Call it a weakness, but I rarely find myself apologising. We have a culture of deference that sometimes manifests itself in needless apology; I veer from it. But on occasion, when one really screws up, one has to go beyond the call of duty in saying one is sorry. This mixtape captures that mood. Continue reading Compunction: a mixtape
It’s time to talk about Hot Chip‘s perpetually classy live show. Continue reading Still chipper
Two recent electronic albums adopt differing attitudes to the past. One is met with a touch of indifference; the other, a mixture of adulation and castigation. Continue reading Colour: the sixth sense
Alex Turner as sleazy romantic-cum-nervous wreck is best evinced by “Do I Wanna Know”, in which he burbles on the brink of being overwhelmed with infatuation. “I’ve dreamt about you nearly every night this week”, he confesses in the first verse, and later, afraid he’s missed his chance, he asks, “Been wondering if your heart’s still open / And if so, I wanna know what time it shuts”. Continue reading Summer well
A mixtape for winter’s end, spring’s stirring, and the reïmagination of rock. Continue reading Frühlings Erwachen
*Not actually definitive at all.
This started with my recognition that BuzzFeed has decided to carve up every phenomenon in the world into ‘definitive rankings‘ and ‘which x are you?‘. Not to be outdone, here, then, is my contribution to this growing corpus. I hope Mr. Matthew Perpetua is paying attention. Continue reading The definitive* ranking of DFA remixes
“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
When you turn twelve, that’s the last time you’ll be excused from something on the grounds of youth. Adolescence, moody and laden with growing pains, beckons. Having fun isn’t just an end within itself anymore. You at least think you have to stand for something more.
It’s startling how one record label has come to define and inform so much of my record collection. DFA. New Yorkers at the turn of the twenty-first century: whisper those three letters in hushed tones of awe. Teenagers across the Atlantic, breaking free of the moribund: if you can’t party like your idols, at least make your bedroom hi-fi sound like you can. For me, it wasn’t “House of Jealous Lovers”, the first time. It couldn’t have been—I would have been a couple of years too young. It was “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, raucous and clattering and just startlingly good fun. From there on in, it was about every single and album the label released.
If there was a peak, it was 2007: the year Sound Of Silver broke a thousand people’s hearts and then reassembled them with the science of dance; the year those first house throwbacks from Still Going and Hercules And Love Affair made us take note of an alternate history that isn’t taught in school. That year, James Murphy and his label were prolific and untouchable. The Fabriclive.36 mix, jointly helmed by Murphy and LCD Soundsystem’s sweaty, machine-like drummer Pat Mahoney (who professed a love of “gay-ass disco”) was spun out through a vintage Bozak mixer.
If there was a peak, there was a trough. At LCD Soundsystem’s farewell concert in 2011, Murphy is said to have anointed Janine Rostron as the successor to the throne of DFA. Rostron, who performs under the nom de plume of Planningtorock, is an artist to admire more than one to truly love. Her music is androgynous, dark and scary, from the world of art where people still decamp to Berlin to experience isolation. In my books, that makes her the antithesis of what DFA is about. Artists on the label’s roster have challenged listeners in the past (the various outfits Gavin Russom performs in, for example), but at its heart, I’ve always thought Liv Spencer of Still Going summed up DFA’s idée fixe best: “It’s about people going to clubs, forgetting their shitty week—or their great week—and just kind of like, dancing until the sun comes up.”
Rewind to 2008 and there were two pretty apposite acts on the label poised to offer just such fun. That was the year Hercules And Love Affair released their eponymous debut: a giddy survey of forty-odd years of disco, tinged with regret and higher thoughts, but located firmly on the dancefloor. That was also the year Maurice Fulton hid behind a fictitious Finnish trio called Syclops to release a full-length called I’ve Got My Eye On You. Uninhibited by definitions of genre, the album pitted jazzy live drumming against obnoxious synths and fretless basses, managing to sound fairly timeless and geographically nonspecific, and also like a lot of fun. Reading reviews of the album from the time, you’d think DFA were serving up the hipster’s answer to Jamiroquai. For Brandon Bussolini of Prefix, “Syclops’ main points of reference center less on the dance floor than the heavier end of the jazz-fusion spectrum […] churning, cosmic disco-funk that make up this album—a high point for dance music in 2008 and yet another feather in DFA’s cap”.
