Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Monday, December 26, 2011
THE FORTY-TWO BEST RECORDS OF 2011:
Part # 6
20. Zola Jesus – Conatus (Sacred Bones)
It’s difficult to fathom why this one isn’t in my top ten. Hopefully it’ll be in a lot of people’s top tens. It’s pretty good. I guess it’s naturally gonna be Zola Jesus’s big ‘coming out party’ record, sitting on the verge of mainstream(ish) success, and it is SOLID, building on the template established by her ‘Stridulum’ material and hitting all the buttons you’d expect it to hit.
Only trouble is for those of us who’ve been following ZJ’s career, we’ve heard it before. Up to now, every record she’s made, from ‘New Amsterdam’ through ‘The Spoils’ to ‘Stridulum’, has been a quantum leap forward from the one that has preceded it. Having apparently hit peak performance with total KO songs like ‘The Night’ and ‘Can’t Stand’ though, ‘Conatus’ sees her settling back into cruising speed, rolling out a fresh, LP length reiteration of her established style, hopefully picking up a lot of new fans & supporters in the process, but fostering an unavoidable sense of diminishing returns for those of us who’ve been rocking the aforementioned for 18-plus months.
It doesn’t make the music any less good, but it makes it less exciting if ya know what I mean. Don’t ask me why. I could listen to, say, The Queers or ‘70s Black Sabbath making the same album a thousand times over and be perfectly happy, so I don’t know why my expectations of young operatically trained electro-pop ladies from Wisconsin should be any different. Who knows. This subjective/personal music crit is a mug’s game sometimes.
Eleven new cuts of earth-shaking neon-industrial bombast is still nothing to be sniffed at though, and needless to say, when I feel a Zola Jesus itch in the near future, I’ll be reaching for this one to get the job done with less of a sense of over-familiarity. That sounds a bit cold, but hey the world is cold – with fame and fashion and the inevitable dilution of identity knocking on her door, the fact this record stays on-message is an achievement worth celebrating in itself. That Nika Danilova has managed to find a route into mainstream consciousness without compromising the essential ?!?!? of her work is pretty fucking awesome.
Much here is veering hazardously toward the smooth, of course, but all is premeditated, nothing is chronic. Tracks like ‘Vessel’, ‘Hikikomori’ and ‘Seekir’ all have a certain steely calm to them that was missing before, a steadier pulse alongside their menace, to soothe the spirit on those long walks through underground stations and departure lounges, rather than abandoned hospitals and municipals wastelands. Indomitable human spirit amid the burnished chrome, and all that sort of thing. In short, much of ‘Conatus’ seems to be tapping into the same zeitgeist as the ‘Drive’ soundtrack – a sort of brooding electronic dream that can keep on brooding forever so far as I’m concerned. A well-guarded headphone wall to undermine the coldness without.
But all of this is build up. When the hiss of digital noise reemerges ever so slightly, when the weight of melodramatic angst starts to build and break on the astounding ‘Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake’, we’re back where we’ve always been with ZJ, back in the 2019 wasteland, standing atop the burning building, helicopter shot as the credits roll.
19. Veronica Falls – s/t (Slumberland / Bella Union)
Funny thing – I’ve been going to see Veronica Falls play for so long, I’ve played their singles (the re-recorded A sides of which constitute the immediate highlights here) so much, that their ‘long-awaited’ debut album almost seems like an anticlimax in spite of its abundant quality.
In a weird sorta way it’s almost too good; superbly recorded, with a careful balance between live energy and studio clarity, it sees the group inhabiting their chosen persona – that of a jangly indie-pop band who’ve died and returned as lovelorn gothic ghosts – with such calculated completeness, it almost makes me uneasy.
All of which is neither here nor there in the greater scheme of things, so rest assured if you neither know nor care what I’m going on about, this is a great record. If the one sentence sales pitch in the preceding paragraph at all appeals to you, you should totally check it out.
As has consistently been the case since the band stepped fully-formed into my consciousness on the night Michael Jackson died, Roxanne Clifford and James Hoare’s twin guitars provide a curtain of flawless Velvets strum, working in agreeable union with Patrick Doyle’s frantic stand-up drumming, creating an appropriately tempestuous backdrop for these raised eyebrow tales of doomed love and graveside angst, the trio’s crystal-cut voices (bassist Marian Herbain doesn’t join in the singing, to my knowledge) giving the songs a bit of a chilly, melodramatic English folk feel - the perfect musical accompaniment to a march ‘round Highgate cemetery on a freezing autumnal Saturday morning, winter sun glinted through the trees.
Which, conveniently, is exactly the situation portrayed in their video to ‘Found Love.., or their similarly wintry, forest-set clip for ‘Bad Feeling’. See what I mean? Always doing exactly what they should do, this lot. Too perfect.
18. Chain & The Gang – Music’s Not For Everyone (K)
So I could hold forth here about how Ian Svenonious will likely never manage an LP that matches up to his riotous, inspirational live shows, and about how he presumably doesn’t even intend to, at least not via the indulgent idiosyncrasy of the “me plus whoever else shows up” Chain & The Gang set-up. I could talk about how inflated expectation aside though, this is a real fun listen. I could reflect on how much I enjoy Ian’s sly digs at the current lethargic/depressive mindset fostered by constant warnings of impending economic collapse and the slowly degrading quality of life in America, on tunes like ‘Why Not?’, ‘Not Good Enough’ and ‘It’s a Hard Job (Keeping Everybody High)’.
But that’s the kind of bland, reasonable analysis I’ve been churning out for every one of these records, and it’s starting to get to be a drag, man. As a well-needed break, let us reflect instead on Chain & The Gang’s message to their people, as elucidated on this record’s back cover, and reiterated in spoken word form at the start of side two for benefit of the short-sighted or illiterate;
Everyone might switch on the radio
But they don’t get it
No matter how they try, they can’t or won’t
Don’t tell them about it
I know you wanna share
The thing you love so much…
Everyone in this country might own a personal listening device
Everyone might have a state of the art hi-fi
Everyone might have a home library of record albums
Or compact discs
Or even a compiled stack of concert set lists
But music’s not for everyone
Music’s not for them
It’s for you and me
Does a moth know a flame just because it’s drawn to it?
