Best of 2021: 30-16

Having taken thirteen months to complete the 2020 list, I thought it was best to opt for the shorter format which I’ve used on a few occasions here. Some of the very kind folk who keep a casual eye on my turntable shots and occasional grumbling about pressing plants on Twitter insist that these countdowns are helpful, so here we go. Obviously, it’s my perception of what is best, but I think that’s fairly glaringly obvious, right? In most cases, I’ve cannibalised previous comments I’ve made on these records during my monthly column for Clash Magazine, also entitled ‘Just Played’. If any of these take your fancy, it would be especially splendid if you were then able to purchase them via one of the nation’s many, fabulous independent record shops. They’ve not had an easy year of it and who knows how many of these I might not have ended up loving without them? Ok, enough preamble – let’s get on with it.

30. Flock Of Dimes ‘Head Of Roses’

Early in the year came the latest solo offering from Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner under the Flock of Dimes moniker, which is some leap from that project’s debut, 2016’s ‘If You See Me, Say Yes’. Indeed, ‘Head Of Roses’ is many things all at once, ranging from autumnal folk to glitchy electronica. Compare the psych-rock of ‘Price Of Blue’ with the indie-funk of ‘One More Hour’ to get a sense of what awaits. The striking gatefold contains a nuanced and involving Optimal pressing that opens up nicely with some volume. It has stayed there with me throughout the year and its textures suit this time of year rather well.

29. Sons Of Kemet ‘Black To The Future’

Those who purchase plenty of vinyl become accustomed to certain signs that they’re in for a treat. A poly-lined inner, a tip-on sleeve or Kevin Gray’s initials next to the matrix info can all bode well. The size of the deadwax is also of interest – too little and the worries about inner groove distortion are significant and normally well-founded, too much and you’re wondering why they’ve not used the full space available. Some were a little concerned at reasonably substantial runout grooves on the four sides of the new Sons Of Kemet album, ‘Black To The Future’, but they simply tell the tale of a dynamic, meticulous and utterly captivating cut. Sterling Sound in the US produced the lacquer and Pallas in Germany delivered this impeccable pressing.

The band’s fourth album has already been justifiably lauded, making greater use of guest voices to amplify messages about the state of the world while still delivering sax riffs to which resistance is futile. Oh, and aesthetes will be delighted to learn that it has the classic Impulse spine design too. When so many are making do, ‘Black To The Future’ demonstrates what this beloved format can still achieve.

28. Floating Points / Pharaoh Saunders / The London Symphony Orchestra ‘Promises’

From the moment this collaboration was announced, managing expectations was always going to prove tricky. However, the label Luaka Bop knew that no such dampening was needed as ‘Promises’ is unlikely to disappoint anyone who spends some time in its company. A spiritual, hypnotic and entirely immersive piece spread over nine movements, the vinyl mastering by Chris Bellman is absolutely on the money. Sadly, the pressing were all over the place and a little time spent browsing this album’s page on Discogs will reveal some of the anguish the label have been through. Perhaps buy the CD of this one.

27. The Coral ‘Coral Island’

Three years on from 2018’s unconvincing ‘Move Through The Dawn’, The Coral have returned with possibly their finest release to date. ‘Coral Island’ is loosely themed around different seasons in a seaside location, songs woven together by spoken language excerpts from a work of fiction entitled ‘Over Coral Island’, written by the band’s keyboard player, Nick Power. Such stitching is atmospheric but don’t go thinking this is some impenetrable concept album.

The 2LP set, pressed at Takt in Poland and silent other than a couple of slightly noisy run-in grooves, sounds fulsome and maintains decent separation during the jubilant jangle of ebullient highlights ‘Change Your Mind’ and ‘Take Me Back To The Summertime’. There are nods to the frenetic psych of their early output alongside more melancholic mid-paced treats like ‘Strange Illusions’. James Skelly’s voice only seems to be improving with age and such is the quality of the songwriting that a double album at this stage in their career is most welcome.

