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Music of 2013

I never did finish this, supposedly my customary end of year round-up, but I’ve dug it out of my drafts folder and polished it up a little. Better late than never?

A year of disappointments, perhaps. Hem reappeared after many years away and phoned it in, Richard Thompson continues in the vein that has seen my interest in his new material wane for a decade now, and my favourite band Counting Crows put out comfortably the worst live album of their career to date (but they’re back in the studio and hope springs eternal, right?).

Two shining exceptions to this wave of mediocrity; Ruth Moody‘s These Wilder Things and Jason Isbell‘s Southeastern (which I wrote about for Ryan’s Smashing Life, click it and read). These Wilder Things features the genius of Adam Dobres and Adrian Dolan, and you should take any available opportunity to see Ruth and band live. It’s a second helping of the easy-on-the-ear Canadian folk-pop that made her debut so appealing, with added guest gloss from Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker amongst others. The title track is a song of staggering emotional potency and showcases a singer and writer of great poise.

Midlake also returned, sans Tim Smith, songwriter in chief. I saw them at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds in August 2012, an improbable warmup to their semi-regular slot at End of the Road the following day. Still with Smith then, and with hindsight [perhaps raging against the restrictions of studio toil, they played an astonishing, vital, visceral set including some songs from the stillborn album we will now never hear. When Eric Pulido and Eric Nichelson appeared back at the Brudenell the following spring, I ought to have wondered if something wasn’t amiss. They made no mention of it, but the band had fractured, and were beginning the process of rebuilding that accompanied the writing of Antiphon.

It floats between the mellotron-and-flute floaty psychedelia of The Trials of Van Occupanther and the guitar-driven stylings of The Comfort of Others without being either, retaining the vocal signature even without Smith; sometimes unison or double-tracked, other times picking out the clever, unusual harmonies that betray their status as graduates of the University of North Texas jazz program.

 


9.11.12

I was in the air when the towers came down
In a bar on the 84th floor
I bought Philippe Petit a round
And asked what his high wire was for
He said, “I put one foot on the wire,
One foot straight into heaven”
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.

I was in a bar when they rigged the towers
Trying to leave all my sins
The barmaid asked my order
And where my mind had been
I tried to recall the high wire
Philippe and his foot in heaven
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.

The Low Anthem’s last album, Smart Flesh, is well worth your attention. This track in particular is one of the most glorious, articulate, intelligent responses to the events of 11 years ago I have heard.

With each passing year, the memories fade a little. With each passing day, Freedom Tower rises a little further towards its eventual 1776 ft height. Each September 11th, we are all New Yorkers for a moment.

11.9.01
In Memoriam


Music: Best of 2011 Part I

It’s that time of year again. Actually, it’s a few days late because I couldn’t decide what to put in, but let’s gloss over that and get to the good stuff. Strap yourselves in and prepare for a whistle-stop tour of music I enjoyed in 2011, laced with witty asides and the occasional marginally relevant anecdote. In two parts because it got a bit unwieldy as a single post once I’d embedded videos; this post covers albums, the second one will take in gigs and miscellany. Where I’ve already written something about the gig/album in question, the subtitle will be a link.

Albums

Counting Crows – August and Everything After: Live at Town Hall

In a move deeply predictable to those who know me, I think a Counting Crows album is the best release of the year. I’m cheating on at least two counts here, firstly because it’s a DVD, and secondly because it contains no new music. In fairness, it is also a CD/download album, but its well worth getting the DVD. Town Hall is beautiful, the lighting designer needs a medal, and Adam Duritz is still a be-dreadlocked whirling dervish of a frontman. He’ll never be particularly cool, but in 1993 he wrote some beautiful songs and in 2007 he performed them in front of some cameras. That’s really all there is to it.

June Tabor & Oysterband – Ragged Kingdom

It was a good year for reunited folk-rock colossi, and Shrewsbury Folk Festival had them both. But then they would, and this is why we love them. I saw a full set by June and the band in Nottingham in November, a gig marred by some of the worst live sound I’ve heard all year, but nonetheless a great night. Tabor’s voice ages like a fine wine, and the band are a more nuanced, delicate instrument than they were 20 years ago when they made Freedom and Rain. Their choice of material is eclectic but brilliant, and the result is an album garnering award nominations.

