4. Midlake–The Courage Of Others

Best of 2010Whereas ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ knocked you back with a couple of killer tracks and let the rest of the record wash over you, gradually becoming endearingly familiar, ‘The Courage Of Others’ is a record which refuses to offer cheap thrills or quick hits. This is a record for the listener and the more listening you do, the more it reveals. I didn’t expect to be quite so taken with ‘The Courage Of Others’, but the mixed reviews had intrigued me, the last record had gently entertained me and there was a vinyl pressing available. It was always going to happen!

Midlake-The_Courage_of_Others

What wasn’t always going to happen was my subsequent gradual, helpless, fall under its spell. For a start, it’s a lovely, warm-sounding vinyl pressing so it got a second play soon after its first, enough to suggest that there were some lovely textures in these eleven songs. But, when I found myself making a fairly sombre, chilly train journey, not to mention the accompanying, even more sombre and even more chilly walk home, ‘The Courage Of Others’ provided the ideal soundtrack. The album seemed perfect for those forty five minutes and I’m starting to think that that’s exactly what this record is. Perfect. The quite magically understated vocals from Tim Smith convey the sense of a songwriter utterly embedded within his own music. I can understand why some feel that this represents a slight dip from ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ and that things aren’t as lively as they should be, but it certainly isn’t how I feel about this absolutely spellbinding collection. I’m a sucker for voices that become part of the music itself – Jimi from Doves, Joni Mitchell, Thom Yorke – and this is why the more subdued delivery by Smith on ‘The Courage Of Others’ is very much to my liking. The bafflingly sniffy Pitchfork review actually suggested that Smith sounds uninterested in his own songs and detached, “delivering every line with the kind of passion you might reserve for courtesy calls.” I really, truly don’t hear this. To me, it suggests a singer positioned at the core of his music, working with the music rather than riding over the top it. It feels highly personal and as such showmanship is kept to a bare minimum. I honestly never got the sense that he was in anyway detached or disinterested.

The warning tone of the flute motif on ‘Rules, Ruling All Things’ is one of those relatively minor, subtle affectations that are all over most decent records, but it’s one that stood out to my ears and, as such, has becomes one of the focal points of this record. The power of such tiny moments captures the spirit of ‘The Courage Of Others’. This is, perhaps thankfully, not an album with such a distinctive aural signature like ‘Roscoe’. Despite listening to this album a lot this week,  I don’t find myself wandering around whistling or humming various songs from it. Having said that, there are now a good half a dozen or so little moments like that unsettling flute that act as anchors for this record, completely transfixing me each time they pass my ears.

Words like ‘pastoral’ get bandied around for music like this without further explanation, and ‘The Courage Of Others’ seems, more precisely, to be about the importance of nature. There’s a strong feeling of the emotional turmoil and sapping of the spirit sometimes evoked by the winter months. Attempting to engage with such heavy blankets of melancholy, hoping to stave off their often disturbingly consuming weight, is no mean feat and I feel like this album speaks from such experiences. “I will train my feet to go on with a joy, a joy I have yet to reach,” Smith intones on ‘Core Of Nature’ and irrespective of whether that’s what he meant at the time, it captures perfectly for me that hopeful belief that you can walk yourself out of the gloom, even if you’ve never quite managed it yet. The very fact that there’s plenty of things out there to tempt you into action, to spur you into movement, if you’re willing to do so, further reinforces that awkward no man’s land where you know what you should do but still that doesn’t do a thing to abate the feelings that stop you in your tracks. I may have misinterpreted that line, the whole song, the whole album, but whichever way you come at it, I still believe there’s an emotionally articulate core to this record which is at risk of being ignored due to the minor key music by which some seem unengaged.

The Courage Of Others’ is littered with lyrics open to interpretation but this is an album about the human condition and how nature accompanies, embellishes and shapes our responses to life. The music is complex yet unassuming. It doesn’t do bells and whistles, it just trusts you to come and find its glories. I’m sure that for many, this will mean a couple of cursory listens before being consigned to the shelf or some untouched folder on a hard drive. More fool those people for missing out, but then I can’t deny that I quite like the idea that my absolute and unremitting love for this album makes me part of a fairly small group who will cherish this quite fantastic record for many years to come. It feels very much like it’s my record, and that only serves to reinforce that belief.

7. Lone Wolf–The Devil And I

Best of 2010Watching Paul Marshall as he performed at the Green Man festival in August, I was struck by just how much I adored this record. I’d liked it a great deal up to that point, picking out a couple of tracks for regular plays, but as he worked his way through an all too brief set, including a superlative Scott Walker cover, the beauty of these songs seemed so startlingly obvious that I wondered why I hadn’t already been raving about it – indeed, it missed any kind of celebratory fanfare on here upon release. Clearly, it had had enough of an effect for me to ensure I was there for this performance, but as he gave us some insight into just how painful it was playing his particular guitar with no plectrum, it was quickly turning into something quite special.

