Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2008: Numbers 40-31
40 Clinic - Do It!
Clinic are, if they'll forgive us for this, the Status Quo of garage-stomp-psych-Kraut-dub-folk-soundtrack-experimental-whatever the hell it is they do. You know what every album sounds like by now - some of it will be fuzzy and punky, some stompy and weirdy, some spooky and melodica-y. There'll be odd instruments, vintage organ whirrs, distortion, muffled lead vocals, doo wop backing vocals and some combination of surgical masks, Beefeater outfits, Hawaiian shirts and smocks will be worn. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn't quite hang together or stay consistently odd. In among the stutters, drones and motorik rhythms this time around are some intriguing Clinic-y twists on an ever expanding influences bank. In other hands Tomorrow would be dusty blues, Free Not Free a Joe Meek waltz, Corpus Christi low key tropicalia, Emotions a 50s ballad, Mary And Eddie positively Wicker Man soundtrack pastoral before the acid rock invades. Nobody else even tries to do what they do, and that's the highest compliment you can give them. Back around in two years for more? Good.
39 Wire - Object 47
If only everyone could pull off an album like this thirty years on from their debut. Onto their eleventh studio album (and forty-seventh release in total, hence the title) Wire survived the loss of intransigent guitarist Bruce Gilbert and emerged with their most straight-up poppy album yet. Poppy on their own terms, obviously - the Pigeon Detectives would die if they ever attempted to replicate the snappy (in both senses) fizz of opener One Of Us, and that's the most accessible song here. In place of last album Send's noisy longeurs comes Circumspect's prowling riffs, the disturbingly distorted circular Mekon Headman, the seemingly machine tooled rhythmic pulse of Hard Currency and closer All Fours, which in its ire and gradually submersive of all else electronic undertow seems constructed of elements that could have equally come from last year's Read And Burn 03 EP or Chairs Missing, all for the most part topped by the familiarly questing, accusatory vocals of Colin Newman. There's even a callback to the celebrated nonsense-but-not-nonsense lyrics of Kidney Bingos in Patient Flees. Maybe the prosaic naming of the album was a signal that by Wire's expansive terms this is almost back to basics, a straight up new wave album in the way British new wave used to be, cast in its hair trigger guitar pop frame but always searching for ways to better itself and undermine expectations and ideas of what punk and post-punk should sound like vanilla. Nothing here merely chugs, let's put it like that.
VIDEO: One Of Us
38 Ballboy - I Worked On The Ships
Gordon McIntyre's boundless lyrical gifts remain appreciated by a stout but select few, fewer now John Peel's not around to book umpteen sessions for them. Able to pick detailed stories full of heart and intricately described feelings from the smallest of sinewy storylines, a peculiarly Scottish form of lyrical melancholy which always sees the blue skies following the darkest greys. A fitting analogy here - I Worked On The Ships feels colder somehow, a new permanent keyboard player allied to more cello and less indie rockouts giving it a crisp autumnal air, slower, more folky perhaps. Life, meanwhile, is busy finding new ways to wound McIntyre's fragile mental state, whether through love (The Guide To The Shortwave Radio, decorated with birdsong and moving at stately pace through loss and memories), fear of the future (A Relatively Famous Victory) or the wiles of international espionage (Cicily). Just before cataloguing a litany of splits and deceits Disney's Ice Parade, meanwhile, opens with unforgettable stanzas - "You left your notes on lesbian sex on the fishtank in the hall/It took me all afternoon To read them all/I learned more in that day than I’ve ever learned before/I don't think you and I should go clubbing any more". Godzilla vs The Island of Manhattan (With You And I Somewhere In Between) mediatates on destruction and evokes 9/11 but then finds the line "on this broken up island there are only our hearts beating". Songs For Kylie pivots on the image of a cracked cassette tape demo, its contents it's suggested informed by heartbreak, uncared for on a landfill site. Don't let Ballboy suffer the same ultimate fate.
VIDEO: Songs For Kylie (live)
37 Noah & The Whale - Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down
Five Years Time is a mighty red herring. The jaunty whistling, the faux-naive chorus, the bit about the zoo, the video's Wes Anderson references... all gave critics the chance to throw the 'twee' grenade at them. But such Juno-manque is not the key to Noah And The Whale as much as that lyric towards the end - "in five years time I might not know you... you might just prove me wrong". Charlie Fink is fond of namechecking Will Oldham and Jeffrey Lewis, and while they don't approach the former's gravitas (although Do What You Do gives it a good go) or the latter's comic savvy you can see a kind of connection to their almost existential ponderings on homespun heartbreak. Someone else has made a comparison with Stephin Merritt, the old style indie that's sweetness and light in presentation but with an uncertain undertow, which is fair enough. It's something in Fink's deep and almost meaningful, lived-in vocal, certainly, and the careful arrangements that suggest Jocasta and the spare Second Lover would fit Bright Eyes were it not for the very British brittleness. In our world Rocks And Daggers should have been the sleeper hit, built on countrified acoustic guitars, rattling drums and mournful violin, while the end of the album brings it down carefully with the slow burn considerate fragility of Mary and Hold My Hand As I’m Lowered. So yeah, they had their Commercial Indie summer hit and got on commercial radio playlists, but they're just too good for all that now implies.
