• A Look Back at 2009

    Feb 24 2010, 12:02

    2009 was a year of musical disappointment.

    The award for the biggest let-down goes to The Dodos' Time To Die, a mediocre, fuzzy, numb album with none of the joi de vivre contained in 2008's Visiter. I love Visiter; it hangs together as an album rather than a mere collection of tracks. It's brimming over with energy, full of sharp percussion and robust, intricate guitar fingerpicking. I can't tell you where Time to Die went awry, but I suspect it's a combination of writing for 3 musicians instead of 2 and being produced by Phil Ek. The album sounds like it's by Fleet Foxes. I like Fleet Foxes – but I liked The Dodos too.

    Another album that revealed the importance of producers was The Dandy Warhols' The Dandy Warhols Are Sound. Back in 2003 the Dandys released Welcome to the Monkey House, a wonderfully fun pop-rock album with a synth twist. It sounded smart, snarky, and redemptive: highlights include We Used to Be Friends (an upbeat track about drifting apart) and You Were the Last High (sex as a drug, and overcoming that addiction). But this wasn't the way the band wanted it to sound: they delivered their first cut of the album, and the label had it mixed by a different producer. The Dandy Warhols Are Sound is a release of the original version, and sadly the big, bad label was right. The original mix sounds murky, slow, and boring as hell. Welcome to the Monkey House can still excite me.

    Other let-downs include Sufjan Stevens' The BQE (an ample demonstration that Sufjan should never, ever neglect his strengths as a singer & lyricist), Kings of Convenience's Declaration of Dependence (although their older albums are patchy too), Richard Hawley's Truelove's Gutter, and The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love (veers closely towards being a parody of The Decemberists). It was nice to get a new Camera Obscura and Maxïmo Park album, but neither drew me in and stirred up my passions in the way their previous records did. A lot of people liked The Raconteurs offering and The xx's debut, but I found both drifted in one ear and out the other.

    2010 is already shaping up to be better; two months in and there's already several highlights. OK Go have given us their first LP for five years – a wonderful barnstomper that you will grow to love. It's sarcastic, melodic, and demands you turn your headphones up loud. Four Tet's There Is Love in You, forming one unbroken track that sweeps along atmospherically and is reminiscent of Upular. There's an MC Frontalot album in the works which I fully expect to have me gushing in my nerd-pants, and new albums from The Divine Comedy and Frightened Rabbit. I've heard Frightened Rabbit's, and it's good, but I don't know yet if it's as magnificent as The Midnight Organ Fight. We've also got a new Midlake album, but the less said about that the better.

    I'd like to see new albums from the Arcade Fire (it's been 4 years since Neon Bible!) and Miracle Fortress, who released the utterly astounding Five Roses in 2007 and then went dark.

    2009 wasn't a complete write-off; there were some staggeringly good releases. The best was Bromst by Dan Deacon, an almost indescribable album. I've never heard anything like it; it's electronic, and complicated, and busy; a mishmash of buzzes and tiny samples and overdubs. But it works – it's melodic and accessible. It's also full of life; it makes me want to dance and hug people. Wild Beasts released their second LP, Two Dancers, which took their music a step forward without leaving their original appeal behind. It's still brimming with braggadocio and public-school sex, and is easier to get into than their first. Clint Mansell's Moon is the only album that makes me play air piano. Tarot Sport by Fuck Buttons is an electronic, swirly, exciting album similar to Bromst that's way more listenable than their previous releases – they deserve to have a wider audience after this.

    Metric's Fantasies really excites me, as does Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix. Please and Thank You by The Broken Family Band is also their strongest album yet, where every track's a winner; a fine farewell. God Help the Girl's eponymous debut took a while to grow on me but I love it – you've got to think of it as scenes from a musical about student life. Maybe it's because it makes me fantasise about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but I find the confluence of confidence, insecurity, and naïvety of the main character utterly compelling. Finally, Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh brought us The Duckworth Lewis Method, a concept album about cricket. To call it a comedy album would be selling it short; The Age of Revolution is the finest slice of baroque pop 2009 served up, and Jiggery Pokery is Neil Hannon at his arch best. It's a fun album that's not quite the one-trick pony you expect.
  • A Thousand Albums to Hear Before you Die

    Nov 17 2008, 9:54

    A year ago The Guardian published a list of 1,000 albums to hear before you die. Rather than aim for a list of the 1,000 best albums - boring! - it was intended as a miscellany; an array of albums slightly off the beaten path. Gems and runners-up from the greats, forgotten treasures from everyone else.

