BEST OF 2013: 4. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record

If 2011’s ‘Last Summer’ was a tentative step into the solo limelight after years as one half of The Fiery Furnaces, then ‘Personal Record’ is a bold stride to the front of the stage. While that debut was surprisingly conventional and accessible after what had come before, this was released to certain expectations. Expectations which it boldly surpasses. The Seventies pop-rock brush is liberally applied across these twelve songs to glittering, joyous effect, but these are not limp songs hiding behind dependable production. The slight pomp and polish is necessitated by some of the sharpest songwriting to be found anywhere in the last twelve months. Both lyrically and melodically, ‘Personal Record’ is pretty much perfect.

Written before ‘Last Summer’ appeared, and in collaboration with Wesley Stace, a British author who also operates as MOR artist John Wesley Harding, this is a relentlessly impressive album. Songs went back and forth, demos passed between two writers, rather than face to face, each tinkering with the other’s ideas until tracks found their eventual shape. Friedberger was trying out various tracks throughout touring commitments for the debut and had the whole thing pretty much ready to go as soon as she came off the road. As it turned out, it would be a little while before she actually went into the studio to put ‘Personal Record’ together, something which she has since regretted a little. You often hear of artists becoming tired of their songs by the time the public actually gets to listen to them, although it’s hard not to imagine anyone who’d put together this particular collection wanting a victory lap or three.

From the gleaming artwork, continuing her trend for sleeves which already look like classic LPs, through the immaculate production to the record’s tracklist – everything is right here. The wry title might actually have bettered suited her first solo outing, but it is a fine, fine name for an album, whatever it contains. Lyrically ambiguous, due to the sharing of the song-writing, there is a playful uncertainty about some of the wonderfully vivid stories told here. It is a record about records, has songs about the little details in life and lyrics ranging over shared experiences and adolescent nostalgia. If you’re not identifying with half of the tales told here, you’ll be marvelling at some of the genuinely brilliant couplets. Imagine a cheerful prime-era Elvis Costello and you might be somewhere close. This whole record is a triumphant delight to listen to, a twelve-track earworm all in one that needs restarting as soon as it finishes. However, I want to focus in on a couple of tracks in order to highlight just why this album is one of my true favourites in what has been a very decent year for music.

Firstly, the glistening, soulful shuffle of ‘Other Boys’ adopts an air of controlled nonchalance about a partner’s rather loose approach to their relationship, despite the fact that it’s clearly not ok. The meticulous detailing of the various other girls is littered with imagery that the aforementioned bespectacled one specialised in at one point. Take, for example, this exquisite stanza describing one such other: “Or the long-tail pony with the thick, dark mane, fourteen hands, four thousand names. You share her feed at the compound trough and then climb back on when she throws you off”. And that’s not all. Possibly my favourite lyric of 2013 is the wonderfully wry but fabulously evocative: “How could any man resist, a girl with such a big setlist?” The humour in a song with such a bleak burden demonstrates the emotional articulacy at the heart of ‘Personal Record’. The stories might not be entirely about her, or Stace, but they still feel bitingly real.

The other song I wish to pop up on a metaphorical plinth is ‘When I Knew’, which has been a compilation staple for me all year. Driving in with chiming indie jangle aplenty, it captures the noticing of similarities, the forming of a crush, the realisation of an attraction based on shared experiences. It’s the best three minute forty-five seconds long short story you’ll hear in some time. There’s the early attraction, noticing the other person across the room: “And you know what happened next, I said hi politely and we went to town for coffee.” Then there is bond forged by shared but uncommon interests which could fit into so many of ours lives: “They said we both like weird music and she played me Soft Machine and leant me a record which badly warped which screwed up everything.” There’s the moment of self-flagellation that our memories are so prone to: “And she was wearing a pair of overalls, so I sang ‘Come On Eileen’. I was being slightly mean and that just made her smile, which made me feel childish.” Then arrives the moment where it all came out into the open with the wonderful wordplay of: “I couldn’t get her out of my head, so I got her out of hers instead.” It’s an absolute masterpiece and as good a place to start as any with this glorious album. In an interview with Laura Barton in The Guardian, Friedberger said “I really like the gender-bending stuff in the songs. Obviously, it’s because I wrote the songs with Wes, but I like the idea of, ‘Am I singing about myself or am I singing about another woman or…?’ I like the mystery around it.” It’s that sense of shifting sands, of performing and inhabiting experiences without having always lived them that sets ‘Personal Record’ apart from ‘Last Summer’. Where that album was emotionally raw, this is emotionally rich. Be sure to seek it out.

