That’s that then. 2010, over and done with. Plenty of lists, a few masterworks and a sizeable quantity of decent tunes all round. I’ll get cracking for the new year shortly, but as we all pause and take stock one final time, here’s the annual Just Played Best of 2010 compilation via Spotify. Sadly, a few things which made my actual end of year compilation aren’t available there, but the vast majority are and you can enjoy them by clicking on the picture below. Thanks for visiting the site this year and following the Twitter account. It’s been an enjoyably busy year and things are about to get a whole lot busier. Happy New Year to you all!
Having concluded the rundown of this year’s finest albums, it seems only fair to mop up those which just missed the cut or were simply released too late to have enough of an impact. Now, if you are of a sensitive disposition or still find that mentions of Robbie Williams bring you out in a rash, I’d skip the bit about Take That if I were you. But make sure you’re still reading when I get onto Gregory & The Hawk, Edwyn Collins, The Phantom Band, Broken Records and Caribou.
But first, reissues. 2010 was a bumper year for deluxe reissues and some of the finest musical acts had their histories dusted off, turned up and even, in some cases, remastered for the better. Whether we’re talking about the simple but splendid best of from Suede or uber-deluxe box sets for which the mortgaging of your house or first-born were a requirement, there was plenty of scope for misty eyed nostalgia this year and it really sound rather good. The Orange Juice box set deserves another quick mention here because it is one of those bodies of work which you really should have nestlings on your shelf somewhere. It’s the aspect of music consumption which still requires you to keep at least one toe out of the all digital download lifestyle, as box sets are no fun without the, er, box. Collection pretty much everything they ever did and including some things which aren’t strictly necessary but nice to have anyway, ‘Coals To Newcastle’ is a lovingly curated set, with all due attention to detail awarded to these magnificent songs. Naturally, sometimes it’s a bit too unavoidably Eighties on the production side, but that is largely part of the charm of these acerbic, energetic and downright precocious tunes. If you missed the boat on requesting this for Christmas, think of it as a pre-VAT increase treat to yourself. Or something. Oh, think of your own lie then.
‘Station To Station‘ in its jumbo box edition was the reissue of the year for me, containing as it did a frankly unnecessary number of versions of the same, admittedly magnificent, album which, to my mind, is his best ever and makes for a quite staggering listen via the DVD high resolution audio track of the original master. I’ve written a Spotlight piece on the record for Clash, which will appear in the January issue, hitting news stands any day now. I’m sure some version of it will make its way onto the site at some point. I can see how, at £80, it might not be the most appealing deluxe musical purchase open to you, but, if you’re a big fan of the album, accept the inevitable and get out the cash.
The top 30 2010 releases was a tricky list to get finished, as at least 35 albums were intensely vying for a position from the off. These New Puritans‘ ‘Hidden’ was originally on the list but I found myself wondering exactly how many listens were for pleasure and how many were simply some form of aural challenge. There’s much to appreciate, plenty to be impressed by and, by fuck, they’re good live, but I just wasn’t sure how much I actually loved playing it. And so it just dipped out. Likewise, ‘Swim’, by Caribou, which is a delightfully engaging electronic beast, launched magnificently by the Erland Oye featuring ‘Odessa’. In the vague mental lists which preceded the final countdown, it was caught in a battle with Four Tet for the position of ‘electronic album in the 30-21 bit’ and at the last minute dropped out altogether. Well worth sampling, as I suspect even if the whole thing doesn’t grab you, certain bits will. Edwyn Collins made a heartwarming comeback, prompting good feeling from pretty much anyone who likes music, and delivered a raw, direct and potent record in ‘Losing Sleep‘. The slightly raggedy edges only added to the charm. But for the occasionally annoying multitude of guest performers, it would likely have been comfortably within the list and I still feel a little odd about leaving this one out. A late arrival in my orbit was ‘Leche’ by Gregory & The Hawk, which is actually singer-songwriter Meredith Godreau doing her quirk-pop, orchestrated-folk, endearing whimsy thing. The voice takes a few listens to learn to love, but once she’s got you, you’ll be hooked. If you like your Alessi’s Ark or early Joanna Newsom then ‘Leche’ is one for you to seek out in the early days of the new year.
