21. Massive Attack–Heligoland

Best of 2010A strange beast, this one. There are certain bands who are condemned to disappoint no matter what they do. If you reach great heights but fail to split up at the time then you’ve had it. Supergrass were eternally plagued by not sounding like their first two records, Pet Shop Boys are so often judged against ‘Behaviour’ and Morrissey, having managed to escape the shackles of The Smiths should, apparently, have called it a day at ‘Vauxhall And I’. So too for Massive Attack, who, depending on how menacing you like your electronic music, should have either given up after their debut (soulful, not so menacing) or their third outing, ‘Mezzanine’ (industrial, terrifying on headphones.) Either way, it doesn’t really matter to some what Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall come out with these days as it will never be like those records. I’ve never really understood this viewpoint. I would if new releases meant that every singe copy of those classic albums was instantly erased or destroyed. But they’re not. They’re still there, if you want them. And, just to add insult to injury, those wanting more of the same then listen to a new release in the most cursory fashion, deem it not up to scratch and then ignore it, thus removing any chance of them learning to love it in exactly the same way that they came to love the earlier albums before the internet meant we could have a new song in our ears for every waking minute of every day. Their loss.

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‘Heligoland’ is not a Massive Attack masterpiece. It does, however, contain some quite remarkable pieces of music. ‘Splitting The Atom’, which preceded the album in 2009 as part of a taster EP also containing ‘Pray For Rain’ still sounds indestructible, the relentless organ throb set against a chugging beat and vocal contributions from both 3D and Daddy G, along with Massive staple, Horace Andy. Drifting synths towards its close enhance the paranoia and it leaves you feeling ever so slightly on edge. And all the more receptive for what is the album’s stand out track, ‘Girl I Love You’.

Slightly lazy reviewers branded it the cousin or brother of ‘Angel’ – presumably because it has a brooding bassline and it features aforementioned legend Horace Andy. Beyond that, the comparison is pretty vacuous and would suggest that it was a case of eye-catching phrasing over actual informative comment. It is, however, an enormous track, capturing much of what makes Massive Attack so very, very special. The musical equivalent of a hall of mirrors – on a dark, rainy night, of course – it ebbs, flows, parps and pulses towards an oddly celebratory ending, resulting in a rapturous cacophony prior to taking its leave.

That’s without mentioning the sterling track featuring Damon Albarn, ‘Saturday Come Slow’, which is epic in the Massive sense of the word. Albarn’s tortured rendering of the phrase ‘do you love me?’ is genuinely affecting and is a fine example of the kind of unusual collaborations Massive Attack managed to deliver. Take ‘Paradise Circus’, featuring Hope bloody Sandoval which was released to radio to promote the album and ended up soundtracking the BBC’s ‘Luther’, or ‘Flat Of The Blade’ a disorientating bleepy little beast featuring Guy Garvey in full emotive flight. The odd track might not linger long, but this is a fine, fine record but a combination of the weight of expectation and being released at the start of the year has resulted in a rather quiet showing thus far in the end of year round-ups. Don’t be foolish enough to pass up on this one, especially while the staggeringly splendid triple vinyl deluxe pressing is still in print.

28. I Am Kloot–‘Sky At Night’

Best of 2010Some records don’t transfer well between seasons but, as I sit looking out at three foot long icicles and a seemingly permanent snow covering, ‘Sky At Night’ still sounds as imperious as it did upon arrival at a balmy holiday cottage in July. The best melancholic albums have the capacity to mould themselves to whatever mood the listener happens to be in. Happy? No problem, admire the swooning majesty of the arrangements. Sad? Wallow aplenty in those aching vocals. When I first wrote about this record for ‘A Week With’, I was merrily lavishing praise all over these songs and, it would seem, it was all entirely deserved. ‘To The Brink’ remains one of the most perfectly realised tracks of 2010 – majestically sung, beautifully textured and produced with due care and diligence. Plus, “do you fancy a drink? I know a place called the brink” remains a splendid way to start a song.

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An entirely just Mercury nominee, ‘Sky At Night’ is I Am Kloot’s masterwork to date, and I add that ‘to date’ quite intentionally. One of the better kept secrets of the northern indie scene, quietly selling in small numbers to people with discerning ears, the band have a catalogue well worth exploring. Debut ‘Natural History’ might well be the most sensible port of call for those looking for their next fix, produced as it was by Guy Garvey, co-producer of this latest outing along with fellow Elbow sort Craig Potter. Be prepared for a slight step down in sonic splendour, mind you. Kloot have come a long way and this is never more obvious than on the grandiose ‘Lately’, which you can obtain for nowt by going here. A deliciously epic wall of strings is deployed sparingly but to great effect, while band frontman John Bramwell’s impassioned rasp rises to the occasion. If you like your Hawley, Villagers or, of course, Elbow, then I fail to see how you could be anything other deeply moved by this.