BEST OF 2013: 5. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years ago, I found myself raving over Bill Callahan‘s last album, ‘Apocalypse’, and wondering quite why I’d never fallen so in love with his work before then. The subsequent months allowed for that to happen more fully and by the time ‘Dream River’ was first being filtered out to journalists, I was poised and ready to go. As a result, I spent almost a month solidly listening to this record. 2013 really has been the year of whole-month album-absorptions, with records locking on and refusing to let go. It’s not difficult to see why it may have happened with this particular album, continuing as it does Callahan’s recent run of masterful sets released under his own name. It is, arguably, his most affecting vocal performance of his career – he really seems to have considered the potential and power of his singing voice. Known for his dour delivery dating back to the early days of Smog, he has become increasingly at ease with pushing and stretching his voice to see where it will go. It is, as one might expect, really rather beautiful.

‘Small Plane’ may just edge it as this album’s finest track, although the vivid and sepia-tinted imagery of ‘Summer Painter’ runs it close. The former is a song which dawdles along, serene in its contentment and underlined by some gentle tape hiss. The lyrics contained within seem to offer metaphorical takes on the unit formed by a relationship and the sense that he is at ease sharing his life now. For example: “sometimes you sleep while I take us home, that’s when I know we really have a home. I never liked to land, getting back up seems impossibly grand. We do it with ease.” And that’s ignoring the repeated phrase, “I really am a lucky man.” He appears to be happy to sing this, but less comfortable discussing it when reflecting on his music. His prior reputation for being a challenging interviewee is hardly a secret and when I found myself in a position where I was due to conduct a chat with him for Clash, it dramatically affected how I listened to ‘Dream River’. For a week or so, I was forensic and determined, looking to draw out thoughts and angles that might prompt a purposeful response. As it happened, the interview ended up being conducted via email and largely free of incident. Two questions were ignored – one of which asked if this album might be considered his ‘contentment record’. The other touched on the almost playful delivery of certain aspects of his lyrics, such as “barroom barroom” in ‘Seagull’ or the delicious repetition of “beer and thank you” after the line “the only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you” on ‘The Sing’. It’s those moments I tend to gravitate towards myself, being something of a melody fan. Those very knowing aspects are fascinating and mysterious to me – and so they, evidently, will remain.

The rest of the interview offered some insight here and there, although the process of preparing for it left the album slightly over-exposed and the incessant listening came to an end. It has since been suitably rehabilitated, as its position here demonstrates. Having barely updated the blog in recent months, you’ll forgive me for using this an opportunity to reuse that feature. The album is a delight, my questioning adequate and Callahan’s responses, I hope, of interest to you.

***

The title ʻDream Riverʼ seems a pretty distinct contrast from ʻApocalypseʼ and the songs therein seem to capture a certain ease with the world. Where did the title come from and how much importance do you attach to your album titles in general?

A lot of importance. It has to be the perfect thing. With ‘Dream River’ I realised those words, while very common in titles, haven’t really been put together in the past – but it feels like they have. It seems familiar, but it’s not; like a dream.

There seems to be a lot of movement on the record – a plane, seagull and javelin. Does this set of songs come from a change in your feelings about the world since ʻApocalypseʼ, where you seemed to be scrutinising modern America?

I wouldn’t say I was scrutinising modern America. I was more just describing it. To me it seems like a natural progression: after apocalypse the dream river. An attitude towards the world is all within. Not much has really changed in the last 800 years.

I spoke to an artist recently who said that, after twenty solid years, song writing no longer came easily. Is that the case for you, or has it got easier over time? Are you someone who needs to write?

It’s pretty easy. You’ve got to be more selective over time, though. No need to repeat yourself, so that takes a bit more time. The basketball court gets longer, but the basket stays the same height. I probably do need to write but I don’t ever stop, so I don’t feel a need.

Is ʻDream River’ your fifteenth album in your eyes, or do you consider the eleven Smog albums as a different part of your career? Presumably you feel vindicated about the decision to record under your own name?

I feel like Smog was a different time; I was different people. And who can feel tethered to a line that long and old? It’s more natural to me to think in the form of trilogies. That’s about as far back as I can go in my catalogue and still have an inkling of who I was then and what I was doing. Anything further back than that becomes awkward teenage photos.

