Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Age of Fatigue: 2012's best albums

1. Sweet Lights - Sweet Lights
Highline Records

While consistently releasing fine records as The Capitol Years up until now, Shai Halperin’s career reached its zenith with this, his new recording moniker. His taut yet engaging songwriting is complemented by the fact Sweet Lights is, lyrically, a labyrinthine beast that is at one moment caustic, at another vulnerable and constantly passionate. A complex masterpiece of sophisticated pop that draws on George Harrison, Surf’s Up-era Beach Boys and most of all, ELO and 10cc, Halperin’s latest is a record that is both startling on first listen and constantly revealing itself as a deeper understanding of it is sought..

2. The House That Jack Built - Jesca Hoop
Last Laugh Records

Hoop’s third album was not quite as strong as 2009’s Hunting My Dress, yet it still was an irresistible, moving example of the Californian’s originality as a songwriter and her poetic, often bizarre lyrical subject matter that covers all of heated sexuality, childhood whims and death. The beauty of Hoop’s melodies is in the foreground throughout, but it is when she draws on rhythm, on ‘Peacemaker’ that the album reaches something a little more supernatural, and disturbing. 

3. Port Of Morrow - The Shins
Aural Apothecary

Having been around for so long now, in one incarnation or other, and beloved by people who don’t really know anything about music, you would be forgiven for expecting The Shins to be heading into irrelevance. But Port Of Morrow ended up being uncompromisingly brilliant, Mercer’s wordy songs both aggressive and fragile and framed by arrangements and instruments much more inventive than on previous albums. Opener ‘The Rifle Spiral’ cemented itself as one of Mercer’s finest songs, while ‘Bait and Switch’ tapped into the melancholy kind of exuberance that made him an outstanding writer in the first place.

4. Kadavar - Kadavar
Tee Pee

The Berlin trio blasted their way across Europe in 2012 without really penetrating in the UK or US. But this is a record anyone who appreciates anything about heavy rock should savour. The thumping of ostensibly simple riffs is joined by some mesmerising, but never quite ostentatious, solos. The mournfulness of Blue Cheer is here, as is the flesh of Black Sabbath, along with the contemporary rock structures as favoured by a band like Black Mountain. A jolting yet hazy exercise in brutality. 

5. Lonerism - Tame Impala

Tame Impala’s sprawling, prog-infused second album contained less immediacy in terms of hooks than their debut, instead this was a fascinatingly dense collection of songs from the frazzled mind of Kevin Parker. As may always be the case with this band, there are peaks and troughs, but there are also several moments of kaleidoscopic magic that mark Lonerism as a landmark Australian release. These include the stunning changes of pace in ‘Apocalypse Dreams’ as well as the fade-in intro of 'Keep On Lying'.

6. Plumb - Field Music
Memphis Industries

Two things were key to the intrigue on the Brewis brothers' latest. Firstly, there was its length, at 35 minutes substantially shorter than 2010’s Measure. The songs are direct, unequivocal things that do not linger on brilliant instrumental passages as on Measure, and the shift in approach is a telling one when you consider the album’s second point of import: its ideology. Plumb is full of shaded references to austerity and frugality. Field Music’s excellence moves into new realms. 

7. Mad Love - Cheval Sombre
Sonic Cathedral

Christopher Porpora, poet and musician from New York, is the man responsible for this blissful collection that demands constant listening. Its overall sound is one of morphine, or lying afloat on the ocean, thanks to its drenching in reverb and echo. The songwriting is simple but affecting, such as on ‘I Fell In Love’ or opener 'Someplace Else'. The satisfying, druggy drone of ‘Couldn’t Do’ provides variety and completes a record that is, as Porpora himself describes it, a “long, delirious swoon”. 

8. The Russian Wilds - Howlin' Rain

One of the reasons Ethan Miller took so long (four years) to follow up Magnificent Fiend was that, under the directorship of producer Rick Rubin, he wanted to hone the new songs live, fully realising them before entering the studio, making recording as smooth as possible. Of course, with this approach the album dies by the strength of its songs, which are mostly exceptional. Miller’s voice has arrived at a staggering degree of soul and emotion, while The Russian Wilds exhibits a Rundgren-esque mixture of innovative rock and touching songwriting.

9. Sic Alps - Sic Alps
Drag City

Sic Alps moved on from their fine 2011 album Napa Asylum by generally eschewing Nuggets-style lo-fi in favour of some silkier (for them) songwriting, where melody is to the fore. There will always be a certain scratchy quality to a Sic Alps record, yet Mike Donovan covers both love and loss on Sic Alps’ terrific latest with earnestness and soul, even if a dash of irony and at times something a little disturbing still arises from time to time.