Lone Wolf

A cathartic experience which doesn’t actually force the listener to live the feelings which informed these beguiling songs, ‘The Devil And I’ is a complex collection of gritty narratives, expunging the trials and tribulations of a troubled mind. And it’s brilliant. Opener, ‘This Is War’, with such charming lyrics as “She’s facing due north when she’s facing due east, she’s got parking violations dating back to ‘63’” is a tour de force and a clear manifesto for what is to follow. Orchestrated indie isn’t quite right, nor is folk with strings. It comes as no surprise that Marshall is a Scott Walker fan, but he’s not looking to ape others here, so much as carve out his own curious path.

Keep Your Eyes On The Road’, with its elongated instrumental build and foot-stomping drums, has been a compilation perennial for me this year and it is one of the more immediate offerings to be found here, despite the self-castrating lines, “I lay staring at your innocent skin, wondering how I fucked this up.” As the momentum gathers you’ll be tapping something in time with it, I assure you. Meanwhile, ‘Buried Beneath The Tiles’ is as dramatic as you might imagine, but never overwrought.

‘15 Letters’ is comparatively slight in this company, delicately plucked guitar, simple string accompaniment and a soft, gentle vocal all serving to make this another album standout, despite telling the tale of a murder – from the victim’s viewpoint. There is a risk of this coming across as a lazy comparison – and you all know how much I hate those – but ‘The Devil And I’ is a little bit like ‘No More Shall We Part’ through folk-tinted spectacles. Tales of death, murder and heartbreak abound, soundscapes are ambitious but not unduly so and the delivery is majestic.

It’s clear that Marshall, who released an earlier album under his own name, wants the music to do the talking as he resides behind the Lone Wolf pseudonym. As he performed on that Sunday afternoon, it was clear that it didn’t take much for him to become utterly lost in the performance and, while he says in ‘This Is War’ that “I hide behind facial hair but people aren’t stupid they can see what I’m doing,” the response would suggest that plenty of people are really rather keen to see exactly what he’s doing. Join them.

9. Beach House–Teen Dream

Best of 2010This time last year, the buzz was already building around ‘Teen Dream‘. How good could it really be? Was it worth all of the Internet whispers? Could it possibly live up to the hype. Very, yes and yes, as it goes. The woozy album of the summer made its debut in late January and still managed to sound exactly like the record of the moment. It is possible to become a little addicted to parts of ‘Teen Dream’ thanks to its irresistible combination of exceptional earworms and frankly decadent helpings of melody. It’s a gorgeous pick-me-up and a pristine way to unwind. It even sounds surprisingly effective when the temperature’s hovering around the -10 mark.

beach house

Whether it’s the delicious harmonies of ‘Used To Be’ or the quite deliberately wonky slide guitar effect which runs through ‘Norway’, this album is imbued with a hugely endearing playful side. And that’s not simply a polite way of excusing the lyric, "black and white horse, arching among us" in ‘Zebra‘.

Like the Beach Boys playing through gauze – and with a female vocalist – Beach House can be almost too saccharine on the first encounter but, as with Teenage Fanclub, Trashcan Sinatras and ‘Rubber Soul’, sometimes you need that endorphin packed rush on standby. You’ll be wanting to file ‘Teen Dream’ somewhere close to ‘Songs From Northern Britain’.

This album also demonstrates Beach House‘s capacity for the epic. ‘Real Love’ may begin with a simple piano line but as soon as Victoria Legrand launches into a startlingly impassioned vocal, things move up several gears and it feels like you’re listening to an obscure vintage soul outtake. Is a flooring performance and a neat trick to have tucked up the ‘near-the-end-of-album’ sleeve. No drop off in quality on this little beauty.

*Apologies for departing from the usual cover image shot above but ‘Teen Dream’ barely shows up on a white background so I’ve opted for this rather than make it look like I’ve somehow fucked it up. Again.

10. Our Broken Garden–Golden Sea

Best of 2010Bella Union could easily pull off the strapline “we release records which sound ace in the snow.” It’s not hugely artful and it lacks more than a little bit of class, but it is true. There have been plenty of opportunities to put this theory to the test of late, and one of those which best proves the point is ‘Golden Sea’. ‘When Your Blackening Shows’, their debut outing, made it to eleven in Best of 2008 list off the back of some magnificently floaty vocals and this second offering manages to go one better. Ignore the chronically primitive artwork and read on.

our broken garden

The word ‘glacial’ is entirely appropriate for describing Our Broken Garden’s sound, particularly the voice of Anna Brønsted. An occasional keyboard player for Efterklang, Brønsted, to all intents and purpose, is Our Broken Garden, accompanied here by several friends to flesh out the sound. And what a sound. Talking to Simon Raymonde of Bella Union about the record prior to its release he described it as “like Royksopp played on real instruments” and, while it’s not entirely representative of the sound of the album as a whole, I can see what he means. The intricate beats and cinematic strings which elevate some of Royksopp’s slower tunes towards the stratosphere are in evidence here to great effect.

