Here are some (not six) of this year’s (or not) highlights, picked today over all the others I’ve forgotten at the moment, probably just because it’s sunny out. The clankingindustrialgrindiwannadie column will have to wait for another day.
(And you can take PJ Harvey, Thao & Mirah, Lykke Li, EMA, William D Drake, tUnE-yArDs, Kristin Hersh’s autobiography, Tunabunny, every single fucking song on Everett True's half-year mix tape and PJ Harvey as read.)
NICOLA ROBERTS – Beat Of My Drum
LADY CHANN – Treble To Your Bass
Well, just listen to them! Aren’t they fantastic? Aren’t they? How much more pop could you squeeze into those two songs? Bursting with the stuff. Nicola’s chanting of “L! O! V! E!” and her sliding moans: aoooh ... The ridiculous boingy break in the middle. The fabulously under-glossed, kid-querulous vocals with their precisely slippy attitude to tuning. All ace. And Lady Chann, feistiness personified, clippity-clop hoofbeats behind her, twisty tune unfurling above, drilling the words into the head of anyone who’d dare disagree with the persistence of a small neon woodpecker: irresistible.
PATRICK WOLF – House
It starts like some tune from years ago, a shimmery electropop school disco number, all keyboard skirls and slow growing glory. Wolf’s vocals, dark and glossy and mannered, reminding me of the chanteurs of my childhood, the twinkling Billy, the Orchestral Manoeuverings; you can just see the billowing white shirts, the floodlights, the DRAMA. It heads off into its own thrum, whirling gracefully about the chorus like that unselfconscious arms-wide-open dance you’d do at 15 when your heart was swelling fit to burst with the nowness of it all.
It turns out to be about settling down into domestic bliss, in a lovely house, with Suffolk stone and love all around, delighting in the turning of the seasons and the laying down of roots and even in the certainty of eventual death. Perhaps it takes the recognition of cold oblivion to relish the ordinary warmth of life.
Not very rock'n'roll. But very wonderful.
MECHANICAL BRIDE - Umbrella
How to do a cover version. Make it anew. Change the mood. Give something sassy and pop a chiming melancholia, so the words that emerge through the bells and the piano lines and the strings are those of heartbreak and pleading, drenched with longing for the rain which will come, which will inevitably come. Oh, and be good. Sing like you're warding off disaster.
I don’t love this more than Rihanna’s version, but I do love it alongside it.
Ella, ella, ella, ay ay ay…
KING CREOSOTE & JON HOPKINS – Bats In The Attic
I know nothing about either of these men. Almost nothing. One is Scots. One is an electro kid. They make this, this gentle folky howl of a song. It’s beautiful. “And no doubt it's the white flour in my diet, it's going to be the death of me, sweet drumroll for those embittered big ideas. It’s such a waste of all that we had. It’s such a waste of all that I am,” he sings. It would make granite weep.
SWIMMER ONE’s remix of WITHERED HAND ‘Love In The Time Of Ecstasy’ is not from this year but is so marvellous that you should hear it anyway. It’s another apparently ‘folk’ song given the electro treatment, opening it up and sharpening the edges. This one is deliciously unfolky in its tropes. Which is all to the good.
Withered Hand - Love In The Time Of Ecstasy (Hunterheck mix) by Hunterheck
“Why did Nirvana ever bother to play here?
Hey there, I don’t want to stay here ...
And this town, this town is killing me now, I can't believe I waited so long,
From the shopping trolleys on the riverbed to the sound of the bass bins booming
Can I see your face in this acid light of another suburban evening?
As I roll my eyes up to these dirty skies till I count the days till I am leaving”
Actually, it’s another Scottish folk song. So many good things from Scotland at the moment. The growly feline gorgeousness of Pumajaw (whose forthcoming album will surely get its own moment of glory). The afore-mentioned Swimmer One (pulling influences from Jane Siberry, Kate Bush, the Pet Shop Boys and sounding just like themselves). Those foul-mouthed darlings, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, both separately and together, here covering Slow Club. Yup, my heart is yours, you Scots, ‘unfaithful servants of filthy, fucking language’, as Mr Withered Hand says.
And if it’s not Scotland, it’s Canada.
BRAIDS – Native Speaker
Braids are great. Even better to see them live, to know how young and dorky they are, how all four (two boys, two girls) are brow-furrowedly engaged in constructing the sound. Which is math-boy clever but has a big pop heart, filled with loops and samples and uneasy noises and twin delayed guitars rippling through it all.
“ … and what I, and what I found is that we
we're all just sleeping around.
