It's been too long since I posted anything here, so there's a fair amount to catch up on in terms of new albums, even though the heavy burden of house deposits and rent has considerably reduced my purchasing power. Roll on a time when I can get access to free promos again.
Imagine my delight when the lovely Snowstorm record label prepare a compilation from one of my favourite 'lost' bands, the archly intelligent Animals That Swim. Now imagine my considerable frustration when it gets delayed for three weeks in a row and I can't find it anywhere. Eventually, a cheap promo turns up in the Music and Video Exchange in Camden, and I snap it up. I don't intend to say too much about it here as I have just finished a longer piece on the band for the forthcoming issue of The Unpredictable Same fanzine (which any regular reader of this blog would do well to order - see http://www.kingofquiet.tk/ for more details). It has a slightly eccentric tracklist - I can't really fathom why they have neglected 'The Greenhouse' and 'Kitkats and Vinegar' in favour of 'The Longest Road' and 'Dirt', but you can't have everything. Still, this serves as a very welcome chronicle of their distinctive brand of pub melodrama. The songs are intelligent, witty and often deeply strange, whilst retaining a touching but unsentimental brand of storytelling. They don't neglect to write tunes either - and 'Faded Glamour', '50 Dresses' and 'East St O'Neill' are particularly powerful. They may have been just a little too clever for the Britpop bandwagon. It's a quite wonderful album. The time must surely be ripe for re-evaluating this neglected and underrated band.
Whilst Animals That Swim are deeply entwined with England (or, at least, London), Mark Lanegan, formerly of The Screaming Trees and guest-for-hire for Queens of the Stone Age and the Twilight Singers, seems to have fashioned his solo career on traditional American songwriting. His latest, 'Bubblegum', seems to have more in common with Tom Waits than with the grungey rock of his former group. Predictably, there are an abundance of drug metaphors on this album, and it all gets a little murky and tiresome at times. Musically, however, it's a dense, fascinating web of ideas. In some ways, it's one of the more incoherent albums of the year, veering as it does from ramshackle rock n' roll to lo-fi homespun blues. It wins out because it is consistently engaging, and because the thick, deep timbre of Lanegan's voice imbues the album with a lived-in sense of wisdom gained through experience. In fact, at times he almost sounds haggard. Even the louder songs seem slightly restrained, with a dirty, effectively under-produced sound. Polly Harvey provides an inspired supporting vocal on 'Hit The City', one of the album's most immediate moments. However, the most inspired moments here are the most unusual. 'When Your Number Isn't Up' makes for a particularly effective opener, with its rudimentary drum machine and skeletal guitar lines. The vocal is rich and resonant, giving the song the dark edge it clearly demands. Many of the songs here, such as 'Like Little Willie John' or 'Strange Religion' sound like another logical step in the great lineage of American folksong. 'Bubblegum' must surely be ironically titled - it's not lightweight at all.
If you haven't heard of the trials and tribulations of Pete Doherty of The Libertines, then you must surely be living on a different planet. The Libs, as they are affectionately known, are one of those bands that I have tried desparately to hate. I certainly get frustrated by the way the media has constantly fed their myth, attempting to make them into a group that defines an entire generation after merely two albums. Only time will tell whether or not they have any real longevity, but right now they certainly make an endearing racket; a ragged, spirited noise inspired by seventies punk and the greats of English pop songwriting (Weller, Morrissey and Marr, Ray Davies). Their critics lambast them for being derivative and uninspired but, even on first listen to their eponymous sophomore effort, it's clear that there is an extra spark to them. Even on the most basic of songs, the guitars always sound interesting - with strange, Chuck Berry-esque licks trading off each other. This is a band not content to chug along safely. Also, the chemistry between Carl Barat and Pete Doherty is so tense and energised that it inevitably results in moments of genuine inspiration, even if they try their hardest to bury their talents on this riveting but intentionally imperfect document, much of which has the energy and flaws of first-take performances.
The album opens and closes with arguably their best songs to date. These are songs that perpetuate the myth surrounding the fractured friendship between Barat and Doherty. They are songs in which they trade off lines with conviction, determination and bile. They are also notably crisper than anything else here - spiky and sharp, with a thrillingly brutal drum sound. 'Can't Stand Me Now' is one of the best pop songs of the year, an entertaining and touching stand-off between the two frontmen that also has something rather camp about it ('oooh, I can't take you anywhere', 'you can't take me anywhere' etc). 'What Became of the Likely Lads' is more wistful, and an ambiguous close to the latest chapter in the Libertines saga. There are hints of forgiveness, but also hints that this could easily be the last Libertines record. There's a sense of longing nostalgia for better times here.