Here were two exciting visions of the DFA code, backed by a label with seemingly limitless reserves of cool, and handily positioned in the penumbra of the band, LCD Soundsystem, that was helping everything make sense. (For one publication’s take on just what an important family the label had become, see this.) At one point, Murphy’s vision, to break down the barrier between dance and punk, looked poised to crossover into the mainstream: the label was courted by representatives of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, and was invited to remix Justin Timberlake’s “My Love”. The first two avenues led nowhere; the third resulted in a subtle reinvention of a stone-cold modern classic that ought to now be seen as a pure statement of the DFA sound. Cowbells, handclaps, Simmons pads and acoustically-dead live drums (Murphy’s trick was to dampen the sound of the drums by affixing neoprene mouse pads to them) provide a thudding, dancefloor-ready rhythm. Filtered Rhodes and fluttering, pulsing synths are the vertebrae to which Timberlake’s vocal theatrics are pinned. The final few minutes ride a gloriously soulful, lightly-distorted bass guitar line. These were much the same components that made LCD Soundsystem songs snap, crackle and pop.
But then LCD Soundsystem closed shop. Suddenly, because DFA had been mes que una compañía discográfica, we had to start looking for a new totem. DFA couldn’t be just a label—it needed a new icon for other artists to rally around. The Rapture had been, gone, and come back in an altered form. Hot Chip had achieved universal acclaim for their universal pop music. Murphy’s heiress, Planningtorock, didn’t really cut the mustard.
DFA has lately been responsible for a splurge of releases. The quality is more variable than in those golden years, when a monthly trip to the label’s MySpace page seemed to yield some new, strange fruit. But there are nuggets of excitement. Factory Floor are a London trio on the label who make pretty industrial (look at their name—is it really a surprise?) long-format bangers. They don’t have an album out yet—though it’s in the works—but what they’ve released to date is brutal, exciting stuff.
Listening to something like “Fall Back” (see above), they’re not a million miles away from the frantic, relentlessly locked-in Nisennenmondai. Could this be where the DFA vision is headed—or is there no longer such a thing? In their 2008 feature on the label, The Fader interviewed Jonathan Galkin, the ‘ears’ and also the ‘Jewish mother’ of DFA. “At the same time, I feel like we’re at the top of our game. It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Galkin.
Watching Red Bull’s recent documentary about DFA, “Too Old To Be New, Too New To Be Classic” (one of several mantras the label has), my heart was pierced by the inescapable feeling that the trifecta at the core of the label has drifted apart. Murphy, having disbanded the outfit that accidentally took over his life for eight years, is busy doing the things he missed out on—marathon DJ sets; production-work for friends of his like Arcade Fire; considering branching out into coffee. Tim Goldsworthy, the Brit production whizz-kid who co-founded the label, disappeared in the middle of the night and wound up mixing albums for Archie Bronson Outfit, The Maccabees and Little Boots; the label is currently suing him for close to $100,000. Which leaves Galkin, stuck in that West Village office, choosing which 12” singles to put out, packing vinyl and merchandise for dispatching to the forever faithful (myself included), and generally handling the day-to-day commercial realities of a record label. In the film, at one point he turns to look at the neighbouring swivel-chair Murphy used to sit on, now vacant much of the time. It’s hard not to feel a little pang of remorse akin to Murphy’s, in “Shut Up And Play The Hits”, upon inspecting a room full of his band’s gear, waiting to be sold or boxed away.
While the mousepads are still firmly on the drums and the analogue synths are still being lovingly restored, I’ll continue to believe there can be life from above. But while there’s still a DFA family, it’s getting harder to see where it’s heading. And soon they won’t have pre-teen youthfulness on their side.