Does a body know a bullet just because it’s hit?
Does a lemming know the void that waits for it …
At the bottom of a cliff?
Does the worm know the mud
Does the salt know the sea
Does the universe understand infinity?
A clock spends its life marking time
Does it understand mortality?
Do people who listen to music even like it?
Do people deserve it even if they buy it?
Music is not for everyone
Music is for the few, for the brave
Don’t try to explain it to them though
It doesn’t matter what you say
They can’t understand
They’ll never understand
Just sneak away to that hole
Where the music makes its stand
Ludwig Van Beethoven is not for everyone
Shirley Ellis is not for everyone
Helen Shapiro is not for everyone
Bo Diddley is not for everyone
Bobby Fuller is not for everyone
17. Tieranniesaur – Tieranniesaur! (Popical Island)
An album that I’ve been trying to get a chance to write about for months if I’m honest, Tieranniesaur is very much the kind of thing that I enjoy and approve of without having much to say about it beyond a basic thumbs up RECOMMEND. A full-scale joycore sensation of some kind masterminded by Annie Tierney of Chicks and Yeh Deadlies, this is a galumphing great ten tracks-worth of funk/rock/electro/dub/80s hiphop post-generic pop amalgamation, guaranteed to demolish indie discos worldwide with it’s enthusiastically ramshackle takes on Le Tigre / Go Team / LCD / Funkadelic / ESG type tropes… if only they got a chance to hear it.
Built around a realiable foundation of programmed drums, monster bass and agreeably zany trash-talk rhymes, cuts like ‘Rockblocker’, ‘Sketch!’ and ‘I Don’t Stop’ are total winners on any potential internet-era Jukebox Jury, appearing out of nowhere brazen as you like and marching ‘round like they own the place, demanding remixes, chart positions, hit youtube videos, all the rest of it… and, uh, I guess I’m not very good at finding things to say about upbeat, dancey type music, but GREAT times to be found here, in case you were short on them this year.
Frankly, being hit with a platter like this when you were expecting maybe a nice little folk album or something is weird enough, but midway through, things get weirder, as Tieranniesaur start conquering styles like gleeful mountaineers dishing out flagpoles. Euphoric disco on ‘Pretty Girl String Quartet’, Graceland-esque faux-African pop on ‘Candy’ and ‘Azure Island’, and a sublime bit of straight-laced cinematic funk on the superb ‘Here Be Monsters’.
An astoundingly FUN pile o’ music, full of great lines, great rhythms, awesome tunes, raucous energy and random guest appearances by people I’ve never heard of, ‘Tieranniesaur’ kinda sounds like an audio record of one of the best parties ever, and as such is an experience I can wholeheartedly recommend.
16. The Real Numbers – 12” (Three Dimensional Records)
I caught Minneapolis’ Real numbers almost by accident earlier this year, at the same show I saw Crawling Age, and through the fog of a few beers, they were a revelation - breakneck pace nerd-bounce! Fast, snappy, funny, catchy songs! Loads of energy, small, raucous crowd, amazing fun.
Bought their 12”, and verily, it is a blast. Eight genius weirdo pop-punk songs, over before you’ve really registered them. Occasionally sounding like a Television Personalities record played at the wrong speed, this is the kind of music I will never not love. As their label puts it, there’s “nary a duff cut” to be found here – about fifteen minutes of flat-out joy, nix on the fat – sides A and B both open with total pogo classics ‘Might I See You Tonight’ and Undertones-ish ‘All About You’, both of which I’ll be DJing the fuck out of opportunity allowing, whilst ‘Boats & Cars’ showcases a slightly more nuanced side of the group, sounding not unlike the TVPs played at the correct speed.
Not much else to say really, especially since I’m away from home at the moment and can’t play the vinyl in search of further wordly inspiration. Closest thing I’ve heard recently to the particular kind of greatness found on Nodzzz first LP, this is one of the absolute best of the year from America’s garage/punk/whatever underground. Total winner!
Thursday, December 22, 2011
THE FORTY-TWO BEST RECORDS OF 2011:
Part # 5
25. Vivian Girls – Share The Joy (In The Red)
Poor Vivian Girls – they were in a real ‘damned if you do..’ situation with this one. Momentary hype bubble irreparably broken, I suspect a lot of people had the knives out regardless – to curse ‘em out as no ideas/no talent timewasters if they delivered more of the same, to mock their pretensions if they tried something a bit different, or hey, why not a bit or both? The fact that ‘Share The Joy’ is a pretty good record got lost in the shuffle as the band were being shown the door.
It’s not perfect, it’s got a few duds, but in terms of sound and songwriting I think album # 3 is a real progression for the group, with a handful of tracks that are flat-out brilliant. A significant departure from the Shangri-Las-via-Husker Du hardcore of ‘Everything Goes Wrong’, ‘Share The Joy’ has more of a mid-fi denim desert rock kinda feel to it – less of the distortion and compression, more of the beautifully straight-up, band-in-a-room kinda chiming slow-burn, verging at times into the shallow end of grizzled Crazy Horse sprawl. It works pretty well. The Neil comparison is particularly pertinent on ‘The Other Girls’, an ambitious six and a half minutes of opening track, expanding the band’s default mope to persuasively epic scope, carrying forward the kind of dead-eyed melancholy that’s been at the heart of all their music thus far into a few minutes of instinctive, emotionally resonant soloing – honest, rough-edged, heart-string tugging rock music. Nothing wrong w/ that. Much like the Girls At Dawn album last year, there’s not much to say to try to sell this to some hypothetical tastemaker, but it’s the kind of thing that always works for me, and I think it’s a killer track.
