BEST OF 2014: 21. Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

The love affair was off. ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ was missing more than a comma in the final analysis. What initially seemed like a pleasing dose of more of the same gradually lost its potency until it all felt a bit samey. There were some fine songs on there but it just seemed to lollop along a bit. Where was the sonic variety of ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ and even ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’? It’s a beautiful record but not an exciting one. Not that this stopped me loving their past work and, just as I kept buying Ian McEwan novels even after he’d stunk up the world with ‘Solar’, I was still keen to give Elbow‘s sixth studio offering a listen, even with a due sense of trepidation. Thankfully, I was allocated it for review and so it became one of my ‘decorating the house’ albums when we moved back in February. With hours of mundane tasks requiring a soundtrack, it was a perfect platform for albums to become ingrained. That said, I didn’t take much convincing.

21 Elbow

Having pushed the delicately uplifting envelope until it wilted under the pressure, Elbow rediscovered their sense of adventure on an album that arrived endearingly weathered and lacking the frustrating sheen on some of its predecessor. An electric organ dating back to the Sixties is peppered throughout songs adorned with Guy Garvey’s heart-rending storytelling and imbued with some of the jagged edges that retreated on their last two albums. Despite the familiarly grand approach of lead single ‘New York Morning’, ‘Charge’ spits out bitter loneliness to a tremendously awkward rhythm while ‘My Sad Captains’ may have displaced ‘Great Expectations’ as the most beautiful thing they have ever done. It’s a close call, but it was that song in particular that truly reassured me all was well. The slightly lumbering but resonant drum sound that is so very Elbow was back and as lovely as ever.

As well as possessing a more diverse sonic spectrum than they’d opted for in ten years, ‘The Take Off And Landing Of Everything’, the lyrics seemed to rise above the music once again. “I live and die by the hot and cold in strangers’ eyes” from ‘Honey Sun’ and the stream of consciousness drift that kicks off ‘Fly Boy Blue / Lunette’ are particular highlights, but there are gems dotted across these ten magical songs. The backlash is now fully underway, admittedly prompted by their pragmatic fifth, but don’t let it put you off this beautiful record. Whatever their current standing in the music industry, ‘Take Off…’ shows that what made Elbow great in the first place is still there to make them great once again.

BEST OF 2012: Dusted Off

What a year for reissues it has been, with several labels delivering an almost impolite run of quality and some bands getting the deluxe treatment. Paul McCartney‘s archive series continued with the staggeringly lovely ‘Ram’ boxset, with a genuinely interesting book, delicately reproduced photos and the album in stereo, mono and lounge jazz versions. It’s one of Macca’s finest and the box is something to cherish. A staggered release was awarded to Can‘s ‘The Lost Tapes‘, initially appearing as CD only and then as a far more expensive vinyl box ‘due to overwhelming demand’. Which, of course, they couldn’t have predicted. Nope. Making vinyl fans but twice was simply a quirk of fate. Honest. Luckily, the music is largely fantastic and this is not some excuse to peddle muffled, mono cassette recordings of crap demos. It might even prove quite a useful starting point for the uninitiated.

Elbow and Blur had their entire studio album catalogue popped back out on heavyweight vinyl this year, including a superb box for the former which had every album beautifully mastered on 2x45rpm vinyl. I believe it’s already becoming scarce. Don’t miss it. As for Blur, the vinyl mastering was largely great, but it was the ‘21‘ twenty one disc box which truly excited. Bonus tracks, b sides, rare footage and a gorgeous book made it one of my out and out highlights of the year. However, if you’re a Blur fan, you won’t need telling and if you’re not, I imagine 21 discs of them would feel like punching yourself in the face with a sharpened tent peg. Also, getting the vinyl treatment was the entire Beatles catalogue. There are those banging on about sources but, to these ears, they sound great. Bass is warm, voices are clear and drums are crisp. However, a word of caution. Quality control on the US vinyl is apparently significantly poorer than on the UK pressings, so purchase wisely.

One of the great pleasures of being a vinyl purchaser in 2012 was being on the receiving end of some of the most lovingly crafted, beautifully packaged and expertly researched reissues music fans have ever witnessed. Chief amongst the labels delivering such beauties are Light In The Attic. Having already delivered several essential Lee Hazlewood titles, the curious folky-funk of Donnie and Joe Emerson, a second Michael Chapman reissue, a stunning Wendy Rene overview, a double white vinyl set for the‘Searching For Sugarman’ soundtrack, a glorious Stax 7″ box set and the truly outstanding ‘Country Funk’compilation, the latest gem out of the pressing plants is ‘A Fire Somewhere’ by Ray Stinnett. Having sat, shelved and unreleased, for forty-two years, this is less a reissue and more an old new release.

Blessed with a country twang and a sprinkling of languid psych jams, this album is one likely to appeal to fans of everyone from Big Star through to Leonard Cohen. It has that timeless sound that LITA aficionados will by now be used to, sounding like a record you’ve always known by the time it gets its second spin, managing to tick the singer/songwriter box en route to some cosmic jams and pensive guitar licks. Stinnett’s vocals – a less wilfully obtuse Tim Buckley at times – are captivating, bending and lurching as each track requires. Lolloping country funk ballad, ‘Honey Suckle Song‘ is an absolute joy and will be on your next compilation, almost certainly. Having been promised by A&M that he would be a star, they took the curious decision of leaving the record to gather dust on the shelves and, until now, it hasn’t seen the light of the day. While there were many magnificent old ‘new’ records this year, this one deserves a nod more than most.

