26. Matthew Dear–Black City

Best of 2010I know I’ve mentioned this a few times, but as good a place as any to begin with this chap is the spellbinding remix of The xx’s ‘VCR’ for which Matthew Dear is responsible. A strutting disco reworking of an already splendid song caught my attention and there’s a dark, pulsing propulsion to much of his latest solo material which renders it an immersive and largely satisfying listen. There are moments here not a million miles away from the feel of that superlative remix and some far stranger stuff with serves to surpass it.

Matthew_Dear

The hugely experimental yet playful edge that has always made Matthew Dear’s work worth a listen in the past remains, but this time it appears to sit within more conventional song structures. At times, ‘Black City’ sounds as if David Bowie had made the ‘Young Americans’ album around the time he actually made ‘Earthling’. That languid, soulful swagger of one of the Dame’s finest records is chopped up with all kinds of bleepery. Dear shares Bowie’s willingness to deploy longer tracks early on, and ‘Little People (Black City)’ is a mammoth nine-minutes-plus electropop tour de force, with the cavernous vocal sounding not unlike a cross between James Murphy and DB during his, ahem, golden years. Achieving the rare feat of being a long song that doesn’t actually feel like a long song, it’s all the more charming for the moment, somewhere in its seventh minute, where the whole thing falls apart and reappears with an angelic, almost hypnotic, chanting phase just to ensure you don’t get too settled just yet.

Slowdance’ has a repeated refrain which sounds like a drunk muttering into the dregs of his last can, but somehow put through a vocoder. Obviously, this is genius and a delight to behold. The complexities of love play out lyrically across another beautifully crafted backdrop, entirely in keeping with the slightly paranoid and claustrophobic intensity of ‘Black City’ as a whole. The phrase ‘headphone music’ does get bandied about rather a lot these days, but it can applied to this particular album with little fear of contradiction.

Despite the awful title, ‘You Put A Smell On Me’, is a moody piece of dirty electro funk with an infectious quality which remains elusive yet irresistible, simply creeping up on you over repeated listens. ‘Monkey’ is another of the more curious creations, a little bit like Kraftwerk after they got pissed and discovered a Bee Gees songbook*. You’ll like it, I’m sure. And don’t forget the stunning closer, ‘Gem’, which is as stripped back as you’ll have heard Matthew Dear sounding to date, with sparse echoes of ‘The Sun Rising’ and ‘Pacific State’ in the fluttery soundscape and a vocal which serves to release the tension built up over the previous nine songs. A very fine way to close out an album.

Although the remarkable quality occasionally dips, the highs are very high and whatever you thought of Matthew Dear before this record is largely irrelevant. This is a grand leap from where we have been previously and it is a cerebral, slinky little number which might just surprise you.

*I’m not 100% sure that this ever actually happened.

The Just Played Verdict: Matthew Dear ‘Black City’

Keen eared readers may remember the spellbinding remix of The xx’s ‘VCR’ for which Matthew Dear was responsible. A strutting disco reworking of an already splendid song caught my attention and, despite the fact it’s proved impossible to track down a high quality copy of it, has remained a firm favourite. But what of the remixer’s latest solo outing? Does that soulful approach extend to his own, previously more dance focused, work this time out? Well, there’s a dark, pulsing propulsion to much of this material which renders it an immersive and largely satisfying listen and there are moments not a million miles away from the feel of that superlative remix.

Black City

The hugely experimental yet playful edge that has always made Matthew Dear’s work worth a listen in the past remains, but this time it appears to sit within more conventional song structures. At times, ‘Black City’ sounds as if David Bowie had made the ‘Young Americans’ album around the time he actually made ‘Earthling’. That languid, soulful swagger of one of the Dame’s finest records is chopped up with all kinds of bleepery. Dear shares Bowie’s willingness to deploy longer tracks early on, and ‘Little People (Black City)’ is a mammoth nine-minutes-plus electropop tour de force, with the cavernous vocal sounding not unlike a cross between James Murphy and DB during his, ahem, golden years. Achieving the rare feat of being a long song that doesn’t actually feel like a long song, it’s all the more charming for the moment, somewhere in its seventh minute, where the whole thing falls apart and reappears with an angelic, almost hypnotic, chanting phase just to ensure you don’t get too settled just yet.

