Tuesday, October 21, 2008

27 Recordings in Full Stereo

I’m struggling to keep up with commenting on my listening at the moment, so I thought I’d do a list of everything floating my boat at the moment, with some brief thoughts. I will hopefully get round to writing more considered thoughts about many of these records soon:

Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna (Warp)
Apparently their pop album, this is really just a more ambitious and accurate statement of their primal, ritualistic preoccupations. If they’ve assimilated elements drawn from grime or other forms of dance music, the most obvious reference point is still Can.

Max Richter – 24 Postcards In Full Colour (FatCat)
Some people may see an irony in this, but these bite-size sketches, designed to be downloaded as ringtones, may constitute Richter’s most evocative and affecting work to date. He has deliberately surrendered his control over the order in which the tracks play out – and it’s amusing just how much of a novelty it is to find a composer inviting the use of the CD player’s shuffle function. This is challenging music for the attention-deficit age.

AC/DC – Black Ice (Columbia)
This one does not require an essay. Maybe with the exception of ‘Rock N’ Roll Dream’ (which represents a tentative step into self-questioning balladry), this sounds exactly like everything else AC/DC have recorded. Ergo it is unquestionably awesome. For fans who recognise nuances – if ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ was a return to the blues and boogie of their earliest albums, producer Brendan O’Brien has brought to ‘Black Ice’ a similar muscle to that provided by Mutt Lange on ‘Back in Black’.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Is It The Sea? (Domino/BBC)
Put Will Oldham with a bunch of Scottish folksters in a band called Harem Scarem and you get another unpredictable live reworking of many of his greatest songs. The addition of harmonised female backing vocals continues to soften some of Oldham’s sharper edges. Perhaps this endless string of releases is a little unhelpful in any attempt to define Oldham – but definition is precisely what the great contrarian is trying to evade.

Dave Holland Sextet – Pass It On (Universal Classics)
A new group – featuring Alex Spiagin on Trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on Piano and the incomparable Eric Harland on drums, this is an intricate and engrossing set, refreshing some of the highlights of Holland’s career as a composer. Has Holland ever made a disappointing record?

Bobo Stenson Trio – Cantando (ECM)‘Cantando’, which translates as ‘singing’, is one of the most subtle, nuanced and beautiful recordings of the whole year. It’s a set of lyrical, melodic compositions performed with empathy and meticulous control. All three musicians explore the range of sounds from their instruments, combining to craft a meditative calm that transports us far away from this hurried, unbalanced daily existence.

Late Of The Pier – Fantasy Black Channel (Parlophone)
Whilst I appreciated the recent Guardian blog piece deriding their ludicrous moniker, Late of the Pier still seem like a breath of fresh air in the mostly redundant world of British indie rock. They are a band completely unafraid of both ambition and ridicule – as a result, their music is genuinely exciting. They sometimes betray their context by slipping into that oom-ska oom-ska groove that has plagued this music post-Franz Ferdinand, but they at least do it with a very real exuberance. Elsewhere, they are riotously unpredictable and maniacally subversive.

Benoit Pioulard – Temper (Kranky)
A step-up from ‘Precis’, itself one of my personal favourites of the past few years, this is an immersing and rewarding record – a strange combination of naivety and confidence that is supremely appealing. It sounds pleasurably disconnected from reality.

Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue (Rough Trade)
This has been getting short shrift in some sections of the music press, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Like ‘Under The Blacklight’, it seems to be to be another apposite context for Lewis’ silky, charming voice. She encounters problems when she strives too hard for authenticity – hence I wasn’t quite as enamoured with the detour into Appalachian folk on ‘Rabit Fur Coat’, nor Rilo Kiley’s more self-consciously shmindie moments pre-‘More Adventurous’. Whilst much of ‘Acid Tongue’ might seem like an indulgent studio love-in with famous friends, these moments sound spirited and full blooded, whilst the album’s moments of refined balladry are alluring.

Wild Beasts – Limbo, Panto (Domino)
It’s taken me a while to brave this one, in full knowledge that Hayden Thorpe’s extravagant, highly camp falsetto would be something of an acquired taste. I’m growing to appreciate it though – the songs are excellent, and the playing is far more adventurous than most of the mundane indie currently coming from British shores.

