Friday, December 31, 2010

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 1

"But what did you expect?"

Who are Los Campesinos!, then? This used to be an easy question - they're a gang of seven (now eight) vaguely in-tune people, based in Wales but actually from all over England (and one from Russia, though Aleks left after recording this), who make the sort of music some call twee and/or C86, all fanzines, manifestos and badges, sugar rush shouty vocals, glockenspiel and lyrical concerns that range as far as dancing, moping about girls and sixth form sociology. Actually, no. Signalled by album-that-wasn't We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, there's a darkness that's slowly crept in around the edges. That pat response was misleading anyway - Gareth's namechecked Xiu Xiu enough times, and when they first emerged the RIYLs that people instinctively reached for were more likely to be Pavement and Broken Social Scene. If Romance Is Boring - a lie of a statement, it turns out - still didn't put those initial wide signifiers to bed it means someone's not doing their job properly, and as you can see from the number at the end of this post title it's very much not the band. Put it down maybe to the 'quarter life crisis', the moment when a university graduate properly realises they have to stand on their own two feet for the first time in a harsh world - Hold On Now, Youngster... being the rush to show the world what it can now do and putting its world to rights, followed by the self-lacerating, frustrated kicking against a world they suddenly feel if not lost in then at least burdened down by. In the press release Gareth described the content as being about how "ultimately there probably isn't a light at the end of the tunnel". Chin up, lad.

Despite featuring a big chorused, power chorded modern indie rock song (the title track, which bridges with mightily awry guitar skronk) this is in no way a stab at the populist mainstream. Gareth once said that every incident laid out and admitted to in We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed had actually happened to him, and even if he's not inhabiting a character he's still involving himself in decoding big emotional truths - band lore says Romance Is Boring tells an eventful, somewhat disturbed story from beginning to end, but not in track order. That'll be why it starts with a track, In Medias Res, that shares its title with a phrase denoting the narrative technique where the story begins somewhere other than the beginning of the narrative (experimentally autobiographical novelist BS Johnson, an admitted huge influence on the album and this in particular, would understand) That same track shifts another narrative on, built on menacing darkness and shifting tones, unable to make its mind up about love and the futility of such, shifting and adding depth as it progresses before fading the layers as gradually away as they had arrived. Right at the end Gareth, sounding utterly exhausted by defeat, asks "If you were given the option of dying painlessly in peace at 45 but with a lover at your side/After a full and happy life... Is this something that would interest you?" The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future journeys through eating disorders, escapist fantasy versus grim reality and the female subject’s thoughts of ultimate morbidity to the accompaniment of a slow burning churn, the kind of skyscraping storyboarding and high achievement that would make other bands' careers. There are still lighter, misleadingly optimistic moments - There Are Listed Buildings ("woe betide your listed heart") is the closest to their old sound, Straight In At 101 flirts with self-parody and ends up tired and emotional - but those are set against We’ve Got Your Back (Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #2), which seems to run several admirable melodies over each other and veers between awkward states of serenity and the odd male gang shout, or Who Fell Asleep In's swaying balladry and melodramatic swooping violin holds down personal pain and specific guilt around the church. Plan A crashes about in heavy No Age distortion and ADHD, bearing a long and awkward chorus with no resolvement before coming to rest around the two-minute mark, and turns out to be about a plan to get out and become a, erm, Maltese national football hero.

Quite aside from Gareth's lyrical games of emotional Jenga, Romance Is Boring is very deliberately a fully planned and sequenced album, see-sawing around the emotions and styles, setting off blackly humoured line after line, never too clean, never too messy, and might need a few listens for everything to sink in until it's fully understood what's going on here. A great advert for giving bands time to realise what they can do musically, dramatic and adaptable to the roughest of conditions. They’ve connected their natural instincts to founding a fascinatingly personal boundary pushing middle ground, laid out against a lyrical style that opts for openness, perhaps too honest, philosophically heavy where once was route to adoration, veering from raw emotion to blissed out longing and praying. They've had their fun and now it's time to serve their conscience. As a listening experience, as a ride through the emotional wringer, it's rarely bettered.

So that's who they are. Where the hell do they go next?


The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future

The full list

A Spotify playlist containing as much representation as there is there from both the albums of the year top 50 and the 100 other best tracks

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 2

The first track on The Age Of Adz, Futile Devices, is a loving folk meander, a tribute to a partner of whom Sufjan avers "when I sleep on your couch I feel very safe", so much so he runs out of words of praise in the end as in the circumstances they are, yes, futile devices. It's personal and sensitively touching in a cracked way. The last track, Impossible Soul, lasts 25 minutes. It begins as keening balladry against echoey drums and pulses, the latter of which occasionally glitch up, launches into a Prince-like solo of either synth or guitar (or both), breaks into broken beats, introduces what may or may not be a second vocalist, introduces samples and cuts of brass and strings, breaks into gang vocal chants, devolves into funk, brings in a George Gershwin choral section, dissolves into washes of random bleeps and half-audible caws and the repeated line "don't be distracted", launches into an Auto-Tuned soul vocal section and a couple of minutes later odd computerised beats to go with it. That's half the song covered. And we've not even got to the 80s breakdance beat breakdown, apparent Funkadelic tribute, ambient bit or, in what may be a callback to square the album's circle, fingerpicked folk coda. It's so ridiculous it deserves to be released on its own independently from having to follow anything or be judged as a mere track on an album. And to think this album was preceded by an EP, All Delighted People, that was, frankly, no good.

The album, and its title, is derived from Royal Robertson, a paranoid schizophrenic artist and self-proclaimed prophet whose works are like action paintings or crazed comic strip panels of B-movie imagery, references to the Book of Revelation and futuristic nightmare scenarios. Learning all that, you kind of get the idea where Sufjan is coming from with this mess of stuff. While he's musically been this way before, on 2001's Enjoy Your Rabbit (except that was wholly instrumental), and has a history of leaping gleefully across the genres (he was initially noted as an associate of the Danielson Famile) the move from symphonic American folk to digital wash has been much discussed, but what hasn't been sacrified despite every kitchen sink in the mix is Stevens' gradiose sense of melody, the thing that allowed him to turn from lo-fi bard to mini-orchestra score writer almost without anyone batting an eyelid. These arrangements are as borderline overfull as his analogue instrument compositions, yet below the rattling beats, sliced and diced samples, electronic textural rushes and sci-fi bleeps, fragments of things flying past like spectral comet trails, there's pretty much always a radio-ready basic line. The aptly titled Too Much rattles in between a videogame pinball machine that threaten to turn industrial as much as they're IDM before, three and a half minutes in and still three from the conclusion, brings in some colliery trombone and then some fluttering woodwind and strings as becalmed as the beats still aren't. And then he brings everything in at once and the whole thing nearly ends in a carnival of something or order. The very next track, that of the title, begins with a recreation of the sound of aliens with lasers for eyes fighting the performers of a choral concert. And yet it always leaves a gap in the middle where the very soul and care of Stevens' compositional skills and glorious ear for deceptively simple melody can thrive, and where snatches of lyrics addressing inner turmoil (in character or not? Remember the lyrics to John Wayne Gacy Jnr) Eventually you almost get used to the idea of malfunctioning laptop sounds pressed up against great classical-showtune orchestrations - choirs, cathartic proclamations, suggestions of love falling apart and otherwise, the works. What a one off, singular, ridiculous, glorious 74 minutes The Age Of Adz is.

Too Much

The full list

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 3

Recently those who keep an eye on prevailing winds in Scottish guitar bands have become accustomed to blustery, frontally noisy misery, huge bellows against the roaring tide. Frightened Rabbit, Twilight Sad, all those. Meursault also do this to a very thin extent, but they also do so, so much more. 2008's Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues was a fascinating mix of delicately emotive and hence very Scottish folk and cracked electronic textures. All Creatures Will Make Merry, literally recorded in a living room, refined and deepened, picking out moments of squalid beauty, self-abasement and ultimate hope in adversity and making them more grandiloquent and meaningful so they came nowhere near a stylistic cut, shut and run. In these hands, it sounds like the most natural pairing. In greater practice, it's as rollercoaster enthralling, noisy yet melodic, and effective at pulling apart the emotions as anyone in the lo-fi scale Macbook plus melodies field has perhaps ever been.

