As the year draws to a wintery close, I find solace in drafting many lists, partly to justify my existence and partly because I’ve nothing better to do. Here follows my thoughts on the musical year that was 2009:
... with the top ten albums listed here (full reviews available at the link):
1. Antony & The Johnsons – The Crying Light
2. Japandroids – Post-Nothing
3. The Antlers – Hospice
4. HEALTH – Get Color
5. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
6. Crystal Stilts – Alight Of Night
7. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
8. The Horrors – Primary Colours
9. The xx – xx
10. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
And there'll be a best of decade list to follow on or before NYE.
Festive wishes to you all.
EDIT TO BLOG POST: THIS IS THE LAST IN SERIES OF THESE RotW POSTS. All reviewing efforts have been moved to www.sicmagazine.net where you are welcome to pay to visit. Kind regards
Today sees my first accepted submissions to an online publication. I will shortly be published, of sorts, at [sic] magazine. A published critic. Not where I started, nor what I initially aimed at, but nevertheless I'm rather chuffed. This style of writing has become my bread and butter of late so it's fantastic to have been recognised.
These three pieces constitute my first requested submission:
Record of the Week
Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
‘Purgatory No Longer’
Oh, what it is to be down with the trend-setters, those who loll around laconically, no doubt pretending to understand Kafka, whilst enjoying the latest blog-approved phenomenon through no-doubt-bespoke earpieces. So far, so Animal Collective / Grizzly Bear. Completing the critics’ trinity of lyrical wax is the Dirty Projectors much-lauded Bitte Orca with its strict avoidance of a tune and peculiar time signatures.
Cue Wild Beasts, who clearly liked what they heard in the Projector’s catalogue, yet thought they could do better by adding some of those elusive tunes. Wild Beasts are eccentric rather than wilfully trendy, the latter merely a handy by-product. The operatic falsetto of their debut, Limbo, Panto, still roams with abandon, but otherwise Two Dancers causes strong bouts of wishing to locate a cocked hat in which to place that debut.
The first part of the title track (it is split (I) and (II), curiously the second part first) is tinglingly atmospheric, taking Wild Beasts’ du-jour drumming and musical laissez-faire and twinning it with menacing gloom, haunting backing vocals and that trademark soprano. Part (I) comes back-to-back with the astonishing ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues’, a more world-beat affair set to hand-drummed funk with the gentlest of Talking Heads influence. ‘All The King’s Men’ is infectious enough alt-pop to resuscitate Humpty Dumpty after his great fall.
These heights are not reached again but that is like trying to blame lesser peaks in a snow-capped mountain range for not being quite as glorious as the centrepiece summit. There is a charming coherency to Two Dancers, the lower octave vocal harmonies support the flamboyant and wobbly lead. The swayingly danceable rhythms flirt with cadent song-craft. Piano, woodblock percussion and theatrical, Hegarty-like dalliances all combine with enviable ease to create a fluidity and sense of natural progression. Two Dancers is so cohesive in fact as to suggest only one.
The XX – XX
‘The Age Of Understatement’
It’s official. Minimalism is the new experimentalism. Out with your complex collectives and in with pure expressionism. This London outfit have two weapons of choice, stripped beats and reverb, as well as the combined clout of their vocalists. The sultry Romy Croft coos throughout and Oliver Sim croons compliantly in velvet soporifics.
Lead and atmospheric single ‘Crystalised’ is but the tip of this frosty iceberg. The echo-y gloom of the economically titled ‘Intro’ is Turn Out The Bright Lights without the theatrics. Its stadium-sized riffs are played at a whisper and the shoebox production only adds to the claustrophobic and dreamy qualities it emits. Australia’s HTRK work with similar influences, theirs focusing more on the industrial, Birthday Party line, The XX seemingly keener on the Cocteau Twins’ ethereality.
The wonderful Womack & Womack cover, ‘Teardrops’ (only available on the special edition), and ‘VCR’ have genuine alt-pop appeal, happy soundtracks to some fuggish slow-dance with a handsome stranger. The latter thinks nothing of again raiding the Dengler catalogue for bass inspiration. ‘Islands,’ along with ‘Basic Space’, plays host to the gentlest of beats-led, urban, R&B influences. ‘Shelter’ is mildly trip-hop-ish, seeing fit to combine that influence with a desire to regress into 90s lounge-pop. Luckily, this doesn’t last long as Croft’s drifting reverb quickly drowns it.
