BEST OF 2011: 12. The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh

The power of music is hard to quantify. How many of us are constantly on the lookout for something revelatory, something distinctive, something special? No matter how many favourite records you have, it’s a reassuring delight to think that there will be further additions to that list for as long as you keep on exploring. Sometimes they ride in on the crest of a wave of media hype, often they just appear quietly, without fanfare, and ransack your ears. For a lucky group of listeners, 2009′s ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin‘ was one such record and its capacity to wow remains undiminished. Picked up by the remarkably consistent Bella Union, after being self-released in small numbers in 2008, The Low Anthem‘s third album became beloved of discerning listeners and bearded music monthlies alike. This time around, there was a sense of anticipation surrounding a new release by the band and ‘Smart Flesh’ had a lot to live up to.

cd_spread

Largely favouring plaintive, spacious vintage folk, proceedings are occasionally interrupted by Waitsian, muddied, junkyard rock and roll. While the more raucous moments are few and far between, the hypnotic qualities of the slower material are more than enough for this band to merit a place in your collection. Much of the album was recorded in a disused pasta sauce factory with microphones dotted across the floor space and 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. Indeed, the emotions are stirred at numerous points throughout ‘Smart Flesh’, not least on ‘I’ll Take Out Your Ashes’. Talking of a delay in carrying out the deceased’s wishes, it is a sparse lament containing the perfectly captured and hugely evocative lyric, “I’ve combed your Alzheimer’s poetry for all that I wish for it to say.” The slightly detuned radio buzzing in the distance throughout is a bold but remarkably affecting touch, the background hum of life never letting up.

The half-way point is neatly marked by forlorn instrumental ‘Wire’ which, as it slowly unfurls, serves to highlight just how delicate the musicianship is on this beguiling album. There’s an audible intake of breath around the three minute mark and, though there are no vocals, the sense that there is someone in the room with you is there for the duration. ‘Apothecary Love’ is a swooning, strung-out meditation on love and longing, talking of “her sad, sad eyes, the burden she carried” and how “I’ve got the cure for the state that you’re in” only for the situation to be reversed by the time the song comes to a close. It’s one of a number of highlights on the record and a fine example of their ability to set compelling narratives to deft arrangements and lay siege to your mind.

Whether unleashing the musical saw on ‘Burn’ or deploying antique pump organs to emotive effect, there isn’t a note wasted on ‘Smart Flesh’. If it’s there, it’s there for a reason and it’s clear that there is cerebral weight behind this music. Watching the band live, Ben Knox Miller’s endless fidgeting between songs, retrieving instruments and general prodding at cables and pedals, tells the tale of musicians who care about capturing a very precise sound. The opportunities for intricate recording techniques ensure that there are notable differences between their sound in concert and on record, but the moments where the whole band go off mic and sing together at the front of the stage highlight the same obsession with detail.

When a racket is called for, a racket is delivered and ‘Boeing 737’, with its opening line of “I was in the air when the towers came down, in a bar on the eighty-forth floor”, demands a racket. A wash of sound rises up and carries you into Miller’s rasping delivery which doesn’t let up until it clatters to a halt 150 seconds later. It seems a staggering achievement on first listen, but in the context of the whole of ‘Smart Flesh’, the scaling of such heights seems almost ordinary.

The album concludes with its seven and a half minute title track, with Miller delivering an intimate vocal with more than a hint of latter-day gravelly Dylan. Advancing at a pace that would aggravate the driver of a hearse and featuring a quite deliberately sibilant vocal, it is the mark of a band doing things their way. Perfectly measured and heartbreakingly sung, it is a mesmerising way to bring things to a close. Miller quietly growls to the character in the song that “in the end you’ll be alone” before giving the resigned instruction to “smoke yourself to sleep.” The track fades as the music ceases, creating a sense of the band physically retreating as they conclude their business, having given their all.

‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ was a truly special record, and its predecessor ‘What The Crow Brings’ is also worth seeking out, but ‘Smart Flesh’ is a defining moment. An album you’ll buy for other people just because you know they need to hear it. An album you’ll return to time and time again and look for when you need something special to capture how you’re feeling. Joyous, pensive, cathartic and hymnal in equal measure, this is the human condition set to music.