Such development has been aided by the formation of a full band around Neil Pennycook, a big man out of shape and often sounding like he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown, whose troubled Celtic yawp of a voice remains a thing of individual wonder. It gets full reign on Crank Resolutions, a song set in uneasy place by its first lines "I broke down on New Year's Day/And I mixed my drinks and I lost my way...", given plenty of emotion and echo as pre-programmed sequences of bleeps and glitched bass clatter around him, lo-fi pulses overcome by great washes of machine noise amid morse code bleeps as Pennycook pours his heart out, declaiming "they carried you away" as the wall of electronics brings the rapture. As a sermon on the electronics mount it's unbeatable as scene setting, accompanied by the droning march and valley reverberating All Creatures Will Make Merry... Under Pain Of Death. If Meursault have, by fools, been compared to Arcade Fire New Ruin, strings and ukelele somewhere in the mix, puts that trope under heavy artillery fire from beats and a catastrophic level of heavy layering. What You Don't Have brings back the wall of noise in epic shoegazing-tinged fashion, making what underneath it all is quite a tender love song seem like wading through brambles. As so often on the album, this wasn't meant to be this way but it might as well have been given how comfortable in uncomfortableness it all seems. And then there's the occasions on which Pennycook is left alone with his guitar or similar strummed string instrument, compelling even when comparatively normal as on Another. Weather sees promises broken and pledges made to never follow that way again, eventually almost losing itself in hollow confusion; Sleet suggests Fence Collective dark rugged shoreline dramatics. The ghostly One Day This'll All Be Fields, sounding like a 78", sees only banjo and the odd distant background wail accompany Pennycook as he promises/threatens "we will descend from the sky, and we will bury you alive". Song For Martin Kippenberger, named after the late German artist whose art establishment provocations provided YBA influence and interested the Manics enough to feature his work on three seperate Holy Bible singles, is an extended hyperventilated saunter through everything, Pennycook bellowing "please don't send me home" repeatedly against droning synths and in between desperate acoustic strums, sounding simultaneously dense and intimate and after which the piano-based relevation A Fair Exchange seems like the white tunnel after the death rampage. Perhaps the Meursault raison d'etre is best summed up in What You Don't Have: "it's not what you don't have, and how far you can run with it". On these stunning songs there's a raw emotion you cannot physically turn away from.


Crank Resolutions (live)

The full list

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 4

James Mabbett, the autonomous being residing behind the soubriquet Napoleon IIIrd, is someone who only avers to his own courses of action. This much we know just from his naming his second album after Freetown Christiania, a commune-like self governed area of squatters and artistic collectives in Copenhagen. But this much we also know from the way he approaches his music. His debut In Debt To veered all over the place, constructing shoutalong anthems from beat collages and roughed up guitar sloganeering. For its successor the electronic elements have taken over the lead role, these songs assembled from a great wealth of keyboards, loopstations and sundry things with wires. Those have then been married to something that never quite achieves pop status, a rush of sculpted noise that fades from monolithic to subtly undercurrented, in thrall as much to rave as modern beatmakers. In the year Stereolab knowingly titled an album No Music, perhaps the motto should have applied here for the unwary because while listenable and enthralling it's crafted out of such noise and moral confusion.

If it pushes boundaries, it's insomuch as those of what we deem experimental laptop noise. Nowhere is that better established then on Rough Music, which in capsule can be summed up as 'Fuck Buttons slowly go disco'. An impenetrable force field of slow motion noise, with the odd accompaniment of what might well be Omnichord, crawls at glacier speed, eventually joined by Mabbett echoed and slowly enunciated in baritone, eventually fixating on the curious line "heaven just for creeps and weirdos". Things appear and join the oppressive atmosphere, wordless cries echo off into space, then three minutes in Mabbett's voice breaks through the murk with forcefulness and evenutally a beat joins him as what has been built up marvellously, slowly breaks down and blissfully re-emerges as glissando sequences right out of somewhere near to the original You've Got The Love. It could go on for quite a lot longer than it does, but that moment of breakthrough makes it worth the while. Throughout you hear the results of cycling through endless permutations of samples and found sounds, noises and settings, square pegs in round holes that are hammered so hard the holes end up with corner shaped modifications. A low level white noise drone, as well as undercut electronic swooshes and tribal dancehall percussion, underpins most of The Unknown Unknown, something recognised as a guitar, here in its jagged form, not being permitted until towards the end as Mabbett's voice loops underneath. And there's clear melodies too, a wonder of picking out something subtle amid so many layers. Leaving Copenhagen might open with the slightly clumsily "I think I might harbour political tendencies that sway towards the anarchistic", but slashes across all but the core meaning of the message with the aid of tremelo'd guitar, looped and pitchshifted BVs, birdsong, an offbeat percussion solo and insistent pulses building towards a glorious chorus shout of "LET'S ALL GO TO CHRISTIANIA!" (The fist aloft, however beery, is after all as much a political act), emerging the other side as an all night rave with increasingly heavy and frantic drumming. This Town's tribal bashing over drone, shaker and disembodied samples is followed by That Town, taking the same melody and slathering it in loops of arpeggiated keyboard, Beach Boys in Hell harmonies and an oddly sunny guitar outro before a tiny portion of free jazz appears right at the end out of nowhere, returned to at the peak of I Try. The whole thing is a testament to how far the search for something beyond the pale can be taken while keeping to fairly recognisable structure, melody and sense. It finds its goal with belying ease.

Rough Music (live)

Napoleon IIIrd - Rough Music from Brainlove on Vimeo.

The full list

Monday, December 27, 2010

It was a very good year

Some quick notices of releases for the last month of the year by two artists that made this here albums of the year countdown. Firstly, Pagan Wanderer Lu's last release, he says, for a while is Pervert Oven ("I burned my hand on my oven at home. I wanted to get my revenge on the oven so I drew a picture of it wearing a raincoat and exposing itself like a pervert"), a pay what you want lo-fi curio of songs that didn't fit, songs that were too odd even for a PWL album, The Great British Public Becomes Self Aware from the year's 26th best album played in the style of Guided By Voices and a song about the loss of innocence felt by the cover star of the first Beano.

We're tempted to start this sentence 'more straightforwardly...', but rarely are Her Name Is Calla straightforward as such. Live at Denovali Swingfest is a similarly up-to-you charged live EP recorded at a label shindig in Essen, Germany in October. Being HNIC, it's half an hour long and comprises three tracks, Condor And River and Pour More Oil from 2010's tenth best LP and Motherfucker! It's Alive And It's Bleeding! from 2008's mini-album The Heritage.

Speaking of live recordings, when the Indelicates put out the year's number nine long player part of the Special Edition deal was an offer for a live acoustic gig of the whole thing, recorded and offered on their, yes, pay-what-you-want Corporate Records venture with the rights transferred to the purchaser. As such at the start of November Simon and Julia shipped up to Glasgow's 13th Note and have subsequently issued a Super Special Acoustic Recording, added to with some older songs and another preview of David Koresh Superstar, the recording of which is finished (with guest appearances by Jim Bob from Carter USM and David Devant and his Spirit Wife's The Vessel among various longterm Indelicates co-conspirators) and set for imminent release. You can still order a special edition, by the way.

Tracks of the year IV

And the S's continue...

Steve Mason - Lost and Found [YouTube] [Spotify]
Kind of Mason in microcosm - rurally inclined acoustic melody, tentative beats, underlying darkness.

Still Corners - Endless Summer [download via P4K] [Soundcloud]
Ah, the Be My Baby drums. But what's going on around them is more fascinating, blurry Beach House/Broadcast dreampop with droney organ and shoegaze guitars in the shadows.

Still Flyin' - Runaway Train II [YouTube] [Spotify]
Another sax solo that doesn't invalidate the whole song, this one placed against the sort of rush only loads and loads of people being involved can produce.

Stop Eject - I Am A Social Network [YouTube] [Spotify]
One last splutter from the post-punk quarter, from a band running with Love Ends Disaster! in music life as well as baritone brooding.

The Strange Death Of Liberal England - Rising Sea [YouTube] [Spotify]
The new nautical theme didn't quite work across an album (as did speaking on stage instead of holding up signs, that was a disappointment when we saw them recently), but when they really let go with the rousing Arcade Fire on uppers swell they still pack a punch.

Summer Camp - Ghost Train [YouTube] [Spotify]
It didn't just fade away when they turned out to be some people nobody had heard of (this is on the worldwide blog scale, obviously we knew precisely who they were). The reason for that was they took only enough from the 80s - and then not even all that much musically - to not actually sound like they're as obsessed about it as they otherwise make out.

