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Liquid Mercury

I think it’s been a pretty good year for British music, so far. While it’s certainly true that there have been fewer knock-out juggernauts emerging from these shores than from the US, the 12 month period beginning last July has seen a decent crop of albums bearing influences as diverse as chugging hardcore, electro-funk and krautrock. While we can’t win on quantity, the British albums that I’ve enjoyed this year have been of a very high quality, displaying a continued interest in the album format, and a willingness to break free from prior expectations and defy preconceptions.

Monday (I think!) sees the release of this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, and it’s inevitable that despite my wishes to the contrary, there will be some examples of female electro-pop albums not authored by Bat For Lashes. While I’m not at all averse to empowerment of such artists – and it’s definitely more welcome to my ears than last year’s trend towards female soul-singers – I do truly believe that very few of these artists have created consistently rewarding albums, and such should not merit a place on the shortlist. I would be naïve to think, however, that they would be ignored by the judges. Music industry pressure being what it is, the judges would be loath to omit a token nomination from the Florence-Roux-Boots brigade.

Here, then, is my predicted list of nominations, in solely alphabetical order. You’ll note that I’ve only suggested ten albums, which is two shy of the actual number – this is because I can’t claim to be any kind of authority in the jazz universe, and there’s also always an unpredictable wild-card for some long-haired middle-aged folk artist who lives in a hippy commune, communicates with the outside world by morse code, and creates music combining the sound of crashing waves with an unpronounceable wind instrument from Switzerland. I can’t begin to imagine who will occupy this spot this time round.

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns. Natasha Khan came close in 2007 with Fur & Gold, and I’m willing to bet that this year’s sophomore effort, with its retro-glossy production and further inventive arrangements, is a dead cert for the shortlist. Not to mention the fact that the songs themselves bear evidence of improved writing talent from Ms. Khan. Whether she’s wailing from behind a piano, or bashing exotic percussion whilst plucking an autoharp, the quality of the songs on Two Suns never lets up, and the album is unified by an intriguing conceptual theme that explores the outer reaches of duality and difficult romance.

Doves – Kingdom Of Rust. A lot has been said of Doves being this year’s Elbow – perennially under-appreciated Manchester auteurs finally receiving the attention they deserve. Much of this is utter nonsense, because most of Doves’ albums have occupied hallowed ground at the top of the charts, and also because the two bands inhabit very different musical territory. But what does connect with me is that with their fourth album, like Elbow, Doves have crafted their most consistent, unerringly enjoyable beast. While the band themselves describe Kingdom Of Rust as “schizophrenic”, there’s a pleasing undercurrent of commitment to lush production and a kind of nostalgic romanticism that flows right through the album. They do arena-rock anthems far better with Coldplay, and with considerably more meaning and spirit, yet when they push out to more experimental ground, as on “Compulsion” and “The Outsiders”, they reveal just as much songwriting prowess, as well as a natural gift for musicianship that no-one ever doubted.

Florence & The Machine – Lungs. I’m not even going to pretend that I’ve listened to this album in full, but Michael has already expressed some admiration for it and, having seen her live, opening for Blur at Hyde Park, I got the impression that she’s a kind of cut-price Bat For Lashes, all crazy costumes and mad gesticulating arm-waving. As for her music, I understand that it’s getting a fair bit of airplay on the radio, and from what I’ve heard of it, she clearly has a playful ear for interesting textures. Whether the songs themselves successfully underpin the production is up for debate, but I can definitely see her fitting into the judges’ mindset.

Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires. Dating back from last year, this debut album from St. Albans three-piece has been a slow-burning success on the charts, but I think it’s unashamed pop music at its best. Taking more than a hint of Talking Heads-style funk (check out the additional percussion on “Jump In The Pool”!) and combining it with the kind of new-romantic emoting fashionable in the 80s, the band is tight in its instrumentation, and Ed MacFarlane has constructed a well-fitting collection of catchy pop songs that are unafraid of letting rip with a beautiful palette of shimmering and groaning guitar sounds. I loved every minute of this concise, exhilarating album (perhaps one criticism is that the pace never lets up, lending it a slightly frantic feel), and this could be the unexpected dark horse that romps to victory.

Future Of The Left – Travels With Myself And Another. Something of a wildcard prediction, in that most people haven’t even heard of this Welsh supergroup-of-sorts, and their witty, militantly angry breed of rock. Back in 2007, their debut, Curses, set out their stall pretty effectively: brutal guitars, battering keyboards, a rhythm section that’s tighter than a London parking space, and this year’s follow up confirms their talent with twelve songs that pound harder, scream louder, crack more jokes, and, crucially, show a step up in songwriting. Songs like “Arming Eritrea” take unexpected twists and turns; songs like “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” take one great idea and pummel it into your brain for just the right length of time. People will probably be surprised that I like this sort of thing, but it’s only one step further than the kind of minimalist hardcore I adored in Shellac and Fugazi.

