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Tuesday
Dec162014

Top Ten Albums of 2014

Here are my favourite albums of this year starting with the very best and working down towards the almost very best.

1. Touch and Flee - Neil Cowley Trio

The Neil Cowley Trio created one of my favourite albums of 2012 - The Face of Mount Molehill. Molehill, with it’s 30 piece string section, was a kitchen sink production with great big bells and whistles on it. This time out it seems that the trio have decided to take a slightly more pared down approach and many tracks here are more fragmentary, spaced out. It’s a less immediate album than previous but is all the more rewarding for it.

2. In Droplet Form - Stars in Battledress

This album was a total surprise to me. I heard “A Winning Decree” and thought it pretty enough in the manner of chamber music, but hardly exciting enough to quicken the heartbeat. I’m very glad I got hold of the album because it really is quite remarkable. The arrangements largely stick to piano, guitar and close harmony singing but the intricacy of those arrangements and the beauty of the melodies really bowled me over. Just listen to the capitalist satire Buy One Now or the folk-tinged Unmatchable Bride. It might not be rock and roll but it's like living in a beautiful Georgian mansion.

3. The Unravelling - Knifeworld

Kavus Torabi is a man of many bands, including Cardiacs and Gong, but Knifeworld is very much his own personal monster. Their previous album, Buried Alive, was an interesting record but lacked the killer thrust; The Unravelling is where it all comes together. It’s a swirling brew of prog and psych that never wanders too far without a killer riff or a pop hook - no mean feat. In fact it’s this amazing knack of weaving pop into the unlikeliest of musical settings that really shows that his professed adoration of Madness is no affectation - although you’re not going to find many lyrics about trousers or condoms here.

4. Lucid - Matt Stevens

One of my favourite albums from last year was Spooky Action by The Fierce and the Dead - well here’s their guitarist coming out for another solo voyage. Normally on Stevens solo albums he plays acoustic with loop pedals but this time the electric guitar is in greater evidence and often he has the backing of a full band. The end result has a bit more grit than his previous solo records but isn’t quite as ferocious as Spooky Action - and it turns out this is a very smart move. Lucid is an album where chiming guitars build tension only to launch King Crimson-like fusillades of noise.

5. Brill Bruisers - The New Pornographers

The New Pornos have been producing impeccable power pop about fifteen years now and amazingly they’re still able to pull rabbits out of hats. They seem incapable of making a bad album, and while this isn’t their greatest, it’s far from their least exciting releases either. If you’re new to the band then go and get Together or Electric Version - but for those of us already well versed in the wily ways of The New Pornos this is an enjoyable trip. I always look forward to the Dan Bejar songs on any new New Pornos record but this time they lack his usual spark. Carl Newman on the other hand still seems to able to write a floor stomping pop song at the drop of the hat, while still bringing out the unexpected, with Hi-Rise and Backstairs bringing something fresh to their catalogue.

6. BOSH! - Cleft

Out of the whole river of math rock that has washed through my home this past few years I really think Cleft is one of the most exciting bands around. They have ready access to something many of their colleagues struggle to find - joy. BOSH! is really infectious stuff and never allows it’s impeccable musicianship to get in the way of a good time. And go and see them live - they really can play this stuff.

7. Bleak Strategies - The Dowling Poole

Apparently Random Jon Poole and Willie Dowling met on a Ginger Wildheart session and immediately hit it off. The result is an album where every single song has more pop hooks than the ABBA Gold. It won’t change the world (they can leave that to Russell Brand) but it’s irresistible stuff.

8. SLUG / School of Language / Paul Smith & Peter Brewis

I might be cheating slightly here. Field Music, one of my favourite bands, didn’t release anything this year but the brothers Brewis did produce two albums and a stonking single.

SLUG is a solo project of their touring bass player Ian Black, which they’ve lovingly produced resulting in the single Cockeyed Rabbit Wrapped in Plastic - listen to it and tell me that isn’t one of the best things you’ve heard all year. I saw SLUG play live previewing the album that will arrive next year and it all sounded fucking amazing.

School of Language is the side-project of David Brewis. He decided that for this SoL album he would go back to his first love - 80s electro funk. Oh dear. I suddenly had horrible memories in my head of Living in a Box and Curiosity Killed the Cat. I should’ve had more faith - Old Fears has some really terrific moments that are way up there with Field Music at their best.