What have you been listening to recently? Does the current music scene excite you?

Loving the new Urban Cone. I don’t really like the way R&B is going. It’s very Euro Disco these days. Hip Hop is almost always interesting. I like Future and Lil Boosie. Nothing is really music anymore these days, though. It’s just computer washes of sound. Which is fine for Hip Hop, but not other stuff.

For someone not especially fond of talking about his work, I find it interesting that there were both a tour film and book of photographs of late. Are you happy to give part of yourself to your audience, you’d just rather not have to explain it afterwards?

If people want it, truly want it, then I am happy to give it to them. If people are just pretending to want it to be polite, then I don’t want to give it to them, and it’s a matter of only wanting to give something to people that is worthwhile. There’s no sense in giving something/anything just for the sake of it, in my book. It has to be the right time and place.

After the warm response to ‘Letters to Emma Bowlcut’, are there any plans for another novel?

I am working on it. I think Emma just went into its fourth printing which is pretty cool. It was translated into Spanish and German. Pretty wild. Maybe the publishers are just being polite in doing that, I don’t know.

What are you currently reading? Is it any good?

I don’t read anymore. TV is too good.

BEST OF 2013: 6. Nils Frahm – Spaces

I’ve never really seen the point of live albums. They don’t actually serve to reignite the visceral thrill of having seen an act, nor provide the vicarious thrill to those who’ve never had the pleasure. Often deployed as contractual filler, on occasion they throw up an interesting reinterpretation or two, but rarely serve as the go-to titles for any artists. Thankfully, this isn’t really a live album, more a collection of expertly-selected and delicately-woven field recordings, covering two years of performances by one of my absolute favourite artists, Nils Frahm. His music played during the signing of the register when I got married this summer and I continue to point everyone I can in his direction. I’ve yet to have the pleasure of seeing him live, and ‘Spaces’ doesn’t really do much to address that. In many ways, however, it is the first album of his to really capture the breadth of his quite remarkable talent. Where previously he has worked to various limitations – ‘Wintermusik’ was originally a festive gift for family, ‘Felt’ was recorded within a piano deliberately muffled to be playable in the small hours and ‘Screws’ was confined by a broken digit – this feels like an album with no boundaries. When I crafted my 105 words for Clash on this wonderful record, I describe it as the “sound of an artist unleashed”, and I think I was onto something. This is not a career overview, nor is it simply a collection of new music. It is a mutation, a collage, of the sounds that pour out of Frahm. His lyrical playing and knack for finding the precious spaces between the notes are why I treasure records like this one so much.

‘Spaces’ is comprised of eleven tracks and seventy six minutes chosen from over thirty concerts Frahm recorded in a two year period. Some things here will be instantly recognisable to those already immersed in his work – a beautifully expanded ‘Said And Done’ from ‘The Bells’, a suitably demure ‘Over There, It’s Raining’ from the same record and a bare take on ‘Familiar’ from ‘Felt’ – while others offer strange subversions and melding together of previously released tracks. ‘For-Peter-Toilet Brushes-More’ is a staggering, near-seventeen-minute long collision of material from the recently reissued ‘Juno’ single, whereby he recorded two pieces for Peter Broderick after the fellow Erased Tapes artist loved the sound of a synthesiser Frahm had in the studio, and utterly essential afore-mentioned album, ‘Felt’. If you want to get a sense of the many directions this man’s truly special music can go in, then that elongated piece may be the best place to start. The synth stabs gradually recede into uplifting washes of sound before the whole thing branches off and Frahm plays the inside of his piano with, er, toilet brushes. Frantic piano accompanies and the track starts swirling towards a brash crescendo. It’s one for the headphones and loud on the speakers.

The new material is fairly remarkable also, with the eight minutes of ‘Says’ having drawn particular praise from all over. It’s a sublime synthesiser piece which gently bubbles through five minutes of tranquil layers before exploding into a conflagration of all of the instruments Frahm uses on stage, producing the aural equivalent of shooting stars in the closing ninety seconds. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music released this year and reason enough to get hold of this album. ‘Hammers’ wheels along at a frenetic pace, sounding not unlike early Noughties Radiohead, while ‘Improvisation For Coughs And A Cell Phone’ pretty much does what it says, capturing and reacting to the presence of others in the room.

