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
Snow brings a bundle of emotions wrapped up in pillows of fragile beauty. The stillness of the garden, as flakes come to rest, silently, upon the lawn. The feeling of limbo, either stranded in the house or resorting to the lazy predictability of fireside conversations with comfortable friends in the pub. The lack of adventurousness, pitted against stirrings of the heart bereft of an adequate outlet. The realisation that the blank white mass will turn to mucky slush and glistening films of ice. Such is the stuff of a wintry playlist. Continue reading Snow Wave
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.
There’s a note of resignation to several songs on this year’s Spiritualized album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. On “Headin’ For The Top Now”, Jason Pierce concedes, “In our haste to find a little more from life / We didn’t notice that we’d died”, while on closing track “So Long You Pretty Things”, he sneers, “The music that you played so hard / Ain’t on your radio”. It’s not like he’s definitely given up the game, but he seems pretty resolved with hitting rock-bottom again and again.
All that comes to a head on “Mary“, in which he delivers the ultimate blow. Over a sultry groove and Eastern strings, he sings,
“Mary! You know we both had dreams / But you’re the one who got to live them instead.”
There speaks a man who’s seen disappointment stretched out across decades.
There are two songs on Spiritualized‘s new album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, which recall the fried, reach-for-the-sun-or-die-trying splendour of Jason Pierce’s one undisputed masterpiece, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. “I Am What I Am” and “Mary” come as a consecutive pair, and they are glorious. Free-jazz skronking rockets through the former’s glammy stomp; on the latter, plaintive strings pierce through a stately pocket symphony.
More often, Sweet Heart… is a terrestrial affair, reining in the old mores and paranoia and sounding pretty joyful about having nothing much to celebrate. That’s not to say it isn’t a highly accomplished work from a true visionary; rather, it shows Jason Pierce has changed as a songwriter. Of course he still speaks the language of religion from the perspective of a non-believer—he’s not going to heaven unless God’s his chauffeur; Jesus is someone you pray to for salvation, redemption, forgiveness. Of course that makes him cling to clichés other artists would have outgrown long ago—”Love lights the flame when there’s hearts it can burn” and all that guff. And, of course, there remains a patina of druggy imagery in which he is sinner and saviour rolled into one.
“There is an elegant simplicity to parts of the album some listeners will mistake for tiredness”
But alongside all this, there is an elegant simplicity to parts of the album some listeners will mistake for tiredness, and that’s just not correct. You notice it most in the string arrangements, which I was pleasantly surprised to learn flow from Pierce’s pen. Familiar ingredients are gently transmuted into mystical, revelatory elements, as if he were an alchemist. On “Get What You Deserve”, a song whose bottom-end has been pretty much lobotomised (a carryover trait exhibited by all of the Spacemen 3), a faintly Eastern string motif weaves in and out of a misfiring organ drone, creating a sweetly woozy ambience. When John Harris interviewed Damon Albarn recently, the journalist picked up on the titling of “Caramel”, saying it was “seemingly referring to the brown goo produced when heroin is heated up”. On Sweet Light…’s more experimental cuts, there is a similarly opiate vibe.
Elsewhere, these strings are more innocent and playful, as on the soulful “Little Girl”, which could pass for a poppy Yo La Tengo number. “Life Is A Problem”, meanwhile, channels Ágætis byrjun-era Sigur Rós, in particular the palindromic arrangement of “Starálfur“. I smiled upon discovering that parts of this album were recorded at the Sundlaugin studio owned by that Icelandic post-rock outfit.
You might think, at this point, Sweet Light… is an album with an identity problem. It’s switching constantly between Pierce’s beloved 1960s pop, and the space rock he pioneered at the end of the 1980s. The lyrics betray his earlier taste for hedonism whilst also casting him as the family man (two of the songs feature the vocals of his eleven-year old daughter, Poppy).
