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
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 liked Hercules And Love Affair a lot, from the moment I heard “Roar”, right up until they released their second album, Blue Songs, when it all turned a bit rote. The best part of their first, self-titled, album was the sense that you were listening to a real-life band, making disco like it used to be made, to be played out in Studio 54. Come Blue Songs, and this sensation vanished, into the pulsating streams of Detroit.
Lucky, then, that three of the people who made their début such good fun have formed their own outfit, dubbed Jessica 6. Led by the transfixing vocalist Nomi Ruiz, this trio (flanked by Morgan Wiley on keys, and Andrew Raposo on bass) trade in a bleepy kind of house that’s equally indebted to P-Funk and disco. On teaser track “Prisoner of Love”, which also spotlights a guest turn from Antony Hegarty, the way the chorus vocals repeating the titular hook are stacked so high is straight outta the songbook of the greats. Think Chic, in a good way.
Maybe they don’t have the strength in depth that H&LA mainman Andy Butler displayed on the deeper cuts of his first album. Both “Prisoner of Love” and another teaser, “White Horse”, could perhaps be called skin-deep. But the unexpected breakdown a minute before the end of “Prisoner of Love” gave me second thoughts. And so I’m definitely considering the idea that their album, See The Light, could become this year’s Hercules And Love Affair.
My love of Fabriclive.36 has got me into trouble before – apparently it’s not appropriate to like both Gang of Four and also Daniel Wang. This hasn’t put me off owning up to being unabashedly besotted with Hercules and Love Affair, a disco-revivalist collective who I tipped for wider fame back in 2007, when I first heard their debut single, “Classique #2”. It was b/w “Roar”, and I almost instantly recognised the vocal stylings of Antony Hegarty, which were woven into the fabric of the track. A year later, their self-titled debut hit the shelves and I think I was proved right. Shame that my other tip from that season (Syclops, if you’re interested) never came to much.
Anyway, I hear there’s a new H&LA album coming out in January, entitled Blue Songs, which is close enough for me to start raving on about them all over again. So gently close your bedroom door, put on your dancing shoes, and play the video above, which sees the troupe blaze through “Hercules Theme” in front of a staggeringly beautiful Chicago dusk.
Alongside the glamour and divahood, what attracted me to H&LA’s music was the unmissable waft of tragedy buried in it. Cleverly dressing songs up in Greek mythology is one way of alluding to “how horribly it [the disco scene that the music references] all ended”, to quote Alexis Petridis. Just as the image of Hercules wandering the island in search of his lost love proves upsetting for H&LA main man Andrew Butler, to me, their music is infused with a gentle yet irrevocable descent into sadness and miasma (in the ancient Greek sense of the word).
“Facilis descensus Averni”
Easy is the descent into hell, says Virgil, and Hercules and Love Affair is a lush and dancefloor-ready document of this descent. The album begins almost in torch-song mode, with Antony wailing “I cannot hold half a life / I cannot be half a wife” – a stark warning to those on the path of hedonism and debauchery. Following this prelude, the first half of the album has an overwhelming feeling of pleasure to it, from the refracted mantra of “You Belong”, to the decadent horns and clavinet in “Hercules Theme”. The bridging point is undoubtedly “Blind”, in which Antony reminds us once again of what will befall our protagonist, and, by implication, his history, over the top of strings, horns, and rattling electronics.
In his June 2008 interview with Heiko Hoffman, Andrew Butler recalled talking to the owner of “bizarre” clothes shop Smylon Nylon, who also made mixtapes containing Arthur Russell, Cerrone and Telex, among others. Butler quotes the owner, Chris Brick, as taking him aside and saying,
“Listen, you’re gay, right? This is your music. This is your history. You should go find this music and play it for people!”
Hercules and Love Affair sees Butler bringing to fruition the task that Brick bestowed upon him.
From there on in, the music takes a queasier, more unsettling turn. To quote Petridis again, “Aids brought the disco era’s freewheeling hedonism to a terrible close”, and songs like “Easy” and “This Is My Love” bear testament to these latter days. The former track is an exercise in rawness, as an unnaturally low-pitched Antony intones a mournful lullaby amidst a collage of detuned synths and clattering percussion that sounds like tennis shoes squeaking off the court. This is closer to the territory of Hegarty’s day job of fronting Antony and the Johnsons, albeit with an electronic slant.