BEST OF 2011: List Anxiety, Near-misses and why I love Huw M

The list is done, the end of year compilation is complete and the festivities can begin. Except, how did I miss out the Wild Beasts album from the Top 30? Why didn’t the Huw M album come out a little earlier, as it would have been guaranteed a good placing? What do I write about now that I’m not knee deep in a list? Ah, list maker’s anxiety has set in. Watching music journalists, music makers and music fans on Twitter over the last week or so, it’s been a familiar tale of people realising either that they’ve missed out something crucial from their list or that they simply can’t boil down what they like into a manageable ten, twenty or forty. For some reason, it matters. Not to everyone, admittedly, but to those of us who try to fill our days with as much music as humanly possible, the opportunity to present our likes in a clearly defined format is exciting and important. Partly, it’s another way of showing the world who we are, and it also allows us an opportunity to range scrupulously over our music, revisiting albums we’d forgotten or never quite clicked with. It’s an event.


This year it seemed particularly difficult to do: on the one hand, because of how many utterly wonderful albums have come out and, on the other, because I’ve been hoovering up new music for the last twelve months. The vinyl revival (hey, good name for a radio show) has continued apace to the point where pretty much any alternative music gets a release on the magic wax. Indeed, but for my still not especially forthcoming right ankle, I could lay out my entire Top 30 on the floor, on vinyl, for a real-life version of that montage picture I made for the Spotify list. I rather like that. Ok, not all of these records have recent prime-quality pressings, but the vast majority sound wonderful on the superior format. An album like ‘C’mon‘ is absolutely suited to the inherent warmth that format affords, likewise the magical ‘Tamer Animals‘ by Other Lives.

Anyone who looked at the list I produced in July, as a half-way point round up of the year in music, will notice that both Alessi’s Ark and Elbow slipped from the top ten to outside the thirty come December. Alessi’s Ark simply got worn out, and I still wonder if I’ve been unduly harsh. Elbow, however, I’m struggling with a little. It’s sonically outstanding, just like ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, but ‘Build A Rocket Boys!‘, from its missing comma onwards, just seems a little to poised. I find myself listening and thinking, ‘ah, there’s man of the people Guy Garvey extending some syllables in a matey fashion’. I’ve always loved Elbow. I adore their debut and ‘Leaders Of The Free World‘, and regular readers will remember that ‘The Seldom Seen Kid‘ just pipped Laura Marling to the top of the 2008 albums list. Whether it’s overexposure, less exciting songs or a little bit of music snobbery kicking in, I seem to have lost the bug. My first listens left me cold – which, having been tasked with reviewing it, was an immediate puncturing of the bubble – but then it grew and grew, a more subtle offering than its predecessor. Now though, I’ve no idea. Sometimes music doesn’t make sense, does it? I’m sure it’ll click at some point. Feel free to give me some pointers.

And then there are the ‘too late’ brigade. For most people, that means albums released in the last weeks of December, although for music monthlies it means mid-October onwards. This year, The Black Keys‘ cracking ‘El Camino‘ came out slightly too late to make the cut, its insane vinyl price not exactly inviting last-minute good will. It’s a great follow-up to ‘Brothers‘, to which I came rather late, with a punchy and brisk flow of soulful blues-rock. Let’s face it, if you know what The Black Keys sound like, it sounds like that. If you don’t, then I think soulful blues-rock is a fair summation.

The most unlucky release is the glistening majesty in musical form that is ‘Gathering Dust‘ by Welsh folk charmer Huw M. You may remember that his last offering, Os Mewn Sŵn’, appeared in my 2010 list after I chanced upon it during a visit to Spillers Records. This latest offering takes everything that made that album so special and develops it a little further. Whether its the gently swaying ‘Brechdannau Sgwar‘ or the wonderfully simple opener ‘The Perfect Silence‘, ‘Gathering Dust’ is blessed with both melody and absolutely stunning instrumentation. Featuring mandolin, cello, sitar, French horn, melodica and a good old Hammond organ, this is clearly not a balls-out rock record, but it is one of the most delightful folk albums of 2011, and would likely have been in my top ten had it come out in October. It bothers me that it’s not in there. It shouldn’t, but that’s list anxiety for you. Still, it’s a good way to use any Christmas money/gift vouchers/rent money you might have left after the big day. The aforementioned Welsh palace of glittering musical delights will be able to assist you with that and the debut. Honestly, if ‘For While I Wait For You To Sleep’ doesn’t get the hairs up on the back of your neck then your beauty regime is too intensive for us to ever be friends.

If you’ll forgive the phrasing, I think I’m almost done mopping up. The ‘Fame Studios Story’ boxset on Kent Records is a match for the sublime ‘Take Me To The River‘ set which they issued a few years back and the For Folk’s Sake Christmas album just nudged out Emmy The Great and Tim Wheeler‘s stonking ‘This Is Christmas’ effort for festive release of 2011. Say hi to the multiple remaindered copies of the She & Him record in Fopp in February for me.