Superman Revenge Squad - Yeah, This House Is Haunted [can't help you here, go and buy Dead Crow Blues EP]
The man's a lyrical genius, and you'll all recognise this one day. And now he's writing a play based on (or at least sharing a title with) this song!

Swahili Blonde - Le Mampatee [YouTube] [Spotify]
From an album that turned out to be too cool for its own good, even with members of Duran Duran and Red Hot Chili Peppers involved, one spectacular moment of deformed scratchy punk-funk.

Sweet Baboo - Y'r Lungs [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
Plangent, wry Welsh folk. Another song on his album I'm A Dancer/Songs About Sleepin' features the fantastic line "Daniel Johnston has written hundreds of great tunes and I’ve got six, so I guess there’s some catching up to do".

Talons - Trevelyan [download from MusicGlue]
Shame the album was too bombastic for its own good, but taken individually they surge, swell and dramatise like nobody's business.

Tender Trap - Girls With Guns [YouTube] [Spotify]
The revenge of Amelia Fletcher (with Elizabeth Allo Darlin' on board) in classic stand-up drumming, jangly guitaring form.

This Many Boyfriends - I Should Be A Communist [Myspace] [Spotify]
There used to be loads of bands like this around 1986, of course, throwing Smiths self-deprecation into a pit of Orange Juice forceful jangle. Now there's the finest of lines between deliberately not trying and knowing, as these do, how to be... well... knowing.

Those Dancing Days - Fuckarias [download] [YouTube]
There was an occasional undercurrent of something less happy go lucky from Nacka's finest girl gang before, but now they're looking proper daggers at you through the medium of garage and rolling drums. The second album Daydreams And Nightmares is out on March 7th.

Tindersticks - Harmony Around My Table [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
"Found a penny, I picked it up/And on that day I had some luck/But that was two weeks last Tuesday". Oh, Stuart.

Under Alien Skies - Faint [Myspace] [Soundcloud]
Hard to pick out one track by the Prestatyn duo of sadly limited wider public knowledge, but the to date latest of their stews of dissembled samples, pre-chillwave summer beats, Beach Boys, Animal Collective and general laptop mystery is as good a place to land as any.

Vampire Weekend - Cousins [YouTube] [Spotify]
Ah, if only the rest of the album had been as thrusting and as charging as its lead-off single.

Wap Wap Wow - Don't Keep Losing Heart [Myspace]/Rhosyn - Glass [Myspace]
Wap Wap Wow was Rose Dagul plus eight, Rhosyn is Rose Dagul plus four. All the tracks on both Myspaces, based around hypnotic strings and looped voices, are worth your time.

The Wave Pictures - I Shall Be A Ditch Digger [Spotify]
As with most Wave Pictures songs it's hung around their set for years and may even have been recorded in reduced circumstances but ended up tossed off on an EP. If he put his mind to it Dave Tattersall could rival Robert Pollard for output.

Wavves - King Of The Beach [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
We may be alone in thinking the album of which this is the title track outdoes 'er indoors' all ends up. Very much California surf-punk by a chronic stoner, yes.

Wild Nothing - Summer Holiday [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
Over the course of this year's album and EP Jack Tatum attempted to represent the entire alternative 80s, from New Order to Kate Bush to the Cocteau Twins. Here he has a shot at Felt.

The Wind Up Birds - Tyre Fire [YouTube] [Spotify]
You don't often hear bands these days who remind you of Animals That Swim. Northern post-Morrissey kitchen sink drama meets insidious post-punk wiriness.

The Witch And The Robot - Hetero [Myspace] [YouTube]
Mates of British Sea Power make like Earl Brutus never left us. (Which with The Pre New they technically didn't, but you get what we're driving at)

Yeasayer - Ambling Alp [YouTube] [Spotify]
Been interesting to observe Yeasayer's development from Afro-futurists to death disco killers, especially live where things reach rave proportions as vested men hit electronic things.

Yu(c)k - Automatic [download] [YouTube]
The downbeat keyboard-led alter ego of dirty fuzz pedal-led Yuck, such starkness achieves an almost hymnal stillness. A sanctifying note to round off the hundred on.

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 5

Many people remain suspicious of a band like Allo Darlin'. You can see why on paper. They're fronted by a ukelele-touting Australian, Elizabeth Morris, who is also in a band fronted by Amelia Fletcher. One track namechecks Motherwell indiepop heartbreakers the Just Joans. Another, Kiss Your Lips, begins with someone winning a teddy bear at a fairground after buying candyfloss and popcorn and goes on to quote quote several lines from Weezer's El Scorcho. On the other hand, such guileless pop almost represents the true alternative in an increasingly sure of itself and its specific retro foibles. Which is all very well, but you’ve still got to harbour the individual nous in order to step away from satchels and hairslides cliche, and that’s just what Morris does so well. This sort of thing used to be perfectly acceptable, telling stories with little surface irony and a deep regard and respect for the sweetest of sentiments, in Allo Darlin's case influenced by the Go-Betweens' location of the right meaning in the smallest of detail.

Morris' playful but bittersweet lyrics find a way to tell a story engagingly and cut to the bitter quick with non-slushy sentiments intact, an open hearted innocence parlayed into the language of love and loss, finding the right meaning in the smallest of detail. The flute solo bolstered Polaroid Song invokes the slow death of the titular camera film brand as a metaphor for the worries of a new relationship - “will we still look happy when we’re not so overexposed?” - while the Ring Of Fire quoting Heartbeat Chilli prevaricates in the kitchen, and later in a lido observing the wrinkling of fingers in water, all the while waiting for the right romantic move to be made. Dreaming pitches the conflicted emotions of a Camera Obscura into a duet with Monster Bobby, who gives it his best Stephin Merritt for a swooping, swooning pop morsel about the impulsive heart (“It’s freezing out here on the pavement, but here in your arms it’s heaven/I can wait for you now but not forever”) that finds room for a lap steel solo. The surf inflected Woody Allen attempts to cast the stars and producer of their love story and comes out of it oddly favourable, not least through the line "sometimes it gets bad, (but) it never gets Bergman bad" and a triumphant ending of "Max von Sydow couldn’t play you". Most obviously indebted to the still and the fine print around the business of life and the language of love, Let’s Go Swimming rewrites the Magnetic Fields' All The Umbrellas In London via If You're Feeling Sinister to create a seeming defiant portrait of a single quietly beautiful spot in time, hazy slide guitar and unaffected imagery of hanging out by a Swedish lake in high summer capturing the moment. It's that kind of sunny optimism, unhurried ease and glorious use of melody and stretching the terms of the indiepop four-piece that makes Allo Darlin' among the best in class, invigorated by "dancing on my own to a record that I do not know in a place I’ve never seen before". There’s just as much to admire though in the smart lyrical touch that belies any sort of scene connotations, a fine romance borne from catching hold of the little things.


The Polaroid Song

The full list

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tracks of the year III

Male Bonding - Weird Feelings [YouTube] [Soundcloud]
Bring on the fuzz! And something rock and roll that's older than the hardcore and grunge influences people are quick to throw at the Sub Pop trio.

Maps & Atlases - Solid Ground [YouTube] [Spotify]
From an album, Perch Patchwork, that felt it was nearly there but got fatally distracted, the sound of an analogue TV On The Radio or what happens when math gets reined in to being pop.

Maybeshewill - To The Skies From A Hillside [YouTube] [Spotify]
Previously they could be lushly open with a hint of danger, or they could be full-on heavy riffola with a hint of reconciliation. Here, they're both.

Mew - Do You Love It? [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
The new song, time sig changeable and propulsively enigmatic as ever, from a low-key best of called Eggs Are Funny. Never have got the hang of album titles, Mew.

MGMT - Brian Eno [YouTube (live)] [Spotify]
A song about being chased through the woods by a vengeful Brian Eno that sounds like the Television Personalities. And then people wonder why they don't sell as many records any more.

The Middle East — Blood [YouTube] [Soundcloud]
It didn't seem to happen in the post-Fleet Foxes world in the way many expected, maybe because their records came out last year in their native Australia. Obviously that doesn't mean their fluttering crescendoing folk-pop of many parts should be overlooked.

Moscow Youth Cult - Girls Of Boredom [download via TLOBF] [Soundcloud]
8-bit electronics as dark, fuzzy and prone to distortion and jumpiness as a degraded VHS tape. Quite easy when you can just c'n'p something you wrote for somebody else, isn't it?