All we really want to do is love.”
(This version isn’t quite as punchy as the recorded one but it’s worth it to see them. Watch the keyboard player making the noises at the beginning and the singer trying – failing – not to swear. God, they’re adorable.)
ORCA TEAM - I'm Waiting
ORCA TEAM - I'm Waiting
Here's a perfect 2'11'' of icy pop. "The sound of a surf made of tears crashing on the glacier shores of Antarctica" says Mike whose record label, HHBTM, releases Orca Team (excellent name). It's haunting, removed, in the sense that it comes at us through walls of chill fog or from the past or from the darkness outside the party. Being cynical, pale and definitely no California Girl I quite like the idea of cold surf music. It's rather a startling video, too.
EVERYTHING EVERYTHING – Man Alive
This could be it. This could be it. Doom on you, as my kids are fond of saying, doom on you, all those who insist that pop music now is only endless rehashes of the past, that there’s nothing new, that the olden days were the best and kids today, eh, kids today, Simon Cowell, Simon Cowell, BeiberBeiberBeiber. Fuck that and nyah nyah nyah to you: if this could have been released at any time other than NOW (2008 at a push, given that the magnificent single, ‘Suffragette Suffragette’, came out at the end of that year) then I challenge you to name it. (Yep, this is a round-up of 2011 and I am making a point about modernity, so what if the album came out last year? These are my ears, all right?) ‘Suffragette Suffragette’ is key, of course: it has growlingly macho basslines that periodically come crashing in between the verses’ perky stabs of synths like a hot drunk, shirtless man sweeping glasses from a table and swings from swagger to fey in a breath, while the remarkable Jonathan Higgs sings in the shrill, lust-raw tones of a man totally overwhelmed by the rules of sexual connection.
“My death throes, this – indefinite pose, her flesh codes – inconceivable – oh suffragette, suffragette I wanna be outlawed and AWOL – no alphabet can be used yet no cassette is available – oh, I dunno how, I dunno how I’m going to reset my whole radar – forget, forget … Who’s going to sit on your face when I’m gone? Who’s going to sit on your face when I’m not there? ( … And the ball's in your court; in the court, your balls)”
Oh the words! So many words. I don’t know when I last pored over the lyrics on a sleeve like I have with those on this clever, brilliant album. Self-aware po-mo bunnies that they are, Everything Everything know the mechanics of a pop song and are happy to turn it in on itself and unlock the cogs when necessary. Man Alive is spiky enough to unsettle and delight, whether in the chill/cool manner of their fellow-silverspacesuited-travellers Metronomy, the jerky XTC-isms of Field Music or the muscular restlessness of Wild Beasts (Two Dancers and its sexed-up dynamics rather than the newie, mind), but there are enough moments of absolute, glorious beauty (yeah and yer actual TUNES) to allow it a seat in the category of swoonsome rather than simply sorted. Cos they know what’s what. They have a political canniness that so many fêted bands don’t at the moment, apparently not being able to pull their self-satisfied heads from their sunkissed Brooklyn arses long enough to notice the world collapsing. Everything Everything know that it’s all about the collapse and the horror, but it’s also all about the sex, because humans keep on with that even as the walls fall in on them. Witness the bombsite jitters of 'MY KZ YR BF':
And you’ve got to keep on at it with them. Keep yer ears peeled. It gets better the deeper your go; you’ll get your nightvision soon enough and then the subterranean depths will glitter for you. Promise.
And, let’s not forget, they performed at Glastonbury wearing taupe boiler suits and bright yellow wellies. Good work, lads.
The final 75 seconds of BRIGHT EYES’ final song on The People’s Key. No, scrub that, make it the final 10 seconds. Just them. ‘Course you have to listen to the rest of it too, otherwise it’s meaningless; instead of being a floodgates-opening epiphanic distillation of Conor Oberst’s latest project it’s just a word. But, whoa, that word. It gets me. That deep grainy old man voice. The world-weariness, the rolling of the ages, the peace. “Mercy,” he says. “Mercy.” This album might sound like a big jaunty potluck pop feast but it's actually an elegy for the awful, fallible, wondrous humanity. How fucking sad it all is, how random and disastrous, the broken hearts, the broken world, the staring into the abyss, but how beautiful that humans carry on. Hold hands. Fight. Carry their love with them.
"One for the righteous, one for the ruling class,
One for the tyrant, one for the slaughtered lamb.
One for the struggle, one for the lasting peace,
One for you
And one for me."