Hugely out of step with what people in tight jeans called ‘the scene’ and not especially similar to anything else I’ve heard this year, ‘Golden Sea’ has made only a minor mark on the world but I can’t helping thinking that if more people heard this stuff they might actually buy it. ‘Seven Wild Horses’ and ‘The Feral’ make beautiful use of orchestration while ‘Nightsong’ is a fluttering echo of an epic dream from a cold wintery night gone by. I could continue making tortured metaphorical references but I think you get the picture.

In case you don’t, let me point you to one song in particular. ‘Garden Grow’ is the bands finest song to date and, to my ears, utterly irresistible. Kicking off with a bit of a Goldfrapp glam strut, it soon builds into something far grander than Granny Alison could ever dream of. Strings sweeping in and out without overplaying their part, solitary piano notes hover over the beat while Brønsted’s voice surges like an orchestra, having been left to its own devices in the verses. The chorus is amongst the most joyous experiences of my year – every single time I hear it. And then, just to top it all off, at 3:36 a ragged guitar part creeps in which, in its rather brief twenty second cameo, will make every hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

I genuinely believe that this record deserves rather more recognition and all round love than it has had thus far and if you can find 41 minutes in your life this Christmas to give it a listen, I think you’ll be more than satisfied.

(If you decide you love it – I can’t imagine why not – the beautiful vinyl pressing is currently down to a tenner direct from Bella Union)

19. The Walkmen–Lisbon

Best of 2010And so the Bella Union love-in begins. It should come as no surprise to hear that this isn’t the only album released on that particular label to feature in this list, after the quite magnificent array of records they’ve put out since January. There’s a piece in the latest issue of The Word magazine proclaiming Bella Union the label of the year, and I don’t think anyone could really argue with that.

walkmen-lisbon

Where to begin? Well, ‘Blue As Your Blood’ could be straight from ‘The Age Of Understatement’ by The Last Shadow Puppets, which is no bad thing. Meanwhile,  ‘Stranded’ sounds oddly like the Stereophonics (I know, not often, but they were good at the start) crossed with Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop The Cavalry’. And, although I know what you’re thinking, this is also no bad thing. The Walkmen have never previously sounded this good, so whatever it is they now actually sound like, whichever convoluted simile or metaphor gets wheeled out, it has to be a good thing. Because ‘Lisbon’ is a great record.

Hamilton Leithauser has a voice as good as his quite magnificent name and it is put to good use on this delightful record. I didn’t really come to the record with preconceptions or expectations, having enjoyed ‘A Hundred Miles Off’ without actually feeling any great need to explore further. Thankfully, ‘Lisbon’ landed in my lap and my luck was in. ‘Woe Is Me’ is a bit of prime quality, slightly obscured vocal jangle rock, sounding not unlike a band quite fond of early to mid period Beatles. It’s a wonderfully warm sounding record created by a band who truly sound like they love doing this. There’s not an ounce of fat on ‘Lisbon’, although you suspect that the effortless feel is oh-so-very meticulous, for all the right reasons.

With lyrics like “I could dream of you forever” and numerous mentions of the “sky above”, the lyrics aren’t going to offer you a profound meditation on life, but they’re entirely right for such an optimistic sounding record, and a record which was borne of fifties and sixties rock, when a well placed platitude worked wonders. If you don’t finish listening to ‘Lisbon’ with a smile on a face I’d be really rather surprised. And suspicious.

September Reviews – Manics, Ben Folds, Peter Broderick, Underworld & Rough Trade Psych Folk

Currently available in a newsagent near you in almost the same from as you can read below are these five reviews of albums released this very month. Some good stuff here and one of the strongest reviews months I can remember. Don’t worry, next month is a bit of a let down by comparison. I wouldn’t want you to think I was enjoying myself too much. Still, I have the lead review this month which means more words to play with, so we’ll kick of with this relatively lengthy appraisal of a very fine record.

manics_pfaym_cover

MANIC STREET PREACHERS – ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ (COLUMBIA)

Leave your prejudices at the door and open up your ears. After the militant basslines and scorching vocals of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the Manics are going for your heart. Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication,” this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for an astonishing listen.

