21. Massive Attack–Heligoland

Best of 2010A strange beast, this one. There are certain bands who are condemned to disappoint no matter what they do. If you reach great heights but fail to split up at the time then you’ve had it. Supergrass were eternally plagued by not sounding like their first two records, Pet Shop Boys are so often judged against ‘Behaviour’ and Morrissey, having managed to escape the shackles of The Smiths should, apparently, have called it a day at ‘Vauxhall And I’. So too for Massive Attack, who, depending on how menacing you like your electronic music, should have either given up after their debut (soulful, not so menacing) or their third outing, ‘Mezzanine’ (industrial, terrifying on headphones.) Either way, it doesn’t really matter to some what Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall come out with these days as it will never be like those records. I’ve never really understood this viewpoint. I would if new releases meant that every singe copy of those classic albums was instantly erased or destroyed. But they’re not. They’re still there, if you want them. And, just to add insult to injury, those wanting more of the same then listen to a new release in the most cursory fashion, deem it not up to scratch and then ignore it, thus removing any chance of them learning to love it in exactly the same way that they came to love the earlier albums before the internet meant we could have a new song in our ears for every waking minute of every day. Their loss.

H EL I  G  O L A N D

‘Heligoland’ is not a Massive Attack masterpiece. It does, however, contain some quite remarkable pieces of music. ‘Splitting The Atom’, which preceded the album in 2009 as part of a taster EP also containing ‘Pray For Rain’ still sounds indestructible, the relentless organ throb set against a chugging beat and vocal contributions from both 3D and Daddy G, along with Massive staple, Horace Andy. Drifting synths towards its close enhance the paranoia and it leaves you feeling ever so slightly on edge. And all the more receptive for what is the album’s stand out track, ‘Girl I Love You’.

Slightly lazy reviewers branded it the cousin or brother of ‘Angel’ – presumably because it has a brooding bassline and it features aforementioned legend Horace Andy. Beyond that, the comparison is pretty vacuous and would suggest that it was a case of eye-catching phrasing over actual informative comment. It is, however, an enormous track, capturing much of what makes Massive Attack so very, very special. The musical equivalent of a hall of mirrors – on a dark, rainy night, of course – it ebbs, flows, parps and pulses towards an oddly celebratory ending, resulting in a rapturous cacophony prior to taking its leave.

That’s without mentioning the sterling track featuring Damon Albarn, ‘Saturday Come Slow’, which is epic in the Massive sense of the word. Albarn’s tortured rendering of the phrase ‘do you love me?’ is genuinely affecting and is a fine example of the kind of unusual collaborations Massive Attack managed to deliver. Take ‘Paradise Circus’, featuring Hope bloody Sandoval which was released to radio to promote the album and ended up soundtracking the BBC’s ‘Luther’, or ‘Flat Of The Blade’ a disorientating bleepy little beast featuring Guy Garvey in full emotive flight. The odd track might not linger long, but this is a fine, fine record but a combination of the weight of expectation and being released at the start of the year has resulted in a rather quiet showing thus far in the end of year round-ups. Don’t be foolish enough to pass up on this one, especially while the staggeringly splendid triple vinyl deluxe pressing is still in print.

A reasonably concise update

It wouldn’t be the same if this blog didn’t just grind to a halt for a month or so every now and then, would it? I’d originally intended to rest it for a week or two while I delved into the Beatles remasters but a week leads to a fortnight, a fortnight to a month and, well, you know how it is. Quite a month, mind, including the live return of one of my all-time favourite bands, Massive Attack. If the new songs played on that drab night in Sheffield are anything to go by, the new album will be everything people have hoped for and a little bit more. There’s one new track, (I have no idea about the title, I’m afraid) sung by Horace Andy which may well be one of the best things they’ve ever done. The ‘Splitting The Atom’ EP emerged last weekend as a digital download and it’s a pretty impressive quartet of new material. The lolloping title track belies the fact that Damon Albarn has been involved this time around, while ‘Pray For Rain’, featuring vocals from TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, has a wonderful gear change about four minutes in which elevates it to ‘special’ status. You can sample it for yourself over at Spotify, purchase it as a high-quality FLAC download from 7Digital or even shell out £20 for a spangly vinyl edition from those Monkey-box-set-making-types over at The Vinyl Factory.

