Monday, December 01, 2008

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2008: Numbers 50-41

50 Sons And Daughters - This Gift
Does pop suit the grimy dominatrix of Scotpop sound of Sons & Daughters? Bernard Butler evidently thought so, and while a switch into musical sweetness and light - the lyrics are as chiding as ever - doesn't bring entirely comfortable results with it, you still wouldn't trust Adele Bethel with anything of value. It's pop of a sort that would only have troubled the charts in about 1983, of course, but the connections with classic girl-fronted pop go further than just wrapping Bethel and Scott Patterson's wired rockabilly riffs in cleaner, for the most part less frenzied textures and bigger choruses - Darling's Motown construction, The Nest's big drums, Iodine virtually the La's - without sounding like straight up pastiche. You've never been able to call them playful with a straight face before. All the same, final track Goodbye Service reminds you of the elephant in the room, its MC5 roar reinforcing the impression that Love The Cup's claustrophobic dankness suited them best.
VIDEO: Darling

49 The Futureheads – This Is Not The World
Bit self-defeating to spend most of a write-up explaining why an album is in our top fifty of the year by criticising it, we know, but after their famously acrimonious departure from 679 something seemed to elude the Futureheads in terms of the stop-start nature and tricksy harmonies of their first two albums, substituting an all encompassing full speed ahead that what it lost them in dynamism it kept up in energetic head rushes and classy writing to musical order. The callbacks to Fugazi as much as Gang Of Four remain to keep the side up, though, and they still have an ear for an infectious melody. The Beginning Of The Twist is a barrelling call to arms, Broke Up The Time takes News And Tributes' Cope and drags it through a hedge several times, while Sale Of The Century is built on metallic morse code riffs and a chorus that borders on swamp rock. It's just next time something less conservative will be required if they're to hang onto the residual love.
VIDEO: The Beginning Of The Twist

48 The Bookhouse Boys - The Bookhouse Boys
A nine member band, including a two singers, two drummers and two man horn section, should make an expansive noise, but it's what you parlay it into that counts. In the Bookhouse Boys' case it's the David Lynch soundscapes suggested by their Twin Peaks-derived name, plus the soundtrack work of Morricone and Badalamenti and those influential Tarantino soundtracks. Lest this sound like too much an exercise in filmic sweep, it boils down to surf guitars, mariachi horns, wild-eyed belief and a disquieting undertow. They can do Lee Hazlewood/Richard Hawley after hours balladry too. The latter is aided by singer Paul van Oestren, who can switch at will between gravelly crooner and Nick Cave crazed preacher of rock'n'roll. Keeping just far enough away from pastiche, this is a set of songs that wring the emotions and play the widescreen field.
VIDEO: I Can't Help Myself

47 XX Teens – Welcome To Goon Island
Ah, the art school tradition. Actually long gestating and oft rhythm section changing London scene pranksters XX Teens aren't from art school, but the wealth of ideas and deployment over a small area of sound - Fall-ish, jagged, a bit post-post-punk - sometimes overcome them, not helped by production values that make the real brass and percussion that replace the singles' samples and keyboard effects sound less real than the digitised versions. The guitars are for the most part spirited scrappy garage rock but with electronic dressing, deep subsonic basslines take the long way round to underpinning everything and Rich Cash still slurs and barks with half-inched Mark E Smith tics. Songs disappear in directions that initially sound wrong but eventually coalesce somewhere else entirely. Brian Haw takes up the last two minutes with a political lecture. It sounds like Pop Will Eat Itself if they'd emerged fifteen years later and eased up on the sampling. Art-punk-funk - not dead after all.
VIDEO: Darlin' (single version)

46 Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs
Post-OC, post-Postal Service, post-attaining collegiate dreamboat status, Ben Gibbard had to grow and change Death Cab's college rock as emotional wringer status. While never a Colin Meloy bookish type, Gibbard has always had the knack of putting together a storyline to fire the emotions and set the scene, and here it's concerned with the process of maturing, getting away from nameless grinds and assorted existentialism. While the experimental urges barked up in preview are evolution rather than revolution, there's something at work that suggests the band are aware of their place in the alternative world and want to push at the forces of complacency, less inviting (especially the eight minute single I Will Possess Your Heart) but delving deeper to deploy its delights. Lyrically it's little more happy go lucky than usual - darker overall, if anything - but the possibilities the band have tapped ensure they retain an almost unique intrigue in their specialised field.
VIDEO: I Will Possess Your Heart