Beck – Modern Guilt (XL)
‘Modern Guilt’ is comfortably Beck’s best album since ‘Odelay’ and possibly the most impressive of the ubiquitous Dangermouse’s recent productions. Are we now taking Beck for granted? ‘Modern Guilt’ hasn’t received all that much in the way of column inches, but it’s a lot warmer and less arch than much of his back catalogue. It’s also musically challenging without lurching into self parody, as some of Beck’s material has in the past. It’s also mercilessly concise, which works in its favour.

Marnie Stern – This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It is It and That is That (Kill Rock Stars)
This is comfortably the most convoluted title of the year and one that potentially risks obfuscating the impact of this visceral, thrilling music. Contrary to many of her peers, Stern relishes in virtuosic displays of technique, as does her extraordinary drumming accompanist Zach Hill. The resulting music is so intense and fearless as to be utterly irresistible. It’s a wild combination of untamed aggression and elaborate intricacy.

TV On The Radio – Dear Science (4AD)
This one looks set for album of the year status from some quarters. It’s certainly the acclaimed group’s most consistent and accessible record to date – I’m just not so sure that its lunge for Prince-inspired minimalist pop represents anything staggeringly original. It is, however, involving and compelling. I also rather liked ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’, which now seems to have been casually re-assessed as the disappointment of their catalogue.

EST – Leucocyte (ACT)
I’ve been avoiding writing about this for fear of speaking ill of the dead. I must confess, however, that I’ve become unusually aggravated by the marketing campaign describing it as ‘Esbjorn Svensson - his legacy’. That, surely, is the entire EST back catalogue, which I suspect will come to be seen as one of the richest and most rewarding in contemporary jazz. ‘Leucocyte’, had Svensson lived, might have pointed in new directions for the group. It certainly represents a departure but I’m not yet convinced it’s a fruitful one. Much of it sounds loose and unstructured, with a greater emphasis on group improvisation that doesn’t play to Svensson’s strengths for simple, haunting themes. But I must give it more time!

Roots Manuva – Slime and Reason (Big Dada)
I haven’t investigated much hip hop this year, but Rodney Smith remains dependable. One of the few rappers to speak honestly about the reality of his life, rather than construct an elaborate macho fantasy around it, he’s also blessed with another rarity in this music – a sense of humour. ‘Slime and Reason’ is both insightful and fun and the productions remain uniquely inventive in British hip hop – the collaborations with Metronomy are surprisingly fruitful.

Finn Peters – Butterflies (Accidental)
Now signed to Matthew Herbert’s label, Finn Peters follows up the excellent ‘Su-Ling’ with a record of disarming calmness and simplicity, in which his flute playing is the central feature. The volume rarely rises above a careful whisper. It’s a good deal less immediate than ‘Su-Ling’, and requires a little patience, but its tranquil mood is surprising and refreshing amidst the furious blasting of most contemporary British jazz.

Jeremy Warmsley – How We Became (Transgressive)
I had been expecting the campaign for Jeremy to step up a notch with this second album, but it seems to have slipped out with only minimal fanfare. This is something of a shame given that it contains frequently impressive songwriting. At his best, there’s a disarming ambition in his writing and arranging. ‘Dancing with the Enemy’ and the title track are particular highlights. The greater emphasis on studio production occasionally threatens to swamp Jeremy’s more endearing idiosyncrasies (he is better served by the stranger arrangements than the four square indie rock template), but the balance is mostly just right.

Antony and the Johnsons – Another World EP (Rough Trade)
This one is a little taster to whet the appetite for the long awaited new album ‘The Crying Light’, which isn’t due until next year. The title track merely repeats the familiar Antony cabaret schtik and worryingly suggests that the new record might be a case of diminishing returns. Elsewhere across the EP though, there are new paths we can only hope are explored further on the new full length. ‘Hope Mountain’ introduces some affecting wind arrangements, whilst ‘Shake That Devil’ betrays the influence of both Nick Cave and John Coltrane. No bad thing in either case.

Blink – Blink (Loop)
Here is one of the finest British jazz albums of the year. Regular readers will already know of my enthusiasm for the Loop Collective, whose co-operative spirit and intelligent programming has been refreshing the London jazz scene for the past few years. This collaboration between two of its younger members (pianist Alcyona Mick and saxophonist Robin Fincker) and the established drummer Paul Clarvis (a regular percussionist for Harrison Birtwistle as well as an experienced jazz player) has made for its most empathetic and communicative release so far. Clarvis’ diverse playing experience proves liberating, and, somewhat appropriately, the group can veer between fiery and reflective in the blink of an eye.

