Monthly Archives: July 2009

Humbug – An early trip to the confectioners.

With very little ado about something, Arctic Monkeys have quietly sent the world a five-song “Web Transmission”, offered as a preview of their forthcoming third album, entitled Humbug. With much-analysed trips to the Mojave Desert, and a length of time spent in the company of a certain Mr. Josh Homme, the band have certainly raised expectations a notch – whereas no-one realised what a change of style Favourite Worst Nightmare would herald, the general perception of Humbug is that it’s not exactly going to be eleven re-treads of “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor”. Lead single “Crying Lightning” confirmed this: four minutes of eerie, muggy and fuzzy desert rock, with siren-like guitars wailing behind Alex Turner’s typically evocative lyrics (this time with added confectionery!).

Arctic MonkeysThe webcast, then. There’s nothing too spontaneous about this – Radiohead’s Scotch Mist this certainly is not. The band are silhouetted in a shadowy warehouse environment, with numerous video screens showing looped close-up footage of a woman’s eyes. Now blessed with an additional fifth musician on-stage, contributing additional guitar and keyboards, the band launch into “Pretty Visitors”, where a carnival organ collides with jagged guitars. The chorus locks into a loping waltz, before a second guitar kicks in halfway through with kind of Queens Of The Stone Age-style slide work that we have come to expect. Then it’s back to the spooky waltz for the outro. The song is sprawling in its ambition, and yet tight in its musicianship – the perfect opening salvo, I suppose.

Next, the band tackle “Crying Lightning”, with a rendition that is less dependent on that intense, brain-mashing bass, and more open to improvisation with the desert-y wailing guitar. My reactions so far to Turner’s vocals are that he’s not so much singing, as attempting a kind of lurching, viscous style of rapping. Throughout, he remains resolutely sombre and dark – one has to wonder how such a tortured and complex individual tessellates so well with Alexa Chung.

The third song, which is called “Potion Approaching”, begins in a simple manner, with a repetitive, chugging riff on both guitar and bass. This whining, strangled lead guitar sound shows no sign of abating, and it’s difficult to compare it to anything else except the majority of Lullabies To Paralyze. A sludgy, psych-y refrain boasting the portentous lyrics “Yours is the only ocean that I want to hang onto” leads into a slowed-down, glammy bridge, and then back to the original chug.

Now, here comes a real highlight, as Arctic Monkeys treat us to their cover of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”, with its Jarvis Cocker-esque lyrics that speak of viaducts, mills and stacks. The organ is mournful, and a humid middle section eventually explodes into an angry, angry outro.

The final song, for which I have no name, sadly, is a beauty. Beginning with a plinky piano intro, over which Alex Turner adds some wonderfully appropriate guitar, it alternates between a pretty, dance-y beat, and a half-speed Scott Walker ballad, with starry-eyed melodies and coo-ing backing vocals. And then, far too quickly, it’s all over, and the screen cuts to black.

First impressions? It’s not such a huge step away from the more sinister second half of Favourite Worst Nightmare as the Chinese whispers would have us believe. There’s a lot of organ, of a variety more akin to The Doors than The Horrors; the lead guitar tone appears to be fixed on a sound last heard wailing through Queens Of The Stone Age at their most tortured; and of course, Matt Helders’ drumming is characteristically enviable. The general ambition displayed in the songwriting is definitely a step forward, with sprawling song structures and a lot of effort being paid to making each minute of each song different from the last. Undoubtedly, Humbug is going to be more of a grower than its two predecessors – in all likelihood, it will alienate some of the band’s least intellectually-minded fans. Which is no bad thing, judging by the typical crowd at an Arctic Monkeys gig. I suppose the hope must be that some impressionable young people who got into Arctic Monkeys as a gateway into indie music will hear the sophisticated craft of Humbug and use it as a gateway into a whole host of interesting and challenging rock music, which the band is clearly locked into right now. I’m going to have to wait till August 24th, when the album is released, but I do think I’m going to like it, as a uniquely dark and turmoil-filled creature.

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I’m seeing double and triple: does this ever happen to you?