When Hot Chip performed in Manchester on their joint-header tour with LCD Soundsystem, the two bands joined forces at the end of the show for a cover of the Alessi Brothers’ breezy, soft-rock gem, “Seabird”. A couple of years later, a British trio called Vondelpark, with a vocalist whose brotherly mumble resembles that of Joe Goddard, have released their debut album, Seabed, which evokes a rather similar mood. Continue reading Seabirds and seabeds
Yet again, I don’t feel qualified to do an expansive rundown of my favourite albums of the year. Yet again, I’ve invested too much time into old albums by elder statesmen. And yet again, I’m still offering up a simulacrum of the detailed listocracy this blog used to annually host. Here, then, in chronological order, are thirteen albums I enjoyed this year:
Sharon Van Etten, Tramp. Of course it’s useful to have The National’s Aaron Dessner on production duty, along with all the talented friends he can cajole into the recording booth. But let that not take away from these smouldering confessionals, penned by a keen-voiced songwriter with a sophisticated pen. There are hints of Dessner’s day job, both in the languid slow-burn of something like “Give Out” and in the propulsive numbers like “Magic Chords”. But, as with the best female artists, the anguish is more primal than the resigned frustration we get out of someone like Matt Berninger. With a different producer, we could easily imagine Tramp’s follow-up connoting a PJ Harvey-like shape-shift.
Field Music, Plumb. Is it lazy journalism to put Field Music albums in these lists year after year? Well, not when each one demonstrates such a leap into distinct territory whilst maintaing the essential touchstones of what makes this band great. Eschewing entirely the bucolic ambience of Field Music (Measure)’s second half, and much of the first half’s chunky Led Zep infatuation, this album is taut and brief. A typical three-minute cut contains innumerable volte-face—shifts in instrumentation, tempo and mood. I suppose it’s closer to Tones Of Town, but seasoned with a few years’ more wisdom and war wounds. On songs like “A New Town” and “Choosing Sides”, the Brewis brothers sound gutsy and more-than-mildly peeved; the album’s more meditative moments (“A Prelude To Pilgrim Street”, “So Long Then”) are less pastoral and more in keeping with, say, the ruminating tone of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation. (→full review here)
The Shins, Port Of Morrow. Astoundingly solid. And if that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, damn you. The production may be overly slick, but the songs are as charming as ever. In fact, in places, these are James Mercer’s strongest, most sophisticated compositions to date—listen out for the Scary-Monsters era Bowie-isms on “It’s Only Life” and “40 Mark Strasse”. When he needs to be more conversant with big-tent rock music, he does that with simple aplomb, as on “No Way Down” and the unimaginatively-titled “Simple Song”. And, now and again, he can strike gorgeous and unexpected note, hearkening back to very different eras and scenes: the Hawaiian folk of “September”, with its hauntingly beautiful couplets; the title-track, woozy and vanitas-laden. Throughout, Mercer brings his A-game to the lyrics, which poke around in the supposedly placid waters maturity brings; the key lines come right at the album’s close, Mercer conceding: “I know my place amongst the creatures in the pageant / And there are flowers in the garbage / And a skull under your curls.” (→full review here)
Chromatics, Kill For Love. The best thing to do with an album this long and pondering and self-important and lustrous is to let it wash over you. Is it truly numinous, or just convinced of that quality? Over such a running time, answering that question is of nugatory benefit. Far wiser to submit to Johnny Jewel’s nighttime drive through a future-noirish city, rustling with sleaze and bristling with teenage escapism. There are a few interstitial passages that, in lesser hands, would have sounded turgid. Instead, they provide a framework for the less Tramadol-flavoured songs to cling to. Everywhere, as the opening track (itself a confident Neil Young cover) attests, there is blackness, punctuated by the need to “burn out” rather than “fad[ing] away”.
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Jason Pierce is at death’s door, and he thinks that’s pretty kosher. “In our haste to find a little more from life, we didn’t notice that we’d died,” he explains in “Headin’ For The Top Now”, atop a fuggy concoction of swirling guitars and junkyard organs that’s all his own. Elsewhere, there is acid-fried free-jazz skronk (“I Am What I Am”) and deranged, grandiloquent strings (“Mary”). In its scattershot aesthetics and a central, liturgical devotion to 1960s pop, this must surely rank as the true successor to Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, albeit one informed by experimental chemotherapy treatments rather than devil-may-care recreational drug use. (→full review here)
Beach House, Bloom. Though it moves at a glacial pace, this album’s soul is brazen and wide-eyed. Simple, elegant guitar parts lock with FM chimes, swept over by Santa Ana winds and bedded down by ostinato bass parts. The songs are interrelated and familiar, but not gratingly so. The universal tales of yearning and mystery and adventure are stretched out into an eternity courtesy of Victoria Legrand’s inimitable phrasing.