The Phantom Band continued to do their own thing, building on the majesty of ‘Checkmate Savage‘ and pursuing a more fleshed out and substantial sound with ‘The Wants‘. It’s a great album, and one which I suspect will continue grow on me as the months roll along. The other one with potential for being a sleeping giant is the second offering from Broken Records, ‘Let Me Come Home‘, which sounded a little to studied and Acarde Firey on first listen, and you’ll have noticed the incredibly high placing of ‘The Suburbs’‘ in the end of year list. That said, some cracking songs and one which I think will rise victorious out of the long wintery evenings.
Which just leaves Take That‘s ‘Progress’ which, and I shit you not, is the finest pop album of the year, the best thing they’ve ever released and, gasp, all the better for the return of Robbie. An electronic pop album which evokes everything from the Scissor Sisters to Bowie‘s techno period, it is a fine, fine, mature record, marking the first successful foray into the notion of the ‘man band’. ‘The Flood’ is now ubiquitous, but ‘SOS’, ‘Kidz‘ and ‘Happy Now’ are all minor triumphs deserving of your attention. Seriously. The marvellously Hi-NRG way in which the chorus kicks in on that last track is a delight to behold. By all means ignore me on this, and clearly there are at least 30 albums more deserving of your attention than ‘Progress’, but if you write it off out of pop snobbery, more fool you and your empty, joyless life.
At the start of the year, the big story about ‘Queen Of Denmark’ was that Midlake were the backing band. By December, the fuss is all about the remarkable voice, presence and charisma of John Grant. Battered, bruised, disaffected and dissatisfied after years as the frontman of one of rock’s great secret pleasures, The Czars, Grant had retreated from the world of music to wait tables and make use of some of the many languages in which he is well versed.
‘Queen Of Denmark’, the slow-burning masterpiece of 2010, is the result of Denton, Texas’ finest coercing Grant back into the studio. When asked to review this album in the early months of the year, I gave it a solid seven. By the time it was released, and I was revisiting my text for publication here, I commented that it should have been an eight. If your experience begins in a similar vein, stick with it because it is now, unquestionably, a ten.
Musically, it is a triumph, exuding an early Seventies style warmth which curls out of the speakers rather than ambushing you with any unnecessary punch. The slinky unravelling of opening track ‘TC And Honeybear’ gives a pretty clear indication of the musical terrain which lies ahead, ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ a sweeping mid-paced delight from start to finish. I originally described ‘Chicken Bones’ as like the Scissor Sisters at half-speed and I’m not trying to distance myself from that remark just now, although it is considerably better than anything said band have released to date. The lyric, “I got out of my bed this morning and I noticed that it didn’t have a right side,” is one of many, many brilliant lines on this remarkable album because it is one of those rare triumphs: a musical delight matched by exquisitely great lyrics. Obviously, I don’t own any copyright or the like on this, but I reproduce below the entire lyric from the album’s title and closing track, ‘Queen Of Denmark’. While Lucky Soul may have claimed the line of the year previously, the complete lyric of 2010 has to be this deliciously vitriolic expulsion:
I wanted to change the world,
but I could not even change my underwear.
And when the shit got really, really out of hand,
I had it all the way up to my hairline
which keeps receding like my self-confidence,
as if I ever had any of that stuff anyway.
I hope I didn’t destroy your celebration
or your Bar Mitzvah, birthday party or your Christmas.
You put me in this cage and threw away the key.
It was this ‘us and them’ shit that did me in.
You tell me that my life is based upon a lie;
I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee.
I hope you know that all I want from you is sex,
to be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear,
and if your haircut isn’t right you’ll be dismissed.
Get your walking papers and you can leave now.
Don’t know what to want from this world,
I really don’t know what to want from this world.
I don’t know what it is you want to want from me,
you really have no right to want anything from me at all.
Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?
Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else?
Why don’t you tell somebody else that they’re selfish?
Weepy coward and pathetic…
Who’s gonna be the one to save me from myself?
You’d better bring a stun gun and perhaps a crowbar,
you’d better pack a lunch and get up really early
and you should probably get down on your knees and pray.
