BEST OF 2015: 4. Evangelist ‘Evangelist’

Along with the early work of Travis and Deejay Punk-Roc, small scale British indie label Independiente released ‘Crazy On The Weekend’ by Sunhouse towards the end of the Nineties. It remains a special record, lost amongst the impenetrable detritus of the Britpop death rattle when it should have been held aloft. Those people who were lucky enough to encounter it at the time still hold it dear. Somewhere between folk and rock with a snarly edge and warmly weathered vocals, it is one of frustratingly few offering from Gavin Clark over the years.

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The quite remarkable voice at the heart of that debut, as well as several albums by Clayhill, Clark died unexpectedly in February of this year aged only 46. He had been working on a collaboration with Toydrum, a duo formed by UNKLE collaborators Pablo Clements and James Griffiths, building on previous successful encounters with both bands. In the months that followed, these songs were completed in tribute to a lost friend.

Conceived as a loosely autobiographical concept record built around the highs, lows and failures of vice-prone preacher, ‘Evangelist’ is a varied but intense listen. It ranges from the kind of spacious acoustic songs for which Shane Meadows often turned to Clark when building the soundtracks for his work, to the shuddering combustion of ‘God Song’ on which the preacher figure cuts loose. The one coherent factor is a voice that is imbued with perhaps too much humanity. Clark was known for suffering from crippling anxiety and the aforementioned Meadows had previously produced a film about his attempts to get his friend back on the stage. A natural star he was not, and that tension always manifested itself in stirring fashion in his recordings. Whether solo acoustic or atop a wall of electronic noise, his ragged, aching tone is captivating.

Same Hands’ stomps along with shuddering drums and marauding synths adding a murky edge, while ‘I’m In Love Tonight’ is a brooding, claustrophobic piece that is held together magically by the trademark violin work of Warren Ellis. Another noteworthy participant is Clark’s eldest son Michael, who provides backing vocals on ‘The World That I Created’ and ‘Never Feel This Young’. The former is the record’s brief opener, the fuse which sets the story of the Evangelist alight, while the latter is its longest track which builds to the sort of fuzzy chorus that wouldn’t have been out of place on that Sunhouse record back in 1998. It features a piano coda from Ludovico Einaudi, somebody with whom Clark had previously worked as part of the musical textures for Meadows’ ‘This Is England’ series. It is one of many well-judged touches which make this release a fitting tribute to a remarkable artist.

The album’s best moment is also its most sparse. ‘Whirlwind Of Rubbish’ is essentially just Clark and his acoustic, a neatly unsettling synth backdrop aside, and his quite beautiful vocal feels like he’s singing just for you. Concluding with the line “the old life is over”, it is utterly heartbreaking and perhaps a little too bleak a note upon which to conclude proceedings. As a result, the cello-assisted ‘Holy Holy’ offers a swirling devotional upon which to draw a line under a fascinating record.

It is mystifying and rather sad that Clark’s talent wasn’t more appreciated while he was still with us, but ‘Evangelist’ should ensure that a new audience becomes acquainted with one of the finest songwriters of modern times. Clements and Griffiths have sculpted something truly special out of their final time with their friend and, while too late for all of the numerous lists, it deserves to be held up as one of the most affecting and impressive releases of a difficult year.

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For the initiated, I’ve included some of Gavin’s other wonderful work below:

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BEST OF 2015: 5. Julia Holter ‘Have You In My Wilderness’

Having already made more genuinely special music in three albums than most artists deliver in a lifetime, Julia Holter has once again managed to find somewhere else to take her sound. In the time since 2013’s superlative ‘Loud City Song’, she has worked with reborn American folk artist Linda Perhacs, assisting in her first record in forty-four years, and contributed to a compilation album featuring a fine cast of artists interpreting unheard lyrics from another figure from folk mythology, Karen Dalton.

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Amongst all of this came a limited single release for a cover of the Bacharach/David composition ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, made famous by Dionne Warwick. A beguilingly understated reading which still maintained the emotional punch of the original, it hinted at an interest in the traditional confines of popular music. Much has already been made of the more conventional song structures favoured here compared to some of her previous work, most notably 2011’s ‘Tragedy’, based around Euripides’ ‘Hippolytus’, but any fears that this might somehow subdue the overwhelming imagination of Holter’s music are rapidly allayed.

