This year, I’ve been mostly listening to…

It’s that time of year again. A long time since I’ve blogged but you can always count on the fact that once the end of year lists start rolling in I won’t be able to resist sticking my two pennies’ worth in. I’m making a change from previous years; after reading this excellent article by Laura Barton I’ve decided to ditch the countdown approach of old. I’m simply going to share details of the albums that have given me the most musical enjoyment over the last twelve months. Commentary will be kept to a minimum – I’ll link to a taster to see if you might be keen and if you want to know more then leave a comment and I’ll respond.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead
An unashamedly rootsy album which sees a well-timed break from the concept approach favoured of late. Each track is stripped down to its core elements of throaty, impassioned vocal accompanied by music so raw it often feels like a live album. Slick production has been eschewed on this record and it set a trend which became a theme through the finer albums this year. Meloy always sounds great but whoever came up with the idea of getting Gillian Welch on board deserves the credit for turning a good album into a great one.

Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

The first DCFC album to embrace the more electronica approach of the Postal Service but with less immediate melodies. The album still boasts some great moments of Gibbard flair for memorable hooks- the title track could be straight off the latest Arcade Fire latest record. It was an album that took me a long time to like but really hit home when I listened to it on my iPod when running; it too easily becomes audio wallpaper when left as background music. Doors Unlocked and Open is probably the standout track – indulging a slow build intro as has worked on past records. It marks a contrast to the vapid ‘You are a tourist’ which is nothing more than Gibbard by numbers and was a baffling choice of lead single. ‘Stay Young, Go Dancing’ neatly finishes off proceedings as a reminder that the crafting of wistful grin inducing pop may not have dominated this album but is a gift that has not been abandoned.

Ages and Ages – Alright You Restless

A very very retro record. Listening to it feels like peering in on a boozy how down. Expect scruffy guitars, handclaps, group singing, and an urge to reach for a bottle of the good stuff. If you like the idea of Jack White singing Creedence then this will hit the spot. They’ve been described as ‘raw choral pop’ and I can’t think of a better way to describe them.

Wilco – The Whole Love

The latest offering from Tweedy and pals opens with statement of intent; fractured, mixture of beats and Tweedy delivering an almost ethereal vocal; bit of a red herring as rest of album is uniformly warm respectfully borrowing elements of White Album and Abbey Road to deliver delightful songs (Capitol city in particular is pure Lennon/McCartney). ‘I might’ is classic Wilco – essentially the sound Spoon et al have sought to ape with union if percussion and bass to create sense of direction. Unlike many albums this year (including some on this list) it feels like a complete work, carefully crafted to leave an impression rather than a collection of barely related songs.

Beirut – The Rip Tide

A little surprised they haven’t been more heavily promoted given the recent trend of Mumford etc. No bells or whistles here; beautiful vocal delivery conveys simply crafted emotionally gripping songs. One standout element is how brass is used to add gravitas. So many bands of late have thought chucking in a tuba automatically adds weight when in fact most of the time it overpowers the song; not the case with Beirut.

Fruit Bats – Tripper

The old adage that anything associated with The Shins is worth listening to holds true with Fruit Bats. The vocal at times is akin to Jake shears. Don’t let that fool you into expecting an album of disco pop. ‘Banishment song’ could be Air, with glacial, sparse arrangements reinforcing the sense that separate elements have been carefully and deliberately arranged to produce a clean soundscape.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s a Corporate World

Finally someone brought the fun to 2011. Flavoured with more than a light touch of hot chip this album pulses with innovation and a desire to entertain. There is a terrific flair for a hook and melody throughout the album balanced with a real ability to communicate both pleasure and introspection. To top it all off it contains a quite stunning Gil Scott cover.

Dawes – Nothing is Wrong

Honest simple melodic joy. There is an earnestness about Dawes which keeps them on the acceptable side of sentimental and encourages you to connect to the lyrics. If you are expecting unpredictable, innovative soundscapes then look elsewhere, but if you are partial to a bit of Josh Rouse and/or Jackson Browne then you really should give this a listen.

The Strokes – Angles

The posturing, ‘look at me’ cool of Is This It has gone and part of me is a little sad about that. However the switch from calculated indifference to bubbling exuberance has produced a gloriously positive record which is pitched firmly in the eighties. It might not scale the heights of Room On Fire (very few albums have) but this is destined for a place in my heart. For a large part of 2011 if you wanted a great going out record – this was it.

The Black Keys – El Camino

After a lot of reflective, introspective music threatened to engulf the musical landscape in 2011 thank fuck for the Black Keys. I am a lover of The Eagles of Death Metal and didn’t feel anyone else was quite capable of their raucous, scuzzy fun – then came El Camino. An absolute belter of a record that you want to start again immediately after it has finished. It might sound like an album stitched together from various other great rock bands but when it sounds like this frankly who cares?

