A round up of stuff I’ve missed/not got around to posting about over the past year.
Well, it would appear that the curtain is falling on the year of our lord 2014. During the winter period, as the year draws to a close and the weather turns from grim to grimmer, right minded folk feel that warm christmassy feeling begin to swell in the pit of their bellies and enjoy that most magical time of the year with their nearest and dearest. Less right minded folk instead feel an irrepressible urge to run through all the music and other forms of media they have consumed over the past year and rank it, creating a series of lists that represent the person we like to think we were in the year just gone. Enjoying things isn’t enough for us; it’s all about evaluating the experiences we enjoyed as well as the things we like to think we enjoyed because we’re clever and deep and interesting and all that. Whilst others are enjoying their turkey and pigs in blankets we’re staring into the middle distance weighing up whether a good time funk record or a miserable piece of moody indie deserves the much coveted #4 spot in our top 10. Then once the charts have been carefully curated we can present them to an indifferent world and say, “hey, everyone, this is me. This is what I have consumed. Validate me.”
This display of rampant ego is good for picking up on things one has missed over the year at least. And just to make my hypocrisy complete I’ll have my own list of albums posted here tomorrow (y’know, just in case some Peruvian krautrock duo drop a late album of the year contender before midnight tonight). In the meantime I’ve been doing my traditional annual mop up session, listening to the records widely acclaimed by the various media gatekeepers we have all deemed worthy of paying attention to and seeing what the fuss was all about. And also writing a few words about records I have enjoyed and not gotten around to lauding on this modest little blog as yet.
Braid – No Coast
Emo has been enjoying something of a modest return over the past few years, in all it’s various guises from twinkly American Football-esque noodlings to Jawbreaker aping sad eyed pop-punk. There couldn’t be a better time for Braid, one of the more underrated set of 90s veterans, to make a surprise comeback – providing they still had the chops to keep up with the kids. Thankfully Braid aren’t so much interested in keeping pace with the new generation as they are reminding them how high the bar was set way back when, putting together a set of songs that can stand up to anything they put out during their supposed heyday.
They pick up exactly where they left off back at the turn of the millenium. The only hint that time has passed at all is how world weary the lyrics sound. Like many emo vocalists Chris Broach and Bob Nanna always sounded a bit like old heads on young bodies back in the day but now they sound more jaded and tired than ever (and it’s hard to imagine them starting a song with the line “Whisky and crosswords” back in ’98). Which is to be expected with a over another decade of living under their belts in the interim – but what is surprising is that the music sounds anything but weary. They haven’t changed all that much – it’s the same nasal, overly emotive vocal delivery, same hooks, same buzz saw guitar wanderings around the higher registers. But things are that little more streamlined here – the production is cleaner, their pop sensibilities played up significantly. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect them to have gone on to do if they’d stuck around in the first place, only 16 years later than expected.
Which makes it something of a nostalgia trip for 30somethings like me, sure. But tracks like East End Hollows and Damages! hit that sweet spot of cynical lyrics coated in sugary poppy hooks that never go out of style. No Coast is a slice of premium grade emo that’s such a perfect example of that 90s sound that it’ll instill nostalgia in those who weren’t around for the first time around. For newer converts to that time where hearts were permanently on sleeves and every throat was ready to shout along with a fist raised in the air it’s a great reminder of where guys like Beach Slang, The Hotelier, Joyce Manor et al got all their moves from.
Ian William Craig – A Turn of Breath
A Turn of Breath sounds like something of a curiosity at first – it’s the sound of the human voice cut up, stretched, refracted, broken, distorted, bristling with static and stitched together into an ambient/drone pieces. The voices sing wordlessly, seemingly wounded, seemingly yearning for something, sounding lost, the proverbial ghost in the machine. They’re tender, barely there, but the occasional moment they are allowed to soar is dramatic and startlingly human. Other times it sounds entirely alien, entirely other. Drones, clicks, scrapes. Melodies seem to melt into each other. It’s a fragile sonic collage bleeding at the edges.
I feel like this review is a bunch of pieces of things I’ve heard elsewhere stitched together and repurposed. Which is not unlike this album. And, perhaps, not unlike this age we live in. Pulling apart the old and trying to put together a bricolage that will see the constituent pieces feel new in their new context.