The notion of wilderness mentioned in the title abounds on this record, with characters disappearing or escaping here, there and everywhere and the sonic space on some tracks creating that sense of confusion and isolation for the listener. Despite this, and perhaps the most notable change from what has gone before, ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ is an album that needs to pour out of speakers and occupy the room.

The layers of sound, as with her finest work to date, conjure aural pictures out of nothing, not least the lapping waves on ‘Lucette Stranded On The Island’. Partially inspired by a Colette story, ‘Chance Acquaintances’, in which Lucette has been wounded, abandoned and left to wake in a state of total confusion, the evocative nature of the music perfectly aligns with its story. The disorienting opening slowly evolves into a woozy shuffle before the water appears to come crashing over her at the song’s close.

Such ambition is perhaps to be expected from a fan of Joni Mitchell’s jazz phase and Miles Davis’ electric era, two remarkably coherent coordinates in the wilderness of these ten songs. The brushed-cymbal, jittery drums and spoken word, other-worldly vocals on ‘Vasquez’ combine to create something genuinely confusing, occasional moments of string-assisted clarity emerging from the mist.

The intricate pop of ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ reinforces its themes of freedom through a joyous and carefree whistling part before a sax-break elevates the whole thing to another plane. Starting with lopsided clock chimes, ‘Everytime Boots’ is a country song of sorts, built around a gloriously playful and mischievous beat. As with much of ‘Have You In My Wilderness’, the music is as adept at telling the story as the lyrics it accompanies.

The album-closing title track at first seems to be a story of all-consuming love, but the lyrics also hint at a sense of possession and control, building towards the final words on the record: “why do I feel you running away?” The delicate backdrop moves through the gears, rising to a point of tension, highlighting the mixed message at the heart of the song. It is typical of a record where music and words are inseparably intertwined. It’s hard to imagine anyone else ever recording these songs, so indelibly does Holter leave her mark. Such has been the consistency of the run of albums from ‘Tragedy’ through ‘Ekstasis’ to ‘Loud City Song’, garnering praise from all corners, there is a risk that we might take such quality for granted. Just one listen will remove any such complacency.

BEST OF 2015: 6. Nicolas Godin ‘Contrepoint’

Having plied an adoring public with soothing jazz-tinged electronica on 1998’s ‘Moon Safari’, Air resolutely resisted the temptation to deliver more of the same and veered off course with delightful abandon. They delivered the far more varied and dowmbeat soundtrack to ‘The Virgin Suicides’, before unleashing the synth-prog-electro-pop of ‘10000Hz Legend’. All are great records, but the band’s true high point came with 2004’s warmly atmospheric, majestically layered ‘Talkie Walkie’ which doesn’t burst out of the speakers, nevertheless managing to fill the whole room, sound drifting every which way. Its great success was the melding of crisply recorded percussion, carefully caressed synths and sparsely deployed hushed vocals. There are very few records like it. ‘Contrepoint’, however, is arguably one.

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Inspired by the counterpoint harmonies of no less than Johann Sebastian Bach, Nicolas Godin’s first offering away from that rightly revered duo is a quite beautiful recording. In an age of tiny, tinny white earbuds and music designed to sound good battling the noise of traffic through a car stereo, the soundstage is truly something to behold. It is, perhaps, entirely fitting that an album inspired by one of the greatest classical musicians of all time should be so perfectly rendered.

Fans of Godin’s previous work will spot numerous sounds and textures that evoke fond memories, but this is an impressive set in its own right. ‘Club Nine’ goes all Dave Brubeck at its outset – ‘Take Nine’, if you will – brushed drums and nagging piano setting the scene for some rolling, swinging jazz. The closest thing here to the archetypal Air sound is ‘Widerstehe Dor Der Sunde’, with a hushed, starry-eyed female vocal and a choral breakdown, but even that has an enjoyably robotic coda attached.