The joyous bombast of first single ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ never diminishes, similar to much of what follows, and it heralds a shift in approach from the band. The album could be subtitled ‘Happy Songs About Serious Stuff’, so frequently are complex lyrics presented alongside glorious pop hooks. Take ‘Hazelton Avenue’, which couples an admission that consumerism can make you happy with a riff which could hold its own in a battle with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Then there’s ‘Golden Platitudes’, reflecting on the disappointments of New Labour set against delicate strings and swooning backing vocals before giving way to an outrageous ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ middle eight. It’s majestic.

Classic ‘Everything Must Go’ rock has its place too, with ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ both evoking that era. If ‘Journal…’ marked a return to the dark brilliance of ‘The Holy Bible’ then ‘Postcards…’ nods to the stadium-sized splendour of their fourth album. The additional confidence that comes with releasing your tenth album has allowed these meticulous students of pop to ditch the shackles and just go for it. Most remarkable of all tracks is the duet with Ian McCulloch, ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’, a slinking soulful number with both James and Mac in masterful form. It is unlike anything either men have done before and utterly beautiful.

There will be plenty of people who opt to be snobby about the fact that this record is so commercial, so polished and so brazen but those people are all, to a man, idiots. If you can’t love these songs, you are incapable of experiencing joy itself.

9/10

I really do love this record. As a bit of a Manics fanboy I had high hopes for it and was a little concerned that it might just be another ‘Send Away The Tigers’, which is to say the sugary high would give an instant rush but wear soon thereafter. Not so. I received this at the start of a holiday at the end of July and spent much of that week listening to it in all kinds of different locations and situations and I soon found that I had absorbed huge amounts of the record without even trying which, in my book, is a very good sign. I’m still playing it frequently now, another rarity when it comes to the albums I review. If you hate the Manics, don’t bother. But I genuinely can’t see why anyone who has ever been fond of the stadium sized incarnation of this band wouldn’t take to this.

I should just point out that the last paragraph and score as shown here is not how it appeared in print. There’s always a risk with any vaguely opinionated stance that it will get subbed out before it ever appears in the magazine and, likewise, high scores are often marked down without any reasoning. However, this is the first time I’ve had a whole paragraph – and the bloody conclusion at that – switched out for something riddled with clichés and containing a basic misuse of the apostrophe. I know, I know, I should calm down but, eugh, it’s annoying. Annnnyyyway…

sept reviews 1

BEN FOLDS & NICK HORNBY– ‘Lonely Avenue’ (NONESUCH)

It has to be said that, considering how Nick Hornby is credited with writing all of the lyrics here, the usual Ben Folds key words are present and there’s only so much ‘bastard’, ‘shit’ and ‘fucking’ I can take. Despite this concern, as well as being Folds’ most musically accomplished outing since going solo, it does feature the magnificent phrase, “some guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know; he’s got his own blog.”Sublime strings from legendary Bowie arranger Paul Buckmaster provide a charming gloss, while ‘Your Dogs’ is an alarmingly accurate rendering of early Elvis Costello. 7/10

That line is good, isn’t it? Or am I just saying that to try and disprove it! Hah, you may never know. I’m not just saying. You know. In all seriousness, I do still find it far-fetched that the lyrics are so typically sweary when not written by Ben. Curious to hear your thoughts when it’s out. For followers of the @justplayed Twitter account, this may bring back vague memories of my rampant swearing about the pissing stupid copy protection on this CD which meant it didn’t actually play in most of my players and, even in those where it did, it seemed to have actually have screwed up the audio on parts of certain tracks. My good will was tested to breaking point and, had it not been an artist who I genuinely follow and care about, it would have been hurled out of a window or used to line a bin in no time. By all means restrict access to new stuff, but please, please don’t presume we’re all criminals to the detriment of the actual music. What with that being the only thing that matters and all. David Hepworth recently wrote a splendid piece along similar lines over on his blog here.

PETER BRODERICK – ‘How They Are’ (BELLA UNION)

Recorded in one day and functioning as a stop-gap ahead of a full album in early 2011, the seven songs on ‘How They Are’ are stripped back and plaintive. Blending the heart-rending vocals of 2008’s more fleshed-out ‘Home’ with the stark augmentation of his soundtrack work, it’s a curious but beguiling beast. Be sure to seek out remarkable opener, ‘Sideline’. 8/10

A Bella Union release that’s brilliant? Really? Who’d have guessed? Ok, so it’s pretty much my label of choice this year and currently running with a remarkable hit rate. Just wait for the Our Broken Garden and The Walkmen albums – both are brilliant. They also have the nicest colour coordinated promo CDs I’ve ever seen. Feel free to ask me about this on Twitter if you’re that interested!! The vinyl pressing of this is superb, if a little pricey for only seven songs. However, whether you’re a fan of singer/songwriter Peter Broderick or instrumentalist and composer type Peter Broderick, you’ll enjoy ‘How They Are’. It’s short, by the way, because it went in the side bar, just like the Rough Trade comp below.