Even The Ronettes famous ‘bm bm chk’ is borrowed and duly perverted on ‘Heart Skipped A Beat’, this before the track segues into the usual guitar work. The relaxed near-electronica of ‘Night Time’ is part Hot Chip’s bespectacled nod (they were school-mates don’t you know) and part Chromatics’ breathy, post-coital meditation and general, frosty cool.
Put to the crucible, there are moments of disinterest that veer The XX away from the cutting edge and into indifference. These threaten a wearisome trajectory rather than the projected rise to stardom, but nevertheless the XX are gently blurring boundaries, showcasing the power of refrain, and introducing the real age of understatement.
Lightning Dust – Infinite Light
‘Black And Blues’
The Black Mountain stable is in full stud. Last year’s excellent outing, In The Future, fought its awesomely-stodgy pysch-rock corner well enough to fend off a deluge of campfire Americana. The Pink Mountaintops chill-outlet is going from strength to strength, culminating in this year’s Spiritualized-sized and alt-country-flecked psychedelic stride.
And now, along come Lightning Dust and their no-Stephen-McBean-to-be-seen return. Amber Webber's quivering and emotive vocal is pitched between her from Arcade Fire and the trembles of him from Brakes, and it duly steals the show. Black Mountain full-timer Joshua Wells completes the happy split.
On Infinite Light, sure, there are splatters of gentle pysch to be found, as can be expected. The debut’s liberal organ returns more sparingly, but like Pink Mountaintops, it is the light Americana sheen which is most appealing. Last year’s surfeit of examples diluted the pool but gave the Mountaineers ideas. Dusting down a well-travelled template, Lightning Dust have learnt that an injection of pop, electric piano, ubiquitous strings and a nod to country blues can make all the difference.
Beneath ‘Wondering What Everyone Knows’ is a waltzing and muffled pop song, at the forefront of ‘The Times’ is the stolen soul of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. The purposeful and dirge-like march of ‘The Dreamer’ cries with glassy-eyed dignity. Infinite, no, but strong enough to leave a lasting impression, yes, Lightning Dust reassure the listener with the slow-burning squelch and psychedelic sway of album closer, Take It Home’, that the future is still resolutely black.
Other reviews (cont.)
Julian Plenti – Julian Plenti Is … Skyscraper
‘A Boost To Cross-Border Crime Fighting’
It would be a fallacy to assume any review of … Skyscraper would fail to mention Interpol, as Julian Plenti is Paul Banks, their relatively innocuous frontman. An immediate distance is declared in producing a solo album under a pseudonym, though purists and fanatics need not fear too greatly, for that distance is hardly a gulf.
The two openers whiff identifiably of Our Love To Admire, a record that it could be argued Banks, I mean Plenti, has superceded. Where Interpol’s collective awkwardness dripped audibly from tracks like ‘Mammoth’, Plenti is freer in his isolation. That said, the considered plod of ‘Only If You Run’ could nestle comfortably, in a good way, on that nevertheless ill-fated record. Nowhere is the atmospheric Turn Out The Bright Lights brought to mind. Similarly, Antics’ noir party, well, antics, seems a long way off. Those hoping for a retread of either album may be disappointed.
It is where Plenti deviates that we get results. The interludinous and crying strings of ‘Skyscraper’ are a melancholic and satisfying aside later reprised in the similarly short ‘Madrid Song’. Here, the confidence to eschew an obvious, historic template proves worthwhile. The catalogue-congruous acoustic plucking of ‘On The Esplanade’ is definitely an idea worth taking to Dengler and Foggerino, as is the track’s spoken vocal sample and the gentle vocal distortion of album closer ‘H’.
As can be expected however, it is not all good news. ‘Games For Days’ is, to its credit, complimentary but is also generic alt-disco night fodder, and the optimistic horns of ‘Unwind’ are best described as misplaced. ‘Girls On The Sporting News’ is wallpaperishly anonymous, but is rarely representative.
This album could have killed Banks, Plenti and Interpol. It will not be a rampant success, so the solo hiatus will not be indefinite. If it had been an embarrassing disaster, the naysayers would have been celebrating, slapping themselves on the back, happy in their ‘had it, lost it’ predictions. What … Skyscraper does show is that there is plenty (ahem) of promise for the future of cross-border crime fighting.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The Snake
This second release in as many years sees the spooky, barely-there atmospherics of the debut, Heartcore, reprised and injected with a dose of arty pretension. Mariam Wallentin’s octave straddling marries her husband’s whispery percussion and tribal drumming to stark effect. Flourishes of jazz, pop and, in particular, the blues pepper the record, but are not to be found on the echo-y, Gregorian a cappella opener. Wallentin’s here curiously deep vocal is then paired with only tribal drumming patterns for accompaniment on ‘Chain Of Steel’.