‘Other Girls’ establishes the pattern of downbeat melodicism and cool, clean-toned guitarwork that flows through all of ‘Share the Joy’s best moments – ‘Heard You Say’, ‘Trying To Pretend’ and re-recorded singles cut ‘Lake House’ - all securing the band a comfortable new foothold in the realm of a kinda (god, it’s killing me having to type this) punk-informed Americana, culminating in my personal favourite track here, the full-on wronged woman vengeance ode of ‘Sixteen Ways’. By contrast, the self-conscious girl group pastiches of ‘Take It As It Comes’ and ‘Dance (If You Wanna)’ fall pretty flat, seeming like unhelpful anachronisms within the band’s new musical narrative, but say whatcha like: Vivian Girls have made three records in four years, each of them emotionally and sonically distinct, all of them poignant, exciting and broadly successful. Chances are that’s more than you’ve done.
24. Blood Patrol – Demo Tape (self released)
From last month:
“Listening to these demos – rejoicing in the muffled gut-thump of the practice room > portastudio > cassette > mp3 translation process – makes me want to learn to drive, get my licence, and buy a car. This is solely so that I could drive around aimlessly and give people lifts. And as they sit in the passenger seat, I’ll jam this tape in the stereo. I’ll start drinking fizzy drinks again, so that I can slurp from a big drive-thru cup as I say “yeah man, this is Blood Patrol” and start bashing out blast-beats on the steering wheel.
Hopefully it’ll be a long drive, so that I can cherish their expression of cautious relief in the moment of silence when the tape comes to an end… before I instinctively reach over and put it on again. I reckon I could spin it at least six times during an average slog across London.
Looking around me, I see indie records, psychedelic records, garage-punk records, whatever else. I listen to the sound of Blood Patrol from my computer speakers, and I think, fuck man, I’ve been wasting my life. I could have been listening to stuff that sounds like Blood Patrol. Why would anyone want to listen to music that doesn’t sound like this?
A metal review demands sub-genres, so what ‘THIS’ is is…. well I guess it’s kind of a hardcore/thrash crossover thing, with land speed record H/C drumming (not actually blast-beats, despite what I said earlier), low end Entombed/Bolt Thrower guitar chug, deranged ‘Reign in Blood’ whammy bar carnage and grave-soil gargling BM vocals. Perfection, in other words.
Completely devoid of the pretension and dry technicality that dooms much contemporary metal to the ‘not right now thanks’ pile, this tape is about as far as you can get from the pristine, multi-tracked headache factory of a studio death metal album. But at the same time, it doesn’t retreat back to the mysterioso trashcan-holocaust guff of yr average kvlt BM release either. Basically this just sounds like we always wanted metal so sound, before things got all silly – a functional low fidelity recording of some guys in a room, rocking it out with energy of a teenage punk band and the chops of stadium beserkers. It’s just plain fucking FUN. They’re singing about blood and thunder and destruction and zombie bloodbaths and rampaging through the dark night on galloping stallions and tearing monsters’ throats out, and they’re having the time of their lives. It’s exhilarating! It’s rock music! It’s METAL! It’s BLOOD PATROL. It… well, it rules.”
Unhallowed & Old
23. Kitchen’s Floor – Look Forward To Nothing (Siltbreeze)
“I AM IN A ROOOM!!!”, the main guy in Australia’s Kitchen’s Floor repeatedly screamed at the conclusion of his band’s primitive and unsettling first LP, and if the room in question was the one pictured on the cover of this second effort, I feel his pain. That curtain alone is the stuff of nightmares. Actually, that first record really grew on me between my placing it at, like, #40 or something in a previous year-end list and the emergence of ‘Look Forward To Nothing’ a couple of months back, and I’m pleased to report that it essentially delivers more of the same, chronic rage only exacerbated by the more conventional rock structures and a thicker, louder recording found herein.
Shamelessly sullen and antisocial, Kitchen’s Floor songs are like spiteful teenage tantrums in sonic form, compelling like picking scabs. Stripping garage-born adolescent rock back to its ugliest, most simplistic form, a typical composition sees the band picking out a single chord or a rudimentary riff, hammering it into the ground for seventy or eighty seconds alongside an infuriated, monotone complaint (“I HAVE TO DIE!!!”, “I’M ON MY OWN!!”), and calling it a day. Brilliant. I mean, what more y’dou need? Gets the fucking point across.
Whilst broadly accurate, I fear that such a summation fails to really reflect the fearsome level of craft and catharsis at work in Kitchen’s Floor. As innumerable one-shot garage-trash bands have proved over the years, recording a load of shitty sounding minute long rant songs isn’t difficult. Keeping people coming back to them though, keeping them feeling something whilst you rage and gurn, takes… a certain something extra. Skill and effort for two easy box ticks, sheer FORCE of discontent for another, topped off by… something else, too intangible for me to try to catch it in a word.
In this respect, Kitchen’s Floor bring an attack that reminds me of the earliest Dead C material (back when they still did songs), or the kind of balance that was in play when Nirvana recorded ‘Bleach’. Particularly startling is the way that some of the longer (relatively speaking) songs, through sheer weight of noise and repetition alongside some cannily-picked chord progressions, seem to acquire a more euphoric, positive character that raises them above the mire into clear, blue skies. Great when that happens, isn’t it?
After a decade in which 98% of studio time has been monopolised by boring indie bands with too much equipment aiming for that same ‘shoegaze’ sweetspot and failing, you’ve gotta ask yourself how these depressive backwoods fuck-ups manage to hit the bullseye just in passing and shrug it off so that they can yell some more about kidney infections and bedbugs. By being fucking good, that’s how.
22. Las Kellies – Kellies (Fire)
Hard to approach a record by a band who are ripping into another band’s trademark style – in this case, that of ESG – quite as relentlessly as Argentina’s Las Kellies are doing here, without one’s comments seeming like criticism. Hopefully though, long-term readers will realise where I stand on this one. Originality is overrated, and furthermore, I find it difficult to conceive of a world in which there are too many bands that sound like ESG. In fact, if there’s ever been a band whose style deserves to become a genre in its own right, ESG is the one. (And if for some reason you’re reading this and are unfamiliar with the works of ESG, well, best get on that right now. One of the best bands EVER, you guys.)