sept reviews 2

UNDERWORLD – ‘Barking’ (UNDERWORLDLIVE.COM/COOKING VINYL)

Having lost focus with 2007’s ‘Oblivion With Bells’, it looked like Underworld’s descent into the lower echelons of musical history was assured, but ‘Barking’ may yet reverse that slide. While there are still occasional dips, the alchemy of old returns. ‘Always Loved A Film’ ranks with their very best material to date, a swelling refrain blending with Spanish guitars to euphoric effect. ‘Grace’ and recent single ‘Scribble’ aren’t far behind, while album closer ‘Louisiana’, just piano and Karl Hyde’s haunting vocal, sounds uncannily like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis and it makes you wonder why they don’t do more like it. 8/10

I really didn’t expect to like this as much as I did, the previous outing doing little for me but there is something utterly charming about ‘Barking’. I maintain that ‘Always Loved A Film’ is an absolute treat and while it’s not a perfect record, some of its highs are very high.

VARIOUS ARTISTS  ‘Rough Trade Shops… Psych Folk 10’ (V2 / COOPERATIVE MUSIC)

This 21 track compilation makes for a slightly laborious listen taken in one sitting but, used as a starting point for further explorations, works like a charm. Sample it in little chunks and you’ll be sure to find some new favourites from the slightly wonky end of folk. Sleepy Sun and Hush Arbors for me, but there’s plenty to enjoy. 6/10

This is a tricky one, because this comes across a little more harshly than I would now wish. I stand by my comments about it not working in one sitting, but there is some really very good stuff on it and I have it to thank for my recent conversion to the wares of the marvellous Sam Amidon, who you should really spend some time with. Weirdly, despite a 6/10 review, I ended up buying a proper copy of this at the Green Man Festival from the Rough Trade tent where it came with a bonus 10” with a scarce Doves remix. It prompted a bit of a re-evaluation. It would easily be a 7 now, possibly higher, and if this sort of thing is your bag, you really should give it a listen.

New Music Monday – Philip Selway ‘Familial’

Forgive me if I don’t opt for a slightly shite attempt at a joke about how off-putting the idea of a solo album by ‘the drummer’ might seem. For some reason, a number of reviewers in the ‘big’ publications this month have opted for this approach, before pointing out that ‘Familial’ is actually worth your time. Did anyone, with even a vague understanding of what Phil does in Radiohead, along with his contributions to the recent 7 Worlds Collide album, really think this was going to be a weak record? Honestly? Add in the fact that it’s being released by the now freakishly unimpeachable Bella Union and there is no reason to be even slightly suspicious. Oh, and it’s really, really good.

Philip Selway Familial

You’ll likely know ‘By Some Miracle’ by now, what with it being the free download track on his website and I would imagine you’ve been as thoroughly charmed by its whispery, folksy ways as I was. The whole album is of a similar calibre, Selway’s voice actually proving to be rather affecting at times, such as on one of the best tracks, ‘A Simple Life’. A lovely soundscape builds slowly but oh-so-very meticulously to a pleading middle-eight which reveals a vocal style somewhere between a subdued Neil Finn and hints of a wistful Erlend Øye.

All Eyes On You’ is one of those tracks that reviewing clichés like ‘ethereal’ and ‘spectral’ were made for. See what I did there? I deployed both clichés, leaving you with a clear sense of what the song might sound like, whilst still maintaining credibility for not just deploying both clichés without self-awareness.  Clever that. The plucked guitar sound is a little unsettling and, at only two and a half minutes in length, it doesn’t stick around long enough to reassure you. But that, ultimately, is what makes this record so good. None of the songs outstay their welcome and many leave you wanting more.

Subtle but affecting strings serve their purpose, particularly on ‘The Ties That Bind Us’, which sounds like a vintage folk classic from the late sixties, and the sparse drum arrangements that do feature on the record are actually played by the really rather splendid Glenn Kotche from Wilco. A busman’s holiday this is not, nor does it feel like some half-hearted solo project, farted out between releases by the day job. This feels like a true labour of love and a piece of work of which Selway can be justifiably proud. ‘Familial’ doesn’t need to be sold off the back of a name or a brand, it’s good enough to stand alone and its presence on the Bella Union roster will do it no end of good.

Having said all of this, the acute ear for what will sound delicately beautiful is demonstrated throughout the record and the majestic sculpting of some of these songs belies Selway’s presence in one of the most sonically adventurous bands of a generation. ‘Falling’ was birthed for headphone listeners everywhere and will usher forth that special warm feeling you get when something hits you right in the middle of the skull. The odd track is a little too slight to stick, ‘Broken Promises’ being the prime example, but none are anything less than really rather lovely and, as quaint and frankly crap as that phrase sounds, I mean it as a compliment.

