3. Caitlin Rose–Own Side Now

Best of 2010When writing about Number 30 in this list, I mentioned a hastily rearranged after on the main stage at the Green Man Festival. Sweet Baboo was one of the acts to benefit from the late arrival of Mountain Man, the other being Caitlin Rose. While I still wish I’d seen her charm the pants off the small, more intimate crowd to which she had originally been booked to perform, her sudden elevation produced one of the highlights of the weekend. Having become acquainted with the album a week or two prior to this set, I was anticipating something special and was not disappointed. Rose’s perfect, country lilt is magical on record and a force of nature live. But let’s focus on the actual album.

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I reckon you could be sold on this record by hearing only one tune, the nearest thing to a title track, ‘Own Side’. Lyrically, it aches: “Who’s gonna take me home, ‘cos I don’t want to go it alone, who’s gonna want me when I’m just somewhere you’ve been?” Musically it aches too, a testament to the quite superb band Rose has assembled around her, each and every musician becalmed and respectful towards the material, responding to each song’s specific needs like a skilled surgeon. ‘For The Rabbits’ is an excellent showcase for her compelling vocal, ideally suited to squeezing every ounce of emotion out of the numerous narratives found across this hugely impressive record. The crescendo around the four minute mark is quite beautiful and the sort of thing that causes you to interrupt the flow of the record just so you can hear it again. Not that you would want to wait too long in case you didn’t get around to the musically buoyant and metaphorically sound ‘Shanghai Cigarettes’.

Then there’s the mellifluous joys of ‘Spare Me (Fetzer’s Blues)’ which gallops along with Rose’s vocal gliding endearingly across the stop and ‘Things Change’, which is as sombre and rumbling as you might imagine based on the title. There is a delicious, sonorous malevolence running underneath at times which keeps things on edge and seems entirely in keeping with the story told in the lyrics: “I’m leaving back where I come from, it is more bitter than sweet to see you with her.” Throw in a Fleetwood Mac cover, the melancholic ‘Sinful Wishing Well’, and charmingly swaggering album closer ‘Coming Up’ and you’ve get yourself a rather impressive debut outing.

Her early EP, ‘Dead Flowers’, is well worth seeking out, capturing as it does her more stripped down, raw sound rather well. It’s a fitting side dish to accompany the main course and you’d be advised to grab it before it disappears, should ‘Own Side Now’ have the impact I imagine it will. In the final weeks of 2010, this album has made a genuine case for being even higher in this list, and its resting place of 3 marks a climb from its initial placing when I first started to arranged a Top 30. It is an irresistible collection of tunes by an artist destined for big things, which is not to say that this isn’t an impressive way to get things underway. It really, truly is.

7. Lone Wolf–The Devil And I

Best of 2010Watching Paul Marshall as he performed at the Green Man festival in August, I was struck by just how much I adored this record. I’d liked it a great deal up to that point, picking out a couple of tracks for regular plays, but as he worked his way through an all too brief set, including a superlative Scott Walker cover, the beauty of these songs seemed so startlingly obvious that I wondered why I hadn’t already been raving about it – indeed, it missed any kind of celebratory fanfare on here upon release. Clearly, it had had enough of an effect for me to ensure I was there for this performance, but as he gave us some insight into just how painful it was playing his particular guitar with no plectrum, it was quickly turning into something quite special.

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A cathartic experience which doesn’t actually force the listener to live the feelings which informed these beguiling songs, ‘The Devil And I’ is a complex collection of gritty narratives, expunging the trials and tribulations of a troubled mind. And it’s brilliant. Opener, ‘This Is War’, with such charming lyrics as “She’s facing due north when she’s facing due east, she’s got parking violations dating back to ‘63’” is a tour de force and a clear manifesto for what is to follow. Orchestrated indie isn’t quite right, nor is folk with strings. It comes as no surprise that Marshall is a Scott Walker fan, but he’s not looking to ape others here, so much as carve out his own curious path.

Keep Your Eyes On The Road’, with its elongated instrumental build and foot-stomping drums, has been a compilation perennial for me this year and it is one of the more immediate offerings to be found here, despite the self-castrating lines, “I lay staring at your innocent skin, wondering how I fucked this up.” As the momentum gathers you’ll be tapping something in time with it, I assure you. Meanwhile, ‘Buried Beneath The Tiles’ is as dramatic as you might imagine, but never overwrought.

‘15 Letters’ is comparatively slight in this company, delicately plucked guitar, simple string accompaniment and a soft, gentle vocal all serving to make this another album standout, despite telling the tale of a murder – from the victim’s viewpoint. There is a risk of this coming across as a lazy comparison – and you all know how much I hate those – but ‘The Devil And I’ is a little bit like ‘No More Shall We Part’ through folk-tinted spectacles. Tales of death, murder and heartbreak abound, soundscapes are ambitious but not unduly so and the delivery is majestic.