26. Field Music ‘Flat White Moon’

It’s fair to assert that Field Music don’t make bad albums, but it’s still worth highlighting the considerable quality of their latest, ‘Flat White Moon’. Shimmering opening track ‘Orion From The Street’ features cascading piano lines which array themselves in the soundstage before you, wider percussive aspects framing a sensory carnival. The detail is taken very seriously indeed and it’s noticeable just how alive the bass and acoustic guitar sound across the whole record.

‘Not When You’re In Love’ comes on like ‘I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun’ before frenetic percussion makes full use of the stereo spectrum. The Brewis brothers’ consistently inventive capacity for building an angular musical landscape is remarkable and the clear, near silent vinyl Optimal cut that I’ve played often this year is a joy to experience.

25. Jarvis Cocker ‘Chansons D’Ennui’

After the recent work as Jarv Is, it is something of a surprise to listen to Jarvis Cocker’scollection of sweeping French language covers inspired by his audio role in Wes Anderson’s ‘The French Dispatch’. Together the musician and the filmmaker assembled a selection of vintage pieces for Cocker’s ‘Tip Top’ persona to lovingly record. The production of ‘Chansons d’Ennui Tip-Top’ is excellent, evoking a little of the vintage psychedelic sheen favoured by Matt Berry. Whether it’s the fuzzy knees up of ‘Les Gens Sont Fous, Les Temps Sont Flous’ or the stately duet with Laetitia Sadier ‘Paroles, Paroles’ that hook you in, the whole set works incredibly well and goes far beyond mere pastiche.

Cocker’s breathy vocals are as varied as they have been in many years and the instrumentation is vivacious and emphatic. Mastered and cut by John Davis at Metropolis, the vinyl sounds excellent, if slightly sibilant on the aforementioned duet. The copy I received for a Clash review looks to be a US pressing, likely to be through RTI, although it would seem Takt have also manufactured some copies for the EU so be careful!

24. Tindersticks ‘Distractions’

The continuing creative urge at the core of Tindersticks is a regular delight, resulting in some additional late period delights since the 2008 re-boot with ‘The Hungry Saw’. Anyone who purchased their previous album, ‘No Treasure But Hope’, on vinyl will likely be a little trepidatious this time after widespread issues with noise plagued rather delicate music. Fear not, however, as ‘Distractions’ is a very well cut and splendidly pressed affair via Optimal. Take care removing it from the potentially problematic paper inner and give it a clean if circumstances permit so as to ensure the quietest possible background for these seven glorious songs.

Opener ‘Man Alone (Can’t Stop The Fadin’)’ may be eleven minutes long but it doesn’t feel like its sprawling or noodly, instead proving oddly confrontational at times and robustly hypnotic. It’s hardly standard fare and a very fine statement of intent. As with the rest of the record, rhythm is tight and engaging while the vocal sound sits naturally in the room rather than pulling you back to the speakers. Most definitely safe to proceed.

23. Dry Cleaning ‘New Long Leg’

4AD’s strike rate continues to impress, with these London post-punk types and their debut album ‘New Long Leg’. The musical interplay between the four piece is joyfully energising and they were poorly served by having this moment in the spotlight while the nation’s venues remain closed and quiet. Seek out video of recent KEXP performances to get a sense of how this band work together and this will also add a little extra valuable context before embracing the album fully. Florence Shaw’s mostly monotone, wry spoken words often paint enigmatic fragments, mixing found phrases with a poetry of everyday life.

The indie-stores-only yellow vinyl cut via Optimal does a decent job of keeping Shaw out of the space of the pulsing rhythm section. So distinctive is the delivery that it can take a few listens to really identify the varied approaches being taken by guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton. The comparisons with Wire and Magazine make sense, but there’s plenty of genre-hopping going on and closer ‘Every Day Carry’ possesses some of the spectral poise of Mogwai. A quick nod to the label for very reasonable pricing on this one too.