It’s really fun to look embarrassed all the time
like you could never cut the mustard with the big boys.
I really don’t know who the fuck you think you are;
can I please see your license and your registration?
So Jesus hasn’t come in here to pick you up.
You’ll still be sitting right here ten years from now.
You’re just a sucker but we’ll see who gets the last laugh –
who knows, maybe you’ll get to be the next Queen of Denmark.
And breathe. Staggering stuff, and ten times as good when you hear him actually singing it. The moment when the track explodes, as he cries out “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” is utterly perfect, the demented thrust mirroring perfectly the emotions at the heart of the song. There are many moments on the album where Grant settles prior scores and offers a quite mesmerisingly honest insight into his life, but this is its zenith.
At the risk of making every other post in this list about the Green Man Festival, watching Grant perform on a drizzly Friday night was one of those moments that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. A small band of those in the know had assembled, safe in the knowledge that a real treat was forthcoming, and the crowd grew considerably as his spellbinding baritone rose over the soggy fields and seduced the damp from all directions. Recent interviews have found Grant expressing genuine surprise at the reception to ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and it was clear that night that these songs continue to hold the baggage so openly displayed in their words. An a cappella version of ‘Chicken Bones’, as his stripped down stage setup didn’t allow for a full performance, lingers long in the mind and it served to highlight the staggering depth of a truly amazing voice.
Bella Union released an almost suspicious number of brilliant records in 2010, but none were more special than this unique burst of a man laying bare his emotional no man’s land. There is a remarkable double vinyl version available which is as good a pressing as any I own and which is the ultimate way to hear this sensational album. Hyperbole be damned, this is an absolute masterpiece.
One night, back in May, a sprawling, vaguely tipsy conversation had alighted on whether writing could truly convey one’s thoughts, as sometimes we have the capacity to think, to feel, to experience without having the appropriate vocabulary on hand to adequately represent those particular moments in our lives. Although the original subject matter had been literature, it didn’t take me long to steer it towards the inevitable terrain of music and the example I found myself citing was this very album: ‘High Violet’. It’s an album which can defy description – but please don’t stop reading, I think I’ve just about cracked it.
I’d been listening to it on the train en route that night, staring out wistfully at the rapidly changing sights before they retreated into the distance. It seemed so perfectly suited to that moment. But it had also seemed perfectly suited as an accompaniment to an early morning walk to my local sorting office some days prior to that, the propulsion of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming falling sweetly in line with my determined pace. Indeed, this record is seemingly the perfect soundtrack to life itself, having spent much of the year with it never far from my grasp. ‘High Violet’ was released at a tricky point in the year for me and has ended up as one of those ‘records that define a period in your life’, a title that is handed out so rarely that I still feel a little odd writing it now. Perhaps that is why I have frequently struggled to find the words to describe exactly what is so great about ‘High Violet’ – I don’t want to explain it, I don’t want to box it off, say “done” and move on, leaving this record behind as a classic of a certain year. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been truly head over heels with a record and it’s a feeling I’d like to last as long as possible because it’s an absolute joy, something I’ve been lucky enough to experience with two albums this year.
But, if I carry on writing about not writing, I’m going to end up coming across as some sort of sub-Paul Morley twerp and that really isn’t my intention. This record is littered with slow-burning melodies that catch you unawares and then lay siege to your mind in five or six second loops for days on end. Initial listens might not convince you that you’re in the presence of greatness, but make an exception, for me. Try it a couple of times back to back, see which tracks start to dominate, which guitar refrains resonate with you and which moments of understated vocal performance really communicate a sense of paranoia, frustration or loss. Which is not to say that this is either a depressing album or an album in which one might wallow. Yes, Matt Berninger’s baritone hardly conjures images of rolling green fields and sunny evenings, but, as with the Tindersticks, this doesn’t automatically make for gloomy music. There are moments on ‘High Violet’ that are plain euphoric; I’ve found myself over-enthusiastically air-drumming to ‘Conversation 16’ and recent single ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, while the choruses of both ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, even despite the latter’s obviously bleak outlook, have restorative effects far beyond mere food and drink.
