Anohni (f.k.a. Antony Hegarty) and Hayden Thorpe are owners of unforgettable voices. In the past, their respective œuvres were musically distinctive too. As Antony and the Johnsons, there were four albums of East Village baroque pop, ripe with violin, cello and hollow-bodied electric guitar. Thorpe, with his band Wild Beasts, released an imperial brace of manicured art rock, heavy on carnality, sensuality, and bongos. Continue reading There she goes, my ugly world
“Everything that keeps them together is falling apart.” —Isaac Brock
On Hot Chip’s “Motion Sickness”, Alexis Taylor uses his gushing love affair with music as a cipher for the joys of lifelong companionship. It’s a song I mentally well up to virtually every time I hear it.
A few months ago, during the debate in the House of Commons to legislate for gay marriage, speaking in favour of the motion the MP Guy Opperman proclaimed, “I am not married. I have yet to find the woman who would want to marry someone such as me—but she is out there, Mr Speaker, I promise you.” Continue reading Month of Sundays
February brings weather that’s alternately trickling and restorative, then malevolent and jagged. Continue reading Meltwater
I have invested many hours’ typing into Antony Hegarty, the man with the golden voice. Even if you liked the wandering-vocal-over-haunting-drone pairing of “Dust And Water“, you may still be surprised and baffled by “Swanlights“, which is taken from the 2010 album of the same name. Backmasked vocals compete with a tightly-knotted bass-line, atop a creeping organ drone. Near the end, a connection is forged between the avant-garde and the sacramental, as a chorus of swooping Antonies bring the song to a teetering conclusion. There is no genre that captures music this impassioned and oblique; its nearest antecedent is the enigma of Alice Coltrane’s post-jazz, with its extraterrestrial and spiritual leanings.
I’ve written plenty about Hercules & Love Affair on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve drawn nearly enough attention to the genius of that outfit’s first album’s key vocal talent—Antony, of the Johnsons fame.
Like so many others, I was introduced to the NYC collective Antony and the Johnsons via their second album, I Am A Bird Now, which scooped the Mercury Prize in 2005, beating off all the post-punk brethren that populated the shortlist (and about whom I have blogged semi-furiously in the last fortnight). Unlike many others, I also stuck with Antony and the Johnsons through their subsequent releases.
Last year, I mentioned the regeneratory qualities of the title track to their most recent album, Swanlights, but they may well have nailed this art form with the opening track on I Am A Bird Now, five years previous. “Hope There’s Someone“, which begins with the devastating couplet, “Hope there’s someone who will take care of me / When I die, will I go?”, is the twenty-first century’s most sophisticated contemplation on the transition between this life and whatever comes next. Like a Hamlet for the gender-confused, Antony reveals he is scared of that “middle place, between light / and nowhere”. So far, so Shakespearean ballad. But halfway through, the plaintive piano melody is suddenly interrupted by pounding, Styxian chords backed by harrowing vocal exclamations. A cyclical organ figure makes the passage yet more pocket-apocalyptic. And then it all recedes, leaving just a solitary, wandering vocal filigree.
It’s a spine-tingling song that begins in elegiac fashion before morphing into a frenzied, panic-laden nightmare.
This time last year, I bored you all to death with my fifteen favourite albums of 2009. At the time, I suggested my list was not very useful because I had spent much of the year catching up on older music thanks to Spotify.
A year on, plus ça change. A friend told me he was surprised to see Fleetwood Mac extremely high on the list of most-listened to music on Spotify. I told him I was probably the reason behind this.
Nevertheless, for (non)completists’ sake, I shall persist with this probably pointless exercise. It might give you some weird insight into my warped tastes, at least.
Because I don’t wish to look like a slacker, you can also expect me to publish a list with albums I will get round to listening to in the near future. Continue reading Under-informed profligacy – Favourite Albums of 2010
UPDATE: Grab a convenient playlist featuring two key tracks from (almost) all of the albums featured here.
2009 has been a year when I’ve taken stock of a fair bit of older music – thank Spotify for that! – which might explain my profligacy in terms of listening to some really highly-regarded new albums. Nonetheless, in the last few weeks I’ve clawed back lost ground and taken the opportunity to investigate the hype surrounding some of this year’s gems.