As for writing about music, the site I read more than any other (except for Collapse Board, naturellement) is the UK’s DrownedinSound. And the DiS writer I read more than any other is Wendy Roby, who breezes through the weekly singles column in a style so apparently mannered, ickle-girly and sugary you’d want to brush’n’floss afterwards. First time I read anything by her I hated it. HATED IT. Why would a woman caricature herself in such an extreme way, as if childishness, incompetence and petulance were hard-won laurels to be flaunted? It seemed the height of self-disempowerment. But she introduced me to good stuff. The fact that she’d write ‘exactly’ as “HEGGS ACKERLY!” or drop an “Oh, how perfectly dread!” into the mix like a flighty female Bertie Wooster mattered less the more I read. She name-checked Dave Eggers last week, and I had an “Ah ha!” lightbulb moment.
However, her style is utterly her own, and that’s surprisingly rare in the great grey tides of internet opining and has got to be to her credit. She refuses to pander to notions of tick box reviews; she’s as likely to describe how the circumstances in which she was listening to the single in question (at her mum’s house over roast dinner; on an iPod while riding her bike; moping over a broken heart) have affected her appreciation of it than bore on with facts. So I like her a lot. I’ve come to terms with the girlieness, because why the fuck not? The world has enough cock-led gonzo lads writing about music via the aggrandizing of their own drunken exploits, why privilege that style over something explicitly feminine? There’s room enough. She might be whimsical but she’s no shrinking violet. She is astute, bright, funny, inventive, fierce, sorted. As a comment under her column had it recently, “I enjoyed reading about these songs much more than I enjoyed listening to them”. Tick.
DiS has its other gems, despite having a readership that shows its best side on the lively community discussion boards but bays like unfed hounds when denied simple things such as descriptions of what the music sounds like or a proper appreciation for back catalogue. So my next nominee is Chris Trout, who was recently called a “douche” by a disgruntled reader for not providing the standard review fare, instead handing over a meandering, witty, critical disquisition on the state of music, far more interesting than trotting out the usual. Here’s the debate which ensues when the readers try to tell him how he ought to review records: it’s a fascinating argument about what is expected from criticism. And them readers aren’t ever going to win. Also, check out his own website, which, among other highlights – it’s all worth reading - has a wonderfully constructed, intelligent, cantankerous, funny (really funny) dots-joining take on last year’s best albums; it’s not in any way a list, mind, more a rambling autobiographical essay about loving music. Anyone – that’s you, that is – needing to read why Arcade Fire “are as punk rock as a battered shoebox full of gerbils dipped in Crazy Color at their own request” start here. I dare ya.
Finally, here’s a quite astounding piece of writing on my other favourite UK site, The Quietus. Neil Kulkarni has written here on Collapse Board before so you might already know what a passionate, funny, insightful writer he is. (Ngaire-Ruth describes reading his stuff as "like skateboarding, while hitched to a rare, classic car, driving, at speed, in zigzags through bustling city streets". Quite so.) This (another autobiographical essay) is fantastic: a three-part look at life growing up in Coventry as a second-generation immigrant through the music he listened to and loved. It’s like nothing else you’ve read. So go find it.
PS: Do musicians writing about cooking count in the listeners writing about music stakes? You get to the same place in the end anyway, whether you start off from pate or Pavement. So, here is Luke Fucking Genius Haines' food blog, peppered liberally with excellent swearing and copious amounts of booze while talking you through rabbit stew and Hawkwind. "Leave the whole fucking shebang cooking on a low, low heat for another hour, or until you hear 'You Shouldn't Do That' bursting out of your kitchen at the end of CD2 of Space Ritual. If Hawkwind are saying 'You Shouldn't Do That', I'd listen to them, cos whatever you're doing must be pretty bad if Hawkwind are telling you to stop doing it. The stew is done".
Compare and contrast with Steve Albini's food blog, which shows him - as if we needed telling - to be as meticulous in his cooking as Haines is slapdash. But quite as equally entertaining and often just as filthy: "Most of the red meat I've eaten recently has been grilled by Tim Mydhiett in his back yard. He masters a beautiful ceramic egg barbecue oven and tends to rub things on his meat* before sticking it in there*. Lately he has been using a rub of finely-ground espresso, salt, pepper and sumac, and it has been exceptional every time I've had it ... I didn't have any sumac so I used the other spices for a whiff of the exotic. Yma Sumac was a Nice Jewish girl from the Bronx named Amy Camus anyway".**
*You'll have to go to the blog to get the footnotes.
** It's worth it.
First published on Collapse Board
First published on Collapse Board