The drone-like start to ‘Don’t Look Down’, replete with abstract piano meanderings, marks another stunning headphone moment and ensures that there’s no dip in quality as the end looms into sight. One of the most hushed vocals on the record, it just about manages to stay atop the wash of sound that follows which in some way seems to be the musical equivalent of one of those deliciously melancholic days when the noise of the whistling wind and swirling rain coalesce into something oddly comforting.

The album closes with ‘The Witching Hour’ which, along with ‘The Ties That Bind Us’, will be familiar to those who purchased the aforementioned 7 Worlds Collide set and it sounds no less magnificent now than it did then, even if the repeated vocal refrain keeps reminding me of something, just out of reach. Indeed, there are a couple of moments on ‘Familial’ which seem eerily familiar. Perhaps it’s simply a case of them being such good songs they sound like tracks you should already know; either way, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m still unconvinced about the cover art, but every other aspect of this record has won me over wholeheartedly. At just under thirty three minutes in length it will dash past you at first and you will need to spend some time with it, ideally with headphones, to truly fall under its spell. But please do and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of looking for any Radiohead comparisons. It’s a thankless task. Just enjoy what is there because… (deep breath) … everything is in its right place.

Familial is released by Bella Union on August 30th.

2010 inverted

June Reviews – Molinari, Mountain Man, Pernice Brothers and more…

Busy month, this one. I ended up writing seven reviews for Clash this time out, four for publication and a further three for online use. They’re gathered below for your perusal – please do comment on anything and everything.

June Reviews 1

MOUNTAIN MAN – ‘Made The Harbor’ (BELLA UNION)

Sometimes, less is more. So, surely, much less should be much more? ‘Made The Harbor’ is an eerily fragile, enthralling record. Sit between the speakers and it’s like they’re in the room with you, listen on headphones and you’ll never want the background hum of normal life again. For Mountain Man are in fact a female trio specialising in spectral harmonies and sparse, beautiful acoustic meditations on life and nature. Album closer ‘River’, propelled solely by a muffled, distant thud, builds into a stunning orchestra of voices which may prove to be one of the musical highlights of the year. 8/10

Ah, now this one continues to delight. It really is as hauntingly splendid as I’ve tried to suggest above. Don’t judge it on the first couple of the play, mind, it takes a little while. Yet another from Bella Union’s astonishing run of form – don’t forget Pearly Gate Music, John Grant and The Acorn, all of whom have recently released quite wonderful records on the label.

PETE MOLINARI – ‘A Train Bound For Glory’ (CLARKSVILLE RECORDINGS)

Pete Molinari has come a long way in a few years; his debut was recorded at a kitchen table while this, his third, is straight from Nashville, featuring legendary Elvis backing vocalists, The Jordanaires. Rather nasal, more than a little rough round the edges and utterly commanding, his voice is sensational and here it is let loose on his best collection of material to date. This is country rock and roll with a commanding urgency and, while its roots are firmly grounded in a bygone era, tracks like ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ build to a hymnal ecstasy that’s frankly irresistible. 8/10

Possible contender for a 9, this one. As I tweeted recently, there’s something about all of Molinari’s output that means it just sounds better on vinyl and this is no exception. It’s his most fully fleshed out offering to date and he offers further proof that his songwriting skills are entirely up to scratch.

June Reviews 2

BORN RUFFIANS – ‘Say It’ (WARP)

Shamblingly energetic with a quirky, reedy vocal, Born Ruffians tick all the boxes for a ‘next big thing’ accolade. But, sadly, it’s not that simple. Quite apart from the incitement to homicide that is having song titles like ‘Retard Canard’ and ‘The Ballad Of Moose Bruce’, too often this album sounds uncannily like a Vampire Weekend track being played backwards. While this doesn’t turn out as badly as that suggests, it’s a sufficient hindrance to ensure that ‘Say It’ never quite takes off. ‘What To Say’ jangles along pleasantly while the woozy saxophone of ‘Come Back’ is the album’s highlight. 5/10

Tricky one to write, this. It rubbed me up the wrong way from the off and I could never shake that sense that it just wasn’t as good as it thought it was. It aches of cool but it just doesn’t have the dynamite tunes to back it up. Some decent moments but very inconsistent.

