BEST OF 2013: 13. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film

If ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ was ‘one last shot at mass communication’ then this, presumably, was the start of the band simply doing what they want. With talk turning to 2014’s ‘Futurology’, described recently by Nicky Wire as “POSTPUNKDISCOROCK”, it’s worth pausing to take in the quiet majesty of the first of two albums to arrive in quick succession. Regular readers will not be surprised by the band’s presence in this countdown, but it’s worth saying that having followed the band for over seventeen years makes the initial listens to any new music close to excruciating. The promo for ‘Rewind The Film’ arrived just before a weekend of long drives and uncomfortable hotels at a friend’s wedding and so fairly substantial exposure to these songs was granted in a short space of time. The first few plays were fine, if unremarkable. This is not an album of guitar solos or snarling vocal performances – ’30 Year War’ aside. This record has many moments of beauty which, as any fool knows, do not tend to translate well through car stereos. In fact, the breakthrough came later that weekend, whilst wedged into a bed in a gypsy caravan designed for Oompa Loompas. As the warm air of a summer’s night drifted through the window, the album seeped in through headphones and I was sold.

That the title track, featuring a lead vocal from the ever-charming Richard Hawley, was the first thing anyone heard from this record gives some sense of how the band weren’t playing the game this time. It’s a luscious sweep of melancholia, nudged towards brilliance by the late arrival of James Dean Bradfield for a surging chorus. Another of the album’s highlights also features lead vocals from a guest performer; this time it’s Cate Le Bon on ‘Four Lonely Roads’, which marches along swooningly, Le Bon’s voice floating over the backdrop before melding with Wire in the bridge. It’s a wonderfully understated tune and very un-Manics in its nature.

This delicate touch is felt elsewhere too, with ‘Builder Of Routines’ having a brass break which bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘God Only Knows’. This can, of course, only be a good thing and so it proves. Although the verses seem a little cluttered, the sonic palette of ‘(I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline’ is rich and warm, glistening electronica burbling away to good effect. ‘Show Me The Wonder’ and ‘Anthem For A Lost Cause’ tick the singles box rather neatly, with sweeping choruses and a good dollop of parping brass where once might have been emotive strings. Wire takes the vocals for ‘As Holy As The Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’ and is in fine form as he tackles his fond reminiscences of Richey Edwards. ‘Running Out Of Fantasy’ sounds like the loss of hope put to delicately plucked guitar, while ‘Manorbier’ is an instrumental piece which betrays the band’s increasing fondness for modern classical and ambient electronic music. It’s surprisingly well executed, even if it is somewhat overshadowed by the album’s final punch: ’30 Year War’. Described by Wire as a bridging song between this album and ‘Futurology’, it’s a dazzlingly brutal assault on the government and its shortcomings. It’s the sort of lyric you expect from this band, but you have to hear it to realise just how well they can speak for our times. While its successor may end up garnering all the headlines, ‘Rewind The Film’ quietly goes about its business and may well be perfectly positioned to play the long game. Their recent sizzling live form perhaps best highlights how at ease with themselves the Manics are feeling right now and, on this evidence, who can blame them?

BEST OF 2012: 25. Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge

After the spacious soundscapes of 2009′s ‘Truelove’s Gutter‘, the Sheffield-drenched psychedelia found here may surprise but, thirty years from now, crate diggers of the world will seize upon this album in rapture. Speaking to older colleagues about Hawley, they have expressed some dismay about the direction taken on this album. Having previously been drawn in by his truly beautiful voice, they’ve been a little put off by the increase in volume and the shift in sound. This perhaps captures perfectly why this album sounds the way it does. Having taken his 21st century crooner thing as far as it could go, Hawley wanted to reboot, reinvigorate and return to the guitar wielding heroics of his past.

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Let’s be clear, ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ is not a heavy rock record and would only make Mumford fans jump a little gingerly. ‘She Brings The Sunlight’ is a stellar statement of intent, slowly building to a euphoric squall of droning guitars and sugary harmonies, while ‘Down In The Woods‘ buries an echoey vocal at the heart of a bluesy rattle. Even when ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’ initially evokes memories of tunes gone by, upon reaching the three-minute mark it soars in muscular fashion, the easy emotive colouring of strings left untouched. ‘Seek It‘ is a curious beast, having received comparisons with Badly Drawn Boy‘s ‘About A Boy‘ soundtrack from some corners, but it’s coquettish delivery is utterly charming. It sounds unlike anything else Hawley has done, if not unlike anything Damon Gough has done.