What drew me to this man’s music in the first place was his indefatigable desire to play with sound, see where it can go and ride out the results until they all make sense. The control of the tracks he has previously released always seemed to demonstrate his ability to be deft and to be precise. ‘Spaces’ captures all of that exploring, that enthusiasm and that passion as it was being poured into his work. Watch the clip above of a take on ‘Toilet Brushes-More’ to see the sheer delight on Frahm’s face as the room responds to his efforts and you get a sense of what’s happening here. ‘Spaces’ may not give me the sense of having seen him live but it really does offer a different, or at least enhanced, take on what it is this most remarkable of artists can do. If my raving over ‘Screws’ last year didn’t prompt you into action then, for your sake, I hope I’m up to the task of enthusing you this time.

In the sleeve notes, Frahm says: “I guess ‘Spaces’ works best if you put it on a record player, with your phone and computer turned off, imagining you were in one room with me, where I play for you.” It certainly warrants such focus, revealing its breathtaking layers to anyone willing to look. The vinyl edition will make it out some time in the new year, once a decent test pressing has finally been managed, and it will be a very special thing indeed. However, on this occasion, I would suggest you don’t want to wait. Seek this special record out now and use it as a lift during festive lulls, take it with you on crisp New Year’s walks and embrace it as the artists suggests. It’s easy to be evangelical about an artist when they’re this good.

BEST OF 2013: 7. Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum

Recorded in Los Angeles but retaining plenty of Welsh spirit with Sweet Baboo and H Hawkline forming part of her band, ‘Mug Museum’ is the album that should install Cate Le Bon in the heads and hearts of the musically and emotionally literate. It is a diverting and stirring album which can hold you captive for days on end. ‘I wrote the majority of the record in the home country but a few songs were finished out here in the run up to recording’ said Le Bon in the press release that accompanied the album. ‘I’m sure Los Angeles has bled into the recordings somehow but exactly how I do not know.’ While there is something of an eternal haze perhaps referencing the LA link to some of these songs, it still sounds very much like a Cate Le Bon record in the very best possible sense. Beautiful, shimmering songs that are timeless yet vital, fresh but brilliantly familiar.

It has been wonderful to see the positive coverage that ‘Mug Museum’ has garnered, including an appearance on the cover of the newly revitalised and really rather good NME. It’s not just the initiated now, it’s anyone with functioning ears and a heart. ‘I Can’t Help You’ chimes and jangles like ‘Marquee Moon’ at 45rpm, confirming that however wonderful ‘Cyrk’ and ‘Cyrk II’ were – and they were – this another step up from a wonderfully inventive artist. ‘Are You With Me Now?’ lollops arrestingly, perfectly capturing Le Bon’s remarkable dexterity as a singer The backing vocals near the three minute mark are utterly beautiful and cap one of the record’s finest songs off in style. Quirkily vintage piano clarinet touches on the closing title track add decoration to a song which seems wearily but wilfully lost, drifting in and out of sense but offering up the thought “I forget the detail, but remember the warmth.” Much has been said about how distinctive Le Bon’s voice is, but it should be emphasised, quite simply, how utterly magnificent it is too.

The thunderous chug to the bass on ‘No God’ has a certain late seventies alt-rock majesty to it, but the folkier melodies remain at play across the top. ‘Mug Museum’ certainly has a vintage folk feel at times, but the fact that this music doesn’t quite fit any particular box all that neatly is part of its appeal. There is an overarching warmth to her delivery that transcends the meaning of the words on occasion, giving the songs an emotional heft that offers quite sincere solace during darker times. In the same way I might reach for ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ or ‘Sea Change’ because I want an all-consuming listen, I now seek out this singular album. The magically delicate interplay with Perfume Genius on ‘I Think I Knew’, for example, with heartache at its core is an inspired collaboration, pairing two warmly emotive voices to devastating effect.

‘Cuckoo Through The Walls’ disintegrates somewhat disturbingly and I have a fond memory of flicking through the vinyl racks of Cardiff’s premier destination – Spillers Records – as this played, the stereo separation across the speakers in the shop only adding to the curious atmosphere. It was they who first introduced me to Le Bon’s work, persuading me to pick up her self-released 2007 single ‘No One Can Drag Me Down’ which still gets keenly played to this day. If you’ve never heard it, some nefarious type has uploaded it here. The journey from there to here has been joyous, with each release a clearly discernible leap from the last. By the time 2012’s ‘Cyrk’ came into view, it was pretty obvious that the days of being a best kept secret sort of artist were over. Where that album faded in with ‘Falcon Eyed’, as if we were simply dipping in, the big difference with ‘Mug Museum’ is the sense of poise. This album stands tall, ready for the world to take it in.

