Best of 2021: 5-1

Inevitably, anyone who reads my monthly columns for Clash or scrolls past my turntable shots on Twitter will have a rough idea of what to expect as this list comes to its conclusion. Each year, numerous folk reckon they know what the top spot will be with varying degrees of success. Wonder no more, for here we go…

5. Manic Street Preachers ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’

Nearly thirty years on from their debut, it is increasingly hard for the Manics to release a record without drawing comparisons to their past. With bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire’s fondness for regularly articulating and updating the mythology around the band, listeners are only too aware when they’re going for pop-rock with strings, as on 2018’s ‘Resistance Is Futile’, or capturing a “harrowing 45 year old looking in the mirror” for 2013’s ‘Rewind The Film’.

‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is a mutation of several different strands of their musical DNA, evoking some of the melancholic textures of 2004’s unfairly maligned ‘Lifeblood’, the angles of 2014’s ‘Futurology’ and even the luscious Bacharachian harmonies favoured on B-sides from the ‘Everything Must Go’ era. Having spent more time at the piano when crafting his 2020 solo album ‘Even In Exile’, frontman James Dean Bradfield foregrounds that instrument in many of these songs and it serves to open up the band’s sound.  

‘The Secret He Had Missed’ is yet another triumphant duet in a remarkable recent run, featuring Julia Cumming from Sunflower Bean and wearing the ABBA influence that can be found on a number of tracks especially proudly. Lyrically, it explores the differing experiences of artistic Welsh siblings Gwen and Augustus John, highlighting their preferred subjects and referencing a transformative event on Tenby beach. It is also one of numerous moments on this record where Sean Moore’s dexterity and energy as a drummer is prominent.

‘Quest For Ancient Colour’ is sublime, Bradfield’s performance seeming to pull away from the serene backing vocals as he sings of a nostalgic ache for an undefined but easier time. Opener ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ slowly unlocks a fond memory of Japanese tour in 1993 – “the four of us against the world” – with a taut bass and acoustic interplay nodding affectionately to The Cure, igniting from a reverb-drenched and pared-back introduction.

‘Into The Waves Of Love’ channels chiming, ‘Reckoning’-era R.E.M., guitar and piano almost tripping over each other in the early bars and even daring to go back to Rockville at the end of its chorus. A strident Roxy/Bunnymen hybrid, ‘Complicated Illusions’, is polished without feeling as synthetic as some of the excessively buffed pieces on ‘Resistance Is Futile’.

Not content with one fine guest, Mark Lanegan puts in a generously understated appearance on ‘Blank Diary Entry’, drawing out the ominous sense of emptiness in the lyrics. ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’, meanwhile, picks up where ’30 Year War’ left off. “Don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten” makes for an emphatic chorus that resonates on plague island. While subtle, this album captures the evolution of a band in their element once more.

As you may have figured from the length, that’s a full review I wrote for Clash. The vinyl cut is excellent, even if the pressing requires a game of GZ roulette. This album has endured through the autumn and it’s sincerely one of their finest. Great sleeve too.

4. Low ‘Hey What’

I have often found myself caught up in conversation with people who are displeased or even aggrieved at a band’s change of sound. I never really understand the logic, given that their catalogue prior to the moment of transformation isn’t wiped out by any shift in approach. If you loved them for a specific thing, continue to love them for it and, if this isn’t for you, leave it alone. As I explored in some detail back in 2018, the noise and moments of oppressive distortion on Low’s more recent work are not effects applied afterwards but fundamental components of the songs themselves. While it took me a little while to click with ‘Double Negative’, eventually my second favourite of that year, I went into ‘Hey What’ fully aware of what to expect and I do think they’ve evolved this alternative way of doing things rather wonderfully.

I’ll admit that I prefer the slightly trimmed version of opener ‘White Horses’ which opens the splendid vinyl cut of the album, reducing the wilfully confrontational ticking, jittering outro, but the song itself is pure Low. Alan and Mimi combine in that alchemical way they’ve been doing now for nearly three decades and the jagged, overloaded riffs are a delight. The ebb and flow of the sonic chopping on ‘I Can Wait’ forms its percussive structure, while the partially submerged vocals of ‘All Night’ perfectly suit the lyrics, “am I on the other side, so blind, so long, goodbye.”

‘Disappearing’ feels like it shares its DNA with some of the more stately processions on 2011’s ‘C’Mon’ – my album of that year, this lot have form – while the fabulous construction of the final track, ‘The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)’, with its near a cappella opening which then mutates into a muscular, strident beat for its second half, is a fine demonstration of how this way of working is no less expressive or emotional than their earlier recordings.

And let’s not forget ‘Days Like These’. It’s a stone cold classic of their catalogue, opening with the partial harmonising of Alan and Mimi and somehow distilling the magic that one senses in the crowd at their gigs despite the clear studio impact. The almost ambient wash of its latter phase pushes and pulls individual elements of the early sections in such a way that keeps the listener on their toes, unsure if that soaring vocal line is going to return or not. More immediate than ‘Double Negative’, ‘Hey What’ is yet another superb Low album. Let’s be sure never to take them for granted.

3. Damon Albarn ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’

Seven years after his debut solo album proper, ‘Everyday Robots’, the pandemic ended up causing a follow up. In May 2020, a Boiler Room livestream offered up some stripped back versions of pieces which were designed to be part of a project inspired by his second home of Iceland that he had been due to tour at that time. As the return to live performance got pushed back further and further, the desire to use this writing and move on grew too strong. Always one to have multiple projects on the go, he decided to transform those soundscapes into songs and so, this slow-burning, beautifully arranged and gorgeously sung record came into being.

Named after a line from John Clare’s poem ‘Love and Memory’, which also provides the lyrical inspiration for the title track, it is a wistful, often mournful collection that truly feels like a quest to find beauty during confined, concerning times. That opening piece is a beautifully transparent evocation of grief, not least for the loss of Albarn’s close friend and collaborator Tony Allen in the early stages of the global shutdown. Setting up camp with a number of his regular supporting musicians and skewing towards older, less dependable equipment, this music both reflects recent times and seems to point a way out of them.

