BEST OF 2017: 7. Aimee Mann ‘Mental Illness’

Goose Snow Cone’ was enough to convince me. If you’re not familiar with this album then I imagine it will be enough for you too. It’s a pretty much perfect bit of songwriting. The melody is outrageously catchy, the arrangement perfectly matched and the performance utterly commanding. Having only really been aware of the odd track here and there from the previous twenty-four years of Aimee Mann’s solo career, this album caught me unawares. A couple of positive reviews flagged my attention when it came out and I fired up Spotify to see if the raving was warranted. By the time that truly stunning opening track had reached its conclusion, I had ordered the record and held off listening to the rest until it arrived. Thankfully, such cavalier record purchasing was rewarded with one of the most quietly affecting releases of 2017.

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Mental Illness’ is a largely sparse album, mainly driven by acoustic guitar or piano, with supporting strings deployed where appropriate. What percussive elements there are across these eleven songs keep a fairly low profile. ‘Simple Fix’ and ‘Lies Of Summer’ are the only tracks to feature conventional drums and they are arguably the least striking moments. ‘Poor Judge’ sounds like a classic handed down through the decades, stately piano and insistent violins accompanying a story of impaired perception borne of emotional baggage. ‘Knock It Off’ seems weary from the off, tired of the possessive character to whom it is being addressed.

Stuck In The Past’ is a gentle waltz that hinges on some gorgeous harmonies, while ‘Patient Zero’ uses a swaying melody and gleefully plucked strings to contrastingly tell the tale of an inevitable decline. The whole album conveys pithy stories with vivid imagery, the knack for unassumingly beautiful tunes providing a consistently beguiling framework. This is  a hard record to dip in and out of, so consuming and alluring is its environment. In a year of truly bleak news on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, ‘Mental Illness’ has often provided some urgent balm. You don’t need hyperbole from me to find this an essential record. It doesn’t particularly break new ground or fit into any specific scene. It’s just transparently, unquestionably great.

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BEST OF 2017: 8. Martin Carr ‘New Shapes Of Life’

While those that took the time to get to know 2014’s superlative ‘The Breaks’ embraced it as a melodic delight, its creator felt somewhat dissatisfied. It took the seismic impact of David Bowie’s passing to trigger a creative response that would become this album. Abandoning everything he had been working on and starting with the lyrics in order to set the tone, Martin Carr poured out a truth that he had skirted around and attempted to keep in check for some time.

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No one genre dominates proceedings, although a combined soundtrack of the life’s work of the Thin White Duke and a mix of Sixties and Seventies soul accompanied the writing of the album. Elements of those clearly had an impact across the eight songs that make up ‘New Shapes Of Life’, but there is one notable change for the already initiated. On this occasion, Carr’s trusty guitar was left out in the cold. Instead, he spent much of his time working with samples and seeing what his keyboard was capable of delivering. As a consequence of these various elements, a luxuriant pop sensibility forms the core of this album.

The mid-paced atmospherics of ‘A Mess Of Everything’ swirl around the dislocated purposelessness of being “stoned in the kitchen, awake at the dawn. The universe opens for me; go back to sleep ‘cause there’s nothing to see.” An aching chorus gives way to emphatic, synthetic horns and a stylophone buzz as beauty comes from pain. While the overarching narrative of ‘New Shapes Of Life’ is largely transparent, Carr inspired by Bowie’s self-expression to explore his own thoughts, the resulting music is overwhelmingly warm and inviting.

Three Studies Of The Male Back’ weirdly, brilliantly, evokes early nineties Bowie – he’s thorough, is Martin Carr – coming on like a turbo-charged ‘Jump They Say’ with its intro, before ascending to majestic places. The phrase “stoned as a goose” is an early doors highlight, but the lyric as a whole is concerned with a lack of identity and offers one of many references to the stark reality of the mirror across the record. Here is a voice trying to break through it all, but caught between laughter and despair even when watching a sitcom. “I’m not as good as I want to be and I’m better than I think I am,” he sings, as part of an account of pretending to see the world like almost everybody else. It’s a remarkable song and very possibly the best thing he has ever released.

