I’ve written previously about sprezzatura—the hard labour undertaken in order to appear carelessly stylish—in relation to Spoon’s underappreciated 2020 LP, Transference. But Brooklyn immigrants Parquet Courts achieve what might be considered sprezzatura‘s opposite on their latest work, Human Performance: casually executed precision. The end-product resembles a cocktail of rock canon greats—Velvet Underground, The Clash, and The Kinks, primarily—but with a somewhat nihilistic worldview that’s cleverly updated for this millennials’ age. As Brooklyn transplants, and subterranean romantics, they bring an outsider’s perspective to the most happening scene in the most happening city on the most happening planet in the galaxy. Their surface scruffiness is shot through with a surprising amount of melodrama and trickery. And their facility with non sequiturs and Dadaist slogans lends their work a cheerily surreal swerve. Continue reading The Antislacktivists
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.
Music deals to varying degrees with the issues of commitment and unrequited love. As I’ve written before, R&B gives us some of the most wonderful affirmations of serial monogamy (see Justin Timberlake, “My Love”; Beyoncé Knowles, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”; Hot Chip, “One Life Stand”). Rock music, less so. Songwriters with guitars do a better job of either posturing as the dominant sex, conquering any and all, or of playing out the part of the spurned, luckless lover.
Into that latter bracket, place The Shins, thanks to their recent “40 Mark Strasse“. Principal songwriter James Mercer narrates an invented tale of a child falling in love with (unbeknown to him) a prostitute; the story recalls the part of his childhood spent near the Ramstein Air Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany. The titular street is a nom de plume, bestowed upon a stretch of highway frequented by GIs in search of vice. The song is melancholy and resigned, with the initial youthful optimism (“Too young to know just what it was / Something more than a friend”) quickly giving way to the ethereally-backed chorus, in which Mercer asks,
“My girl, you’re giving up the fight / Are you gonna let these Americans / Put another dent in your life?”
The song shares a common strand of regret with Bowie—hinted at by the Germanic title—which finally plays out in the middle eight, with a gorgeous swell that looks back to the masterful outro of “Ashes To Ashes“. In the verses, eery sonar pings peek through a rich-timbred chord progression doubled up on acoustic guitar and prepared piano. As Mercer qua innocent child figures out the girl is beyond his grasp, he heaps the blame on her, telling her, “You’ll have to lose all them childish notions”. Is there a wider message to the song, to girls who have “the heart of a dove” but who can’t resist “play[ing] in the street at night”? The anguish in Mercer’s voice as he responds to his own exhortations suggests the dichotomy is not restricted to childhood infatuations with women of work.
Into this bracket we can also place Isaac Hayes’ interpretation of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix“, which provides ten minutes of backstory which contextualises what has become a succinct country standard. Hayes tells the story, in his sonorous voice-of-a-preacher, of a man who falls in love with a girl determined to take advantage of his naïveté and largesse. In his words,
“She said, ‘I got a fool and I know I got a fool, but I got a good thing’.”
She is ungrateful of his generosity—he takes no notice, knowing he is punching above his weight. Then, she cheats on him—and he finds out:
“But one day, one day, the old boy got sick and he had to come home.
I don’t have to tell you what he found.
Oh! Yeah, it hurt him so bad.
He said, ‘Baby…Mama, why?’ That’s all he could say.
That’s all he could say. He was hurt.”
The backing, a barely-there organ drone and a one-note bass line, underscores Hayes’ soliloquy with a universality: the same hurt is felt all the time; the philandering man is not the only challenge to the defining “power of love”. In the song itself, the lover-in-exile is brutal, standoffish—”Though time and time I try to tell her so / She just didn’t know I would really go”—but the introduction makes his crime of silence pale in comparison to her own, that of blatant deception.
When the main part of the song kicks in, a pair of forlorn trumpets peer through a winding clarinet part, while a lounge piano trickles in the occasional colour. The despair of the narrator is all too evident: he really doesn’t want to go, but he’s powerless to prevent the wandering ways of his girl. Even when the arrangement reaches its most triumphant moment, it’s only to bid farewell to her.
“I’m leaving my heart here / But I gotta go”
By taking the point of view of the spurned man, watching women who are tantalisingly close but whose commitment proves unattainable, Mercer and Hayes wrote songs that take a sophisticate’s eye to relationships. Some couples bicker and fight; other couples were never meant to be—in both these categories, it is possible to see men being the innocent victims of guilty women.
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.
I’m man enough to admit that the following albums leave me pretty much in tears by the time they finish:
- Amon Tobin – Supermodified (occasionally)
- Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
- Blur – 13
- Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
- Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
- Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights
- Jaga Jazzist – What We Must
- Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
- LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
- Low – Drums And Guns
- M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
- Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
- Portishead – Third
- Pulp – We Love Life
- Radiohead – OK Computer
- Radiohead – Kid A
- The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
- TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
- Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
What does this tell me? Well, other than that I’m possibly an emotional trainwreck, it also suggests that I’m a real sucker for killer album closers, notably those that are long, protracted, portentous and often outstay their welcome. Sometimes, these final songs are emotionally charged to such a degree that I feel utterly drained. At other times, it’s just the pent-up sadness that eventually emerges from an album full of grief, depression or sadness. When a songwriter lays his soul bare on record, it’s hard for me to not empathise.
This has made me sound like someone close to the brink, which I’m not, so I’ll stop now.