Not until track three are we presented with a ‘song proper’, light percussion, xylophone and the lightest wash of calypso steel drum all stand up to be counted. Next up, it is back to religious world-beating, didgeridoo-like throat singing, other vocal oddball-ness as well as cymbals and piano to provide the super slow melody. The aforementioned blues strains appear at the album midpoint, along with clopping woodblock percussion. ‘Today/Tomorrow’ continues this theme and Wallentin affects a complimentary 50s blues warble to partner the drums, all of which devolves into a manic, Mardi Gras finale.
The Snake’s hindquarters provide most interest however. This kitchen-sink minimalism of the opening tracks has the potential to upset the carefully orchestrated draft that Heartcore created, but where it combines most successfully on The Snake, we are given lush, tribal almost-pop to recall a more acoustic Telepathe. The final two minutes of ‘Great Lines’, along with the catchy ‘Liar Lion’ and frosty sleigh-ride of a stripped back closer ‘My Heart’ show that Wallentin and cohort look good with flesh on their bones. The latter of these tracks brings to mind the anti-pop, red-cheeked freshness of Beach House and Mechanical Bride.
Too intellectual for your local scenester and too cool for the pop fan, Wildbirds & Peacedrums are nevertheless doing for simple what Animal Collective are doing for complex.
We Were Promised Jetpacks – These Four Walls
Until an in-form and much-missed Idlewild return Messiah-like to our lives, those with a penchant for shouty, Scots indie-rock will have to content themselves with releases such as this. Despite many a lazy comparison with Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad, all these boys really share with their compatriots is a thick tongue and a desire to impress. Jetpack’s (it’s easier) brand of rock is expansive and comes served with a generous helping of pop appeal, an appeal not at all evident however on the throbbing and menacing opener, ‘It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning’.
Starting in the fabled lull of the storm, it quickly introduces Thor’s own drums to an anthemic, if lyrically limited, rocker. Never sounding contemporary, yet singing of the modern Scotland portrayed in the ever-reliable Red Tops, this opener sings of someone ‘punching out my lights’, ‘Ships With Holes Will Sink’ about the inevitability of ‘stab wounds’ as well as the attraction of adhesives. This last point could well be lost in translation though. Sadly, the latter of these tracks does not capture the primal excitement of the former, nor does ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves’, both nevertheless lollop along happily in safe, quiet-loud country.
‘Short Bursts’ returns These Four Walls to the ring fists balled for an oddly patriotic call-to-arms that will do more for Scottish solidarity than whichever sport they’re losing at this weekend. All this and they have still the time to combust with the power of Explosions In The Sky at its crescendo, confirming the post-rock, Mogwai-like influences that were suggested on the bubbling interlude ‘A Half Built House’.
‘Conductor’ returns the listen to sky-cracking grandiosity, all Arcade Fire bluster but fed on a diet of raw, Northerly winds and withdrawn promises of future technology. The acoustic onset of this track is as close as they come to fulfilling the mostly-misplaced Frightened Rabbit analogies. ‘Quiet Little Voices’ is an irresistible showcase of hi-hat, indie-club toe-tappin’, one perhaps overdone with emboldened ‘ooh oh a ohs’.
Jetpack clearly know their peers and are not afraid to borrow Biffy Clyro’s neat trick of repeating memorable lines first quietly and then IN CAPITALS. That they then choose to underline these examples with Kings of Leon’s own whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ on ‘Moving Clocks Run Slow’ is all the better. ‘Right foot followed by the left foot’ they sing on ‘It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning’ and These Four Walls closes with that prediction on ‘An Almighty Thud’, less a God-bothering crash to earth, rather a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, pensive walk home in the Scottish perma-drizzle. A walk home you’ll notice. Jetpacks indeed.
Forest Fire – Survival
Ever wished the Velvet Underground were more campfire-friendly? Well, now your greatest unknown wish has been delivered. Survival was named as record of the year 2008 on the influential Blogotheque site, ahead of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. And really, these three records do make a most holy trinity.
Forest Fire are Brooklyn graduates with a lo-fi, folkish take on literate indie rock. They combine the Walkmen’s identifiable sense of place and rhythm, with the Velvets spaced-out drawl ‘n’ roll as well as Fleet Foxes’ echo-y brand of harmonious acoustica. Highly recommended early highlight ‘Fortune Teller’ even beats Grizzly Bear at their own bouncy, hammock-hugging game. ‘Promise’ is pure Lou Reed, paranoid, skittish and unsettling, before it comes up, so to speak, and shows us Forest Fire’s wistful, romantic underbelly. ‘Steer Me’ even borrows the Sleepy Jackson’s Stetson-doffing George Harrison impression.