Metaphors for collapse abound and Carr’s honesty around the subsequent impact upon his mental health makes explicit a context that is hardly hidden in these beautiful songs. This music poured out and then it stopped. Although a couple of other pieces were worked on, the frame of mind and circumstances behind ‘New Shapes Of Life’ were unique and these thirty-one minutes exist together as a record of that time, untouched since. All of which makes for a cohesive, immersive listen that heartily repays repeated listens.

As well as the confrontational truth of the mirror, the imagery of ‘the van’ runs across three tracks. At times it seems to represent the endless monotony of touring, having begged for freedom from industry grind during ‘The Main Man’ especially, but at others it seems to be the threat of mortality coming to take him away. Indeed, the penultimate track is actually titled ‘The Van’ and it audibly pulls up at the start of closing piece ‘The Last Song’, possessing a brief lyric that references an ending of sort, the aforementioned mirror dropping to the floor. As regrets pour out, the final line of the album describing this specific act seems to mark the conclusion of a difficult period. The sound of the door slamming that concludes ‘New Shapes Of Life’ appears to confirm this. Hopefully, this ending also marks the beginning of a new era for Martin Carr, an artist in rare form.

Buy it here or from any indie store with decent taste. 

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The above text was my lengthy review for Clash. I also wrote an interview piece for them, following up with Martin about the record and its context. I’ve included that below as he was very forthcoming…

Why do you think you ditched the guitar in the process of writing this album? Was it literally just a case of wanting to try something new or did it symbolise something you were trying to shake off?

The guitar had become another frustration; I couldn’t wring anything new out of it so I decided I wanted to write the whole album on the keys. My piano playing isn’t great; it was different soundings, tones and colours that I was after. It’s easier to dream at the keys, to take it slow and meditatively. Weirdly, since I’ve started playing the album live, I’ve really enjoyed playing guitar again. I don’t regret leaving them off the album, but they give the songs another dimension live.

You’ve mentioned recently that you had been attempting to make a living as a pop songwriter for others. What did you make of that experience?

I signed a deal with a publishing company that kept me afloat for a few years. Half was back catalogue and half new works. I’ve wanted to be in a position with access to writing for mainstream artists for years. I thought I would be really good at it. I fell for the same reasoning that so many others have fallen for that, because I wrote Wake Up Boo, I was someone who could churn out accessible pop songs, which completely ignores the evidence of 96.4% of my other works

I wrote a couple of things that I thought were really good, but then I found that what is required is finished tracks, tracks ready for daytime Radio 1 and my production chops are really not up to that, plus I don’t really understand a lot of modern pop music, even though I like some of it. The verse melodies are flat and sound like they’re written on keys rather than sung into the air, trapped and suffocating. Choruses are still great, mind.

Anyway, I was trying to write things I didn’t understand and it was frustrating and I should have concentrated on writing for older artists who still sing songs the way I write them.

You’ve said you were dissastisfied with your last album, The Breaks’. Why was that? It’s a beautiful record!

I have nothing against ‘The Breaks’, but I am given to drama and bridge burning. There are a couple of songs on there that are among the best I have written, particularly ‘Mainstream’. The problem for me is that I made an album that I had no interest in listening to and even less interest in playing live. I stopped writing songs in 2006 and it’s been a long, slow process in getting to where I am now: a place I should have been in ten years ago. ‘Ye Gods’ was me getting back to putting words and chords together; ‘The Breaks’ was more confident, but not in terms of production. I had no ideas how they should sound so I played my guitar and fortunately there were a couple of beautiful organs and keys in the studio plus someone, John Rea, who could really play them. What I really wanted, what I’ve always wanted, is a studio of my own where I can make my own music without the constraints of time and budget. I bought one in 2000 but I was screwed on the deal, never used it and lost a small fortune (losing small fortunes is my signature manoeuvre by the way.) I have that now and this album is the result; I’m looking forward to what comes next.

The death of Bowie spurred you on in a powerful way, and you’ve talked about the responsibility of the artist to be honest, but what did his passing mean to you? Was immersing yourself in his catalogue inspiring on a creative level or an emotional level?