While it is often meditative, there are still a number of hook-driven delights woven into this body of work. ‘Royal Morning Blue’ feels in line with Albarn’s more solo-focused ‘The Now Now’ Gorillaz sound. ‘The Tower Of Montevideo’ has the woozy, wobbly wash of sound that harks back to Blur’s ‘Ghost Ship’ but which seems to drift skywards on a synth wash and some driven saxophone. And then there’s ‘Polaris’, which emerges as the sonic clouds disperse, hingeing on a coiled spring of a rhythm that sounds like it’s about to go off at any point. It slowly expands and pulls everything into its orbit, a little like a slightly more mid-paced ‘Souk Eye’, another of his rather overlooked corkers. It’s an album with which I’ve spent a great deal of time these past few months and I imagine that will only develop, given Albarn’s tendency to write songs which never stop growing.

Such majestic music deserves decent treatment and, thankfully, Transgressive have delivered on that front. Mastered and cut by John Davis at Metropolis, the parts for the various vinyl editions were sent to several plants. The standard black edition is a pleasingly silent Optimal pressing, while the rather costly deluxe edition features a white disc pressed at Spinroad in Sweden. This had some light surface noise on a few occasions, but preserved the excellent sonics of Davis’ cut, while the accompanying exclusive 7” of ‘The Bollocked Man’ was an Optimal pressing. For silent playback, go for the black but every edition sounds great.

2. Self Esteem ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

Sometimes the stars align for an artist and sometimes an artist makes it their time. Rebecca Lucy Taylor grabbed hold of 2021 and delivered a record which is often remarkable, full of hooks and possessed of as distinctive a sense of voice as any philosopher, theorist or author. That the wonderful people at YourShelf have also produced an accompanying text that is described as “part diary, part poetry…[a] collection of Rebecca’s thoughts, lyrics, draft and notes” gives you a sense of how important the words are for an album where the messages are clear and necessary.

It’s not always an easy listen, either because of subject matter or sonic onslaught, but that is one of the key aspects of its brilliance. This is lived experience as songs, with noise required to convey the reality of being female in the music industry and, frankly, the world. “It happened lately, as I willed a sunset to go quickly, always thinking what next. Never have I just enjoyed the moment, happening right now. I’ve never known how,” Taylor sings on the album’s title track. The list of actions which follow, each accompanied by the refrain “That’s just for me” act as a clear statement of making decisions based on their personal merit rather than in the context of the expectations of the Male Gaze and how it can make people question their own free will.

The moment at which I knew this record was special was the first play of ‘I Do This All The Time’. It’s a truly incredible track to release to radio and as a preview of an album. The spoken word sections are laced with humour but delivered with pure intent. The mix of monologue and emphatic, euphoric, BIG pop chorus is genius. That melodic expertise is right across ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ – try and listen to ‘Fucking Wizardry’ only one – and it makes these songs far easier to listen to than one suspects their inspirations were to live through.

1. Villagers ‘Fever Dreams’

Despite our hopes in January, 2021 proved to be another year which necessitated some musical comfort blankets. Most luxurious of all was Villagers’ majestic album ‘Fever Dreams’. Last year’s tenth anniversary vinyl release of Villagers’ debut, ‘Becoming A Jackal’, made all the more stark the evolution of Conor O’Brien’s songwriting. Its indie-folk charms remain bewitching, but the inventive, hook-laden and soulful incarnation that took shape with 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ is fully realised on ‘Fever Dreams’. Having pushed in a more electronic direction with that previous record, using samples and programmed beats, this set of songs found their groove at the hands of his band.

Recorded in the year preceding the original lockdown and then manipulated in those strange months that followed, this is an album of release which attempts to turn away from relentless, oppressive digital connectivity. Early single ‘The First Day’ builds and builds, serving as a hymn to opportunity and a confident statement of intent. ‘Full Faith In Providence’ offers a fragile contrast, guest vocalist Rachael Lavelle gradually weaving around O’Brien and a vintage piano, while the guitar parts on ‘Circles In The Firing Line’ land somewhere between Pavement and Graham Coxon at his most frenetic.

At seven minutes long, album highlight ‘So Simpatico’ gradually expands into a hypnotically beguiling meditation on devotion. Conor O’Brien’s underrated but genuinely remarkable voice has never sounded better than on this album, with this opulent track its highpoint. The effortless mid-paced early-Seventies soul rhythms are irresistible and the sax break – yes, it has a sax break – is a lyrical and affecting intervention, which then continues in the background as if to underline the explosive physical and mental impact of love. “Little did I know, you were here all the time,” repeats O’Brien on a track which manages to be enormous and enveloping without ever becoming bombastic. Tired minds, aching souls and the ever so slightly broken can find inspirational and uplifting balm right here.

Having always enjoyed Villagers’ releases, it was 2016’s acoustic reworking of moments from their catalogue for Domino’s short lived ‘Documents’ series – ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ – that elevated them in my affections. Suddenly, Conor O’Brien’s songwriting made much more sense and I wrote about it at that year’s end. I’ll never tire of recommending that album, which is an all-time favourite, and since that connection formed I have awaited each new release with genuine excitement. 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ was great but ‘Fever Dreams’ is very possibly Villagers’ most ambitious and endearing record to date. Essential.

Best of 2020 – Introduction

While this blog is traditionally dragged out of disrepair each December for some sort of assessment of the year in music, the countdown has been a little truncated of late given other commitments. However, with the need for head space, distractions and communal experiences in these difficult times, it seems the right occasion to try and do a proper Top 30 with the accompanying write-ups. 

The artwork will no longer take you to a certain streaming site, as I think we’re all well aware of how much they actually contribute to most of the artists appearing in this list. Instead, Bandcamp links will be provided where available and independent record shop purchase options will also be included. If you like the sound of something here but it’s new to you – and you can afford it – why not support those wonderful folk at the end of a trying year?