The cohesive nature of this album ensures that I can’t just hear one song from it; I need to hear them all. Ticking all of the boxes for a first track, ‘Terrible Love’ slowly builds from fuzzy uncertainty to layered enormity with true class and the washes of sound establish a fairly consistent approach for the subsequent ten tunes. The purple patch from ‘Afraid Of `Everyone’ to ‘Conversation 16‘, comprising five songs in all, is as good a run of tracks on any release I’ve heard so far this year. Recently released in an ‘Expanded Version’, including a re-working of that tremendous opening track which smoothed things up and added stadium drums and several new tracks good enough to belong on the main album itself. ‘Wake Up Your Saints’ is a strident beast of a song and the poppiest thing on either disc, suggesting that The National are close to what some are calling their ‘R.E.M. moment’ with the next album.
‘High Violet’ is the single most complete rock record I’ve heard in yonks. It fits together as one unit of eleven tunes which simply belong together. These are ambitious songs, delivered on a grand scale, without losing sight of the end goal. These aren’t airbrushed out of existence like Kings Of Leon and they’re just not confident enough to sound like the aforementioned R.E.M. The fidgety nature of Berninger’s delivery, part anxious, part ‘Murmur’, is absolutely consuming and I still adore putting this album on. There hasn’t been a moment since I first heard it where I have grown tired of it, or even a song upon it. It would, in any other year, have walked the Number One slot in this list and, in the early stages at least, very nearly did. Its runner-up position should not detract from its remarkable nature, nor suggest that it is anything other than of my truly cherished records. Enjoy.
When 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.
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.
Whereas ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ knocked you back with a couple of killer tracks and let the rest of the record wash over you, gradually becoming endearingly familiar, ‘The Courage Of Others’ is a record which refuses to offer cheap thrills or quick hits. This is a record for the listener and the more listening you do, the more it reveals. I didn’t expect to be quite so taken with ‘The Courage Of Others’, but the mixed reviews had intrigued me, the last record had gently entertained me and there was a vinyl pressing available. It was always going to happen!
What wasn’t always going to happen was my subsequent gradual, helpless, fall under its spell. For a start, it’s a lovely, warm-sounding vinyl pressing so it got a second play soon after its first, enough to suggest that there were some lovely textures in these eleven songs. But, when I found myself making a fairly sombre, chilly train journey, not to mention the accompanying, even more sombre and even more chilly walk home, ‘The Courage Of Others’ provided the ideal soundtrack. The album seemed perfect for those forty five minutes and I’m starting to think that that’s exactly what this record is. Perfect. The quite magically understated vocals from Tim Smith convey the sense of a songwriter utterly embedded within his own music. I can understand why some feel that this represents a slight dip from ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ and that things aren’t as lively as they should be, but it certainly isn’t how I feel about this absolutely spellbinding collection. I’m a sucker for voices that become part of the music itself – Jimi from Doves, Joni Mitchell, Thom Yorke – and this is why the more subdued delivery by Smith on ‘The Courage Of Others’ is very much to my liking. The bafflingly sniffy Pitchfork review actually suggested that Smith sounds uninterested in his own songs and detached, “delivering every line with the kind of passion you might reserve for courtesy calls.” I really, truly don’t hear this. To me, it suggests a singer positioned at the core of his music, working with the music rather than riding over the top it. It feels highly personal and as such showmanship is kept to a bare minimum. I honestly never got the sense that he was in anyway detached or disinterested.
The warning tone of the flute motif on ‘Rules, Ruling All Things’ is one of those relatively minor, subtle affectations that are all over most decent records, but it’s one that stood out to my ears and, as such, has becomes one of the focal points of this record. The power of such tiny moments captures the spirit of ‘The Courage Of Others’. This is, perhaps thankfully, not an album with such a distinctive aural signature like ‘Roscoe’. Despite listening to this album a lot this week, I don’t find myself wandering around whistling or humming various songs from it. Having said that, there are now a good half a dozen or so little moments like that unsettling flute that act as anchors for this record, completely transfixing me each time they pass my ears.