Bowie inspired me to focus on something and write about that. Previously, I would decide what to write about halfway through writing, which is never going to work. The song would be unfocused and unfinished. What I took from Bowie (and whether or not it’s an accurate summation of his methods doesn’t matter. The result matters) is that if I use an object, in this case myself, and write about it, explore it, take it apart and put it back together, poke it, prod it, squeeze it etcetera then the focus is always there. It’s like painting a bowl of oranges: the resulting art is how the painter sees the bowl, it’s themselves they are revealing. I doubled down on this and painted myself. I made a hall of mirrors and in the end I couldn’t work out which one was me. I’m not sure I’m explaining this properly. I can’t remember how much of this was done consciously at the time.

You’ve quoted a particular lyric in the press release and even within the artwork on the sleeve – “Of muted desire and no fit state. I know my place, behind the glass.” The glass/mirror imagery is all over the record. What is the significance of it for you? To what extent are you now on the other side of it?

The best thing about this line is that I don’t sing it on the record. I changed the line from ‘no fixed space’ to ‘no fit state’ early on in the writing, thinking I would redo the vocals at some point, but I never did. I only realised that when I listened to it recently. The lyric was the one that opened the door for me, the jumping off point for the whole album. This is what the album is going to be about. I’m not going to pick it apart but it places me perfectly, at that time anyway. The mirror symbolises the way I was going about writing, exploring myself, staring into reflective surfaces. The glass is the barrier that I felt lay between myself and everything else. The Van is death

I always loved the lines from T.S Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, “Between the idea and the reality / between the motion and the act, lies the shadow” which Lou Reed later nicked with his “Between thought and expression / Lies a lifetime.” Between all the things I wanted to be, for myself, my family and friends, lay the glass. The medication I take now hasn’t completely removed it but I’m happier with the way I am. In the end, acceptance can be as important as change.

Can you say a little more about the writing process? I know you were working with lots of samples and then playing things back with the keyboard, but what sort of samples were they?

I built songs from sounds; I stretched basslines and chopped synths etcetera. The way I work with a sample is to shape it the way I want and then replace it. The sound has gone but the idea of it remains. I forgot to remove one but I won’t say where for obvious reasons. I was looking for a groove with big strings. That’s the soul music side to it.

You’ve been very open about your mental health around the time of completing the record. Did the record push you to that point with its honesty, do you think, or did completing it allow you to get a better perspective on how you were?

I’ve had problems since I was a teenager. I knew I had them but I was so disorganised, drunk or drugged that I never asked anybody for help. There have been some real lows, even at the height of our success. I’ve been treated for depression but, after a year on medication, I’m still not convinced that’s the problem. I started out trying to find out what made me tick and the deeper I went, the more the dark stuff came out and I ended up in an intensely manic state. I couldn’t think straight; I was talking to myself or I would try to explain what was happening to me to an empty room. Even after I’d told my partner, I still wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it or not. Then I developed anxiety, which became worse after I started taking medication, but gradually I’ve started to feel better. The last ten months have been great. I can think ahead and plan for the future for the first time in forever.

Youve said you couldn’t go back to the music to work on it at all because you couldn’t return to that space but you’ve also said that it’s the first record that sounds like you and that more will follow. Does it concern you that those were the circumstances that produced such a special record in terms of continuing or is it more that you will apply those principles to whatever situation you find yourself in?

It was as if I was under a spell or some kind of fever. It was awful and strange but I made some great music so I kept at it; I didn’t want anything to change. I was working on ten songs but only finished eight. When I tried to write more I couldn’t do it. I mean, I could write songs, songs I liked but they weren’t ‘New Shapes of Life’ songs. Since then, I’ve written ‘Gold Lift and laid down a few ideas, but I won’t be writing anything else for a while. I have no doubts about myself now, in the song writing sense. I have everything I need.

Yes, you released Gold Lift’ earlier this year off the back of that hideous photo of Trump and Farage. Coupled with the continuously grim news arising from the Brexit vote, do you find that world events have a direct bearing on how you approach making music or is that sort of song a one off to get it out of your song writing system?