Most of my music writing these days goes into the vinyl review column on Clash Magazine’s website, also called Just Played. I should, once again, publicly acknowledge Robin Murray’s support with that venture. It had always amazed me that there wasn’t one somewhere else and, with his help, it became clear that the easiest solution was to do it myself. I have been delighted with the response and it continues to gather momentum. You can find the most recent edition here.

It has been another excellent year for music, although I’m generally inclined to think that such a description applies to almost all years providing you keep your ears open. It would seem that the impact of life on pause, through lockdown and lockdown-lite, was to refocus many people’s minds on their record collections. Some pulled everything off the shelves and started listening again, others made mail order a mission. My thoroughly pleasant social media circles have been awash with recommendations and observations over these months, which has been like a fuzzy, nostalgia-drenched theme park dedicated to what Twitter used to be like.

With that spirit rekindled, I’m going to give a full countdown a go for the first time in a while. Feel free to subscribe to get each update as it goes live or follow @justplayed for, quite possibly too many, notifications. As ever, comments are welcome and I hope you find something in here to embellish your music experiences of 2020.

While my list unfurls, you can also browse some very fine lists from the aforementioned indie troopers who have kept us in cardboard-wrapped vinyl this year:

Resident Music

Drift

Rough Trade

Bear Tree

So far:

30. A Girl Called Eddy ‘Been Around’

29. Catherine Anne Davies & Bernard Butler ‘In Memory Of My Feelings’

28. Paul Weller ‘On Sunset’

27. Andrew Wasylyk ‘Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation’

26. Elvis Costello ‘Hey Clockface’

25. Kylie ‘Disco’

24. Keeley Forsyth ‘Debris’

23. Mirry ‘Mirry’

22. Jason Molina ‘Eight Gates’

21. Georgia Ruth ‘Mai’

20. Bill Callahan ‘Gold Record’

19. Owen Pallett ‘Island’

18. Hen Ogledd ‘Free Humans’

17. Cornershop ‘England Is A Garden’

16. Pet Shop Boys ‘Hotspot’

15. Phoebe Bridgers ‘Punisher’

14. This Is The Kit ‘Off Off On’

13-1 The Rest. With explanation

April & May Reviews – Richard Hawley, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Williams & The Boat, Wedding Present and more

I thoroughly enjoyed my Record Store Day 2012 – I hope you did too. Now that I’ve had a chance to recover, here are April and May’s album reviews for Clash, along with the usual commentary.

April May 1

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT”Out Of The Game’ (MERCURY)

Having rounded out the first phase of his career with a lavish boxset, Wainwright turned to Mark Ronson to smooth down the flamboyant edges and ensnare the music-buying masses. The result is a surprisingly effective 21st century take on the Seventies singer-songwriter album, with tight band performances from the likes of the Dap-Kings and sympathetic production from the king of the trumpets. ‘Perfect Man’ is a pure pop gem, the feel of which Wainwright has never previously achieved and it is this lesson in restraint which Ronson brings to the table. Although, quite how the bagpipes which close the album slipped through, is anyone’s guess.

A genuinely splendid record this, which should draw in some more mainstream attention even if it won’t change the minds of those who couldn’t be doing with his previous work. The pairing of Wainwright and Ronson is clearly one of those moments where something just clicks and anything and everything works. There are at least four stone cold classics on here and some of the finest tunes he’s released to date. Well worth seeking out.

RICHARD HAWLEY‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge (PARLOPHONE)

After the spacious soundscapes of 2009’s ‘Truelove’s Gutter‘, the Sheffield-drenched psychedelia found here may surprise but, thirty years from now, crate diggers of the world will seize upon this album in rapture. ‘She Brings The Sunlight’ is a stellar statement of intent, slowly building to a euphoric squall of droning guitars and sugary harmonies, while ‘Down In The Woods‘ buries an echoey vocal at the heart of a bluesy rattle. Even when ‘Don’t Stare At The Sun’initially evokes memories of tunes gone by, upon reaching the three-minute mark it soars in muscular fashion, the easy emotive colouring of strings left untouched. An unconventional masterpiece.

Regular readers will know that I love Richard Hawley. I love his voice, I love his lyrics and I love the production of his records. All of this triumvirate of loves remains intact after spending time with these nine songs. Stuart Maconie was spot on when he wrote, in his review for The Word, that parts of this album hark back to the sound of Oasis when they tried to vary it a little – ‘Who Feels Love’ was the track I immediately played after listening to the album’s opener, ‘She Brings The Sunlight’. I know it’s hard not to construe this as an insult, but please try. This is a wonderful album and one which becomes familiar in no time and a favourite soon thereafter. Brilliant double vinyl pressing too.

April May 2

THE WEDDING PRESENT – ‘Valentina’ (SCOPIOTONES)

I’m always deeply suspicious of anyone who says they don’t like The Wedding Present. They’re certainly not toiling away at the avant-garde coalface of musical invention, but they don’t seem to ever deliver a stinker. ‘Valentina’, their third outing since rebooting as part of David Gedge’s metamorphosis back from Cinerama to one of Peel’s favourite bands, features the odd surprise – not least some vocals in German – but it’s largely business as usual. Blokey but heartfelt vocals from Gedge and lyrical lovelies like “if I were a painter, I’d just paint portraits of you. You’d be in everything I do.” Predictable, yes. But really comfortingly so.

If you like the Weddoes, you’ll be happy. If you don’t, you probably don’t care by this point. If you’ve never heard them before, it’s as good a primer as any. I do and I am.

AMADOU & MARIAM – ‘Folila’ (BECAUSE)

Having toured with the likes of Coldplay and U2 and performed for Barack Obama, this husband and wife duo were keen to both pursue a rootsy take on their Malian blues and also record an album of collaborations with a wide variety of musical acquaintances. As it happened, two become one on this warm, soulful record, which features performances from Jake Shears, Santigold, Amp Fiddler and, most mesmerisingly, TV On The Radio. Some collaborations are more successful than others, but what never changes is the punchy sense of melody which runs throughout ‘Folila‘, a title which simply means ‘music’ in the language of Mali, Bambara.

