Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In Limbo

Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light (Rough Trade, 2009)

Reactions to ‘The Crying Light’ so far seem to have hinged upon the degree to which commentators have tired of Antony Hegarty’s over-exposed vocal mannerisms. It’s possible that in light of his star turn on last year’s Hercules and Love Affair album that expectations had run unrealistically high for a radical change of direction. The novelty value of hearing a towering gender-confused man deliver an achingly vulnerably vibrato can, it seems, only last for one album before dissipating.

It’s unlikely that Antony’s vocal and musical stylings are going to change all that dramatically. The success of ‘The Crying Light’ therefore depends upon its development and progression of these previously lauded qualities. Any objective assessment of the album depends on a judgment of its myriad subtleties and nuances, of which there are many. For example, few reviewers so far seem to have observed the greater variety in Antony’s execution here. He’s comparatively restrained to match the gentle waltz that accompanies him on the beautiful ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’ (what a curious title). By way of contrast, he’s fuller and bolder on ‘Kiss My Name’ and the impassioned lopsided soul of ‘Aeon’.

Similarly, the arrangements, some of which come from the prodigious pen of the young American composer Nico Muhly, mostly deploy small, meaningful gestures over grand flourishes. Given the number of credited musicians and arrangers, it’s remarkable how delicate much of ‘The Crying Light’ sounds. The interjections of wind and horns are sensitive rather than aggressive and even the more theatrical pieces offer light and shade. Only the lengthy, overwrought ‘Daylight and the Sun’ veers into histrionic territory.

The idea that this is Antony’s ‘nature’ album also seems a little reductive. Some have seen the lead single ‘Another World’ as a mournful lament for an earth ravaged by pollution and climate change. I’m not sure it’s anything of the sort – more the voice of a dying man aware of his imminent departure, perhaps even reluctantly deciding on it. A good deal of the album seems to be concerned with death and rebirth, or a peculiar state of limbo between life and death. Antony himself uses this explanation for the selection of the image of a nonogenarian butoh dancer on the cover. These thematic preoccupations are rather more woolly than the stridently personal concerns with gender and sexuality on ‘I Am A Bird Now’ but they ought also to be more universal. Paradoxically, though, Antony’s grasp for more general and accessible territory may have rendered his songs less powerful and moving.

It’s a matter of personal taste as to whether this album’s most striking track, ‘Dust and Water’, comes across as affecting or affected. Perhaps there is something irritating about the enunciation, not just in the way he insists on saying ‘mmmmhwatarr’ (as Alexis Petridis observed in The Guardian), but also in the way he says ‘dutttthhht’. This inevitably reminds me of Matt Lucas’ Marjorie Dawes character in Little Britain, undoubtedly an unintended association! If we accept these mannerisms in good faith though, there is something haunting and compelling about this piece. It sounds strange, mysterious and, most importantly, unexpected. Many have been calling for Antony to find a new context for his voice – but this does something both braver and more beguiling. It removes the context altogether.

A few more audacious gambits like this might have made ‘The Crying Light’ more distinctive. As it stands, it’s an assured and mostly understated work made by an artist of real talent. There’s something about it that means it doesn’t quite chime with me as much as its predecessor. Perhaps it’s the rather clichéd new-agey titles (‘One Dove’, ‘Everglade’, ‘Daylight and the Sun’, ‘Another World’ etc). There’s a nagging sense that all this quasi-pagan imagery is a little less individual and visionary than one might expect from Antony. It’s the kind of thing that Kate Bush and Bjork have both handled more adroitly. At its best, ‘The Crying Light’ is quietly mesmerising and repeated plays are revealing further rewards, but it might be one of those albums I’ll come to admire more than like.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Hope

Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream (Columbia, 2009)

I’m increasingly wary of hyperbole at the moment (Gary Mulholland’s observation in this month’s Observer Music Monthly that Lily Allen is one of the ‘greatest lyricists and singers of her time’ struck me as particularly absurd), so let’s get a few things straight at the outset. Whilst I have no qualms about being a massive Springsteen fan, I’m not one of these strangely deluded people that think his ‘return to pop production’ on ‘Magic’ marked one of his greatest achievements. That being said, I’m certainly not averse to this late prolific period, and a companion piece to ‘Magic’ couldn’t really be a bad thing.

