If all the big mags can have end of year lists then so can we all, right? Yay for the democratising power of teh interwebs, or something… I’ve written about a few of them already, so I’ll just link to these with brief, flippant executive summaries and you can click through to the full reviews should you so wish. Consider them all recommended:
Too bluesy, but if that lets Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench show off a little, it’s probably not such a bad thing after all. Docked points for not touring Europe yet, about which I will continue to sulk until they do so.
The best Wailin’ Jenny cuts loose, makes solo album and tells us how she really feels, in the process writing a couple of heartbreakingly incisive love songs, meanwhile gathering around her a strong cast of guest artists including most of Crooked Still and her fellow Jennys.
LA band that no-one had ever heard of suddenly rocketed to, well, slightly greater fame thanks to Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz and his obsession with Twitter. They put the album up for free download, which many of us took advantage of. I wrote about it. They promptly retweeted my review and caused a small virtual stampede in the process. Great songwriting, tasteful banjos and mandolins, nice people, heartwarming story of modern day goodwill between musicians and music fans.
Brian Fallon and co return, make an album that isn’t quite as good, or quite as Springsteen-y, as The ’59 Sound, but seeing as how that was a slice of almost undiluted genius, this one is still quite good actually. Unfortunately, there are no Tom Petty lyrics hidden in this one, just a U2 line, which isn’t nearly as cool.
And now, the rest. I look forward to seeing whether you agree with my choices!
Midlake – The Courage of Others
Even if for no other reason, this would merit inclusion purely for the astonishingly detailed study the band made of early Fairport Convention LPs (see track 9, “The Horn”, for the best Richard Thompson impression anyone has committed to tape in recent years). Indeed, if I were scrabbling around for reasons to put this in, I could do worse than mention that they originate from Denton, TX, a college town home to the University of North Texas with a special place in my heart. As it is, it’s really not necessary to resort to such underhanded tactics, because The Courage of Others is one of the best albums I’ve bought in the last few years and a worthy successor to The Trials of Van Occupanther, a favourite that still gets a lot of play round these parts. TCoO is darker than TToVO (mmm…ungainly abbreviations) though, almost exclusively in minor keys and riven with a sense of foreboding and an epic scale. “Acts of Man”, “Core of Nature”, “In the Ground”; the song titles rightly suggest big themes and a kind of reverent mystery. “I will never have the courage of others / I will not approach you at all,” sings Tim Smith on the title track, just one of a number of lyrics laden with sinister couplets. The idea of cycles and seasons pervades a number of them: in Winter Dies, he sings
As the spring is made alive the winter dies
And the final cries of creatures are long behind
And full of spirit the village starts again
With one more year for a man to change his ways
amidst countless other references to the earth/ground, seeds, growing, dying, no more so than in “Core of Nature”:
I will wear the sun,
Ancient light through these woods,
Woods that I walk through alone
I will take my rest
Several of them have hymn-like qualities, resonating like big pipe organ swells, echoing like empty cathedrals with their choral harmonies. Woodwind textures feature heavily too, with the flute particularly prominent, all giving credence to the suggestion that Tim Smith harbours a latent admiration for Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
All in all an astonishing achievement, a coherent artistic statement the likes of which we see all too seldom from popular music in today’s major-label-dominated world. Give thanks then for Bella Union, the artist-run, London-based label with the faith to let Midlake create.
From out of a cultural drought, a long stretch devoid of any new releases that really excited me, emerge three at once. Three sparkling shards of American cultural output, missives from the City on the Hill.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album in eight years, Mojo, emerges in the same week as the third album from a band who count the Heartbreakers as a major influence; The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang. Completing the trio (but only available in the States at the moment…) is Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel Imperial Bedrooms, hotly anticipated by British readers until 2nd July.
My review of The ‘59 Sound was one of the first things I wrote on here, and is available for your delectation. The record is bound up inextricably with memories of last summer; finishing university, long train journeys, watching Glastonbury on TV. Just in time for another summer comes American Slang, arriving on a wave of hype and anticipation created, in part, by the band’s appearance at Glasto last year and Bruce Springsteen’s guest spot with them, affirming what is now a bond of mutual appreciation.