PERNICE BROTHERS – ‘Goodbye, Killer’ (ONE LITTLE INDIAN)

The title may suggest it’s a collection of sub-MCR toss and the cover may look decidedly understated but the music, like their entire back catalogue, is absolutely joyous. It’s transparently obvious that frontman Joe Pernice doesn’t take things too seriously, recounting during ‘We Love The Stage’ how “it doesn’t matter if the crowd is thin, we sing to six the way we sing to ten.” Not that this is a comedy record. Pernice has one of the most emotionally eloquent voices out there and this is demonstrated to quite beautiful effect on ‘The Loving Kind’ and ‘The End Of Faith’. 7/10

Like Teenage Fanclub and Trashcan Sinatras, Pernice Brothers have a little part in my heart in the ‘swooning harmonies’ section. Always dependable, always engaging and always capable of lovingly crafted songs. More of the same, essentially.

ED HARCOURT – ‘Lustre’ (PIANO WOLF)

The term ‘criminally underrated’ gets bandied about a lot, often with scant justification. However, Ed Harcourt really is criminally underrated. Capable of both a soulful swoon and a grizzled growl, Harcourt’s albums are always grand affairs; think Rufus Wainwright if he preferred Tom Waits to Judy Garland. The title track is a downright seductive bit of soul-pop while ‘Lachrymosity’ is a bittersweet nursery rhyme satirising tear-jerking ballads that play to our “penchant for misery.” Following a best of that failed to set the world alight, this is the sound of a man who’s decided he’s still up for the fight. 9/10

I think I made clear how great this album is the other week for a ‘New Music Monday‘ but I stand by that. Unfortunately, it got butchered in print, losing the Waits/Garland comparison and being docked a point for not being cool enough. Still, I urge you to seek this one out upon its release next week.

June Reviews 3

RICHARD JAMES – ‘We Went Riding’ (GWYMON RECORDS)

One of the many things that made Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci so utterly beguiling was the sense that most of their songs sounded like they’d disintegrate if they got caught in a mild breeze. That gentle and innocent charm is present on about two-thirds of band co-founder James’ latest solo outing, although things occasionally get a little more raucous. ‘Blues (Hey Hey Hey)’ sounds like early Gomez while ‘Faces’ is so intentionally distorted that the vocals are lost, proving more distraction than delight. Album closer, ‘From Morning Sunshine’, graced by the wonderful Cate Le Bon, is the real gem here. 6/10

As a result of his lineage and his last outing, I wanted to like this more than I did. It certainly has its moments and anything with Cate Le Bon on can’t be bad, but it never quite gels together to make a great album overall. It may yet grow on me…

WINTERSLEEP – ‘New Inheritors’ (ONE FOUR SEVEN RECORDS)

Were you to construct a venn diagram with The Decemberists in one circle and The Smashing Pumpkins in the other, unlikely use of your free time though this might be, then somewhere in the overlap would be Wintersleep. Paul Murphy’s naggingly commanding voice is the band’s great strength, here deployed atop a mixture of jangly indie and stadium-sized, angular, angsty rock, replete with that indie staple: emotive strings. Clearly possessed with a knack for melody, songs like ‘Terrible Man’ and the title track bounce along with purpose before exploding into shimmering choruses, making much of this record hard to resist. 7/10

In many ways, I’m not sure I’m meant to like this record. It’s a bit too obviously ‘big’ at times, but it’s really rather charming. Their way with a hook-laden tune is to be admired and you could well be charmed.

2010 inverted

April Reviews

Below can be found the latest instalment of what has become a regular feature. These are the six reviews of April releases I wrote for Clash Magazine which can be found in the print edition that should have just about hit the shelves as you read this. Some very good records in amongst this lot, including a splendid Doves career retrospective and the increasingly marvellous sounding debut from ex-Czars man, John Grant.

april jp1

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT – ‘All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu’ (UNIVERSAL)

Never one to hide his emotions previously, Rufus Wainwright offers a sparse but staggeringly heartfelt collection of songs for voice and piano, influenced, at least in part, by the long-term illness and recent passing of his mother. After the suffocating arrangements that dogged parts of his last album, the relative simplicity is welcome. While three Shakespearean sonnets set to music are successful without being showy, Wainwright saves the very best till last. Lyrically, album closer ‘Zebulon’ is endearingly direct, “my mother’s in the hospital, my sister’s at the opera, I’m in love, but let’s not talk about it,” and home to his best vocal performance to date. 8/10

I think I’ve briefly mentioned this record here before, but it’s worth restating how much of a breath of fresh air this is after the overcooked swamp of a record that was ‘Release The Stars’. New converts will not be found, but those who’ve been in love before will be in love again.