‘Working on a Dream’ continues Springsteen’s extraordinary talent for judging the American mood. ‘The Rising’ brought him out of a quasi-retirement and it seemed like a well-judged tonic of moderation in an otherwise stark post 9/11 landscape. Springsteen has recently derided the Bush administration for its lack of knowledge and understanding of the past, so perhaps the wonderful Seeger Sessions project was his personal response to that – an attempt to forge new links with the American folk tradition. Now ‘Working On A Dream’ arrives riding the crest of the wave of ‘Yes we can’ positivism that now characterises America. From ‘My Lucky Day’ to ‘What Love Can Do’ via the title track, ‘Working On A Dream’ presents an essentially positive view of what human relationships can achieve. This acts as a typically personal metaphor for the current American political climate. It seems appropriate writing about it on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The good news is that, on first few listens, it seems like a marginally better album than ‘Magic’. It plays to that album’s strengths – most specifically, its love for the lavish pop flourishes of Phil Spector and Roy Orbison. There are more songs in the sonic model of ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ here and, mercifully, less in the ponderous mould of ‘Devil’s Arcade’ or the plodding manner of ‘You’ll Be Comin’ Down’. In fact, ‘This Life’ perhaps resembles ‘Girls…’ a little too closely.

The sweeping narrative of the epic opener ‘Outlaw Pete’, an original Springsteen song that transplants the spirit of the Seeger Sessions onto the E Street Band, makes for one of the very best songs from these sessions. It’s an elaborate, lengthy story with a huge arrangement to match, once again giving Soozie Tyrell’s violin a pivotal role in the new E Street sound. It harks back to an exciting, wild and dangerous past (and to his more theatrical, dramatic side that he’s neglected on recent albums) but it’s a bit of a smokescreen for many of the lush, bittersweet songs that follow.

It’s possible that some may see these mostly straightforward pop songs as lightweight by Springsteen’s often weighty standards. Sometimes, though, simplicity is exactly what is required and there’s a sense that Springsteen is enjoying getting back to the basics of songwriting. Perhaps it’s particularly audacious of him to write a light country shuffle with lyrics collecting a series of borderline clichés and call it ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – but this seems to be typical of the unburdened mood in which Springsteen currently finds himself. The jaunty, insistent ‘My Lucky Day’ and ‘Surprise Surprise’ wouldn’t have been out of place on the now unfairly maligned ‘Lucky Town’, but this is no bad thing. Both are rousing, irresistibly infectious pop songs. The general mood of the album is summed up brilliantly by ‘Kingdom of Days’. This work seems like an acceptance that what humans can achieve may be limited, but we must grasp for our full potential.

For the most part, Brendan O’Brien’s sound is a little less muddy here. There’s a little more room for individual parts and it’s particularly good that the supreme foundations provided by Garry Tallent’s basslines are now more audible. Unfortunately, O’Brien still can’t resist unnecessary flourishes and trickery. Springsteen’s voice, which has always alternated between impassioned howl and brow-beaten melancholy, has never been an instrument in need of reverb or double tracking. For this listener at least, these effects only serve to diminish his message.

The album ends with a sparse piece of great beauty – ‘The Last Carnival’, which is comfortably the most poetic and enthralling song here. It’s soft, blissful coda of gospel-infused vocals is an appropriate note on which to end – a sound that captures a strong sense of human creativity and invention. Perhaps it’s inappropriate that it is followed on limited edition versions by Springsteen’s title song from Darren Aronofsky’s film ‘The Wrestler’, however marvellous and insightful that song may be. Thinking again, though, perhaps even this character study shares the album’s abiding faith. Springsteen here seems to be adding his own weight to the great Studs Terkel’s observation that ‘a realist is someone who hopes’. Let’s hope that Obama too delivers on this essential promise and positive view of human nature. It has long been needed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Same Tricks, Different Results

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion (Domino, 2009)
Bon Iver – Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar, 2009)

On the surface, you couldn’t find two acts more appreciably different than Animal Collective and Bon Iver. The former are synaesthetic, expansive, sometimes confrontational but more often these days full of unbridled joy. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has, so far, excelled at making music that is spare, hauting, melancholy and introspective, in the best possible way. Yet listening to the two new releases by these most inspired of artists, I’m struck by a common ground in their understanding of the power and emotional impact of the human voice. Much of the appeal of AC comes from the interaction of the voices of Avery Tare and Panda Bear, and in their deployment of various yelps and other vocal quirks. Justin Vernon uses his multitracked choir as a means both of self-expression and self-examination.

Animal Collective have always played a risky game in straddling that very fine boundary between infectious and infuriating. On ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’, they push that distinctive style to the very limit. The resulting music is delirious, intoxicating and completely irresistible. Resistance is clearly futile. Just listen to ‘Summertime Clothes’, a song about wandering aimlessly during nights when it’s too hot to sleep. There’s a vibrant explosion in the song’s chorus – ‘I want to walk around with you! Justyoujustyoujustyou!’ – it’s wonderful. Or then there’s the extended, radical closing track ‘Brothersport’, where the near ecstatic nature of the voices, combined with the sharp rhythmic interplay, sounds informed by African music.