An album I found hard to warm to massively but I can admire it. I know that sounds HUGELY patronising but it’s just a little inoffensive to me, even though I can tell that it’s the sort of thing that will inspire passionate recommendations. The middling, pleasant records are always the hardest to review. Give me a crap album anytime. Oh look…

MASHA QRELLA‘Analogies’ (MORR)

The feeling on a June day when you think the sun’s going to come through, but it doesn’t. When you sup your post-work pint on a Friday, having imagined its capacity to remove all of your stress, only to find it’s a bad barrel. Spotting a book in the bag of the person you’re hopelessly infatuated with which, upon reading, is really nothing to write home about. Inoffensive, occasionally melodic plod-pop-rock which talks a good talk and doesn’t really deliver.

Hahahah! See what I did there. The album’s called ‘Analogies’, so I…oh, never mind.

April May 3

M. WARD‘A Wasteland Companion’ (BELLA UNION)

In the three years since Matthew Ward released career highlight ‘Hold Time‘, he’s been kept busy as a quarter of Monsters Of Folk and half of retro-pop combo She & Him. Both had their moments but, after the scope and ambition of that last solo outing, hopes are high for the next instalment of the day job. ‘A Wasteland Companion‘ partly delivers, not least on the uncannily Ed Harcourt-esque ‘Primitive Girl’ with its hammered piano refrain and syrupy backing vocals. The gorgeous ‘Crawl After You‘ gets inside you like the smell on a rainy day, but such emotive responses are less common that you might expect.

I do really rather like M. Ward, and he has released some fine albums including the aforementioned ‘Hold Time’, but I find this a little below par. Still a number of fine moments but it didn’t woo me as a complete outing. The blurring of the She & Him/M. Ward venn diagram didn’t help. I’ve still not forgotten that bloody Christmas album.

OBERHOFER –Time Capsules II’ (GLASSNOTE)

Grandiose orchestral clout mixed with a neat pop nous and a voice pitched somewhere between We Are Scientists and Mull Historical Society, the music of Brad Oberhofer is pretty much adorable. Drums clatter and stutter in frenetic fashion beneath chiming xylophone, indie harmonies and riff-heavy guitar for much of ‘Time Capsules II‘, and its relentless energy is utterly addictive. It perhaps never quite manages to live up to the genuinely breathtaking magnificence of opening track ‘Heart’, with its spectral wall of sound production effects, but those are high standards indeed. The shamelessly repetitive ‘I Could Go‘ comes close, mind, with an embarrassment of hooks.

Took me ages to click with this one. Until the last couple of listens, this was heading for a fence-sitting 5/10, but then it all seemed to make sense. It’ll work well in the sun. So, er, take it on holiday if you go abroad this year.

ONE LITTLE PLANE‘Into The Trees’ (TEXT)

With bass from Colin Greenwood and production duties fulfilled by Kieran ‘Four Tet’ Hebden, this is a lot less fragile than it first seems. While it owes more to Kathryn Williams than either of its distinguished collaborators, their touches are still noticeable and the rhythmic backdrop to many of these songs is disarmingly complex. Kathryn Bint – who, perhaps understandably, trades as One Little Plane – possesses a gorgeous, whispered burr, best highlighted on the chiming, hypnotic shuffle of ‘Nothing Has Changed‘.

Not the sort of thing you’d immediately think of if somebody told you it was a new release on the TEXT label, but rather charming nonetheless. Gilles Peterson has played a track recently on his splendid new Saturday afternoon 6 Music show and it seems to garnering positive notices from most corners. Worth a listen.

tom-williams-teenage-blood

TOM WILLIAMS & THE BOAT‘Teenage Blood’ (MOSHI MOSHI)

At a time when alternative music seems so often preoccupied with fitting in rather than standing out, it’s refreshing to hear such a wilfully individual sound. With roots in the melodic world of the mainstream, ‘Teenage Blood‘ is an instantly endearing proposition, although repeated listens unveil the twisted, writhing soul at its heart. The dextrous band ooze and explode thrillingly with each emotional turn, while Williams’ sung-spoken vocals are perhaps the band’s trademark, variously murmuring, bellowing and spitting out lyrical delights such as “my sister was a referee, reffing Sunday morning leagues, south of Sheffield at a park, showing yellow cards to rapists and thieves.”

Ah, one of the Just Played favourites. The product of a Pledge Music campaign, ‘Teenage Blood’ builds on the majesty of the debut and is a great example of albums where you should listen to the whole thing in one sitting. It’s wonderfully sequenced, brilliantly produced and blessed with some excellent tunes. ‘Trouble With The Truth’ is one of the year’s finest songs to date. There’s a lovely, heavyweight vinyl pressing out there but don’t mull for too long as they’re pretty limited.

February and March Reviews – Magnetic Fields, Michael Kiwanuka, Leonard Cohen, Field Music, Tindersticks, Mark Lanegan and more

FIELD MUSIC ‘Plumb’ (MEMPHIS INDUSTRIES)

After the extravagant sprawl of 2010’s double album ‘Measure‘, ‘Plumb‘ lasts for half the time, despite seeming to contain at least as many ideas and melodies across its thirty-five minute run time. Mere moments after tracks have got going they segue effortlessly into others, and while not as safe as Sir Thumbsaloft can sometimes be, it evokes at times the creative schizophrenia of early McCartney solo albums. ‘Choosing Sides‘, itself several songs in one, wails pleadingly: “I want a different idea of love which doesn’t involve treating somebody else like shit,” while ‘A Prelude To Pilgrim Street’ has a glorious drum workout, accompanied by Who-esque shimmering keys, which offers an affectionate nod to Keith Moon.