Past Lives - K Hole [Myspace] [YouTube]
Most of The Blood Brothers regroup to update the outer edges of 1981 and all the No Wave and SST that implies.

Peggy Sue - Watchmen [YouTube] [[Spotify]
These sorts of harmonies aren't usually used in the cause of something so barbed, nor does acoustic music get as full-on intemperate as the bridge does.

Pulled Apart By Horses - High Five Swan Dive Nose Dive [YouTube] [Spotify]
Sounds painful.

Quasi - Little White Horse [YouTube] [Spotify]
Maybe filling out the sound so much wasn't great for them in the long run, but they can still put out punchy college radio necessary roughness.

Roky Erickson - Goodbye Sweet Dreams [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
Okkervil River lend a sympathetic hand in backing the once self-destructive 13th Floor Elevator, whose singing and sentiments might break your heart.

Rumour Cubes - The University Is A Factory [Soundcloud] [Bandcamp]
Skyscraping instrumental post-rock with violin, viola and electronics touches both pensiveness and catharsis.

School Of Seven Bells - Windstorm [YouTube] [Spotify]
They're never as quite as good as you might hope, but the sandstorm loop and airy vocal make this one work.

Screaming Maldini - The Extraordinary [Myspace] [Spotify]
Think we wrote this reminded us of Alphabeat the first time we heard it. Now it reminds us of Dogs Die In Hot Cars. The truth lies somewhere between these two points.

Sleigh Bells - Riot Rhythm [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
An exhausting listen, that album. Here they do what MIA couldn't and find an unhappy medium between noise, beats and offhand vocals.

So Many Dynamos - Keep It Simple [YouTube] [Spotify]
The forceful ADD American post-punk band who didn't make the music press break.

The Sound Of The Ladies - What We Did With Our Lives [Bandcamp]
The bloke off Answer Me This! turns out to be a quietly wondrous singer-songwriter, poetically wry and acutely melancholic.

Spectrals - Peppermint [YouTube] [Spotify]
Louis Jones' output brings whole new dimensions to the concept of hit and miss. Here he delivers sweetly swinging rock'n'roll, and it's a comfortable hit. Well, it would be, it wouldn't be in this list otherwise.

Spencer McGarry Season - Great Enemies [Myspace] [YouTube]
Anti-robot scree from former power-pop trio turned double figure membership showtune baroque collective.

Stairs To Korea - All Of Your Friends [YouTube] [Bandcamp]
One man and his armoury of pedals is all very well and good, but it's not much use without a poetic heart.

Stars And Sons - If It’s Good For Me [YouTube] [Spotify]
Bravely rescuing piano pounding pop from Scouting For Girls.

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 6

Can we get through this without mentioning her old band? Let's give it a shot.

Without Why isn't a retro record, but a lot of what surrounds it seems trapped in amber. Many of its influences are those that once pirouetted on the fringes of the mainstream but now otherwise are largely left within their original boxes - Cocteau Twins sonic high churches, Stereolab's drone-pop explorations in the three minute form, the Sundays' shapeshifting, ringingly unconventional guitar pop, the post-Loveless end of ethereal shoegaze (Lush, Slowdive), the once ever present Johnny Marr jangle. Subtly intelligent pop leaning indie-before-it-was-a-bad-word, in simpler terms. What Dougall adds is her vocal style, tricky to completely quantify - Siouxsie Sioux without the menace? Sophie Ellis-Bextor with emotion? It’s not too far from cult late 60s English folk singer and acknowledged influence Bridget St John. Whatever, it’s a richly nuanced tone, capable of switching from heartbreaking and vulnerable to lachrymose to defiantly unbowed, all in very English enunciated vowels that sometimes sound like the music has been re-mixed around it.

That sort of range fits well against a set of introspective character portraits somewhere between pensive and defeated, exposing a good deal of pervasive, complex self-doubt. "I don’t think I am any of the things you say I am" offers Find Me Out; "please don't ask what's happening without you" avers Carry On, seemingly referring to an ongoing relationship. The pointedly titled Another Version Of Pop Song may centre on straightforward love sentiments amid rhythmic handclaps but still offers a toy effect keyboard mini-solo where the chorus should be and, more tellingly, the caveat "please don't say that it's forever or that we belong together". Start/Stop/Synchro, built around a circular baroque keyboard line, charts love as it progresses from hopeful present to melancholic past tense concluding in admittance/denial. Come Away With Me yearns to take someone away from what life is currently throwing at them while never quite escaping the idea that the desire to be in love is half the trouble. Not that it's all circling jangle against lack of assertiveness by any means. Affecting torch song Find Me Out edges towards a film noir uncomfortableness, dipping odd little bits of instrumentation in and out as Dougall plaintively refers to "my cerebral faculties corroding". Watching is on nodding terms with Broadcast in its quietly sinister drone, gothic menace shivering around violins and woody percussion. Third Attempt is made up of acoustic guitar picking, blurry organ and a wistful vocal that suggests "the world was yours and mine" but Dougall ruefully hits on the crux of her own uncertainties: "I wonder if you feel that the wool was pulled over your eyes/Was this person not the answer, really a question in disguise?" James sideman Lee Baker's production is entirely sympathetic throughout, fluttering across the spectrum, subtle where needs be, strident elsewhere without losing sight of the art of pop construction or held back melodrama at its core. "What will we make of these days of ours?" rhetorically asks the galloping widescreen closer May Holiday, a question that turns itself back on someone getting to grips with young adulthood’s new emotional charges against the need to be careful about the future. A yearning, self-curiosity quiet triumph.


Find Me Out

The full list

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 7

Three years ago Domino Recordings, flush with Arctics money, gave quite the push to Archie Bronson Outfit's second album Derdang Derdang and its lascivious blues-laced attack. It didn't work, so the trio went away and came back uncommercial, unsmoothed out and frankly roaring. Coconut is still an intense workout, especially on the part of Sam Windett's vocal chords, but this time it's voluminous, comprehensively fuzzed up, freaked out and roided to the gills. If James Murphy’s DFA sideman Tim Goldsworthy was charged with bringing the psychedelic freakshow somehow down to earth he only really manages it by anchoring it down to danceable structures in place.

The machine-like opener Magnetic Warrior might not automatically get Mark E Smith rushing to note “notebooks out, plagiarists” again, but he’d surely recognise the quasi-stoned groove harking back to his own band’s experiments in northern Krautrock. Here the undulating rhythm is attached to a desperately howling Windett appeal to "don’t let yourself fall apart" and a monstrously fuzzy repetitive riff interrupted only by a squalling solo that heads towards prime Hawkwind territory. Shark’s Tooth adds the death disco element, finding a hook and battering it into submission with discordant noise as bassist Dorian Hobday does his best Peter Hook. Hoola would be mistaken for the post-punk class of 2005 were it not for the maniac tension in Windett’s vocal and the constant sense that everything is about to totally take off. Wild Strawberries' repeated riffs and distorted vocals simultaneously recalls Clinic's Ade Blackburn’s gnomic vocalising and takes it several stages further into an overdriven garagey thrash at the end of which it seems it’s just a race to see who blinks first. Especially coming after Chunk, seemingly an exercise in finding their inner Nile Rodgers, You Have A Right To A Mountain Life/One Up On Yourself proceeds to send things right off the psychedelic hook into plain cachophony, full of melody-free no wave skronking and ripped apart soloing in the midst of which Windett seems to be attempting a muezzin. They know how to take it down a gear after all that whacked out effort, or at least as much as they feel they can. Surrounded by encroaching electronic noise and driven by Mark Cleveland’s relentless motorik drumming it may be, but Bite It And Believe It is actually quite melancholic, a deceptively simple melody doing its best not to be pulled apart. Hunt You Down would almost be an electrified back porch lament, something in there almost resembling an electric banjo, were the lyrical sentiments not chilling for their quiet menace. That's as opposed to the bulk of Coconut, which is about a very loud menace. Their howl, strong as that already was, has been supercharging until it bursts into discordant glory. You can trace a particular psych-rock lineage if you want, but that would suggest stoic learning and reciting from the Mojo history books rather than the lithe, alive sounds of filtered controlled chaos theory. Mostly what it resembles is a whirligig great leap forward into the claustrophobic greatness they’d always only previously poked at.