The influence of electronic and dance music seems to have been pushed to the forefront on this record. ‘My Girls’ even seems to slyly reference the sound of something like The Source and Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’. As such, it’s the logical conclusion of their experiments with insistence and unrelenting rhythm. For my ears, it’s a much more interesting area than their earlier experiments with pure noise, whimsical acid folk and feedback. Perhaps one of the reason why there is such a buzz around AC at the moment is that they are one of the few bands to have really progressed and developed. Where their earlier records had a loose, ramshackle charm and a childlike core, ‘Merriweather…’ feels multi-layered, rich, exotic and carefully composed. This isn’t to say that they’ve lost their drive for spontaneity or radicalism, just that the group’s internal systems are now operating on a more sophisticated level.

Listening to ‘Merriweather..’ on headphones is like diving into a swimming pool filled with honey. Sonically, at first it is hardly subtle, but beneath the pulsing heartbeats, electro glam stomps and background noise there is also plenty of nuance. If you embrace the group’s positivity and worlds of possibility wholeheartedly, there is much to discover. Some of the album’s most compelling moments occur when the insistence dissipates a little. There’s the way that ‘Daily Routine’ mysteriously and unexpectedly evaporates, or when the opener ‘In The Flowers’ performs the precise inverse function, exploding into a clattering barrage of percussion from a rather elusive, slippery introduction.

Those who felt (wrongly in my view) that ‘Strawberry Jam’ was too infectious, and therefore some form of artistic compromise, might be further challenged by the blissful, fulfilled nature of ‘Merriweather…’. The regressive sense of whimsy seems to have given way to a broader sense of awe and fascination, a feeling that often seems to be expressed as total euphoria. A large chunk of this album constitutes a celebration of immediacy and physicality, from ‘Guys Eyes’ expressing a desire ‘to do exactly what my body wants to’ to the experience of liberation through dancing on ‘In The Flowers’ or stepping outside in ‘Summertime Clothes’. So much of this comes through the dynamics and sonority of the voices of Avey Tare and Panda Bear.

Perhaps this is too reductive an analysis given the increasingly elaborate means AC deploy to achieve these goals (hello asymmetrical time signatures!), or when ‘My Girls’ expresses a more homely sentiment focusing on the joy of family life. Either way, it’s surprising and refreshing to hear an album, particularly in these difficult times, that is so devoid of melancholy or sadness. Listening to ‘Merriweather…’ for the fourth time now, I’m struck that it’s an album that works on multiple levels. It’s an immediately loveable statement, but full of unpredictable, highly creative avenues to explore on further listening. Time alone will tell if it’s a classic, but there’s definitely something exciting and fresh in its modern take on psychedelia. It’s a series of enriching auditory hallucinations.

The ‘Blood Bank’ EP is the first new material from Justin Vernon since his rapturously received debut album. Pleasingly, it shows few signs of performance anxiety, or uncertain direction. Instead, the title track represents a grander version of his core musical vision. It uses similar tricks to those deployed by AC – the multi layered vocals and harmonies, the insistent pulsating heartbeat. Yet the impact is not one of euphoria, but one of bittersweet reminiscence. It’s a strangely comforting sound at first, but the smouldering crescendos that are more familiar from Bon Iver live performances than from Vernon’s recordings imbue it with real intensity.

Typical of Vernon too are the disarmingly weird lyrics. ‘Well I met you at the blood bank/We were looking at the bags’ is a rather unconventional opening gambit for what might ostensibly be a love song. It’s also a song about how our secrets are sometimes our very life blood, a rather fascinating and intriguing sentiment that Vernon leaves teasingly under-developed.

Elsewhere, the EP provides further, equally fruitful paths through which Vernon might advance his interests in sounds and effects. The rather intimate feel of ‘For Emma..’ is welded into something more strident and confident with the minimal but austere piano of ‘Babys’. Most shocking of all is ‘The Woods’, in which a multi-tracked chorus of Vernons is fed, ‘808s and Heartbreaks’-style, through an auto-tuner. The effect, rather than being self-consciously cheesy, is actually uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s the sound of someone lost and trying to reconnect. It’s a particularly audacious move given how important the reverb-laden vocal sound was to ‘For Emma…’ Here, Vernon has abandoned it in favour of the least natural vocal sound conceivable, but one which in his control still sounds convincingly emotional.

In between all this is the relatively conventional ‘Beach Baby’, which serves as a neat bridge back to Vernon’s isolation on ‘For Emma..’. The addition of steel guitar adds a positive, playful touch. The four tracks together suggest that rather than a premature apotheosis, ‘For Emma…’ really was just the beginning.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New Year Fun

My good friend and musical associate Oscar Lomas today sent me a personal list of the best albums ever. Actually, rather than being some phoney selection of the greatest albums ever made - his list aimed at describing himself and his mindset in ten albums. He challenged me and some others to do the same. I've come up with 20 which, as of today, present a pretty interesting cross-section of me at various stages in my life. Bob Dylan and The Byrds are two of my favourite artists but I now tend to approach them more through the songs that I love rather than through specific albums. Perhaps The Velvet Underground and Nico should be in there, particularly as there was a key time when I listened to 'I'll Be Your Mirror' more than any other song - but it's just too obvious. I’ll follow the same lines as Oscar in picking albums with significant personal impact and influence. They are by no means necessarily THE BEST ALBUMS IN THE WORLD EVER. It's just some subjective fun!