Words like ‘pastoral’ get bandied around for music like this without further explanation, and ‘The Courage Of Others’ seems, more precisely, to be about the importance of nature. There’s a strong feeling of the emotional turmoil and sapping of the spirit sometimes evoked by the winter months. Attempting to engage with such heavy blankets of melancholy, hoping to stave off their often disturbingly consuming weight, is no mean feat and I feel like this album speaks from such experiences. “I will train my feet to go on with a joy, a joy I have yet to reach,” Smith intones on ‘Core Of Nature’ and irrespective of whether that’s what he meant at the time, it captures perfectly for me that hopeful belief that you can walk yourself out of the gloom, even if you’ve never quite managed it yet. The very fact that there’s plenty of things out there to tempt you into action, to spur you into movement, if you’re willing to do so, further reinforces that awkward no man’s land where you know what you should do but still that doesn’t do a thing to abate the feelings that stop you in your tracks. I may have misinterpreted that line, the whole song, the whole album, but whichever way you come at it, I still believe there’s an emotionally articulate core to this record which is at risk of being ignored due to the minor key music by which some seem unengaged.
‘The Courage Of Others’ is littered with lyrics open to interpretation but this is an album about the human condition and how nature accompanies, embellishes and shapes our responses to life. The music is complex yet unassuming. It doesn’t do bells and whistles, it just trusts you to come and find its glories. I’m sure that for many, this will mean a couple of cursory listens before being consigned to the shelf or some untouched folder on a hard drive. More fool those people for missing out, but then I can’t deny that I quite like the idea that my absolute and unremitting love for this album makes me part of a fairly small group who will cherish this quite fantastic record for many years to come. It feels very much like it’s my record, and that only serves to reinforce that belief.
I was more than a little chuffed to be given ‘Postcards’ to review for Clash Magazine. As a Manics fanboy of some standing, whose obsession can be traced back to my early teens, I was curious to hear what “one last shot as mass communication” would actually sound like. I was delighted and, judging by the overwhelming positive critical reaction the album received, so were many other people. The Manics at their most polished, ‘Postcards’ paved the way for unlikely appearances on Something For The Weekend and Strictly Come Dancing, as well being piped through my local Co-op only this morning. This is deliriously outlandish pop which has soundtracked the second half of the year for me.
That Clash review also brought about a couple of special moments for me. Firstly, this appeared on Twitter…
and then, in an interview with BBC Wales, Nicky had this to say:
Clash magazine gave us a great review the other day, and there’s no need for them to. They’re a young, glossy, cool magazine, but their review was really brilliant.
What a nice chap! Both were happy coincidences arising out of them releasing an absolutely marvellous late period album and proving that they still had the old fire in them. Having spent far too long talking about me, here is that original review once again:
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.
Cerebral, shimmering, pinpoint precise pop is the order of the day on ‘Without Why’, a remarkable solo debut record. The fact that Rose Elinor Dougall used to be a Pipette is no secret and several tracks on this record hark back to such girl group greatness, but there’s plenty more going on here too. Opener ‘Start/Stop/Synchro’, classic pop with a thin Eighties-indie sound, made for a cracking standalone single when the album was in the early stages of its creation, but also functions fittingly as a curtain-raiser.
By the time woozy, textured single ‘Find Me Out’ emerges, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to be a set of songs cast from one mould, but actually an exploration of an impressive record collection. When Just Played spoke to Rose prior to the album’s release she was genuinely thrilled about doing things her own way, commenting that “putting ‘Find Me Out’ out as a single was, in a lot of people’s minds, fucking stupid because it’s four minutes long and really slow, but actually I really loved doing that and what’s to stop me?!” That carefree approach, born out of having to record the album when time, funds and studio space allowed, appears to have liberated somebody tired of the constraints of the pop treadmill. Such freedom has resulted in an album of observational lyrics set to intricate arrangements and occupying a variety of styles, none of which fail to hit the spot.
The burbling electronic sounds of ‘May Holiday’ have a hint of Stereolab to them, whilst ‘Another Version Of Pop Song’ is like a deconstructed version of her former band, replete with handclaps and harmonies but offset by a charmingly fragile refrain wobbling its way through the track. The soundstage of the album is quite something, instruments floating right across the speakers and songs left to breathe. In an age of incessant compression, the production is instantly striking.