An album for long summer nights and glistening wintery days, these nine songs sit together perfectly; a luscious suite delivered by a man who has already more than delivered and can now afford to do whatever he likes. Several deaths, both family and friend, spurred Hawley on, with much talk of wanting to pick up an electric guitar and just make some noise. With his ear for melody, it was never going to be a raggedy garage rock record – see Peter Buck‘s solo effort for that – and the joyous clatter of ‘Leave Your Body Behind You’ underlines that even when the guitars take off, the beautiful tunes of old are still along for the ride.

April & May Reviews – Richard Hawley, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Williams & The Boat, Wedding Present and more

I thoroughly enjoyed my Record Store Day 2012 – I hope you did too. Now that I’ve had a chance to recover, here are April and May’s album reviews for Clash, along with the usual commentary.

April May 1

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT”Out Of The Game’ (MERCURY)

Having rounded out the first phase of his career with a lavish boxset, Wainwright turned to Mark Ronson to smooth down the flamboyant edges and ensnare the music-buying masses. The result is a surprisingly effective 21st century take on the Seventies singer-songwriter album, with tight band performances from the likes of the Dap-Kings and sympathetic production from the king of the trumpets. ‘Perfect Man’ is a pure pop gem, the feel of which Wainwright has never previously achieved and it is this lesson in restraint which Ronson brings to the table. Although, quite how the bagpipes which close the album slipped through, is anyone’s guess.

A genuinely splendid record this, which should draw in some more mainstream attention even if it won’t change the minds of those who couldn’t be doing with his previous work. The pairing of Wainwright and Ronson is clearly one of those moments where something just clicks and anything and everything works. There are at least four stone cold classics on here and some of the finest tunes he’s released to date. Well worth seeking out.

RICHARD HAWLEY‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge (PARLOPHONE)

After the spacious soundscapes of 2009’s ‘Truelove’s Gutter‘, the Sheffield-drenched psychedelia found here may surprise but, thirty years from now, crate diggers of the world will seize upon this album in rapture. ‘She Brings The Sunlight’ is a stellar statement of intent, slowly building to a euphoric squall of droning guitars and sugary harmonies, while ‘Down In The Woods‘ buries an echoey vocal at the heart of a bluesy rattle. Even when ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’initially evokes memories of tunes gone by, upon reaching the three-minute mark it soars in muscular fashion, the easy emotive colouring of strings left untouched. An unconventional masterpiece.

Regular readers will know that I love Richard Hawley. I love his voice, I love his lyrics and I love the production of his records. All of this triumvirate of loves remains intact after spending time with these nine songs. Stuart Maconie was spot on when he wrote, in his review for The Word, that parts of this album hark back to the sound of Oasis when they tried to vary it a little – ‘Who Feels Love’ was the track I immediately played after listening to the album’s opener, ‘She Brings The Sunlight’. I know it’s hard not to construe this as an insult, but please try. This is a wonderful album and one which becomes familiar in no time and a favourite soon thereafter. Brilliant double vinyl pressing too.

April May 2

THE WEDDING PRESENT – ‘Valentina’ (SCOPIOTONES)

I’m always deeply suspicious of anyone who says they don’t like The Wedding Present. They’re certainly not toiling away at the avant-garde coalface of musical invention, but they don’t seem to ever deliver a stinker. ‘Valentina’, their third outing since rebooting as part of David Gedge’s metamorphosis back from Cinerama to one of Peel’s favourite bands, features the odd surprise – not least some vocals in German – but it’s largely business as usual. Blokey but heartfelt vocals from Gedge and lyrical lovelies like “if I were a painter, I’d just paint portraits of you. You’d be in everything I do.” Predictable, yes. But really comfortingly so.

If you like the Weddoes, you’ll be happy. If you don’t, you probably don’t care by this point. If you’ve never heard them before, it’s as good a primer as any. I do and I am.

AMADOU & MARIAM – ‘Folila’ (BECAUSE)

Having toured with the likes of Coldplay and U2 and performed for Barack Obama, this husband and wife duo were keen to both pursue a rootsy take on their Malian blues and also record an album of collaborations with a wide variety of musical acquaintances. As it happened, two become one on this warm, soulful record, which features performances from Jake Shears, Santigold, Amp Fiddler and, most mesmerisingly, TV On The Radio. Some collaborations are more successful than others, but what never changes is the punchy sense of melody which runs throughout ‘Folila‘, a title which simply means ‘music’ in the language of Mali, Bambara.

