Nina Nastasia - Outlaster (FatCat)
Nastasia seems to have become one of those artists quietly taken for granted by a critical fraternity unwilling to construct much more than a generalised impression. Given her unwavering consistency, this is not entirely unfair - but few seem to have noticed that Outlaster is surely a standout album in her now sizeable catalogue. The songs here seem richer and both more confident and more nuanced. It's really in the detail of the arrangements - written in collaboration with Paul Bryan - that the artistry of Outlaster becomes apparent though. This is a record full of tension and dissonance - familiar acoustic American music made starker and darker. Nastasia has managed to make her writing more sophisticated and expansive without losing her characteristic spare style.
Golden Age Of Steam - Raspberry Tongue (Babel)
This is, at least for me, a long awaited treat of an album. I've seen Golden Age of Steam, ostensibly a trio consisting of reedsman James Allsopp, organist Kit Downes and drummer Tim Giles live a few times over the past couple of years. Their music has evoked a series of strange and contradictory emotions in me - running the gamut from fear to ecstacy. Their improvising is pitched at an intense and demanding level - sometimes it is baffling, sometimes completely entrancing. What is clear is that these are three of the most talented musicians currently at work in London. These sessions capture some of the spontaneous kinetic energy of their live performances - but also demonstrate a musicality and compositional flair too. There's plenty of gleeful rhythmic subversion on display here - but also a piercing quality to some of the lines that Downes and Allsopp conjure up. Similarly, drummer Giles is capable of executing fearsomely complex patterns at terrifying speed, but is also musically adroit, voicing his patterns carefully to create interweaving statements and phrases. The music is fiercely propulsive, but also full of colour and concealed melodic invention. One of the highlights of British jazz this year.
Benoit Pioulard - Lasted (Kranky)
Thomas Meluch has now made three albums of hazy, translucent, homespun music under the alias of Benoit Pioulard. With each release his recordings sound more deliberate and more integrated. Lasted is the most coherent of his full lengths so far, with Pioulard's idiosyncratic soundworld at its most detailed and nuanced. With real success, he has allowed his calm, understated voice to become a stronger, clearer presence. There are all manner of intriguing stories lurking within his warm fuzz and beneath his muffled strum. Sometimes he takes some familiar, perhaps even conventional language from the world of indie-pop and transforms it into something pregnant with mystery and illusion. Tracks like Sault and A Coin On The Tongue are wistful and melodic yet also full of unexpected twists and turns. The results are spellbinding, and a powerful argument against over-production.
Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell present KORT - Invariable Heartache (City Slang)
This is a collaborative effort I've known about for a while - and the resulting album is a quiet, unassuming gem. The tracklist mostly consists of cover versions of country songs from the vaults of Chart Records, a Nashville record label operated by Tidwell's grandfather. Tidwell's solo records, though beautiful and fascinating in their own right, have disguised what is actually a remarkably pure and emotive voice - one that is surprisingly suitable for these songs that are charged with longing and regret. Wagner has such a characterful, unique voice - one that is reliant on phrasing for its effect, that it would seem nearly impossible to harmonise with him. Tidwell pulls it off though, often rounding off the harsher edges of Wagner's peculiarly articulated half-singing with something warmer, but no less powerful. It is, I suspect, a deceptively conventional work - and one that has been very carefully sequenced to reveal unexpected secrets and surprises. It will almost certainly be casually categorised as a bonus curio for fans of both artists - it deserves a little more recognition and attention.
Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth - Deluxe (Clean Feed)
This is one of those insidious jazz albums - being far more about communication and vibe than intricate harmony or fluent improvisation (not to say that the latter two qualities are not also present). Much of the album's distinctive mood is created by Craig Taborn's Fender Rhodes piano. This could be a mere period detail were it not for the wiry, often radical way Taborn plays on it. The warmth of Taborn's varied textures aid in the creation of a spacious, open sound. The album is, perhaps inevitably, somewhat dominated by an illustrious three-pronged saxophone frontline, although it works given how all three saxophonists (Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby and Andrew D'Angelo) play with a united sense of purpose. Deluxe is the sound of an invigorted ensemble playing refreshing, exciting music.
LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
James Murphy has given strong indications in interviews of his intentions to abandon the LCD moniker and return with something a little different. This Is Happening suggests this may be a good idea. It's not that it's a bad album - in fact, it's rather good - it's just that it relies heavily on what are by now very familiar LCD tropes. The irony and wit of Murphy's lyrics remain intact, particularly on the poweful opening sequence of Dance Yourself Clean and Drunk Girls, but there's now a strong sense that this is merely repeating ground already covered to stronger impact on the wonderful Sound of Silver. Many critics have seemed unsympathetic to Murphy's rantings against the music undustry on You Wanted A Hit, particularly given how much freedom Murphy appears to have been given. I wonder if the track might not have been intended so literally - it seems like another example of Murphy's knowing wit - a thinly concealed attack on indier-than-thou hipsters. LCD really only do one thing (two if you count their occasional tender ballads). They became very good at it from the get-go - making mazimal results from the most minimal of musical ingredients. The possibility for Murphy to become a victim of his own very distinctive sound is now obvious. It's time to move on.
Tom Jones - Praise and Blame (Island)
If someone had told me I'd be writing about a Tom Jones album on this blog at the start of this year, I'd have laughed, yet here I am. I've never been a particular fan of Jones - though he's always professed to love the blues and early rock n' roll, most of his artistic decisions have tended towards the highly commercial. Sometimes, in attempting to do something hip and avoid ridicule, he has merely courted it. He also has a tendency to over-use his tremendous vocal power, brow-beating an audience into accepting his talent. On Praise and Blame, however, he may at last have found the right material for his voice as well as a sympathetic producer in Ethan Johns. The album touches on gospel, blues, country and rock and roll - and it is unashamedly uncomplicated - the kind of raw, as-live recording that Jones has been been studiously avoiding until now. The version of Dylan's What Good Am I is more painful and wracked with self doubt than the original - and benefits from a straightforward arrangement largely stripped of the Lanois murk. Elsewhere, the song selection is unfailingly judicious - and even old standards like Nobody's Fault But Mine sound full of life and vitality when passed through Jones' revitalised vocal chords. For the first time in many years, he appears to be exercising some degree of control.
Anais Mitchell - Hadestown (Righteous Babe)
For all the understandable noise surrounding Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me, this similarly ambitious gem of an album seemed to escape largely unnoticed. Mitchell is a hard-working, increasingly inspired songwriter who has pushed herself way out of her comfort zone with this concept piece about the Orpheus myth. The huge roll call of guests (including Bon Iver's Justin Vernon as Orpheus, The Low Anthem's Ben Knox Miller and Ani Difranco as Persephone) has helped Hadestown attract more attention - but really it ought to be vying with Newsom's magnum opus in the upper reaches of critics' end of year lists. By recontextualising the Orpheus myth in depression-era America, Mitchell has created a quintessential American folk album - one that is full of the passion and drama one might expect from the stage version, but which also comes alive because of Mitchell's strong melodies and distinctive vocal character. Even when divorced from their context, a number of these songs are remarkably strong. Wait For Me, a strong feature for Vernon, is full of longing and pain whilst Way Down Hadestown offers a memorable theme, with some of the drunken, lurching quality of Tom Waits' theatrical music. The production is suitably naturalistic and restrained, allowing the vocalists to clearly portray their characters and for the quality of the writing to cut through. Superb.
Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Merge)
Perhaps my tastes have changed since Arcade Fire released Funeral and played that extraordinary debut London show at King's College Student Union. They have not, of course, veered too far from the formula that made them successful in the first place. It's just that, well, it's become so much more formulaic. The Suburbs is a long album and it certainly has its moments. Best of all is probably The Sprawl II, which takes the group way out of their comfort zone into a stranger world with a strong hint of 80s synth pop.
The Suburbs is less grandiose and pompous than Neon Bible for sure, but I'm not sure a concept album about suburban boredom and frustration is a novel or even particularly interesting idea. Win Butler's lyrics continue to fall into the pitfalls of cliche, not least in his numerous rather dismissive references to 'the kids'. For a band that have always maintained a close rapport with their audience, this seems like a strange move. On Funeral, Arcade Fire excited because they described a whole other world in vivid detail. The Suburbs describes a world that seems depressingly earthy and familiar. The stronger vocal presence here is Regine Chassagne - her floaty, wafer-thin voice adds intrigue to the otherwise relentless Empty Room. The delicate shuffle of the title track is deceptively simple and reveals greater rewards over time, but the punishing insistence of tracks like Ready To Start and Modern Man has become rather predictable.