Acknowledging their chief inspiration with a faithful cover of ‘Erase You’ (“flowers from the garbage chute” becomes “flowers from the cornershop”, rather charmingly), Las Kellies have the whole thing down really – the monster bass, sharp-as-fuck drumming, the lack of any distraction from the central presence of the groove. All is present and correct. Perhaps they’re not quite as sparse as their precursors - more prominent guitar, faster tempos here and there maybe – but basically it’s a solid tribute, enlivened with some killer original material and a welcome touch of punk rock abandon.
An unlikely but welcome release by British indie label Fire, this album is the first I’ve heard from Las Kellies, but checking their bandcamp, it seems they’ve been tearing it up in their native land for a few years, and that their full scale ESGification is a relatively recent phenomenon. Their previous full length, 2009’s ‘Kalimera’ boasts a more guitar-heavy post-punk sound - still rhythm-led and still really awesome, it’s perhaps more reminiscent of their ‘70s Brazilian sisters in As Mercenárias. It is this experience and punk-grounding I think that thus gives them the tools they need to strip down the engine and remerge as the best damn ersatz ESG party band going, absolutely kicking ass on instant < 2 minute hits like ‘Hit It Off’ and ‘Bling Bling’, before getting more “moody”, throwing the expected dub elements and creepy noises into the mix on ‘Adwentre’ and the frantic, ‘Chistelle’-like ‘Bife Dos’. Oh, and on a more personal note, hard to beat ‘Scotch Whisky’ as a party tune. One of my favourite musical styles enthusiastically employed in celebration of one of my favourite things.
How much fun is this album? Well, as I write this I’m sitting here alone with a runny dose and hacking cough in an unheated room in the middle of the Welsh countryside, and I’m still dancing. Righteous through and through, I would LOVE to see this band live. I would love to book them to play some all-night party, where they could play as long as they liked. Much oomph on the bass. Much Scotch Whisky. YEAH.
Prince in Blue
21. Grouper – AIA: Alien Observer / Dream Loss (Yellowelectric)
I was a bit late in gaining an appreciation of Liz Harris’s work as Grouper. That whole “Mazzy Star through a fogbank” thing on her ‘breakthrough’ record ‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill’ was ok, but it wasn’t really doing a lot for me. Retrospectively discovering her earlier album ‘Way They Crept’ though, I was pretty blown away. Dark, inscrutable, frightening and beautiful, I think it stands out as some kinda masterpiece amid the whole of the past decade’s worth of psyche/drone/ambient product.
Thus I was pleased to find that these two more-or-less self-released albums see Harris dodging the inevitable pull toward song-based forms that afflicts recording artists like her when they attain a certain degree of popularity, instead picking up the more prominent vocals and clearer fidelity from the ‘Dragging..’ era and transporting them to a far more abstract realm, earthy guitar tones entirely excised in favour of eighty minutes-worth of austere, celestial womb-drone – a vast, distant music that seems designed to evoke the idea of an incorporeal spirit dispatching lullabies across the currents of deep space, catching the ear of some doomed astronaut as he floats in limbo, the 2001 star-child looming over the non-existent horizon…
So pretty great, in other words.
Alien observer is the more accessible of the two discs here, its exquisite title track the closest thing AIA has to offer to a ‘hit’, tremolo-damaged keyboard sound deliberately evoking the signifiers of a long-lost space-age, like something that might have transpired had San Francisco’s famed Space Lady developed a knack for fully-realised original compositions and hit the studio with them. Elsewhere, the cosmic drone prevails, often tempered with a disarmingly classicist approach to melody that nags at our memory receptors, particularly on the incredible centrepiece track ‘Vapor Trails’, which opens with a slow series of phrases reminiscent some half-remembered Christmas hymn… you can almost feel the dust between the organist’s fingers in some lonely Midnight Mass, the warmth of the pillow yr heading back to afterwards, even as the song’s unearthly atmospherics pull you straight into deep space. Drawing us down again and again into an isolation tank of deep, retro-futurist comfort, lulling us into submission whilst pulling at the threads of memory that keep our minds together, ‘Alien Observer’ is a sublimely beautiful record, perhaps a perfect exemplar of Eno’s original conception of ambient music.
And if so, that’s a sentiment that could apply doubly so to ‘Dream Loss’, which plunges even further into the abstract, sounding like music trying to retreat as far into the distance as it possibly can without disappearing completely, like intergalactic signals at the very edge of radio contact range. In spite of such intriguingly earth-bound song titles as ‘Dragging the Streets’ and ‘I Saw a Ray’, this is music doing everything in its power to hide itself from view, to sink into the subconscious, to prevent our ears from despoiling its secrets with our half-assed notions of structure and meaning, even at times falling back in desperation on that most obvious sonic veil – the curtain of deteriorating guitar distortion. As ever with work that convincingly trades on the unknowable, Harris is surely aware that only an ever-increasing fascination can result, drawing us back regularly into the deeps of this sound, in search of alien relics, luminous gases and moonrocks, rewards perhaps even more tempting than the sun-bleached bones and tarnished jewels of ‘Way They Crept’.
Alien Observer [from ‘Alien Observer’]
Soul Eraser [from ‘Dream Loss’]
Thursday, December 15, 2011
THE FORTY-TWO BEST RECORDS OF 2011:
Part # 4
30. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck (4AD)
That this is my least favourite Mountain Goats album since John Darnielle signed to 4AD all those years ago should be self-evident from its placement this low on the list. Deprived of a central concept to work around, it seems to find his songwriting flailing around in a number of odd and unsatisfying directions, as the band’s sound falls back on a competent but uninspiring strain of MOR acoustic indie-rock that’s getting pretty damn old, its few self-conscious attempts at experimentation (in particular, the Disney-ish dude choir on ‘High Hawk Season’) emerging as unwelcome embarrassments – the kind of thing that reinforce all the worst clichés about this band and its fans.