Slowdance’ has a repeated refrain which simultaneously sounds like a drunk muttering into his can, but somehow put through a vocoder, and yet also bloody marvellous.  The first few plays left me a little unsure as to whether this particular sound was jarring or genius, but I think I’ve ended up coming down on the latter side of that particular debate. The complexities of love play out lyrically across another beautifully crafted backdrop, entirely in keeping with the slightly paranoid and claustrophobic intensity of ‘Black City’ as a whole. The phrase ‘headphone music’ does get bandied about rather a lot these days, but it can applied to this particular album with little fear of contradiction.

Matthew Dear

Despite the awful title, ‘You Put A Smell On Me’, is a moody piece of dirty electro funk with an infectious quality which is hard to explain, simply creeping up on you over repeated listens. ‘Monkey’ is another of the more curious creations, a little bit like Kraftwerk after they got pissed and discovered a Bee Gees songbook*. You’ll like it, I’m sure. And don’t forget the stunning closer, ‘Gem’, which is as stripped back as you’ll have heard Matthew Dear sounding to date, with sparse echoes of ‘The Sun Rising’ and ‘Pacific State’ in the fluttery soundscape and a vocal which serves to release the tension built up over the previous nine songs. A very fine way to close out an album.

This isn’t a stone cold classic and I know I can be prone to excessive hyperbole on occasion, so let’s be realistic. There are a couple of tracks which are good but unremarkable, a decent enough feat in itself when it comes to the vast majority of new releases, but the highs are very high and whatever you thought of Matthew Dear before this record is largely irrelevant. This is a grand leap from where we have been previously and it is a cerebral, slinky little number which might just surprise you.

Black City’ is released on August 16th on Ghostly International.

*I’m not 100% sure that this ever actually happened.

2010 inverted

Mercury Music Prize 2010 shortlist – Just Played Verdict

mercury

I know that convention dictates that I start off with a sizeable rant about the MASSIVE WANKERS who decide on the Mercury shortlist and moan about how safe and, largely, shit the choice of albums is. I whine about how there are so many more deserving titles out there and wonder why they even bother doing this. Well, fuck convention.

It’s not a bad shortlist really. Could be a hell of a lot worse and there are some rather good albums on it. Yes, you can tell that almost nobody on that judging panel is medically allowed to let their blood pressure rise too dramatically and that ‘a nice glass of red’ probably accompanies all of these records rather effectively, but that doesn’t immediately make them all crap records. Just Biffy Clyro, and that was crap long before it got this nomination. Indeed, it has been crap since the hellish day that the group birthed it through the band’s collective arsehole; the result of a blessed constipation that finally subsided only to gift our ears with this limp, fetid dross.

I wasn’t exactly enraptured by the Foals album either, but it certainly has its moments. The vocals are a lot less ‘toddler with a foot stuck in a door’ and a bit more ‘artsy indie band with ridiculous hair’. The sound is a massive leap on from the frankly infuriating debut which started badly with the atrocious cover and didn’t improve much thereafter. This one is bold, adventurous and, at times at least, rather good. Also in the ‘no need to get the bunting out’ category is Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘The Sea’. This particular record received such astonishingly positive press that it seemed like we were about to witness the second coming, albeit it at No.17 in the Asda album chart. It is quite nice. She’s stopped banging on about putting records on and is now singing about sad things because of the, admittedly tragic, loss of her husband. Musically it’s much less annoying than her MOR stylings of old but, for the life of me, I couldn’t really tell what it was that I was meant to be so overwhelmed by.

Then there’s the folk-pop boy band in waiting, Mumford And Sons. They are, as far as I’m concerned, traitorous bastards for wooing us with lovely limited 10” single releases only to then not put the album out on vinyl. Add into that the fact that they are now so ubiquitous they’re like flying ants or pollen and it’s hard to retain the early love. The songs are undeniably great and Marcus Mumford has a cracking voice. But, the production is oh-so-very polished and somewhere along the line it seemed to lose its soul a little. I’m by no means trying to be all snobby about this record; I still quite like it, but from the very first play it didn’t sound as raw it could have and should have and that’s a great shame. That said, I’m not sure it would be on this list if they’d gone down that route.