Me in 10 albums, as of today:

THE O’JAYS – SHIP AHOY (Philadelphia International, 1973)
STEELY DAN – Can’t Buy A Thrill (MCA, 1973)

Was 1973 really the best year for music before my birth? Probably not in most people’s eyes (who would opt for it over ’56, ’66, ’67 or ’76?), but somehow these three albums had a massive impact on my childhood.

I’ve always had a love of the great soul vocal groups and I can remember The O’Jays and Dramatics albums from my Dad’s extensive vinyl collection. Both are over-conceptual and a bit clunky, at least thematically. ‘Ship Ahoy’ deals with a number of issues – from financial greed (‘For The Love Of Money’) to air pollution (‘This Air I Breathe’) via slavery (the title track). ‘A Dramatic Experience’ was an album centred around the issue of drug dependence. It has a genuinely terrifying image of The Devil on its cover and presents drug dealers as the devil’s agents. The message was clear – get hooked and you are essentially being dragged to eternity in hell. It put me off crack for ever but there’s probably something embarrassing about its righteousness and simplicity. If you want to stop your future progeny taking drugs though, believe me, you only have to play them this album.

The music on both, however, is something else entirely. Listening to these albums now, with a greater sense of history and context, gives the lie to the notion that the best popular music comes from creative auteurs and is in sense ‘manufactured’ or ‘produced’. Of course, part of the reason that I love these albums is the character, quality and depth of the vocal performances. The main reason, though, comes with the ambition and richness of the arrangements and the production. The Stax label’s move away from singles to concept albums with lavish orchestration basically caused its downfall – but this music is so stirring and rewarding it seems criminal that it has been so overlooked in favour of the shorter, sweeter classic singles. It’s also a shame that the whole Philadelphia scene is better remembered for its more banal disco nuggets (great though many of those records are) than for the more extended constructs on the ‘Ship Ahoy’ album. Perhaps the social consciousness movement in soul is better represented on albums like ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Innervisions’ but I still return to these relative obscurities.

My first drum teacher introduced me to Steely Dan (probably when I was about 8). I was smitten instantly – but I appreciate them on an entirely different level now. Now I ‘get’ Donald Fagen’s wry, ironic wit and his quirky lyrics. I love their knowing hipster stance and I’ve even come to appreciate their ludicrous perfectionism, although I ultimately think it’s futile. Later on, they stopped being a band, used session musicians and high profile guests, became jazzier and later, very precise and metronomic. The earliest albums (‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ is the debut) work best for me because they manage to combine hints of most of the music I love – jazz, soul, blues, the slide and steel guitar playing hinting at country too. It’s wonderful stuff played by some unbelievably gifted musicians.

IAN CARR’S NUCLEUS – OUT OF THE LONG DARK (Capitol, 1979, Reissued on CD in a twofer with ‘Old Heartland’ by BGO in 1998)

‘In A Silent Way’ is comfortably my favourite Miles Davis album and maybe should be included here. Yet I have to concede that I approached Miles through the medium of Ian Carr’s inspiring teaching (he taught me much of what I know about collective music-making and how to approach it) and through reading his excellent biography of Miles. Few people recognise that Ian was exploring jazz-rock fusions contemporaneously with Miles – he wasn’t simply ripping him off. ‘Out of the Long Dark’ contains some of Ian’s best compositions (and he was a superb composer) – performing ‘Lady Bountiful’ and ‘Gone With The Weed’ prove some of the most enduring memories of my teenage years, and this music continues to inform my thinking.

Ian probably paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received (‘Daniel you were so deep down in the swamp on that groove I thought that you’d changed colour!’) and what I remember most about those years was the great joy he took in playing and performing with his students. I remember him saying to Tom Hancock (a great guitarist – a prize to anyone who can locate him for me…) - ‘I’m sorry Tom, I stole your solo, but it was so damn groovy I just had to play on it’! It’s great that Ian now gets the recognition for his pioneering work as a musician as much as his work as a jazz writer, broadcaster and educator - what a shame that his health has left him unable to play to these new audiences.


Perhaps the two most important bands of the 90s for me were The Lemonheads and Teenage Fanclub. The former initiated one of my longest standing friendships and got me into my first proper rock band (you can hear Hyperfuzz on the Abuse Your Friends Vol 1 compilation but it ain’t a pleasant sound). The latter have stayed with me. I still firmly believe that Teenage Fanclub are the best writers of basic guitar pop music the UK has produced since The Beatles. They are not sophisticated musicians (in fact, they’ve been through a whole string of rather unimaginative drummers). But their words are honest, heartfelt and often uplifting and their mastery of chiming guitars and vocal harmonies cannot fail to lift my mood. Even their melancholy moments are chirpy – ‘Mellow Doubt’ is among my favourite songs about unrequited love (something I was very familiar with back in the mid-to-late 90s, ho hum) but it actually features a whistling solo! They’re also one of the few bands to make real democracy work – three songwriters, each with their own character and charm, who now contribute equal numbers of songs to each of their albums.