Nevertheless, there are many good and worthwhile songs here. ‘Estate Sale Sign’ is an immediate favourite - a breakneck sprint through ritual sacrifice, decrepit shopping malls, fading movie stills and birds of prey circling on high, it sticks around just long enough to throw up hints of a cruel and bizarre story beneath whilst remaining thrilling and elusive – a perfect Mountain Goats song really, recalling the fractured narratives of “We Shall All Be Healed”. ‘Beautiful Gas Mask’ is a similarly killer tune, threading lyrical non-sequiturs into a great bit of “no idea what it’s about, but it sure gets the blood pounding” goodness. The self-explanatory ‘For Charles Bronson’ is almost an absolute stormer, it’s momentum sapped somewhat by over-polite production and an unnecessary middle section, a fate shared by the half-great ‘Prowl Great Cain’. Perhaps tellingly, two of the best cuts here recall the more brooding, relatively low-key approach of 2009’s ‘The Life of the World to Come’ – piano-led opener ‘Damn Those Vampires’ (which fleetingly conjures the dusty desert-horror fables of movies like ‘Near Dark’) and, probably the overall highlight of this record, the richly evocative ‘Age of Kings’, which perhaps breaks interesting new ground for Darnielle, building it’s atmosphere not through any blood-curdling lyrical invention, but simply through its elegant, burnished gold string textures and stately melody.
A lot of the other songs here I don’t really ‘get’, but that’s ok, really, I mean, that’s fine – after all, a lot of the old boombox era records only mange maybe a 50% hit rate in all honesty. Darnielle has had an absolutely spectacular run since ‘Tallahassee’, and it would be churlish to expect it to last forever. What’s more worrying is that the crazy passion and fury that’s fuelled The Mountain Goats for twenty odd years seems to be dissipating here. Like many successful songwriters before him, Darnielle is starting to feel the effect of his being a guy who sits in an office all day with a piano writing songs for a living, rather than some desperate ne’erdowell trawling the highways trying to make a buck, or whatever. Basing one’s career almost entirely on compositional chops is always going to be a uneasy balance between “that’s an interesting subject, I should probably write a song about it” and “here’s something terrifying that happened when I picked up the guitar this evening, I don’t know where the fuck it came from”, and if you insist on being prolific, that balance is always gonna get a bit off-whack sometimes.
Then again though, a lot of people seemed to like this record just fine. The reviews were good. Is it weird that for some reason I think the songs on last year’s throwaway Extra Lens side-project way overshadowed even the best ones on this album? On what side of the band/listener divide is the energy really draining away here? Are The Mountain Goats changing, or just me? Something to ponder in the dark hours of the night. Whatever - # 30 dudes.
Beautiful Gas Mask
29. Maria Minerva – Tallinn at Dawn tape / Cabaret Cixous LP (Not Not Fun)
Two whole albums of laptop transcendence from the prolific Ms Minerva, rising above blog-hype and cool-label-anticipation-disorder and “TRIVIA FACT: interned at The Wire” to really make her mark on the world of…. whatever the hell you call this kind of thing.
‘Tallinn..’ is ostensibly the weaker of the two sets of recordings, but there’s a stark naivety and sketchy pop minimalism to the songs herein that I really love. It’s just awesome, untutored homemade songs really, assembled out of little more than random samples, midi synth lines, Maplins-mic vocals and cheap effects, but within this evidently limited framework, Minerva reveals a great knack for sound-assembly and an uncanny ear for a really haunting melody. All of the record’s strengths are fully in evidence on the tremendous ‘Sad Serenade (Bedroom Rock n’ Roll)’, one of my favourite tracks of the year, which fuses chunks of some long lost youtube rock star interview to bass and drum patterns that sound weirdly organic despite never claiming to have known life outside a harddrive, spinning swathes of psychedelic burble like week old memories of some euphoric nightclub moment, topped with a shivering vocal like something out of one of Marianne Faithful’s weed-inspired greenhouse dreams. Or something. I dunno. Point is, it’s great. Twenty seven iTunes plays and counting.
‘Cabaret..’ is a far more elaborate affair, often a bit too amorphous to really get an angle on, on first listen seeming like an endless blissout of disconnected, muffled-through-the-walls club music and pan-cultural East End art blather that’s engrossing without ever manifesting anything really distinct. On repeated spins though, attention is drawn once again to the strength of Minerva’s tricky vocal melodies, and their central role in organising the dubbed out clouds of this sound into something not just tangible but pretty damn magical, as heard on the superb ‘Honey Honey’ - not so much blissful as a second-hand descriptor but more, y’know… actually blissful, heavily phased vocals fading into a haze of reconstructed Indian street-singing as the track progresses. Again, it never really sticks around long enough to sign off on its beauty, but fleetingly there’s something pretty special there. Similar feels can be felt in ‘Soo High’, submerging mixing skeletal r’n’b structure under heavily processed ice-cream van chimes and reverb layers to sublime effect, and ‘Pirate’s Tale’, a fully-formed masterpiece of this nameless whatever, taking us from Spitalfields out to sea, knocking on the doors of all the adjectives I’ve thrown around in this review in the process.
Ineffable, irreducible DIY hypnogogical cosmopolitan collage-pop of the highest order, Maria Minerva’s records will inevitably sound dated as shit to our stupid ears five years down the line. All the more reason to enjoy them now then, I’d suggest.
Sad Serenade (Bedroom Rock n’ Roll) [from ‘Tallin at Dawn’]
Pirate’s Tale [from ‘Cabaret Cixous’]
28. Yeh Deadlies – The First Book of Lessons (Popical Island)
“Come on in and relax, these songs seem to say (without getting too happy-clappy about it), everybody’s welcome. Maybe life’s not perfect – in fact we are going to tell you in lyrical form about all manner of awkward situations and personal upsets - but the sun’s shining and it’s a quiet afternoon and we’re all on the same page here, so grab a pint and we’ll weave our merry tunes for ya.
And fucking merry they are too, full of great, interesting melodies and attention-grabbing little musical bits and pieces, and they tell us about a bunch of stuff that’s maybe taken from their lives or maybe just made up, and for once you actually care. As Yeh Deadlies have moved away from the more overtly folky approach of their earlier recordings and assumed the mantle of a full electric pop band, joint singers/writers Padraig and Annie have correspondingly developed a real knack for cramming odd and personal details into the songs whilst never letting them meander too far from their core function as strong, emotionally resonant pop songs. Most song lengths remain on the right side of three minutes, tempos remain upbeat, and collapses into diary entry banality are strenuously avoided, but each number still succeeds in communicating the essence of a situation, an idea, a feeling, whatever. So, uh, I’m no expert or anything, but I think that probably adds up to official Real Good Song-Writing. Well done everybody!
