2010, Q1 – Album Update

Have I missed you? Greatly. Have I abandoned you depuis longtemps? Too right. Have I been selling my wares on Twitter and Tumblr like a woman of the night? Sadly, yes. Am I back here for good? Let’s hope so.

Enough of the rhetoric. I’ve cherry-picked seven fine albums from the first quarter of this year, and given them a brief bit of spiel extolling my love for them. Oh, and they’re kind of in an order of preference, which, I can assure you, was a challenge.

1. Transference - Spoon. In which the masters of concision pretended to loosen up a little, making a work of carefully considered ragged beauty. From the hesitant organ drone pulsing through opener “Before Destruction”, to the distant, measured funk of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, Transference makes every hyped lo-fi band seem overly amateur in their efforts – Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have laboured night and day to give their latest baby the kind of off-the-cuff aesthetic that only painstaking production can really pull off. Songs end abruptly, mid-phrase; Britt Daniel’s vocals are warped and garbled to heighten our disorientation. It’s an exercise in melancholy as art form.

2. Contra - Vampire Weekend. Gone are the campus tales of fun and frolicking that was the backdrop to my first year at university. In their stead are a range of musically ambitious, lyrically sophisticated compositions that are undoubtedly a bit less fun, but substantially more far-reaching. This, as I wrote previously, is about Ivy League graduates going out into the real world and discovering how out-of-touch they are. It’s there in the wistful, nostalgic tone of “Taxi Cab” and “Diplomat’s Son”; at the same time, Contra also has its fair share of zany pop moments, in the riotous early Police ska-punk of “Cousins” and the typeface-referencing “Holiday”. Contra is probably a superior creation to Vampire Weekend, even if it’s a bit less immediate and catchy.

3. Sisterworld - Liars. Not since their début have Liars made an album so song-focused as this, their self-confessed L.A. record. Sisterworld is sinister and twisted, and boasts the kind of gothic creepiness even Nick Cave shies away from nowadays. It’s scary stuff, especially when frontman Angus Andrew screams “AND THEN KILL THEM ALL!” in the middle of “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”. Elsewhere, the three-piece explore tight, muscular grooves (which go all motorik on “Proud Evolution”), and then suddenly veer into hazy near-instrumentals like “Drip”. Sisterworld reminds me of a more focused cousin of Deerhunter’s excellent Microcastle, albeit with the shoegazey moments being interspersed more evenly through the record, as opposed to being clumped together in the middle. Throughout, Liars display their usual dark humour that can make the listener wince, and then grin with wild, untamed delight.

4. Plastic Beach - Gorillaz. Possibly the finest Gorillaz album yet – though Demon Days set the bar very high last time round. The tenuous narrative arc is now quite removed from the music (preferring instead to manifest itself through the packaging, the online experience, and every other marketing avenue Albarn/Hewlett/EMI can explore), and the songs are probably all the better for it. Albarn hasn’t made such a startling variety of great pop music for a very long time – at least, not in one single artistic endeavour – and the breadth and depth of Plastic Beach is startling. On “White Flag”, he crosses extremely authentic Arabic orchestral arrangements with 8-bit grime; standout track “Sweepstakes” pits a multi-tracked Mos Def against polyrhythmic vibes and brass. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The only real mis-step is on 80s-synth-pop-by-numbers “On Melancholy Hill”, but even this has its charms, I suppose. The jury’s out on whether Plastic Beach does better when Albarn sings, or when he gets his Rolodex out. For me, I think the two sides of Gorillaz’ craft are now so utterly complete that it doesn’t really matter. This is the kind of intelligent pop music that reassures the chequebooks of EMI bigwigs, and also appeases music critics who were a bit suspicious of Albarn’s doubtless artistic largesse. I’ve said this a lot, but he’s a true polymath, and the proof is plain to see on Plastic Beach.

5. One Life Stand - Hot Chip. One criticism levelled at this fourth album from the south London electro-geeks is that it’s too saccharine; too lovestruck. To me, that’s a strength, not a failing. Yes, the in-jokes were dead funny on their previous three albums (“I’m sick of motherfuckers tryna tell me that they’re down with Prince” was one particularly witty lyric), but this time round, Hot Chip have finally realised that they are the true inheritors of our long heritage of great songwriters – to the list that includes Paul McCartney and Robert Wyatt, we can now append the names Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor. One Life Stand is built around a middle triplet of songs that are, yes, slushy, but that shouldn’t take away from their undoubted beauty and heartfelt emotion. They write great love songs, and they just so happen to perform them with predominantly electronic instruments. Why should that be so irreconcilable? And why don’t more bands use steel drums to such great effect?!

6. There Is Love In You - Four Tet. Not an album of dance music per se, but certainly an album of music you can tap your feet to, and swivel about in your office chair. The last album I said that about was Battles’ Mirrored, and indeed, Kieran Hebden’s long-awaited fifth LP shares with that album a sense of playfulness and joy at the primal essence of being alive, and connected to technology in a totally organic way. There Is Love In You practically bounces through your headphones, so enraptured is it with the thrill of existence.

7. Field Music (Measure) - Field Music. If you go on hiatus because you feel your music probably has too limited an audience, it’s generally considered surprising to return with a 70-minute double album that decants late period Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan into a heady cocktail. Nonetheless, this is what the brothers Brewis have chosen to do, and, happily Measure just about pulls it off, bearing testament to their vaulting ambition and artistic integrity. There are definitely weaker bits (the final quarter is overly bucolic and pastoral, if I’m being picky), but when Field Music shift into the correct gear on Measure, they really are at the top of their (admittedly niche) game. Songs like “All You’d Ever Need To Say” and “The Wheels Are In Place” are taut and structurally complex, and yet still fit into miraculously brief passages of time. The musicianship is unparalleled, the vocal harmonies are typically glistening, and it’s wonderful to have them back.

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