The Horrors – Primary Colours. Talk about confounding expectations! When Strange House landed a couple of years ago, padded out with a mountain of NME hype, no one was surprised that it was jolly awful. But lurking beneath that cringe-worthy goth aesthetic was a band full of surprises, with exceptional taste in music. The question was, could they translate their intellectualism into actual good music? This question is answered, and then some, on Primary Colours, which shows off a predilection for shoegaze, krautrock and psychedelia, set within a set of compositions that are earnest, hopelessly romantic (in a failed romance kind of way), and surprisingly affecting. Along with Friendly Fires, this would be my other dark horse prediction to take the win. Some of the songs may stretch a single idea for a tad too long, as on the never-ending, slightly plodding “I Only Think Of You”, but their intentions are clearly well-meaning, and the quality of the remainder of the album more than makes up for these minor gripes. Songs like the opener, “Mirror’s Image”, are perfectly constructed, sonically wondrous, and far too enjoyable given the depressing nature of their aesthetic forebears. Meanwhile, the closer, “Sea Within A Sea”, is ideally placed, with nigh-on eight minutes of loping krautrock ending the album on an ideal note. Throughout, Faris Badwan has found his true voice in a gloriously tragic timbre that is part Robert Smith, part Ian Curtis, and hopelessly mournful always.

Jarvis Cocker – Further Complications. The first of two Steve Albini-engineered albums on this list. I didn’t actually think Jarvis’s debut solo album was all that great – its primary emotion was pretty downbeat; it was musically pretty lacklustre; it lacked that special sense of humour that made Pulp so great. Which is why it’s so refreshing to hear Jarvis re-discovering his musical mojo on what must surely be called a break-up album. Re-invigorated by the cut-and-thrust, no-nonsense set-up of Albini’s production style, Further Complications is an almost brawling set of songs, where guitars sound like double-barrelled shotguns, the rhythm section is locked-in like a homing missile, and the lyrics fire out puns and asides like a machine-gun. Then, just when the barrage of entertainment threatens to get out of hand, Jarvis pulls off a masterstroke, with a closing brace that is lush and awash with romance, rivalling the closing pair on Pulp’s final album, We Love Life, for emotional charge. I think it’s pretty fantastic.

La Roux – La Roux. I said before that it’s inevitable that this year’s shortlist would contain at least one chart-friendly female electro-pop artist, and I reckon La Roux will gain the upper hand on Little Boots because their (for this is a duo we are dealing with) album is a slightly edgier, less poppy affair. La Roux is definitely in thrall to the synth pop of the 80s, and Elly Jackson matches the new romantics for complex and audibly breakdown-inducing lyrics. Without falling head-over-heels in love with it, I enjoyed the album, and felt it was the best representation of its genre, much in the same way that Klaxons’ Myths Of The Near Future was a cut above most of its nu-rave ilk. It’s catchy; it’s very lucrative, and I hope it gets a nod ahead of Little Boots’ more school-disco friendly Hands.

Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers. Just like with Jarvis Cocker, the assistance of Steve Albini has breathed new life into the Manics, which is ironic, given that the other primary addition to the band on this album is the lyrics of the deceased, Richey Edwards. Taking a step back from the arena-friendly alt-rock of recent albums, Journal For Plague Lovers is an aggressive, propulsive creation that spits venom with its lyrics, and breathes a kind of icy fire with its music. This could well be the swansong for the band, given that I don’t think Edwards had any other lyrics floating around in a folder, so it would be rather appropriate to nominate this thought-provoking, energetic album.

Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor. For all the months of brewing anticipation, which have seen Patrick Wolf toying with novel, record-company defying financing methods, and dipping into harsh, experimental forms of music, The Bachelor is an unashamed stab at an album of dark pop. If The Magic Position was a slightly disingenuous attempt at skewed, weird, happy, pop music, its follow-up is rather more violent and digital, with Wolf adding layer upon layer of synths, drum machines, strings and vocal chants over his bewilderingly beautiful vocals. He is clearly a prolific songwriter – this album is long, and feels long too, and it’s only the first half of a preconceived double album – but somewhere along the line, this album feels a little low on instant classics. Which is not to say that it’s a bad album – if it was, then it wouldn’t be on this list – just that it’s not his magnum opus. But I really do hope it gets a nomination, which would make up for the absence of recognition for all his previous albums, and would also salute the brazen experimentation that Wolf moulds into his soaring odes to romance and morality and goodness knows what else is lurking in his crazy-genius mind.

