April Releases – Reviews round up

Well, that was quite a month. I’ll be posting up soon an in-depth account of what became ‘Record Store Week’ for me, kicking off with the big day at the supreme Rise in Bristol. However, sorting out the feature, which appeared in a slightly rejigged form over on Drowned In Sound, about the shops’ view of the big day meant that the monthly posting of my reviews got lost somewhere. So, unsurprisingly after that last sentence, here they are.

April Reviews 1

ALESSI’S ARK – ‘Time Travel’ (BELLA UNION)

A bewitching stage presence and an angelic vocal make Alessi’s Ark very easy to love. Finely crafted folk is elevated towards greatness by the stunning voice of Alessi Laurent-Marke. ‘Maybe I Know’ tells the tale of a cheated upon partner realising that the gossip is all about her and will break your heart. It’s the standout moment on an album which rarely dips below excellent and the old school songwriting and airy, summery production will leave you utterly spellbound.

Now, the publication of this rankled with me a little. I hate giving scores in the first place but I understand why it’s sometimes necessary. However, when your score of 9 is subbed down to only 7, it’s a little misrepresentative of what I actually think of the record. I’m keen to write more about it but it always seems a bit odd to essentially review an album twice, even though this was such a brief piece. However, I’ve done it with Gorillaz (sort of – see below) so maybe I will. Either way, rest assured that this is one of the most perfect, summery records I’ve heard this year so far and that it will charm the pants of anybody who loves melodic, beautifully sung and delicately produced music. Get it.

Continue reading “April Releases – Reviews round up”

The Just Played Verdict: The Low Anthem ‘Smart Flesh’

The power of music is hard to quantify. How many of us are constantly on the lookout for something revelatory, something distinctive, something special? No matter how many favourite records you have, it’s a reassuring delight to think that there will be further additions to that list for as long as you keep on exploring. Sometimes they ride in on the crest of a wave of media hype, often they just appear quietly, without fanfare, and ransack your ears. For a lucky group of listeners, 2009’s ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin‘ was one such record and its capacity to wow remains undiminished. Picked up by the remarkably consistent Bella Union, after being self-released in small numbers in 2008, The Low Anthem‘s third album became beloved of discerning listeners and bearded music monthlies alike. This time around, there is a sense of anticipation surrounding a new release by the band and ‘Smart Flesh’ has a lot to live up to.

Low Anthem Smart

Largely favouring plaintive, spacious vintage folk, proceedings are occasionally interrupted by Waitsian, muddied, junkyard rock and roll. While the more raucous moments are few and far between, the hypnotic qualities of the slower material are more than enough for this band to merit a place in your collection. Much of the album was recorded in a disused pasta sauce factory with microphones dotted across the floor space and the sound of ‘Smart Flesh’ is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Listen carefully to ‘Golden Cattle’ and it’s quite clear that lead vocalist Ben Knox Miller’s affecting performance is being picked up from afar; emptiness never sounded so good. ‘Love And Altar’ has a similarly airy feel, the attention to detail in creating this distinctive, raw sound utterly staggering. Miller sounds as if his vocal is being left somewhere in the past, the other voices in the band harmonising beautifully around him. It’s impressive through speakers but a listen via headphones left me more than a little choked up. Continue reading “The Just Played Verdict: The Low Anthem ‘Smart Flesh’”

1. John Grant–Queen Of Denmark

Best of 2010At the start of the year, the big story about ‘Queen Of Denmark’ was that Midlake were the backing band. By December, the fuss is all about the remarkable voice, presence and charisma of John Grant. Battered, bruised, disaffected and dissatisfied after years as the frontman of one of rock’s great secret pleasures, The Czars, Grant had retreated from the world of music to wait tables and make use of some of the many languages in which he is well versed.

jg10

Queen Of Denmark’, the slow-burning masterpiece of 2010, is the result of Denton, Texas’ finest coercing Grant back into the studio. When asked to review this album in the early months of the year, I gave it a solid seven. By the time it was released, and I was revisiting my text for publication here, I commented that it should have been an eight. If your experience begins in a similar vein, stick with it because it is now, unquestionably, a ten.