10. White Manna - White Manna
Holy Mountain

White Manna’s debut is hardly a beacon of innovation or a heralding of new frontiers in rock, but the Californian band are still a hugely powerful proposition. Arguably the best all-out psych album of 2012, this is hard, visceral and drawing on vintage punk in the same way Wooden Shjips or the Black Angels do. ‘Don’t Gun Us Down’ proves them capable of something neater and more precise, but it is the sprawling relentlessness of tracks like ‘Acid Head’ that characterise the record.

11. Sugaring Season - Beth Orton

For all the fact that motherhood and loss (the death of Bert Jansch and to a lesser degree, John Martyn) inspired Orton’s first album in six years, Sugaring Season is driven by the same spellbinding songwriting gifts that elevated her above the Britpop crowd in the 90s. The style remains in the mould of Jansch, Richard Thompson and others in the folk-rock canon, with opener ‘Magpie’ beginning a series of majestic tracks that culminates in the quite breathtaking ‘Poison Tree’. Her soft but resilient compositions make Sugaring Season one of her best.

12. The Clearing - Bowerbirds
Dead Oceans

It was a case of Bowerbirds’ promise being finally realised on their third album, an intelligent and heartfelt effort that showed much more depth than their first two LPs. The songs are more subtle and demanding, although Phil Moore’s sonorous voice remains the hub around which the Bowerbirds’ tender sound revolves. There is also a sense of humour on The Clearing, moving songs away from just the pastoral - admittedly something they do very well. It all sounds so effortless and natural, the sound of a band becoming ever more confident and comfortable. 

13. Total Loss - How To Dress Well 
Weird World

The restraint shown by Berlin-based American Tom Krell on his debut was quite staggering, particularly when you consider the realms he was playing with: 90s R&B along with ambient and soul. The luscious sound is the first thing that hits you, followed immediately by the expert songwriting. These tracks are shimmering, coy things that hint at sensuality as well as all the great melodramatic emotions that pop can evoke. At first, the album seemed a bit long, but in fact, it is all completely necessary. 

14. World Music - Goat
Rocket Recordings

The fuss over World Music was entirely justified, as this is an extraordinary and irreverent record that explores a surreal, fragmented domain, channeling feverish jungle music, tropicalia and untamed psychedelia into one weird, infectious soup. The voodoo flavours can even be a little overwhelming and intimidating at times, but you cannot fault Goat’s rather psychotic intent, with every track containing something extraordinary, if unnerving..

15. Here - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Rough Trade

The view that Alex Ebert’s band are just a load of hippy nonsense is understandable. But there were things about their second album that surely elevated them above such criticisms. There is variety and thought on Here, with songs such as ‘Man On Fire’ (a Johnny Cash-fuelled stomp) and ‘Mayla’ (a primitive, and not entirely successful spiritual thing) exhibiting two ends of Ebert’s spectrum. The best moment is actually from Jade Castrinos, on the impressive ‘Fiya Wata’. It's just a shame they had to spend half the year supporting Mumford & Sons. 

16. Fragrant World - Yeasayer

Not as good or as well-rounded as Odd Blood, nor as breathtakingly frenetic as All Hour Cymbals, Fragrant World had its limitations. But Yeasayer did, still, come up with a number of stunning songs that sit well against anything from those two fabulous records. ‘Longevity’, ‘Blue Paper’ and the wonderful ‘Folk Hero Shtick’ were the standouts, while there weren’t really any truly weak songs. It’s just their own high standards that they failed to meet when considering Fragrant World as a single piece. 

The Sparrow - Lawrence Arabia
Bella Union

There were things that categorically didn’t work about Lawrence Arabia’s third album, such as the fact James Milne is still layering on the eccentric, absurdist persona a little too thickly. But the strength of the songs here carries a generally intriguing record that is a fine follow-up to Chant Darling. ‘Early Kneecappings’ and especially ‘Legends’ rival any song Milne has written, even going back to his Reduction Agents days, although a change of tack will be in order fairly soon. 

The Family Tree: The Roots - Radical Face

Released in the US in October 2011 but in the UK and Australia in January, Ben Cooper’s second LP was a highly accomplished alt-folk concept album, record in a shed. Cooper’s imagination runs far and wide, here addressing the dynastic tale of a family throughout the generations. His detached and fragmented delivery of this makes it constantly interesting, while the songs themselves, while needing a little attention to properly appreciate, are a vast improvement on Bon Iver, who Cooper is regularly compared with. 