    I went into the first supplement with an air of some smugness. As a broad listener I figured I'd have heard most of the albums on the list. Boy, was I wrong. I'd barely heard of most of the artists, let alone their work. And so I started to listen to the albums, tagging them as I go. What have I learned 1 year on?

    The first thing I learned was that I was not nearly as much of a broad listener as I thought. So far I've heard about 210 albums. This sounds like a lot but it means I'm only about 21% done; at this rate I will finish sometime in 2012, maybe around the London Olympics. Having some 'directed listening' has been fun, and exposed me to artists and genres I've not really considered before - for better or worse. Here's some of the highlights:

    From Gardens Where We Feel Secure - Virginia Astley
    This record is tremendously relaxed and oddly English. I would love to listen to more of Astley's music if I could find any. It is gentle and delicate and intimate, in an oddly vague way.

    The Dark Side Of The Moon - Pink Floyd
    I can't say anything original about this album. You've already listened to it. It's extraordinary. You should listen to it again.

    Innervisions - Stevie Wonder
    Apparently Stevie played every single note of this himself. It's a perfect, upbeat 70s record.

    Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
    I have never much cared for Wilco, but whenever I listen to this record I find myself asking why that is. Fans of the band hold this as near-mythical as its production/release was plagued by locusts¹, but you don't have to care about that to enjoy this.

    Stormcock - Roy Harper
    Good luck finding a copy of this, though word on the street is it's been re-released on CD. I have a soft spot for sensitive men from the and with acoustic guitars, and this album hits all the right places. It's kind of reminiscent of Mike Oldfield, in that it's not really divided up into tracks; instead, it's more like movements that develop and evolve. This was the first album from the list that really sucked me in. It's not on the list but while we're talking about hard-to-find sensitive men from the 70s, Jimmie Spheeris' Isle of View is worth tracking down.

    Odessa - Bee Gees
    I was totally surprised by this one on two fronts: once by it not being falsetto disco tripe, and second by me not hating it. Unlike the others on this list I don't think it's an amazing album in itself, but it certainly confounded my expectations. I was expecting men from a Joy of Sex illustration in sequinned suits singing about ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin' alive and instead I was pleasantly surprised.

    Chairs Missing - Wire
    Pitchfork gave this a rating of 10.0 out of 10. Even if you hate Pitchfork you should like this. It's accessible , with a pleasing crunch and edge to it.

    The Undertones - The Undertones
    Eveyone knows Teenage Kicks, but everything else on this album is as notable. I don't think any track is out of place or a drag.

    And I suppose this wouldn't be complete without listing some of the stuff I've hated. There were quite a few that were not to my taste, but there's only a couple that deserve a special mention. The others just faded away and I wouldn't listen to them again - although there's a curious pleasure in trying something out and discovering, for sure, that you don't like it.

    Biograph - Bob Dylan
    Not because it's a bad album, but because I listened to it back-to-back without any pauses. I nearly went insane. That much Bob is not good for you.
    Black One - Sunn O)))

    As a project I'd recommend it to most people. Find a list (there are plenty of them about) compiled by a person or organisation you like and have a listen. If you're a fan of music (rather than a narrow stream of artists) you're bound to find a few artists and albums to love, and gain a broader perspective on your listening as well.

    ¹ This is metaphor. There were not actual locusts.
  • Miracle Fortress

    Apr 6 2008, 1:44

    I am pathetically, hopelessly in love with Miracle Fortress. I have been since December, which is when I re-discovered their album Five Roses (sadly not available for streaming - boo). Back in June last year I snagged a copy after reading a short but favourable review in The Guardian. At the time I was getting through a lot of new albums, mostly based around what the Guardian recommended. I can remember sitting at my desk at work and listening to it on my iPod, and thinking "Man, this is good." Then work distracted me and I forgot about it completely.

    Miracle Fortress would next break into my consciousness in December when the opening track came up randomly in my MP3 player. I listened to the whole album for a second time, thinking "Man, this is really good". I played it again immediately. I've listened to it a lot since then. I can't recommend it highly enough. It sounds like my ideal relationship would sound - intimate, intelligent, delicate, and subtly quirky. Amazon will sell you a copy for £13.50 but you can find it on eBay for about a fiver.