Patricia Barber – The Cole Porter Mix (Blue Note)
If anyone could make me want to hear another collection of hoary Cole Porter standards, it’s Barber, who has some of the most relaxed and charming vocal phrasing in modern jazz. This is not quite as exotic and enchanting as her last collection of mythology inspired originals, but it’s a fine album nonetheless, and a good example of her quality as an interpreter.

Metronomy – Nights Out (Because)
This appears to be the hipster electro album of 2008 – something to rival LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Sound Of Silver’ or Hot Chip’s ‘The Warning’. For my money, it’s not quite on that level. It works well at its poppiest, as the rather marvellous ‘Heartbreaker’ single demonstrates, but sometimes it seems like the group are trying too hard to create strange, discomforting sounds. There’s also far too much reliance on disco-inflected octave parts on the guitar and bass.

Kasai All Stars – In The 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into A Swimming Fish and Ate The Heads of His Enemy By Magic (Congotronics)
The Congotronics series continues to produce some of the most exciting music emerging from Africa – this Kasai All Stars record is no exception. The distorted thumb pianos remain a characteristic feature, but there’s a softer, more lilting groove and celebratory vocals that make this a more joyful than visceral experience.

Tom Richards Orchestra – Smoke and Mirrors (Proper)
Tom Richards has, until now, earned his living as a sideman for Jamie Cullum and, er, abysmal Staines indie-rockers Hard Fi. If this doesn’t seem to augur much for his own work, think again, as this is a very extravagant, well-arranged big band record. I’m not convinced that the vocal tracks work as well as the instrumentals, but it mostly avoids blandness. I’m a bit irritated that he’s stolen the intended title of my work-in-progress album, although in fairness I got it from a Magnetic Fields song anyway.

Plush – Fed (Broken Horse)
I’ve lived with the demos for Liam Hayes’ magnum opus for some time, but the fully fledged album itself, complete with its bankrupting arrangements, had assumed the status of a ‘Starsailor’ or a ‘Time Fades Away’ – an unattainable cult classic. Previously only available on a rare Japanese import, small label Broken Horse has at last made it available in Europe.

This might seem controversial given the album’s reputation, but I simply don’t agree that ‘Fed’ is some kind of visionary or maverick statement. Next to the spacious, mysterious and uncompromising arrangements of Mark Hollis it sounds positively conventional, however much its recording costs may have spiralled. What it is, however, is lavish pop music of the highest quality, made all the more appealing by the fact that it has been left a little ragged around the edges and because Hayes’ voice is itself honest and a little shaky.

Department of Eagles – In Ear Park (4AD)
This is the kind of rapturous, ravishing record with which I can all too easily become infatuated. Dept of Eagles are a spin-off from Grizzly Bear, but are more immediate and less abstract than their parent group. ‘In Ear Park’ is a collection of remarkably well constructed songs – a bit like Fleet Foxes meeting Stephen Sondheim in a dense forest somewhere. This and the Benoit Pioulard record seem to be in similar territory – both remind me most of Califone, an under-publicised band over here who must themselves have a new offering on the table soon.

Matthew Herbert Big Band – There’s Me And There’s You (Accidental)

There seems to be a chronic distribution problem afflicting Matthew Herbert’s new big band album – it should have been in shops two weeks ago but is still conspicuous by its absence from chain stores. Luckily, much of it is streaming from its dedicated website. Herbert remains one of the few artists committed to making ‘protest’ music and his found sounds continue to reflect his uncompromising political beliefs. As we attempt to revive a broken capitalism with taxpayer’s money, we probably need his principles more than ever. Herbert has also been working on forthcoming records from Micachu and The Shapes and The Invisible (a band featuring guitarist Dave Okumu and Tom Herbert, bass player for Polar Bear), both of which I am very excited about!

Fieldwork - Door (Pi Recordings)
Steve Lehman's album 'On Meaning' would comfortably have made my top 10 of 2007 had I heard it in time. I'm going to make no such omissions with this trio album featuring Lehman, his regular drummer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Vijay Iyer - it's a magisterial example of unconventional and audacious group improvisation.

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