Although Dublin is a big city, this really sounds like a rural album to me. Or it really hit the spot when I put it on whilst barrelling through the countryside last month, at least. Maybe I’m just projecting, but the songs seem to pull together to create an agreeable picture of life in a small-ish provincial music scene, from the reflections of a DJ at a small town club night surveying the 3am carnage in “Disc Jockey Blues” to the tale of a kid growing up and joining a band in, er, “The Kid’s in the Band”, and so on.
If ‘The First Book of Lessons’ was a movie, I think it would probably be one of those ‘90s British indie movies where young people in brightly coloured clothes live amid drab, dilapidated surroundings, and they go to transport cafes, and go surfing, and sit together on the cliffs and stuff like that. Hopefully it wouldn’t be shite (because most of those kind of movies were shite), but y’know what I mean.
In a field submerged ‘neath a flood of bilious careerists and terminal hat-wearers, Yeh Deadlies sound like good people playing good music, and that’s really something to be thankful for.”
No Rock n’ Roll Dreams (in Empty Beds)
27. Jeffrey Lewis – A Turn in a Dream Songs (Rough Trade)
Jeffrey Lewis’s previous LP ‘Em Are I’ was my favourite record of.. when did it come out again? Year before last? Ok, yeah – 2009. In particular, admired the way that Jeffrey managed to take the fallout from what was obviously a pretty devastating break-up and turn it into a set of songs that was enjoyable, profound, funny, musically ambitious and generally optimistic, transcending the moansville routinely occupied by about 98% of spurned singer-songwriter types.
Kind of sad then to hear him returning this year with a record as thoroughly down-in-the-dumps as this one, nixing the raucous punk and rock n’ roll outbursts the gave colour to his previous albums in favour of what is largely a one man acoustic trawl through different flavours of listless self-pity.
Anxiety and morbid self-examination have always been at the heart of Lewis’s songwriting of course, but in the past he’s always managed to put a good spin on it, using humour and weird, homespun wisdom to engage with a more universal sentiment – a talent that often seems to elude him here as he offers a number of dreary strumathons bemoaning the fact that girls don’t like him and he’s forced to go to restaurants on his own and aimlessly wonder the streets and stuff and DUDE, for christ’s sake, it’s sad that you feel so bummed out, but carrying on like this in public isn’t going to help matters! Pull yourself together, go play some great shows and draw some awesome comic books, you’re great at it and you’ve got loads of wonderful friends, and everybody loves you! Jeez, some people.
Thankfully though, this is still a Jeffrey Lewis album, and Jeffrey Lewis is awesome, so there’s plenty here to enjoy. For one, ‘Cult Boyfriend’, a perfect example of the kind of instant classic yeah-you-got-my-number-buddy pop culture referencin’ hits that got us loving him in the first place. For two and three, there’s ‘Krongu Green Slime’ and ‘So What If I Couldn’t Take It’ , intricate, image-packed rambles that seem like weirder tangents from some ‘60s underground comic in audio form, telling tales of primordial retail economics, cosmic entropy, hallucinogenic suicide rampages and flunked mafia executions. ‘Time Trades’ is a good one too, vaguely recalling Richard Hell’s similarly named song and stretching a dark-hours-of-the-night philosophical tangent into a convincing trail of reassuring wisdom, bypassing our cynicism in a way that only Lewis can really get away with. Opener ‘To Go And Return’ is real nice as well, a gentle, shimmery folk-psyche fingerpicker enlivened by droning, discordant brass.
In fact, who am I kidding – at least 50% of ‘A Turn In The Dream Songs’ is really great, and it’s at least 100% better than it would have been if some other bearded jerk had made it. It would be easy to pull apart the threads of depression and narcissism that underpin even the best of these songs, but why bother, they’ve always been there, they’re part of what makes Jeff Lewis the writer/performer he is, and here’s hoping he can take some inspiration from the noble sentiment of songs like ‘Time Trades’ and work up a more positive frame of mind for the next time he hits the studio.
26. Y Niwl – Album (Aderyn Papur)
Behold – the best Welsh language surf album of the year!
But seriously folks, even if there were dozens of Welsh language surf albums to choose from (and I sincerely wish there were), I’d like to think Y Niwl would still be riding high on the hog with this lovely effort.
I should admit that I’ve actually been listening to a lot of surf music this year. I really like it, in fact I think it’s one of the greatest musical forms around.
It’s a genre that works best I feel when completely disconnected from all the mouldering aesthetic bumpf that goes along with it. I remember once hearing an old interview with The Pixies, where they were talking about their fondness for surf music, and how when they listened to it, they weren’t thinking of hotrods and beaches and Californian dudes surfing and all that stuff, but instead of “crazy little people, running around, doing stuff!” That just about sums it up I think. It’s evocative, exciting music that deserves a wider framework of imagery to work with. Thus I really appreciate the fact that Y Niwl play great surf music without making any effort to try to harness the ‘surf’ aesthetic. No stripey shirts or tiki lounge kitsch for these guys – in the one press shot I could find of them, they’re standing in somebody’s back garden in the rain, next to a conservatory, having a cup of tea. Stubble and bobblehats and rain macs – classic SFA/Gorkys Welsh stoner guys really. Much respect to them for taking this fine music wholly on it’s own merit, and playing it so well, devoid of period goofery.
On the scale of surfitude, I suppose you might say Y Niwl are more on the relatively laidback side of things - the kind of surf band one imagines might enjoy a quick joint or two before practice. Not for them the rip-roaring fretboard theatrics of Bambi Molesters or Los Straitjackets. Largely, Y Niwl prefer to explore a woozier, more psychedelic take on surf conventions, their sound crisply recorded as the genre demands, but swathed in a heavily atmospheric undertow of beautifully cavernous reverb and echo, rolling in across the tunes like Aberystwyth sea mist, genre-defying electric organ riffs chiming in too to add a whole other layer to a beautiful sonic, uh… layered thing? By which I mean, a brilliantly recorded, imaginatively rendered, good-natured, instantly enjoyable pile of vaguely trippy instrumental rock. Nice work!