45 No Age - Nouns
The tremendously monickered for LA musicians Randy Randall and Dean Spunt hail from the collective based around The Smell venue, a hotbed of inventive talent where eclecticism and doing it yourselves is a basic byword. No Age's contribution is to mine a seam that lies between psychedelic melody stretching, shoegazey guitar noise and hardcore punk of a semi-melodic Husker Du/Mission Of Burma stripe. The nearest glib comparison we can come up with is if Kevin Shields took his idea of sonic envelope reworking to Husker Du just as they were changing from trebly speedpunks to fuzzy songcraft - there's definite melodies, messy but riff driven, buried among the attack. It takes its time to get going and at the moment feels like the prelude to a truly great next album, but you'll hear far worse in its name, and it's another step up for the American underground's ever developing world of sonic adventure.
VIDEO: Eraser

44 Dawn Landes - Fireproof
It's a shame that the Kentucky born, NYC based Landes is largely known if at all for her YouTubed cover of Young Folks, as on this second album, the first to get proper distribution, she comes across as someone with her own varied ideas on what makes a folky singer-songwriter, ending up in territory somewhere near a backwoods Feist. Instrumentation is pared down and used sparingly while Landes' smoky Cat Power-esque vocals are pushed forward, possibly not for the better on the idiot savant Lollipop but the better when expressing a knowingly gauche train of thought about big city life, companionship or the benefits of going your own way, comfortably working in influences from country and bluegrass and even making late night listening out of Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down. Her day job as a recording engineer certainly helps with the clarity of this playful yet solemnic album. If Chan Marshall had gone to Tennessee rather than Alabama to overcome her demons she'd sound like this.
VIDEO: Bodyguard

43 Mary Hampton - My Mother's Children
Someone recently used the Guardian music blog to decry this year's trend for British singers taking prime influence from American folk while ignoring Britain's own folkie communities. Well, there's plenty of the former coming up, so let's use this space to laud Brighton's Mary Hampton, who follows that Anne Briggs/Sandy Denny tradition into very dark spaces. Her voice, keening and intimate straight from the English folk revival, is the perfect setting for these songs that feel very cold to the touch, mostly just Hampton and pared down fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and not even the latter on the handclap driven Ballad Of The Talking Dog, uniquely heartbreaking for its subject matter. "You are loved because you are young" declares the first song, but a lot of the subject matter could come from nightmarish, desolate, in fact pretty much gothic (not goth) fairytales of flora and fauna. Although Hampton was initially bred by Brighton/Stroud's excellent alt-folk label Drift, this album's home Navigator Records' co-owner Tom Rose previously discovered Joan As Police Woman, and as with JAPW's first album Hampton uses clear influences as fabric from which to construct her own airy world, a spectral, mythical world of Grimm Tales storytelling.
VIDEO: Concerning A Frozen Sparrow (live)

42 The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
There's no particular reason why Stay Positive was the album where things finally slotted into place with us regarding the Hold Steady, apart from the creeping sense we're inexorably approaching the age of Craig Finn's characters. Ageing man props up bar, remembers picking up girl who may well be high, and crazy times together therein, things probably end awkwardly, band plays like alternate dimension where Paul Westerberg is like Springsteen. Just when you think Finn has fallen victim to the many and varied hailing him as some new poet ("our psalms are sing along songs", and furthermore "the sing-along songs will be our scriptures", which if they're psalms doesn't really need saying) the driving anthems turn into Damascene moments driven by ageing, increased recovery time and the new position as watchman as the kids go the same way and the girls get increasingly rejected by all the one night stands. This is what happens when you decide you don't actually have a proper Great American Novel in you, just some vignettes to relate in four minutes' worth of paragraphs.
VIDEO: Stay Positive (on Conan O'Brien)

41 Kat Flint - Dirty Birds
That Edinburgh's Flint has a mild vocal similarity to another Scottish female singer-songwriter, KT Tunstall, might suggest one path, but there's little here for daytime Radio 2 audiences to cling onto. Not only does Flint and her producer have interesting ideas on arrangement (the inlay credits her with kazoos, cardboard boxes, "tambourines in pillow cases", old suitcases, sticky tape and scissors, the latter two forming the rhythm track of Go Faster Stripes), but her lyrics and low pitched, warm vocal style lay out a open hearted, introspective but thoughtful mindset set against her folky strumming. It's the sort of album that takes you along with it using charm as a Trojan horse before losing the listener in the well sketched out snapshots and melting preconceptions the better to construct and get across her hopes and fears for relatives (Christopher, You're A Solider Now), love (Anticlimax), lust (Saddest Blue Dress) and life's vagaries (Fearsome Crowd) before the free and joyful title track closer. Dirty Birds was funded by fan contributions; imagine what she could do with proper backing.
VIDEO: Go Faster Stripes


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