Plumb‘ cements Field Music’s reputation for truly magnificently crafted classic pop-rock, with an unashamed love of the grandiose soundscapes of the Seventies and a taste for adorning songs with neatly selected sounds from real life. The highly strung plastic-funk of ‘Is This The Picture?‘, all runaway drums and falsetto screech, serves an unlikely precursor to the string-laden, percussive swoon of ‘From Hide And Seek To Heartache‘. This paves the way for the a cappella burst of ‘How Many More Times?’ and near-instrumental orchestral flourish ‘Ce Soir‘. ‘Plumb‘ genuinely doesn’t sound like anything else being released right now, partly because it doesn’t even sound like itself for more than a few songs at a time. An exhilarating and ambitious collection, it should bring Field Music a deservedly larger audience at last.

It seems so very long ago now that I was playing this on repeat over the Christmas break, but it still very much holds up and I’d even consider being more effusive in my praise for this title, several months along. The purple vinyl pressing is an absolute delight, mastered to perfection, and the music is wondrous. The early solo Macca comparison is one I maintain rings true, and entirely topical with the imminent reissue of ‘Ram’.

LEONARD COHEN‘Old Ideas’ (COLUMBIA)

Eight years in the making, one might uncharitably say ‘Old Ideas’ is aptly titled, as little will surprise. However, that’s not to damn this gloriously produced and charmingly performed album. Mid-paced, soulful meditations are what we’ve come to expect from late-period Len and that is what we get, ‘The Darkness‘ and ‘Show Me The Place‘ as good as anything he’s done in several decades. ‘Amen’ isn’t far off being Tom Waits after a hot bath and a sit down, until the trademark syrupy backing vocals appear, while the thin, drum machine traits of old creep back in on ‘Lullaby‘. Still, plenty to get excited about.

New Cohen release and I get all of 105 words. Ah, what do you do? If you care about Len and don’t already know what this sounds like then I can’t imagine a pithy paragraph such as the one above is likely to change that state of affairs. I’ve not listened to it for a while, if I’m being brutally honest, but the vinyl pressing is cracking. It’s largely splendid and the tinny affectations of old are now almost out of his system.

MARK LANEGAN BAND – ‘Blues Funeral’ (4AD)

Possessing the finest album opener of recent times in the shudderingly malevolent ‘The Gravedigger’s Song‘, it would seem that the eight years since Lanegan last flew solo have provided the inspiration for songs of an astonishing calibre. This is a confident, bold and captivating record, and one which is dominated by that beguilingly ragged voice. Musical accompaniment includes turns from Josh Homme and Greg Dulli, with whom Lanegan previously worked as part of The Twilight Singers.

Gray Goes Black‘ picks up the electro touches from the opener and belies a penchant for Krautrock which puts in another appearance on the splendidly titled ‘Ode To Sad Disco‘. Having worked up some of these songs using keyboards and a drum machine rather than the guitar, ‘Blues Funeral’ possesses the fullest and most varied sound of his career to date.

When the guitars are foregrounded, Lanegan can still strut like the best: ‘Riot In My House‘ a particularly fine burst of energy. ‘Harborview Hospital’ is a curious collection of synth swirls and plodding drum loops, whilst tucked sombrely amongst the album’s louder moments is the melancholic ‘Phantasmagoria Blues‘.

Leviathan’, a squawly waltz, takes an unexpected turn towards the end when the repeated lyric “every day a prayer for what I never knew, this is one I said for you,” suddenly gains ‘Pet Sounds’ style harmonies, conjuring a sense of what Brian Wilson‘s more troubling moments may have sounded like in his head. In a good way, of course.

BUY THIS RECORD. Seriously. I still adore it. It’s a real headphones album and yet also one which will serve you well cranked up on the main system. Sharp writing and stunning delivery.

OF MONTREAL – ‘Paralytic Stalks’ (POLYVINYL)

After the studio pomp of 2010’s ‘False Priest’, Kevin Barnes retreated to his home once more and lost the gloss which raised eyebrows amongst some long-term fans.The results are largely excellent, with the usual explosion of restless melody at the fore. ‘Spiteful Intervention‘ sounds like a doo-wop Suede at the mercy of chronic moodswings, lyrically grim enough to warm the heart of every Magnetic Fields fan: “I made the one I love start crying tonight, and it felt good.” Squelchy-pop dominates, although the spun out fairground-gone-evil moments remain, most notably on closer ‘Authentic Pyrrhic Remission‘, leaving you wondering if your headphones have turned on you.

I think I like the idea of Of Montreal more than actually listening to the music. Which is not to say the music isn’t good, even intermittently excellent, but it does require a little…patience and a suspension of disbelief.

TINDERSTICKS‘The Something Rain’ (LUCKY DOG)

Opening with a nine-minute spoken word piece, with a neat sting in its tail, it’s immediately clear that this isn’t going to be a desperate stab for populism and huge sales. ‘Chocolate‘ has been described as a sequel to ‘My Sister‘, one of many highlights on their second album. And it’s somewhere between the passionate intensity of that classic record and the languid soul of their fifth studio outing, ‘Can Our Love…‘, that ‘The Something Rain‘ sits. Self-produced and with a grandiose sound borne out of recent performances of their many film scores, this represents their finest work since their return in 2008. Understated majesty.

Again, not an awful lot you can do with 105 words and an album like this. ‘The Something Rain’ has continued to grow on me in the intervening months and it really does stand up there with T2 as one of their finest efforts. Whereas ‘Falling Down A Mountain’ lost its charms over time, this latest effort feels truly substantial. It doesn’t give a toss what anybody else thinks and doesn’t expect to sell thousands upon thousands of copies. It’s there for you, dear Tindersticks fan. Don’t be rude, now.

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – ‘Home Again’ (MERCURY)

It’s rare that the hype surrounding an artist translates to genuinely wonderful music. Rare, but not impossible, as ‘Home Again’ proves. Warm, beautifully recorded vintage soul is the unashamed goal here and there are no weak links. The Bill Withers comparisons may seem a little grandiose but Kiwanuka possesses a quite phenomenal voice, which he flexes and curls around joyous moments such as ‘Tell Me A Tale‘ and ‘I’ll Get Along‘. With an acoustic undercurrent and sympathetic production from Paul Butler of The Bees, this is an absolute treat for fans of rootsy vintage soul and a remarkable statement of intent for a debut release.