Shark's Tooth

The full list

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tracks of the year II

Fair Ohs - Eden Rock [YouTube (live)] [Soundcloud]
If Abe Vigoda aren't going to do it any more, this lot will have to steer the path towards Afro-noise-surf-pop nirvana.

Foals – Spanish Sahara [YouTube] [Spotify]
Can't tell you offhand what would have been number 51. Might have been Total Life Forever, which just sagged a bit around a strong middle, which isn't how albums are supposed to flow. This was the first track to emerge and showed things weren't always going to be math-pop forever.

Frankie & The Heartstrings - Tender [YouTube]
Yeah, them. You know, someone's going to have to come up with a collective term for indiefied bands with unabashed rock'n'roll romance taking the genre term back to its original intentions. As such, F&TH are working with Edwyn Collins on their album.

Gaggle - I Hear Flies [YouTube] [Spotify]

Gallops - Oh The Manatee [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
Battles on a fuzzy glam setting or Errors on a bouncy castle. Your choice.

Gindrinker - Bob Grainger; Sexual Pervert [YouTube (live)] [Soundcloud]
Metal guitar, metallic drum machine, mental lyrics. We'd expect nothing less from Gates and Graf. You are also cordially invited to try out Brandyman, essentially Gindrinker as heavy rock.

Gruff Rhys - Shark Ridden Waters [download] [YouTube]
The teaming up of Gruff and weird-retro-futurist producer Andy Votel promises much for February's album Hotel Shampoo, previewed by this road trip Franco-tropicalia.

His Clancyness - Mistify The Ocean [download via The Fader] [YouTube]
Jonathan Clancy for the second time, and it seemed at one stage that he was going to put out a new slice of lo-fi woozy poetic dreampop every week. It slowed up after a while but the hit rate was kept high, perhaps none higher than this.

Honour Before Glory - Empty Bottles Broken Hearts [Soundcloud]
Whiskas from Forward Russia's current iteration fractures and vibrates around wracked songwriting in a way M83 or Spencer Krug would understand. Plenty to look forward to from him in '11.

Is Tropical - When O When [YouTube] [Soundcloud]
Beginning to suspect they may be a one shot deal as far as greatness goes, but as far as debut singles go little came better this year. Almost a meeting point between post-punk energy and the synths of M25 fields in 1989. It deserves a fresh genre name. 'Nu-rave', would that work?

Islet - Jasmine [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
Rightly lauded for their borderline ridiculous live set that literally eradicates the gap between audience and performer, but the tribal dub post-punk motorik no wave stew of their two EPs, had they ever been released together, might have troubled the top end of STN's albums list.

James Blake - Limit To Your Love [YouTube] [Soundcloud]
After two lauded EPs of glitch-dubstep, Blake goes and makes a sparse piano cover of a Feist song that inhabits the same ballpark as Aqualung.

Janelle Monae - Dance Or Die [Myspace] [Spotify]
Truth be told it does feel a little like both tokenism and rockism leaving the indecently talented Monae down here, but couldn't help thinking most of the bits people lauded about were basically lesser Outkast productions. (And it's basically pale blog hipsters who went on about how she was about to become a huge global pop star without noticing that she really isn't, so we feel we're swimming against the hip tide much as when we left Deerhunter off the album list. Kanye? Never heard of him.) Anyway, the rush of ideas and words here is undeniable. Not so undeniable, though, as Tightrope on Letterman, bridge thoroughly taken to.

Japandroids - Heavenward Grand Prix [download] [Spotify]
Circular saw guitar fuzz, pounding drums and what for them and nobody else is mid-tempo meandering.

Jens Lekman - The End Of the World Is Bigger Than Love [download] [Spotify]
Oh you're so heartbroken, Jens. But at least he can try and put it in perspective, while still on his AM radio indiepop lush tip. Album in 2011, Jens? Please?

Johnny Foreigner - Elegy For Post Teenage Living Parts 1 And 2 [Spotify]
Starts as tenative collapsible noise, ends as bassy, talky dancepop with a George Pringle reference.

Jonquil - Compound [Soundcloud]
If Jonquil 1.0 was offbeat countryside folk, Jonquil 2.0 is offbeat Afropop. Note Hugo's brave falsetto and the crosshatched harmonies and the detail it sets itself to take off at high gear and then just doesn't.

Katy B - Katy On A Mission [YouTube] [Spotify]
Properly pop song of the year, largely because it comes from no proper pop background. Not to be confused with Truck regular KTB. Ms B doubtless turning shit even as you read this.

Laura Hocking & The Long Goodbye - Loves Of A Girl Wrestler [Myspace] [Bandcamp]
Hocking seems to have been around in various forms for years and years; this turnaround finds her as a cabaret folk ringmistress (in the circus rather than wrestling sense, despite the title and lyrics)

LCD Soundsystem - All I Want [YouTube (live)] [Spotify]
We tried to like This Is Happening, we really did, but it did nothing for us as a work. Didn't help that the BBC festival coverage kept putting Drunk Girls on either. This motorik wander succeeded by turning All My Friends upside down.

Les Savy Fav - Dirty Knails [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
As with LCD, Root For Ruin seemed to be based on what people wanted from the band rather than the good place they were heading to. Dirty Knails at least finds them doing what they do best, that is let Tim Harrington take off all over the place while everyone else holds down a muscular, somehow danceable richocheting anthem in aspic.

Let's Buy Happiness - Six Wolves [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
We've been excited about the possibilities surrounding this Newcastle outfit who've already been on a trip to Radio 4's Loose Ends. When it came to releasing something they hit on gold of a Cocteaus/Sundays arc, all delayed guitars and inscrutable female vocals that are oddly like Alessi's Ark's.

Lily Rae - Bad Film [Myspace] [Spotify]
Sometime Indelicate nails the sound of a really peeved Kirsty Maccoll, vocals inclusive. Apparently this first came out in 2007 but her album Oh No... was released this year and we hadn't previously heard it, as we suspect neither had you, so in it goes.

Lone Wolf — Keep Your Eyes On The Road [YouTube] [Spotify]
Come for Broken Pixel's spectacular reimagining of the Sledgehammer video, stay for Paul Marshall's shifting, intriguingly detailed alt-folk parable.

LookiMakeMusic - Why I Started The Indie Club Fires [Myspace] [Soundcloud]
Because Alexei Berrow couldn't have the 'awkward over-wordy jitteriness about shit indie clubs in Birmingham' field to himself.

The Loves - December Boy [YouTube]
Hell of a toss-up between this and the other half of the double A side Bubblegum, but they both prove Cardiff's other great knowingly retro band have hit top form... just as they're splitting up.

Lykke Li - Get Some [YouTube] [Soundcloud]
Those who saw her touring Youth Novels will know percussion featured well in her live set-up. They're even more to the forefront now. As are other concerns.

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 8

Standard Fare play jangly guitars, feature untutored vocals and have a set of lyrics about thwarted or hopeful love in songs some of which could fall apart if prodded hard enough. That in itself is comfortably enough to pigeonhole them among the faux-naif ranks of the indiepop semi-revivalists, but these are no underachievers or ambitionless makeweights. Even if on paper it’s all been covered long before there seems something fresh and exciting about the way they go about it, with complete knowledge of highly infectious hooks and a purely melodic pop heart that overshadows any pragmatic ideas of uninvention.

The key is the sense of longing in the midst of the kinetic energy produced by a trio who’ve put a lot of practice into sounding like they’re just hanging on to each other for dear life without turning into a (Baby)shambles. It’s driven and exemplified by the vocals of Emma Kupa. Her vocal style is as bittersweetly defiant as the lyrical content, seemingly straining to hit the notes but, as demonstrated on opener Love Doesn’t Just Stop, capable of really hitting home once getting there. On Philadelphia she’s reduced to a fragile state by an overseas lover before coming out with a swaggering brusqueness in the chorus despite admitting she’ll “have to wait a year to see you again”, something which finds a mid-point in the dreaming wistfulness (“there comes a time we have to choose between what we desire and what we’re prepared to lose”) of ‘Married’. Allied to that is the occasional co-vocal of guitarist Danny How, either complementing or vying against Kupa, jibing against and across each other on Nuit Avec Une Amie against a Housemartins/Lemonheads forceful jangle. Much of this emotional directness is played out to an Orange Juice-like nimble indie dancefloor ready jerkiness able to draw magic from uncomplicated interplay and observations made from areas long raked over by others. When Kupa discusses her one night stand of “only fifteen, what was I thinking lying in your bed?”, she tries to come to terms with how she ended up in that state of desperation even if she sounds somehow trying to over-convince us throughout before admitting "you're just too damn attractive". And then there’s the gloriously perfect guitar pop of Dancing, built on a skeletal guitar line and conflicted emotions – “do you remember you gave me another try, I knew better then to ask why” - that give way into a chorus that suggests “there’s always gonna come a time when we don’t know the answers, always gonna come a time when we should just go dancing”. The yearning triumph of the heart’s will of Wow (“this could really lead somewhere”) completes a journey of great immediacy, character and interest, as excellent an invocation as you’ll find of the qualities of good honest, ultimately likeable guitar pop. Indie as it used to be, so long broken down by the landfill but here taking its inspirations and crafting something that stands up for itself without having to suggest allowances.



