Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2009: Numbers 50-31

50 MJ Hibbett & The Validators - Regardez, Ecoutez Et Repetez
No disrespect here, but this feels like a natural number 50. When we wrote about the bard of Peterborough's shot across the bows of the idea that only the young have anything to say about live as the narrator lives it, we speculated that his work is not easy to review in the same context as the rest of the pop nonsense we drivel on about. In subject matter, perhaps, whether debating how much you should take responsibility for your own weight gain, whether kids understand the lyrics to the Smiths' Ask any more or lamenting how all the places he used to play in Leicester are being shut down. But Hibbett is by no means a comedy songsmith, the wryness underlying a sharp humanity and a certain wistfulness paired with the wryly sardonic charm, as befits an album about coming to terms with comfortable middle age. Also features The Music Of The Future.
VIDEO: Do The Indie Kid

49 Papercuts - You Can Have What You Want
Jason Quever and loose conglomeration of associates conjure a sound that is almost unashamedly retro, but not retrogressive. These touchstones take in Velvets and Nuggets alike, heavy on the reverb and fragile Wayne Coyne-esque vocals and ending up more dreampop than nu-gaze for all the sonic cathedral guitar ambitions. The impression is of a more forceful Caribou or less electronic Maps, often evoking the simmering noisescapes of early 90s 4AD, the Paisley Underground and/or 1968 psychedelia, heavy on the swirling organ and Mercury Rev fogginess. There's a lot of specifics there but the overall sound isn't easy to pin down, lazily hovering hazily over straight-up psychedelia that shimmers like first light yet still seems oblivious to the dark threats of the future often implied. It sounds great too, reedy organs and metronomic, not that forceful drums poking through the faux-drugged out mist like a more strident (and masculine) Mazzy Star or maybe Beach House. Chalk another one up for haziness.
VIDEO: Future Primitive

48 Volcano Choir – Unmap
What Bon Iver did next? In fact what Bon Iver did before, for the most part, Justin Vernon's writing collaboration with post-rockers Collections Of Colonies Of Bees largely predating the log cabin and all that entailed. Obviously Vernon's transcendent pipes have made the journey, but here they're played off against electronic Eno-recalling pulses that seem more suck-it-and-see then planned out much. Something like Seeplymouth, which builds from repeated guitar phrases and Laurie Anderson looped voices through Philip Glass keyboard patterns, breaks down for a vocal trill and ends up with drum crashing apocalypse, has the typical post-rock build and release but retains the capacity to surprise. There's still a few tracks built around heartfelt wailing and acoustic picking, and Still is essentially Woods from the Blood Bank EP glitched up, but the edges have always been deliberately frayed, sometimes a little to Animal Collective Sung Tongs standards. A fascinating get-together that demonstrates that even when the beard brigade start moving on the truly aware can still find places to go.
VIDEO: Island, IS

47 The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
Sheffield's train-loving troubadour Pete Green coined the epithet 'wrongly tagged as twee' to seperate the merely jangly from the actively... well, whatever twee actually is. Even though we've seen all sorts summarily dismissed as 'twee' by supposedly smart parties this year (Dananananaykroyd? Really?) Nobody needed it more this year than POBPAH, whose very existance and keenness to place themselves among the indiepop fraternity gave many a British journalist carte blanche to bang on again about satchels, hairclips and Belle & Sebastian. POBPAH, though, are not twee because the bands they gladly take after - the Shop Assistants, Black Tambourine, Wedding Present - weren't. What POBPAH are are an energetic band in love with the idea of imperfect pop, full of melody, cooing backing vocals and diffidence in the face of life upheavals, absolute love and heartbreak through the medium of tenderly performed fuzzbomb pop. Sugar rush greatness rarely gets pulled off as well as this, no matter when the influences date from.
VIDEO: Everything With You

46 Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Sharp at both violin and whistle, like some unholy hipster amalgam of Owen Pallett and Roger Whittaker, Bird found a smart compromise between the overarching metier of his previous work and some sort of linear agreement, stripping the arrangements back to something more light and direct. Against such almost commerciality his lilting voice expresses resonantly worded tales layered in detail and cryptic reference points while remaining on nodding terms with the pastoral oddness of freak folk that once took him as their own envoy to the wider world. It's a warm sounding album, layered in bells and handclaps around his delicately complex violin backing, self-created percussive loops and twitters, soothing if slightly reserved, laced with alt-country, Balkan folk, Spanish guitars and Shins-esque adult pop. It's a style that fits him well through careful amendments and one that seems purely his, easy to approach but never too comfortable and giving up new details and high points on further listens even for something so on face value sparsely produced. It's very smart stuff to make something so precise sound so soft.
VIDEO: Fitz And The Dizzyspells