19. Beard, Wives, Denim - Pond

It was silly, but it was fantastic. The camp theatricality of the strange little man that is Nick Allbrook may have shocked those in the UK and US who only know him as the relatively staid bass player in Tame Impala, yet there was a lot of substance behind the extravagant fa├žade. There is movement and colour to their caffeinated psychedelia that no other current band really exhibits, while the collective smile that permeates Pond’s music is hugely attractive. It helps they are stunning live, too. 

20. Out Of The Game - Rufus Wainwright

His weakest album by far, but still an enjoyable listen, with gleefully playful lyrical content and a couple of songs that prove that despite the operas and the morbidity of All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, Wainwright is still happiest in pop. ‘Jericho’ recalls the wonderful production of Marius de Vries on the two Want albums, while ‘Perfect Man’ is also Rufus at his bombastic best. The humour of ‘Rashida’ is also a welcome addition, with the Mark Ronson experiment proving successful if not spectacular. 

Friday, 30 March 2012

Review: Bad Weather California, Sunkissed

Bad Weather California: Sunkissed

Positivity and an outlook of sunshine and roses, in music as in all art forms as in life, can sometimes be accused of gross naivety. So those who believe that profundity can only come from heartache, realism or ideology should approach Denver's Bad Weather California with some caution. These are four young men who have unabashedly chosen life.

And frankly, when it is done this well, with equal parts musical imagination and all the vivid lyrical colours of adolescent vim, it's very hard not to get on board. Bad Weather California may well irritate some, but in themselves they secure a blissful state of inclusiveness, good humour and, oddly, a kind of meditative calm. From the rock and roll of 'Freaks and Geeks' to the ska-indebted 'I'll Reach Out My Hand', this is unadulterated glee.

The quartet, who are not exactly in the first flush of youth and whose members have meandered in and out of bands since the 90s, have been around for seven years for two significant facts up until this LP. They had released one previous, well-received album on a smaller label (Sunkissed is out on Akron/Family's Family Tree), and they were once backing band to Daniel Johnston, although it is difficult to locate any significant common ground between the two. Bad Weather California are fine musicians, clearly value production and steer away from heartbreak and anything particularly psychological.

Over on the band's predictably exuberant website there is a declaration that Bad Weather California are "taking misfit culture back to the streets" and that the punk ethic runs through their work. But this seems a slight misjudgement – at no point do they approach anything like anger, while there aren't even very loud. But then again, neither is there any strong sort of lazy, mellow, stoned or dappled-by-the-sun feeling. Then there is the charming 'I'll Sing Along', a quite unexpectedly accomplished ballad acting as a measured and calm conversation among the ebullient celebrations of the rest of the record.

To fully express their blissful disposition, they explore close to the full gamut of all those styles that are most suited to joy. The result is that the sound Bad Weather California achieve in the outbursts of high-jinks and youthful pleasure that are their songs (as well as their more staid moments) is often thoroughly reminiscent of Devendra Banhart's fine 2009 album What Will We Be. Both artists invest in the high-pitched, tinkling guitar that is meant to represent carefree high spirits. What Bad Weather California bring to it in abundance, however, is additional funk and sexuality – it is not quite a childish or innocent form of delight we are dealing with.

That's not to say that the spectrum of rock is their sole inspiration. The album's most gripping and satisfying track, 'Let It Shine', featuring call and response vocals and such suggestive lines as "If you don't mind if I go down low shout oh oh oh oh", has such a gloriously perverse instrumental line as to hint at The Beastie Boys and libidinous soul.

There is cock-sure swagger, to be sure. There are also a fair few skater references, but as they themselves would advocate, we must look past that and see just the positives.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review: Field Music, Plumb

Field Music: Plumb
Memphis Industries

The first thing to get out the way with this exemplary album, which given the critical respect Field Music now garner surely stands as a major release of the year, is its length. Whereas their 2010 masterpiece Measure stood proudly at 70 minutes (and not a second too long), Plumb is finished in less than 36. And within that, there are some 15 songs, suggesting that the Brewis brothers have become quite brutal self-editors, or indeed something significant has changed in their approach.

In fact, the songs themselves are not so different to Measure. That same percussive energy persists, as do the terse little Talking Heads-style refrains and the harmonies that manage the trick of being sonorous and beautiful, as well as somehow demanding and dangerous. 'A New Town' is an example of that – beneath the sophistication of their instrumentation, production and arrangements, lurks a sense of desperate urban unease that has been with them ever since 2007's Tones Of Town and has also been a feature of Peter and David's respective solo albums.