Musically, it is a triumph, exuding an early Seventies style warmth which curls out of the speakers rather than ambushing you with any unnecessary punch. The slinky unravelling of opening track ‘TC And Honeybear’ gives a pretty clear indication of the musical terrain which lies ahead, ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ a sweeping mid-paced delight from start to finish. I originally described ‘Chicken Bones’ as like the Scissor Sisters at half-speed and I’m not trying to distance myself from that remark just now, although it is considerably better than anything said band have released to date. The lyric, “I got out of my bed this morning and I noticed that it didn’t have a right side,” is one of many, many brilliant lines on this remarkable album because it is one of those rare triumphs: a musical delight matched by exquisitely great lyrics. Obviously, I don’t own any copyright or the like on this, but I reproduce below the entire lyric from the album’s title and closing track, ‘Queen Of Denmark’. While Lucky Soul may have claimed the line of the year previously, the complete lyric of 2010 has to be this deliciously vitriolic expulsion:

I wanted to change the world,
but I could not even change my underwear.
And when the shit got really, really out of hand,
I had it all the way up to my hairline
which keeps receding like my self-confidence,
as if I ever had any of that stuff anyway.
I hope I didn’t destroy your celebration
or your Bar Mitzvah, birthday party or your Christmas.
You put me in this cage and threw away the key.
It was this ‘us and them’ shit that did me in.
You tell me that my life is based upon a lie;
I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee.
I hope you know that all I want from you is sex,
to be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear,
and if your haircut isn’t right you’ll be dismissed.
Get your walking papers and you can leave now.

Don’t know what to want from this world,
I really don’t know what to want from this world.
I don’t know what it is you want to want from me,
you really have no right to want anything from me at all.
Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?
Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else?
Why don’t you tell somebody else that they’re selfish?
Weepy coward and pathetic…

Who’s gonna be the one to save me from myself?
You’d better bring a stun gun and perhaps a crowbar,
you’d better pack a lunch and get up really early
and you should probably get down on your knees and pray.
It’s really fun to look embarrassed all the time
like you could never cut the mustard with the big boys.
I really don’t know who the fuck you think you are;
can I please see your license and your registration?

So Jesus hasn’t come in here to pick you up.
You’ll still be sitting right here ten years from now.
You’re just a sucker but we’ll see who gets the last laugh –
who knows, maybe you’ll get to be the next Queen of Denmark.

And breathe. Staggering stuff, and ten times as good when you hear him actually singing it. The moment when the track explodes, as he cries out “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” is utterly perfect, the demented thrust mirroring perfectly the emotions at the heart of the song. There are many moments on the album where Grant settles prior scores and offers a quite mesmerisingly honest insight into his life, but this is its zenith.

At the risk of making every other post in this list about the Green Man Festival, watching Grant perform on a drizzly Friday night was one of those moments that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. A small band of those in the know had assembled, safe in the knowledge that a real treat was forthcoming, and the crowd grew considerably as his spellbinding baritone rose over the soggy fields and seduced the damp from all directions. Recent interviews have found Grant expressing genuine surprise at the reception to ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and it was clear that night that these songs continue to hold the baggage so openly displayed in their words. An a cappella version of ‘Chicken Bones’, as his stripped down stage setup didn’t allow for a full performance, lingers long in the mind and it served to highlight the staggering depth of a truly amazing voice.

Bella Union released an almost suspicious number of brilliant records in 2010, but none were more special than this unique burst of a man laying bare his emotional no man’s land. There is a remarkable double vinyl version available which is as good a pressing as any I own and which is the ultimate way to hear this sensational album. Hyperbole be damned, this is an absolute masterpiece.

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)