An album that reminds me of gatherings where all my friends were on ecstasy or pills and I was merely under the influence of alcohol – events which were always very surreal and slightly awkward occasions. As synaesthetic an album as this is, I was always able to appreciate it without the added stimulation, simply because it’s so playful and musically inventive. As complicated as the music sometimes is, it’s purely and uniquely enjoyable. It’s one of the greatest achievements in electronic music so far and still Richard D James’ best work. In fact, he’s really struggled to produce anything coherent since.

This album is etched on my memory because at the innocent and naïve age of about four, I left my Dad’s vinyl copy in the sun and warped it (I had played the record many, many times before I destroyed it). CDs were only just becoming commonplace at that time, and the reissue industry had yet to swing into full gear. Thus began a twelve year quest to find a replacement. I eventually succeeded when a particularly adventurous geography teacher at my school ran a course on Afro-American music (I can still remember the hapless Jonny Holliday’s question: ‘is that like Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ sir?’) and included a track from BT Express in his playlist one week. I explained I’d been looking for a copy of this album for many years, and he ran me off a cassette copied from his own vinyl edition, but not without passing moral judgement. “Your Dad played you this album when you were four?! But it’s all FILTHY!’. Indeed it is – it’s repetitive, groovy, dirty funk that is all about sex. I didn’t know that when I was four of course – it just sounded like fun to me. Funnily It still does.

REM – Up (Warner Bros, 1998)

I seem to be in a select group of about three people who think this is REM’s best work by a country mile. I am so far away from the critical grain here (why on earth I would listen to ‘Automatic For The People’ over this is beyond me, and I massively prefer it to the apparent return to form ‘Accelerate’) but I know why I love it. I love it first and foremost because many of the songs affect me personally in very powerful ways and have assumed new significance with different experiences over the years since its release. Lyrically, it’s a very confessional album, and I’ve been very much in the mood for that over the past couple of years. It is, mainly, languidly paced and lush, but there’s also something overwhelmingly positive about it – ‘Walk Unafraid’ seems like a statement of defiance – other songs seem to be about accepting one’s flaws and moving on.

I also love it because it’s fascinating to hear a band reconfigure themselves so dramatically and fascinatingly after losing a key member. So, they used more keyboards and drum machines. So what? Does a band have to play four square rock with jangly guitars for its entire existence? Many people find ‘Up’ clinical and cold – I find it deeply humane and compassionate.


So cruelly ignored at the time, ‘Spirit of Eden’ is now rightly considered a modern classic, and one that demonstrates just how adventurous contemporary rock music can be when it dares to look beyond its own confines. It’s extraordinary to think that Talk Talk began life as new romantics, touring with Duran Duran. Whilst that period resulted in some splendid pop songs (‘It’s My Life’ particularly), even as early as ‘The Colour of Spring’, it was clear that Mark Hollis had loftier ambitions. He earned himself a reputation for being grumpy and miserable, but I’m not sure that there has been a British musician since to be so completely and thoroughly consumed by his passion for music. So much so that he strained his professional and personal relationships to breaking point and now hasn’t made a record for some ten years. Although there’s an argument that the next Talk Talk album, 1991’s ‘Laughing Stock’, is even better, this is the standard classic, and as close to art as rock music gets. Recorded in a Cathedral with carefully judged microphone placings and a whole range of instruments rarely incorporated in rock music, it’s a beautiful, spacious, haunting work. In the short term, it was commercial suicide but in the long term, it’s led to Hollis becoming some sort of elusive musical saint. This is such absorbing music – I feel like I could live inside it – every play brings out some new nuance or subtlety and it always sounds so visionary and strange.

BJORK – VESPERTINE (One Little Indian, 2001)

I don’t have much time for certain aspects of feminism, but I wonder why contemporary music of almost all kinds is still so inherently sexist. Bjork has unlocked a whole world of distinctively female artistry for me – and how perceptive, intelligent and exotic she is. Some people deride ‘Vespertine’ because of its intimacy but, for me, this is its greatest triumph. Her lyrics are unusually candid, and she writes about sex with a mature honesty and open-mindedness that I’ve yet to find in any other artist (‘Cocoon’ is just wonderful – and far, far better than anything on Kid A, which attempts a similar sound without the sensuality or human warmth). The Icelandic choir makes a beautiful sound, and there is a sense here that Bjork understands better than anyone that life can be full of mystery, awe, excitement and wonder.

The next 10….