The full list is still available for your perusal and I continue to invite your lists ahead of the December 31st deadline, when I will pick one lucky poster and send them a Low Anthem rarities 10”, a copy of the The National‘s double A-sided 7” and assorted other promo gubbins. It’ll be my pleasure. Thank you for reading this year, and for sticking around during the drought. This isn’t me entirely done for the year, but Merry Christmas to you and yours. Have fun!

20 from ‘11 so far – Part 2

I like lists. Even a brief browse of the site should make that pretty clear. Following on from numbers 20-11, which you can find here, read on for the second half of Just Played’s Top 20 albums from the first half of 2011.Where I’ve already reviewed the album in question there is a link through to it, and all albums have a listen link to Spotify and a buy link through to the marvellous Rise site, who’ll sort you out with the tunes pretty sharpish. Feel free to agree, mutter abuse or supply your own lists below. Right then…

10. Metronomy – ‘The English Riviera’ (BECAUSE MUSIC)

METRONOMYEssentially a very well constructed pop record, ‘The English Riviera’ is a suave and polished beast, blessed with hooks to die for and seductively nimble bass lines. Recent single ‘The Loop’ is an insidious electro-burst, lodging itself in your head for days on end, while ‘Everything Goes My Way’, with the gorgeous vocals of Roxanne Clifford, is a lazy summer smash in waiting. It’s only relatively recently that this has moved from being a pleasant little record I play when the sun shines to a favourite from the year so far. When you really listen to it, which is to say put down books, iWotsits and magazines and just concentrate, the really rather beautiful production hits you. Pick apart the bits of ‘She Wants’ on a decent pair of headphones and I suspect you’ll be suitably impressed. Oh, and the only thing this has in common with the band’s earlier incarnation is the band name on the sleeve. Be not afraid.

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9. The Low Anthem‘Smart Flesh’ (BELLA UNION)

Low Anthem SmartEveryone having caught up thanks to Bella Union picking up the initially self-released ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ in 2009, there was a great deal of interest in this record and it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed. As almost every review mentioned, this was committed to tape in a disused pasta sauce factory but that fact is actually significant as some of the recordings on here are utterly breath-taking. The size of this alternative studio is discernible on a number of occasions, particularly on some of Ben Knox Miller’s haunting vocals which were recorded in umpteen different ways. Still veering between fragile, meditative reflections on the human condition and all out Dylan-cum-Waits rackets, this is the band’s defining moment thus far.

“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.”

Read the full review

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8. Tom Williams & The Boat – ‘Too Slow’ (WIREBOAT RECORDINGS)

Tom Williams Too SlowFollowing on from a number of excellent EPs, this is a heart-warmingly splendid debut outing from one of Just Played’s favourite bands. A genuine music fan and somebody who has spent some years truly crafting his sound and maturing as an artist, the Tom Williams who fronts this tremendous band has a distinctive and charismatic yelp which drives these largely wonderful songs. While their folky origins still show through from time to time, things took a slightly darker and spikier turn on the debut, with lead single ‘Concentrate’ sounding heavier than it ever had before. Lyrically there’s plenty to get your teeth into, the lines “they don’t know my dad, he’s this town through and through. Old school, fifty-something balding racist, and so his mates are too,” are so splendidly evocative they’ve proved to be a popular search term for people finding my original review of the record. Ultimately, fans of narrative-driven indie will find much to love here but even if that’s not your bag, I’d urge you to have a listen to this really very impressive debut.

“‘See My Evil’, having previously been the lead track on an EP of the same name, makes an appearance near to the end of the record. It sounds just as shudderingly splendid as it did that first time: like a grubby Arcade Fire after a night in a dark room with a fine malt, headphones and a copy of Jeff Buckley’s ‘(Sketches For) My Sweetheart The Drunk’.”

Read the full review

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7. Alessi’s Ark‘Time Travel’ (BELLA UNION)

alessiA bewitching stage presence and an angelic vocal make Alessi’s Ark very easy to love and this album is yet another triumph for the good folks at Bella Union. Finely crafted folk is elevated towards greatness by the stunning voice of Alessi Laurent-Marke, which is utterly beautiful throughout. Openers ‘Kind Of Man’ and ‘Wire’ should be enough to have you sold but, failing that, skip to one particular song. ‘Maybe I Know’, an impressive retooling of the Lesley Gore pop stomper, tells the tale of a cheated upon partner realising that the gossip is all about her and will break your heart. With the aforementioned vocal talents of Alessi, it will have you on the verge of tears. 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.

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6. Fleet Foxes – ‘Helplessness Blues’ (BELLA UNION)

Fleet FoxesAfter the somewhat unexpected love-fest which greeted their debut album, things seemed a little less gushing this time around, which is unfortunate as ‘Helplessness Blues’ is actually the superior release. Opener ‘Montezuma’ picks up from where we left off, all cascading harmonies and gently plucked folksy guitar, but don’t be foolish enough to subscribe to the hipster notion that this is an album of wet, hippy-dippy, breakfast-knitting nonsense – because it really isn’t. ‘Battery Kinzie’ is a gloriously plinky-plonky little number which sounds like something straight out of the late-Sixties/early-Seventies Elektra stable, while ‘Lorelai’ shuffles along beneath a wash of harmony, the musical equivalent of that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you witness a particularly beautiful sunset. A logical follow-up to their self-titled debut then, and a fine, fine collection of songs.