Rooms sounds like a song treated so that it sounds like it’s drifted in from another place, another age. The only mis-step is the moments when Craig brings more convential vocals into play as on A Slight Grip, a Gentle Hold (pt.1). It spoils the mystique of this strange and evocative record, which for the most part feels like nothing else out there.
Grouper – Ruins
“Maybe you were right when you said I’ve never been in love.”
I first listened to this record on a dark, apocalyptically rainy winter’s evening, walking from bus stop to bus stop waiting for rides that never came, seeing the frustration on the would be travelers faces, realising any hope of being ferried by public trasport was slim, and lifting my umbrella and continuing on until I was in Cardiff city centre much later than promised to see my partner. I didn’t have much time to write notes on it and so came away with just two words: impeccably sad. It’s hard to improve on that.
Between her various collaborations, ambient tape collages and 7 hour sleep-cycle performances Liz Harris has been releasing minimal, lo-fi music that gets called, ‘hazy,’ ‘haunting,’ ‘dreamlike’ and ‘ethereal’ and deserves all of those adjectives. She has a knack for sounding both intimate and unknowable. Ruins is purely Harris, piano, tape hiss and field recordings – crickets and frogs chirping and croaking in the distance, heavy rain filling the space in the sparse recordings. It sounds her most intimate but she still keeps her distance. It is an album of immaculate sorrow – most of the songs have vocals, though a couple are just lonely ringing piano and whilst you’re under it’s spell it becomes hard to the difference. Her vocals are delivered in solemn whispers she , as if afraid of waking something terrible. Rain fades into static – notes ring out over the hiss of the tape. On Holding the piano notes are held longingly, sometimes almost too long. The note after comes in softer, almost resigned. It ends on a droning, ambient piece more akin with her only work – a storm, distant synth that sounds like the decaying organ in a ruined church. After it’s 16 minutes are over you awake wondering where you’ve just been and wondering if you really want to go back there. Sooner or later you will.
Mac Demarco – Salad Days
Some thing in music are entirely baffling to me. I like to think of myself as someone who can take a step back and objectively consider the merits of an artist’s work and gaze upon the musical landscape and see preciesely which niche they are fitting into. But Mac Demarco is something my poor brain cannot wrap itself around. For a start ‘Mac’ was born Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV, which is…well…what the f**k is that? I suppose slacker rock is always easier to play when there’s nothing standing in the way of your slacking. And hey, if that’s what your muse tells you to do, why should I go all class war on it?
But to me it sounds like something to listen to whilst Kurt Vile is between records. And even on that level it doesn’t quite work – Salad Days is slacker music as written by someone with a surprising bitter streak. On Brother he’s sniping at the 9-5ers, those poor deluded souls who haven’t managed to make a living out of peddling inoffensive lazy guitar pop – “You’re better off dead, when your mind’s been set from nine until five/How could it be true, well it’s happened to you, so take my advice.” Then on Goodbye Weekend he instructs us, “don’t go telling me how this boy should be leaving his own life.” He’s happy to sneer at the world around him but doesn’t fancy being criticised for his own nonsense life. Usually this lazy good-time rock comes with a deal of aww shucks charm – Demarco just comes across as a bit of an arsehole.
Mac Demarco (seriously if you could choose your own nom de plum, would you go for Mac Demarco?) is famous for having something of a raunchy live show. I haven’t had the pleasure of witnessing it first hand, I only have reviews to go on, but what I’ve read makes him sound like American Indie rock’s answer to the late Mike Read. “If we’re getting all loose and goofy, the crowd usually lightens up and starts having a funkier time” he says. Which sounds just awful. Also I can’t help but think he sings ‘my baby’ unironically far too often. This is 2014, fella. Unless you’re referring to your own newborn you should probably update your lexicon.
What’s worse is that chunks of Salad Days are actually reasonably likeable. It’s one thing giving you something to hate – it’s another showing glimpses of talent amidst the dross. Maybe that’s why he’s got so much acclaim – he’s mostly dull but occasionally inspired (Chamber of Reflections, the one change up from his usual noodling is a synth number that shows he has some surprising nous beneath his goofery) which combined with his clever moneyed guy playing buck toothed fool is a weird combination to deal with. Maybe people are just curious – what the f**k is with this guy?
The nicest thing I can say about Salad Days is that it sounds like ‘Mac’ is trying too hard to second guess everyone. His career this far is an elaborate series of bluffs and maybe-faux-self-deprecation, goofy jokes and tiresome am-I-serious? ruses, which is perhaps understandable for a dude born in 1990 trying to make it in the increasingly scattered, panicked music industry. But it all comes across as deeply unlikeable. If someone could wake me up when he’s hacked his way through some of the irony and detachment he’s put up an figured out what he actually wants to do I’d appreciate it.