Dizzee Rascal, love him or hate him (or just laugh at him for being a bit of a cock), has produced some belting pop songs of late and such a consistent run of hits deserves recognition. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t really offer anything else to match those glorious singles and only serves to confirm that he is best in small doses. When in a good mood. And not especially bothered about what you’re listening to. A plausible choice, a maker of top pop but not an album to yearn for or fall in love with.

I’m genuinely delighted to see the marvellous I Am Kloot on the list with the recently released splendour of ‘Sky At Night’. I recently explained just why this record is deserving of a place in your collection and it is as good an album as the band have released to date. The vocals are quite beautiful and Guy Garvey’s string arrangements are superbly measured and precisely executed. As good a straight indie record as you’ll hear this year. Which briefly brings me to ‘Golden’ by Kit Downes Trio, which is potentially as good a jazz record as I haven’t heard this year. Is that the sound of a token being laid down I hear? Solitary nod to the ‘other’, I hear you cry. Well, yes. It’s not on Spotify, so I’ve not yet had the pleasure but, as I did with The Invisible last year, I’ll endeavour to have a listen. Find out what I end up thinking by following the Just Played Twitter here.

Wild Beasts’ ‘Two Dancers’ feels too old to be on this list, released as it was at the arse end of last summer but, it’s a wonderfully confident listen. By now, I’m sure you’ll know about Hayden Thorpe’s distinctive yelp, like a randy panda after a quick listen to ‘Grace’. It’s quite a voice and, while it might initially irritate, stick at it for there is much to love about ‘Two Dancers’. It took me a while to really get it, hence its absence from last year’s best of list. Unlike ‘xx’ by The xx, which rocketed up to second place in almost no time at all. It’s become a quite popular activity to criticise The xx for being trendy art-school types as a result of all of the hype they’ve received. Now, let’s briefly pause to consider why that is such a fuckwitted brainfart of an approach to this delicately grand music. They didn’t ask for the hype, it just gathered around them and, admittedly not always but sometimes, it happens for a reason. This time it was because of how good they are. The album is perfectly measured, charmingly executed and it offered something a little different towards the end of 2009, sounding quite unlike everything else released at the time. See here for my ‘40 From The Noughties’ piece about this one.

Old man Weller keeps on churning them out and, deep breath, he’s actually managed two great solo records in row. Indeed, I actually rather liked ‘As Is Now’ too, so that’s at least two and a half really. ‘Wake Up The Nation’ has been lauded as his best solo record in some quarters and has had fifty-something blokes in denim pogoing around like they don’t have mortgages, with their stomachs following soon behind. It is good, mind, and I have enjoyed great chunks of it. Initial plays felt a little like being able to hear a migraine, it was so phenomenally busy, but once you’ve adjusted to the frenetic pace of the thing, it actually shines through as a bloody decent set of songs. It firstly tells us that he has a cracking record collection, featuring plenty of southern and northern soul, and secondly that he has decided that prancing around in the street pissed with a near child on your arm and having one of the world’s shittest haircuts on your bonce doesn’t stop you from reminding people you were in The Jam. Fair play to him, I say.

Which leaves us with two. One of which, ‘Becoming A Jackal’ by Villagers, was recommended by Martin Rossiter (ex-Gene and thoroughly spiffing bloke) on Twitter a while back and I was won over almost instantly. I somehow missed the Later… performance that, apparently, turned most people in this record’s direction. I can see where the Rufus Wainwright comparisons come from, stylistically if not vocally, along with faint echoes of Simon and Garfunkel. It’s clever, melodic, sometimes melancholy singer-songwriter indie and it is executed to perfection. It’s a grower, a charmer and a winner. Though probably not of the Mercury Music Prize.