    Back in December I was gutted to find out that Miracle Fortress had played in London about a week before I re-discovered them, so I was delighted when they announced they were playing in London again. Twice. I don't normally get crushed out on musicians/bands, preferring to remain somewhat aloof and rational about it all. Not so with MF, and without shame I bought tickets to both shows. As it turns out the second gig - the one they were headlining - clashed with a previously-scheduled trip to the dentist. The appointment that could not be rearranged. There was nothing for it but to do both in one day.

    The dentist, fortunately, was an amenable chap. "I'm going to a gig tonight and I intend to enjoy it," I explained. "I don't drink or do drugs so there's no side effects to worry about - so if you wanted to go somewhat OTT with the anaesthesia I'd appreciate it." He obliged, and after my root canal I trotted off to the gig with a numb face in a paracetamol/ibuprofen/codeine haze.

    Just before the support band took to the stage I spotted Miracle Fortress in the audience. Encouraged by my friend I trotted up to them and did my best to be charming, polite, and human. So obviously I ended up acting like a cloying, over-reverent fanboy. Thanks to the Novocaine there may have been some dribbling and mumbling involved too. I babbled; they smiled, and signed my CD. "Do you have a pen?" they asked. "YES!" I bellowed, thrusting a CD marker into their waiting hands.

    I was wearing my emo shirt that day - partially because it matched my shoes, partially because it wouldn't show the blood from the dentist. I ran off with my tail between my legs when the support band started playing. (They're The Joy Formidable and are rather good. They too are also not streamable on Last.fm. Boo.) One of my colleagues (thanks, lumberjack) told me that I should tell them I worked for Last.fm, so I re-approached Graham Van Pelt afterwards and thrust some Last.fm badges into his hand, chasing off an attractive woman in the process. He accepted them slightly hesitatingly, which is to be expected when a crazy person gives you something sharp and pointy.

    They played a good, if somewhat short, set. Fortunately I had heard some live recordings before the two gigs, otherwise I would have been shocked and disappointed. It's not that they're bad live, it's just quite different to the recorded sound. GvP's vocals are more gaspy; the sound is more harsh. It will not seduce you the way the album does, but you will enjoy it if you let yourself. I would have liked to hear them play their cover of Digital Love, but 'twas not to be. They looked like they had fun on stage and that's always nice to see - I like a band who enjoy what they do.

    The show on Wednesday was also good, though alas I missed about two thirds of MF's set due to a scheduling mishap and some not-so-fast food. I'd only heard one track by Patrick Watson (only one track streamable; boo!) and quite liked it but live I didn't think he was that great. If you locked Coldplay and Mogwai in a room and refused to let them out until they'd written something together, you'd have got the Patrick Watson set - plus he seemed just a little bit smug. I liked it when he climbed into the centre of the audience and sang Man Under The Sea unamplified; I liked it when they improvised a closing song; I liked it when he focused on his melodic side and didn't venture too far into the experimental (I found myself giggling at one point when their performance was screaming 'IMPROV' at me). It was good, it just wasn't astonishing.

    Graham Van Pelt hinted that they'd be back in London this December; I suspect my crush may still be alive and well.
  • The Smiths: A Perpetual Disappointment

    Feb 25 2008, 13:15

    I might be the only one who gets this, but when you listen to The Smiths, do you feel a nagging sense of disappointment? Of a great opportunity missed? They often strike me as a group that could have been wonderful, but were sucked down by a lack of musical imagination.

    My primary concern is an inability to write a delicate song. Pretty much every single song is placed on an ing bassline, even the delicate ones. Morrissey is so wrapped up in sounding arch and aloof he refuses to stoop to showing any emotion or vulnerability. The result of this is that dozens of musicians have done Smiths covers that far outstrip the originals. Compare, for instance, Scott Matthews' The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (MP3 available from Q Magazine's website) to the original The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. Or Joshua Radin's Girlfriend in a Coma with Girlfriend in a Coma. Both approach the originals with the tenderness that was always there and bring it to the surface. The original Girlfriend in a Coma plods along and stirs nothing, while the original Boy With the Thorn runs ahead of itself in a mad dash for the end, like it's desperate for the song to be over. If only they'd stopped, maybe listened to some Fleetwood Mac or Nick Drake, and realised "It doesn't have to be like this."