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.

Listen / Buy

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

Listen / Buy

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

Listen / Buy

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.

Listen / Buy

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.

Listen / Buy

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.

Listen / Buy

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.

Listen / Buy

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.

Listen / Buy

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.

Listen / Buy

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.

Listen / Buy

2011OTR

The Just Played Verdict: The Low Anthem ‘Smart Flesh’

The power of music is hard to quantify. How many of us are constantly on the lookout for something revelatory, something distinctive, something special? No matter how many favourite records you have, it’s a reassuring delight to think that there will be further additions to that list for as long as you keep on exploring. Sometimes they ride in on the crest of a wave of media hype, often they just appear quietly, without fanfare, and ransack your ears. For a lucky group of listeners, 2009’s ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin‘ was one such record and its capacity to wow remains undiminished. Picked up by the remarkably consistent Bella Union, after being self-released in small numbers in 2008, The Low Anthem‘s third album became beloved of discerning listeners and bearded music monthlies alike. This time around, there is a sense of anticipation surrounding a new release by the band and ‘Smart Flesh’ has a lot to live up to.

Low Anthem Smart

Largely favouring plaintive, spacious vintage folk, proceedings are occasionally interrupted by Waitsian, muddied, junkyard rock and roll. While the more raucous moments are few and far between, the hypnotic qualities of the slower material are more than enough for this band to merit a place in your collection. Much of the album was recorded in a disused pasta sauce factory with microphones dotted across the floor space and 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. Continue reading “The Just Played Verdict: The Low Anthem ‘Smart Flesh’”

Uplifting News

As the HMV culling begins, with eleven branches and a Fopp having shut their doors this weekend, it’s a pleasure to be able to inform you of some rather more positive news in the world of music retail. Rise, 2010’s winner of the UK Independent Retailer of the Year award, has finally unveiled its online store and it’s none too shabby. Competitively priced, beautifully designed and with a comprehensive search option, navigating your way around it is actually a pleasant experience.

rise web1

You’ll find some startlingly good vinyl prices at the moment on numerous indie label releases from the last couple of years, along with some genuinely rare stuff at silly prices. Even more vinyl goodness is going to be listed on the site by the end of this week, so I’d keep your eyes peeled for what are some undeniably ridiculous bargains. Now, drenching Rise in hyperbole as I am, I should declare again my minor involvement in this music retailing behemoth. I’m doing some of the reviews for the site and you can already find my wordsmithery on the pages for the newies by Iron & Wine, The Decemberists and Jonny. In addition to this, you can find my sizeable review of the new album by The Low Anthem, ‘Smart Flesh’, here. The album’s great and I’m rather pleased with the review too. It’ll appear here in due course, but why not pop over and have a read. Then buy some stuff. I’m deadly serious about that. As we continue to see shops struggling to stay afloat, the old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ has never been more apt. If you want Rise to open a store near you then you’ll need it to be operating as a viable and successful business, which means supporting it however you can. Don’t read into that, by the way. I have no insider knowledge, but as their Warwick Arts Centre branch will close in the coming months due to lack of custom, it’s worth remembering that these places are few and far between. Continue reading “Uplifting News”

2009 – The Spiffing List

A little late, I know, but it would probably be more accurate if I waited until around March time, by which point I might have fully absorbed the 2009 albums I have. Can’t imagine there’d be much interest by then though, so here it is. As with last year, this is a Top 20 list of albums I’ve thoroughly enjoyed across 2009. I make no apologies for excluding certain albums that have appeared near the top of many media lists and am confident that you’ll simply look at the list as a curiosity that might make you explore one or two titles that you’ve either not heard or not spent long with. As with the 40 From The Noughties list, I fully expect many of you to heartily disagree with this list but all I’m saying is that these are my top 20 of the last year as things stand now. It may well change in time and, if you look at the 2009 albums in the aforementioned 40, you’ll see that some of them have already changed positions since I put that list together. Anyhoo, let’s get on with it, shall we?