BEST OF 2013: 8. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

There’s a moment at the end of ‘I Need My Girl’ when several layers of whirling synth collide, seeming to take off and leave the song behind. Within twenty seconds, they drop back down to earth and themselves disappear into ‘Humiliation’. It is a small moment on a big album, but it’s one of a considerable number of delicately manoeuvred sonic tingles to be found herein.

This is the album by The National that all made sense first time, whether it’s because of how well primed we all are now or the simple fact that, like R.E.M. before them, they have refined their sound to the point where we approach within certain parameters, waiting to be delighted. Having said, when writing about Midlake, that we don’t actually want our favourite bands to keep doing the same thing, I can’t pretend I wasn’t delighted to be on the receiving end of a new album by The National with obvious lineage from ‘Boxer’ and ‘High Violet’. It is, once again, a step on but both musically and commercially, they seem to be an unrelenting upward trajectory. The only downside to this that occasionally curdles in the mind is the concern as to how many more steps there are to U2 territory?

Not that such gory thoughts are needed right now. The classic slow-fast-slow mechanism is deployed liberally, but that is not to say it has grown tired, for who else is quite so adept at those often euphoric gear changes right now? It is a mighty skill and one which sits neatly alongside their devotion to detail. Matt Berninger’s vocals continue to tread the delicate line between somnambulant mumble and cerebral ache, rich and inviting at all points. ‘Demons’ was a fine choice of track with which to tease the album’s arrival, its juddering pace and almost grudging vocal the perfect vehicle for some fantastically evocative lyrics. “I am secretly in love with, everyone that I grew up with,” taps into a whole world of peculiar regrets and self-doubt, expanding on it with the exasperated, if wry, “when I walk into a room, I do not light it up… fuck!” The imagery of songs like ‘Karen’ (“to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand”) may have been scaled back but the guard has been dropped a little as a song title like the afore-mentioned ‘I Need My Girl’ confirms.

The troubling twitch at the heart of ‘Sea Of Love’ is glorious, the sheer intensity of the verses building to a point of claustrophobia. The song’s brilliant video actually captures this perfectly, despite doing very little at all. During the weeks of obsessive listening that resulted from the album’s arrival, ‘Fireproof’ was the standout track, with its focus on dealing with someone who never cracks under the strain, who never seems to weaken. The skittering percussion is intermittently undercut by a warped drone and the troubled strings confirm the anxiety at the song’s heart.

However, with months having passed and many, many plays of the record along, it is ‘Pink Rabbits’ to which I now gravitate most keenly. Partly, it was Caitlin Rose‘s truly magical take on this song that made me fully appreciate its powers, (the Rose version really has to be heard, if only for the transcendent delivery of the line “Now I only think about Los Angeles when the sun kicks out.” Seriously, strap yourself, sit back and prepare a moist eye,) but I increasingly found myself delighted to be in the latter stages of the album because of what was still to come.  No dumping of the stooge in the wasteland of track numbers in double figures here. The expression of the pain of unrequited love in this song – “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart” – is another example of Berninger’s knack for a lyric, a stand out line amongst many other crackers. The closing refrain of “you said it would be painless, it wasn’t that at all” might well have been the best place to leave ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ as, although ‘Hard To Find’ is no slacker, the emotions have peaked.

I find The National hard to write about. I had the exact same problem when ‘High Violet’ knocked me for six three years ago. This particular fact perhaps highlights better than a paragraph or three just why their albums are so special. They feel right, like a nicely cut suit or an expensive pair of shoes. Their music seems to mould itself to your emotions and to swell like a gas when you need it. They can be all-consuming and utterly essential when you need that tune to steady yourself. This is an excellent album, entirely deserving of the plaudits it has received. But, to me, it’s more than that. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