Part of my gloom last year was undoubtedly down to Brexit. Not the result itself particularly, but the realisation that so many people in this country were so prejudiced and full of hate for their fellow human beings, how all of a sudden things became so polarised: you were either Hitler or Stalin. The worst of it being Farage and his rich little Englander buddies, their lies and hypocrisy. I wanted to stick it to them and I think it came out alright. Politics you can dance to. I’d like to do more of that.

You recently talked about the mixed impact of Spotify and streaming services – on the one hand, they’re convenient but, on the other, not much help for the non-million selling artists. Is this culture at risk of several limiting the amount of new music being made five, ten years down the line do you think? It doesn’t look very sustainable from the outside.

I don’t really understand the impact that streaming services have outside of the fact that if people are streaming your record they are not buying it and if they’re not buying it then your record company are not going to give you money to make another one. I need to learn to be self-sufficient for when that eventuality happens.

 

BEST OF 2017: 9. Phoebe Bridgers ‘Stranger In The Alps’

Music’s capacity to prompt a response deep within you, involuntary and initiated by little more than a particular sequence of notes or well chosen chords, remains one of life’s most addictive elements. Something about the first twenty seconds of ‘Smoke Signals’, which opens this glorious album, has the capacity to send up the flare for imminent tears. I’m not saying it makes me cry every time I put it on, but that little flicker that something has just shifted inside you is dependably there with each play. It’s quite a skill but also quite an imperceptible thing to define. That whole track is quite special, atmospheric, intense and featuring the lyric: “We’ll watch TV while the lights on the street / Put all the stars to death / It’s been on my mind since Bowie died / Just checking out to hide from life.” It works for me and the rest of the record doesn’t disappoint.

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The break-up narrative of ‘Motion Sickness’ is brilliantly deployed, “You said when you met me you were bored / And you were in a band when I was born,” while the aching failure to reevaluate after the loss in ‘Funeral’ is presented unpolished for our attention. The moment during the final third of ‘Scott Street’, already no slouch, when an additional, higher pitched backing vocal enters and something like a bike bell is rung is deliriously beautiful. I quite sincerely get a little excited in anticipation of its arrival during every listen. The alchemical touch to which I alluded earlier plays its part at several points on ‘Stranger In The Alps’, finessing some already captivating songwriting.

Chelsea’ has a dextrously delayed drumbeat while ‘Georgia’ offers a more conventional sound, representing some of Bridgers’ earliest writing and likely to appeal immediately to fans of First Aid Kit. Both feature the typically magnificent vocal performances that are so consistently across this whole album. ‘Would You Rather’ features Conor Oberst doing what Conor Oberst does atop an ornate arrangement that pursues different textures to its near neighbours. The album concludes with a glorious reading of ‘You Missed My Heart’, one of the few Mark Kozelek tracks I haven’t been able to let go of since purging his increasingly frustrating and wilfully unpleasant presence from my record collection. The highlight of his 2013 collaboration with Jimmy LaValle, it appears here without its bleepy, electronic distance, instead marshalled by warm piano and delicate ambient textures. It’s the superior version of this captivating track, but clearly not written in or for her voice, which actually seems a shame after the pulsating honesty of tracks like ‘Funeral’ and ‘Smoke Signals’. Much of the early press for this album talked about artists who are backing her, but Bridgers has done more than enough on this debut to stand alone without need for reinforcements, be they in press releases, performance or even songwriting. It’s genuinely exciting to think where she might go next.

 

BEST OF 2017: 10. Jane Weaver ‘Modern Kosmology’

I discovered 2014’s ‘The Silver Globe’ a little too late for it to make my end of year list. Every year, things bubble up as a result of reading other lists or festive record shop visits that would so very obviously have been in the thirty if I’d just known about them for a little longer. Thankfully, I was primed for ‘Modern Kosmology’ as a result and it did not disappoint. The Kraut-psych-pop-rock-electro journey it delivers, lasting a little under forty-five minutes, is addictively chaotic. The rumbling intensity of ‘H>A>K’ gives way to ‘Did You See Butterflies?’, a piece which brings to mind a droning, swirling Stereolab belter. The title track, meanwhile, is perhaps more akin to the glacial precision of Broadcast. Either way, these are far from being re-treads, instead evoking fond memories as a consequence of being quite so impressive.