The full list

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tracks of the year I

Here we go with part one of four (wrapped around Christmas Day) chronicling a round hundred of the best tracks to have been passed our way this year, ruthlessly filtered down from a list of almost too much quality to talk about (personal apologies to Ace Bushy Striptease here), with only artists represented in the album top fifty left out (SPOILERS). See this broad sweep of what 2010 variously had to offer:

A Classic Education - I Lost Time [YouTube] [Spotify]
The uncrowned kings of Bologna finally got round to releasing a new EP, expansively structured while remaining driven by the personal like a happier Modest Mouse. Given this is a song bemoaning the passing of opportunity, not all that happier, but the point stands.

Abe Vigoda - Throwing Shade [YouTube] [Spotify]
Former Afro-punk rollercoaster turn darkwave. Here, they land right between the two and make themselves dizzy.

Adam Donen - It's Over Now [YouTube]
Few brood like Donen, best described on this year's Immortality as Mike Scott taking after a secular Josh T Pearson, quiet anger at modernity his way.

Admiral Radley - I Heart California [YouTube] [Spotify]
Jason Lytle and some of Earlimart perhaps not entirely straightfaced. Can't properly pronounce Leicestershire.

The Attery Squash - Devo Was Right About Everything (Robert & Gerald Casale remix) [YouTube] [Spotify]
Because the idea of getting a caustic song about Devo remixed by Devo is cheering. Some may know this in its briefly viral Charlie Brooker Is Right About Everything form.

Best Coast - Boyfriend [YouTube] [Spotify]
Come on, everyone, there's one good song on Crazy For You! Luckily it's a really good one.

Blonde Redhead - Not Getting There [YouTube] [Spotify]
Man alive, Penny Sparkle is one disappointing album. That's but for this slab of dystopian electro darkness like a modern dreampop Propaganda.

British Sea Power - Zeus [YouTube] [Spotify]
"Rick Stein, pleased to meet you, I did not mean to be so rude". Now that's an opening line.

Broken Social Scene - Texico Bitches [YouTube (live)] [Spotify]
Only allegorical curates can enjoy BSS albums these days, and clearly nothing on Forgiveness Rock Record was a Cause=Time. Hell, there's not even an Anthem For A Seventeen Year Old Girl. But this one rides along bumpily.

Calories - FFWD [YouTube] [Spotify]
Abrasive like a Kinsella band, raging like art-hardcore, as exciting as the best noise-pop.

The Cast Of Cheers - Tigerfox [free Bandcamp]
The Irish Foals, they say. More math-shouty-intricate, we say.

Chapel Club — Five Trees [YouTube] [Spotify]
Poor man's Editors, of course, but nearly every band deserves to get it right once and their turn this year came with their borrowing guitar noises from Kevin Shields and a wind tunnel of a chorus from the Bunnymen.

Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM [YouTube] [Spotify]
For once not getting material based on who her dad was, Beck did his best production work in years weaving together a breakbeat, an MRI scan sample and Gainsbourg's detached vocal style and ending up as industrialised pop.

The Chapman Family - All Fall [YouTube] [Spotify]
Still sound like Maximo Park being incinerated.

Chapter 24 - Gregory [YouTube] [Soundcloud]
The Raincoats' unsteady art-post-punk as a jump-off point, flavoured with surf and hi-life, then spun around violently until you wonder how it sounds so comfortably kept together.

Club 8 - Western Hospitality [YouTube] [Spotify]
The People's Record may be the best thing the mightily prolific Johan AngergÄrd has ever been involved with, in all its Afropop swagger.

Cold Seeds - King [Spotify]
Interesting that on a record featuring members of Meursault and King Creosote it's Animal Magic Tricks that get top billing on the standout track, a longing folk mesmer.

Coltrane Motion - Please Call It A Comeback [download]
Still a source of annoyance that we can't count Coltrane Motion albums for the big list as they've never come out in the UK. This baroque droning dreampop turning to clattering insistence should hopefully make you feel the same as us.

Cults - Go Outside [download] [YouTube]
Now what's going on here? New York duo sample Jim Jones, then launch into Swedish indiepop-style harmonic loungey pop with glockenspiel. It is released on a leading blog's label. A few months later, they sign to Columbia. This could be one of 2011's more fascinating subplots.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - Vocal Chords [Myspace] [Spotify]
Poor name, good stuff, finding the summer prettiness in Vampire Weekend-nodding harmonic pop with electronic undertow.

Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern - Drive Too Fast [YouTube] [Spotify]
Best thing from a frustratingly inconsistent album, a tender song about a self-inflicted car crash victim, also known (to us) as the "lesbian from Brookside" song.

The Death Notes - In The Spider's Web [Myspace] [Bandcamp]
Banshees menace - that's Banshees when they had John McGeogh - brought into the post-punk revival a little late for most people but little affected for that.

The Declining Winter - Official World Cup Theme 2010 [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
Yearning strings, Go-Betweens warmly nostalgic acoustic songwriting... John Barnes in the Maracana sample at the end aside it has about as much to do with World Cup themes as Colourbox's Official World Cup Theme in 1986, which seems to be the point.

Dog Is Dead - Glockenspiel Song [Soundcloud] [Spotify]
Two towering singles of Mystery Jets pop-warp, skittish riffs and close harmony from the Nottingham teenage "skate kids and thespians" this year. Their debut features both a sax solo and a children's choir, and yet it's magnificent. They're going to be doing this on the next series of Skins, which is less so.

Emma Pollock - Red Orange Green [YouTube] [Spotify]
The Law Of Large Numbers was another of the year's disappointments, its highlight being this metronomic tale of increased nerviness.

Esben And The Witch - Marching Song [YouTube] [Spotify]
Some whispers beginning around a goth revival, hopefully more relevant than that late 90s New Grave thing which included Mansun. E&TW aren't strictly goth but the swirling sonics and stentorian drama of Rachel Davies' voice sets it late at night in a misty graveyard.

Evans The Death - Sleeping Song [Myspace] [download via A New Band A Day]
Said in some quarters to be 2011's best hope for continuation of 2010's great UK indiepop form, they kicked off with a great jangling rush, half-Pavement, half-C86.

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 9

While most discussion at the time on the second Indelicates album revolved around their Corporate Records pay-what-you-want scheme, it served to obfusticate the work of a band that need writing about, and writing about them is something that people manage well enough on their behalf. Fearsomely, fearlessly intelligent, musically opaque, bound to critical study and poetic darkness, proudly anti-mainstream mores and outlets, they're the whole package, every declaration, artwork and special edition designed to set them apart.

If American Demo was basically Luke Haines produced by Jim Steinman, Songs For Swinging Lovers, recorded in a former radio station in east Berlin, is more slippery, from huge guitar anthems to Kurt Weill cabaret. Lyrically, though, it still focuses on much the same critical targets as the first album - personal politics, media, feminism, the music industry, class, irony, liberal hypocrisy, doomed love and its place in the social strata. There'll always be that distinct lack of pandering to the greater commercial good or pulling punches, evident straight from the opening Europe, laden with heavy irony in its salutes to high society. Flesh opens "hey girls, let's see if we can bring out the rapists in the new man" and then turns out to be quite pitiful and baleful over a lilting piano-led melody, skewering "beauty isn't truth, it's just youth, it's adaptive and it's elastic" before ending in the world's most ironic torch song ballad ending. Ill crows "you'll never fashion your damaged soul because you're too clever to lose control". Be Afraid Of Your Parents is properly Threepenny Opera, Simon in full rolled-r's ravishing mode railing against the language of the far right's "charming men in uniform". We Love You Tania is an affectionate tribute to Patty Hearst. Savages might be the ur-Indelicates song, both celebrating their status outside the modern mainstream and simultaneously questioning whether there really is justification for it if that is the case. Only they could write Jerusalem, a jaunty almost Britpoppian evisceration on the youth scene that celebrates itself that pointedly, and far more timely then they could have expected, remarks on "how it seems rebellious to vote Conservative now", seeming to answer Blake's rhetorical question firmly in the negative. Anthem For Doomed Youth goes on to centralise the ire, locating what happens when there's nothing worth fighting against and hence nothing worth fighting for. Maybe that's why the Indelicates exist and thrive, as something to hook on to. If it's social satire in something of a modernity vacuum, it's also romantic and (more often than not) dark humouredly bileful at the same time, laying out their personal charter in a realist's world.