You know how I generally come out in hives as a result of excessive hype? Well, that’s still largely the case – Alabama Shakes, anyone? – but on this occasion I was truly seduced. I love beautifully produced soul music. Sure, I adore my Motown boxsets and the like but that floral, intricate sound of Seventies soul is just about as euphoric as music can get. And, let me tell you, ‘Home Again’ deserves to be talked of in such circles. The novelty has not worn off. I haven’t found myself sobbing myself to sleep at night muttering “it should have been a six” and I’m still playing it regularly. Really regularly. The vinyl pressing is alright, though not as good as this album deserves. Just give yourself a chance to hear it. Several times. Then let me know how you get on.

CHOIR OF YOUNG BELIEVERS – ‘Rhine Gold’ (GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL)

Haunting folk vocals with tricksy production and enormous ambition is not what you might call a revolutionary new idea for the music scene in early 2012. The cautious, unsettling way in which sounds seem to leak out of the speakers on album opener ‘The Third Time‘ is an effective way to draw the listener in, even if what follows is a little hit and miss. Studio gloss and sanitised drums too often leave things sounding a little safe, not least when compared with the truly wonderful glistening Krautrock chug of ten minute long album centrepiece ‘Paralyse‘. An album of that and they’d have me sold.

Honestly, ‘Paralyse’ shits on a lot of the new music released each week but also, sadly, a lot of the rest of its parent album. Worth seeking out that one, mind you.

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea’ (DOMINO)

After the dainty delights of 2010’s ‘Realism’ provoked a distinctly mixed response, ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea‘ finds The Magnetic Fields returning to their synth-pop roots. The lyrics are as sharp and malevolent as they’ve been in ages. Album opener ‘Your Girlfriend’s Face‘, concerning the hiring of a hitman, is blessed with the couplet “he will do his best to do his worst, after he’s messed up your girlfriend first.” ‘Andrew In Drag‘, meanwhile, has a radio smash chorus if not a radio smash title. The album’s fifteen songs all clock in under three minutes and the emphasis is on punchy, wonkily-melodic nuggets.

Ah, the electropop with moodswings and chronic flatulence is back and Stephin Merritt is beloved of the indie masses once more. ‘Andrew In Drag’ is still tremendous but there is much to love across this whole album. If you’ve ever loved them before then it’s time to give them another go and for those who’ve been there throughout the journey since ‘i’, I would imagine this will feel like a welcoming hug after a long, though largely enjoyable, walk on rough terrain.

DR. DOG – ‘Be The Void’ (ANTI)

Having pursued a smooth and soulful sound on 2010’s ‘Shame, Shame’ , the 2012 incarnation of Dr. Dog returns to their more customary shambling psychedelic pop approach, with hooks aplenty and a fondness for brash enthusiasm over studio polish. It’s largely endearing stuff and ‘Lonesome’ produces the instantly memorable hooky refrain “what does it take to be lonesome? Nothing at all,” which will serve as your new earworm for at least a week after initial exposure. ‘Do The Trick’ is a bouncy piano anthem, all swooning backing vocals and gentle lyrical clichés: “I count the days as they pass me by”, while ‘Over Here, Over There’ has a frenetic pop-punk pulse which could perfectly soundtrack the slightly inadequate walk of a hipster with their jeans half-way down their arse, but probably won’t win any song of the year awards. This slightly throwaway quality is what hinders ‘Be The Void’. While the impulsive nature of the recording undoubtedly leads to some fine moments of euphoric pop, the rough around the edges feel results in moments of filler, where a little more precision would have gone a long way. The diluted glam of ‘Warrior Man’ is crying out for a moment to send it into orbit, while album closer ‘Turning The Century’ comes across like an early Gomez b side, all muffled vocals and wanky sitar noodling. When they’re good, they are glorious and their enthusiasm is infectious, but there’s a little too much mediocre padding filling the, er, void.

Meh.

 


January Reviews: Trailer Trash Tracys, Boy & Bear, Hundreds, Craig Finn, Nada Surf

In amongst the excitement of counting down all of the wonderful albums which were released last year, I’ve been a little slack in posting up my monthly reviews which continue to appear in the pages of fine music and style bible Clash. February is a genuine avalanche of goodness, so be warned, and it goes some way to making up for some of the slightly mediocre stuff which has come my way of late. Way to make you read on, eh? I’ll endeavour to post up my more substantial musings on the forthcoming albums from Tindersticks and Mark Lanegan in the near future but, for now, here are January’s reviews, with December’s uninspiring pairing tacked on the end.

Jan 12

BOY AND BEAR – ‘Moonfire‘ (V2 RECORDS)

For a band wanting their fans to “expect the unexpected on each record,” this is awfully pedestrian fare. The polished, even bland, sound here is largely shorn of the character they showed when supporting Laura Marling on her UK tour back in 2010. Having conquered their homeland of Australia off the back of such sterling live work, the record falls flat. The songs are pleasant – ‘Part Time Believer’ the best with a chugging rhythm and a good bit of folk whistling – but imagine that somebody asked you to imagine what a not-as-good Fleet Foxes might sound like. Why bother, you may ask? Well, quite.

It’s alright. I would hope that the above text conveys a mildly withering sense of ambivalence. Any yet, without really tweaking the words, it appeared in print with an amended score of 7/10, raised two from my intended 5. Quite how those words might suggest that number is beyond me but, rest assured, forget it and just buy something else.

CRAIG FINN Clear Heart Full Eyes (FULL TIME HOBBY)

Beloved of those fond of denim, Finn’s home band, The Hold Steady, plough the old American rock furrow, merrily offering new takes on old sounds. Having crafted a set of songs which didn’t fit with his day job – “a little quieter and perhaps more narrative” – Finn decided to go it alone. His gruff, often spoken, singing style is not the easiest voice to warm to and the general lack of pace fails to excite. There are several lovely moments, despite this, not least ‘New Friend Jesus’: a bouncy singalong with plucked guitar and a chorus to die, if not be reborn, for. Worth judicious sifting.