Yo La Tengo are one of those bands that I really should have got into around the time I got into Wilco, Modest Mouse and Sonic Youth. They’re one of the great cult indie groups of the last twenty years, and I regret not hearing wonderful albums like I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out earlier on. Many critics would say that the band are at their strongest when exploring polar opposites in quick succession – witness the 11-minute freak-out of “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” being followed by the succint pop of “Beanbag Chair” – and, on recent evidence, their forthcoming twelfth album, entitled Popular Songs, will be a continuation of their present form.

Two tracks have been released on the sly, for free, into the wider cybernetic community, and each reveals a very different facet of the band. The first to be tentatively revealed was the tight, bluesy “Periodically Double Or Triple”, which contrasts Ira Kaplan’s nervous, hushed vocals with a storming organ groove and an insistent, shuffling beat. Halfway through, in place of a middle-eight, the song suddenly cuts to a burst of dissonant lift-music in one of those unexpected about-turns that is sure to leave some listeners scratching their heads. For me, it’s the perfect antidote to what has gone before it in the song, and when the regular riff cuts back in, I felt pleasingly refreshed, an effect intensified by the barbershop backing vocals.

The latest track to be set free is the opening track of Popular Songs, entitled “Here To Fall”, and it couldn’t be more different from “Periodically…”. Emerging from a noisy squall of reverb and wah-wah reminiscent of The Verve at their prime, a buzzing bass guitar leads into a beautifully evocative psychedelic passage, with soaring strings and lilting electric piano. Here, Kaplan’s vocals are equally anxious and lacking in confidence, which fits perfectly with the tentative exploration and frontier-breaking of the music. The percussion is intricate and precious, and washes of effected noise break out between the channels. The chorus, offering the dubious opening couplet of “I know you’re worried / I’m worried too,” is a thing of wonder and amazement, with the lyrics falling between gaps in the music in a manner that could so easily have been messy and ill-thought out. There are lovely little passages of instrumental virtuosity, and the song finally resolves into a neat string arrangement that sets up the rest of the album perfectly.

I really can’t wait for Popular Songs and I encourage you to check out these two early gems. Yo La Tengo’s finest albums are known for veering between wildly divergent styles without compromising on a consistent feel and thematic link, and I dearly hope that their twelfth LP will deliver on these qualities. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

Yo La Tengo – Periodically Double Or Triple

Yo La Tengo – Here To Fall

Jarvis Cocker – Discosong (Pilooski Mix)

Shame on the Mercury judges for not nominating Jarvis Cocker’s refreshingly urgent Further Complications. While you digest that lamentation, you can also frazzle your brain by listening to the recent Pilooski remix of the album’s closing track, “You’re In My Eyes (Discosong)”, which is highly recommended, and is free.

The acclaimed French electronic artist re-imagines the song as a hushed, slithering dance track, with a lobotomising bass-line complemented by a crisp beat and inventive whistling percussive noises that leap out unexpectedly. Virtually nothing remains from the original – even the vocals are tampered with and re-ordered, occasionally warped into minor explosions that blurt out of the speakers. About two minutes in, a strange, whining, groaning synth hovers perilously between the channels, and the distant chiming of a guitar whispers through. A minute later, there is a wonderfully unexpected breakdown with a sweep across a harp, after which the rest of the instruments cut back in with greater intensity.

The whole remix is beautifully crafted, charting the mournful depths of the song in an insistent, nagging manner. By the end, as the harp winds down to a whooshing gurgle, there is absolute closure. It’s a remix that evokes the very best of former DFA remixes, in particular the closing minutes of their liberal interpretation of Gorillaz’s “Dare”, and it bodes extremely well for Pilooski’s remix of LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33, due to be released on September 14 as part of the aptly titled 45:33 Remixes.

My mercury’s in retrograde

In traditional style, this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist has impressed and confounded me in equal measures. Congratulations are due to Florence & The Machine, Glasvegas, Friendly Fires, Speech Debelle, Bat For Lashes, La Roux, The Horrors, Lisa Hannigan, Led Bib, Sweet Billy Pilgrim… and, I suppose, if pushed, lad-rock terrace-chant favourites, Kasabian. Token surprising commiserations are also due to Doves, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, Patrick Wolf, Future Of The Left (who were never really going to be nominated, but still, I loved their album, and so did plenty of others), and everyone else who may conceivably have had a chance of making the shortlist.