Chuck in the masterful singles – ‘Northern Skies’ and the re-born ‘Proof’ – and you should already have enough reasons to be in possession. But should you still need convincing, not that I can really understand how the final thirty seconds or so of ‘Proof’ wouldn’t melt your icy bastard heart if so, then ‘It’s Just The Night’ should do it. I previously described it as “a ludicrously indulgent cross between Richard Hawley, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan” and I’m not sure I can put it any better some five months later. Luscious but not saccharine, elegant but not too earnest and resonant in a way which makes me feel like its passing through me, this is the quiet calling card of a terrific talent.

And I still haven’t mentioned Kloot’s ‘One Day Like This’, ‘Radiation’, which is as close to gratuitously big as the album gets. It’s still lovely, mind you. For whatever reason, there aren’t all that many conventional guitar bands in this year’s list. It would seem that a sense of fatigue kicked in this year, with the phrase ‘landfill indie’ becoming almost as ubiquitous as the music it was claiming to describe, but when it was really very good indeed, it stood out from the crowd. Such was the case with ‘Sky At Night’, and here’s hoping the band’s renewed commercial standing can endure.

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.

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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

A Week With… 9. BBC 6 Music

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On Monday morning, Gideon Coe tweeted that, having completed a week’s holiday, he would be back on his 6 Music evening show later that day and for the rest of the week, before spending a week covering the breakfast show. I was overjoyed at this news, Coe having previously been a regular, and unsurprisingly excellent, deputy to Phill Jupitus during the early years of his breakfast show. This additional role at the station came to an end and seemed unlikely to ever be reprised after Gideon was buffeted off the morning show and shunted to the late show in place of his daytime replacement, George Lamb in the latter part of 2007. A return to breakfast cover seemed to suggest a positive repositioning of 6 Music, potentially in light of the recent BBC Trust report which suggested that the station needed to commit itself to presenters with strong musical knowledge. Things were looking up. And then I listened to Tony Livesey’s 5 Live show on Thursday night.

The report in The Times that was being discussed declared, with no hint of ambiguity, that the BBC would soon announce that, as part of a raft of cost-cutting measures, it would close 6 Music. I was quite surprised by how taken aback by this news I actually was. It soon became clear how much I actually value this curious digital radio station. Marc Riley, Steve Lamacq, Lauren Laverne, Guy Garvey, Adam & Joe, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Bacon, Stuart Maconie and, most of all, Gideon Coe, host shows that I adore and, while I may not catch every second of every one of their shows, when it comes to radio listening, there’s little else to tempt me towards my radio coming from other sources, and absolutely nothing from the commercial radio sector. Say what you like about fair competition and BBC monopolies, but there isn’t a single commercial radio station that could hold my attention for more than thirty minutes, let alone command repeat listens. I’m sure that plenty of that does come down to the fact that the Beeb can broadcast programmes without the fear of poor advertising sales for the ad-breaks, but that doesn’t negate the point that widespread suggestions that music fans will be catered for elsewhere are complete bollocks.

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I go through phases of allowing myself to listen to Gideon Coe’s late show (Monday-Thursday, 9pm – midnight) as a result of the financial implications associated with each three hour programme I consume. This week alone, I ordered CDs as a result of three of the four shows I listened to. Indeed, so expensive is a week of Coe shows that I’m increasingly convinced that we have incredibly similar tastes in music, only he knows an awful lot more about it than I do. He is a warm, convivial and humble host, making you feel thoroughly involved in every show. Coe conveys his great enthusiasm for the music he plays in an understated, unassuming and yet hugely contagious fashion. I truly believe that is the best music show you can hope to hear on British radio. The Sam Prekop, Mojave 3, A Certain Ratio and Lee Hazlewood tribute album CDs which I’ve been enjoying greatly over the last couple of days would not be in this house were it not for that one particular radio programme. There are dozens of other examples, just from that one programme alone. I’ve also encountered, and subsequently purchased copies of, brilliant music on Lamacq’s afternoon show, Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone, Craig Charles’ Funk and Soul Show, Marc Riley’s evening and on the recommendation of regular cover host, Jo Good. I’m sure that are numerous other recommendations which I’m forgetting right now, but even that list says a lot about how utterly in tune with their listeners the 6 Music team are.

I make no bold statements about the need to join Facebook groups or to add a twibbon to your picture on Twitter, but I do think it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge what a wonderful station 6 Music is. Yes, George Lamb was a mistake that took a long time to sort out and yes, sometimes the daytime playlist can get a little clogged with identikit indie bands, but the vast majority of the 6 Music output is excellent and occasionally it’s truly outstanding. As a station, its musical scope makes it unique and its presenting team isn’t too shabby either. I am a staunch defender of the BBC and consider it to be ludicrously good value for money. I am well aware of why its competitors have their reasons to campaign fiercely against it, but some of the more general anti-BBC sentiment has always baffled me. I can only hope that the mass outpouring of something bordering on grief at this dreadful news may have some influence on the final decision. I’m preparing for the worst but, for now, I’ll continue enjoying radio’s best. Jarvis is on right now and Gideon’s on breakfast tomorrow. That’ll do nicely.