Which might all sound like a long wided way of saying, “pull your damn pants up, kid.” Christ, when did 31 get so old?
Angel Olson – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
For most people Angel Olson seemed to come out nowhere – fellow troubadors Sharon Von Etten and St Vincent, who also enjoyed respectively stellar 2014s, have been slowly building and finding greater success on their 4th or 5th album, whereas Olson was primarily a backing singer for Bonnie “Prince” Billie until a few years back when she started releasing music under her own name. I suppose some people find their aesthetic quicker than others – Burn Your Fire with No Witness is an album brimming with confidence, despite subject matter that occasionally makes her sound anything but. It is, perhaps, the sound of discovering that finding yourself and finding happiness are two very different things.
There’s a sketchy lo-fi quality to opener Unfucktheworld that is quickly complemented by more studio quality production on the choral vocals – it’s like she’s managed to find a way of taking the aesthetic of both early sketchy Mountain Goats and their later more clean sounding records and combine them perfectly. It’s a weird trick that takes some getting used to – her vocals brims with static, pushing into the ear piercing red whenever she lets her voice soar, like she’s singing into a busted old microphone recording on a cheap tape deck while clean guitar chords and piano notes bubble beneath them. It creates a hazy, faintly country tinged brand of indie rock that occasionally invokes Cat Power but mostly sounds like nobody but Angel Olson. It’s clever yet melancholic, sounding laid back whilst throwing around desperate lyricisms. “Are you lonely too?/So am I/hi-five!”
The other influence writ large on Burn Your Fire is Leonard Cohen –White Fire is so much like his early work it’s almost pastiche. Then it’s followed by a track called High and Wild, evoking the “dealer who wants to deal a card so high and wild he’ll never have to deal another” from his Stranger Song. Elsewhere she sounds almost like an indie Dolly Parton on Lights Out – it’s a testament to the sound she’s created that she’s able to absorb such disparate influences into her sound without becoming subsumed by either. To do so on her first full-band record is quite a feat.
Bohren & der Club of Gore – Piano Nights
If you’ve heard of Bohren & der Club of Gore, slow footed pioneers of what was quickly labelled doomjazz, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Piano Nights. And if you’ve ever read a review of their work you know the clichés to expect here – it’s hard to describe their piano and sax meanderings without describing the pace as glacial and commenting on how they sound like the bar band in David Lynch’s dreams. They’ve been doing this for 8 albums now and it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to say any changes they’ve made are barely perceptible -I imagine if you sat and listened to them back to back you might hear a shift in tone, in the cloying coral backing and drawn out cymbal crashes, in the way they increasingly surefootedly lumber from note to note like some shambling beast. But you’d be setting yourself up for a very dull day. They describe their own music as ‘uneventful’ and that’s the way it’s meant to be – it’s a perfect curation of mood, evoking some noir moolit street, a slow exhalation of smoke into the still night air. Theirs are not records you just put on absent mindedly – it’s a very specific sonic realm that you have to be ready to walk into. But when you’re in the mind for it there’s nothing quite like them and nothing else will do.
The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
“Lost In the Dream was the product of a grueling, year-long recording process. Though Granduciel involved his touring band more so than any previous War on Drugs record, his perfectionist tendencies still held sway, resulting in endless cycles of recording, revising, and scrapping.”
That sounds like an awful lot of work for what ended up being an overly pleasant 80s sounding slab of soft-rock MOR. The War on Drugs have made it to the top of many a best of ’14 list, somehow. Perhaps people are craving some inoffensive, dreary rock for comfort in an increasingly confusing world. This is their third record and whereas the haze and vague motorick beat was pleasant if not entirely distracting before on Lost in the DreamGranduciel has shorn every edge away from their sound, so much so that their are moments that sound like Bryan Adams album tracks. This is supposed to be his difficult emotional album but it’s hard to see any evidence of that. It’s not bad, per se – it’s too well structured and polished to really be something you can actively hate, but I have no idea why there’s so much praise coming the way of a man who’s reaction to a difficult period in his life is to express himself exclusively in terms of sleepy non-descript 80s AM radio classics. There seems to be some kind of cultural caché in dredging up unpopular influences – and whilst going against the grain and sounding like perennially derided Dire Straits might I suppose seem like an admirable endevour in a straight forward going anaist the grain sort of way the truth is that sometimes drawing on the uncool is just evidence of your own poor taste. When Brett Easton Ellis finally caves in and writes American Psycho 2 you can see a chapter dedicated to War on Drugs, on describing how these beige jigsaw pieces all fit together. It’s like a forgettable journey in the backseat of a car trundling through a boring town with Radio 2 playing on the stereo – you half expect to hear Terry Wogan interjecting to tell you how lovely each song was and the occasional traffic update.
Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy
With this little piece I’ve now mentioned a grand total of two hip hop records in 2014, and what’s worse is that on the surface they’re actually pretty similar – it’s fair to say I lean more towards the arty end of rap which has in the past been referred to as ‘backpacker’ and that I like a healthy dose self-deprecation rather than hip-hop’s default chest beating self-aggrandizing. However Dark Comedy is a more wrought and nervous affair than the slack funtimes of Hail Mary Mallon. As the title suggests it’s riddled with gallows humour, making fun of terrible situations in order to retake a little power from them, laughing because the alternatives aren’t all that appealing. Not that it’s all ashen faced and bleak – Qualifiers is full of genuine laughs amidst it’s overly modest rhymes and on Doug Stamper Mike brings in a great comedian who’s had one hell of a year in Hannibal Buress (though this was recorded long before he called out Bing Crosby) and between them they take the concept of The Advice Show and elevate it from the dumb skit it could have been to something almost sublime. Then there’s Kool AD’s deranged yelping on technology paranoia track Informations which almost steal the whole show. It’s one of the funniest albums of the year, if you can handle the rough chuckles, but it’s when Mike delves into more raw territory that it really grabs you – the inhebriated late night internal road monologue of Idaho, the state of the hip-hop union address of Golden Era Raps and the dreamlike money-ain’t-everything sigh of Very Much Money. Dark Comedy is full of wit, eerie, twitchy beats and gutpunch honesty – everything the title promises. The Hellfyre Club has an increasingly diverse and impressive array of talent and in 2014 Open Mike Eagle showed he just might be the jewel in their crown.
Watter – This World
A lot of people got excited when they heard the words ‘ex-Slint’ in relation to Watter, with drummer Britt Walford being amongst their number, but Grails fans will have known that Zak Riles was the name that gave the biggest clue as to how they would sound. He’s developed a very distinct and identifiable style both in his solo work that since he joined Grails that has become a defining element of their intoxicating brew – it wasn’t much of a jump to assume his fingerprints would be the most discernable on This World. And so it came to be. As a sort of post-rock side project it’s also every bit as inscrutable as you’d expect – there are no lyrics to etch meaning onto these moody soundscapes and the song titles offer no clues either. All you have to work with is lengthy, eerie jams that are cinematic in that non-cinematic way critics like to bring up – post-rock is often described as music for movies that don’t exist, but in reality they demand too much attention to work in with the moving image, instead it’s more an aural cinema of the imagination, if you’ll forgive something so pretentious. It’s a typically brilliant outing from Giles with an excellent group of collaborators building the perfect atmosphere for his trademark style to flourish – check the slow burning build culminating in an awesome riff heavy climax that is Small Business. Chances are Watter will vanish just as soon as they came, leaving just one sonic obelisk on the landscape to let us know they were here. Luckily it’s a damn fine one.
Sharon Von Etten – Are We There?
It’s taken 4 often inspired albums to get to this point but Sharon Von Etten has finally arrived as a songwriter. Her previous records had sublime moments but didn’t quite have the consistency you’d want in them – Are We There? is a back to front triumph. She’s mastered the art of writing uneasy love songs, songs of yearning for things you know to be wrong for you and for trying to hold things together which so desperately need to fall apart. Your Love is Killing Me is the most dramatic song of diseased love you could ever hope to hear – “break my legs so I won’t run to you” she pleads, “cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you.” The chorus is such a cathartic, soaring triumph that it makes the unbearable sadness of it’s abusive subject matter bearable. She wields such powerful, heart-wrenching sentiments like a cloaked blade, ever able to cut you down with a swift move of her hand. Despite it being a reasonably poppy slice of Americana on the face of it can be a difficult listen, but Von Etten navigates such choppy waters with an impossible grace it’s hard not to fall for, even as she’s breaking your heart.