Merely being mentioned in conjunction with the prize often has a helpful effect on sales figures, and of course, winning the prize is often seen as more of a curse than a blessing – after all, what became of Gomez, Talvin Singh and Roni Size? Here, then, is my brief rundown of the list, with some thoughts, feelings, and woeful predictions.

Bat For Lashes‘ sophomore album, Two Suns, is arguably the most consistently enjoyable entry on the shortlist. Musically stunning and frequently emotionally troubling, a victory for Natasha Khan would certainly be richly deserved.

Florence & The Machine has given us Lungs, which is a sonically diverse carnival of Kate Bush-esque gesturing and Bat For Lashes-lite. It’s the bookies’ favourite.

Friendly Fires produced one of the most entertaining albums of this twelve-month period with their eponymous debut, which combines percussive, frenetic, funk reminiscent of Talking Heads with a starry-eyed shoegaze surprise lurking in the guitars and synthesisers. My joint favourite to win, because I loved virtually every minute of it.

Glasvegas were hyped-up beyond all proportion by the most irritating man to ever write for the Guardian, Alan McGee, who said they were “more important than My Bloody Valentine” or some similar nonsense. They’re not. Their self-titled first album hints at shoegazey affectations, but does not marry this aesthetic to any particularly memorable tunes. Also, frontman James Allan’s vocals sound weird, as if they’ve been accidentally Auto-Tuned.

The Horrors have surely committed one of the great acts of musical reincarnation by following up over-hyped pesticide Strange House with this year’s stunning Primary Colours. Their undoubted love of great music has now been translated into a misty-eyed and thrilling set of songs that touch on krautrock and shoegaze as much as they do garage rock. Faris Badwan has also searched around in his cupboard and located his true voice – that of a doomed and tormented Robert Smith-style romantic. Music as miserable as this has never sounded so exhilarating. Along with Friendly Fires, this must surely be my personal favourite to win.

The Invisible have also named their first album after themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not on Spotify and I don’t own a copy of it, so my judgements of it are based on the contents of their MySpace music player, and the myriad interviews and articles they have inspired within the music press. A three-piece comprised of talented and knowledgeable session musicians and collaborators, The Invisible’s songs travel along wildly different vectors, from the hushed jazzy funk of single “London Girl” to the cut-up guitars of “OK”. From what I’ve heard of it, it’s pretty impressive, understated stuff, and these guys could pull of an unexpected victory and take home the prize.

Kasabian, having romped through the glammy electro-rock of Kasabian and Empire, return with West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum – an album of slightly unfashionable glammy electro-rock, now sealed with the production stamp of Dan The Automator. Why oh why?

La Roux have, imaginatively, named their debut album La Roux. A prime example of this year’s crop of female electro-pop artists, Elly Jackson has constructed a somewhat robotic album of new-romantic 80s pop songs, dealing with emotional breakdown and relationship breakups. It’s less cheesy than Little Boots, but boasts some of the biggest-selling singles of the year. Probable winner, much as I’d rather it didn’t.

Led Bib have secured this year’s token jazz vote with Sensible Shoes, a noisy and raucous offering. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and come on, it’ll clearly never win, but, being an outsider to the world of modern jazz (the closest recent album I can testify to owning is Antibalas’ thoroughly excellent Security), I’m not really in any position to suggest an alternative to this. If the judges wish to nominate a jazz album every year, why can’t they at least give one of them the prize, which would provide some level of vindication?

Lisa Hannigan, formerly backing singer for Damien Rice, spent two weeks making Sea Sew, and it’s a predictably lulling, folksy listen. Hannigan’s voice is particularly honeyed and soothing, in an agreeable, likeable way. The music is reminiscent of a more minimalist Belle & Sebastian. Without wishing to sound cynical, this is the token folk nomination, but it sounds like a lovely album of laid-back, idyllic music with interesting orchestral flourishes.