45 Piano Magic - Ovations
Glen Johnson's ever evolving project are one of those rare bands who really don't sound the same from album to album. Having gone through 4AD lulls, kaleidoscopic ethereality and neo-shoegaze, this tenth album sees them chiefly investigate coldwave, a slower post-punk style developed in France inspired by industrial programming and Martin Hannett's doomy productions. With Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry singing on two tracks it errs towards the gothic at times but is always rescued by the breadth of the lush arrangements - an Eastern European touch here, vaultingly skittering New Order synths there, air of Chameleons/Joy Division present. Regular heavenly voiced female vocal foil Angele David-Guillou only makes the one appearance this time around, when more might have lightened the mood, but then again Johnson clearly has big things on his mind with lyrical treatises on hair trigger nature, dislocation and the id in general. Yet there remains a certain open heartedness around Johnson's work no matter how dark the lyrics get, while all around is emotive and dynamic, a skyscraping beauty.
VIDEO: On Edge

44 Au Revoir Simone - Still Night Still Light
David Lynch's favourite band, apparently. Not that that turns up as the centrepiece of all their reviews or anything. This third album feels lighter, thumping Casiotone drum machine tracks more prevalent and keyboards more tinkly and drone-like in turn. It still feels gossamer light, deceptively simple in construction and emotion, but a hell of a lot of charm takes it far, the vocal interplay drawing the listener slowly into this world of confused emotions and haunted organs. Sometimes it's almost as if the songs are in the ether, some sort of comfort blanket of overlapping tones that you dare not get too comfy in. The discreet charm of these songs is to create something that enveloping from places plenty have been before, more homespun sounding and faux-naive than before but still creating the same analogue keyboard-wielding idyll as ever. In the year of electropop females, Au Revoir Simone continue to succeed by ignoring prevailing winds and creating their own atmospherics.
VIDEO: Shadows

43 Julian Plenti - Julian Plenti Is... Skyscraper
It's far better than Julian Casablancas' solo album, we'll say that if nothing else. Indeed, especially given his day job's last album, Paul Banks' dusting off of his pre-Interpol solo guise proved much better than it had any real right to be. There's some echoes of those echoey angular guitars and of course Banks' doomy, reedy vocals, but decorated in pulsing synths and beats it seems to open a new frontier even on the tracks that sound most like Interpol gone computerised. It's when Banks/Plenti pares down to something more introspective and deep that the purpose of the album becomes clearer, Skyscraper's string-led atmospherics and On The Esplanade's Bon Iver-esque acoustic lament showcasing hitherto untapped strengths, so much so that it's what we understand to be the most straightforwardly Banksian tracks that sound most out of place against the noir of songs that prefer to unfurl their internal turmoil in their own time without the effort to keep up with the times. And it's not often a solo side project sounds more like the real person's ambition.
VIDEO: Games For Days

42 Arthur & Martha - Navigation
This... now this is electro-pop. While never giving off much other than the idea of being constructed on bedroom laptops with Casiotones bought from charity shops, the debut by Alice Hubley and Adam Cresswell seems a fully accomplished electro balm in its own way. Built on pre-programmed motorik beats, droning keyboards and all manner of electronic trickery, it's electronic music with a human pulse and warming emotional reach to complement the robotnik disco and trance states, spiritual cousins to Kraftwerk's playful side or a lost member of the early 00s Birmingham electro-oddness scene (Broadcast, Pram, Plone). The robots have learnt the value of frailty and wistfulness too, channelling early OMD and something akin to New Order iced over on the likes of Kasparov and the title track, all spacious beats and lonesome feelings. It may have the hang of those early pop-tronic engineers but it's certainly not a straight up 80s ra-ra and hoorah for Vince Clarke revivalist, and it's all the better for its handle on joy and loss in equal measures, looking through the rain streaked window out at the Autobahn.
VIDEO: Autovia

41 The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
It always felt that a band as questing and restless in the face of commercial potential wouldn't be comfortable stuck on the psych-autopilot of At War With The Mystics forever. There's nothing as accessible to a pop audience as on parts of their last three albums, instead diving back into the psychedelic stew that first got people interested. Amid the supposedly formless jams come some glorious moments - Convinced Of The Hex landing between Tago Mago and Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, See The Leaves a hallucinogenically swampy meditation on rebirth - and it all comes with a hell of a lot of whacked-out distortion, veering from propulsiveness to spaciousness from track to track. Imaginations and leashes are let loose with ambient soundscapes, freeform jazz-rock, prog investigations and imagined Syd Barrett or Alex Chilton offcuts, Wayne Coyne freeing himself briefly from the role of bubble-encased ringmaster to pitch in as sinister hallucinatory dream master. Tellingly, at the time of writing the Spotify play frequency bar counts very little for the album's second half, where it gets really experimentally freaked out.
VIDEO: I Can Be A Frog

