over twenty years now. I have been working up a piece on the ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ reissue which will hopefully get finished fairly soon. I’ll bung it up here when it’s done.

I was originally down to review Number 13: ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ by Villagers and so spent much of the summer with this as one of a select number of albums providing a very welcome soundtrack. My transformative moment with Conor O’Brien’s work came with 2016’s ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ I had all of his albums and had enjoyed them, but something about hearing them stripped back for those new recordings at RAK studios with some tweaked arrangements and a different sequence elevated them to a place of rare beauty and I was thoroughly smitten. That experience appears to have had some bearing on this latest effort, continuing my love affair wholeheartedly through the fizzing, fidgeting rhythms of ‘Again’, meandering melody of ‘A Trick Of The Light’ and woozy warmth of ‘Love Came With All That It Brings’. It’s a very strong set of songs and one which confirms O’Brien as quite the talent. A real joy, from start to finish.

Back in 2015, Pete Paphides’ Soho Radio show introduced me to Daniel Knox and his self-titled solo album topped my Best Of list for that year. Number 12: ‘Chasescene’ by Daniel Knox is the follow up and would likely be higher up this countdown, had it not been released at the start of this month. Irrespective of bizarre record company schedules, this is another stunning collection of songs which have little regard for genre and serve as a tremendous platform for Knox’s involving baritone. In my review for Clash, I described him as a “truly compelling presence” and picked out ‘Capitol’, with guest vocals from Jarvis Cocker, and ‘Me And My Wife’ for particular attention. The former is a curious bit of cabaret and Jarv’s delivery of “you’re nothing to me” is one of my musical highlights of 2018. The latter is “a dark narrative played straight and with a swelling conclusion that deposits ‘Chasescene’ on a locked groove.” Get me, quoting myself. Anyway, the quality does not relent and don’t let the preposterous timing of its entry into the world allow you to be deprived of its charms.

Back at the start of the year, I’d forgotten when the MOT was due and had ended up with a last minute change of plan for a ‘while you wait’ booking to avoid being illegal. Just as I was due to head out for that endeavour, the promo of Number 11: ‘Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell’ by Everything Is Recorded landed in my inbox for review. And so, this musical box of tricks is forever entwined with a freezing but bright January afternoon, blaring in my ears as I mooched around Bath killing time. I’d already loved the early singles and the full set did not disappoint. Overseen by XL main man Richard Russell, the production style did not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work, especially Damon Albarn’s ‘Everyday Robots’, but the array of talent on show was remarkable. ‘Wet Looking Road’ features Giggs, while Kamasi Washington is on ‘She Said’ and ‘Mountains Of Gold’. Ibeyi do a fine job of covering Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s ‘Cane’ and Sampha is imperious on the Curtis Mayfield-sampling ‘Close But Not Quite’. As an early pace-setter, it would be easy to forget this album when doing the end of year reckoning but for the sheer quality of its ensemble cast.

In the final post, I’ll count down my top ten from 2018.

20. Jeff Tweedy – Warm (Listen)

19. Gorillaz – The Now Now (Listen)

18. Audiobooks – Now (In A Minute) (Listen)

17. Cat Power – Wanderer (Listen)

16. Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt (Listen)

15. Suede – The Blue Hour (Listen)

14. Manic Street Preachers – Resistance Is Futile (Listen)

13. Villagers – The Art Of Pretending To Swim (Listen)

12. Daniel Knox – Chasescene (Listen)

11. Everything Is Recorded – Everything Is Recorded by Richard Russell (Listen)

April Releases – Reviews round up

Well, that was quite a month. I’ll be posting up soon an in-depth account of what became ‘Record Store Week’ for me, kicking off with the big day at the supreme Rise in Bristol. However, sorting out the feature, which appeared in a slightly rejigged form over on Drowned In Sound, about the shops’ view of the big day meant that the monthly posting of my reviews got lost somewhere. So, unsurprisingly after that last sentence, here they are.

April Reviews 1

ALESSI’S ARK – ‘Time Travel’ (BELLA UNION)

A bewitching stage presence and an angelic vocal make Alessi’s Ark very easy to love. Finely crafted folk is elevated towards greatness by the stunning voice of Alessi Laurent-Marke. ‘Maybe I Know’ tells the tale of a cheated upon partner realising that the gossip is all about her and will break your heart. It’s the standout moment on an album which rarely dips below excellent and the old school songwriting and airy, summery production will leave you utterly spellbound.

Now, the publication of this rankled with me a little. I hate giving scores in the first place but I understand why it’s sometimes necessary. However, when your score of 9 is subbed down to only 7, it’s a little misrepresentative of what I actually think of the record. I’m keen to write more about it but it always seems a bit odd to essentially review an album twice, even though this was such a brief piece. However, I’ve done it with Gorillaz (sort of – see below) so maybe I will. Either way, rest assured that this is one of the most perfect, summery records I’ve heard this year so far and that it will charm the pants of anybody who loves melodic, beautifully sung and delicately produced music. Get it.