Speech Debelle has an interesting back-story that has been talked about elsewhere, and she draws on her childhood experiences in Speech Therapy, which is presumably the most exciting thing in British hip-hop right now, if you can look past the mainly tawdry offerings of commercially viable grime. At times, the backing music veers into lift-music territory, and her choice of words may sometimes seem a little platitudinous; again, I’m not really possessed of enough knowledge of the genre to suggest a better hip-hop album.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim‘s bewildering Twice Born Men is actually available on Spotify. Just like The Invisible, the band is comprised of three session musicians; unlike The Invisible, which was produced by avant-garde meister Matthew Herbert, Twice Born Men was cobbled together in a shed with some duct tape, one microphone, and a laptop. The album is surprisingly polished, but in a breathy, close-mic’ed way, and it takes in a variety of acoustic genres. I haven’t really had time to formulate a definitive opinion on it, but I’d be willing to bet that I won’t prefer it to some of the other albums that have missed out on this year’s shortlist – Further Complications, The Bachelor &c.

So, if you’re a betting man, you’ll probably want to go and place money on Florence & The Machine’s Lungs. I’m not, but come September 9th I will be sitting at home rooting for Friendly Fires and Primary Colours. I think Two Suns is probably a more accomplished album than both of those, but I personally was more entertained and emotionally moved by the first two. We’ll probably all be proven wrong though, and the world will have to face up to the fact that Kasabian are apparently bona-fide album artists.

Muse – United States Of Eurasia

I’ve defended Muse in front of a fair bit of criticism over the years. While sniffy critics have derided them for their populist, stuck-in-the-past approach, I insisted that their craft was accomplished, ambitious and never lost touch with enjoyability. And now they have unleashed “United States Of Eurasia” on us…

So! The first six rounds of Muse’s latest treasure hunt have been completed, and with this success for the notoriously fervent and geeky Muse fan-base comes the prize: the complete upload of “United States Of Eurasia”, the fourth track on their forthcoming fifth album, entitled The Resistance. A lot has been written on fan-sites with each successive upload, but I’ve mostly reserved judgement on it, preferring instead to wait for the whole song to emerge – after all, it’s a bit ridiculous to assess a song based on a 30-second clip.

Sadly, for all its massive-grin-inducing pomp and bombast, I’m finding it difficult to endorse “United States Of Eurasia”. The song is an almost four-minute long romp through the more unpalatable reaches of Queen’s œuvre, with the cavalcade of multi-tracked vocals, wailing guitars and thumping drums only slightly tempered by some tasteful East-European orchestral arrangements. It’s very low on subtlety, it’s very very BIG, and I’m still not sure whether I like it, or am simply smiling along with the undoubted audacity Muse are showing by creating such a throwback of a song.

The song begins with a light romantic piano accompaniment to Matt Bellamy’s vocals – at this point taking on an oddly gentle timbre – which is surprisingly reminiscent of the kind of supermarket dross conjured up by Coldplay. After a minute, soft, regular, percussion breaks into the mix, recalling memories of woeful 80s stadium ballads. Then, suddenly, at 1:17, a Brian May-style lead guitar line storms in and everything goes very Queen. Lest we get too comfortable, an actually pretty interesting orchestral arrangement is then unleashed, and before long the whole thing is rollicking along at a pace somewhere between “Knights Of Cydonia” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Predictably, it’s insanely catchy and hook-laden, and by the time the song explodes in a confetti-shower of multi-tracked vocal harmonies, screaming out “Eura-sia! Sia! Sia Sia!”, it’s bound to be pretty ingrained in your mind. Who knows? In a questionable indictment of the state of British music, it will probably be hailed as a novelty hit and roam around the higher reaches of the charts for weeks. I’d prefer to salute it as a relentless pastiche of an oft-trodden path, but whether or not I can actually approve it, I remain unsure.

Leaving Muse to their own devices, sans external producer, trapped in the basement studio of a villa on Lake Como, was never going to result in an album low on bombast – and only time will tell if the rest of The Resistance is similarly schizophrenic and cheesy. Reminiscing back to the days of Absolution, Muse were many things: pretentious, portentous, musically ambitious. But in “United States Of Eurasia” I see very little melodic accomplishment and a tendency for the band’s strengths to be overwrought into mere comedy, for all the ominous subtext of the song’s theme. That well-worn grin on my face is starting to hurt.