40 Luke Haines – 21st Century Man
In the year he finally put his entertaining universal misfit's bile to paper in the year's best music book, Bad Vibes, Haines returned to his occasional kitchen sink Velvets-glam setting, laced with Kinksian acoustic bloodletting, to laud the self-sabotaging, the darkness of suburbia's back rooms and, of course, himself. Among the fizzy guitars, predilection for stomps and wobbly production he namechecks Peter Hamill and Klaus Kinski as misanthropic examples to follow ("who needs people, who needs friends? They only drive you round the bend"), scorns those who leave London to find themselves in comfortable middle age and, in the epic self-mythologising (and Denim's The Osmonds-recalling) closing title track, flits between half-forgotten referencing and biography amid strums and lush strings, all in that familiar malevolent semi-whisper. Now deep into his balding/droopy tache/white suit phase (as checked off on Our Man In Buenos Aires, the city he told journalists he was moving to during book publicity) Haines would be one of the great modern English eccentrics if he at all wanted it. In the meantime, he'll settle for being the outcast throwing stones at the encasing glass house.
VIDEO: English Southern Man (live)

39 Projekt A-Ko - Yoyodyne
Wherein three quarters of Urusei Yatsura reconvene for, well, more of the same. Back in the 90s their pro-American fanzine glitter kid fare that thrived on loud distorted dissonance arguably predated your JoFos and Dananas. Indeed, for a good percentage of the album the SST Records-recalling buzzsaw hooks given the abrasive lo-fi treatment could have come straight from 1996. If there is a difference it’s that the change of singer and the passage of time has brought a less malevolent tone, Fergus Lawrie more the Lou Barlow to the long lost Graham Kemp’s J Mascis. Some of it - Here Comes New Challenger, Ichiro On Third - could almost qualify as pop, albeit pop bent well out of shape, with their harmonies and deceptively simple progressions were it not for the occasional departures into Thurston Moore guitar abuse. They retain the capacity of surprise too, Yoyodyne (Scintilla II) featuring some very un-Yatsura moments of acoustic fingerpicking, piano and strings. Despite the bed of comparison points above they're no slavish regurgitators of too-cool-for-school references but a band who have the capacity to take twisted pop harmonies and whack them well out of shape with the lessons learned from their influences.

38 Why? - Eskimo Snow
On last year's STN top ten-er Alopecia Yoni Wolf made another large step away from his hip-hop Anticon roots, but for that it still wasn't the 'indie' record many would have you believe, Wolf being too sharp a writer, vocalist and visionary for that. Eskimo Snow, by his own admission, is however his stab at folkiness, and while necessarily the least inventive in backing of the band's back catalogue it turns round the bleak observational humour of Alopecia and Elephant Eyelash to focus the lyrical bleakness back on the perennially overanalytical Wolf himself, making use of his languidly nasal confessional vocal style and syntax gymnastic. For all the surface calm it's not above completely changing slow-burn musical tack, whether the steel guitar in the background of Even The Good Wood Gone or the almost country-rocking Into The Shadows Of My Embrace realising "I wish I could feel close to somebody, but I don't feel nothing". The second half is where the dank coalesces in stormy balladry and Wolf picturing himself in metaphysical pain in isolation ("I've only cradled death in my own ending flesh") Much as it seems like a blood letting between more conventionally unconventional Why? records, recorded in the same sessions as Alopecia, it still bears little resemblance to those supposedly flanking it.
VIDEO: Eskimo Snow (live)

37 Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
If Craig Finn hadn't thought of it first, Marcus Mumford could be forgiven for declaring at many a given opportunity that there is so much joy in what he and his bandmates do. This debut album is full of triumphant crescendos rising from bare bones acoustic guitar picking, with a side order of gang harmonics that would derive comparisons to Fleet Foxes had they not almost certainly come up with the approach independently. Sigh No More feels simultaneously haybale rustic with its heavy banjo and mandolin use and post-Arcade Fire modern, suggesting an Americanised influence background even if the whole thing feels far more English in scope. Compared to the ever present Marling axis it's more countrified, more accurately more attuned to bluegrass' harmony-laced relic based on lead instrument swapping and communal delight. Bill Munroe defined bluegrass performance as something "played from my heart to your heart", and there's plenty of that in these huge sounding open hearted parades. There's a tingling feeling that this may well be the warm-up to a more stellar second album if Mumford can dial down the portentousness and better reflect their live energy, but otherwise this effort is brassy, brassic and riveting enough to make you believe that these pasty Englishmen can make like sons of the soil and of the apocalyptic barn dance.
VIDEO: Little Lion Man