Hot Chip, In Our Heads. The responsibilities of family cross paths with the hedonistic desire to submit to the dance-floor. We’ve been here before, but now the lyrics are even more print-worthy, and the music is reaching back to a decade (the 1980s) typified by rainbow-coloured synth patches, extended 12″ mixes, and the advent of the compact disc. And somewhere in there, there’s still room for a congas-and-bongos breakdown (“Don’t Deny Your Heart”). (→full review here)
Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan. Everyone seems to think until now, Dirty Projectors’ discography has been a relentless tale of unnerving complexity, off-putting thematic abstraction, and supreme self-consciousness. Not so. 2009’s Bitte Orca tread similarly sweet and tender ground to this new album, albeit with the odd splurge of musical explosion. Here, there is yet more simplification of Dave Longstreth’s art, evinced most notably on the single, “Gun Has No Trigger”, an exercise in minimalism far removed from the band’s earlier works. Elsewhere, there is a smattering of politics, of social commentary, but, in the main, there’s love in the air (“Dance For You”, “Impregnable Question”). Of course there are knowing glances and playfulness that may be misconstrued as pretension (as on the opener, “Offspring Are Blank”), but this album represents a further softening of the Dirty Projectors brand.
Four Tet, Pink. Not intentionally an album, but winds up feeling like one. Limber out of the blocks (“Locked”), grapples with ambient textures in both halves “Jupiters”, “Peace For Earth”), rises to the occasion for a stone-cold fidgety classic (“Pyramid”), and glides back onto the landing strip with sure-footed jazzy piano and restless, wide-open bass (“Pinnacles”). Kieran Hebden’s amalgamation of all the lessons he’s learnt in his long career is an exciting, excitable ride. (→full review here)
Grizzly Bear, Shields. Even on their last album they knew how to explode. Then, it was a weapon deployed sparingly; here they blossom into a million fragments of colour and guitar and shrapnel and keyboard flourishes. The songs are epic in construction and evocative in their imagery. No-one could accuse them of being delicate shrinking violets on this showing: Shields aims for the bleachers whilst never losing sight of intricacy.
Flying Lotus, Until The Quiet Comes. In places more subdued than Cosmogramma; elsewhere, more badass. Like Noah Lennox demonstrated on last year’s Tomboy, bring a little more subtlety and variation to the party a) suggests you’re far, far ahead of the game, and b) doesn’t have to kill said party. This album is one for headphones and nighttime and bleeding your heart out.
Tame Impala, Lonerism. Looks backwards to psychedelia and forwards to the electronic producer’s mixing desk. You know you’re dealing with an auteur when the album’s sequencing defies convention and comes off the better for it. Tortured in its gestation, it sounds, inevitably, effortless. The tone is breezy whilst the lyrical content is anything but. You can play it by the pool, but listen too closely to the tossed-off expressions of isolation and existential crisis and you might not want to come out of the water. (→full article here)
Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man. Overrated in some quarters. But for much of its duration, this album reveals Natasha Khan to be a supreme seamstress of songs even when working with a narrower palette of instruments to her usual junkshop approach. Her voice soars and whimpers and grasps like she’s truly living the stories she’s telling; behind her, bass tones plumb subliminal depths, and piano curios make her sound like she’s a lounge singer for the end of the universe. (→full review here)
This list is in no way exhaustive. Here are some albums I wish I had got round to hearing this year:
- Japandroids, Celebration Rock
- The Men, Open Your Heart
- Swans, The Seer
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
- Andy Stott, Luxury Problems
- Lambchop, Mr. M
- Actress, R.I.P.
- Jessie Ware, Devotion
- Grimes, Visions
- Jam City, Classical Curves
- Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
- Lotus Plaza, Spooky Action At A Distance
- Julia Holter, Ekstasis
- How To Dress Well, Total Loss
So I guess that cues me up nicely for 2013. And, just for the record, I’m fairly certain the best two songs I heard all year were Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and TNGHT’s “Higher Ground“. In the case of the former song, I only bought channel ORANGE a week ago, so given a bit more time it might well have displaced one of the albums in the baker’s dozen. My bad.