Graham Colton – Pacific Coast Eyes

The first four tracks of Pacific Coast Eyes are pure summer pop perfection. It’s not that the rest are bad, just that the  first four are inspired,dovetailing beautifully into a little song-cycle of unrequited longing, nostalgia and sunglasses. It also features the runner-up in my Best Sappy/Cute Lyric of the Year Award, narrowly pipped by Teddy Thompson (see below):

You weren’t standing with who you came with,
You told me your name, it was short for Elizabeth.
You don’t drink cos you can’t stand the taste,
You talk like a boy but you still like a little chase.

(As an aside, the fact that people have started writing nostalgic premature-midlife-crisis songs about being born in the 1980s (see below) is making em feel dangerously grown up.)

File away until the sun comes out again, then roll down the windows and enjoy.

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

Lucky Now is beautiful. Musically it wouldn’t stand out if you dropped it into the middle of his first album, but lyrically it has real immediacy. It is a song of sober, 2011-vintage Adams looking ruefully back. It’s also a song of New York. The rest isn’t quite as lovely, but nonetheless a worthy addition to Adams’ substantial discography.

The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

Suffers in comparison to their live performance only because they appear to accomplish more with less. Their vocal performances have grown since they made this record, and most of the overdubs don’t bring much to the party. If you can, see them live. I’ve got tickets to see them in Leeds in March, and there are still tickets for some of the tour dates at the time of writing. That said, this is still a pretty remarkable clutch of songs.

Wilco – The Whole Love

Continuing Wilco’s slide towards middle-aged mediocrity, or the best instalment yet of their third age? The Whole Love has convinced me that Wilco are alive, well and maturing like a fine wine. Those of us who had our concerns around the time Sky Blue Sky emerged and were only partly assuaged by Wilco (the album).

It reminds me a lot of REM’s Automatic for the People. There are string arrangements and Wurlitzer electric piano textures. There’s also a sense that the best has probably passed by now, as has any sense of trendsetting or avantgarde, but that none of that really matters. It’s good stuff, it’s very Wilco and it has none of the hesitancy or laid-back laziness that at times killed Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the album). It’s the first album on their own label, dBpm, and between that and their own festival (SolidSound) they’re fast turning into a cottage industry. Try the first track, below, and revel in the wonderfully bipolar nature of Wilco in 2011, swinging from weird, ambient noisemaking to glorious Nels Cline guitar solos via Jeff Tweedy’s driving, sinister verses. Long live Wilco!

Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing

Glorious retro-fest filtered through 21st century indie rock sound. It’s the Rolling Stones via the Black Crowes with Eagles harmonies as played by the bastard offspring of Band of Horses and Wilco, and it makes me grin like an idiot. This record has so much groove it’s ridiculous. I tried telling someone it sounded a lot like T.Rex and Led Zeppelin, and they looked at me like I’d gone mad. Had I continued and told them that there are hints of early Elton John or early Bowie in “Astronaut”, I have no doubt they would have asked me to stop flaying their sacred cows and leave. It’s true though; “Street Fighting Sun” is pure Zep, “Your Crying Eyes” is Bowie’s Suffragette City for a new generation. Is it original? Not terribly. Is it fun? Hugely. Is it bizarrely cool this year? Apparently so. And, thanks to the benelovent indie god that is SubPop, you can listen to whole thing for nothing on YouTube (below). Do so, then decide you’re going to buy a copy anyway.

Teddy Thompson – Bella

Deserves a place on this list simply for the line

I guess it’s good loving that I want the most
Someone who turns my bread into buttered toast

but would qualify anyway, with a slew of catchy melodies and clever lyrics like this. Teddy’s voice gets better with every passing year, as does his sense of a good pop song. I have the feeling he’s building towards a truly brilliant album at some point, but until then this is a very, very good one. If you can, see him live, especially if it’s just him and a guitar in a cathedral.