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5. Elbow – ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ (FICTION)

Elbow BuildHow do you follow up a record as utterly beguiling as ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’? Well, it would seem it can be done, on this evidence. Take the completely unnecessary ‘The Birds (Reprise)’ out of the equation and you’re left with ten delicately crafted tracks which, as I pointed out in my Clash review back in March, take in the best bits of their career to date. The pressure was off and the band could do pretty much whatever they wanted to…and they did. With Guy Garvey’s national treasure status pretty much assured and another stunning Glastonbury performance chalked up, it seems strange to say that I was faintly underwhelmed by ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ at first. It’s a more subtle record than its predecessor, built around gently uplifting mantras and airy piano refrains. Recent singles ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Neat Little Rows’ both demonstrate the continued knack for meticulously measured epics but be sure to seek out ‘Lippy Kids’ and ‘The Night Will Always Win’, the latter balancing on a simple little piano line as Garvey croons “I miss your stupid face, I miss your bad advice.” Craig Potter’s sympathetic and spacious production remains a delight and however much other albums may be more exciting or more ground-breaking, I find myself returning again and again to this more than most.

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4. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis – ‘Smoking In Heaven’ (SUNDAY BEST)

KDLAfter 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 and continues to floor me on each successive spin. 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 utter joy at the heart of these songs is conveyed explicitly throughout, most notably on ‘Messing With My Life’ and ‘Don’t Make A Fool Out Of Me’. Forget the fact that Jools Holland probably loves this and console yourself with the fact that Mark Lamarr is also probably quite keen too. Although I’d generally advocate vinyl as the way to go for every single title in this list, ‘Smoking In Heaven’ is available as a superlative double wax pressing and it is truly the only way to properly hear this brilliant album.

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3. Gruff Rhys‘Hotel Shampoo’ (TURNSTILE)

Gruff Rhys HSThe top three are very hard to separate at the moment as they’re all pretty special. After the homespun charms of ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth’ and ‘Candylion’, Gruff Rhys has pulled out all the stops for his third solo outing. While those earlier albums were charming and intermittently ace, ‘Hotel Shampoo’ is as good as some of the Super Furries’ finest. Recent single ‘Honey All Over’ evokes his home band in their ‘Phantom Power’ pomp, while ‘Christopher Columbus’ forces a distorted ska sound through the electronic burbles of ‘Guerrilla’. The album hangs together well and although the singles form the opening salvo, things don’t flag towards the end. ‘Conservation Conversation’ squawks and honks away as only a song built around a repetitive phrase playing on the similarity of two words can, while ‘Softly Sophie’ deliberately wrong-foots you off the back of the playfully falsetto chorus. Only Gruff could pull off the potentially nauseating title “If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)” and the track itself is a delight. In short, this isn’t just his best solo album, but also one of the best albums out there featuring Gruff full stop.

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2. Bill Callahan – ‘Apocalypse’ (DRAG CITY)

Bill Callahan ApocalypseCold Blooded Old Times’ was my first exposure to the majesty of Bill Callahan via the ‘High Fidelity’ soundtrack, back when he was still plying his trade as Smog. After an experiment with brackets, he finally opted to operate under his own name with 2007’s ‘Woke On A Whaleheart’. I returned to the fray with the luscious ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ in 2009 and quickly sought out the majority of his back catalogue. While ‘A River Ain’t Too Much Love’ may well be my preferred Smog outing, the slightly less polished sounds of ‘Knock Knock’ and ‘Red Apple Falls’ also appealed and ‘Apocalypse’ is perhaps the closest of all of his ‘solo’ outings to the sound of his previous project. Opener ‘Drover’ sets the tone: low-key band performance, largely deadpan half-spoken, half-sung vocals, occasional bursts of feedback and anxious fiddle. It’s a spectacular way to start a record and all seven of the songs in this set are distinctive and memorable in their own way. Most immediately worthy of attention is the raw, lop-sided throb of ‘America!’ which has even been described by less self-conscious reviewers than I as “funky.” ‘One Fine Morning’ is a strung out, near-nine-minute finale which concludes with Callahan singing the album’s catalogue album in lulling tones. Which is, clearly, unutterably cool. But for the sheer magnificence of the album which tops this list, this would be an easy contender for album of the year and you certainly won’t regret the investment.