What is not to love about this album – from its cheeky, absurd concept to the playful brilliance of its execution? I love the smarmy irony, the effortless pastiche of multiple genres (‘pastiche’ needn’t be pejorative) and the prickly wit that Stephin Merritt brings to every song. Yet, accept them on another level – and they are songs full of real insight. The use of guest vocalists and experimentation with gender and sexuality adds extra layers of fun. It does what it says on the tin – but it does a whole lot more besides and it soundtracked much of my time at Cambridge. I’ve been reminded of its greatness by the gig I did with Jeremy Warmsley a few weeks back covering a selection of its 69 songs. Expect some ten year anniversary deluxe edition this year no doubt.


I remember my Dad highly recommending this album to me for some time, but that his own copy had been stolen. A few months later, I found a cassette copy at my next door neighbour’s house whilst looking after their kids for an evening. I’m not sure this was my first experience with Mingus – I’d certainly been playing ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and ‘Nostalgia In Times Square’ in various jazz ensembles – but this was my first taste of his more elaborate constructions. This suite of music harks back to Mingus’ love of Ellington but there’s also something daring and audacious about the orchestrations that still sounds radical, fresh and, most importantly, highly emotional.

LEONARD COHEN – I’M YOUR MAN (Columbia, 1988)

Last year, Leonard Cohen’s critical reputation was enshrined by his wonderful comeback concerts – which demonstrated his humour and dignity more than his famed glumness and pessimism. ‘I’m Your Man’ is actually an album full of humour, and I fell in love with the English language as much through enjoying these songs as through reading great literature. I’m beginning to think that Cohen is the best of all lyricists – and this might be his best collection of songs, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) the cheesy synth backings. Plus how good is the cover shot of him eating a banana? Just perfect.


I’m not sure if this qualifies as an album, given that it’s essentially a posthumously issued compilation – but Russell made relatively few complete albums during his lifetime (just ‘World of Echo’ and Dinosaur L’s ’24-24 Music’). Compiling his vast amount of music has since become an industry in itself, and his great contribution to contemporary music is finally now being recognised. This collection of Russell’s songs, his vulnerable, sensitive voice mostly accompanied solely by his electronically treated Cello, is probably the warmest of his collections. The way his voice and the Cello intertwine, sometimes playfully, sometimes elegantly, is rapturous. That he composed under the inspiration and guidance of the avant garde (Philip Glass helped get this particular album released), produced energising club music and wrote country-tinged pop songs is testament to his considerable charm, open-mindedness and spirit of adventure. He simply went wherever he wanted to go. I also admire the concise, monosyllabic directness of his lyrics – they are some kind of affecting anti-poetry. At the moment, he’s probably the single biggest influence on my writing and my way of thinking about music, hence his inclusion here.

DEVO – Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO (Virgin, 1978)

One of my more errant childminders gave me a cassette once. It started with a song I could identify – ‘Blue Jean’, one of David Bowie’s less inspired moments. It continued with what I for a long time assumed was more Bowie. It was only much later – when a teenager – that I discovered it was in fact about 70% of Devo’s debut album. This jerky, angular music sounded so much more weird and interesting than the punk music that the media focussed on. It sounded like a version of punk for the geeky outsider rather than the snotty rebel. Naturally, I remained hooked on it. Plus there was a concept behind it: that mankind was de-volving rather than evolving. The version of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ remains one of my favourite covers of all time. You might think that song, and its killer riff, were untouchable. You’d be wrong….


Anyone who has read my somewhat scathing review of ‘Songs in A&E’ will know that my tastes have changed and that my views on Spiritualized have cooled somewhat in recent years. Back in 1997 though, they were probably the most important band for me – inspiring a band I was writing for at the time, and acting as a gateway to so much other music. Perhaps that’s how I view even their best work now – as a collection of intriguing influences to identify and investigate. Yet ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ had more than that combination of acidic ambience, skronky mess and raw garage rock and roll – it had real emotional depth too, and the obvious weight of human experience. It’s more moving than anything else they’ve done, particularly when it veered away from the obsession with pharmaceuticals.


Perhaps the greatest living jazz musician (OK there’s Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor as heavy competition – but it’s not too outlandish a statement), with ‘Alegria’ adding weight to this judgement. Shorter is one of those people who has seemingly been everywhere and done everything, from being a crucial part of one of Miles Davis’ best groups, to spearheading the fusion era with Weather Report. His own series of albums for Blue Note are crucial to the jazz canon – but in many ways this latest reinvention is more important because of how late it has come. To be approaching 70 (as he was when ‘Alegria’ was recorded) and still be this imaginative and free thinking is a massive achievement. His reworkings of old compositions change them radically, whilst his exploration of English folk music is a bold new step which yields transcendent results. An absolute inspiration.


Spaceships, spacesuits, the funk, the groove, and what Alexis Taylor rightly recognised as ‘the joy of repetition’. Enough said, surely? Reminds me why I briefly wanted to be an astronaut. I wouldn’t have been cut out for it though.