I know a certain type of music fan is quite fond of The Hold Steady but they’ve never done much for me. They conjure images of Uncut editor Allan Jones in lots of denim.*Gags*This is a slightly different beast but it didn’t really excite me much, beyond the odd song. Although, from the moment I thought of the weak Second Coming themed conclusion, I was in my own little world of smug reverie.

TRAILER TRASH TRACYS –Ester’ (DOUBLE SIX)

This London four-piece arrive as members of the dependably decent Domino Records offshoot, Double Six, and certainly don’t let the side down. Distortion, fuzz and more than a little Kevin Shields homage are where things are headed here, with a rather delicate twee-pop sound chiming away beneath all of the, admittedly fantastic, production effects: think The xx after a few drinks. Having released a critically lauded single in 2009 – ‘Candy Girl’, presented today in more muscular form – the band have taken their time to get from there to here and, while they still don’t quite seem to be the finished article, there’s plenty of promise.

It’s good this. One of the first releases of 2012 worthy of note and, predictably, it comes from one of the dependable indie staples – Domino. Veronica Falls, Cults and Cat’s Eyes fans should make a beeline for this. Despite the name and artwork, that is.

Jan 12 2

HUNDREDS –Hundreds’ (MURI RECORDS)

A German brother and sister electronic double act who sing in English so as “to be international; we wanted to travel,” you’ll likely have no idea who Hundreds are. You might want to set about changing that, as this self-titled debut outing is a gorgeous collection of gently pulsing electro-pop. The influences of Moloko and Lamb are discernable here and there; quirky percussion, euphoric piano riffs and synth stabs are all over this album, accompanied by Eva Milner’s razor sharp vocals. Think Our Broken Garden crossed with Little Boots and you’ll be somewhere close to the sound on this massively uplifting and hugely compelling record.

Released on vinyl before Christmas and appearing on CD any day now, this is a fine listen for the (possibly, who the fuck knows anymore) cold months ahead. In print, the Little Boots reference was tweaked to qualify it as “the better bits of Little Boots” or some such. The indier-than-thou police obviously out in force for that one.

NADA SURF –The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy’ (CITY SLANG)

We’ll just let the title go, yeah? After almost twenty years of pop-rock riffery, New Yorkers Nada Surf have hit form again. Excellent third album, 2002’s ‘Let Go’ – containing career-highlight ‘Hi-Speed Soul’ which you’ll be wanting to hear – was their last to really soar. A change to the way they work, trying to capture the urgency of live performance or the first rehearsal, has reinvigorated the band. Matthew Caws has one of those gorgeous indie voices – think Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard – which stretches but doesn’t quite break. Coupled to joyous tunes like ‘Looking Through’, recorded in one take, it’s hard to resist.

Nice to have them back. I find it hard to imagine that they’re anybody’s favourite band, but they have a fine knack for melodic indie and this is an intermittently cracking set of songs which demonstrate that. Nice artwork but, as I said, a woeful title.

PAPER DOLLHOUSE –A Box Painted Black’ (BIRD)

An off-shoot label from the largely excellent Finders Keepers – curators of the curious – is very much the logical home for this unusual record. With a stage name based on cult horror film ‘Paperhouse‘ and apparently inspired by the primitive electronic noodlers of the 1960s, Astrud Steehouder possesses a bewitching voice. Lo-fi, distorted recordings seem a wilfully contrary way to present what is often quite special material. That said, anyone who lists “bewildering post-nuclear landscapes, bleak fields, forests, thunderstorms and archaic industrial objects in the middle of nowhere” as their influences is always at risk of taking themselves a little too seriously. Worth a patient cherry-pick.

My thanks to tramadol and paracetamol for their assistance in completing this and the next review, both of which were in the December issue and were due within days of me opting to feng shui my ankle. Short of putting it back on now, I can’t really remember much about it and, for that reason alone, I’m not going to put it back on to check. I’d move on.

JACASZEK – ‘Glimmer’ (GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL)

Never is the reviewer’s list of trusted clichés more likely to figure than when reviewing ambient records. However else I may try to dress it up, Polish modern classical musician Michal Jacaszek makes music which really is cinematic and ominous. It broods thunderously and it loiters claustrophobically and it successfully draws you in, avoiding being cast aside as simple background fodder. The press release describes it as “sonically challenging”, which I suppose it might be if you’re used to a diet of over-produced three minute pop songs, but ‘Glimmer’ actually covers little new ground even though Jacaszek continues to do what he does rather well.

Seriously, ambient records are a pain in the arse to describe, even if they are often lovely to listen to. Which this kind of is, in parts. Well done for lasting seven of my reviews, by the way. I should probably buy you a pint if I ever meet you.

September Reviews–Laura Marling, Bjork and A Winged Victory For The Sullen

Sorry about the wait. Moved house, you see. I’m typing this from the floor of the third bedroom, surrounded by boxes still full of CDs as yet unboxed. Not that you really need to know that. Anyway, here’s this month’s Clash pieces. Two amazing albums and one I suspect I’ll grow to like more.

LAURA MARLING – ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ (VIRGIN)

Laura-Marling-A_Creature_I_Dont_Know

With two Mercury Music Prize nominations and a BRIT award in the bag, you might expect Laura Marling to capitalise on the exposure and tweak her sound in a push for the big time. Fear not, folk folks. The jazzy whirl of opener ‘The Muse’, sounding, at times, like a more forceful and jagged ‘Poor Boy’ by Nick Drake, is a stunning statement of intent and the most relaxed start to a Marling album to date. The sense of an artist no longer feeling the need to prove herself runs throughout these ten songs, and it is clear that the transition to songwriting great begun on ‘I Speak Because I Can‘ is now complete.