It’s clear that Marshall, who released an earlier album under his own name, wants the music to do the talking as he resides behind the Lone Wolf pseudonym. As he performed on that Sunday afternoon, it was clear that it didn’t take much for him to become utterly lost in the performance and, while he says in ‘This Is War’ that “I hide behind facial hair but people aren’t stupid they can see what I’m doing,” the response would suggest that plenty of people are really rather keen to see exactly what he’s doing. Join them.

11. Efterklang–Magic Chairs

Best of 2010As the Green Man festival came to a close, the rain had returned, Tindersticks had helped to erase the memory of Mumford and most people had donned their waterproofs and pitched up at the main stage for Joanna Newsom. There were still a select few of us wise enough to be tucked away in a tent, watching Efterklang provide one of the performances of the weekend. At one point, a seemingly rather well refreshed chap dressed as Batman leapt on the stage and was embraced by the band, keeping him on stage for the entire song as he whipped the crowd up into a state of rapture. It was a magical way to round out a distressingly damp weekend and, as we shuffled out through the Newsom masses, I knew ‘Magic Chairs’ was going to receive rather more attention than it had up to that point.

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Awkward, angular and euphoric, the third full-length outing by Denmark’s finest is a resounding triumph, coming close to capturing the chaotic utopia of those live performances. ‘I Was Playing Drums’ belongs on everybody’s Best of 2010 compilation for its curious combination of strident bass, twitching drumbeat and swooning vocals. It wilfully scorns most conventions of pop and yet still emerges as a delicious little earworm.

Like a sing-song in a broken lift, ‘Magic Chairs’ is both a record to revive flagging spirits and to claustrophobically fuck with your mind via a decent pair of headphones. Stuttering beats, melodious layers often bordering on drones and bold orchestration raise tracks like ‘Alive’ and ‘Scandinavian Love’ out of safe territory into somewhere altogether stranger. Having released a CD/DVD set of their last album performed with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, ‘Magic Chairs’ is undoubtedly enriched by that experience and is their best yet. Picking up from where the rightly lauded ‘Parades’ left off, the songs here are boldly orchestrated and take some time to fully reveal themselves. It’s a courtship to cherish.

September Reviews – Manics, Ben Folds, Peter Broderick, Underworld & Rough Trade Psych Folk

Currently available in a newsagent near you in almost the same from as you can read below are these five reviews of albums released this very month. Some good stuff here and one of the strongest reviews months I can remember. Don’t worry, next month is a bit of a let down by comparison. I wouldn’t want you to think I was enjoying myself too much. Still, I have the lead review this month which means more words to play with, so we’ll kick of with this relatively lengthy appraisal of a very fine record.

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MANIC STREET PREACHERS – ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ (COLUMBIA)

Leave your prejudices at the door and open up your ears. After the militant basslines and scorching vocals of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the Manics are going for your heart. Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication,” this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for an astonishing listen.

The joyous bombast of first single ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ never diminishes, similar to much of what follows, and it heralds a shift in approach from the band. The album could be subtitled ‘Happy Songs About Serious Stuff’, so frequently are complex lyrics presented alongside glorious pop hooks. Take ‘Hazelton Avenue’, which couples an admission that consumerism can make you happy with a riff which could hold its own in a battle with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Then there’s ‘Golden Platitudes’, reflecting on the disappointments of New Labour set against delicate strings and swooning backing vocals before giving way to an outrageous ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ middle eight. It’s majestic.

Classic ‘Everything Must Go’ rock has its place too, with ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ both evoking that era. If ‘Journal…’ marked a return to the dark brilliance of ‘The Holy Bible’ then ‘Postcards…’ nods to the stadium-sized splendour of their fourth album. The additional confidence that comes with releasing your tenth album has allowed these meticulous students of pop to ditch the shackles and just go for it. Most remarkable of all tracks is the duet with Ian McCulloch, ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’, a slinking soulful number with both James and Mac in masterful form. It is unlike anything either men have done before and utterly beautiful.

There will be plenty of people who opt to be snobby about the fact that this record is so commercial, so polished and so brazen but those people are all, to a man, idiots. If you can’t love these songs, you are incapable of experiencing joy itself.

9/10

I really do love this record. As a bit of a Manics fanboy I had high hopes for it and was a little concerned that it might just be another ‘Send Away The Tigers’, which is to say the sugary high would give an instant rush but wear soon thereafter. Not so. I received this at the start of a holiday at the end of July and spent much of that week listening to it in all kinds of different locations and situations and I soon found that I had absorbed huge amounts of the record without even trying which, in my book, is a very good sign. I’m still playing it frequently now, another rarity when it comes to the albums I review. If you hate the Manics, don’t bother. But I genuinely can’t see why anyone who has ever been fond of the stadium sized incarnation of this band wouldn’t take to this.