In the interests of economy, I’m only listing my fifteen favourite albums; there were plenty of others that I enjoyed, but couldn’t justify adding to this list. So, as well as the albums listed below, do please go and have a listen to wonderful albums like Doves‘ triumphant Kingdom Of Rust, The Cribs‘ Johnny Marr-enhanced Ignore The Ignorant, and Atlas Sound‘s mesmerising Logos. But without further ado, and a bit more explanation where necessary, here are my offerings: Continue reading Albums of 2009 – Lis(z)tomania!
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.
I seem to be starting every post nowadays with “Just a quick update to say…” so here comes another one.
My hands are somewhat tied, musically, at present, owing to an overload/guilt trip about actually getting down to some revision. Predictably, I’ve spent the entire year slavishly scribbling down notes without really understanding what was going on. Consequently, I should now have my face firmly held to the grindstone.
While I revise, I do however like to listen to music. Usually I favour stuff with a strong rhythmic element – LCD Soundsystem, Hercules & Love Affair, Prinzhorn Dance School, Portishead, Massive Attack – but I also find myself working more productively with instrumental post rock, which has the effect of letting me “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime.” Albums like Explosions In The Sky’s Those Who Tell The Truth Will Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Will Live Forever and Tortoise’s landmark TNT are ideal for this purpose, as are most of M83’s albums.
When I’m not revising, I’ve also been exploring the depths of Spotify, and have had the following albums of frequent rotation:
The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
Konono No. 1 – Congotronics
Amadou & Mariam – Welcome To Mali
Antibalas – Talkatif
John Rutter – Gloria
Various – Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump
Antony & The Johnsons – The Crying Light
Beck – Sea Change
Doves – Kingdom Of Rust
Robert Wyatt – Comicopera
Hockey Night – Keep Guessin’
All of which I can heartily endorse. Certainly if you’re in the UK, you’ve no excuse not to get swallowed up by Spotify, because anyone can sign up.
I can’t really believe I haven’t blogged about Hercules And Love Affair yet, particularly since I practically discovered them. Well, almost.
Way back in early September 2007, I decided, on a whim, to pay a visit to the DFA’s Myspace. Not being overly fond of Mr. Murdoch’s social networking empire, I did so warily, mainly in an attempt to see if my favourite label at the time had signed anyone interesting. Pretty much the first thing I heard upon navigating my way there was the sparse and beautiful “Roar”, by Hercules And Love Affair. I had no idea who they were or where they were from, but I knew profoundly from that moment that they were going to be big. There was something ethereal and elusive about the music: the way Antony Hegarty’s breathy moans were encircled by gurgling bass and whirring synths; the locked-in beat that was clearly emanating from a TR-909. It was instantly racy, sensual and, well, pretty gay.
In an interview with Pitchfork, the creative force of the whole escapade, Andy Butler, spoke of visiting a clothes store called Smylon Nylon, where the shopkeeper took great care in choosing the music played in the store. Upon meeting Butler, and noting his conscientious love of the music, he said, “Listen, you’re gay, right? This is your music. This is your history. You should go find this music and play it for people!” It is this feeling of cultural history, and the undiscovered, supposedly tainted, history of gay culture in New York, which imbues virtually all of Hercules & Love Affair’s music. Their eponymous debut, released early last year, not only draws upon several decades of dance music history, but also succeeds in alluding to the societal concerns of Butler, and the scene he tries to represent. In the same interview, Butler recalled that “When making this record Antony always told me that I should draw from my experience and draw from who I am for the lyrics. He said that it’s important to be sincere”, and the thematic concerns in tracks like “Blind” and “Athene” certainly intrigue the listener on a greater level than just the precision and joy of the music. It is a truly important album, in that it brings an oft-forgotten tranche of music and history into a mainstream audience, and with an irresistable sensuality and sense of emotion.
Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch the band on their all-too-short tour last year (though, judging by their locations, it might not necessarily have been an comfortable experience for an impartial and thematically uninvolved fan). Luckily, they’ve recorded a fantastic session for Pitchfork.tv, which shows just how wonderfully the elastic grooves of the album have been translated into a live setting. With an eight-piece band in front of him (but sadly no appearances from Antony), Andy Butler’s music has taken on a renewed sense of euphoria and nostalgia, albeit at the expense of some of the haunting sorrow and emotional heartbreak that fills a good portion of the album. I can only hope this troupe of performers continues to make such brilliant music.