The album closes with the uncharacteristically goofy “True/False, Fake/Real”, but there’s truly no escaping the alluring tragedy that the rest of the record deals in. It’s like the history lesson you always wanted to hear.
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 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.
Antony Hegarty inspires a surprising amount of dislike. Well, alright, it’s not that surprising: with a voice somewhere between Nina Simone and Rufus Wainwright, and an aesthetic that inspires some alarm in more conservative music-listeners, he’s hardly mainstream entertainment. However, what has always attracted me to his work is the combination of grim terror at mortality and beautiful melodrama that invades every minute of it. Back in 2005 I thought they were spot-on to award him the Mercury Prize for I Am A Bird Now; only last year I thought he was the star performer on Hercules And Love Affair, lending his soaring tones to a selection of the year’s finest dance tracks. Interestingly, removed from his usual environment of sombre piano and fluttering orchestral arrangements, Antony sounded far more assertive; more of a diva, and it suited him rather well. It’s not his fault he was born to contemplate man’s fragile existence on earth, and on H&LA the extent of his invigoration imbibes the songs with an alluring mix of hedonistic abandon and tragic nostalgia, particularly on the highlight, “Blind”.
And now, at last, he’s back with his regular troupe Antony and the Johnsons, with this year’s The Crying Light. Regrettably, I’ve yet to hear the album from start to finish – you only come to this blog for quality music journalism! – but the two tracks I have heard do indeed push his voice into uncharted musical territory, which is refreshing and wonderful. The video above is of the album’s lead single, “Epilepsy Is Dancing”. As Alexis Petridis noted in his review of the album, the song
doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs on paper, and indeed, it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs on record
but I would add that it has a charming folksy lilt to it, with light jazz guitar, feathery strings, an almost-invisible oboe, and surprisingly sweet piano. Though the chorus sees Antony singing
Cut me in quadrants
Leave me in the corner
which initially sounds rather chilling, he continues
Oh now it’s passing
Oh now I’m dancing
which suggests an uplifting caveat to what is an otherwise typically grim subject. Indeed, I would not hesitate to alight upon another central aspect of Hegarty’s work: rather than playing up to the victimised portrayal of gender confused artists, he has empowered a lot of people to stand up for their sexuality by singing about tough subjects in a resolved manner. His songs continually reference cases of extreme sadness and tragedy, but he is never prepared to lie down without a fight; always determined to look for the quirky joy that his life brings.
The second song I’ve heard, “Aeon”, sees Hegarty singing about love over delightfully Lou Reed-esque guitar arpeggios. It sounds a bit like “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down”, but for a man, instead of a city. A lot of critics have mentioned the rather ostentatious climax of the song, which sees Antony literally screaming
Hold that man I love SO MUCH!
but I must confess that I rather like it.
IN OTHER NEWS
- Pitchfork gave Tonight: Franz Ferdinand a respectable score of 7.3, but it’s the words in the review to which you’ll want to divert your eyes. The reviewer is mightily impressed by what he sees as the band’s evolutionary stage, where they have explored a range of genres and styles, with equal aplomb. I can’t wait for Amazon to deliver me the goods.
- I got into Spoon far too late, but if you want a gem of a song that is practically perfect, check out “Don’t You Evah”, which is their cover version of an unheard-of band’s song, and which appears on their 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. It’s ace, and it features some humorous dialogue between singer Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno at the beginning, as they sit in the studio laying down the tracks. The melody; the vocals; the drums – it’s all there. I just wish it was written by them in the first place. Though I’m willing to bet the original song isn’t actually as good as the cover.
- Finally, if you go to this website, you can hear a new song from The National, entitled “So Far Around The Bend”. It’s a bit more jolly than the stuff from their masterpiece of an album, 2007’s Boxer, and it contains orchestral arrangements from Nico Muhly, who did the arrangements on The Crying Light, mentioned earlier in the post. The compilation itself, Dark Was The Night, is a charity thing, put together by The National, and features songs from a selection of awesome artists and bands, including Arcade Fire, David Byrne, Bon Iver, My Morning Jacket and so forth. I’m sure it’ll be worth getting.