“Pierce is visualising himself at death’s door, and he’s fine with it”
Well, no. This is a work that’s unafraid of swapping things around, but which essentially operates within one framework throughout: Pierce is visualising himself at death’s door, and he’s pretty much fine with it. The key lyric comes near the start of “Little Girl”: “Sometimes I wish that I was dead,” he sings, “‘Cause only the living can feel the pain.” From that mental image he conjures forth different strands of his life to date: the “Play loud and drive fast” mantra in the liner notes, as in the jangly opening track, “Hey Jane”; the cocky charmer waltzing through “Too Late”; the dying man on an IV drip, petering out infinitesimally, on the gospel-tinged closer “So Long You Pretty Thing”. These are Pierce’s very own seven ages of man, and, he now admits, he revels in all of them.
There are moments of supreme tact and subtlety on this album he has never even thought to attempt previously: a velvety, parping tuba here; a very British take on motorik there. There are also moments where he totally lets go, and you cannot begin to think of this being music assembled painstakingly at home by a man whose liver had disintegrated (the thoroughly mental “Headin’ For The Top Now” is the best example of this). And so this isn’t anything like, in aggregate, that previous masterpiece, but it is an album true to the spirit of that same creator, fifteen years on. And that means it’s a unique set of flavours we should all taste, at least now and again.
Spiritualized’s latest album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, was released on 16th April 2012, on Double Six Records.
Jason Pierce has a way with bad luck, but he’s also got a way with making fatalism triumphant. “Hey Jane“, which is the opening track on Spiritualized’s new album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, is a case in point. “Hey Jane, when you gonna die?”, Pierce asks, resigned to the titular heroine’s destiny, but also rejoicing in her life.
Beneath Pierce’s burnt-out vocals is the kind of jangly, frazzled guitar popularised in The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”, and a wordless children’s choir who sing out to the heavens. Halfway through, the song collapses into the sonic equivalent of a mental breakdown, like the apogee of a Sufjan Stevens concert. But then it rides back in on a soulful motorik groove for a coda that hints at ascension.
The video, which sort of fits with the tone of the song but also sort of doesn’t, is genuinely harrowing. It follows a black transvestite prostitute, and that’s all I’ll say. Watch it.
It’s jolly kind of Kate Radley to usher in Spiritualized‘s 1997 magnum opus by telephoning in the album’s title. Because, you know, what with all the orchestral bombast, astral guitars, and references to substance abuse, I was having a fair bit of trouble figuring out the predominant mood of the album.
I jest. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is an hour-long trawl through the narcotic inventory of frontman Jason Pierce (a.k.a. J. Spaceman). If Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” is about drugs, then Ladies and Gentlemen… makes that song sound like a Fisher Price toy. You can’t say Pierce eases the listener in gently: the album’s first two tracks catalogue the highs and lows of going into outer space, with all the subtlety of an ox cart. The opening song is Hollywood-tender; all sugary strings and softly murmured vocals invading every millimetre of personal space you might be holding on to. Then, we get the flip-side: “Come Together” is a warts-and-all freakout, complete with a brass fanfare to mark the song’s false ending.
“I think I can fly:
Probably just falling.”
And then we get the song where the two sides of Pierce’s hedonism connect. “I Think I’m In Love” spins an alternately sneering and then cynical internal monologue across a mesmerising eight-minute raga. Keeping it together, just, is the collected motorik beat; over it, we get a dizzying cyclical organ figure, free-jazz squalls of brass and guitar, and occasional descending sheets of violins.
“Think I’m the life and soul:
Probably just snorting.”
It’s not druggy music; rather, drugmusic. The two conflicting halves of self-medication collide, but the product is pure fusion rather than fission. Of course there is the occasional moment of euphoria, marking the temporary breakthrough of the addled mind’s false sense of supremacy, but these quickly dissipate. Who is Pierce in love with? Himself, and simultaneously, mid-realisation, no-one at all. But you wouldn’t think so if you didn’t listen to the words, so ballsy and triumphant is the music. In its over-furnished grandeur, “I Think I’m In Love” recalls A Northern Soul-era The Verve—a fine touchstone, in my books.
The song fades out, as impenetrable as it began, leaving us totally unprepared for the fresh assault the next song, “All Of My Thoughts”, will eventually deal out.