Saturday, December 10, 2011
THE FORTY-TWO BEST RECORDS OF 2011:
Part # 3.
35. Crawling Age – CDR (self-released)
“I think Crawling Age are one of those ‘get together for one day a year / write and record a bunch of stuff in an afternoon’ kind of deals, and indeed, they seem concerned with little beyond having a laugh, swapping instruments so that everybody gets to have a go at everything, and making a lively bunch of oven-ready less than 2 minute songs, putting seven of the best of ‘em on this CD-R, and giving a free copy to anyone who’s interested. A fine approach! A happy racket!
Live, they lengthened their set to the requisite twenty minutes with much mucking about and a great version of Jowe Head’s immortal ‘Cake Shop’, and the spirit of Swell Maps indeed hangs heavy over these recordings. Hard to put your finger on exactly *where* it hangs amid the murky din of Crawling Age, but when the certain nameless, inexplicable something that Swell Maps forever defined is present, you can never mistake it. It’s there, creeping through the cracks, coagulating amid the background shouts and between song chuckles. Introduce it to the blaring, belligerent murk these men call home in their main bands, and a good thing is born, somewhat not dissimilar to that great Human Race CD I wrote up last year.
In conclusion: I really like this CD. It’s stupidly fun, fulla random, crazy noise, inspired, off-the-cuff song ideas and goofy four-track tangents, and it asks nothing in return. I wish I was in a band like this – sounds like a blast.”
Soundcloud > (You Crossed Over To) The Other Side
34. Amen Dunes – Through Donkey Jaw (Sacred Bones)
Didn’t know what to make of this one when I first picked it up as a blind buy. First listen put me off to the extent that it was almost heading for a one-way trip to Music & Video Exchange, but repeat spins have crept up on me nicely. Damon McMahon’s bedroom psyche opuses (which make up the entirety of this hour long audio doorstop) have an irritatingly distant, unknowable air about them, his reedy vocals whining away throughout, sounding mildly tormented but forever failing to actually wrap themselves around anything that might be recognised as a human phrase or emotion, whilst the instrumentation mostly takes the form of a homogenous swathe of drifting strong textures, man-size reverb and ‘ritual’ percussion, remaining gentle and roughly harmonic, rarely feeling to the need to up the stakes with the kind of experimental gestures and big noises that usually serve to push this kinda music into the foreground. In its most fully-formed moments, it starts to revert back into more palpable indie-rock shapes, verging onto something kinda like Greg Ashley if he got really whacked on something heavy, or some fucked up ghost of Tim Buckley or something… dunno whether that sounds much like a recommendation..?
Give it some time though, and this is a real grower. The somnambulant logic of McMahon’s songs slowly starts to become clear, revealing a kind of shy, shadowy drift that can spill over into moments of burning atmospheric splendour, exulting in a kind of lysergic alienation that (for no particular reason) pulls my cultural compass straight back to the more benighted realms of late ‘60s & ‘70s Japan - to the warped un-folk desperation of The Jacks, Onna and Takashi Mizutani’s solo recordings. Either that, or some of the eerie post-Skip Spence private press type shit that I’d imagine McMahon so covets. More unhinged moments like ‘Jill’ and ‘For All’ speak more of a kinda Mutant Sounds Shadow Ring/Jim Shephard deconstructive agenda, whilst one of the best tracks here, ‘Swim Up Behind Me’, even recalls one of Arthur Russell’s perfect pop miniatures, as filtered through heavy ashram/sitar/velvet curtains type vibes.
If ‘Through Donkey Jaw’ had emerged from one of those times and places, I’d doubtless be hailing it as some kind of haunted, troubling masterpiece, and as such it seems unfair to wallop McMahon with the accusations of pretension and tedium that hang heavy over a record like this, just because he happens to be contemporary, American, and presumably self-conscious in his exploration of these kinda outsider-ish cultural backwaters. And, frustratingly vague as they might initially seem, the pieces here can really get under your skin after a while, filling your room with the kind of rich, smoky fug only found in the very best psychedelia. So light a black candle, smoke something pungent, observe the last glimmers of golden winter light creeping through the blinds, generally GET THE MOOD, and you will find much wordless melancholia, dusty floorboard scrape and translucent Evil Beatles blather here to enjoy.
Soundcloud > Swim Up Behind Me
33. Fungi Girls – Some Easy Magic (HoZac)
Veterans of several singles that I very much enjoyed, Texas teenagers Fungi Girls turn in their first long player, and I’ve very much enjoyed it also. They’re still a weirdly low-key band, their appeal undeniable but at the same time kinda elusive. They still specialise in hiding brilliantly inventive gtr/bass/drums playing and mischievous energy behind somewhat hesitant, disinterested vocal delivery and a particularly morose strain of melodicism. And they still sound like boys who have listened to a lot of good records very, very closely – to the extent that they’ve managed to internalise the essence of what makes them good, rather than simply taking on an urge to copy them.
This subtle but important distinction makes it very difficult to really pin any obvious reference points to Fungi Girls for more than a bar or two before you have to grudgingly admit that actually they’re not really that much like whatever the name that just jumped out at you was - looking back on previous posts, seems I’ve ventured REM, The Feelies, The Clean, 13th Floor Elevators, Strange Boys and The Byrds at one point or another. Of that lot, the only comparison that really holds water is perhaps The Clean, particularly in regard to their early stuff – not because Fungi Girls sound like The Clean on anything like a consistent basis (they’re far more technically proficient and neatly recorded for one thing), but simply because they seem to be coming from a similar place, heading in a similar direction. Both seem wise beyond their years – like the cool, learned kids fading into the background in every photo, with the confidence to know that the path to great rock n’ roll lies not in wearing ridiculous outifts or making a fuss or putting something rude on the front of your record, and to realise that when you’ve got it cookin’ and the instruments are working together free of ego, it doesn’t take much more than a four track and some reverb machines to get you there.