BEST OF 2013: 9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song

Having crafted two remarkable records between the four walls of her house, ‘Loud City Song’ marks the studio debut for one of the most spellbinding talents making music today. While those early releases had their roots in classical literature, here  Julia Holter finds her inspiration closer to home and more modern times. Partly borne of a 1958 film adaptation of French novella ‘Gigi’, prompting thoughts of the voyeuristic nature of her native land of Los Angeles, ‘Loud City Song’ is an album that works hard to conjure a world and capture an audience. All three of Holter’s releases thus far are absolutely essential, occupying a world that sounds nothing like ours. ‘Ekstasis’ had caused a ripple when imported copies on RVNG popped up in Spring 2012 and the momentum leapt sizeably once Domino gave it a full UK release at the end of last year. Rise in Bristol put me onto it, when those original US pressings crept over and I was intrigued, if not immediately in love. It took me quite a while to fall in line with its wilfully unconventional sonic space, but once it had clicked I was obsessed with it for several weeks. This happened around Christmas last year and led to me picking up a reissue of her debut, ‘Tragedy’, an even more singular creation. It never quite scales the heights of her other work, but it is well worth seeking out. However, despite having got the bug and been convinced of the charms of ‘Ekstasis’, I wasn’t quite prepared for the fully realised beauty of ‘Loud City Song’.

The sense of conjuring a sense of the world through sound is prevalent across the record, especially on ‘Horns Surrounding Me’, which is driven by the looped sound of a slightly distorted parp, conveying the creeping oppression of the bustle at a city’s heart. Synths go off like fireworks, field recordings from a busy street drift in and out and the intensity ebbs and flows like rush hour traffic. It is a song unlike anything else on the record and unlike anything else released this year. Listen on headphones and it almost becomes too much. The relentless rhythm is luxuriously claustrophobic, a bit like the sensation of looking over the edge of a tall building – you know how it’s going to feel, and it’s not especially nice, but you do it anyway. It is a fascinating piece of music and one which makes you wonder how an artist ever conjures such a concept in the first place. It’s possible to have a crack at unpicking these phenomenal layers, but how do they coalesce in the first place? ‘Loud City Song’ is full of moments that make you want to listen again, more closely, more keenly, to hear exactly what’s happening.

‘Hello Stranger’ is one of the few songs to truly deserve the tag ‘ethereal’ that is so casually bandied about in record reviews. It drifts in, entirely out of time and place, and seems to hover overhead for its entire six minute duration. It is out of step with the cacophonous hum of the rest of the album and is all-encompassing, summoning you towards the light with open arms.  It is the warmest of baths, the biggest of hugs, the greatest of headphone moments. It is the purest of Holter’s vocals across the record and an interesting moment of serenity at its core.

Elsewhere, her voice often functions as an additional instrument, muffled and echoed or mellifluous and protracted. The amorphous sweeps of sound at times call to mind the beautiful headspace of Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’, with individual songs gradually seeming less important than the mood as a whole. However, the tone seems far less resigned than that record, even if its unshakeable vision can draw parallels. ‘Maxim’s 2’, with its curiously affected, Bjork-like delivery, rises to a quite staggeringly discordant crescendo. Several moments call to mind the glacial tinkering of Bjork’s finer moments and fans of ‘Vespertine’ – frankly, who isn’t? – will find a new best friend right here. The rather sober ‘He’s Running Through My Eyes’ serenely fills the massive gap left by the conclusion of ‘Maxim’s 2’.

‘This Is A True Heart’ sashays around, with an almost conventional indie-pop saxophone break that would make Jens Lekman melt, before ‘City Appearing’ appears to draw proceedings to a close in relatively sedate fashion, only for another sonic rumble to erupt several minutes from time. This an album that toys with the listener, plays with the senses and invades the heart. Quite where Julia Holter is going is anybody’s guess, but the journey is a true delight.

BEST OF 2013: 10. Low – The Invisible Way

There are few voices at large in music today as striking, pure and transcendant as that of Low‘s Mimi Parker. Witnessing her singing live is a total surrender: like an act of hypnosis, the performance is so utterly absorbing nothing else exists. In an age of incessant talking at gigs, Low still find themselves playing to hushed reverence. The remarkable control coupled to a voice with such power is a joy to behold on every single listen, and on ‘The Invisible Way’ it is a more regular occurrence than ever before. Parker takes lead on five of these beautiful songs and, while Alan Sparhawk is hardly restricted by concrete tonsils, it’s perhaps the main reason to celebrate Low’s tenth studio release.