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Early ‘single’ (in as much as such things exist in 2017) ‘Slow Motion’ is glorious, with commanding synth holding the whole thing together as it gradually lifts and lifts. The early quality is staggering and it’s tempting to wonder if ‘Loops In The Secret Society’ is capable of sustaining the momentum. Well, it certainly Can. With a capital C. Because it’s got a full on motorik groove. Like Can. ‘The Architect’ was recently given its own EP release, so utterly enormous is its presence. A little like Goldfrapp with a greater sense of fun and a few cans of the promotional ‘Modern Kosmology’ ale to the wind.

The only real breather comes with ‘Valley’, in the album’s final third. Pastoral sounds and  early Seventies guitar are deployed on what is a slightly sinister piece, never quite going where you think it might. ‘Ravenspoint’ and ‘I Wish’ wrap things up, the former actually featuring original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney providing some spoken word contributions and the latter curiously burying Weaver’s mesmerising voice below swaggering synth lines. ‘Modern Kosmology’ is quite the ride and, with so many little details packed into these tracks by Weaver, who also produced it, there’s little danger of it losing its insistent appeal.

BEST OF 2017: 11. Melanie De Biasio ‘Lilies’

I’ve still not got over the first time I heard the percussive kickstart of ‘Gold Junkies’, the second track on ‘Lilies’. People do all sorts of ludicrously dangerous things to achieve the kind of thrill that this piece of music gives me every time I put it on. Push the volume up, and then a bit further, and ignore everything else for a few minutes. It will pull you deep into its world. Then, and here’s the slightly bizarre bit, having been fully immersed in it, try and describe what the song is actually made from. Tricky, isn’t it? ‘Gold Junkies’ is a fine representation of the majesty of ‘Lilies’, a record that is as masterful a manipulation of textures as anything since ‘Spirit Of Eden’. They may not share too much musical DNA, but that sonic skill is undeniable.

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For example, what is the noise being used initially to sustain the rhythm in ‘Let Me Love You’? De Biasio’s vocals seem to roam in and around the time signature of the track, whispered moments gathering momentum with the piece. ‘Sitting In The Stairwell’ uses just a metronomic click, the slightest of backing vocals and De Biasio’s voice, seemingly beamed in via vintage equipment, to tell a stark story violence on the streets: “there are roses on the sidewalk, there is blood upon the ground.” The electronic pulse of ‘Afro Blue’ is curiously lulling, giving way to the stark intensity of ‘All My Worlds’, which apparently lasts almost seven minutes but is over in an overwhelmingly intense heartbeat.

In the sleeve notes, De Biasio has written:

“The urge to surrender in sound, at home intimately.

All songs are instinctive movements of love and resistance.

The sound is humid, hot, close and direct.

It is the core of a woman.”

In four, short sentences she has done a pretty decent sales pitch for ‘Lilies’ and the four adjectives to describe the sound of it are perfectly chosen. Closing track ‘And My Heart Goes On’ appears to use heavy breathing as looping percussion, while a frankly malevolent flute weaves its way around a rather manic vocal. It’s a quite remarkable end to a quite remarkable album. No matter how well I may have communicated my love for this music, I simply can’t do it justice with mere words. Listen, dear reader. Listen.

 

BEST OF 2017: 12. Cigarettes After Sex ‘Cigarettes After Sex’

Nope, me neither. Quite what would possess anybody to go with that as a band name is beyond me. Let’s remember that labels and managers must have been ok with it too. It is distinctive, I’ll give them that. But, if being stomach-churning or controversial formed the sole metric for measuring impact, then James Corden and the MMR Vaccines would surely be worth a punt too. Anyway, forgive them that, as you’ll be missing some absolutely gorgeous music if you don’t. This self-titled debut album proper (barring a collection of self-released files near the start of the decade) has split opinion and in a quite easily defined fashion. For most, it’s either a lusciously immersive wash of spaced out sound or a tepid collection of samey, mopey indie. I’m with the first group, obviously, but even as I write this I can understand why some people just don’t get it.