DOVES – ‘The Places Between: The Best of Doves’ (HEAVENLY / VIRGIN)

Quietly labouring away for some twelve years, Doves have amassed an outstanding catalogue of work. As a result, the deluxe edition is an essential purchase, with a second disc of b-sides, rarities and the odd album track too good to leave off. Sequenced by the band, both discs are remarkably cohesive; ‘Black And White Town’ and ‘Pounding’ nestle alongside atmospheric monster ‘The Cedar Room’ and new single ‘Andalucia’. The finest of the three new songs, ‘Blue Water’, kicks off disc two in style, deploying the same hiccupping drum pattern that served early single ‘Here It Comes’ so well. ‘The Places Between’ is a beguiling celebration of truly excellent music. 9/10

The new tracks on this make it well worth seeking out as it is, but the second disc is a tour de force in showing what Doves are really capable of. Stitching together b-sides, album tracks, session recordings and a few unreleased moments, it is a quite staggering listen and proof if it be needed that they are one of our great bands of the last ten years or so. If you have one of their previous albums on CD, click here to get £2 off the special edition.

JOHN GRANT– ‘Queen Of Denmark’ (BELLA UNION)

There’s a chugging seventies soft-rock quality to this record, giving it a warmth that’s hard to resist. The entire album’s beautifully measured musical backdrop is especially noteworthy, provided as it is by Midlake and, yes, that makes it as good as you might expect. ‘Queen Of Denmark’ is a luxurious sounding collection but what sets it apart from so many decent sounding folk-rock albums is the rich drawl of Grant’s baritone voice. Sweeping, epic ballads are his forte, but there’s something ludicrously charming about the skulking ‘Chicken Bones’, which sounds like a Scissor Sisters track played at half-speed. Odd though it seems, that’s a good thing. 7/10

An example of an album continuing to grow on me after reviewing, this one. I’d already sussed that it’s a good ‘un, but I’ve kept coming back to this and would now be tempted to budge it up to at least an 8. Nagging melodies and beautiful musicianship make this an absolute must. Simon at Bella Union reckons the vinyl edition will be something pretty special too.

april jp2

SHE & HIM – ‘Volume Two (DOUBLE SIX)

Sometimes it’s nice to find music that doesn’t require five listens before a tune emerges, to hear songs that capture a rapturous love of music and to spend the entire duration of an album grinning like an arse. Ludicrously talented pairing Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have kept everything that made their debut great and added a little more jangle and some absolutely beautiful vocal effects for this second outing. While Ward is responsible for the arrangements and production, it’s Deschanel who can take all the credit for writing these timeless, sun-kissed pop hugs. ‘In The Sun’ is the masterpiece, but you’ll keep coming back to it all. 9/10

It’s albums like this that make you rue your absolutely miniscule word count. I could have happily rhapsodised about this one for several pages – and may still do at some point. Building on the greatness of the debut, this one is meticulously produced and perfectly suited to the six days of sunshine we’ll get between now and Christmas.

LUCKY SOUL – ‘A Coming Of Age’ (RUFFA LANE)

Marrying bittersweet lyrics with unashamed killer pop hooks is a tricky business. The Smiths were masters of the art form and, while they may not sound especially alike, Lucky Soul share a similar knack for musical alchemy. Singer Ali Howard possesses an absolutely adorable voice, knowing exactly when to go through the gears and when to rein herself in, and The Smiths comparison holds up with such lyrical delights as ‘some say I’m schizophrenic, but I walk in single file’. Part pop, part soul, part country and with a sprinkle of the classic girl-group sound, Lucky Soul make music to soundtrack the good times. 8/10

If you haven’t already figured out that I love this one, then you need to do some reading. Click here for the FUTUREMUSIC piece from earlier this year.

PEARLY GATE MUSIC – ‘Pearly Gate Music’ (BELLA UNION)

Brother of Fleet Fox and fully-fledged solo artist J. Tillman, Zach Tillman opted for a more atmospheric stage name before foisting his recordings upon the listening public. The moniker serves this record well, for it’s an often gravelly, proudly lo-fi collection of beat-up folk. There’s plenty here to suggest that a few albums down the line Tillman could be responsible for something genuinely special, but even this wilfully shambolic collection has its moments. ‘I Was A River’ is a beautiful meditation on love lost while ‘Golden Funeral’ is an opening track so hymnal and atmospheric that it makes it difficult for anything else to come close. 6/10

I suspect that this one could have long-term appeal. The sort of record that after living with it for six months, it all clicks into place. There are moments of beauty to be found, even on the first play, but it’s not as consistent as most records bearing that reliable Bella Union moniker. On that note, the new album by The Acorn, ‘No Ghost’, is bloody marvellous and due in June.

2010 on the record

Song Of The Day 39: The Czars – My Funny Valentine

Was just doing some research whilst finishing off my review of the debut record by the ex-Czars frontman, John Grant, and found this quite stunning rendition of a fabulous song. I know Grant had a SotD all of his own on Tuesday, but this is something you really should hear. No picture, no video, just a Spotify link right here.

I’ll try and write in a more substantial fashion this weekend, ok?