The King’s Will – As The Power Falls

During the late summer surreal spectacle that was Manchester United’s humiliation of Arsenal, I was introduced through a friend to a fellow United fan. Surrounded by a sea of opposition fans in the heart of Highbury a friendship was quickly forged. Views on football, politics, etc were shared and all was will until it came to the issue of music. My new acquaintance revealed he was part of an electronica poetry outfit and he would love me to listen. As articulate and interesting as he seemed, the very idea of electronica poetry had me expecting a hellish cacophony of pretension which I would have to pretend to tolerate in a bid to appease my friend. Listen to the song below, chuckle to yourself at what a fool I was to doubt it, and then go listen to the rest King’s Will. Sometimes music is fun, but on a rare occasion music becomes necessary. This is the latter.

If you like and want to know more get in touch with the creator: @okwonga

Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

The heavenly Miss Marling seems to have taken on a more experimental approach and it works magnificently. Clearly overflowing with songs so rightly putting them out there (Ryan Adams style). This is admittedly less cohesive than her previous albums, yet triumphs as a collection of dazzling independent songs. Capable of epic and gentle – often in same song like on the captivating Don’t ask me why.

Radical Face – The Family Tree: The Roots

An album packed with deceptively intricate arrangements bringing together reflective lyrics and variety of instruments. At times the Bright Eyes influence is clear but I would not be surprised to find Elliot Smith cited as an influence. Like Beirut they seem perfectly pitched for recent trends and in my view are superior to some of the ‘new folk’ groups already enjoying considerable success.

Adele – 21

Yes I know, this makes me deeply uncool. How can I select something that has sold loads of records, been ruthlessly promoted and provided the first dances for countless doomed marriages. Yet when you ignore all that, you’re left with a woman with a phenomenal voice, connecting with and conveying the emotion of some quite brilliant songwriting. I don’t believe commercial success should make you unworthy of critical acclaim so this is mine.

Yuck – Yuck

Oh God, Yuck are like, so trying to be the Smashing Pumpkins… I’ve heard this and largely agree with it. However I do think some people get bizarrely hung up on influences – they aren’t ‘ripping off’ Corgan and co, rather are producing some of the finest reverb soaked music around in a style not a million miles away from the early 90s. I can’t see a problem with it myself and have spent many an enjoyable run/cycle/drive relishing every track which could easily be a single in its own right.

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

By his standards Adams had been away for an unforgiveable length of time with fears that he might never be able to play again. Thankfully his creativity never left him and when the opportunity arose to get back in the studio the results are astonishing. It is far from a secret that I have long been an admirer yet if I’m honest the last two albums with The Cardinals were little more than decent. Ashes & Fire couldn’t be more different – inspired by Laura Marling, Adams rediscovered the fire to prove he is the finest song-writer of his (or arguably any) generation and the result is an utter masterpiece.

>What was the space dog called?*

>I know I have been neglecting my blogging duties and can only apologise. I have promised a good friend with an imminent birthday I’d review an album for him so here goes…

Astro Coast by Surfer Blood

Astro is a very exciting word. Seriously. Stick it in front of a more mundane noun and you transform it into something exciting and mysterious. No company could successfully market ‘fake grass’ so instead we had hoardes of New Labour money flushed headmasters eagerly shelling out for ‘ASTRO TURF.’ The Farm are an uncomfortable repetitive dour scouse beat combo from the early nineties, yet when you add Astro they become an animated family trying to get by running an agricultural business on an asteroid; who could ever forget ASTRO FARM? It’s basically The Wire in space. Even the short lived, ill-fated ‘biscuit smarties’ were briefly a top seller at Lound Road garage purely because they were called Cadbury’s ASTROs. All of this means I cannot help but admire the moxy of Surfer Blood before I even listen to their debut album. They have cautioned against any possible laissez-faire attitude with a simple edition of the magic word. So onto Astro Coast we go…

The album opens with Swim – a song if you didn’t know who it was by you have probably heard used to make an exciting montage link on TV. It has a catchy pop hook ready made for festivals and chugs along at refreshingly merry pace. The first interesting point to note is the singer is a fan of The Shins. In fact his dream appears to be James Mercer singing covers of sadly short-lived britpop phenomenon Symposium. The vocal effect could be lifted straight off Oh Inverted World which when placed in a garage rock track should be a disaster but actually works extremely well. Despite this New Mexico vocal flavour the predominant music influence is avowedly British. I have heard this group compared to Weezer and I will no doubt address that later in this review but on first song alone they are more reminiscent of early Feeder than Rivers and co. This British influence bleeds into track two which would be at home in the background on This Life or even on the seminal indie-comp Shine Too. Floating Vibes is much more interesting than Swim and thankfully reveals a band with more depth. The melody is still rightly free of unnecessary noodling but the elements on this track are far more effectively balanced producing a richer sound which provides a platform for some really interesting realist song writing reflecting on the fragility of early success. This is a surprising topic for a band at such an early stage of their own career and shows stark self-awareness that brings to mind Alex Turner (though lacking comparable talent of lyrical composition). Take It Easy regretfully never escapes the spectre of a Vampire Weekend off-cut which blunts any impact. For me this is the first candidate to be a skipper. It is not alone – not every track on this album maintains the highest standards of quality (Neighbour Riffs – the point?) but that is to be expected on a debut album by a young band.