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August Reviews – Jonathan Wilson, Bombay Bicycle Club and Steve Mason & Dennis Bovell

It’s all picking up again now, after the dreaded summer lull. The beefy September releases are popping up and there’s plenty to like about August too. In addition to these, there’s the mighty fine debut from I Break Horses forthcoming on Bella Union and I can tell you now that both The Rapture and Laura Marling have fine albums on the way in September, Marling in particular having taken another massive leap between albums. Anyway, let’s do these three splendid releases, shall we?

JONATHAN WILSON – ‘Gentle Spirit’ (BELLA UNION)

Jonathon-Wilson-Gentle-Spirit

Warm, fuzzy and unashamedly long, this gloriously languid debut solo outing puffs into view seemingly all the way from the late Sixties, with little interest in breaking new ground. Wilson has learnt his craft impeccably, having previously played for Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis and Jackson Browne amongst others, and ‘Gentle Spirit’ serves to unleash his own voice, even if it is a slightly stoned whisper. Recorded sporadically over a long period of time, and very audibly unhurried, the title and pace of the album suggest that we could all do with taking stock once in a while, hazy guitar lines lulling the listener into a state of serene bliss. ‘Can We Really Party Today?‘ aches beautifully over almost seven minutes, gently sashaying through the verses, before shifting down several gears for the sombre chorus.

While the lyrics may be a little platitudinous at times – "When it’s all said and done, we are just dust on the horizon" from ‘Natural Rhapsody’ – on occasion a little simplicity and sincerity is all we need. Recorded to analogue tape, the sound is warm and earthy, Wilson professing that he envisages it as a double album designed for vinyl. As he suggests on album closer ‘Valley Of The Silver Moon’, his music is out of step with current trends. All of which is not to say that ‘Gentle Spirit’ is diluted pastiche; everything here is gorgeously sung and this woozy, gently uplifting collection of songs is pretty close to perfect.

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July Reviews – Rufus, Liam Finn, Jill Scott & She Keeps Bees

A bizarre mix this – two I was absolutely desperate to hear and two about which I was mildly curious. I imagine it’s pretty obvious which ones belong in which pile. 220 words simply do not provide an opportunity to do the Rufus box set justice but I tried. Most other magazines appear to have given it a full page and, I would argue, it deserves it. Anyway, here’s to July…

July 11 trio

LIAM FINN –FOMO’ (TRANSGRESSIVE)

Anyone who heard Finn’s excellent debut, ‘I’ll Be Lightning’, will know that the knack for melody was passed down the family line from his father, Neil from Crowded House. On ‘FOMO’, short for ‘fear of missing out’, Liam Finn manages to do the whole ‘second album about life on the road’ thing without sounding like some pissy grouch. Instead, the euphoric, floating 60s guitar sheen and carefree swagger which dominates proceedings is utterly uplifting, with ‘Cold Feet’ the massive summer smash that will never be. The early-Nineties indie guitar excess on ‘Reckless’ offers another standout moment on an album which takes bold and successful strides.

Oooh, this is a good ‘un. If you never partook of his aforementioned debut, get yourself caught up. I won’t tell anyone you. This is a more fully-realised outing sonically but it’s the sheer joy of his songwriting that makes him worthy of your attention. As something of a Finn Fann, I was always predisposed to like him but he’s more than earned his stripes with this release.

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June Reviews

The new issue of Clash has hit the streets so it’s time to round up this month’s scribbles for you. An interesting range of stuff this month, including probably the second best jiffy bag of promo goodies I’ve ever received in the form of all four Cave reissues in their final, retail packaging. I remain mildly smug that my Black Lips review made it to print entirely unaltered. Anyway, let’s crack on, shall we?

June 1

KITTY, DAISY & LEWIS – ‘Smoking In Heaven’ (SUNDAY BEST)

After a solid and well-received debut, these analogue purists with a knack for good old-fashioned rock and roll deliver a follow up which oozes class. Sounding fifty years out of time and traversing genres without concern, it is unlike anything else you will hear this summer. And you really must hear it. Boldly commencing with the ska-infused ‘Tomorrow’, the album ranges from straight up rock and roll through raucous R’n’B and folksy swing. A band at ease with their sound, the joy of recording these songs is conveyed explicitly throughout, most notably on ‘Messing With My Life’ and ‘Don’t Make A Fool Out Of Me’.

Oh my, this is a very fine album indeed. You’ll be wanting it on vinyl and it will be a rather beautiful soundtrack to your summer. While the debut was perfectly decent, this is a massive leap forward and a wonderful, wonderful listen. Its appeal must be sufficiently obvious as my 9/10 rating wasn’t downgraded for once! That said, print readers beware: I did not, as you can see, finish my review with the line “We urge you to dance here.” Frankly, why would I? What does it even mean?

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Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’

Having released the bleakest record of their career, and quite possibly of the entire decade, with 1994’s ‘The Holy Bible’, the Manics were reaching critical mass and it seemed something had to give. Chief tunesmith James Dean Bradfield was becoming worried that he wouldn’t be able to fit the increasingly polemical lyrics of Richey Edwards, permanent icon and sometime guitar player, to workable melodies. After poor sales of their bold third album, the band feared they might be dropped and, in February 1995, an American tour was looming on the horizon when Edwards disappeared.

Manics EMG

After several months of uncertainty, the band vowed to go on. Convening for a nervous get-together in a Cardiff studio, they attempted a run-through of a song called ‘A Design For Life’, assimilated from two different lyrics Nicky Wire had provided Bradfield with in the months after Edwards’ disappearance. Realising that they had something special on their hands, the Manics attempted to record, with Stephen Hague in the producer’s chair, but found the results to be mixed. Opting instead for Siouxsie and Associates producer Mike Hedges, revered at the time for his stellar work on McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes’, the band decamped to a French Chateau and got to work. Described by Bradfield as “the most idyllic experience the band has ever had,” the results were to reverse their commercial decline and redefine how the band was viewed.

Continue reading “Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’”