Despite being run through with these streaks of notable influence, Forest Fire are nevertheless their own beast. Now, if only they had secured a general release, their survival would be assured. Heck, they’ve been around since 1969 already, right?
She Keeps Bees – Nests
Brooklyn, girl-boy two-piece She Keeps Bees offer stripped-back rock ‘n’ blues for the Americana generation. Jessica Larrabee’s anything-but light vocal (I wonder where the band got there name) coats the lo-fi guitar and drum work in 4-Track Demos-era Polly Jean, and later, bluesier numbers, like album closer ‘Cold Eye’, fight it out with the forgotten-about-but-still-great Mr. Airplane Man.
The handclap percussion on the minimal, but affecting opener ‘Ribbon’, introduces a persistent alt-folk/country feel to the quietest corners of Nests, a sentiment revisited with the decorative pedal steel climax of ‘Wear Red’. Larrabee and cohort could easily have upped the Stripesian quality of this record, either to early Zeppelin-aping or to latter-day high jinx, but there is an art to restraint and Nests is dignified as a result, just one sour-mash stomper away from a bee’s knees-up.
Lovvers – Ocd Go Go Go Girls
Finally, a decent UK response to the LA’s lo-fi scuzz-punkers makes the stage. No Age hit well with the critics but missed in sales and Times New Viking will forever be their badly monikered tail-grabbers. Mika Miko are proving consistent, but lacked a knockout punch.
Lovvers, however, may just have one in the altogether more commercially minded, but no less compromising, ‘Human Hair’. As EP opener on the ludicrously short, 13-minute sampler, ‘Think’, and strong near-closer here, it comes on like a lost Supergrass number, only fed through a punk mangler and flirting with a surf-punk finale all the while. On this track, Lovvers are closer to Jay Reatard’s brand of fun-time no-fi than elsewhere where they match their across-the-pond peers’ fuzzy unintelligibility. It is said that in general audiences do not ‘get’ Lovvers, but there is little to get. Go go go get a copy to make your own mind up.
The Dø – A Mouthful
Pronounced in line with the musical scale do-re-mi, this Franco-Finnish duo finally gets a long-overdue UK release. A Mouthful is an eclectic and dizzying release starting badly however in playground vocals and recorder harmonies. Luckily, this hiccup is all that can be frowned upon. Olivia Merilahti’s delightful voice is the star of the show, pitched beguilingly between Nina Persson and her from the Concretes. Indeed, it drives and equally floats through the choice pop of early highlights ‘On My Shoulders’ and ‘The Bridge is Broken’ recalling a under-produced-but-all-the-better-for-it cover of the Cardigans’ ‘Gran Turismo’ period.
Sandwiched in between, ‘Song For Lovers’ is entirely more sombre, more in line with First Aid Kit’s Nordic campfire-folk. The cutesy pop-folk of ‘Stay’ will certainly have caught Slow Club’s ear, as will Merilahti’s declaration that the target of this track will not provide the ‘satisfying shag’ she’s looking for. One looks with furrowed brow at bandmate Andy LaPlant at this point. Pulsing, world-embracing Finnish-language ‘Unissassi Laulelet’, along with the Bon-Iver-Blood-Bank borrowing ‘Tammie’, draw the sensible section of A Mouthful to a close.
Then, this happens. ‘Queen Dot Kong’ can only be described as a bouncy castle, full of hip-pop beats and two veg, kitchen sink and madcap, guest vocals and samples. If you are thinking Chris Colonna’s cavalier Bumblebeez at this point you would be well rewarded for doing so. In turn, the track bleeds into ‘Coda’, not really a track in its own right at the name suggests. This baffling pair’s inclusion is massively incongruous, yet not unwelcome. It weirdly all makes sense, but forgives the occasional skip.
How anything can follow that strange episode is beyond me, but where The Dø hit, they do so strongly. ‘Searching Gold’ plays it safer in effective PJ Harvey country. Never satisfied, as it would appear from Merilahti’s earlier statement, The Dø then tackle ivory-tickled tristesse with competent results before rounding off with three pleasing but paling pop-and-awe indie-rockers.
Bewildering and exhilarating, The Dø go a long way to loosening NYC’s stranglehold on experimentalism. Vice, are you listening? Consider this a do.