The Wailin’ Jennys – Bright Morning Stars

More than ever before the Jennys are pulling in three disparate directions. David Travers-Smith produces once again, but there’s too much slow, jazzy contemplation. Opening track Swing Low, Sail High is gorgeous, but the good vibes dissipate quickly and leave behind a disparate, patchy collection of songs. Lovely in places, but I haven’t bonded with in the way I did with Firecracker.

Gillian Welch – Harrow and the Harvest

Eight years is so long to wait for an album that it’s almost impossible for it to meet with expectation. Not bad by any stretch, but part of a trend towards inconsistency that started with Soul Journey. That said, if your decline starts with Time (The Revelator), there’s a lot of room to make good music on the way. Revelator is desert island stuff for me, and probably something of a miraculous one-off even by the high standards of Welch and Rawlings.  The Harrow and the Harvest is good, great in places, but dull in others. At its best, you believe every word Welch sings, and yearn to sing along, to join the tales of lonesome souls. David Rawlings is still a genius, his guitar parts and vocal harmonies top notch as ever.

Gemma Hayes – Let It Break

Not a bad album, but suffers from being compared to Hayes’ remarkable and underappreciated back catalogue. Her first album, the Mercury-nominated Night on my Side is gorgeous and her third, The Hollow of Morning, is a delicate, harrowing collection that still transports me to a transcendent set at the Bodega in Nottingham whenever I hear it. I played it nine times the following day; I doubt I’ve played Let It Break nine times since I got it.

 

OK, so that’s albums. Tomorrow, good gigs I went to, EPs and assorted other musical things that aren’t full-length albums and a few thoughts for 2012.


The Staves + Paul Thomas Saunders, The Navigation, Nottingham 6/12/11

A little delayed by work and Christmas, here’s my full review of this gig. Parts of the below formed a piece I wrote for Ryan’s Smashing Life, written as a preview of the Staves’ support of the Civil Wars next month in the States.

A new venue is always cause for celebration, albeit sometimes with caution. The Navigation is a pub by the canal and isn’t really new at all, but is under new management and they’re booking music. They’re also playing host to what smelled like a pretty remarkable burger-making operation. Note to self: next time, don’t bother having dinner before you go.

It’s probably a good thing I can’t remember the name of the first act, a local support, because his Jeff Buckley impression was so painstakingly, studiously crafted that to watch it fall so inevitably short was really quite uncomfortable to watch. It should be obvious to anyone that it’s a futile thing to attempt, but it’s also about 15 years late.

Moving swiftly on, the first two proper acts up was Paul Thomas Saunders. By way of a disclaimer, or at least some background, I should say that I’ve known Paul a long time. We went to school together for a while, and he was in the better of the two teenage rock bands that formed around that time. We played at some of the same gigs. I then had the good fortune to end up in Leeds at the time his previous band reached their peak. It could be said I’m fairly au fait with his oeuvre, if you’ll excuse the rampant francophony of that sentence.

With that taken into account, it’s all the more astonishing that he managed to deliver a set that was at once surprising and familiar to me. Above all it was impressive. During songs Paul and band oozed confidence, overcoming the challenge of the sound, not to mention a few talkative audience members, to deliver their carefully crafted slices of ethereal pop.

Paul has assembled a stellar band of sonic magicians. A guitarist who plays his effects pedals like another instrument, layering textures and fading chords into complex walls of delay, aided by keyboardist Kate’s Wurlitzer chords and strong backing vocals. Long-time drummer Ali leant power and poise to the arrangements, giving them huge dynamic range.

With this trio behind him, Paul is free to sing, something he is really rather good at. His vocal range is huge, extended by a smooth, powerful falsetto that lends itself to the dreamy, echo-drenched songs that populate his set, typified by Appointment in Samarra, below.

The Staves

Our headliners took the stage around 9pm.

I first encountered The Staves supporting The Civil Wars at the Union Chapel Islington in September. I wrote at the time that

Given the unreserved seating at the Union Chapel I was never going to dawdle on my way to the Northern Line but when a music journalist friend said that The Staves were “the best new band in the country”, I made doubly sure I was there on time. Hundreds of people were queueing round the block at 7pm, and we were not disappointed. The Staves, a trio of sisters, appear to have taken the ethereal close harmony stylings of Fleet Foxes and done something distinctly English with them. Stunningly precise and accurate singing, charmingly humble chat and elegant writing. Their debut album, produced by Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year. I’ll be queueing up.