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.

Flying Ant Day

Every summer, there is a certain day when the climatic conditions, celestial movements, and god knows what else, contrive to bring us an eleventh Biblical Plague: a clumsy, filmy-winged, mutant downpour of flying ants. For me, this is perennially one of the most grisly, gloomy and anxious days of the year.

Many things make me unhappy, but to see such an awkward cloud of insects descend on gardens and patios, landing not helter-skelter but with a gentle thud, is really quite frightening. All at once, the air feels thick, tropical and apocalyptic, like a humid and portentous scene from a John ‘Mad’ Martin painting. Often, Flying Ant Day is preceded by a night of heavy, summer rain. On the day itself, cloud cover is typically grey and billowing, sending a bitter reminder of the winter months through an otherwise idyllic sky.
Around evening, when the harsh heat of the day has abated, and families seek holiday solace in varnished garden furniture, mother nature takes one furtive glance and unleashes its payload of these ungainly creatures, seemingly forged in the underbelly of the earth from the entrails and ectoplasm of ants, flies and wasps. Armies of them crawl out from cracks in paving stones. Swarms of them fizz and pop out of thin air. And, instantly, we take shelter inside.

What makes Flying Ant Day particularly unbearable is that it is, at heart, one enormous, spontaneous, mating ritual, where hordes of queen ants take flight for a single day to found new colonies. They take off; they mate; they burrow. To gain sustenance after their epic journey of fornication, they chew and digest their own wings. There is something intangibly miserable about this grim, mechanical process, which occurs without any prior communication. It is reproduction at its most inelegant, and it gets me down.

Spoon – Got Nuffin

For me, the appeal of Spoon lies in their economy and their minimalism. On an album like Kill The Moonlight, Britt Daniel and co. showed off a range of styles and structures, but never let any element get ahead of the others – consequently, nothing runs further than it needs to, and no song is extended beyond the bare minimum required to convey a lyrical theme. My only hesitation with it was that some songs felt slightly sketchy and underdeveloped. Pleasingly, on 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, an album about which I have enthused much, Spoon showed a mastery of their art: the style is still almost goadingly economical, but certain songs are fleshed out with greater maturity. “The Underdog”, for instance has a glossy horn section that I simply could not have imagined them using on a previous album.

The prospect of new music, then, is an exciting one, and the latest EP, entitled Got Nuffin, will offer a tantalising snapshot of the band’s current fascinations. The title track, “Got Nuffin”, is right up there at the top of their game. The drums are crisp and urgent; Daniel’s vocal tics and yelps are still very much a fixture, adding emotional detail to an already foreboding air. On a couple of occasions, guitars de-tune ominously, and after about a minute, an insistent piano part pings away in the left channel. Some people have compared it to Deerhunter’s excellent “Nothing Ever Happened”, and it’s true to say that both songs share a motorik beat, and a similar use of feedback and stabs of guitar. But they’re really very different beasts, and Got Nuffin is an exceptionally well-crafted four-minute slice of magic, where the tension continually mounts, without any release. The end sees the piano build to a more substantial role, and the guitar threaten to envelop the whole song, before a teasing fade-out leaves us gagging for more. Any ideas when we’ll be hearing a new album from the band?

Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark

Last night, after a surprisingly backing track-dependent opening set from Northampton-based Maps, London’s KOKO was privileged to host M83, the critically acclaimed French electronic/shoegaze act masterminded by Anthony Gonzalez (and formerly Nicholas Fromageau). Taking to a stage cloaked in dramatic lighting and decorated with two sizeable keyboard rigs and a perspex-shielded drum kit, Gonzalez treated the suitably blissed-out crowd to a substantial twenty-minute opening solo set, weaving intricate melodies and emotive washes of noise from his custom analog synthesiser, which one member of the crowd compared to an aquarium. Drum machine rhythms skidded and burbled, and Gonzalez occasionally looked up from his toys to greet and thank the audience, which, in true KOKO style, rose up to the rafters of this beautiful converted theatre.