Not that I actually think that the quite divine Miss Marling will carry off the crown. I can’t help wondering if it will actually go the way of The xx or Mumford in the end, but that doesn’t stop this remarkable record being something to celebrate, shout about and buy in copious quantities for loved ones and friends. I’ve previously explored just what makes this such a mature and beguiling collection of songs, but suffice to say my opinion hasn’t changed, save to like it just a little bit more still. ‘Rambling Man’ is Joni, and Mazzy Star and Laura Veirs and oh so many other magical musicians rolled into one and yet still topped by a unique and stirring voice. She is a rare, rare talent and someone to be truly treasured.

Personally, I’m in a three way split with I Am Kloot, The xx and Laura Marling but, were I required to dish it out myself right now, I’d hand it to Laura. However, when the near paralytic Jools Holland steps up to the microphone in September, don’t be surprised if he utters the words, “and the winner is… The xx.”

2010 inverted

Not quite ‘Just Played’ but nearly

Rain pours, Harriet Wheeler gently soothes the soul and the need for a jumper gradually creeps up on you. A good day, methinks. It’s strange to be mulling over the previous ten years of music, continuing to listen to a fair old pile of new stuff and already listening to some of the wondrous stuff that awaits in 2010. The Just Played Albums of the Decade feature will begin shortly and I have every hope that it’ll be at least quite good. The list is close to finished but, simultaneously, subject to a great deal of change. The end of year list is also coming together alongside the larger venture, but its progress is repeatedly stalled by the number of ‘late greats’ entering the fray.

In the last few weeks I’ve had my first listens to recent albums by Norah Jones, Hidden Cameras, Cate Le Bon, Cerys Matthews, Molina and Johnson, Mumford & Sons, Emmy The Great and Julian Casablancas. In addition, Noah And The Whale’s album got its first detailed listen and turned out to be really rather good while Monsters Of Folk, The xx, Cheryl Cole and Kings Of Convenience were explored in more detail. There have been so many fantastic records this year that it’s hard to know where to start.

Still, I’ll have a go. If the Cerys Matthews album was credited to Duffy instead, it’d be a chart-shagging behemoth of a record. As it is, it’ll sell a few thousand and turn up for £3 in Fopp within six months. Wearing its influences on its sleeve, ‘Don’t Look Down’ is a soulful set of beautifully constructed pop songs. It’s hard to believe that the same person was responsible for ‘The Balled Of Tom Jones’, in conjunction with Space.

The Norah Jones album is being touted as the ‘Norah Jones album for people who don’t like Norah Jones albums’. That’s clearly spurious bollocks, because if you like this then you do and, oh well, nevermind, eh? Still, it’s very, very good and more than a little noisier than her previous offerings. I always quite liked her somewhat sneered at laid back jazzy early albums but this is definitely her strongest offering to date. Far more bluesy and benefiting from the presence of some of those responsible for Tom Waits’ ‘Mule Variations’. Not Tom Waits though, I should add. It’s already available via the little green blob, so click the image below and enjoy.

Norah 

The cryptically named Molina and Johnson are a double act comprising of Jason Molina and Will Johnson. Molina will likely be familiar to you as the man behind the always enchanting Magnolia Electric Co and, having already provided one of the better album of the year with that band’s ‘Josephine’, has now managed to turn in a second belter before the year is out. Far more sparse than the aforementioned, ‘Josephine’, this is a bleakly beautiful collection of melancholic music boosted by deft and subtle playing. Wait till it’s dark, grab a cup of something warm and sit by the window looking at the stars and hit play.

molina-johnson

My new found love of Cate Le Bon came about as a result of a happy coincidence. Having heard her named mentioned in a few places and seen her profiled in a couple of magazines I knew of her, without knowing what she actually sounded like. I found myself thumbing through the singles in Spillers the other week and happened upon her self-released 7”, ‘No One Can Drag Me Down’, from a couple of years back. It sat in the bag for a few days until I finally dusted it down and gave it a go. Four play of each side later I was hooked. I can’t actually remember the last single that I gave instant repeated play to and this one truly deserves it. Click here and you can download both sides of that single for absolutely nothing. I will be absolutely amazed if you’re not glad to have done so. That might well lead you to her recently released debut album which doesn’t sound quite as Coral-y as that particular single but is one of the most charmingly simple collection of folky songs I’ve heard all year. It is, inevitably, available on Spotify.