22. Knomad Spock ‘Winter Of Discontent’

Within seconds of hearing Knomad Spock’s voice, it’s pretty clear that you’re listening to something pretty special. The delicate, intimate tone has a definite folk feel but the songs on his debut record, ‘Winter Of Discontent’, have a palpable jazz sensibility in their use of space and the presence of the drums. Their skittering presence on ‘Egypt’ is utterly beguiling and, as one might expect from an artist who is also a poet and rapper, the words assert themselves in very deliberate locations also.

Get in quick for one from the hand-numbered initial pressing of 250 copies on Hinterland Creative, which features a separate lyric sheet and a selection of black and white photography to accompany the music. It’s a relatively quiet GZ cut which benefits from a little clean, but this music will cut through any distractions. One to watch, certainly, but also one to listen to right now.

21. Francis Lung ‘Miracle’

Discovering a record has been released by Memphis Industries gives it an automatic head start, such is the quality of that exemplary indie label. Francis Lung, the current stage name of Tom McClung formerly of Wu Lyf, unveiled his second solo album, ‘Miracle’, and it needed no such favours to warrant your attention. The most frequent point of comparison used for his music is Elliott Smith, which is undeniably fair, but there’s also hints of Big Star, Emitt Rhodes, Gorky’s and much, much more in this wonderful album. It takes a little time to grow on you, but the vintage singer-songwriter production is masterful and allows these songs to slowly lay siege to your waking hours. ‘Want 2 Want U’ is especially infectious, alongside already released teaser tracks like ‘Blondes Have More Fun’ and the harmonic charge of ‘Bad Hair Day’.

For the Clash column, I received the delightful Dinked edition with an alternative, mirror board sleeve, mint green vinyl and a bonus flexidisc. The song thereon, ‘Internet’, is a beauty which reflects upon our recent circumstances, but flexidiscs have never and will never sound great. The LP itself is an Optimal cut with only a little surface noise. Whichever version you can lay your hands on, be sure to seek it out.

20. Hamish Hawk ‘Heavy Elevator’

Regular listeners to 6 Music will be well aware of Hamish Hawk’s voice, his single ‘Calls To Tiree’ having been ever-present there in late summer. The parent album, ‘Heavy Elevator’, found its vinyl edition caught in the general delays and it finally arrived at the end of October. Hawk’s wonderfully expansive baritone has predictably though understandably picked up some Scott Walker comparisons. Try the tremendously titled ‘This, Whatever It Is, Needs Improvements’ to understand where that link has come from.

But that’s not all Hawk does. Explore the tremendous chorus of recent single ‘The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion, 1973’, the slightly manic Editors energy of ‘Caterpillar’ or the mid-paced glinting of ‘Daggers’. A compelling, autobiographical collection, it’s an album which repays repeated listens. The vinyl edition sounds pretty solid, a GZ pressing through Assai. I was sent the spangly Dinked edition for review, which was clear with black splatter. Playback was largely quiet after a clean, so it is possible for a record to look and sound nice at the same time. Regular readers of my writing here, there and everywhere will know that this is something of a rarity.

19. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis ‘Carnage’

After several recent albums with the Bad Seeds which were unavoidably inseparable from context, the surprise arrival of ‘Carnage’ at the start of 2021 resulted in it falling a little below the radar. This was very possibly no bad thing as I found it to be a record which gradually crept up on me as the months progressed. Ominous strings and malevolent synths are prominent, with the creative tensions of recent times still present. The jarring explosion of opener ‘Hand Of God’ becomes more striking which each play, switching from physical shock to captivating artistic vision.

These are often beautiful songs, as much because of rather than in spite of the various textures deployed. The title track is captivating, with its curiously swaying percussion, while ‘White Elephant’ feels a little like a different, previous Nick making a return. Then there’s the elevating piano notes of ‘Albuquerque’, of which I suspect I will never tire. It’s a Takt pressing, just like the troublesome B-Sides box set, so you may have to try a few. I waited until a few weeks ago to pick mine up and it’s pretty quiet, so there may be a fresh, better batch out there now.

