BEST OF 2014: 25. Gruff Rhys – American Interior

It’s easy to be a little blasé about Gruff Rhys. He doesn’t really release bad records, to the point that another good Gruff Rhys record can be taken for granted. Such was the case with ‘American Interior’, an album which accompanies his DVD, book and actual journey charting the life of Welsh explorer John Evans. Having found myself lured into purchasing the deluxe box set edition of the release, which was then a little late arriving and contained a faulty LP when it did, my initial experiences with this record were not especially conducive to instant adoration. Indeed, my early reaction was built around the simple acknowledgement that I liked it and knew which track I’d probably use on playlists. And then it all went quiet. Sitting on high in its deluxe box, it slipped off the radar and I pretty much forgot about it. That this happened may explain why the album is at the lower end of this list rather than scaling the heights, but thankfully I returned to it whilst sorting out the runners and riders and its charms – shorn of expectation – shone through. It’s no ‘Hotel Shampoo’, but then let’s not be picky.

25 GRUFF

The jangling giddy-up of ‘100 Unread Messages’, which weaves modern technology into the more historical narrative rather neatly, contrasts splendidly with the more languid ‘The Swamp’ on an album which, and again this is very much the Gruff template, pursues a variety of musical styles, each with great success. ‘The Last Conquistador’ has the same squelchy throwback feel of ‘Rings Around The World’ era Super Furries, while ‘The Whether (Or Not)‘ feels like one of the weird, part rocker, part electro-freakouts that make ‘Guerilla’ such a magnificent listen. ‘Iolo’ could be ‘Casanova’ era Divine Comedy but for one of the most distinctive voices in modern music repeating the title endlessly across the top of most of it.

American Interior’ is a lovely, often beautiful, album which seems to mark Gruff having found his place. Where ‘Candylion’ toned down the rabid ideasmageddon of ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth’, and ‘Hotel Shampoo’ tightened up the noodling charms of ‘Candylion’, this seems like a logical and expected step forward, subject matter aside, from its predecessor. This is no bad thing, but it feels like the time to be surprised by Gruff has passed. Now we can revel in his many talents, delight in his knack for melody and make a risk-free purchase every couple of years. I’m certainly not complaining.

BEST OF 2011: 3. Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo

Several years ago,  I had a conversation with a colleague about how the Super Furries had a tendency to deconstruct their own sound, wilfully spoiling the polish on some songs. We were talking specifically about ‘Phantom Power’, with passing reference to earlier work. The Beach Boys fascination which reached its zenith with the marvellous and yet bizarrely overlooked ‘Hey Venus!’ was clearly present long before that, but strung out, cut up and looped techniques used on their material at points made you wonder if they just didn’t want things to be just so or even, as at times they have been, perfect.

Gruff

However, people change and, with ‘Hotel Shampoo’, Gruff Rhys has made his perfect pop album. The broad stereo sound, with two separate drum patterns and a beefy bit of piano, which sets out the stall on ‘Honey All Over’ is one of the finest individual music moments of this year for me. To me, it sounds not unlike ‘Phantom Power’ era SFA, but it’s unashamedly catchy, delicately arranged and, let’s not be coy, utterly beautiful.

Having been preceded by a quite stunning pair of singles, expectations for this album were high. First came ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ which bubbles out of the speakers, a chaotic and infectious signal of what is to come, while ‘Sensations In The Dark’, with its mariachi fascination and title based on the cheap, light-up Eighties keyboard on which it was birthed, truly raised the bar after the previous solo outings. Which is not to say that ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth’ and ‘Candylion’ aren’t worth your time, just that they both had their moments whereas ‘Hotel Shampoo’ is a whole album like that – full of ‘moments’.

Sophie Softly’ is another of those perfect tracks which evoke certain past SFA eras but with its gorgeous, sympathetic production very much belongs in the here and now. Gruff’s marshmallows-on-a-hot-chocolate vocal floats across these songs delightfully and it’s hard to imagine ever tiring of this album as a complete listening experience. I don’t skip bits, I don’t wait for the odd song to end and, though I can’t deny that ‘Honey All Over’ goes on pretty much any compilation I make at the moment, I regularly play this from start to finish.

Starting the second half with ‘Christopher Columbus’, a stunning, dub-inspired track with a repeated, distorted horn refrain is, in a similar fashion if not sound to when you first heard ‘Northern Lites’, something truly unexpected. And then there’s the sweetly sung ‘Space Dust #2’, featuring Sarah Assbring who, understandably, trades under the stage name of El Perro Del Mar (also worth checking out, music fans.) While the scuzzier side of the Furries isn’t often on show here, anyone who has ever had their heart slightly melted by one of their more swoonsome numbers, needs ‘Hotel Shampoo’ in their collection. ‘At The Heart Of Love’ has stately drums coupled with somnambulant piano which builds to a chorus to which one might gently sway adoringly. And then, just when you’re lost in a moment of almost tearful reverie, the bastard brings in a horn part to leave you helpless.

Patterns Of Power’ sounds a little like one of the men who made ‘Radiator’ getting a little older and, hey, what do you know? It has that familiar chugging verse, before a bustling chorus with falsetto and fuzzy guitar sounds that made SFA’s second album such a stunning release nearly fifteen years ago. Forgive the number of comparisons, but how do we judge things if not by putting them in the context of that which we already know? And if you already like the Furries, you will love this record.

‘Hotel Shampoo’ is an album which ticks all of the singer/songwriter boxes. It has lashings of melody, a sizeable tranche of singalong choruses and an enigmatic frontman. It should, by rights, have made Rhys huge. However, I’ll settle for knowing that all of you good people are suitably informed about this record and suitably entertained by its many, many charms.

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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2011OTR