The full list

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 10

What Her Name Is Calla have carried off on The Quiet Lamb can't merely be placed under post-rock's enveloping tutelage. Leader Tom Morris openly admitted in a The Line Of Best Fit track-by-track guide the album was in part brought along by a breakdown and overdose, and whether through accident or design there's a great deal of frustration, lifeline impotence and catharsis rushing through this first proper album (well, that appellation depends on who you talk to) This isn't just quiet-loud dynamics and rushes of noise and longeurs but carefully evolved spaces honed through their astounding live presence of moving, virtually hymnal stillness rising up to storm-tossed crashing without bombast or losing track of the fine print detail.

As a record beholden to dynamics over 76 minutes it's not an album you can put on in the background while you go about your business but one that requires, indeed commands, full attention (the band claim they spent the best part of a year just post-producing, mixing and mastering it) It's almost something out of modern classical in the repetition of lines and command of every last bit of the swelling arrangement. It takes fourteen minutes for the first truly rousing section, Pour More Oil emerging from the most delicately becalmed of seas into a valhalla march. The centrepiece, Condor And River, takes up seventeen minutes itself but barely wastes a second. The moment when it emerges from the low level haze is virtually transcendental, rushing in on drums into bulwarking guitar noise, then back into silence broken by an emotionally spare piano lament leading into a conciliatory strings and brass coda after which the minimal, blissfully woody folk of Long Grass is a necessary recovery while gorgeously notable in its own right. It's with the near twenty minute, three part closing trilogy The Union that the epic battle is resolved. I Worship A Golden Sun rolls around in crashing cymbals, determined chants and an ever escalating bass drone that steadily turns into skyscraping heroics; Recidivist is full of deliberately discordant feedback and unidentifiable detuned noises before smashing percussion arrives to completely throw everything to bits before Into The West lands somewhere between Vaughan Williams and spaghetti western triumphant parade music before the tribal drums, brass fanfares and the briefest of heroic guitar solos brings this intense show to a close. It's clear a lot of emotional heft and a lot of effort has gone into The Quiet Lamb to make it the adaptable, tense even at tiny volume rollercoaster of density it's turned out to be. Even so there's never a moment when they just let go, because they know precisely what they're doing and to what end.


Long Grass

The full list

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 11

If Checkmate Savage, last year's collection of backwoods Stereolab motorik indie, was a finely awry way to start a career, The Wants is The Phantom Band's statement of intent. More precisely it's their Two Dancers, the album on which they don't really rein themselves in yet still find a way to open up and draw the unsuspecting listener into their own sound world. It's still driven by Krautrock, folk, strange anthemry, synths and effects pedals doing interesting things, ambience and film soundtracks, but there's a determination to overcome at its core as well as an appropriate loose theme of natural wastage and heading across the moors into the wilderness.

As if to show things are going to be different around here A Glamour starts the album with, alongside some electronic pulsing and wind effects, the sound of tentative sawing. It is, apparently, a balafon, the west African wooden percussion instrument, being tuned. From there it turns into a heavy bassline-driven stomp, a pagan choogle. From there every song seems set to wrongfoot the listener, not through sudden changes in style but through unsettlement. Night terror stalks the album, whether the gothic electro of O or the big chorus stalked by existentialism of Mr Natural. It's a sign of the Phantom Band's skill that even the anthems, otherwise chiefly Everybody Knows It's True, are laced with non-standard percussive effects and marching breakdowns, refusing to give up its tricks if it can help it and fading into the studio burble before going too far. Given time to work through its changes the eight minutes of The None Of One don't drag at all because it isn't allowed to settle, beginning as Americana fingerpicking undercut by creeping dread. Just as it reaches the point at which most would put their moment of revelation, a load of arpeggiating synths jump in and build to a dizzy collapse, Rick Anthony's baritone declaiming doom among the smouldering wreckage of reverb, glockenspiel and darting keyboards. Walls plugs some hesitant guitar into a stream of splashy cymbals, morse code synth bass and keys that dart all over the shop, getting faster out of desperation but never quite able to hang completely on to its time signature. Into The Corn ("everyone I knew there was dead") and the gradual build of Goodnight Arrow are an appropriately apolcalypse-defiant end to an album that is confident in its scope and layered ambition, something that grows over time as a piece.


Into The Corn (live)

The full list

Monday, December 20, 2010

Wonderful Christmastime?

Four days short of the festivities, a few last Christmas freebies to catch up with. Leading the field is Banjo Or Freakout, who applies his aereated, crackling sub-aqueous gauze to ten of your festive favourites on XA2010. Only a thousand downloads are available for free, but last year's not entirely similar effort is still available. Those meanwhile wondering what would happen if Johnny Foreigner expanded on their downer of a Christmas effort (see posts passim) are guided towards an EP by impetuous (and currently drummerless FWIW) Birmingham-based youths LookiMakeMusic, and knowing them as we do that comparison probably isn't coincidental. It's called This Is How We Go Quietly Into The Night.

On a somewhat bigger scale, Beach House have a song out, I Do Not Care For The Winter Sun. As you always imagined, the sentiment is not a stretch for Victoria or Alex. Even the sleigh bells in the background sound like business as usual. Ooh, now, hold up, listen to this:

Sufjan Stevens - Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree) by Hypetrak

Sufjan Stevens, a man who put out a five disc Christmas songs box set last year, has eked out a couple of new efforts, of the hushed banjo frame rather than everything in a blender approach of recent days. Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National are on them too. The other is Silent Night, trad arr.

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2010: Number 12

Something has changed within Laura Marling. Not just her age group or, for the cover shoot, her hair colour. For starters, there's her voice. It's slipped the naive girlishness of Alas I Cannot Swim and developed a huskier, fuller bodied rustic tone. It ties in with a greater maturity, as while Marling always had an intelligence beyond her years I Speak Because I Can is her slipping the foolish love and guileless self-examination of her first album and delving into English folk's gravitas and storytelling tradition via a sprinkle of Americana's rootsiness and desire to pass down a generation's cautionary tales. It feels more considered and ballad like, the better to expose the blood rushing through the middle of the allegorical sentiments.

On release much of the intention was buried by nonsense searching for meaning in her personal affairs where there seems to be none, but down the line the emotional content is metaphysical rather than autobiographical. She's capable of being direct -you couldn't write something like the homesick longing of Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) without some personal investment - but in the context of a soul prone to deep heartbreak and thinking of abandonment and death. "You never did learn to let the little things go" Marling chides a lover on Blackberry Stone; "Why fear death? Be scared of living" she dispiritedly admits as "no hope for... your life serving daughter" on Hope In The Air. Producer Ethan Johns has instilled a surefooted aesthetic that gives the songs room to breathe with slowly revealed depths that emphasise the oft present melancholy beyond mere growing pains, taking in the mandolins-at-dawn duel (unsurprisingly Mumford & Sons were involved in recording) underpinning the insistent anguish of Devil's Spoke and the gentlest of forbidden love paens What He Wrote, one that helps Rambling Man ("it’s funny that the first chords that you come to are the minor notes") gradually build from candelit longing to a soaring triumphant close. As Marling howls like a trainee banshee on the Odysseus nod title track it's all the more evident that she has command of her craft and, more importantly, a grasp of humanity's emotional pull, taking the tale telling cliche of the particular craft that was once considered merely nu and making it both contemporary and pulling it back towards its roots.


Devil's Spoke

The full list

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The only chart that counted: 1991

40 Queen - The Show Must Go On
At the risk of ruining the suspense, we'll come back to this.

39 Kenny Thomas - Tender Love
He had a couple of successful albums but nobody seems to remember 1991's inhabitor of the British white soul boy gene. It's not the most possessing of names, in truth.