In essence, not a great deal has changed since then. With no Grade I-listed venue to add gravitas and reverb, it wasn’t as dramatic a performance. Instead, we were treated to an intimate show with plenty of chat.

The Staves are Camilla, Jessica and Emily, sisters from Watford. Conveniently blessed with complementary vocal ranges, they sing in close harmony, accompanied by Jessica’s simple-but-effective Paul Simon-like fingerpicked guitar.

Whilst on first listen they belong somewhere in the Fleet Foxes/Midlake/Low Anthem ballpark, seeing them live reveals that they’ve taken these ethereal close-harmony stylings and done something distinctly English with them. Unlike the Mumford/Marling-type response to that particular US nu-folk pack, they’ve done something that appears both genuine and natural, powerful but never forced. They are wise old heads on young shoulders, and if you’re ready to spot them you can hear the influence of Simon & Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills & Nash in their harmonies and Joni Mitchell in their phrasing. They sing with an awareness of the power they wield, more knowing than naive.

They also sing with astonishing precision, seemingly able to start and stop singing together, moving from solos or duets to full three-part harmony without cues, snapping suddenly into unison for a line before  swooping gloriously back into lush, full harmony again.

Their Mexico EP is out on December 11th:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/preorder/mexico/id485033701?i=485033705

http://www.amazon.com/Mexico-EP/dp/B006BZ8442/

Their debut album, the first ever collaboration between father and son producers Glyn and Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year.

They support The Civil Wars on tour in the US in January 2012, followed by more UK dates in February in support of Michael Kiwinuka.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that I managed to write an entire piece about them without once mentioning cunnilingus. Unlike the Guardian.


Tender Mercies review at rslblog.com

I reviewed the eponymous Tender Mercies album at Ryan’s Smashing Life. It’s a great record, and an honour to write my first piece for RSL. Go and read it, then have a browse of everything else Ryan and co are doing. If you subscribe now, you’ll get his near-legendary end-of-year best of list, which never fails to unearth something that I’ve missed during the year.


9.11.11

A few thoughts on the events of ten years ago.

We all remember where we were. I was at school. Rumours flew, a memo went round instructing teachers to turn off televisions, senior management terrified of traumatising kids. By the end of the day, everyone knew something had happened and no-one knew what that thing was. It was a sensation we were unused to; peace had reigned in Northern Ireland for some time, we were a post-Cold War generation with no real idea of what a threat to our way of life would look like. This changed the moment my brother and I walked through the front door to find our father watching BBC News 24.

Television was how most of the world experienced the events of September 11th 2001, and the subsequent events of the decade since that day. I remember watching the live footage of Baghdad the night of “shock and awe”, the fall of the Saddam statue, Col Tim Collins’ speech (both the original and the subsequent dramatisation). I finally saw United 93 this year, which is as shocking because of the chaos and incoherency of the initial response as it is moving because of the bravery of the people on the plane. Both live and after-the-fact with the gloss of Hollywood applied, the pictures were thrust into our living rooms.

And then there were moments when the shockwaves invaded your real life. I watched the 7/7 London bombings unfold on the news, but two weeks later on the 21st was in London, a 17-year-old work experience kid, when a second set of backpack bombs failed to go off but nonetheless brought the city to a standstill. Panicked phone calls, confusion, loved ones not knowing where we were. I had a tiny taste of the chaos wrought on my capital.

There is a scar on the landscape of Manhattan. Your first view of the skyline is a shock, even years later. My joy at crossing the Queensboro Bridge in a yellow cab from Kennedy airport and seeing Manhattan strung out along the night time horizon was tempered by the knowledge that the far southern tip of that string of lights was not how it used to look, how it looked in pictures or on TV. Three days later I made the pilgrimage that every tourist makes now. By this time, October 2009, there was little to see. Construction proceeds apace.

I haven’t really shown these photos to anyone before, simply because they are not of much photographic or artistic merit. Still, they stand as memories, the moment I went and bore witness to the rebuilding.

Ground Zero, 8th October 2009

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2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

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