The most schizophrenic album here – veering as it does between a side of colossal, attacking funk and a side of mostly low key keening falsetto soul ballads. Like The Dramatics and O’Jays records I highlighted in the first ten, this took a soul band far beyond their expected comfort zone. In fact, for large stretches of the ‘Life and Death’ suite, the group themselves do absolutely nothing. Brilliantly, though, they are backed by the original line up of Funkadelic, and the music sounds incredible. Jeffrey Bowen didn’t hit the big league of modern soul producers in the manner of Gamble and Huff or Norman Whitfield, but his creations here are every bit as bold and ambitious. ‘Life and Death’ is one of the best hedonistic clarion calls I know – ‘if it feels good it’s alright!’


This band – featuring Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes – take the blues and make it speak vibrantly and clearly, without recourse to language. It’s one of the key albums from the 1960s, but rarely mentioned where it should be – perhaps because it’s simple and direct rather than revolutionary or wild. It helped me get into what can often seem like a closed, elite world - accessible as it is without being in any way compromised, uninteresting or smooth.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Looking Back/Looking Forward

I’m compelled to mention that I missed out a key single in my 2008 summary. Pants and Tie are a great band from Toronto, featuring my friend and fellow Hot Chip alumnus Christopher Trigg and their debut single ‘Washing Machine/You Rub Me The Wrong Way’ shows tremendous promise. Although their sound is certainly skeletal, there’s quite a lot informing it. It would probably be lazy to suggest that the drum machine and synth backings resemble Hot Chip, but there’s certainly something of that group’s impulse to dance, although little of their soulful side. The charismatic, unhinged and shrieky vocals are perhaps most reminiscent of Ian Svenonius and, whilst the themes are not schematic or political, there’s a sense of these tracks being something of a call to arms, or at least a statement of intent. There’s plenty of gritty, raw urgency to the music too. Some of the live footage on YouTube suggests the band is developing a greater sophistication and if an album follows in 2009, it will surely be a major highlight of the year.

Check them out here:

With apologies out of the way, I can get on with the main thrust of this post – which is the fairly obligatory look-ahead to 2009. I’m not even going to attempt one of those ‘new sound’ posts – I’m not in hock to any PR companies and I’m tired of reading the same names over numerous websites and magazine pages (Florence and the Machine and White Lies seem to be the big industry tips this year, in case anyone hadn’t noticed – I’m far more interested in Three Trapped Tigers, Micachu, The Invisible and Pants and Tie). I’m sure I’ll come across plenty of interesting new names during the course of the year, but it won’t be the laboured New Year posts that point me there.

January is usually a pretty slow time, but this year it sees the release of two albums I might well expect to feature pretty high up in my best of 2009 poll. Animal Collective’s ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’ has already attracted ludicrous waves of hyperbole. It can’t possibly live up to such lofty expectations but, judging by what I’ve heard of it so far, it sounds like the group’s most coherent and entertaining album so far. Finally following up ‘I Am A Bird Now’, Antony and the Johnsons return with ‘The Crying Light’ later in the month. I really want to be bored with Antony, simply because he is so over-exposed, but as soon as I hear his voice my cynical heart melts.

Other things we can look forward to in the first three months of the year include new albums from Morrissey (‘Years of Refusal’, Feb 16th), M Ward (‘Hold Time’, Feb 16th), AC Newman, Enrico Rava (‘New York Stories’), Beirut (2 EPs on one disc), Annie (the much-delayed ‘Don’t Stop’), The Decemberists (‘Hazards of Love’, March 23rd), Neko Case (‘Middle Cyclone’, also March 23rd??), Atlas Sound (‘Logos’), Junior Boys. Some people might still be excited about the upcoming third Franz Ferdinand album but I really can’t be bothered with it.

Beyond this, we’re getting speculative with plenty of albums that lack titles or scheduled release dates. We can be pretty certain of new albums from Wilco, Doves, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Massive Attack, Camera Obscura, Grizzly Bear, The Juan Maclean, Jaga Jazzist, Midlake, Jarvis Cocker, Mew, The Handsome Family, Erin McKeown (who actually released a live album in 2008 that I missed completely) and Depeche Mode. Prince is apparently working on three albums, although one of which is from his latest ‘protégé’, which I’m sure we can all live without. Let’s at least hope that the other two are better than the pretty rubbish ‘Planet Earth’. We know that Bob Dylan is curating a Hank Williams tribute project, but will there be other material from him in 2009? I’d at least like to know if those rumoured sessions with Rick Rubin actually happened or not. I’m also wondering if there’s a new Nick Lowe album to coincide with his tour in April, or whether he’s still essentially promoting ‘At My Age’. Will Peter Gabriel finally complete ‘I/O’? He admits that he is ‘still as slow as ever’ so it’s not looking too hopeful.