Then, just as our attention may have begun to lapse, to a riotous reception, Gonzalez was joined onstage by his two current band-mates: on keyboards and vocals, Morgan Kibby (which I always thought was a boy’s name, but there you go); on drums, an unnamed musician who looked like he’d jumped out of an 80s synth pop group, and had colossal drumming technique to match. Breaking immediately into Saturdays=Youth anthem, “We Own The Sky”, the three-piece then proceeded to deliver a perfectly paced set incorporating new songs, old songs and songs that didn’t sound like songs that anybody knew. Gonzalez, now a certifiably talented musician, alternated between carving out backing chords on his keyboards, and unleashing a wall of shimmering, keening noise from his white Les Paul, simultaneously singing lyrics that veered between John Hughes and Philip K Dick. Kibby, dazzling in a sparkly blue outfit, made light work of the breathy, cooing vocals on newer songs, and also impressed on the keys.

From a series of 80s-indebted synth-pop songs, such as “Graveyard Girl” and “Kim and Jessie”, the band then moved on to a more chilled-out segment, with songs like “Skin Of The Night” (with its straight outta Phil Collins drums) invoking gentle swaying from the crowd. Then, the band took on a more clubby vibe, employing tasteful dance-punk percussion and searing synths on various unidentifiable songs. Finally, after bowing out rather prematurely, the band returned to delight the crowd with a wonderfully extended, gloriously uplifting performance of “Couleurs”, the centrepiece of Saturdays=Youth. Most of the audience clearly wanted more; the time on the clock suggested otherwise. Though M83 played nothing from their landmark 2003 album, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, the manner in which they eked every last drop of emotion from their songs left every one of us with enormous ear-to-ear grins. M83 are an extraordinarily enchanting proposition on record; live, twice as much.

Bah! Humbug!

I really do think Arctic Monkeys have always been a substantial step ahead of their British indie rock cousins, not just because of Alex Turner’s superior, witty social commentary, but because the band’s progression as musicians has been a joy to listen to. From the wiry post-Libertines indie of their debut, through the melancholy surf rock of Favourite Worst Nightmare, to the dramatic Scott Walker balladry of Turner’s Last Shadow Puppets side project, it’s clear that their influences are far-reaching and constantly in flux, and they’ve never been afraid of channelling other sounds through what could otherwise be a pretty typical British aesthetic.

August will see the release of their third album, entitled Humbug, but before then, we are now privvy to the forthcoming lead single, “Crying Lightning”. A brief approximation would suggest the following result: it sounds like a hybrid of much of the second album, crossed with the epic grandeur of The Age Of The Understatement. It’s presently unclear which of the two producers (James Ford, Josh Homme) is responsible for this particular cut, but there are certainly elements of both individuals’ œuvre. There’s a chilling, carnival, forest vibe that echoes Queens of the Stone Age circa-Lullabies to Paralyze, but this is complemented by the breathy sense of space that I so loved on older songs like “Do Me A Favour” and “Fluorescent Adolescent”. For certain, the drums are less crisp and more military than on their sophomore effort; meanwhile, the gnarled tone of the bass and the eerie Theremin-esque guitar solo are very reminiscent of the output of Josh Homme’s day job.

Predictably, the lyrics reveal plenty of nuanced details, from the references to “pick and mix” and “strawberry lace” (which immediately reminded me of Jarvis Cocker’s similarly creepy confectionery in “The Wickerman”), to the humidity of lines like “And your past times consisted of the strange / And twisted and deranged”. Turner is evidently frustrated about something, and the cracks in his armour are appropriated in his lavish descriptions of the subject of the song – who “puff[s] your chest out like you never lost a war”.

Only the rest of the album will tell to what extent Arctic Monkeys have let their travels of the last couple of years percolate into their music, but on the evidence of “Crying Lightning”, they’ve lost none of their knack for deriving catchy melodies from surprisingly tuneless chord changes; they’re still willing to pile on the drama and the frisson through Alex Turner’s developed and mature lyrics; and, in all honesty, I can’t really imagine Humbug leaving the charts this side of the apocalypse.