Finally Peter Brewis worked with Maximo Park lead singer Paul Smith, converting some of Smith's poetry into songs. The poetic origins are sometimes quite evident but the rich and inventive string arrangements make this a pretty and playful collection that’s a joy to listen to.

9. Rave Tapes - Mogwai

I think Mogwai are a tremendous band but buying their latest album can sometimes feel like buying a remaster of your favourite record and finding it doesn’t sound much different. This can’t be said about Rave Tapes that really does feel like enough of a departure to inject some excitement, but not so much as to lose the magic. The main change is the extensive use of synths, very often leading the way rather than background textures. If you haven’t bought a Mogwai album in a while then this is worth a spin.

10. Black Moon Spell - King Tuff

This is the sound of Scooby Doo soundtracked by T-Rex. It’s irresistible bubblegum pop covered in fuzz. It’s a lot of fun - check it out.

And finally...

I’ve been doing these top tens for years and I’ve never had a harder time deciding what should go on the top ten - there’s just been lots of great stuff.

There were two albums I heard far too late to decide if they belonged in the top ten or not. La Isla Bonita by Deerhoof is already proving hugely enjoyable and I suspect that come mid-January I will regret not putting it on this list. [schack tati] by Mats/Morgan came into my life just two weeks ago and got even closer to being on this list when I just lost my nerve at the last minute - but it really is tremendous and very much worth your time if you fancy something melodic yet experimental.

There’s two other records that I feel bad about excluding. Fujiya and Miyagi released Artificial Sweeteners which I listened to a hell of a lot but when I came to compiling this top ten I just couldn’t convince myself to remove anything else to give it space. The album just doesn’t stand up as well as their two previous excellent records. Trojan Horse released their first album World Turned Upside Down and it’s great - inventive and with cunning twists and turns that make them a unique voice. So WTUD has a lot going for it and is worth your money and time - it just wasn’t consistent enough to make it on my top ten.

Happy new year!

Monday
Jan062014

Top Ten Albums of 2013

This year was a great year for new music. I hope you'll look into some of these recommendations.  I present these in order starting with the best.

Sanguine Hum - Weight of the World

From the very first moment I heard "In Code" I knew that I had to get this album. It easily and quickly became my favourite album of the year. Complex without being pretentious, melodic without being weedy, and all while feeling contemporary and unique. It’s so perfectly balanced towards my niche tastes that I can’t help but feel it was designed specifically for me. Having said that I was glad to see them in the latter part of the year at The Borderline and that I wasn’t the only one who turned up to see them. I was so taken with this album that I found myself getting hold of their previous album, Diving Bell, and boy, what an amazing album that is too. I can’t imagine how they’ll top this but if it’s even half as good as these efforts I will be very content.

The Fierce and the Dead - Spooky Action

I first encountered The Fierce and the Dead on the Stabbing a Dead Horse tour (a recreation of that tour will be happening this year). I was rather impressed with their album “If it Carries on Like This We’re Moving to Morcambe” which had the feel of a brooding movie soundtrack. It did not prepare me for Spooky Action, a album that is simultaneously grittier yet more melodic. No more brooding here - this is coming face to face with a grinning Charles Manson.



Haken - The Mountain

This album is really remarkable for it’s diversity and ingenuity. It sounds like a prog rock jukebox, combining all your favourite elements of your favourite prog bands but never feeling like a tired pastiche. Their musicianship is incredible and it does feel as if they could turn their hands to anything (oh, and I saw them at The Borderline and they were fantastic live too). 



The Scaramanga Six - Phantom Head

The Scaramanga Six specialise in a form of epic rock music with soulful singing that you could describe as small g gothic. They’ve been independently releasing excellent records for donkeys years and this time decided to team up with Steve Albini - a marriage made in heaven. It also helps that this probably their most consistent selection of songs to date. In support of this album they also played one of my favorite gigs of the year at the teeny tiny Buffalo Bar.



Marnie Stern - The Chronicles of Marnia

There was much discussion of this album being an attempt to reach the mainstream. This doesn't seem to be too mainstream to me but it is different from her previous albums - I think it's a distillation of her unique music that only makes it stronger. Or to put it another way this album is more Clear Spot than Blue Jeans and Moonbeams.