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1. Low ‘C’mon’ (SUB POP)

Low CmonI absolutely adore this album; I’m still playing it weekly and I can’t imagine ever tiring of it. The first time I played it, I fell in love and little has changed in the months since. Even if you think you know what Low do and find it hard to imagine ever rhapsodising so verbosely about any of their output, you really should put aside forty-five minutes to spend in the company of ‘C’Mon’. I’ve always quite liked them: their ‘Christmas’ EP regularly gets a dusting down come December and ‘Drums And Guns’ went down well enough but I had little else from their back catalogue and I wasn’t waiting with baited breath for this album’s arrival. Despite all of this, ‘C’Mon’ is my most played album of the year to date, by far. Alan Sparhawk’s keening vocal on opener and first single ‘Try To Sleep’ was all it took. The chiming and immersive backdrop feels soothing and luxurious and it is as welcome a tonic at the end of a long day as cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. The almost somnambulant pace of old is still present in part, but the delicate jangle, used so well on the aforementioned festive offering, is foregrounded here more so then ever before, and it is a triumph. Having tried loud (‘The Great Destroyer’) and electronic (‘Drums And Guns’), it’s been suggested that this is the band returning to what they do best and, frankly, I have no problem with that when it results in ten songs as imperious as these. ‘Especially Me’ and ‘Something’s Turning Over’ are further examples of  vocals balanced meticulously atop shimmering instrumentation, the former allowing Mimi Parker creep out from the, nevertheless beautiful, dueting role she takes on ‘You See Everything’ and ‘Done’. Several months ago, I told one purchaser of the album that if they didn’t like it, I’d give them their money back myself. They’ve not asked for any cash as yet and I don’t imagine you would either.

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March Reviews

Time to mop up my spillages in the review pages of Clash Magazine again. Two of these have already had the full works in recent weeks and another will be soaked in a torrent of hyperbole any day now, but I still rather like bunging these up here.

Elbow Build

ELBOW – ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ (FICTION)

Safe in the knowledge than an audience awaits, Elbow’s fifth album finds the band doing exactly as they please. Combining the expanses of their debut, the delicate melody of ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ and the beautiful production of ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ is a band in full flight. While its subtle charms take time to emerge, let ‘The Birds’ and ‘High Ideals’ take a few laps around your head and the love affair will be back on. Beautifully produced and blessed with Guy Garvey in fine voice, it’s a small but perfectly formed step forward.

I keep meaning to do a big piece on this album but I can’t imagine that anybody who likes Elbow hasn’t already bought it. It’s a gorgeous sounding record – an impression far further enhanced by the majestic double 45rpm vinyl pressing – and I stand by the comment about it needing time. My first few plays were actually slightly disappointing and I was left wondering where the majesty was. It is, rest assured, very much present but it really repays multiple plays and it’s every bit the tremendous follow up we all knew they’d deliver.

Continue reading “March Reviews”

A Week With… 19. I Am Kloot – Sky At Night

Oh, the aching sound of melancholy. Some voices just have it. Think Nick Drake, Jason Molina and Morrissey. To that list, let’s add John Bramwell, I Am Kloot’s songwriter and vocalist, who has found his form in the nick of time. Have drifted a little with ‘Gods And Monsters’ and ‘I Am Kloot Play Moolah Rouge’, good albums but lacking somehow, ‘Sky At Night’ is the exemplar record for this band. It’s the one you’d give to others to show why you liked them, it’s the one you’ll end up reaching for first from the shelf or scrolling to on the iPod. It’s accomplished, it’s precise and it sounds beautiful.


While Bramwell’s voice is imbued with that melancholic charm, be careful not to write this lot of as miserablists. In a recent review, the frequently sniffy and awkward Andy Gill, suggested in The Independent that the pace of this record “rarely rises above funereal” which is, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, a plain lie, suggesting no great deal of time was spent with ‘Sky At Night’. Yup, some of these songs are slow but they are luxurious, meticulous and engrossing rather than sombre and plodding as that description might suggest.

Opening track and current single, ‘Northern Skies’, is perhaps not as magical as its near namesake, but it’s a clear sign that the wilderness years are over. Bramwell has always had a way with words and, following on from the charming “Where shall we go on that big black night? Shall we take the coast road back through our life?” in ‘Northern Skies’, we are given the cracking opening couplet of “Do you fancy a drink? I know a place called the brink” for second track ‘To The Brink’. The truly heartbreaking strings that follow underscore the tone of world-weary despair and it’s an enjoyably brave decision to deploy this quite magnificent song so early on.

There is a not un-Elbow like swell of unsettling and tense backing vocals during ‘Fingerprints’, further demonstrating that not a note will be wasted on ‘Sky At Night’. The whole record exudes a sense of being ‘just so’, a confidence borne of knowing you’ve made the best record of your career, both in terms of the songs themselves and the beguiling sonics. This is, in no small part down to Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Craig Potter, the man responsible for the sublime production of ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, who both oversaw proceedings. ‘Lately’ is another accomplished gear-shifting piece, lurching between serene calm and all out theatrics, while ‘The Moon Is A Blind Eye’ is a fine example of a relatively sparse soundscape being slowly manipulated to great effect, angelic harmonies sweeping in accompanied by echoing drum rolls towards the song’s end. ‘It’s Just The Night’ is one of their very finest songs, sounding like a ludicrously indulgent cross between Richard Hawley, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. You’ll need to play it a few times just to absorb its majesty. The swoonsome gloss of ‘Coles Corner’ perfectly suits Bramwell’s languid yet emotive croon, its slow, raggedy delivery hinting at ‘Time Out Of Mind’ and ‘Love And Theft’ era Bobness.