Clara’ is a particular delight, building out of mournful strings into a lulling bossa nova bedecked with sun-kissed synths, but there’s another piece here that is sure to steal the limelight. The so-bad-it’s-almost-good title ‘Bach Off’ is redeemed by the seven-minute plus curio to which it is attached. Shifting and mutating through numerous moods, paces and genres, it is like the soundtrack to five different films being played simultaneously. There’s a piece on Air’s aforementioned accompaniment to ‘The Virgin Suicides’ entitled ‘Dead Bodies’ which has always felt like the perfect match for a manic noirish late-night car chase scene and elements of ‘Bach Off’ occupy similar territory. It’s a staggering achievement and new details continue to emerge, even after dozens of listens.

With Air currently parked, Godin needed a new challenge and, rather than turning his back on music as he initially planned to, he instead threw himself into highly technical piano lessons so as to conquer the work of Bach. The chance to spin new songs out of elements of the composer’s scores proved irresistible, but he is keen to point out that this is a more general tribute to the many classical writers who have inspired him in his career. Out of something very, very old has come something deliciously new.

BEST OF 2015: 7. John Grant ‘Grey Tickles and Black Pressure’

Ever since the dawning of the CD era encouraged artists to fill up all available space in the same way that all-you-can-eat buffets bring out a curiously competitive dark side in the best of us, the chance of encountering a lengthy album that breezes past tantalisingly and compels us to instantly go again has been slim. Despite clocking in at almost an hour, ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ is one such uncommonly striking release.

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The album is bookended by a variety of voices intoning a quotation from Corinthians about the many virtues of love, the initial outing eventually exploding into an electronic squall that serves to underline how unconvincing Grant found that message. A moment of pause is provided before the remarkable title track begins the convincing case for its creator being considered one of our greatest modern lyricists. Black humour, sharp observation and a playful but meticulous knack with words, surely aided by his capacity as a multi-linguist, make ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ a record which satisfies on every level. What lies between those two biblical markers is one man’s experience of relationships, told in acerbically honest fashion.

In many ways this is a more bolshy take on the split sonic palette explored on 2013’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, although the rich electro bursts are far more integrated this time and the fluctuating approach is entrancing. Wit and wisdom inform the lyrics, with self-deprecation carved out as an eloquent art form. Grant’s striking, compelling honesty has been a hallmark of his solo releases to date and the album’s title track doesn’t hold back. Essentially a warning against self-pity from a man adjusting to life after an HIV diagnosis, he ranges across numerous moments of frustration only to reproach himself on one of the less radio friendly bridges in the history of songwriting: “but there are children who have cancer, so all bets are off.”

The album is a bold, idiosyncratic collection of songs crafted under intense time pressure after producer John Congleton insisted that Grant have all of the material ready to go before entering the studio. Such a challenge certainly seems to have focused the mind and, while ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ both built up to dramatic showpieces, the consistent stature of all of these songs even in their early days is remarkable. The engagingly whole-hearted funk of ‘Snug Slacks’ is knowingly sleazy and truly hilarious. It’s yet another new angle for him to explore, but the many stylistic shifts are bizarrely smooth because of the true enormity of Grant’s presence. The writhing squelch of ‘Voodoo Doll’ is similarly captivating, recounting an attempt to convey positive feelings to a beleaguered friend caught under the grey clouds of depression.

Despite a title combining the Icelandic for a mid-life crisis and a Turkish phrase for a nightmare, this is his most brash record to date, with even the slower-paced songs some distance from being described as a lull in proceedings. While the lyrics may be a little less directly addressed, they are no less visceral and ‘You And Him’ repeatedly mentions both Hitler and Pol Pot en route to a line that could sound crass or lightweight, but in context is ridiculously joyous: “You think you’re super special but you’re just a big twat.” The song punctures the pomposity of morally bankrupt corporations and thuggish bigots in one fell swoop.

Grant has spoken fondly of the contribution of Bobby Sparks, a keyboard player brought in to add layers to the record, and the pop polish on some of the tracks builds on the hints towards that direction found on his last album. ‘Disappointing’ is a five-minute disco strut which lays waste to all previous sources of pleasure in deference to a new romantic interest. The addition of Tracey Thorn’s warmly evocative voice as it ascends to somewhere rather magical makes this one of several emphatic highlights.