VIDEO: Shape Of My Heart
36 Portishead – Third
Trip hop gets a press unbecoming of what it actually was. If you put Tricky or Massive Attack's Mezzanine on in the background of your dinner party you'd soon find yourself short of societal invitations. Dummy was a disturbing listen too, with its scratchy samples and Beth Gibbons' spooked out voice, and eleven years after its carbon copy follow-up Portishead returned with an album that you couldn't put on at any sort of food-based gathering for fear of making patrons wonder what exactly they're eating. Third moves their world on from psychic dancehalls to chambers of horror, imbued with ominous, gothic detail, invoking John Carpenter scores, the early drone electronic experiments of Silver Apples and Suicide and in particular an earlier Bristol sound, The Pop Group's urgent industrial dub space funk. In among the pulsing, clanging and fuzzy guitar lines comes a scorched earth policy to their original spy thriller soundtrack ethos. Hunter and The Rip both resemble Gibbons' Rustin Man side project diverted into the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Magic Doors builds itself on the off-beat to completely throw the linear listening experience off course before the free jazz horn interlude. Machine Gun sounds like a ghostly wail over looped, digitised industrial jackhammers, and that was deemed commercial enough for the first single. Even the supposed light relief halfway through, the little girl lost sea shanty built on ukelele and Inkspots-esque backing Deep Water, sounds threatening. It may not be the repeated listen winner from out of the blue that Dummy was, but as statements of intents go it takes some beating.
VIDEO: Machine Gun
35 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
The story of For Emma, Forever Ago's creation has been so told and retold it threatens to overcome the actual specifics of what it sounds like. Nevertheless, it doesn't take a great leap to spot that it was created in cold, perhaps not really splendid isolation. It feels like a ghost at the table, songs that have a presence but exist only in the chill of the winter night. On top of that, if Justin Vernon sounded like Dan Michaelson from Absentee... well, it'd be very funny, but nobody would give it a second listen. That he possesses a keening, hypnotically soulful falsetto, multi-tracked for extra emphasis, that sounds like the one Tunde Adebimpe used to occasionally unleash (think Young Liars) gives the album its emotional power and pull. The guitar playing often seems to follow suit, a brittle scrub of squeaking strings just minimal enough. That level of intimacy is what attracted a lot of people to him, but those who've seen his semi-euphoric fleshed out live performances in the months since know that it's about the songs therein, Skinny Love and The Wolves (Act I And II) premedicated on a desolate howl of heartbreak and muted recrimination. Right near the end, with the aid of some additional instruments conventionally added later, Vernon seems to reach a sort of equanimity with the creeping Creature Fear and the eventual emerging into the light of Re: Stacks and its declaration that "your love will be safe with me" (reviews of Vernon's previous band DeYarmond Edison describe them as a droney Son Volt, which makes sense here). Vernon's rise may have been aided by the backstory, but the backstory makes the record.
VIDEO: The Wolves (Act I & II)
34 The Fall - Imperial Wax Solvent
What was it Peel said? The Fall are always different but always the same? That's as maybe, but there's always an acknowledgement with them that certain albums act as markers in Mark E Smith's long, strange trip, especially since he's become some sort of anti-national treasure. For a while new albums were always "their best since Extricate"; the last two or three have been updated to "their best since The Real New Fall LP". It's too early to say whether the next decade will start with many best Fall albums since Imperial Wax Solvent, but the 27th studio album and first with the 59th lineup - always mark out the figures when approaching the Fall - finds our man and his men and woman in particularly fine fettle. It opens with Alton Towers, a queasy Swordfishtrombones-esque lurching state of the nation address in which a magnificently phlegmatic sounding Smith sounds off about "the spawn of J Loaded Brown and L Laverne". Can Can Summer starts like a rattling synth-aided anthem, stops, starts with a blues solo added, pauses for Smith to inform us "my boss, he has the imagination of a gnat", stops again and starts some techno beats and Smith growling for a little bit, this apparently constituting a middle eight. 50 Year Old Man is an eleven minute garage motorik driving epic in three sections wherein Smith informs us that he has a three foot long hard-on and that "Steve Albini is in collusion with Virgin Trains against me". Then, a banjo solo. Then, a glam stomp. Then, Nuggets. It might be the most remarkable thing anyone has committed to tape in 2008, and is testament to Smith's ongoing all-out cockeyed madness/genius.
