In 2013 I listened to but neglected to blog that much about:
In August 2010 Time, a magazine, baited the liberal elite by featuring the novelist Jonathan Franzen on its cover, with a caption below it reading, simply, “Great American Novelist”. In the novel which precipitated the headline, Freedom, Franzen showed himself to be unafraid of engaging in music journalism in the middle of a serious novel about serious themes of nationhood. The same year, three American outfits released three landmark albums: LCD Soundsystem, with This Is Happening; The National, with High Violet; and Vampire Weekend, with Contra. Continue reading Great American Lyricist
“Put an ocean and a river between everything, yourself and home.” Sometimes, Matt Berninger seems to advise in The National’s “England”, you have to get a little distance between you and the things, and people, dear to you. Paul Haggis’s “Crash” was a clunky metaphor for how Los Angelenos are only brought together by traumatic collisions. Before germ theory found currency, people thought the origin of epidemics lay in ‘bad air’, or, miasma, emanating from rotting organic matter. Continue reading Miasma
Then again, Portal is one of those games that even luddites like myself think is pretty mind-bendingly cool. The idea of being trapped in some kind of training facility/laboratory by a malevolent artificial intelligence, forced into beaming yourself across and between rooms, armed only with a gun that creates rifts in the fabric of space-time. It sounds like a concept for a Yeasayer video treatment.
What Portal, and by extension Portal 2, doesn’t really sound like is five-odd minutes of suburban piano moping, of the kind for which I love The National so much. This is a really haunting, beautiful song, with the odd burst of foreboding kettle drums, and a soaring, weeping string arrangement. Near the end, there’s a twinkly upward stream of piano in a higher register, which brings the song to a surprising conclusion.
I’m assuming the song doesn’t actually play during gameplay, because that would be super-odd, and somewhat out of place alongside the procedurally-generated music that the game is known for conjuring as you pass through it.
More surprisingly, according to Wikipedia,
The National had expressed interest to Bug Music, their publishing label, in doing music for Valve, which the label forwarded on to Valve in discussing other music opportunities for the game. Valve and Bug Music identified The National would fit well into Portal 2, as their “raw and emotive music evokes the same visceral reactions from its listeners that Portal does from its players” according to Bug Music’s spokesperson Julia Betley.
How bizzarre. Well, I don’t want to invoke the ire of gamers across the planet, but I really do find this perplexing. Are the Dessners on Xbox Live too? Does Matt Berninger set high-scores while on tour? Do the Devendorfs rule at Grifball? I find these propositions unlikely.
But what do I know—I don’t play video-games, after all.
Epic, thrilling confirmation of how powerful this band is.
First of all, apologies for the lack of updates. I’m afraid not all of us have eight-week terms, and the last few weeks have been criminally hectic.
Now, a lot of my friends have highlighted my lack of knowledge of recent pop music. It’s true that I don’t listen to what’s in the charts, and I’m sometimes surprised when I tune into the radio and hear something I never imagined would have entered the pop universe – M.I.A., for instance. I had no idea she had become so big. Scanning down a list of the current UK Top 40, I have never knowingly heard a song by The Saturdays, Lady GaGa, Taylor Swift, Akon, Alesha Dixon, James Morrison, Tinchy Stryder, Jason Mraz, Leona Lewis or Lemar. It doesn’t bother me, but it does bother others.
What does frustrate me is the terribly low expectations of pop listeners. Why does it require a trailer for a bad stoner comedy to get people listening to M.I.A.? There’s nothing excessively pretentious about her music; it’s hugely entertaining; random sonic effects bounce out of speakers – put simply, there’s no excuse not to go and listen to her songs. I’m incredibly glad that she’s now receiving some mainstream love, but of course there are countless other artists whose music would be perfectly palatable for a pop-loving audience, but who have never received that big break. Music critics often talk of a band writing “great pop songs”, without mentioning that the pop breakthrough has so far eluded the band in question.
Here, then, are some artists who I would sorely love to see gain more exposure in the wider community, because there’s nothing unreasonably difficult about their music, and because they write great pop songs. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of most of these bands. But go and tell your pop-loving friends about them, in the hope that they too will come to appreciate better, more intelligent pop music.