The contrasting approach of ‘Down Here’ is no less spectacular, with a composed, spacious, acoustic-driven arrangement used to explore the vagaries of a love contorted out of shape. A similar pace is pursued on ‘No More Tangles’, which offers far more hope as Grant looks to distance himself from damaging relationships of old through an unconventional figurative co-opting of a shampoo strapline. It was one of four songs on the record debuted during his shows with the Royal Northern Sinfonia last year and its opulent arrangements capture some of the portentous energy witnessed by those lucky enough to witness the collaboration.

Having found happiness in recent times in the sanctuary of Iceland, the channelling of varyingly brutal past experiences through these lyrics suggests that John Grant is far from comfortable writing about brighter times, at least for now. Wherever he may veer next, ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ finds him in quite remarkable form.

BEST OF 2015: 8.Blur ‘The Magic Whip’

Looking back at the Blur of twenty years ago, the acceleration from the sound of ‘The Great Escape’ onwards seems ridiculous. To go from ‘Mr Robinson’s Quango’ to ‘B.L.U.R.E.M.I.’ in four years is still hard to fathom, although the divergence and dirtying of their sound coincided with a similar breakdown in relations. The widely accepted narrative of the time was that the scuzzier guitars, American influences and partial drift from conventional song structures was a sop to a very pissed off Graham Coxon, who felt like they’d overplayed the “oompah” card at the height of Britpop. By the time sessions commenced for what was to become 2003’s ‘Think Tank’, Coxon’s contributions to the new songs were considered disruptive, suggesting that he had no desire to curtail the trajectory embarked upon with the band’s self-titled 1997 release.

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The resulting split, which wasn’t to be healed until 2009’s reconciliation tour, nearly killed off Blur, the three remaining members realising that without Graham on stage it just wasn’t right. Damon Albarn recently dismissed the Coxon-less album, saying it “wasn’t really a Blur record” and so let us proceed with the idea that ‘The Magic Whip’ should instead be viewed as the successor to 1999’s ‘13’. All of which makes it rather remarkable to encounter an album comprised of twelve relatively conventional, often beautiful, songs.

 Having been recorded in five unexpectedly free days in Hong Kong back in 2013, they were knocked into shape by Coxon towards the end of last year. The guitarist has talked of feeling like he owed the band something because of how it originally ended and how the building of ‘The Magic Whip’ was partly a repaying of that debt.  This might go some way to explaining the less destructive and far more unifying approach to these songs. Add in Stephen Street, deservedly revered producer and the man behind the desk of four previous Blur records, and you get the band’s most natural sounding album in over twenty years.

Of course, this tremendous back-story would be worthless if they didn’t have the songs. Essentially knocking about ideas that Damon had with him on tour, recorded into his iPad as he has done for some time, it’s hard to believe the loose and limited studio session yielded such finery as ‘My Terracotta Heart’ and ‘Pyongyang’. While the 2010 single ‘Fool’s Day’ and 2012’s double-header of ‘Under The Westway’ and ‘The Puritan’ belied their less than thorough gestations, ‘The Magic Whip’ feels far more like a legitimate and utterly compelling next chapter.

Ghost Ship’ has a languid, summery polish to it that fairly saunters along, while ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ evolves around both a military beat and a murky vocal that are truly striking. Both break new ground for Blur, something which one suspects is in part to do with it being built around demos by a very different Damon to the last time he worked with the band. Much has been said about the reference points already and it should come as no surprise to anyone that there are moments evoking thoughts of Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Albarn’s solo effort from last year. There is a common denominator, after all, but what is noticeable and so utterly, utterly joyous is the presence of Coxon.

There’s a moment just before the three-minute mark in ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ where a distant, reverbed Graham is unexpectedly beamed in to complete Albarn’s sentence. It’s one of the record’s true hairs-on-the-back of the neck moments and it serves to perfectly capture the musical alchemy that exists when the pair are in each other’s company. With Coxon and Street shaping the songs prior to Albarn crafting the words, it’s interesting that the aching guitar of ‘My Terracotta Heart’ perfectly matches a lyric exploring the past troubles of the pair’s relationship. They have created something that is as beautiful as any Albarn heartache song has ever previously sounded.