The fact the band have such a distinctive sound, largely as a result of those two captivating voices, can mean they get taken for granted a little. ‘The Invisible Way’ promos were sent out  a little over a year ago and by this stage in the run up to last Christmas, I was just getting to know its many charms. And then some bastard leaked it. As the big day dawned, the music of a band hardly rolling in cash was being eagerly downloaded for free across the world. This is hardly new behaviour, but what was really grim viewing was the explosion of ‘me me me’ posts across message boards and Twitter as people rushed to be the first to offer an ill-informed and largely foetal opinion of this subtly textured record. Before 2013 had even begun, dozens upon dozens of listeners had tossed aside an album with which they had spent forty, or even at a push eighty, minutes. “Bit samey” was the preferred epithet of these musical fidgets. I mention this because, looking back in recent weeks, I was conscious of the fact that I had let it drift into the background somewhat in a way ‘C’Mon’ never did and never has. Partly, I suspect, this was down to never getting a quiet vinyl copy and partly it was as a result of having had early access during the end of last year. As I wrote in 2011’s list, that last record was a particularly special discovery for me and I carried all of those emotions and attachments into my response to ‘The Invisible Way’. I loved it. Nothing sparkled quite like ‘Try To Sleep’, but these songs are certainly on a par with that album as a whole.

Returning to it as part of finalising this list, it was like finding a favourite item of clothing you’d somehow forgotten ever buying. I’ve been playing it a lot in recent weeks and it is a less plush album that its predecessor, but no less affecting. ‘Plastic Cup’ gets things underway, uncoiling wonderfully to a chiming middle eight with soaring backing vocals and glistening guitar, while the lyrics play their own games come the end of the song. The metronomic ‘Amethyst’ is a classic Sparhawk/Parker duet, with sparse piano, acoustic guitar high up in the mix and elongated vowel sounds aplenty. The cascading, enveloping piano rush at the start of ‘So Blue’ is irresistible, giving way to a quite remarkable performance from Parker, supporting herself with a delicate back-up to the truly magical main vocal. It is, quite sincerely, one of the finest things the band have ever recorded and fills the room and your thoughts with ease.

I’ve already alluded to the wonders of the track ‘Holy Ghost’ when writing about Mavis Staples‘One True Vine’, upon which a cover of it features. That album was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who also took the helm for this record, coaxing out a fulsome soundstage for this most delicately minimalist of bands. He hasn’t built in unnecessary layers to add heft, but has managed to present their music in a rich, warm fashion that may surprise those who have previously struggled to fully engage with Low’s work. Take the pulsing drums of ‘Clarence White’, for example. They are foregrounded but not aggressive at the song’s start, but they seem to almost fall in line when the chorus appears, taking their place within a rich but simple collection of sounds.

The piano/Parker pairing is used to great effect across ‘The Invisible Way’, ‘Four Score’ a far more muted track than ‘So Blue’ but still serving to demonstrate the true majesty of Mimi’s voice, something which is also at the centre of  ‘Just Make It Stop’. It almost shimmies along, fidgety percussion driving forth a glorious tune and pushing Parker at a pace that is far less common for her but no less effective. Sparkhawk returns for the lullaby-like ‘Mother’, which offers some personal reflections amongst more hopeful tones, and ‘On My Own’ which skips into view before taking a far darker turn around the two minute mark. Fuzzed chords descend and the song starts to unravel, Sparhawk’s guitar feeling like a weapon being used to hack away at the track, while pretty piano continues resolutely unbowed. The repeated refrain of “Happy Birthday” over the track’s final minute seems withering and insincere, leaving a tense air at its climax, only for ‘To Our Knees’ to pop up and make you cry.

A delicately simple backdrop supports another stirring Parker vocal for a song which looks at how love can endure and withstand whatever life throws at it. It is a beautiful end to a genuinely beautiful album. I got married in the summer and we gave all of the guests a compilation of songs for each year of our relationship so far. Each track represented something significant from a given time and, for 2013, we chose ‘To Our Knees’, reflecting the shared joy of witnessing Low at The Trinity in Bristol this April. It seemed a fitting way to close that collection, just as it so perfectly rounds out ‘The Invisible Way’.

Looking back over what I’ve just written, it now seems a little odd that his record is only at Number Ten in this list. Perhaps I’ll reflect on that in the near future and figure I got it wrong. Suffice to say, what really matters here is that if anyone is reading this having not heard the record, you should rectify that immediately. Low are a very special band who make very special music and I am thrilled that they are able to provoke so much in me. Long may that continue.