VIDEO: Latch Key Kid (live)
33 Eugene McGuinness – Eugene McGuinness
Three tracks into McGuinness' full length debut those of us enamoured with last year's The Early Learnings Of... mini-album debut might be wondering where all that collection's dynamic versatility has got to. Sure, there's some neat touches, but it's still sounding very much like post-Arctics rattling rock'n'roll with a late 1950s bent, lively and not without charm (and featuring the lyric "we said farewell and we synchronised our watches/Arranged for the meeting of our crotches") but not the sort of record we thought would follow that lo-fi melange. Then, the turning point. Moscow State Circus kicks off with the fate tempting "did you drop a clanger?", lurches into a whimsical electrical storm of a strum that owes equal amounts to Meat Is Murder and Talking Heads '77 before disappearing into a psychedelic "rabbit hole". From then on it blossoms excellently, finding a connective thread through so many different styles and subtle arrangements without guessing what sticks to the wall, full of gritted teeth peaks and exquisite tempo troughs - Nightshift's frantic modern rockabilly that owes something to the Count Five's Psychotic Reaction, Those Old Black And White Movies Were True angelically led Fifties vocal group with cinematic strings, the slowly building Beach Boys undertow on Crown The Clown and the stately closer God In Space, arranged like a Mama Cass ballad, recorded as if this were Abbey Road in 1965, elegantly slipping into alcohol-sodden late night introspection. His Liverpool base may have meant the legacy of Merseybeat creeping in, but McGuinness has the wherewithal to see where he can extend it to. Can't wait to see what comes next.
VIDEO: Moscow State Circus
32 Thomas Tantrum - Thomas Tantrum
Like everyone, on first listen we thought Thomas Tantrum's first widely distributed single Shake It! Shake It! was the second coming of Life Without Buildings - frictionless rhythmic backing, chiming circular guitars and a girly sounding frontwoman hiccoughing her way through repeated and discombobulated phrases. Their album proved that while that long admired band's influence is still pernicious, unlike most it needn't be coralled into brow-furrowed post- punk, although that genre has its echoes here, but the sort of bubblegum pre-corporate indie-pop that LWB launched themselves into. Thomas Tantrum have hooks, but they almost don't know what to do with them so turn them all up to day-glo eleven. At the same time, while they have plenty of energy they know how to contain it so the songs don't just spill out all over the place but remain as compact odd pop songs. Megan Thomas - high pitched, excitable, curiously West Country voweled for a Southampton-based singer - has a way with an idiosyncratic vocal melody and disjointed lyrical style that will rub many up the wrong way, but if you're not deliberately trying to that represents half the fun. Digging reveals Thomas and guitarist Dave Miatt were originally a folky acoustic duo, which comes out in echoes in the likes of the slower, chiming Trust Rhymes With Crust and Swan Lake's constantly shifting attention span and Tchaikovsky-cribbing bridge, but they've grown (regressed?) into Rage Against The Tantrum's dancehall days percussive assault and Why The English Are Rubbish's overdriven chorus and occasionally Home Alone-cribbing chiding, culminating in the marvellous "I'm inclined to think that it's all about you". It may not be great art, but often the thrill of the pop whirlwind is what you want.
VIDEO: Work It
31 The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride
As with Craig Finn, but on a different scale, you get the impression John Darnielle could write the great American novel if he wanted to, or at least Joan Didion's version of such, but would rather settle for drawing his varied characters in short story form of lyrics instead. All Mountain Goats songs demand careful listening for the detail and plots and subplots, and now he's got the autobiography (the last three albums, by and large) and borderline misanthropy ("I hope you die, I hope we all die") out of his system he's growing an interest in developing the plot points as well as the overall narrative (see also his recent Master Of Reality book for the 33 1/3 series, biography as novella about a mental health patient). The arrangements are fleshed out, the tape quality almost hi-fi, but that wordy core still remains master. But god, the man's got a way with a lyric - the title track offers a subject who "waited so long, and now I taste jasmine on my tongue" in the last seconds before death by baying trench building mob, while elsewhere he tackles the death of Prince Far I, a mythical Chinese sub-aquatic monster and a spell in Brooklyn that bred HP Lovecraft's xenophobic tendencies, all in that expressively nasal voice. The characters form cults, huddle together for companionship or practise hating everyone else. They get their comeuppance, or their due, or their paranoia magnified. Through it all something stands steadfast and proud of what they're doing. Whatever, they're recognisably human, and such is the mastery Darnielle has of this form by now. It's not where we'd start with his work, in truth, but it's a prominent string in his bow.
VIDEO: Sax Rohmer #1
The full list
(The more alert among you may have just had a preview of an unfinished write-up of a later entry, to which we can only say "oops")