2003 track ‘Proof’ makes a reappearance in a move that has confused a few people and, as part of an album of only ten tracks, it does seem a little cheeky although this new rendering sounds sublime. Furthermore, if this is to be the album which sells people on the band, offering a creative re-birth, then there’s no harm in having one of their best songs on it. But, tellingly, on this occasion it doesn’t stand out as a peak. Their game has been raised, their sound has been found and I Am Kloot are now playing for the win. It’s bloody heartening for those who were ensnared back in the days of 2001’s ‘Natural History’. I remember reviewing ‘B’, their outtakes and extra tracks collection from last year, and wondering what the hell was going on. Momentum having ebbed substantially with ‘Moolah Rouge’, I just couldn’t see how foisting odds and sods into the public arena made much sense. On reflection, it seems to have been a clearing of the decks, an end of a chapter and a metaphorical funeral for the old times. Momentum had faded, but it would seem it was only temporary.

Radiation’ seems to build towards an epic, Sixties-sounding conclusion but, rather cleverly, it hasn’t been sequenced at the end of the record, even if there is a not inconsiderable pause before ‘Same Shoes’, the actual closing track, shimmers into life. With wistful brass and a muted drum sound it’s a perfect way to end ‘Sky At Night’. It’s delicately crafted, beautifully sung and leaves you wanting more. This album may not suddenly elevate I Am Kloot to headline status but it’s a mission statement that deserves to be heard, a proud, defiant blast against general indifference and Bramwell’s best work to date.

2010 inverted

17. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

jp 40 17

The mass outpouring of pleasure that greeted Elbow’s Mercury Music Prize triumph with this album said it all. Plenty of us had loved them for ages but they’d never quite taken off. A Glasto performance as the sun set, a radio-friendly colossus entitled ‘One Day Like This’ and then this helpful sales boost did a fine job of ensuring that Elbow were one of the great success stories of 2008. The only quibble I can have is why it didn’t happen sooner. This album just has the nudge on ‘Asleep In The Back’, their beautiful debut and No.23 in this very list, and their third album, ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, was very unlucky to just miss out on a place in the 40 also. That said, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ was the album where their musical ambition went up a few gears and suddenly they sounded unbeatable.

17 Elbow

One Day Like This’ is revered by many, and rightly so, but there are many similarly well arranged tracks that are at least its equal on this charming record. Album opener ‘Starlings’ is a lesson in the correct deployment of restraint, while ‘Weather To Fly’ is multi-layered work of genius. Richard Hawley’s appearance on ‘The Fix’ makes for a gem of a track, although one that seems slightly at odds with the rest of the songs. ‘Grounds For Divorce’ was yet another classic Elbow ‘big’ single while ‘An Audience With The Pope’ took on ‘The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver’ for the label of ‘Longest Title Of A Beautiful Song On The Album’ and just lost out.

However, what makes this album truly special to me is a moment that last for all of thirty seconds during ‘Friends Of Ours’, the most direct tribute to the ‘Seldom Seen Kid’ in the album’s title, the band’s friend Bryan Glancy who died in 2006. Around the three minute mark, as the tear-inducingly raw refrain ‘love you mate’ is repeated, a sparse but cascading piano line comes in and it makes you realise why you love music so much. It’s one of those moments that you could hear over and over forever, each listen demonstrating how sometimes music can capture things that words simply cannot.

23. Elbow – Asleep In The Back

jp 40 23

Our first Christmas. Sat in a little cottage, beside a roaring log fire in a cold but beautiful part of West Wales, the good lady hands me a CD as one of my presents. This is long before the days when it has been acknowledged that buying me music is a risky business as I’ll probably have already bought it by the time it’s actually given to me, and I have absolutely no idea what will be inside the wrapping paper. As it slowly emerges, I recognise the blue cover and note the ‘Mercury Music Prize nominee’ sticker on the case. While it wasn’t top of my ‘must have’ list, I am pleasantly surprised by this choice and rather impressed by the good lady’s judgement.

23 Elbow

My early listens were largely positive, although I found it a little heavy going at points. My musical reference points weren’t quite what they are now and I didn’t have the setup to do it true sonic justice but, even with all of this needless negativity, I still realised quickly that there were a number of beautiful songs on this lengthy album. When the album’s title track was released as a single – it wasn’t originally on the album, later reissues from 2002 onwards had it added in – I dutifully picked it up as I wasn’t going to buy myself a new copy of the album just to have that song added in. But, what a song. The swirling opening of acoustic guitar and piano is majestic and the way the drums don’t so much enter as just happen to be there where previously they weren’t – it is one of their most musically simple but effective pieces to date.

The mantra-like feel to ‘Any Day Now’ has since become one of my favourite album openers while genuinely arresting songs like ‘Powder Blue’, ‘Red’ and ‘Newborn’ have lost none of their charm. It’s a remarkably powerful debut record and, as is so often the case when a band has had some time to perfect their initial offering, there is little sign of filler material.

The album comes to a close with ‘Scattered Black And Whites’, a beautiful track which I’m not sure I properly appreciated until it cropped up in the latter stages of a gig of theirs I attended in Leeds last year. Something about the mood it left across the room was suitably special and I soon dug it our for further investigation. The musical backdrop, with its distant backing vocals and pitter-pattering drums, is as homely as the lyrics themselves, talking of how Guy Garvey’s “sister buzzes through the room leaving perfume in the air”.