Chrome Hoof - Chrome Black Gold

I only caught this album in the latter part of December but was convinced almost immediately. It’s a bizarre soup of complex rock, neon electropop and soulful vocals. It’s relentlessly joyful and constantly surprising.



Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob

As I said earlier, I love pop music and it doesn’t get much popper than this. I’d really enjoyed Tegan & Sara’s Sainthood from a few years ago so was a bit surprised when I heard Closer as a taster for this album. It was almost shockingly mainstream. But once I got over my initial reluctance there is no doubting just how great many of these songs are.



My Bloody Valentine - m b v

Well this arrived out of nowhere. I’d heard they’d announced the release at a gig on a Sunday night and I assumed it was a joke but, no, here it was. And remarkably it was a fantastic album and a worthy addition to the cannon. MBV managed to tread a fine line between new ideas and familiar territory. 



Pea Sea - The Debatable Land

I’d heard about this via the Field Music Twitter account and I was really blown away. I love the loudly thudding drums, the slashing guitar and the singers up front singing style (reminiscent of Richard Thompson at his most strident) - it all feels like they're going for broke. 

The Leisure Society - Alone Aboard the Ark 

There’s not much change here from their previous albums - more pretty songs and beautiful arrangements. “Fight for Everyone” was certainly one of the best songs of the year.

Some Songs of Note

And finally some tunes that I loved this year (but the albums couldn't sneak into my top ten)

Saturday
Dec282013

Review: Morrissey - Autobiography

Finally I have read Morrissey’s Autobiography and I can’t resist a quick review.

It becomes quickly apparent that this is almost a stream of consciousness effort and I would happily wager that any edits came, not from editors, but at the insistence of the loathed lawyers. But this is not to say that it’s a sloppy affair as Moz’s voice is immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with his lyrics. The same wit, rhythm, and rhyme are present here.

The book very roughly breaks into three sections (despite there being no chapters) and they run something like this.

Our first section is the most recognisable as autobiography as Moz leads us through his childhood. It is vivid, poetic and heart felt. It’s here his writing most resembles his Smiths era lyrics for this is clearly the period and these are the places that created those songs. It is not a happy time for the young Morrissey, unsurprisingly, but there is no single cause presented just a procession of miseries. This is by far the best the book has to offer and is well worth your price of admission alone.

With school finished we find our hero all at sea. Before long he stumbles into Marr and The Smiths are born. We now race through this period so we can get to the real meat of the second section, The Smiths Trial. There is much that foreshadows this section as Moz braces himself for what one can only assume he sees as the main event. Our hero tears through the judgement of Judge John Weeks with wide-eyed and furious bewilderment. Unfortunately for Morrissey he has the mind of a poet, not a lawyer; his prose collapses under his dry attempts at argumentation and his arguments collapse under their own contradictions. He tries to fight on two fronts and loses at both. But all is not lost because it does at least allow us to see how his mind works -and it’s not always pretty.

Finally we drift through his solo albums until we arrive at the third section: a tour diary with it’s list of places, venues, ticket sales and capsule reviews of both audience and band. This section unwittingly recreates the tedium of touring.

Strewn amongst all of this are accounts of rescuing injured animals, walking out on meat-eating diners, being snubbed by his heroes, being snubbed by the beneficiaries of his largesse, and being snubbed by people he loathes. He even finds time to be snubbed by entire countries.

One of the most remarkable things about the book is how Moz reports himself to be entirely passive at all times - as if he lounged prone on his chaise as the world drifted past handing him miseries and baubles. Mostly miseries in case you’re in any doubt. All the way through the book we are expected to believe that Morrissey has instigated nothing at all - either good or bad. The Smiths only happens because Marr approaches him. Managers (oh so many managers) approach him one by one and he dumbly says yes seemingly without comparison or competition but only because they are in front of him. Lovers appear on his doorstep. A solo band is convened as if by magic. All of this leaves the impression that Morrissey has done nothing to deserve his riches and fame other than to be deserving. It’s an odd image to project into the world.

It’s also rather disingenuous. A musician of lesser talents may drift by in the music industry with some success for five years, maybe ten with a strong wind behind them - but Moz is now into his thirtieth year of success with no end in sight. There is nothing passive about Morrissey.