An album I found hard to warm to massively but I can admire it. I know that sounds HUGELY patronising but it’s just a little inoffensive to me, even though I can tell that it’s the sort of thing that will inspire passionate recommendations. The middling, pleasant records are always the hardest to review. Give me a crap album anytime. Oh look…

MASHA QRELLA‘Analogies’ (MORR)

The feeling on a June day when you think the sun’s going to come through, but it doesn’t. When you sup your post-work pint on a Friday, having imagined its capacity to remove all of your stress, only to find it’s a bad barrel. Spotting a book in the bag of the person you’re hopelessly infatuated with which, upon reading, is really nothing to write home about. Inoffensive, occasionally melodic plod-pop-rock which talks a good talk and doesn’t really deliver.

Hahahah! See what I did there. The album’s called ‘Analogies’, so I…oh, never mind.

April May 3

M. WARD‘A Wasteland Companion’ (BELLA UNION)

In the three years since Matthew Ward released career highlight ‘Hold Time‘, he’s been kept busy as a quarter of Monsters Of Folk and half of retro-pop combo She & Him. Both had their moments but, after the scope and ambition of that last solo outing, hopes are high for the next instalment of the day job. ‘A Wasteland Companion‘ partly delivers, not least on the uncannily Ed Harcourt-esque ‘Primitive Girl’ with its hammered piano refrain and syrupy backing vocals. The gorgeous ‘Crawl After You‘ gets inside you like the smell on a rainy day, but such emotive responses are less common that you might expect.

I do really rather like M. Ward, and he has released some fine albums including the aforementioned ‘Hold Time’, but I find this a little below par. Still a number of fine moments but it didn’t woo me as a complete outing. The blurring of the She & Him/M. Ward venn diagram didn’t help. I’ve still not forgotten that bloody Christmas album.

OBERHOFER –Time Capsules II’ (GLASSNOTE)

Grandiose orchestral clout mixed with a neat pop nous and a voice pitched somewhere between We Are Scientists and Mull Historical Society, the music of Brad Oberhofer is pretty much adorable. Drums clatter and stutter in frenetic fashion beneath chiming xylophone, indie harmonies and riff-heavy guitar for much of ‘Time Capsules II‘, and its relentless energy is utterly addictive. It perhaps never quite manages to live up to the genuinely breathtaking magnificence of opening track ‘Heart’, with its spectral wall of sound production effects, but those are high standards indeed. The shamelessly repetitive ‘I Could Go‘ comes close, mind, with an embarrassment of hooks.

Took me ages to click with this one. Until the last couple of listens, this was heading for a fence-sitting 5/10, but then it all seemed to make sense. It’ll work well in the sun. So, er, take it on holiday if you go abroad this year.

ONE LITTLE PLANE‘Into The Trees’ (TEXT)

With bass from Colin Greenwood and production duties fulfilled by Kieran ‘Four Tet’ Hebden, this is a lot less fragile than it first seems. While it owes more to Kathryn Williams than either of its distinguished collaborators, their touches are still noticeable and the rhythmic backdrop to many of these songs is disarmingly complex. Kathryn Bint – who, perhaps understandably, trades as One Little Plane – possesses a gorgeous, whispered burr, best highlighted on the chiming, hypnotic shuffle of ‘Nothing Has Changed‘.

Not the sort of thing you’d immediately think of if somebody told you it was a new release on the TEXT label, but rather charming nonetheless. Gilles Peterson has played a track recently on his splendid new Saturday afternoon 6 Music show and it seems to garnering positive notices from most corners. Worth a listen.

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TOM WILLIAMS & THE BOAT‘Teenage Blood’ (MOSHI MOSHI)

At a time when alternative music seems so often preoccupied with fitting in rather than standing out, it’s refreshing to hear such a wilfully individual sound. With roots in the melodic world of the mainstream, ‘Teenage Blood‘ is an instantly endearing proposition, although repeated listens unveil the twisted, writhing soul at its heart. The dextrous band ooze and explode thrillingly with each emotional turn, while Williams’ sung-spoken vocals are perhaps the band’s trademark, variously murmuring, bellowing and spitting out lyrical delights such as “my sister was a referee, reffing Sunday morning leagues, south of Sheffield at a park, showing yellow cards to rapists and thieves.”

Ah, one of the Just Played favourites. The product of a Pledge Music campaign, ‘Teenage Blood’ builds on the majesty of the debut and is a great example of albums where you should listen to the whole thing in one sitting. It’s wonderfully sequenced, brilliantly produced and blessed with some excellent tunes. ‘Trouble With The Truth’ is one of the year’s finest songs to date. There’s a lovely, heavyweight vinyl pressing out there but don’t mull for too long as they’re pretty limited.