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For me, it’s Greg Gonzalez’s laconic, androgynous vocals that seal the deal. Pushed up high in the mix but delivered with reserved poise, they are an arresting force. The floaty, reverb-drenched layers do bring to mind Mazzy Star and the Cocteau Twins at times, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is all style over substance. The melody count is high and the ten songs here are masterfully constructed. The loose term ‘dream-pop’ captures a scene prone to criticism for being rather indistinct as a result of the somnambulant delivery it requires, but there are plenty of artists getting a free pass for the same sort of behaviour in more strident genres. ‘Apocalypse’ was my way in, playing it four times in a row after following a link on Twitter. Its lulling chorus remains one of my musical highlights of 2017, but there’s plenty of a similar standard across the record.

Sweet’ is bedecked with chiming, echoey guitar, while ‘Opera House’ clambers along a prominent bassline. You’ll forgive me for not obsessing over the lyrics of this album as it’s slightly tricky terrain. They did call themselves Cigarettes After Sex, after all. Were you expecting profundity? I can forgive ‘Sunsetz’ its stultifying use of a ‘z’, but I’m not sure I can overlook this sort of frothing imagery: “you open your dress and show me your tits on the swing set at the old playground.” It’s still more poetic than Liam Gallagher’s ‘Chinatown’ – although so is iPhone predictive messaging – but it takes a little gloss off what is, sonically, a record that has been a source of balm during the trickier points of 2017. Nevertheless, make some time, remove potential distractions and let the music wash all over you.

BEST OF 2017: 13. Baxter Dury ‘Prince Of Tears’

Whatever I thought Baxter Dury did, it wasn’t this. I half-remembered the artwork of ‘Len Parrot’s Memorial Lift’ and its rather fragile, low-key tone but hadn’t really kept track as a result. Then, as summer prepared to breathe its last, people whose opinion I trust were simultaneously raving about ‘Prince Of Tears‘. It’s a fine argument for keeping an eye on artists as they progress, even if they didn’t quite do it for you initially. Although, having said that, my first play didn’t prompt an immediate conversion. Half-listening to the crude, excessively alpha-male persona Dury has adopted for this record, I remained on the outside wondering what all the fuss was about. And then it clicked. Songs performed in character can miss their mark when the audience isn’t paying attention. Once the premise was clear, I found myself playing it again and again.

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The chorus of ‘Listen’ ascends like the warm flush of a spirit coating the throat late at night, one of a number of tracks that benefits from the artful juxtaposition of Dury’s talking cock with poised female vocalists. Madelaine Hart fulfils this duty for much of ‘Prince Of Tears’, but ‘Porcelain’ invites the ever-excellent Rose Elinor Dougall to take centre stage in response to the ludicrous, desperate bravado of opener ‘Miami’. Where the first track talks of being “full of promise and cum”, Dougall’s role as this crapulous ego’s partner calmly slaughters his constructed reputation, telling him and us that he’s “just a lonely motherfucker.” It’s a brilliant device for underlining how the record is going to play out and guiding the listener’s sympathies, just in case there was any uncertainty. After all, let’s remember that Dapper Laughs tries to argue he’s a feminist and his audience are all fans of satire focusing on the male identity.

Almond Milk‘ is a lively workout upon which Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods puts in an appearance, followed by the even more effervescent ‘Letter Bomb‘, which commences side B. Spiky guitars are enjoyably contrasted with cooing “la-la-la-la-la” backing vocals before a nifty organ break ushers in another quick finish. ‘Oi’ is one of the few songs this year that has prompted me to do a physical double take at the speakers. If you know it, you’ll know which line caused it and if you don’t, I won’t spoilt it for you. As a pay off to a largely fond reminiscence of errant childhood behaviour, it’s an unexpected delight. The vintage organ plays again on a record that has some genuinely deft musical touches, not least as a result of some tremendous orchestral arrangements. A number of reviews drew parallels with ‘Histoire De Melody Nelson‘ off the back of both the sonic palette and the use of female perspectives balancing a vulgar male caricature. They certainly had a point, but ‘Prince Of Tears‘ still feels very now. It’s a fitting reflection on the toxic masculinity that seems to be increasingly in favour again, handled with nuance that, if I’m honest, took me a little while to spot. For an album that doesn’t quite make it to the thirty minute mark, it’s actually pretty complex. Come to it with an open mind and you’re sure to find much to love.