My Morning Jacket – prone to lengthy jams in live shows, their studio albums have got progressively more pop, without really sacrificing on the quality. Often, it’s just straight up rock and roll, with a smattering of reverb, and some alt.country flavourings. It never fails to lift my mood. (Download now: Wordless Chorus, Gideon)
Belle & Sebastian – this Scottish troupe have been around for years, never making any great inroads at mainstream success, despite the fact that they write beautifully charming, witty, unpretentious songs that reference everything from folk, to electronica, to Motown and soul. Once again, it’s truly uplifting, engaging music that doesn’t make a great show of its intelligence. (Download now: Step Into My Office Baby, The Blues Are Still Blue)
Calexico – who doesn’t want to hear mariachi-tinged Americana that takes in elements from dub, folk, krautrock and popular indie rock? Over the course of their career, they’ve made some of my favourite, and most consistently enjoyable, albums, which are packed full of diverse ranging songs that evoke a singular image of the deserts of California and Arizona. (Download now: Writer’s Minor Holiday, Dub Latina)
The Decemberists – like MMJ, they can get quite progressive, but when they write sweet, romantic ditties, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t get played on the radio. No one can fail to love “Summersong” on the first listen. (Download now: Summersong, The Perfect Crime #2)
Deerhunter – Their earlier work was aggressively ambient and shoegazy, but their recent album, Microcastle, is a triumph of pop melodies, inflected with tortuously beautiful guitar fuzz. In Bradford Cox, they have one of the most beautiful, troubling and haunting voices in music, but when he harmonises with the rest of the band, the result is sublime. (Download now: Heatherwood, Agoraphobia)
Field Music – I feel like I’ve extolled this Sunderland three-piece’s virtues way too many times. They no longer make music under that name, but their second album in particular is a masterpiece of indie pop, with strange vibes of Genesis and 80s prog rock, but all contained in three minute songs. (Download now: A House Is Not A Home, She Can Do What She Wants)
The National – framed with beautiful orchestral flourishes, this band’s genre-less music is wonderfully evocative, employing tasteful U2-isms and Springsteen-isms with the dark brooding mood of Interpol. (Download now: Fake Empire, Secret Meeting)
The Shins – darlings of the indie world, but why has nobody else heard their musically diverse, exceptionally well-written pop songs? They even had their music sprinkled through the film Garden State. (Download now: Kissing The Lipless, Phantom Limb, Sea Legs)
Spoon – what more can I write? Their music is beautifully sparse and minimalist; no song ever carries on where it’s not necessary; the lyrics are funny and insightful; even their albums are strangely brief. They’re just the complete band. Their music was featured in The O.C., as I discovered when I played an album to some friends. But why didn’t anyone follow it up? (Download now: Don’t You Evah, The Way We Get By, Stay Don’t Go)
There’s simply no reason not to spread the word of the gospel.
Here in the UK a lot of people feel very lucky to still have the BBC. Though I’m aware that they seem to be caught up in a fresh scandal every week, one really can’t doubt the unmatchable quality of a vast quantity of their output. Which other broadcaster has given us such quality creations as Spooks, Hustle, Life On Mars and Bleak House in recent years? Which other channel pumps out consistently entertaining comedy rivalling the likes of Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, and Armstrong And Miller? Certainly not ITV, that’s for sure. I would readily admit that I only watch programmes on the BBC, with the exception of Champions’ League football. Whether it’s drama, comedy or factual, the I’m proud to say that the BBC still maintains intellectual standards in an era when other channels are quite content to devote the entirety of their schedules to dumbed-down reality TV with not an ounce of originality or value. Of course the BBC produces its share of trash, but even their reality TV efforts aren’t always bad – The Apprentice, anyone?
On the radio front, again, the BBC is still willing to sacrifice a degree of populist interest in the hope of maintaining standards. Key to this strategy is the output of BBC 6 Music and Radio 4, which is never less than excellent. Yes, all things considered, we have it pretty good over here.
Which is why I’m always encouraged to hear what’s being broadcast across the pond on NPR, which I believe to be America’s closest equivalent to BBC Radio. More specifically, NPR’s music content is thoroughly worthwhile, none more so than the perennial All Songs Considered arm, which covers everything from music news, through reviews, to live concert broadcasts. The latter in particular was how I first came across NPR, and, several years after I first started tuning in, the quality of output is still very present. In Bob Boilen, All Songs Considered has the perfect host: Boilen is witty, erudite and eloquent, and never fails to display his passion for the music.
What is really incredible is the sheer quantity of concerts that are not only aired live, but are then uploaded onto the internet as a downloadable podcast, of the same name, which I cannot recommend enough. A cursory glance at my iTunes lists entire sets from the likes of Radiohead, Tom Waits, Fleet Foxes, Spoon, Low, Iron & Wine, The National and Arcade Fire. These are some of my favourite artists and bands, at the top of their game. The content available is really spectacular. The audio is usually pristine; the songs are all there; crowd noise doesn’t impede on the on-stage performance. It’s like a bootleg, without all the inconvenient problems of a bootleg. These concert recordings really are the next best thing to actually being there, and I can’t encourage you enough to check them out. The Radiohead gig in particular, recorded at their Santa Barbara Bowl performance over the summer, is a true testament to the transformative power of the live experience. Though we cannot relive the excitement of the moment, just hearing a recording of it is enough to evoke considerable emotion and enjoyment.
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.