Engineers – Three Fact Fader
Here are three facts. Engineers really like shoe-gazing. Engineers really like Slowdive and Chapterhouse. If you like Engineers then you too will love Slowdive and Chapterhouse. I could talk about how Engineers have evolved on, this, album three with a light flourish of ambient post-rock. However, there would be little point, despite this truth, because, in reality, Three Fact Fader is an almost-verbatim retread of their catalogue to date. Ergo, it is earnest, competent, enjoyable even, but ultimately forgettable.
Familiarity breeds contempt. Engineers are jealousy-inspiringly consistent but their brand of dream-pop or nu-gaze here drags a little, as Three Fact Fader weighs in only a little beneath the hour mark. Nevertheless, pretty highlights like, well most of it, particularly ‘Brighter As We Fall’, are worth a daydream or two. Shoegaze has always been guilty of esotericism, and Engineers carry that torch well. With them lighting the way so kindly, it may pay to look into their peers’ catalogues before leaping in love.
Other reviews (cont.)
Lay Low – Farewell Good Night’s Sleep
As wilfully experimental as the cash-strapped Icelandics are, to my knowledge, they have never before tried their arm at country and western. Lay Low is Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir and she is, as such, in audacious and unchartered waters, without local peers, but with bucket-loads of respect for the chosen genre. Her collection of light toe-tappers is overlaid with her eiswine-like vocal, sweet and frosty, ressembling fellow Icelander Emilíana Torrini’s slightly ethereal and lingering delivery.
The gentle and atmospheric alt-folk of ‘By And By’ is an extension of First Aid Kit’s lady brand of Nordic campfire pleasers, and is representative of the washing-overly pleasant and unchallenging sound echoed across the album. Sadly, this easy-listening quality has brought unwanted and unfair Norah Jones comparison, an inept mistake that is blown out of the water on ‘The Reason Why My Heart’s In Misery’, a stunningly effective country plodder with piano, percussion and peddle steel aplenty. Such is its simple power that other moments of anonymity are easily forgiven in its wake.
Farewell Good Night’s Sleep is not rousing enough to bid that promised farewell to nocturnal rest and is all the better for being more inclined to lull the listener toward a well deserved forty winks with its soporific melodies. A touch less like aural wallpaper and Lay Low would be caused to stand proud.
Bowerbirds – Upper Air
‘In The Ascendancy’
It is said that upon hearing Bowerbirds, Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver fame, no longer wished to release For Emma, Forever Ago for fear of having been trumped. He needn’t have worried his beardy head because whilst Upper Air, and its worthy predecessor, Hymns For A Dark Horse, are both high calibre alt-folk, singer-songwriting releases, Vernon held the trump card. Bowerbirds are boyfriend and girlfriend and live in an Airstream mobilehome in North Carolina and possess a certain degree of smugness, acquired by their enviable existence and simple way of making a living. Vernon had clearly lost his Emma, and as such his brand of confession was cathartic and atmospheric. Upper Air is like that, only less so.
It is difficult not to compare the records further. For example, the sparse harmonies of ‘Ghost Lift’ are a straight lift from For Emma. However, there are other valid points of comparison. Phil Moore’s vocal recalls Andrew Bird, as do several tracks, notably the opener, ‘House Of Diamonds’, after its minimalist opening when the strings arrive. His ladyfriend Beth Tacular adds accordion and the occasional reedy vocal to the mix.
The biggest point of reference however is their own debut, Hymns For A Dark Horse. In essence, this is a verbatim retread, pleasant afresh, but still not revolutionary. There are notable elements of progression however, ‘Silver Clouds’ is their strongest track to date, the purely acoustic and poignant ‘Skinny Love’ of Upper Air, until the tempo is upped with 40 seconds to go. ‘Crooked Lust’s finger picking adds variety and introduces a desire to return the album, which without may well not have been present thanks to the relative non-event of rolling album closer ‘This Day’. Upper Air isn’t stratospheric, nor really a spreading of wings, but Bowerbirds are certainly in the ascendancy.
Sweethead – The Great Disruptors
‘Heads For Familiar Ground’
Queens Of The Stone Age’s Troy van Leeuwen and two members of the Mark Lanegan Band (no, not the ubiquitous collaborator himself) ought to make a better poppish, punk-rock, supergroup EP than this. Despite initial concerns, and presumably thanks to front-woman Serrina Sims and her smooth, come-hither vocal, the Sweethead ensemble have put together two (including the title track) promising QOTSA-meets-Garabage rockers to show Brody Dalle’s new Spinnerette which way is up. Two lesser numbers fill out the ranks, a little lost amongst Leeuwen’s trademark, fuzzy bass. The EP is capped with an entirely complimentary but unnecessary cover of the Kinks’ ‘Tired Of Waiting Of You’ to round off a harmless but indifferent release.
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