Lonesome Street’, ‘Go Out’ and ‘I Broadcast’, the album’s most brash moments, seem like logical evolutions of moments from the band’s past. The first of that list straddles the sound of ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Blur’, while the song that offered the first taste of ‘The Magic Whip’, ‘Go Out’, occupies a ground somewhere between ‘On Your Own’ and ‘Music Is My Radar’ which, as any fool knows, can only be a very fine thing indeed. The last of that triumvirate is a wonderfully chaotic, riff-driven thing, seemingly specifically designed for joyous pogoing and wild leaping from Albarn when performed live. It captures the emphatic rattle that some of the non-album tracks from the ‘Think Tank’ era were aiming for but never quite achieved. It underlines, hopefully for the final time, that Blur only really work with Coxon there to elevate them to greatness.

Ong Ong’ is a quite staggeringly effective earworm, all la-la-la-la-las, looped handclap percussion and the line “I wanna be with you” in its chorus. It’s a wonderfully simple pleasure, reigniting the mass-singalong knack that served the band so well whenever performing ‘Tender’ during previous reunion shows. Most intriguing is ‘Ice Cream Man’, with repetitive bleeps and burbles taking the place of actual chimes and a lyric which slowly evolves into Albarn’s memories of the Tiananmen Square protests. Lyrically and musically varied, it is a perfect encapsulation of what ‘The Magic Whip’ has to offer.

In returning, Blur have progressed. This is not a band revisiting past glories, indeed they’ve said recently that they felt there was no scope to do further gigs without new music to play. Shorn of expectation and match fit in the middle of a long tour, four friends found each other again.

BEST OF 2015: 9. Sufjan Stevens ‘Carrie & Lowell’

Sometimes music can be utterly beautiful and yet really hard to listen to simultaneously. Sometimes music can connect in a way that opens up feelings you didn’t even know you were having. Sometimes music lodges itself in your mind, ready for its significance to be unveiled in the future. All of that and more can be said about my experience with ‘Carrie & Lowell’ to date. I wasn’t especially excited about it ahead of release, reading pieces from the label about compromises on the vinyl quality and remembering my near indifference to the sound of ‘The Age Of Adz’. Sufjan Stevens was an artist I’d always looked in on and I had purchased a fair swathe of his output to date, but I wasn’t expecting a simple, stark masterpiece. Because that is what ‘Carrie & Lowell’ is.

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The Carrie in the title is Stevens’ mother, a schizophrenic alcoholic who flitted in and out of his life, walking out when he was one and then disappearing again when she split with his stepfather, the other name on that sleeve above. She died in 2012 from stomach cancer and he was present, but struggling with a grief that was tied up with so much absence. The sense of loss that is part of what it is to be human was caught in amongst so many other difficult emotions. In reflecting upon that time in his life, Stevens crafted what is easily his finest album to date.

We had a near miss towards the end of this year with one of our family. We had the dreaded phone call that we should all assemble as time was short. En route from the hospital, all I could hear playing in my head was ‘Death With Dignity’, the track which opens ‘Carrie & Lowell’ so delicately. It’s concluding refrain “you’ll never see us again” looped distantly, attaching itself to emotions triggered by an old soul unwilling to let the end scare them or those around them. The gathering had been stage managed by the afflicted and, looking back, it’s amazing to think that she’s still with us, having pulled off quite the recovery, considering how graceful that afternoon had been. I already loved this record by this point, but that day made me understand it a little bit more.

The harmonies and warm acoustic sounds of a number of these songs were jettisoned for the much talked of ‘Fourth Of July’, with its deliberately disorienting fuzzy background and eerily disembodied falsetto. It is arguably the most affecting song of the year but it’s so difficult. Something about the construction of the song means that when the line “we’re all gonna die” comes up, it cuts through to our anxieties about mortality. Then there’s the lyric, “shall we look at the moon, my little loon? Why do you cry?” which has had me welling up on numerous occasions. Whatever cathartic power recording ‘Carrie & Lowell’ may have had for Stevens, it has absorbed so much of what is so rarely said this sincerely in song that it is often devastating for the listener.