cate

David McAlmont has set about adding lyrics to a number of pieces by genius composer (and Divine Comedy inspiration) Michael Nyman. It probably shouldn’t work but, providing you’re a fan on McAlmont’s voice in the first place, it’s remarkably successful. I’m only the first couple of listens in at this stage but I’m strangely hooked. In the same way that Neil Hannon adding vocals to Yann Tiersen’s ‘Les Jours Tristes’ should have been a bit of a balls up but really, truly wasn’t, McAlmont’s mellifluous vocals are a perfect fit for the dramatic endeavours of Nyman and I suspect this one has the capacity to become a firm favourite before too long. Let Spotify be your guide:

mcalmont nyman(and should you wish to test my theory, here’s ‘Les Jours Tristes’ without Neil and then with – both are rather nice, eh?)

I was never hugely fond of the early sound of Idlewild. They always struck me a bit too much energy and noise and not quite enough in the tunes department. I reviewed their 2005 album, ‘Warnings/Promises’, and remember quite liking it and wondering if things had changed. A recent purchase of their best of for £3 confirmed that I’d perhaps been a little hard on the increasingly early-REM aping Scots. Their latest album, ‘Post Electric Blues’, has lifted them higher in my affections and with good reason: it’s a bloody good collection of songs. At times poppier than they’ve been in the past, this album is probably far too late to put their star back in the ascendancy but I suspect its quality will surprise you if you have them chalked up as indie also-rans who never quite delivered. It may have taken them a while, but they’ve very much turned up with the goods. (Plus, there’s a lovely vinyl pressing on the Newport based Diverse Vinyl label)

idlewild

For those who follow my Twitter postings, Ellie Goulding should not be an unfamiliar name. She is responsible for one of the THE pop songs of 2009, ‘Under The Sheets’. With unashamedly enormous beats all over the place and a quirky vocal it pummels along for almost four minutes, doing everything great pop music should: slowly building to euphoria, staying just the right side of annoyingly repetitive, going a little bit dreamy around the two and a half minute mark before gradually returning to the enormous sound of the chorus. Oh yes, my music loving brethren, this is what it’s all about. You might, of course, think it’s bobbins. But I suspect that would make you wrong. (The b-side, ‘Fighter Plane’ is also rather good)

elliecover

On the subject of top notch pop, if you’ve not heard Jamie from The xx’s version of Florence’s cover of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ then you should probably do something about that. Don’t be put off by the arse-shreddingly mediocre Florence reading, this remix is wonderful, entirely in keeping with The xx’s own fabulous debut album. 

I shall conclude by briefly gloating about some of the wonderful new music I’ve been listening to over the last couple of weeks. The first month of 2010 will deliver both a new Tindersticks album and SupergrassGaz and Danny doing a covers album as The Hot Rats. I spoke to the latter band for a ‘New for 2010’ piece and they are, quite rightly, rather proud of the twelve reinterpretations they’ve opted for. Their take on ‘Love Is The Drug’, ‘Love Cats’ and, most notably, ‘Fight For Your Right’ have been keeping me thoroughly entertained for a little while now and any Supergrass fans can sit back in anticipation of a genuinely wonderful collection of songs. Some versions are more conventional than others but all are delivered with gusto and style. Not all covers albums have to be ‘Swing When You’re Winning’, ‘Allow Us To Be Frank’ or ‘Studio 150’. This one is much more of a ‘Pin Ups’.

As for the new Tindersticks album, ‘Falling Down A Mountain’, it only arrived yesterday and I’m still a little bit too giddy to be particularly objective about it but suffice to say it’s another quality addition to a back catalogue that barely puts a foot wrong. It’s a little rougher round the edges than 2008’s ‘The Hungry Saw’ and it’s musically less restrained than that, nevertheless really rather beautiful, previous record. There are occasional hints of the more claustrophobic production sound of ‘Curtains’ and ‘The Second Tindersticks album’ on a couple of tracks, while closer ‘Piano Music’ is an epic instrumental piece which certainly evokes times gone by.