This feeling is mostly conveyed through their remarkable words, which are both poetic and distinctly gritty at the same time. Kitchen-sink drama would be an insubstantial way of describing it, but banal domestic scenes and grim references to the unsavoury running about of 21st century life define their imagery. This is most poignant on the album's finest track 'Sorry Again, Mate', a neatly packed triumph putting one in mind, as is often the case with Field Music, of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. It's the bombastic chorus matched by the lonely and isolated vocals of the verse that does it. And also like Genesis, childhood and nostalgia sweeten the mood further on Plumb, such as on the wistful 'From Hide And Seek To Heartache'.

Meanwhile, 'Choosing Sides' and 'Guillotine' are fascinating in their subtle and atmospheric depictions of life amid financial ruin across the land. The messages that lurk within their art often exist so peripherally as to easily pass the listener by, especially when you have such strange and ambitious prog-infused, orchestral pop music behind it.

The brothers' desire to incorporate chamber music and that awful buzzword, 'baroque', into pop music is one they have talked about frequently, but they can balance that with what is an innate instinct for the accessible and catchy. As well as the elaborateness of both classical music and prog, they are fans of Prince and Funkadelic ('A Prelude To Pilgrim Street' heads in this sort of direction) and let's not forget they were once part of a tight-knit Sunderland collective with The Futureheads.

And it's a love for the immediately satisfying that perhaps explains why the album is half the length of its predecessor. It's not that the point they are making is less complex or intricate (or brilliant), it's just that that want to make it a lot quicker, in order to get this latest project out the way and continue on their restlessly eclectic journey.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Simone across the desert

Despite being someone who believes the apogee of life to be a lengthy train trip in a sleeper compartment overnight across some continent or other, I have only ever been on three such adventures. This is due to the constraints of time and money as well as, on one gravely disappointing occasion, striking public transport workers in France when the trip was to be Zurich to Barcelona.

When I was about seven I took a night train from Sydney to Melbourne, before going on to Phillip Island. Then 12 years later I was one wretch among many in lower class during a rather warped re-enactment of 'Marrakesh Express' on a 10-hour journey between Tangier and Marrakesh. Then in 2011 I went from Prague to Budapest. And that's all.

Most can surely relate to the cosy satisfaction that comes with such journeys, what with the rhythmic movements of the carriage to go to sleep by and the forced inertia acting as a holiday from any acts of doing. But upon reading Simone de Beauvoir's fascinating America Day By Day, her account of a four-month journey across the USA in 1947, I have discovered what must be the most succinct and beautiful description of why such an experience is so childish and exciting that was ever committed to print.

She writes of riding from Chicago to Los Angeles:

I pull the rough green curtains, fix them in place, hang my dress in the closet, and arrange my things in the mesh bags. The window is covered with a blind, and I switch on the little light above my head. On the other side of the thin partition, people come and go in the corridor; yet no room with thick walls has ever given me this feeling of relaxation and calm. This sleeping berth I'm stretched out on is more than a bed; it's a whole dwelling reduced to the dimensions of a bed. There are childhood memories associated with this pleasure. I remember a weeping willow in which I made a house, a large canopied country bed with heavy curtains, and that dark compartment where I loved to hide under my father's desk. Psychoanalysts see in that a desire to return to the maternal womb, but this language is too symbolic and doesn't clarify anything. My berth is not the recollection of lost happiness; it gives me a satisfaction sufficient unto itself: it is refuge, solitude separation. The tension and fatigue entailed in every existence originate in other, larger forms of existence; in these berths stacked on either side of the corridor, like tombs in the galleries of the Catacombs, each person achieves an absolute solitude. This nocturnal dwelling evokes the peace of the funeral chambers at Mycenae and Cerveteri; no appeal from the outside world can penetrate here. My life is now longer pulled in different directions or tied to anyone or anything; it has closed in on itself in the silence of death. I turn off the light and shut my eyes. I feel the rhythmic movement of the train as it rolls into the unknown; this movement also brings me peace - the peace of an alibi. Not only am I separated from everything, but I am not situated at any particular spot in the universe: I'm just passing through. I have no more ties to the earth, no more desire or curiosity. The sleep that pulls me from this world is in in harmony with the rolling of the train, which minute by minute denies me any unique place in it. That's probably why my sleep is always so refreshing on trains.