The recently issue deluxe edition is highly recommended and a link to purchase is embedded in the picture above as this one’s not on Spotify. But, whichever version you end up with, turn it up loud. It never sounds to loud, almost like it doesn’t have the capacity to disturb, only to soothe.

A self-indulgent way to pass the time

Hello, dear readers. The end of the decade best of list is proving tougher to finalise than I thought it would be, so that’ll have to wait just a little longer. As part of this process, I’ve been revisiting some of the reviews I’ve written over the past six or so years and thought it might be interesting to post them here and see if I was on the money, wide of the mark or simply babbling incoherently. I should say before I start this, I’m not overly thrilled with all of these and they will be the original texts as I submitted them to the magazines, and so any bits that got subbed by my erstwhile reviews editors will still be here.

To kick off, a review of Supergrass’ best of, from 2004. I’m in the middle of doing a piece about their charming new extra-curricular project, The Hot Rats, so I thought I’d drop this one out there.




The grammatically correct but aesthetically depressing title aside, this particular retrospective is something of an unknown history. After their tumultuous arrival in the midst of Brtipop, Supergrass’ star has appeared, through no fault of their own, to have been on the blink. Seemingly rather keen to point out that it wasn’t all cavorting on bikes and bendy-legged Muppets videos, this set gamely attempts to represent both sides of the ‘Grass. .

The soul of Britpop hasn’t lost any of its vigour when it reappears on a fair wedge of tunes culled from the band’s debut, ‘I Should Coco’, a spirit that is reprised on tracks from their underrated and notably under-bought last album, ‘Life On Other Planets’. There is a slight feel, however, of being down the indie-disco and the dreaded fear that Shed Seven might pop up at any time is never far from your mind. Where this record really strikes gold is in highlighting the band’s knack for contemplative, melodic acoustic tunes such as ‘Late In The Day’ and the glorious ‘It’s Not Me’. The parent album of this pair, ‘In It For The Money’, remains their finest achievement and is as deserving of the moniker ‘The Best Of Supergrass’ as this particular compilation.

Hugely enjoyable current single, *Kiss Of Life* comes on like a cross between The Charlatans and T-Rex with added silly noises, while other obligatory new track, *Bullet* offers a heavier sound but manages to forget to add a melody. Where they go next is unknown, but what they’ve already done bears some repeating.

VERDICT: Enjoyable nostalgia, but all you need is their superlative second album.

KEY TRACKS: Grace, Going Out, It’s Not Me

Originally published in Word Magazine 2004


I largely stand by this, five years on, although there’s a slightly snide reference to Shed Seven there that’s helping nobody.

The other one for today is simply proof that I’ve always known what I was talking about.



Leaders Of The Free World finds Elbow delivering a work of global majesty.

Beardy, Mancunian melancholia is an integral part of the modern music scene. Where previously local rivals such as Doves have stolen a march on them, Elbow have set about fulfilling the promise that was so clear on their first two albums. Initially purveyors of more muted, atmospheric efforts, this time out the band seem far more confident of their sizeable talents

Mostly set in the urban wilds of Manchester, the brief global view attempted in the title track proves to be a remarkably successful – now say this quietly – ‘political song.’ The beauty of lines such as, “passing the gun from father to feckless son,” in neither being too blatant nor too pious ensures that the ham-fisted, vacuous efforts of many before them are not repeated in this gem of a tune.

The album maintains its quality throughout, two of the latter songs amongst the best things I’ve heard all year. ‘The Everthere’ employs similarly muted percussion to that of Blur’s charming, ‘Out Of Time’ and is one of frontman Guy Garvey’s finest vocal performances on the record. This is only surpassed by ‘Great Expectations,’ which tells the tale of an imaginary wedding on the last bus home between our man and a hitherto unknown young lady, for which “a call-girl with yesterday eyes was our witness.”

Such endearingly well-imagined lyrics are typical of ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, an album that comes good on Elbow’s previous hints at greatness and which will surely rank amongst the finest releases of the year come December.

Leaders Of The Free World is on V2

Originally published in Word Magazine 2005


What can I say? I was playing the vinyl of this the other night, having just listened to the deluxe edition of ‘Asleep In The Back’ and was reminded that they’ve always been great, it just took the public a while to pick up on that fact. The rather lovely Jude Rogers, who was my reviews editor at the time, was part of the judging team who gave the Mercury Music Prize to them for ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ and she later told me that after falling in love with their fourth album, she was reminded of me banging on about how great they were and that I was right all along. Quite so!

£17.50 for a conversation in a room with a sticky floor

The first time I heard ‘Asleep In The Back‘, a winter’s night towards the end of 2001, I found it almost too dense to get my head around. These beautiful, ethereal tunes, simultaneously complex and yet understated, have since taken up residence as old friends. ‘Cast Of Thousands’ took even longer to make sense, and it didn’t really click until after I’d heard the rather wonderful, ‘Leaders Of The Free World’. This latter record contains one of my all time favourite songs; ‘Great Expectations’. Musically, it’s pretty great, but lyrically is where it gets me. Guy Garvey tells the story of a marriage that happened only in his mind, as he imagined nuptials with a regular passenger on the late bus.