Beatles expenditure limited the funds for new music last month, but a few splendid things snuck though, such as the latest offering from Richard Hawley, ‘Truelove’s Gutter’, which is a muso’s dream and the very definition of a ‘headphones album’. Coming off the back of the really rather polished ‘Lady’s Bridge’, (hmm, that sounds slightly wrong) an album with only eight songs, two of which scrape the ten minute mark, it’s an absolute delight to listen to and it may well be his best. ‘Remorse Code’ is a remarkable beast, languidly atmospheric and beautifully recorded. ‘Open Up Your Door’ may have spent some time with ‘The Ocean’ from ‘Coles Corner’, mind. There is meant to be a deluxe double vinyl edition with free CD and signed photo springing up at some point but, with every additional week’s delay, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

The NME has a new editor in the shape of Krissi Murison and she’s already made a few changes. Icky changes, largely speaking. Making me actually wish Conor McNicholas hadn’t left after all kind of changes. The most unforgiveable change is the removal of Mark Beaumont’s weekly column, which was as good a reason as any to shell out £2.30 a week. Thankfully, Peter Robinson Vs has been retained, tucked away at the back now, or I may have had to have said goodbye. Again. Oh, who am I trying to kid. Still, it’s a shame as Beaumont was a witty and acerbic observer of the music scene, something the NME was always good at and I’m not sure how that hole will be filled.

The Radiohead deluxe editions for the latter half of their EMI tenure proved to be delightful additions to the collection, containing some splendid B sides which I’d never previously spent any time with and selected visual highlights from this wonderful, wonderful Later… special.

Put aside an hour and treat yourself. It’s really rather special. While I’m talking about all things Yorke, if you’ve not yet sampled the two tracks recently released as a (bloody expensive) heavyweight vinyl 12” single, you’re truly missing out. Click here to sample ‘FeelingPulledApartByHorses’ and ‘The Hollow Earth’, the latter track being one of the finest things I’ve heard all year. It’s in the same, slightly skittery vein as ‘The Eraser’, with a nagging hook and a thumping beat. It’s almost worth the insane amount the 12” costs. £10, by the way.

I’ve been ploughing through my record collection for the last few weeks, attempting to assemble a list of some kind ready for the launch of the previously trailed, ‘Just Played – Albums Of The Decade’ feature, which will be arriving fairly soon now. It’s been lovely to be reminded of albums like Daft Punk’s ‘Discoveryand Air’s ‘10 000Hz Legend’, alongside Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Howdy and Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Poses. There are some absolute certs for the final list, but it’s been interesting to realise some of the records I’d totally forgotten about that are thoroughly deserving of a place. More on that soon.

Oh, and there were those remasters I briefly mentioned at the start. I haven’t got an awful lot to add to the millions of column inches offered up over the last six weeks (and largely bought by me) so I’ll not say much. (On the other hand, recent convert, Dan of teatunes, says plenty here) Suffice to say, the more expensive of the box sets, ‘The Beatles In Mono’, is an absolute delight, with the sound punchy and remarkably clear. I feel obliged to inform you that you haven’t heard ‘Rubber Soul’ until you’ve heard the mono mix at a fair old volume – it’s a rather special moment. The packaging is wonderful and a serious step up from the fold-out card things used for the stereo reissues. As for the more widely available stereo mixes, I found that box a slight anti-climax, what with it arriving four days after the mono box had had its chance to seduce me. That said, it’s still a beguiling collection of music and those albums only available in stereo sound pretty impressive to these ears. I’ve certainly never liked ‘Abbey Road’ more than I do now. I love their catalogue now more than I ever previously have, but that’s probably no great surprise. For anyone who takes their music listening seriously, you really should get at least one of these boxes, if you haven’t already, as they are the definitive versions. Sod the money, on this occasion. Buy a few less takeaways or £40 games and treat yourself.

Oh, and if you’ve still not heard the new Maps album, sort yourself out, eh?