Childhood memories litter the record, some happier than others but all vivid. ‘Should Have Known Better’ reflects on the regrets brought about by grief, despite a reconciliation of sorts in the final days. “I should have known better, nothing can be changed” he sings, but an uplift in feelings is suggested by an almost playful burst of melody in the song’s second half. Meanwhile, on ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’, things seem rather less optimistic, life’s challenges taking their toll as he intones “fuck me, I’m falling apart,” in remarkably raw fashion.

The album concludes with ‘Blue Bucket Of Gold’, which precedes at funereal pace, with additional, more tremulous piano bursts and reverb-washed harmonies deployed on occasion. Then, at just under the three minute mark, it drops out and becomes a shimmering drone piece, reflecting the uncertainty of its lyrics. Like so much of this breathtaking record, there is no filter and no protection from the emotions that make these songs so powerful. ‘Carrie & Lowell’ is not an easy listen, but it has a resonant, honest beauty that makes it one of the year’s finest without  a doubt.

BEST OF 2015: 10. Björk ‘Vulnicura’

After the accompanying multimedia storm nearly buried the true beauty present across much of 2011’s ‘Biophilia’, it was perhaps fitting that a leak ensured that the music got to do all of the talking when it came to the arrival of ‘Vulnicura’. It is, of course, monumentally shitty when the rug gets pulled from under a release and it still bugs me when my favourite artists fall prey to such early leaks. However, in a deft bit of damage control, a not especially high-fidelity upload was quickly usurped by the real thing and we were able to get to grips with what had already been revealed to be a brutally personal record.

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I can still remember putting on the headphones in the back room one cold night in January, wondering what I was about to hear. The strings at the start of ‘Stonemilker’ cut straight through, prompting the cliched but no less striking hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck response. It is utterly desolate. The arrangement aches and groans, full of foreboding and fatigue. The tone is set in quite remarkable fashion and it never relents. The lyrics unflinchingly document the end of Björk’s long term relationship with artist Matthew Barney like a diary, each of the first six tracks accompanied by their position in a chronological timeline when perusing the lyrics. By ‘Lionsong’, it’s five months before it happens and uncertainty is the theme. “Maybe he will come out of this loving me, maybe he won’t,” she sings, high up in the mix while beats and strings pile in behind. The twitching rhythm seems entirely fitting and it cements ‘Vulnicura’ as an album where its context plays a vital part.

The switch from the sense of imminent loss in ‘History Of Touches’ – “every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time lapse” – with its unsettling synth stabs to the stunningly stark intensity of ‘Black Lake’ is breathtaking. The album’s ten-minute centrepiece, it has plenty to live up to after the opening line of “our love was my womb but our bond has broken.” Not that it proves a struggle, musically at least. Almost three minutes pass before some detached beats briefly skitter across the landscape, prompting a moment of pause. The disarmingly emotive lyrics are delivered almost syllable by syllable, as if to reinforce the sense of a seismic separation. It feels like the shortest ten minute song in the history of recorded music, so enthralling is the story at its heart.

The shuddering beat that presages the stark lyrics of ‘Family’ – “is there a place where I can pay respect for the death of my family?” – is a masterstroke but it makes for staggeringly claustrophobic listening. Thinking back to that January night, I had to put the headphones down for a minute at that point and wander off to the kitchen for a breather. Even now, it still requires an emotional run up.

Notget’, now eleven months after the split, marks the beginning of renewal which informs the gradual ascent to the album’s closer, ‘Quicksand’. The former takes control of the grief, exclaiming “don’t remove my pain, it is my chance to heal,” while the latter argues that “when we are broken, we are whole and when we’re whole, we’re broken.” It’s not quite an emotional release, not least because it’s hard to resist the temptation to dive back into the power of these nine songs again, but it offers light after plenty of shade. Whatever your view of Björk prior to this release, ‘Vulnicura’ stands as a work of art all of its own. From the packaging inwards, it is something truly special.

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It’s also worth seeking out the newly released ‘Vulnicura Strings‘, which pares things back and restructures some of the tracks to stirring effect. There’s also a live album from the abbreviated tour, but it was, initially at least, limited to Rough Trade shops.