18. Arlo Parks ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’

The long-awaited debut album proper from Arlo Parks, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’, flew out on vinyl upon release at the end of January. It’s a wonderful pop-soul record with a powerful bottom end that needs a little taming for the analogue realm. Matt Colton at Metropolis has had a valiant effort, although the medium’s inherent tendency to blur heavy bass – often described as vinyl’s ‘warmth’ – means it still feels a little muddy at times.

I was sent the red pressing – although a picture disc was available for those who don’t play their records – done through GZ, which took a few cleans to tame the surface noise. While it’s not quite a perfect debut, the highs still soar with the year having passed. The tricky beat on ‘Hurt’ is magnificent, ‘Too Good’ somehow evokes the early Nineties (for some reason, the opening takes me to Shanice’s ‘I Love Your Smile’) with its emphatic chorus. More nuanced tracks like ‘Black Dog’ and ‘For Violet’ show that it’s not just all about the bangers. Not sure about the vinyl crackle effect on the latter, mind you.

17. Karine Polwart & Dave Milligan ‘Still As Your Sleeping’

The hopping across pavement slabs to avoid the cracks piano refrain which opens this album was enough to have me hooked. As the summer came to an end and my mood darkened a little, I found comfort in the often majestic music produced by the Hudson Records stable. Joining their ‘Hudson Club’ ensures immediate digital copies of all of their releases and so I became acquainted with this striking record. Scottish folk singer Polwart and pianist Milligan combine to offer an album which may be sparse but is far from sombre. Arranging several traditional tracks amongst more contemporary covers, Polwart’s beguiling delivery coheres the work of others with a number of new pieces into a very fine album.

‘The Path That Winds Before Us’, one of Polwart’s originals, has moved me to tears on several occasions. It is rare to hear voice and instrument quite so in-sync at they are on this particular track. If it does nothing for you, check for a pulse. ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ feels entirely in keeping with our impending climate catastrophe and if you, ahem, Do Look Up previous versions, you’ll find Pete Seeger and, most memorably, Sandy Denny have sung it previously. Milligan’s controlled intensity is especially noteworthy here. A decent vinyl pressing entered the world just before Christmas, should you be as smitten as I am.

16. Saint Etienne ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’

Saint Etienne’s latest, ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’, is something of a departure from their more recent releases, opting to fully submerge themselves in the bleary pop landscape of several decades ago. Using samples that populated daytime radio during the New Labour era, they paint watercolour washes of times gone by. A woozy, lulling capacity to both ensnare and slightly unsettle the listener makes for a unique record that gradually reveals its charms. The murky sample of Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Beauty On The Fire’ which loops through ‘Pond House’ appears to be emitted from a submerged radio – fitting considering the source material’s original video – while elements of the Lighthouse Family and Tasmin Archer may not be quite so obvious to all. From the striking artwork on in, PVC sleeve aside, this is an aesthetic delight.

Demand coupled with the current pressing limitations met that, incredibly, different cuts were made via GZ, Optimal and Vinyl Factory. Having sampled the latter’s clear vinyl and Optimal’s black, this column would urge readers towards the second of those. The soundstage felt a little more controlled on that pressing and the clear version had a little bit more surface noise. Most striking, however, was the different space on each side used up, with Optimal favouring much more dead wax than The Vinyl Factory. Whichever variant attracts your cash, and there are a few, this record has true staying power. 

Part Two soon. Honest.

BEST OF 2012: 4. Field Music – Plumb

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.

FM12

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‘. The simple fact is, every song here could merit a special mention and the forensic attention to detail sets standards very high.

Plumb‘ genuinely doesn’t sound like anything else in their catalogue, 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 have brought Field Music a deservedly larger audience and, while the Mercury nomination cast a spotlight in their general direction, the nation’s failure to take the Brewis brothers to its heart continues to baffle me. Despite this, those in the know can’t help but adore them, leading to forthcoming vinyl outings for their early releases and promoting a rapturous response for their Saturday night set at Green Man in August. They are quite remarkable musicians doing so much on such a small scale and ‘Plumb‘ is their masterwork.

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.