36 The Voluntary Butler Scheme - At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea
It seems a while since we've had a proper English... maybe not eccentric per se, but someone who has their own wayward approach to documenting the little things. Think when Badly Drawn Boy emerged, a decent direct lyricist but not overly bothered with creating a consistent sound or falling too neatly into pigeonhole in favour of heading off on his own attention deficit directions. Rob Jones isn't that accomplished, but as anyone who's seen his loop pedal-heavy live experience will testify he's someone who likes going the long way round a melody. The scenic route round a lyrical sentiment too, with talk of "if you were broccoli I'd turn vegetarian for you" and the suggestion to "wear a De La Soul T-shirt once in a while to make you feel more hip hop than you are". This isn't bedroom indie-folk, though, at least not in conclusion even if it has an air of having developed as simple little love songs with essence of Paul McCartney. The range of instrumentation makes Jones come across as a pound shop Brian Wilson, a not entirely serious air that aids the faux-Motown of Tabasco Sole, Multiplayer's Northern Soul stomp and the 50s croon of Hot Air Balloon Heart. With hooks at every turn and whole-hearted character, Jones' idea of pop is warm in both homely and climate terms, making for a peculiar kind of fun.
VIDEO: Tabasco Sole

35 Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
The universal line about Local Natives is that they're a poor man's Fleet Foxes. Yeah, if you want. Actually, the band from 2008 they're most like are The Acorn, soaring and semi-tribal albeit without that band's wholehearted commitment to every nook and cranny (check this album's cover of Talking Heads' Warning Sign for the most obvious proof). No denying they're far more about percussive propulsion than CSNY harmonies, which will be where that pat comparison comes from, and live they really take off. While the album necessarily reigns this in there's a pounding aesthetic to a lot of what they do, Taylor Rice's mounting, crisp vocal style reeking of hope, melancholy and charity. Something like Sun Hands, which at some points seems as if it'll never finish for all the peaks and troughs and developments of the three-part harmonies, play up that at the very molten heart is an expressive, emotive joy. They can relocate their aura to the beach, as with the tropical post-Beach Boys touches of World News, or to a freewheeling more indie pop, although by no means straightforward, drive as on Camera Talk. The last quarter sees things pared down and more direct, sounding oddly like non-Graceland Paul Simon in places, proving they don't need to be constantly full-on to make an impression. If/when they find a way to drag themselves away from the associations of the sounds of the day, the next album could be spectacular.
VIDEO: Airplanes (live)

34 The Low Anthem - Oh My God Charlie Darwin
After 2008 became the international year of Fleet Foxes, the self-fulfilling expectation was that this year would be crammed with those trying to get in on their slipstream. Also eventually picked up by Bella Union, The Low Anthem were widely regarded as the band most likely to follow in those footsteps, but their breakthrough third album was too slippery for commerciality, too hushed and individually minded. You can kind of see what they meant, with the likes of Charlie Darwin showcasing ethereally atmospheric guitar plucking, harmonies, Ben Knox Miller's keeningly tender register about the ills of the modern man and his failing corporations and general Crosby Stills & Nash via Alan Lomax spirit. But the Low Anthem are far warmer than that, even as their most downbeat or world fearing. The arrangements seem direct from Woody Guthrie’s pared down dustbowl imagery, as much Nickel Creek and Delta Blues as Will Oldham or Felice Brothers. And there is, after all that, a second Low Anthem, the one that turns in a whisky sodden Waitsian blues stomp on The Horizon Is A Beltway and Home I’ll Never Be. It doesn't finish quite strongly enough, but by then they've carved out an album driven by the quest for and solace in better, smaller things and the universal sense of belonging, recontextualising antiquated back porch folk so they sound fresh not by force of will, but in the enveloping warmth of sentiment and sound even as lyrically we collectively struggle to hold on to what we have in the face of hopelessness.
VIDEO: Charlie Darwin