38 The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl - Fairytale Of New York
As with Slade in 1981, it re-enters the top 40 every year now but between original release and download inclusion this was its only reappearance in the top 40. Every year someone mentions the Ronan Keating bowlderised cover, and every year someone makes a fuss about language.

37 Tina Turner - Way Of The World

36 Erasure - Am I Right?

35 Airhead - Counting Sheep
Those post-baggy pre-Britpop days were uncertain times for British guitar bands. On the one hand, EMF and the Primitives. On the other, the Sundays and Daisy Chainsaw. Somewhere in the middle but gently leaning towards the left, the band originally called Jefferson Airhead, with a stark inevitability, they kind of grew into a junior Wonder Stuff. Relating to previous single Funny How, their fan page claims "BBC chose it as the introductory music on their Match of the Day football programme." That must have caused a row with traditionalists.

34 Shakin' Stevens - I'll Be Home This Christmas
And home he stayed, this being his last charting single bar a one-off revival following that probably forgotten by everyone involved already Hit Me Baby One More Time.

33 James - Sound
First single from Seven, which obviously wasn't their seventh album, and one of those times when Tim Booth would just lose patience with pop and refuse to write a proper chorus when he could woo all over it instead.

32 Prince And The New Power Generation - Diamonds And Pearls
Prince, being Prince, speculates that such gifts might make the intended a "happy boy or a girl". We wonder if this might be the last any good Prince single.

31 2 Unlimited - Get Ready For This
Ray and Anita had four hit singles before No Limit, this one still being used as filler background music.

30 Simon And Garfunkel - Hazy Shade Of Winter/Silent Night
No idea why this was re-released, presuming it wasn't randomly thematic. Advert? If so, it was outdoing number 44, Home For Christmas Day by The Red Car And The Blue Car. As in the Milky Way adverts, yes, festive lyrics to a reinterpretation of the "from trucks to prickly trees" tune. That would spoil your appetite. We can but only wonder what Frank Ifield And The Backroom Boys' Yodelling Song at 56, or Mel Smith's Another Blooming Christmas at 59, entailed.

29 Cathy Dennis - Everybody Move
Still going as a writer - she co-penned Diana Vickers' Once with the almost as fluently prolific Eg White and is one of a trillion people credited on that Boy George track on Mark Ronson's album - but let's face it, you don't need to hear this to know what it would sound like.

28 U2 - Mysterious Ways
As you'd imagine there's a lot of U2 about online, but the one thing we cannot find is the advert for Achtung Baby with Burt Kwouk, or similar, and a falling Trabant. Anyone? Or did we dream all that?

27 Pet Shop Boys - Was It Worth It?
Not on Ultimate - perhaps they're embarrassed about the brusqueness of the contra-vocals in the bridge, or just that it was their first single to miss the top 20 since West End Girls, as it's about as well as Chris, with Brothers In Rhythm's production help, ever marshalled stadium-ready Ibiza house.

26 Altern 8 - Activ 8 (Come With Me)
Bassy rave kids in chemical warfare outfits and branded facemasks briefly become Future Of Everything.

25 Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit
It'd just finished a three week top ten run and the fabled unseating of Michael Jackson atop Billboard was just three weeks away. It's entirely possible there are people who think Kurt always sang like he did on TOTP.

24 New Kids On The Block - If You Go Away
Their last top 20 single, and as hardly anyone this side of the pond, and increasingly few that side, have noticed their reformation that's how it's likely to stay.

23 Lisa Stansfield - All Woman
And so a million cash-in compilations prominently featuring Eva Cassidy get their name.

22 Vic Reeves And The Wonder Stuff - Dizzy
Vic's Christmas single was actually a cover of Abide With Me produced by The Grid, which could only make 51 while this was still hanging around. It's not coming across as entirely dignified from this distance, and thus much like Vic's recent work, but a reissue of I Will Cure You is surely overdue.

21 Digital Orgasm - Running Out Of Time
Goodier must have sweated kittens when this one came up in the running order.

20 Salt-N-Pepa - You Showed Me
A cover of the Turtles song that the Lightning Seeds also had a go at. They were struggling a bit already.

19 Kate Bush - Rocket Man
A pop reggaefied - pop reggaefied! Kate Bush! - cover from an Elton'n'Bernie Taupin tribute album, the video to which features her playing ukelele, predating modern mores by nearly two decades.

18 Human Resource - The Complete Dominator
Human Resource as a band name? Only in the rave days.

17 Martika - Martika's Kitchen
Written and produced by Prince, ergo full of innuendo. Though we always liked the reaching too far double meaning reference to "the latest jams".

16 East Side Beat - Ride Like The Wind
Fear hope, all ye who read the next few. It's a Christopher Cross cover by an Italian dance outfit, a form of reversioning that blighted us all then and blights us all now.

15 Jason Donovan - The Joseph Mega-Remix
Having bled the songs from the show dry, they put them all together with a dance beat.

14 UK Mixmasters - The Bare Necessities Megamix
Why would you ever do this? And you think labels will jump on anything now.

13 Simply Red - Stars
Finally, a semblance of something. This album was omnipresent at the time, estimated to have shipped 3.4m an providing a place in the market for big grandstanding Britsoul that the Lighthouse Family would come to sully.

12 Cliff Richard - We Should Be Together
It was no Saviour's Day.

11 Michael Jackson - Black Or White
How excited everyone got when Top Of The Pops premiered the video, with the car-trashing, zip-fastening sequence left in. All official versions on YouTube cut off at the end of the morphing sequence on YouTube, but if you have ever wondered here it is. The graffiti on the windows looks just so natural.

10 Shaft - Roobarb And Custard
Before this the Magic Roundabout-using Summers Magic, after this A Trip To Trumpton, Sesame's Treet and, yes, Charly. Dance acts tried various methods of working their magic on the TOTP stage, few as unsuccessfully as this.

9 Hammer - Addams Groove
Obviously the greatest record ever made.

Well, look at it: Hammer, apparently in urgent need of pepper that can only be sated by travelling to the spooky house on the hill, gets beheaded by the world's worst CGI and ends up doing curiously Egyptian-like poses in an unconvincing graveyard. Christina Ricci makes no more comfortable a supporting dancer than she did in her pop video-from-film debut a year earlier. Buffalo '66 seems both a long, long way away and much more explicable.

8 Brian May - Driven By You
Released less than three weeks before Freddie died off the back of Ford adverts. The order went in for drivetime rock, so drivetime rock we had.

7 Kym Sims - Too Blind To See It
Used to have an old Saint & Greavsie on tape that used this as backing for a bloopers bit. Otherwise, a lesser Keep On Jumpin'.

6 Guns N' Roses - Live And Let Die
Even by the standards of non-Jamaican musicians attempting to bludgeon reggae into a rock song the bridge on this version is inexpertly done, largely because Axl just bellows it in his usual timbre regardless of the change of backing.

5 Right Said Fred - Don't Talk Just Kiss
Their second single, so still coasting on the bald muscular ticket to an extent, though for someone so out and proud Richard Fairbrass does seem to take the broad heterosexual view in their first few singles. The hirsute one, what was his story?

4 KLF Featuring Tammy Wynette - Justified And Ancient
King Boy D and Rockman Rock strike some sort of belated self-referencing paydirt, this the fourth version one way or another of the central theme, and accidentally invent Scooter in the process (Stadium Techno, song called Fuck The Millennium, "respect to the man in the ice cream van" from Weekend). Their last single too, retiring the following May, assuming you don't count K The Millennium.

3 George Michael And Elton John - Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me
There can't have been any oxygen left in the building once they'd finished.

2 Diana Ross - When You Tell Me That You Love Me
The same position Westlife would later take the song to, and when Westlife can do a straight-up cover you know you're not in PB territory.

1 Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody/These Are The Days Of Our Lives
Freddie died on 24th November, the day after comfirming long-reported rumours he had AIDS in the days when the tabloids considered it the most evil thing of all. So this got hurredly shoved out within three weeks, spent another five weeks at number one and is reputedly the third biggest selling single in Britain ever, behind Candle In The Wind '97 and Do They Know It's Christmas. These Are The Days Of Our Lives had been the single before last, the aforelisted The Show Must Go On in the middle, and is now the familiar theme to some ageing men sitting around on Sky Sports.