In between the two, there's a complete riot. 'Last Post On The Bugle' starts off as a parting love song with appropriately thunderous drums, but then disintegrates into a beguiling mess of murmured vocals and bum notes. 'Music When The Lights Go Out' develops from a slightly whimsical acoustic introduction into a full-blooded singalong which borders on being funky. 'Narcissist' and 'Arbeit Macht Frei' are raucous, full-throttle punk thrashes. By means of contrast, 'What Katie Did' is a doo-wop inspired retro pop song. 'Tomblands' is another snarling rant, in which they spit out the great lyric: 'Didn't wanna be the one to tell you/she was only fourteen/sussed out your dirty sordid little scene'. Throughout, there are mistakes which even the tone deaf or pathologically unobservant could not fail to identify. There is also considerable charm which, in this case, proves to be considerably more effective than technical proficiency. The most polished moments here, all of them surely destined to be massive hit singles, give a hint of what the Libertines could achieve given a more sensitive producer. Nevertheless, there is still something thrilling in hearing a band full of the dynamism, spirit and energy of rock and roll, without the rough edges smoothed off. By comparison with this dangerous, defiant album, Razorlight and even The Strokes sound bland and tame.
'Medulla', the latest album from the perpetually extraordinary Bjork is the first album I've heard this year that truly transcends the ordinary and sounds like a significant statement. I'm reluctant to hail it as a masterpiece because, for me, it lacks the peculiar introspection that gave 'Vespertine' its entrancing coherence. Occasionally, it even sounds a little studied and forced. Nevertheless, it's still an engrossing, uncompromising album well beyond the boundaries of commerical pop. Bjork's solo career to date seems to have followed a similar trajectory to that of Kate Bush - a precocious and highly successful debut album, followed by a series of increasingly inventive steps away from the mainstream. 'Medulla' is arguably her boldest statement of intent to date. There are no instruments here - instead, all the sounds are produced by the human voice. Bjork has always worked best in collaboration with others, but this album is particular has demanded an even more co-operative approach. Guests include Faith No More singer Mike Patton, Icelandic human beatbox Rahzel and the peculiarly voiced pioneer Robert Wyatt. In some ways, the emphasis on voices is not necessarily radical, but more the logical conclusion of the choral approach she adopted for 'Vespertine'.
I'm slightly disappointed that this album employs conventional electronic beats that stutter and splurge in a largely predictable pattern. The beats on 'Vespertine' seemed less like unwelcome interventions and served more to enhance the atmosphere and mood of the songs. 'Who Is It', whilst infectious, is a pop song (and conceivable hit) that seems a little out of place here. There seems to be enough syncopated rhythm in the phrasing of 'Where Is The Line' for it not to need the additional emphasis of the manipulated human percussion. Some of the more effective tracks are free from this cumbersome baggage, and sound like they belong in an entirely different century, echoing monastic chants or plainsong. Some of them appear to be in Icelandic, or possibly, like the incomprehensible murmurings of Sigur Ros, they are simply nonsense songs. Either way, they are characterised by Bjork's paradoxical icy warmth - they sound like winter songs with a beating human heart.
Bjork's songs are at their most effective when they are shamelessly erotic. 'Coccoon', from 'Vespertine' is one of the most inspired songs about sex I've ever heard - in its minimalist arrangement, it actually sounded naked. It was extraordinary in its intimacy and absorbtion in the moment. On 'Medulla', the best songs are erotic in the broadest sense, in that they awaken the senses and induce a staggering synaesthesia. Opening track 'The Pleasure Is All Mine' is like musical temptation, a perfect soundtrack to the Garden of Eden, whereby multi-tracked Bjorks sound otherworldly and inviting. 'Mouth's Cradle' is brilliant, a succession of seductive images set to a complex musical arrangement that seems to be constantly seeking new and fascinating sounds. The single is 'Oceania', a song that Bjork composed for the opening ceremony of the Athens olympics, and it's a sensurround delight - a piece of music that somehow manages to sound visual. 'Submarine' is particularly weird, and it's fascinating to hear how well Bjork's voice integrates with that of Robert Wyatt - it sounds harmonious in more ways than one.
On the first few listens some of these songs seemed to wash over me, particularly tracks such as the penultimate 'Midvikudags' or the entirely accapella 'Show Me Forgiveness'. After a few listens, I think this is because the vocal arrangements manage to achive a strangely floating, almost hypnotic quality. This could have been a most effective mood for the entire album - but the more pulsating tracks interrupt the flow. 'Medulla' is an album of compelling imagery, from using the teeth as the gateway to the mouth's cradle, to the rolling of the stars like dice in the quietly superb 'Desired Constellation'. It also demonstrates that Bjork is an artist far more concerned with following her own increasingly individual pathway than with pandering to commercial concerns. Even this album's most tuneful moments will probably never make it to daytime radio playlists. This is a real shame, because 'Medulla', like all of Bjork's remarkable solo output so far, is an album that demands to be heard. Whilst a vocal-only approach sounds potentially restrictive, Bjork's has once again proved that her voice is the most versatile instrument of all.