Pet Shop Boys return with a new album in collaboration with pop production team Xenomania. I really liked ‘Fundamental’, but there’s no denying that it failed to return them to their rightful heights of commercial success. Can this album bring them to a new audience? I rather hope so.

Some things I’m particularly looking forward to: The prospect of a debut album from Three Trapped Tigers is mouth watering. Similarly, I hope the wonderful Micachu can fulfil the promise of her excellent singles. Although I’m uncertain about what I think of her (I think she is at least a genuine individual), I’m looking forward to the debut album from Emmy The Great, not least because Tom Rogerson from Three Trapped Tigers handles production duties. There might also be a debut album on Accidental from The Invisible (essentially a supergroup featuring Dave Okumu, Tom Herbert and drummer Leo Taylor).

I’m eagerly anticipating the comeback of Dave Longstreth’s mighty Dirty Projectors, who topped my albums list in 2007 with the extraordinary ‘Rise Above’. The underrated Canadian group Immaculate Machine have a new album scheduled for the 21st April in the States – I hope it gets a release at the same time over here. I had hoped that the second album from the sublime Cortney Tidwell, ‘Son and Moon’, would have appeared in 2008 but it now looks like a dead cert for one of the highlights of 2009. Unbelievably, it seems as if The Avalanches may have actually finished a follow-up to ‘Since I Left You’. Will the talented Khonnor finally follow-up ‘Handwriting’? If so, that’s a shoe-in for my list too. I’m also hoping for a second album from Albarn-endorsed wiry funksters Elmore Judd.

As usual, jazz is a murkier area with little advance warning. The reshaped line-ups of Empirical and Acoustic Ladyland will spearhead the British advance and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something new from the profitable wellspring of London’s Loop Collective too. It might be too much to hope that Wayne Shorter’s innovative quartet gets a new album together. It’s also about time for new albums from Kenny Garrett, Kenny Werner, Steve Lehman and Chris Potter amongst others. There’s a Keith Jarrett trio album scheduled for release in January but I doubt it will offer much that’s new (Alex Hawkins left a powerfully argued anti-Jarrett invective on the facebook republication of this blog which I should really have posted here).

ECM are issuing a new collection of Arvo Part compositions, written between 1989 and 2005. It’s been collated with Part’s participation and therefore should be a set of good recordings, at least in theory.

In the live arena, I’m trying to restrain myself a little bit in 2009, not least because I plan to put more effort into my own musical projects and a little less into supporting those of established artists. The media is now going into overdrive about the Blur reunion. I have a ticket but I have modest expectations – as yet, there’s no hint of new material so it looks like being a nostalgia-fest. Those with long memories will remember how tepid their ‘singles in chronological order’ gig was – I fear the Hyde Park shows may be like this. I think many of Blur’s best songs still stand up to critical scrutiny, but there are also plenty that I’d rather not hear again, particularly given how tied up they are with the Britpop context. Reunions/comebacks I would be interested in: Pavement, Talk Talk (or even anything from the ever-reclusive Mark Hollis), The Boo Radleys, XTC. The latter is definitely not going to happen, but there will be some nice deluxe reissues of their back catalogue. I’m very much looking forward to finally seeing Antony and the Johnsons live at Hammersmith. Equally exciting, but for very different reasons, is the first AC/DC tour in over eight years. I’m intrigued by the prospect of seeing Late of the Pier at The Forum – I probably haven’t seen a buzz band of this nature since I saw Arcade Fire’s first UK show at King’s College. Bob Dylan is back again in April and I’m sure the festival round will offer some rich pickings. I’m as yet undecided as to whether I can cough up the cash to go back to North Sea Jazz in July. I suspect my most regular haunts will continue to be The Vortex in Dalston and The Oxford in Kentish Town.

In film – I’m looking forward to the big hits of the festival circuit finally hitting UK screens, not least Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning ‘The Class’. Cantet is among my favourite contemporary directors. Few have dared to make films about that everyday activity that most of us have little choice but to engage in (professional work), even fewer have dared to make statements as moving and provocative as those found in ‘Time Out’ (that identity is so often inextricably tied with work). Many thought ‘Heading South’ was a mis-step – if it was, it was a noble and intriguing one – but all seem agreed that this film is a major achievement in humane, realist cinema. I must admit that Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Wrestler’, with Mickey Rourke in the lead role, looks like being something special and at least back in the real world after the gigantic blunder that was ‘The Fountain’. Gus Van Sant is back with ‘Milk’, with a possible Oscar-contending performance from Sean Penn. I’m often wary of biopics, but Van Sant needed to make something different after four of his austere, idiosyncratic works and Harvey Milk is a worthy subject. Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Il Divo’ also looks promising, and one should never write off Pedro Almodovar, who returns with yet another vehicle for Penelope Cruz.

Plenty to look forward to, then….