“A call girl with yesterday eyes
Was our witness and priest
Stockport Supporters’ Club kindly supplied us a choir
Your vow was your smile
As we moved down the aisle
Of the last bus home.”

Perfect. Argue with me, if you like. I won’t listen.

And then, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ arrived and it all changed. It’s another beautiful album and it may well be their best to date – certainly, songs like ‘One Day Like This’, ‘Friend Of Ours’ and ‘Grounds For Divorce’ support that theory – and yet, finally, the great British public have come on board. I talk, as it must have become clear by now, about Elbow.

I had the pleasure of their company at Leeds Academy last night and I’m still smiling. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such clear vocals at a concert before as the sound for Guy’s mic last night. The track, ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ is one of the most gigantic sounding songs I’ve ever heard live and there wasn’t a moment in the whole show where the band were anything other than imperial and, frankly, fucking brilliant. It’s right up there in my top five gigs; I only wish I’d gone to see them sooner. They played ‘Great Expectations’ last night, at which I entered an almost trance-like state and stood their swaying like a ninny, completely lost in that beguiling song. Until, that was, the twerps behind me decided to revive a conversation they’d been having intermittently throughout the gig.

Answer me this. Please. Why the hell would you pay for tickets to a concert only to talk through the gig? I expect a little chat during the support act – that’s life. But during the main act? You know, the ones on the fucking tickets you had to give up to get in to this venue? The people you knew you were coming to see and, presumably, at least quite like. Why go to a hot, sweaty building, with a suspiciously sticky floor and speaker stacks that could destroy hospitals to have a conversation about hats and trains? I know this might be coming across as something of an over-reaction, but what goes on between the ears of these gibbering fucknuts? If you don’t know many songs, but still decided to buy a ticket, presumably you’re expecting to like the songs you’ve not heard? Thus, perhaps, you’d actually want to hear them?

Having completed a brief assessment of how likely they were to be knife-wielding maniacs, I opted to turn round and frown sternly at them. This caused a cessation of idle chit-chat for a song or two at least, but it’s an ever-increasing problem. Towards the end of the gig, as the band were performing some of the afore-mentioned, dense but beautiful material from the debut, an exasperated male voice could be heard yelping, ‘Shut the fuck up, just shut the fuck up.” He made a fair, if not especially eloquent, point.

Anyway, Elbow were utterly fantastic and I cannot recommend them highly enough. I’m sure the people behind me would too, except of course they’ve no idea if they were any good or not.


Had a quick skip through The X Factor this morning. Yeah, I put it on Sky +, so what? Alexandra kicked things off with a terrific, ‘I’ll Be There’. The one who always starts in Spanish didn’t, and then got told off for not doing so, despite being reasonably good, while even Pontins managed a respectable, if utterly unremarkable, stab at ‘She’s Out Of My Life’. Why Michael Jackson songs, by the way? In what way is he relevant to the modern music scene, that is so frequently a reference point in much of the judges’ critical opinion?

Girlband‘s ‘Heal The World’ was hilarious. Properly bonkers, that one. The little Irish Lego man was overcome with enjoyment during the performance, suggesting that there is, actually, at least one person who likes that song. Their fate was sealed.

Talking of shit Michael Jackson songs, ‘You Are Not Alone’ got a reasonable going over by Bo-Selecta, even if the start was a bit mediocre, only to be eclipsed by an opinion-dividing performance from Austin. I was actually quite taken by his version of ‘Billie Jean’. Who cares if that version’s been done elsewhere? Isn’t that essentially the basis for pretty much every performance on The X Factor? It’d be fantastic if each show was filled with new music performed by the wannabes, but it’s never going to happen.

David Brent – leave the joke alone, Louis, or I’ll tape your hands to your sides – was coma-inducing at his best and completely shit at his worst. Strip his story away and you’ve got nothing. If it’s done on merit, I’d imagine he’ll be in the bottom two next week.

JLS brought a West End show feel to ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and made me feel quite queasy. It was very late-eighties, New Kids On The Block-lite, and one of them has a hideously nasal voice that detracts from the half-decent work of the others. Louis’ only remaining shot at the title, and thus it’s easy to say that the-over-excitable-Girlband-dressing-room-loiterer is screwed.

Diana was, naturally, tremendous. The novelty ‘wow’ factor from last week had worn off, but it was still a wonderful rendering of ‘Man In The Mirror’ and her voice remains the most compelling on the show by miles.

Macy Gray was up next. In addition to the tinge of madness displayed last week, there was an undercurrent of menace and desperation added to the mix this week. Perhaps she’d been getting performance tips from Ringo Starr. That said, creative Brian – you know, the one they couldn’t fire after he turned out to be a shit judge, so they labelled him the ‘creative director’ – really did fill the tissue of ego-wanking with the truly bizarre concoction that the mad one was ensconced within.

Little, squidgy E-Owen was up last with, the not-especially shocking song choice, ‘Ben‘. He was rather good. Nothing more, nothing less.

Girls Aloud popped up for the results show and delivered a reasonably strong performance of their marvellous new single, ‘The Promise’. It really is good. I make no apologies.

Girlband and Not-so-Spanish-now contested the bottom two spot and, having gone to ‘DEADLOCK’, Girlband were told to go away. Quite right really. Not quite as entertaining this week, but then what was I really expecting?