I should just point out that the last paragraph and score as shown here is not how it appeared in print. There’s always a risk with any vaguely opinionated stance that it will get subbed out before it ever appears in the magazine and, likewise, high scores are often marked down without any reasoning. However, this is the first time I’ve had a whole paragraph – and the bloody conclusion at that – switched out for something riddled with clichés and containing a basic misuse of the apostrophe. I know, I know, I should calm down but, eugh, it’s annoying. Annnnyyyway…

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BEN FOLDS & NICK HORNBY– ‘Lonely Avenue’ (NONESUCH)

It has to be said that, considering how Nick Hornby is credited with writing all of the lyrics here, the usual Ben Folds key words are present and there’s only so much ‘bastard’, ‘shit’ and ‘fucking’ I can take. Despite this concern, as well as being Folds’ most musically accomplished outing since going solo, it does feature the magnificent phrase, “some guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know; he’s got his own blog.”Sublime strings from legendary Bowie arranger Paul Buckmaster provide a charming gloss, while ‘Your Dogs’ is an alarmingly accurate rendering of early Elvis Costello. 7/10

That line is good, isn’t it? Or am I just saying that to try and disprove it! Hah, you may never know. I’m not just saying. You know. In all seriousness, I do still find it far-fetched that the lyrics are so typically sweary when not written by Ben. Curious to hear your thoughts when it’s out. For followers of the @justplayed Twitter account, this may bring back vague memories of my rampant swearing about the pissing stupid copy protection on this CD which meant it didn’t actually play in most of my players and, even in those where it did, it seemed to have actually have screwed up the audio on parts of certain tracks. My good will was tested to breaking point and, had it not been an artist who I genuinely follow and care about, it would have been hurled out of a window or used to line a bin in no time. By all means restrict access to new stuff, but please, please don’t presume we’re all criminals to the detriment of the actual music. What with that being the only thing that matters and all. David Hepworth recently wrote a splendid piece along similar lines over on his blog here.

PETER BRODERICK – ‘How They Are’ (BELLA UNION)

Recorded in one day and functioning as a stop-gap ahead of a full album in early 2011, the seven songs on ‘How They Are’ are stripped back and plaintive. Blending the heart-rending vocals of 2008’s more fleshed-out ‘Home’ with the stark augmentation of his soundtrack work, it’s a curious but beguiling beast. Be sure to seek out remarkable opener, ‘Sideline’. 8/10

A Bella Union release that’s brilliant? Really? Who’d have guessed? Ok, so it’s pretty much my label of choice this year and currently running with a remarkable hit rate. Just wait for the Our Broken Garden and The Walkmen albums – both are brilliant. They also have the nicest colour coordinated promo CDs I’ve ever seen. Feel free to ask me about this on Twitter if you’re that interested!! The vinyl pressing of this is superb, if a little pricey for only seven songs. However, whether you’re a fan of singer/songwriter Peter Broderick or instrumentalist and composer type Peter Broderick, you’ll enjoy ‘How They Are’. It’s short, by the way, because it went in the side bar, just like the Rough Trade comp below.

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UNDERWORLD – ‘Barking’ (UNDERWORLDLIVE.COM/COOKING VINYL)

Having lost focus with 2007’s ‘Oblivion With Bells’, it looked like Underworld’s descent into the lower echelons of musical history was assured, but ‘Barking’ may yet reverse that slide. While there are still occasional dips, the alchemy of old returns. ‘Always Loved A Film’ ranks with their very best material to date, a swelling refrain blending with Spanish guitars to euphoric effect. ‘Grace’ and recent single ‘Scribble’ aren’t far behind, while album closer ‘Louisiana’, just piano and Karl Hyde’s haunting vocal, sounds uncannily like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis and it makes you wonder why they don’t do more like it. 8/10

I really didn’t expect to like this as much as I did, the previous outing doing little for me but there is something utterly charming about ‘Barking’. I maintain that ‘Always Loved A Film’ is an absolute treat and while it’s not a perfect record, some of its highs are very high.

VARIOUS ARTISTS  ‘Rough Trade Shops… Psych Folk 10’ (V2 / COOPERATIVE MUSIC)

This 21 track compilation makes for a slightly laborious listen taken in one sitting but, used as a starting point for further explorations, works like a charm. Sample it in little chunks and you’ll be sure to find some new favourites from the slightly wonky end of folk. Sleepy Sun and Hush Arbors for me, but there’s plenty to enjoy. 6/10

This is a tricky one, because this comes across a little more harshly than I would now wish. I stand by my comments about it not working in one sitting, but there is some really very good stuff on it and I have it to thank for my recent conversion to the wares of the marvellous Sam Amidon, who you should really spend some time with. Weirdly, despite a 6/10 review, I ended up buying a proper copy of this at the Green Man Festival from the Rough Trade tent where it came with a bonus 10” with a scarce Doves remix. It prompted a bit of a re-evaluation. It would easily be a 7 now, possibly higher, and if this sort of thing is your bag, you really should give it a listen.