So that’s my prediction. Feel free to add your own suggestions, omissions and corrections, and bear in mind that many of the albums I thought were foregone conclusions (Kala, Third) for the shortlist last year didn’t get a mention at all.

The money shot

Some songs are impressive throughout, while others ramp up the tension and build-up before unleashing a climactic killer moment. Sometimes, I yearn for a particular song just to hear that singular moment, when all the individual units of the track coalesce and lock in to reach an apex. Occasionally, I’ll even get this craving while listening to another song – in these instances, I am liable to forget what the desired song was by the time the previous one has finished, and I then spend several minutes scrolling through my library, in search of the elusive high.

About 3:20 into !!!’s Heart Of Hearts, the synced-up groove of whirring guitars, groaning keys and raw, ecstatic vocals lock into a repeated cry of “For a heart of, heart of, heart of, heart of hearts”, set to a snappy motorik beat and astonishingly pulsating bass. Suddenly, the whole contraption comes to a dramatic, pounding halt. A second later, all hell breaks loose, sonically, as the instruments bounce back in, but with ten times the soul and vigour. It’s a pretty spectacular event.

Elbow’s stunning Crawling With Idiot begins in a very low-key manner, with Guy Garvey’s breathy, sensual vocals set to a trickling piano chord sequence and a delicate guitar figure, alongside a subtle waltz time signature. Gradually, electronic burbles and coo-ing backing harmonies enter the fray, creating an oppressive, claustrophobic tone. Finally, at 2:45, a jarringly harsh guitar line drones in, gradually, bringing the song to a wonderfully chilling climax, as the sweetness of the vocals contrasts with triumphant organ and that unsettling guitar. And then the song ebbs away, gently, into bleak nothingness.

Far from being one of the characteristically long epics on the TNT album, Tortoise’s The Equator is an under-four-minute long diversion, travelling along languid guitar work and a fidgety, twitching beat. Halfway through, at about 2:00, a yearning, soaring guitar figure is cut across by a supernova of a whooshing sound, which leads into a gorgeous segment of the song, where the soothing synth wash in the background is complemented by finger-lickingly funky guitar strumming.

The Coral have a cunning habit of letting 60s-sounding psychedelic pop songs wander into spazzed-out freakouts, and Come Home is a prime example. A jazzy groove is strumming along fairly ordinarily; the vocalist is singing sweetly about magic and myths and sitting by the fire, when suddenly, a reverb-heavy guitar breakdown segues into a organ-led vamp. Gothic sounding vocals loom forebodingly; the jerky guitar piledrives in angrily; the drums get more chaotic; a searing lead synth whistles dissonantly. How very romantic.

4:00 into Blur’s epic album closer, Essex Dogs, after a passage of portentous reminiscence and messing around with a whammy pedal, emerges a torrent of freeform noise rock experimentation and some of Coxon’s finest guitar work. It’s a visceral, guttural thrill that can’t easily be topped.

In the shadows of Salford…

Doves make music that’s very soulful and stirring, but whenever I think of their albums in the abstract i.e. without actually listening to them, I always feel like they’re strangely hollow, as if all the bluster is just for dramatic effect, without actually meaning anything. Luckily, when I put the record on, my fears are put to rest. Not only is their sonic palette diverse yet consistently moody, but their lyrics are also deeply ingrained in their roots – Manchester, Britain, nostalgia, industry. As their career has progressed, these lyrical themes have become more and more personal and intimate, as has the music – I can’t quite imagine them writing another “There Goes The Fear”. Their previous album, Some Cities, gained unusually high levels of popularity owing to the catchy Motown-esque lead single, “Black And White  Town”, and, on the evidence of their new single, “Kingdom Of Rust”, taken from the forthcoming album of the same name, I’m hoping they can repeat their previous success, and hopefully gain more of a respected position. Their fans adore them, but I can’t think why they don’t capture a wider audience. Songs like “Snowden” and “Friday’s Dust” may be somewhat mournful and echoey, but they speak volumes of the thematic context and – interestingly – their hooks pervade.

This new album has been gestating for a considerable length of time, and the band have reportedly taken on Krautrock influences, alongside possibly more of a country tinge. While their songwriting capability is never doubted, I just hope the lyrics don’t get more *universal*, and that they remain attached to a particular geographical landscape that has given so much to England, and yet has also suffered greatly in terms of social breakdown and industrial decay. Doves write such elegiac tributes to their hometown. For sure, the album opener “Jetstream”, released in January as a free taster, packs in a lot of varied musical flourishes – think Vangelis meets Elbow! – but I’m hoping that, on deeper inspection, it reveals similarly thought-provoking lyrical details. I’m definitely very excited about Kingdom Of Rust. I’ll be even more excited come April 6.