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?

I hardly said a word

I’ve had a thoroughly splendid week in terms of listening pleasure. I had an interesting conversation about musical snobbery and what makes a good pop song during several hours in bar that played the most chronic selection of shite I’ve heard in some time. A quick comment about how the Girls Aloud track playing when we went in was probably the best thing that they’d managed in about two hours spiraled off into something far more complicated. Anyway, the conversation leads me nicely to my first point of interest this week, Lily Allen.

A few months ago I read that she’d posted a couple of new tracks on her Myspace and I made a mental note to have a listen at some point. I finally did that today and I’m pleasantly surprised. There were some decent tracks on debut album; sampling Allen Toussaint is always good by me and ‘Alfie‘ is pop genius, but for the new record she’s gone in an electro-pop direction. The two new tunes are splendid, in particular the first offering, ‘I Don’t Know’ which has an enjoyable quiet/loud Girls Aloud/Sugababes feel to it. Not that I imagine she’d be especially thrilled with the comparison. The second track, ‘I Could Say’ sounds a little like a Pet Shop Boys ballad. Anyhoo, whatever I think, I’d recommend having a listen via the link above.

Speaking of the PSBs, they recently recorded a cover of Madness‘My Girl’ while rehearsing for a live performance with Suggs. On this delightful demo, Neil takes lead vocals and it’s a wonderfully quirky take on a classic tune. You can access it via the ‘exclusive tracks’ page in the ‘Product’ area on their website. Or you could just click here. You choose, why don’t you?

A final true ‘pop’ moment before moving on. As I’m pointing out rather splendid bits of popular music that I’m rather fond of, I’ll give a quick mention to Rihanna‘s ‘Don’t Stop The Music’. Now, I know this isn’t exactly new and I know that you probably cut your ears off after the ninety-seventh time you heard ‘Umbrella‘, but this is a true pop classic. Meticulously crafted, never quite as fast as you think it’s going to be and yet deceptively uplifting. Ver Tube allows a listen below.

I’ve been living with Weller‘s ’22 Dreams’ for a week now, and it’s almost as good as the reviews are suggesting. Let’s get one thing straight before we go on – it ain’t a five-star kind of album. It can’t be, really, because of its quite deliberate ebbs and flows. A few tracks add nothing, and the final, noodly instrumental track, ‘Night Lights’ really outstays its welcome. But it’s a definite four-star kind of album and one which repays repeated listens. That’s not especially surprising when you bear in mind that there are 21 tracks to absorb. Apparently, the deluxe edition has sold out already, but you’ll not be missing much if you’ve not got it. ‘Rip Up The Pages’ and ‘Love’s Got Me Crazy’ are the additional tunes – both rather good, and probably more deserving of a place on the main album that some of the more fanciful farting about, but all of that stuff does rather add to its charm. Have a listen via the link below and make sure you do it in one sitting; it works better that way.

I should just finish by noting the fact that a true great, Bo Diddley died earlier this week. If you know nowt about the man or his music, you should probably get that sorted. One of the ‘Chess‘ collections should suffice. Some far more professional and worthy tributes can be found via the following links:

1. Richard Hawley’s tribute on the BBC site

2. First ten minutes of Gary Crowley’s show, filling in for Tom Robinson on 6music on Friday 6th June

3. Mark Lamarr’s ‘God’s Jukebox’ from Saturday 7th June. Various tunes and references throughout.

Yes, another new artist decorated in hyperbole!

£17.50! £17.50! That’s all it cost to see Richard Hawley in a tiny little venue in Derby last night. Not only that, and that’s more than enough for that price, but the support act was absolutely beguiling. Pete Molinari has, rather shamefully, not been on my radar up to this point, save for a decent tune that appeared on a recent Mojo cover CD.

Playing solo, with nowt but a guitar and a harmonica, Molinari’s raw vocal performance had me entranced from start to finish. It’s hard to capture quite why. For a start, he has a deep, languid speaking voice but, at times, he sounds almost feminine when singing. He’s bluesy and folksy and, on certain songs, there’s hints of Dylan, in line with his traditional influences. In amongst the rather splendid self-penned songs came what I truly believe to be the best version of ‘Satisfied Mind‘ I’ve ever heard. Words won’t do it justice, so I’ll not even try. Instead, allow YouTube to win you over…

And find out more about Pete Molinari via this fantastic interview on the Undercover website.

(Oh, and check the mux for a track. Plus, new stuff from Occasional Keepers, Northern Portrait, Bon Iver and Elbow, plus classic Trashcan Sinatras and Band Of Horses)