Continue reading “April Releases – Reviews round up”

The Just Played Verdict: Gorillaz ‘The Fall’

Forgive the language, but Damon Albarn is an unutterably talented fucker. Regular readers will remember The Good, The Bad & The Queen taking the prime spot in the Just Played countdown of the best albums of the previous decade, as well as ‘Think Tank‘ appearing in the top five also. Left to his own devices, he creates all kinds of spellbinding music and even found time in 2010 to squeeze in a new single by Blur. ‘Fool’s Day’ was a fine addition to that particular band’s discography and there’s talk of another for this year’s Record Store Day. The musical identity of Albarn’s with which I’ve had occasional issues is Gorillaz and that’s not to say I haven’t loved much of what he has released under that name. The problem lies with the inconsistency, by virtue of being made up of numerous collaborators, of the albums. ‘Plastic Beach’ has some great moments but it never really grabbed me as a complete unit. I rather like Albarn in ‘twatting about’ mode and found his vinyl only ‘Democrazy‘ release fascinating and really rather enjoyable. All of which means that the Christmas Day release of ‘The Fall’ was a source of excitement without the need for any sprouts on the side.

the_fall

Made on an iPad during this autumn’s Gorillaz tour of America, this hastily constructed, bleepy sketchbook of a record is a delight. If you fall on the wanker side of the ‘Albarn – genius or wanker?’ debate then this will only serve to infuriate you even more but if you tend to give everything he releases a fair chance then ‘The Fall’ may strike you as the last important release of 2010, rather than a charming freebie. Unsurprisingly, it’s a largely electronic affair but even the abstract instrumental pieces like ‘Aspen Forest’ are beautiful, lulling tunes. Who knew this was even vaguely possible on an iPad? I only bought one because it was nice and shiny whereas Damon appears to be able to operate it like a mid-range recording studio. By the time it reaches the end of its fifteen tracks you’ll have forgotten that it was made in such a basic fashion and, whisper it now, I might actually prefer it to ‘Plastic Beach’. Ok, there’s no ‘On Melancholy Hill‘ here but there are plenty of Albarn vocals and that is reason enough to lend it your ears. ‘Revolving Doors’ is blessed with one of those floaty, aching Damon performances which made ‘Hong Kong’, ‘Out Of Time’ and most of TGTB&TQ so utterly lovely.

And then there’s ‘Hillbilly Man’, all looped low key guitar refrains to begin with before the squelchy sound used to such great effect on ‘Doncamatic‘ makes a rather more laid-back appearance. It’s a curious beast, evoking memories of the more odd moments of the Gorillaz debut in part, and it serves to underline the fact that ‘The Fall’ should be treated as an album in its own right rather than as a throwaway download freebie. It’s not leaping around waving like its major label brothers and it is, entirely in keeping with a record recorded whilst a long way from home, a rather more introspective affair, but there’s much to enjoy and plenty to love. ‘Detroit‘ is a buoyant instrumental piece to cheer the soul while ‘The Parish Of Space Dust’ is an oddly moving audio collage, sampling American radio in place of verses ahead of a double tracked, swooning Albarn chorus. It’s magical.

‘The Fall’ will likely end up as a footnote to ‘Plastic Beach’, just as the near-perfect ‘Hong Kong’ quietly slipped out on a War Child compilation and received minimal attention, but consider yourself notified that that would be a crime. Seek it out, turn it up and see what you make of it. It deserves that much, at the very least.

2011OTR

Goo Goo

So, that new Spoon album’s a bit good, isn’t it? I have to confess that this was one of my ‘not heard a note of this, or indeed anything they’ve ever done’ purchases. The splendid people over at a music messageboard I frequent have been raving about it, and I finally decided to pick it up earlier this week. Sadly, my local indie didn’t have it in stock, but it did give me a chance to make a long-distance purchase from my old stomping ground, Spillers in Cardiff. Anyway, this record is much more accessible and feel-good than I was expecting.
That old saying, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ also applies to records. My first experience of Spoon was their ‘Gimme Fiction‘ album, of which all I know is the cover. That cover made me think it wasn’t for me, and, because I’m an idiot, I didn’t pursue it any further, despite critical approval. I’m actually now quite surprised by how I managed to find out nothing about the band’s music between then and me finally acquiring ‘Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘ this week. It confirms for me, once again, that it’s impossible to ever feel like you’re on top of ‘new music’ as an entity, and also that I can be a picky and stubborn fucker when I want to be. Anyway, I’m enlightened now, and I’m very glad to be. Worth grabbing it while it has a bonus disc very neatly tucked into the back of the digipak sleeve.
In other news… I watched ‘Damon and Jamie’s Excellent Adventure‘ thanks to the quite marvellous www.blurcast.tv that I believe I’ve waffled on about in the past. It’s the story of how Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett put together ‘Monkey – Journey To The West‘ a truly unique opera. It’s a genuinely engaging piece of telly, and worthy of note because of the Albarn musical sketches that are littered throughout. Watching Damon make up a vocal melody on the spot is astonishing, and it sent me back to the track on the ‘Help: A Day In The Life‘ album that he submitted as Gorillaz, entitled ‘Hong Kong.’ If you’ve not had the pleasure yet, head over to the War Child music page at 7 Digital and spend the best quid you’ll part with all weekend.