33 Micachu & The Shapes - Jewellery
At the time of release there were attempts to bring Mica Levi's peculiarly arranged visions into focus as some sort of pop motif, but that can only be put down to fanciful notions brought about by the speculated year of the female. Only two of the fourteen tracks break three minutes, four don't make it to half that length, and the breadth of ideas, collages, juxtapositions and plain clattering oddness, featuring a voice as androgynous as Levi's appearance, puts Jewellery well beyond what might play on the radio. That's not to deny that among the whirlpools of musical handbrake terms aren't moment of crystal melodic clarity, but the overall impression is somewhere between the DIY bendiness of messthetics, only far more tutored, and the odd late 70s subset when the wide open gaps left by punk enabled all sorts of curious visions to rush through. Amid the ADD distorted rhythms and all sorts of vocal tics and waywardness there's always an anchor provided by Levi's compositional tutoring where even something like Curly Teeth, all looped shrieks and strange cut and paste bleeps and whooshes, still has verse-chorus structure and rhyming couplets beyond the madness, where it's almost more maverick to produce something like Golden Phone's playfully jittery groove or video game laments Floor and Turn Me Well. Matthew Herbert's production adds an extra layer of jackhammer while bringing it into some short of shape, but beyond that this album marks the arrival, even if as suspected for a very brief moment of peculiar clarity, of an urgent, inventive new figure circuit bending pop shapes and cutting loose in what for these days is a wildly offbeat fashion.

32 Lucas Renney - Strange Glory
It didn't exactly set tongues wagging - in fact we can at the time of writing find just the one online review - but the solo debut by the former leader of odd, accomplished Sunderland scene mid-tablers the Golden Virgins doesn't feel the need to draw attention to itself. Produced by ex-Cocteau Twin and Bella Union head Simon Raymonde with Midlake's rhythm section providing backing, Renney unveils a yearning baritone not that far from Will Oldham's that complements these country laments of the most delicate touch and cutting straight to the emotional core. Although also flecked with flavour of Leonard Cohen at his most tender, the name that comes most recognisably to mind is Elvis Costello's when in one of his countrified moods (Almost Blue, King Of America). There's a quavering vocal similarity, but more to the issue like Costello these are largely love songs but of a very dark hue, occasionally treading the line between desire and obsession, at other times trying to work out how love works either through remorse or regret as if committing his most intimate diary moments to tape last thing at night. The string arrangements are by and large sympathetic and never deign to overwhelm the emotions, as at core these songs are almost nostalgic for the timeless art of the melodic love song arrangement but laced with guilt and passion, aching with a lack of surefootedness and an unwanted maturity from experience. Rising Soul, which sounds like On The Road Again, is an odd addition, given this is an album to reinforce the belief there are people who know how you feel at heart because they went there and can figure out how to express it better than you can.
VIDEO: Lord Knows I Do (live)

31 Maybeshewill - Sing The Word Hope In Four Part Harmony
Post-rock is a bedevilled genre, either tied to what Slint taught us about dynamics or heading so far into glitched up territory they forget where they came from. What Maybeshewill (full disclosure: they're from the same locale as us, we know them a bit, John Helps looked set to complete Noughties By Nature on his own at one stage) do is head straight for the jugular. Like regular touring partners And So I Watch You From Afar (whose album, erm, we forgot to check out, but they were probably the loudest band we've seen this year) they centre on muscular post-hardcore guitars bordering at times on metal, with the occasional 65daysofstatic nods of their previous work largely jettisoned, but always with a sculptured elegance of sorts and a film/TV sample about how the world is essentially fucked always close at hand. Yet it's not overwhelming in its heavy riffage, subtly knowing when to hold and when to really step on the overdrive. Without a word being properly sung it comes across as an angry but optimistic underneath it all record as scrap metal riffs rain down amid crashing drums with only the odd piano part for comfort. Parts of this album will blow the unaware away - the almost Isis worthy Last Time This Year, for instance, which runs itself into a brick wall at full pelt at any given opportunity - but something like Accept And Embrace, utilising disguised counter-melodies and changes of pace wrapped around a decorative piano loop without feeling the need to explode into all-out noise warfare, demonstrate that it's not in volume and power alone that they have this instrumental thing sussed. And, apparently, all recorded for no money whatsoever. Excitingly, it's where they'll go next that could shove them into the top noise tier.
VIDEO: Co-Conspirators

The full list


Anonymous said...

Nice start Simon, particularly good to see the Arthur and Martha and Voluntary Butler Scheme records there which didn't seem to get much attention.

I thought Flaming Lips was awful to start with but now tending towards genius.

POPBAH, Luke Haines and AuRevoir Simone are all fab as well.


thommo said...

Nice to see Micachu here, i imagine a lot of end-of-year lists will have Jewellry in them - and rightly so - but it's most pleasing to see MJ Hibbett & The Validators in a best of the year list where they belong!