At the other end of the scale Moz will defend the (in my opinion) meagre 10% awarded to bandmates Joyce and Rourke but never discusses how this arrangement came to be in the first place. Clearly Marr and Morrissey agreed on this split, but Moz doesn’t discuss it’s genesis only it’s fallout which makes one wonder what he is hiding. Again, this image of passivity is unconvincing.

Remarkably there is zero coverage of the creative process. I am none the wiser as to how he works with his collaborators. There is no discussion of how he writes his lyrics. Some paragraphs discuss time in the studio but there is little detail. He spends more time discussing record covers than lyrics, and that’s only because record labels will change his artwork but even they’re not stupid enough to try and change his lyrics. But all this means that a curious alien could read this book and still wonder precisely what it is that a Morrissey does.

This autobiography fails as a reporting of the facts but mightily succeeds as a portrait of the artist. Here he is with all his faults on show - and Morrissey is a great artist, not despite his faults, but faults and all. 

Good old Morrissey - often irritating but never boring.

Tuesday
Mar192013

Rashomon


When I saw the Sight & Sound list of Top 50 films I was surprised at how few of them I'd seen. So this is a series of posts where I'll watch as many of these films as I can and share my findings with you. Most importantly, are these movies only relevant to film geeks, or will an average bloke like me find anything in them to enjoy? You can see the other reviews here.


Preconceptions

I've already seen two other Kurosawa films (The Seven Samurai which I liked and Ikiru which I adored) so I had high expectations. I knew this was about witnesses giving evidence about a crime and they all tell conflicting stories.

Why is it on the list?

Is it possible that Kurosawa would be in the top 10 if his vote wasn't split by Seven Samurai and Rashomon? It seems very likely. Certainly there seems little doubt that Kurosawa has influenced many modern, western directors

Where can I see it?

I saw the version on archive.org that I can't recommend because the audio is out of sync and then it chops off the last five minutes! I then had to find it on YouTube so I could watch the end. If you're looking for it I know that it's available on iTunes and elsewhere.

What's it about?

A woodcutter walks through the forest and discovers a man who has been killed. Two days later all the witnesses are called to 'court' (or whatever it is) to recount their version of events. All of their versions differ.

Is it just for film geeks?

Absolutely not. This film is fast paced and there is never a dull moment. It may be artfully made but it is not an art film. Ultimately I think anyone who goes in with an open mind should enjoy this.

Entertainment value out of ten?

I think this is just a fantastic film. It's certainly one of the strongest pieces of story telling I've seen in the top 50 so far. There is never a single dull moment, every single frame either sets the tone or tells the tale. Fantastic stuff. 10/10.

Would I watch it again?

Definitely.

Monday
Mar182013

Tokyo Story


When I saw the Sight & Sound list of Top 50 films I was surprised at how few of them I'd seen. So this is a series of posts where I'll watch as many of these films as I can and share my findings with you. Most importantly, are these movies only relevant to film geeks, or will an average bloke like me find anything in them to enjoy? You can see the other reviews here.


Preconceptions

A black and white Japanese film that's 2 hours and 10 minutes long about an old couple going to see their grown-up children in Tokyo. Doesn't sound like a laugh riot but it is highly regarded. One of my favorite films is Kurosawa's Ikiru which is also set in Japan in the 1950's so I probably can't help but make some comparisons.

Why is it on the list?

Number one on the directors list and third on the critics list. Clearly this film has a lot of love out there amongst people in the know.

Where can I see it?

I watched the Bluray from BFI

What's it about?

Like I said earlier it's about an elderly couple going to Tokyo to see their grown up children. Sadly their offspring aren't quite the generous hosts you might hope for.

Is it just for film geeks?

Not at all. I think most of us might initially struggle to understand what all the fuss is about with this film. Everything about it is subtle and natuaralistic. None of the characters resort to shouting or throwing things about to make their point, they just politely nod their heads and get on with their lives. And this is a good thing - it makes it feel more real, more relateable. In some ways it makes me think of the relationships you might see in a Mike Leigh film such as High Hopes or Another Year, but it never becomes as explosive as either of those films.

Entertainment value out of ten?

I think many people will find the pace too slow for them, and that would be a shame. Here you have a slice of life that everyone can relate to. If you like films about ordinary people and their relationships with each other then you should enjoy this. I loved it and the more I think about it the more I like it. 10/10

Would I watch it again?

Absolutely, I intend to.