    To their credit they scrapped the oompah sound for How Soon Is Now? but Morrissey refuses to come down from his high horse, sounding arrogant, bored, and vacant. Compare that to t.A.T.u.'s - t.A.T.u.'s! - rendition (How Soon Is Now?) where they manage to sound like they actually care that they're crippled with loneliness. A pair of manufactured faux-lesbians stir more emotions than Manchester's most venerated poet. They had another stab with There Is a Light That Never Goes Out and actually knocked out a fairly decent bit of pop, but Neil Hannon had a crack at it and made There Is a Light That Never Goes Out which matches the mood of darkened underpasses and being crippled with shyness far more.

    The saddest thing of all is that The Smiths weren't oblivious to this. It's not like they couldn't do it. Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me gets it all right; a languorous introduction closed by a crash of guitars, followed by a kind of astronomical, open bit of music with tinkly peals of guitar. On top of this sits Morrissey's vocals where for once I can believe that he had his miserable existence brightened through his dreams. The sarcasm is put aside and the emotion shines through. Sadly, such tracks are the exception rather than the rule. It seems The Smiths are destined to always disappoint, and be remembered as a group that didn't realise how high they could reach.
  • Monkey Swallows the Universe.

    Gen 12 2008, 9:51

    Well, that was a disappointment.

    I really didn't enjoy this gig, though it's not the fault of Monkey Swallows the Universe. They played well, the sound was good, and the venue was nice. Unfortunately, this was marred by the audience - both in general (people talking) and specific (people talking behind me). The support, Champion Kickboxer, were also dire. Their songs were trying too hard to be clever - time signature changes, syncopation, and so on - but they were not clever enough to be interesting and not rocking enough to be engaging. Their overall sound was 'needs at least 2 weeks more practice'. MSTU themselves played a fine selection of their songs and rotated themselves amongst their instruments. The cello sounded a bit weird in places but I think that was the fault of the PA system; everything else about them was grand.

    I went to a gig at the Luminaire on Wednesday that was good but not remarkable enough to write about on its own. I'd never been to that venue before, but had heard many good things about it. As it was, I thought it was OK but it didn't knock my socks off. With 'if you're talking when the band is playing, we'll tell you to shut up' stencilled on the walls it felt a little heavy-handed. But after having what seemed like the entire rear third of the hall talking throughout MSTU's set I'd gladly swap a feeling of being lectured at for silence. That people do this utterly baffles me - MSTU is a fairly quiet, acoustic experience. As one of the loquacious three behind me observed "The two words that could not be used to describe this band are 'sonic assault'."

    This was the most relevant of their running commentaries. One of them was clearly quite a big fan, judging by the way he sang along to every song, hooted like a gibbon at the conclusion of each, and compulsively yelled "JIMMY!" whenever their back catalogue swam across his mind. The other garrulous observations about piss avocados, seducing gypsies, and gynaecological references to the band members were constant & unwelcome. Unfortunately they were bigger and drunker than I was so any inclination I had to ask them to be quiet or move to the bar was lost.

    To be fair people talked less towards the end but the mood was gone. The tall drunk fellow still hooted and bellowed; the earlier interruptions played on my mind. I don't regret going at all, but I'm still disappointed - I'd have rather seen them with a crowd of people who were there to listen.
  • Another dinosaur artist.

    Nov 7 2007, 16:34

    They're everywhere.

    Dinosaur Jr.
  • Another of our dinosaur brethren.

    Nov 6 2007, 19:01

    They are all rappy. Jurassic 5.
  • More dinosaurs.

    Nov 6 2007, 16:02

  • They're on the loose!

    Nov 5 2007, 18:47

    Dinosaurs are everywhere. Tyrannosaurus Hives.
  • The Decemberists

    Ott 3 2007, 12:41

    Tue 2 Oct – The Decemberists, Land Of Talk

    Someone at the BBC didn't much like the gig last night, but I thought it was rather enjoyable. Not necessarily superb, but good. To my shame I didn't recognise any of the tracks except the final encore (it turns out I have plenty of the early albums but none of the later ones).

    Compared to the Midlake gig at the Royal Festival Hall I went to back in April the sound was much improved, and this time the performers could remember the words to their own songs. Which helps. The performers all looked like they were having fun, and the finale (complete with the audience all screaming like they were being eaten by a whale) made me grin like an idiot. Which is a fairly good metric of a good gig, really - if you end up gurning with delight it was a good show.