The defining moment of ‘Without Why’ is ‘Watching’, a supremely sinister song which dates back to times spent working in a pub to make ends meet as the album slowly emerged and observing those who were passing their evenings on the other side of the bar. Dougall takes up the story: “I’d never really written a song like that before which was really based on a drone and using the voice in a different way, with choral harmonies and things. It’s kind of about when you’re involved in a sort of destructive relationship of some kind. There’s something a little bit of sinister about just watching, and there is something sort of creepy about when you watch the object of your affection just kind of move and walk around you find yourself involved in just their physicality.” The disembodied vocals which hover above the aforementioned drone deserve the headphone treatment, whilst the stuttering drums ensure that the sense of paranoia is maintained. A staggering achievement, it will make clear in only four minutes why this album is quite so high up the end of year list.
You can read the full interview with Rose Elinor Dougall here.
Watching 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.
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.
Although much of this album has an insistent throb of one kind or another, it’s the delicate touches that really make it something special. The specks of acoustic guitar dotted through opening track, ‘Understand My Heart’ make my ears prick up each time they go past, despite the really rather magnificent piano shudder on which this fine tune is built dominating proceedings. By the time ‘Am I Just A Man’ has ushered in all kinds of favourable comparisons to prime Beta Band magic, it’s clear that Steve Mason’s ‘Boys Outside’ deserves its position as one of the stand out releases of 2010.
Mason’s voice, pitched in an almost permanently resigned tone, has never sounded better than here, aided by some beautifully crafted songs. The slow-burning, rain on the horizon, brooding opening to ‘The Letter’ is a masterclass in restraint. When the chorus hits, the refrain of “could it be that you don’t love me?” is all the more heartbreaking for the sensitively deployed strings and solitary piano keys floating, spectre-like, in a great blanket of melancholy. It is one of many highlights on the first of Mason’s records to not find him hiding behind a pseudonym or concept. The honesty and openness runs right the way through the lyrics also.
‘Lost And Found’ has more than a fleeting echo of his former band and is another example of glacial piano floating across a drum pattern that wouldn’t be out of place on a laid back modern soul song. It makes for a forceful end to side one and, at the risk of becoming somewhat predictable, I have to urge you towards the vinyl pressing of this tremendous collection. The winding, twitching, roaming bass on some of these songs is beautifully rendered on the larger of the physical formats.
‘I Let Her In’ is perhaps the most starkly brutal observation of a failed relationship on the record, with some hugely affecting lines. “I wake up every morning with a new broken heart” is almost sunny when put alongside “to the children that I never had, here is the love, I was your dad.” It’s a rock and roll cliché that the best music is born out of romantic trials and aching souls, but it’s a cliché that is given further credence by this spellbinding record.
I remember being almost hypnotised by the vocals on initial plays of ‘Dr Baker’, one of the great, early Beta Band tracks. Something about that understated though epic, simple though enthralling vocal performance resonated with many when ‘The Three EPs’ first emerged. That same special feeling occurred when I first heard ‘All Come Down’, which contains a moment where Mason’s voice seems to actually head skywards, soaring quite magnificently across a shimmering, euphoric backdrop that can, in equal parts, make you grin deliriously and blub like an emotionally charged teenager.
The title track has a ridiculously simplistic chorus, built around the refrain “noise outside, boys outside” but it’s up there with ‘The Letter’ as one of the genuinely great songs on ‘Boys Outside’. The drums slowly gather momentum as things develop to an anticipated crescendo around a line telling us that “the things I’ve seen in my life will make you cry” only for the backdrop to fall away, leaving just the beat and Mason’s vocal to quietly, and serenely, bring things to a halt. ‘Hound On My Heel’ offers a hopeful wash of sound to round out the album, even if the lyrics would give the manager of Hallmark a coronary.
If the ramshackle musical collage of the King Biscuit Time project didn’t quite convince you or the squelching dance tones of Black Affair weren’t quite what you were expecting, don’t allow any such dislikes to cloud your judgement when it comes to this record. Whether you were a fan of The Beta Band or not is largely irrelevant. Put simply, if you’re a fan of music, then you really should investigate this outstanding album.