20. Super Furry Animals – Dark Days / Light Years

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Not sure how it ended up falling so low in the end. Still a wonderful album, it just didn’t have quite the staying power I thought it might have had.

19. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – s/t

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Great fun, from start to finish. Reminds me of when the NME was published on tatty grey bog roll.

18. Atlas Sound – Logos

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I was bit late to the party on this one, but was glad I finally made it. Quirky washes of sound. A bit like Animal Collective with more tunes.

17. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

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They don’t make bad records. Every one of them is a gem. This was another quietly brilliant record.

16. Annie – Don’t Stop

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The power pop album of the year. Xenomania in full flow and, in the absence of new Girls Aloud, it does the job just fine.

15. M. Ward – Hold Time

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Coffee shops and Apple may love him, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. A wonderful sleeper of an album. His entire back catalogue is great and don’t forget to check out ‘Monsters Of Folk’ which just missed out on this list.

14. Magnolia Electric Co – Josephine

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One of the first albums I reviewed for Clash and it’s a good ‘un. Jason Molina with his finest album in some time. He also released ‘Molina and Johnson’ this year which is almost as good and would have been No.22 had this list gone beyond a top 20. Well worth listening to both. 

13. Pet Shop Boys – Yes

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Their best in some time. ‘Pandemonium’ is ridiculously over the top, but in that oh-so-forgivable PSB way. A delight from start to finish and there’s a decent track-by-track commentary on Spotify for free too.

12. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

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A great overall sound to this one. Hadn’t really bothered with them up until this, but quickly retraced my footsteps and put that right. ‘Two Weeks’ and ‘While You Wait For The Others’ were classic singles. Not on Spotify, but click the picture for the latter of those two singles on VerTube.

11. Sleeping States – In The Gardens Of The North

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The first of the Noughty 40 to feature in this list also. A great record, still worthy of plenty of your time. It needs a few listens, but if it clicks, it’ll stay with you. 

10. Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers

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The most fun you can have with a Manics album in some time. Great packaging, great songs, great performances. Check out the Saint Etienne re-tooling of ‘Jackie Collins’ too. In the aforementioned 40 also.

09. Graham Coxon – The Spinning Top

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Another Noughty 40 album and one that splits opinion. I think his voice sounds charming on this record and I would argue that it’s his best by some distance. Beautiful at times. 

08. Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter

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An album which I loved at the start, lost interest in for a bit but have since returned to at some great length and have realised just how spiffing it really is. Should have been in the big list and is probably his second best album to date.

07. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

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One of those albums that you pootle along listening to every so often without realising how much you’re enjoying it. When it came to thinking about this list, I returned to it and it all clicked into place. This one has staying power, methinks.

06. MapsTurning The Mind

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I think I may have said enough about this one already. It’s in the big 40, and my review described it as ‘bordering on genius’. Job done.   

05. Doves – Kingdom Of Rust

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Ok, so it’s no ‘Lost Souls’ but then what is? To be fair, they sound like two different bands. This is the New Order phase and it’s bloody good. CD sounds like shite though. Treat yourself to the deluxe vinyl edition. Made #20 in the 40.

04. Trashcan Sinatras  – In The Music

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Still not Spotify-able but bloody lovely nonetheless. Gentle, well-crafted and beautifully sung. Just like every other Trashcans record. A welcome return and a great album. Highly placed in the 40 too. 

03. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

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There are those who’ll bang on about how this is a 2008 album because they self-released it at the end of that year, but the world only really heard it in 2009 and it was only released over here in 09, so I’m having it. A quirky cross between gentle harmonies and Tom Waits honking. Splendid stuff and a Noughties classic also. 

02. The xx – xx

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Even a couple of months ago, I had no idea how high up the list this one would finish. It crow barred its way in to the Noughty 40 at the last minute and continued to impress all through December, resulting in this placement. It’s hard to define, but I had a go here.

01. Lily AllenIt’s Not Me, It’s You

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Justifiably highly placed in the big list and the top of this one, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ is the best pop album I’ve heard in years. The lyrics are brilliant and musically it gets every single call just right. I have never tired of it since the day I first played it. There’s a bargainous CD/DVD edition available right now for not all that much cash and I can’t recommend it enough. 

26. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

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A visit to Rough Trade in April this year yielded numerous lovely records, but none moreso than this one. The good lady was starting to look a little bored as I began flicking through yet another rack of vinyl so, ever alert to the need to prolong the scant opportunities I get to live and breathe real record shops these days, I rashly stated that her mission was to find anything in the entire shop she liked the look of and I’d buy it. Little did I know how happily this challenge would be seized upon and I bought myself another twenty minutes browsing time. Eventually, I was beckoned over to the listening post whereupon I was instructed to give some serious consideration to a couple of tracks on an album I’d never heard of.

26 Low Anthem

That album, was ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’ in its un-remastered, un-rearranged and un-rereleased form, housed in a hand-printed blue card sleeve and sounding tremendous. I pointed out that a couple of the tracks sounded like a constipated Tom Waits arguing with a seal, which while seriously tempting to me is not normally the way the good lady tends to lean when it comes to music, and was met with “Yes, but that first track is amazing.” And so, the album entered my life.

A few days later, we were pootling along a country road, en route to Cambridge, with the CD blaring out on the crappy car speakers and suddenly something clicked. This record was something very special. The delicate vocal of near title track, ‘Charlie Darwin’, is a true hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment and the lulling repetition of ‘To Ohio’ is one of my favourite track of this year. The harmonies on this album are perfect and it excels musically also, with an impressive adherence to the ‘less is more’ theory.

The Low Anthem’s 2007 album, ‘What The Crow Brings’, was also close to putting in an appearance in this list. It has less Waits-like flourishes and instead opts to stick mainly to the laid back acoustic, soulful Sunday night strum sound that was perfected on ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’. It’s also worth your attention and can be heard in the usual places or purchased from the band themselves.

The Low Anthem appeared in this summer’s FUTUREMUSIC feature and you can read that piece here.

Futuremusic Continues

FM2TLA

Recently lauded by the beardy monthlies and yet another astute signing for the Bella Union label, The Low Anthem have the capacity to become your new favourite band. ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’, their most recent album, is the most diverse collection of songs they’ve committed to wax and combines some of the most beautifully delicate folk music with tracks that emulate that constipated-seal-at-a-barn-dance sound that Tom Waits had nailed a few years back. Mix in a bit of late Sixties/early Seventies Dylan and you’re getting somewhere close. Hailing from Rhode Island, Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams haven’t quite sprung up as quickly as it seems.

Their debut album, ‘The Low Anthem’, was released in 2006 and is long out of print and, sadly, very much out of my grasp. All the more of a pity because, were it still available, I would have been giving my money direct to the band. In a not dissimilar fashion to the first act covered as part of Futuremusic, Tom Williams & The Boat, The Low Anthem took to releasing and selling their material themselves. Knowing this, I got in touch with them and enquired about the debut, only to receive this polite and rather humorous response, “that record is sadly not available, but we will let it know you called.”

This charming and oh-so-very-splendid approach to customer service and fan interaction are yet more reasons for their inclusion in the Futuremusic feature. Their second album, ‘What The Crow Brings’, has thus far received very little attention, despite it being arguably better than ‘OMGCD‘. Less varied than the recent album (which is to say no later period Tom Waits influence) but no less beautifully made, ‘What The Crow Brings’ is currently the best album I’ve heard this year. Quite apart from buggering up my end of year lists, it is a subtle, understated performance for anyone who likes keening vocals, layered acoustic intensity and melodies that slowly hijack your everyday thought processes. You can hear this whole album on Spotify right now. ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ is also on there in its 2009, Bella Union reissue with bonus track guise.

Should you like what you hear, you can order the albums direct from the band themselves and you’ll receive an immediate download of the music as part of the deal. The hand-painted copies of ‘What The Crow Brings’ are really rather lovely and, despite saying they’re currently out of stock, the service is pretty darn quick. I wouldn’t hang around though, as the hand-painted copies of ‘OMGCD’ seem to have already run out and the momentum behind this lot does seem to be gathering.