I have to say on balance though I’m really impressed; there are elements of a truly exciting band – the interplay of vocals particularly in the use of harmonies shows a real grasp of how to craft a song. Again unsurprisingly for a debut album the influences are worn on the sleeve including Room on Fire era Strokes (Harmonix), Wes Anderson movies (Twin Peaks) and Pavement (Catholic Pagans). The standout track of the latter half of the album – and possibly the whole album – is Slow Jabroni which though abysmally titled is a majestic slow-burner which subtley builds to a crescendo. This song must be festival gold. It is also the only track for me which warrants the Weezer golden period comparisons. The slow burning build is reminiscent of Only In Dreams and I can see how reviewers have jumped on this. However – and I mean no malice when I say it – to compare this album to Blue and Pinkerton is wholly wrong. At no point on any level does it approach the brilliance of either of those two albums. Lyrically and musically Blue and Pinkerton deserve to be considered two of the finest albums ever made. I actually think it is wholly unfair and detrimental to Surfer Blood for lazy critics to trot out the comparison. Cuomo’s descent into self-parody in recent years has ignited a yearning for early Weezer and this pressure is wrongly being thrust onto raw bands like Surfer Blood who as this album shows possess huge potential.

As an album this certainly contains far more positive moments than filler. Ultimately though it fails to be truly memorable and too often sounds like songs ‘in the style of’. I will definitely continue to take an interest in Surfer Blood and look forward to them developing their own sound. On this evidence they have a long road ahead but are certainly moving in the right direction.

Six and a half out of Ten.

*If you’ve made it this far I applaud you, the dog’s name was Dinko

Published in: on 23/08/2010 at 9:10 am  Comments (2)  

>Mr Sparkle!

>As stated in my Pavement review, I suffer from considerable guilt over bands I should really be familiar with yet no little about. Sparklehorse are one of those bands. The first experience I had was of their collaboration with Danger Mouse and David Lynch (Dark Night of the Soul) which is one of my favourite albums of the last year. It seemed natural therefore to dip into the history of this band; sadly there will be no future as Mark Linkous tragically took his own life earlier this year.

Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot – by Sparklehorse

The album I chose as my introduction to Sparklehorse was there first from 1995. It is revered in American Indie circles and it was with lofty expectations that I approached listening. It was a distressing experience for me to discover the cover as I have a deep fear of clowns as a result of my caring if misguided father’s decision to choose It as a family film when I was about eight. He went on to repeat the trick less than a decade later as we all sat down to American Psycho. My theory is he likes watching films on his own. Anyway I digress, the origin of Viva is an unusual one as it was recorded primarily by the band Cracker for whom Linkous was a guitar tech and occasional collaborator. From unorthodox beginnings has emerged a terrific album. I was anticipating a darker tone to the album as I didn’t realise Linkous’ overdose came after the release of Viva. The real strengths of this album are the way simple, quite old fashioned songs are delivered in a variety of styles; from stripped down, Wilcoesque backing on the incredibly charming love song Saturday to the rambling experimental interlude Little Bastard Choo Choo which wouldn’t be out of place on the White Album. As a great lover of The Strokes I admire a band who refuse to make room for self-indulgence and the way in which songs are brought to a swift conclusion adds to the rhythm of the album. Personally the highlight of the album comes on the seventh track ‘Most Beautiful Widow in Town.’ The acoustic backing is minimal so as not to detract from the magnificent imagery of the tale of unrequited love which really made me sit up and take notice of why Linkous is so highly rated.

many years later
the glassy month of December
I stood with my hands in my pockets
trying to avoid
a shiny wedding portrait
hanging on that old woman’s wall
‘cos I knew you’d be wearing a smile
that’d be too painful to look upon

Maybe it is the theme that made me make the connection but 29 by Ryan Adams came to mind when listening. It would be wrong to identify Linkous as possessing a show-stopping or even unique voice but the delivery is tender and seems to invite the listener into his very private world meaning Linkous is a great communicator of emotion and as a result this is a great album. I look forward to discovering the rest of their back catalogue and it is a great thrill to embrace an artist who has influenced so many of those I adore. Listening to Viva is like listening to the roots of Willy Mason, Ryan Adams, Ben Gibbard and Ben Kweller and on that basis alone it could be destined to become one of my favourite albums.

8 1/2 out of 10