In The Rain Of The Midlands

Received the Bad Lieutenant album, ‘Never Cry Another Tear’, on Saturday but it’s really struggling to grab my attention in any meaningful way. In terms of New Order offshoots, it’s more Electronic than Monaco, but I wouldn’t want to give anyone false hope. A few tracks are sung by Jake Evans, who Bernard seems to think has a pretty impressive voice. He’s not bad. He sounds like Danny from Embrace but sings like Jimi from Doves, if that makes any sense. Essentially, imagine Danny from Embrace but less honking, more tuneful and able to convey some emotions. There you go. The ten songs pootle along nicely enough, allowing the occasional wince at some Sumner-Gold when it comes to the lyrics. To be fair, it did occasionally evince hideous memories of Barney’s drunk tramp with burnt feet dancing, but I’m not sure that’s a review that anybody wants.

Thankfully, the rest of this week’s listening has been bloody brilliant. The live recordings of Blur at Hyde Park have finally arrived and don’t sound too terrible, despite Live Here Now‘s best efforts to go for monaural dustbin production values. Still, at least they’re here.

Like a new Massive Attack song, ‘Splitting The Atom’, which received its first play from the over-excitable Zane Lowe last night. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that it’s outrageously good and has the nerve to sound wonderful immediately and yet also suggest it could be a grower. The beat simply lollops along from start to finish as Daddy G, 3D and Horace Andy drift in and out at different points. It was recorded with Damon Albarn and there’s a hint of the languid musical leanings of non-Blur Albarn work of old. It’s hard to know what to say about it really, as it doesn’t conform to any sound from their previous records. This is, naturally, a good thing. Some of 3D’s vocal part does sound as intense as it did on ‘False Flags’ from the ‘Collected‘ album, while the sound of Daddy G again on a Massive Attack record is just wonderful. Provided you’re reading this within seven days of August 25th, you can click here and play it in reasonable quality, otherwise you’ll need to listen to it in Myspace quality. Which is to say, low quality.

I’m continuing to thoroughly enjoy the recently mentioned Pete Molinari EP, along with the new albums from Maps and Trashcan Sinatras, both of which I’ll endeavour to do proper reviews of shortly. In addition, Lily Allen‘s rather splendid, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ has been receiving another batch of repeat plays of late. It may well be the pop album of the year. Obviously, you can hear it via Spotify, but here’s a link to four ‘bonus’ tracks of hers that I’m rather fond of. Two remixes, and two covers. All that and she provided great entertainment as the lunchtime guest on TMS on Saturday, even if one numpty at The Observer didn’t quite get the right end of the stick, suggesting that Aggers‘ conduct was somehow pervy.

 sleepingstates

Perhaps most enjoyable of all though, has been the arrival of Sleepling States into my ears. I noticed that both Norm and Boomkat were fussing over the new album, ‘In The Gardens Of The North’, in last week’s reviews and so off I trundled to Spotify for a quick listen. After two songs I had the album ordered and after a couple more the previous album was in my shopping cart also. It may comes as no surprise to find that, the new album at least, is on Bella Union – do they ever get it wrong? – and it has appeared in the seven remaining record shops in the UK this very week. Markland Starkie (above) is apparently the man behind it all, not that I imagine such information in anyway helps you understand the music further. Both albums are worth your time and money, but ‘In The Gardens Of The North’ is a collection of absolutely beautiful music. Instruments seem to just drift in out of nowhere, often returning there with minimal fuss, songs meandering along in a slightly awkward, utterly captivating fashion. Clearly Starkie likes his slightly odd noises and some well placed drones only add to the overall atmosphere. The vocals, often layered and slightly fragile, are as much a part of the soundscape as the musical backdrop itself and everything combines to provide a hugely intimate listen. The phrase ‘headphone album’ gets bandied about a lot. It’s certainly true on this occasion. Not my most eloquent review, but should that have piqued your interest, the following pleasures are available to you:

‘In The Gardens Of North’ – latest album

‘There The Open Spaces’ – last album

‘Old vs New EP’ – 5 tracks from last year