Or maybe they’re not like that at all. I don’t bloody know. I’m just talking through my hat here, trying to fill space writing about some guitar-pop band who have great surfy drumming and neat guitar-playing and sound like they’d be perfectly happy if everybody went away and locked the door to their practice room and left them to it.
There’s a lot of neat stuff on this record. A lot of cool little bits of musical hoo-hah that I really appreciate. Occasionally something will venture above the parapets and knock your block off – the rollicking ‘Safe As Milk’ groove of ‘Doldrums’, the wild fuzz guitar break on ‘Velvet Days’ – but mostly it’s happy just keep it’s head down and enjoy being what it is. Which is: fun, smart, shy and good.
Soundcloud > Doldrums
32. Zombie Zombie – plays John Carpenter (Versatile Records)
Well this was always gonna be a hard one to summon up much of a word count for.
We’re in ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ territory here really: discerning French analogue synth / drums duo explore the back catalogue of The Awesomest Guy in the World (or ‘John Carpenter’, as you might call him in your house), with instant hole in one results.
In fairness to ZZ, they do work hard here to take things in a direction we might not quite have expected whilst still delivering the synth-rocking goods. Whereas they could have just busted through a straight set of Carpenter’s most recognisable themes to the guaranteed adulation of everyone who’d conceivably buy a record like this, instead they open up with a scorching take on “Escape From New York” deep cut ‘The Bank Robbery’, before ploughing through the under-heard theme from the widely derided “Escape From LA”. Next comes the obligatory “Assault on Precinct 13”, and Zombie Zombie will no doubt have irked many purists by really doing a number on the ultra-minimalism of Carpenter’s classic, keeping the unfuckable-with central riff intact, but contaminating the brew with a syncopated live drum track, a euphoric house piano line that rises midway through and – heaven help us – a conga break. Against all the odds, it works pretty well. Next, “Halloween (main theme)” gets a bit of a disco makeover, retaining its essential menace whilst drawing a bead between Carpenter and Detroit techno, and proceedings close with a lengthy take on the Carpenter/Morricone showdown of “The Thing”s main theme, evolving here into a widescreen trance-out of glacial analogue splendour, and (I could be wrong but it sure sounds like) stately sustained tone brass drones.
Bon travail, Zombie Zombie!
Sadly no Coupe de Villes numbers, but aside from that I couldn’t be happier.
Soundcloud > The Bank Robbery (from ‘Escape From New York’)
31. Dignan Porch – Deluded 12” (Captured Tracks)
I’ve really grown to like Dignan Porch. I mean, I liked them from the start, when I heard their superb ‘Tendrils’ LP and assumed they were some mysterioso one/two piece American band from the middle of nowhere. But now that I’ve seen them live a few times, got used to the idea that they are a five person ensemble operating out of Tooting of all places, I like them even better.
This eight song 12” is, I’m assuming, a nice holdover before their proper second LP, and represents what I guess is the first evidence of the group recording as a full band, with drums and keyboard and bass and things backing up main guy Joe Walsh (no, not that Joe Walsh)’s simple, short, revelatory songs and his brother Sam’s politely tangled psychey guitar-work.
It’s a transition that works well.
And, uh, there ya go really. ‘Tendrils’ highlight ‘Like It Was’ is reworked here as ‘Like It Was Again’, clearer lyrics and rhythm section serving to enhance the weirdly anthemic power of the original draft without sacrificing its eerie earworm fascination. ‘Stream’ and ‘Yards’ are great full band originals, nailing yet more otherworldly melodies to generous bursts of the kind of mid-fi fuzz rock exegesis that Dignan can pull off as a live band when they’re on form. ‘I’m A Saint’ meanwhile takes the plunge into full-on psyche, sounding not unlike some faux-folky oddity you might find tucked away on side 2 of a H.P. Lovecraft or Country Joe & The Fish album. ‘I Threw Myself Off Tower Bridge’ heads off in the opposite direction, a straight-up, clean-vocaled tune that would probably have given the game away back when I imagined Dignan Porch came from Indianapolis or somewhere, with a recognisable strain of self-deprecating British indie shining through.
Possessed of one of best gifts for melody currently abroad in indieish-music-world, a welcome taste for thrift and conciseness and a beautiful, home-made bedroom world of psychedelic sound, Dignan Porch are really something. They do a form of music that I really like, and they do it really well. Almost every song on the 12” is flat out brilliant, not a second is wasted, and I am greatly anticipating anything/everything they do in 2012.
Soundcloud > Yards
Friday, December 02, 2011
THE FORTY-TWO BEST RECORDS OF 2011:
Part # 2.
40. No Problem – And Now This (Deranged)
Every year’s best-of list needs an obligatory Canadian punk record, and the appropriately named No Problem dutifully provide, with a no-nonsense burst of heavily ‘Flag-influenced mid-fi hardcore, hitting all the bases you might expect with applaudable vigour.
The band have a sloppy, forward-charging momentum reminiscent of Keith Morris era ‘Flag or early Adolescents (NO SOLOS), but for better or worse their vocalist leans heavy on the Rollins impersonation – altogether too heavily at times, and to be honest I nearly deep-sixed this one straight after he threw in a ‘that’s right!’, an ‘UGH!’, a staged coughing fit and an ‘I…can’t…BREATH’, all in the space of the 1:50 opening track.
Thankfully, subsequent numbers reveal No Problem to be a somewhat more interesting proposition than such po-faced silliness might suggest, adding a welcome dose of self-reflexive humour that makes me suspect that such macho exhortations are at least partly intended as self-parody (cf: the album title), especially once songs like ‘Ghost Car’ and the terrific ‘Spoiled Little Brat’ veer off message into the realms of full-on KBD zaniness. The band’s sound also becomes more opne-minded here and there, incorporating some unexpected touches like the odd four-note lead guitar line thing that glides over the top of ‘Most Days’, that vary the hue of their musclebound attack slightly, giving some tracks a feel akin to Fucked Up circa ‘Hidden World’, an invigorating mixture of raw violence, good ideas and relentless enthusiasm. Not that there’s anything wrong with just plain sounding like Black Flag of course – an ambition they continue to court with at least a certain level of success. After all, anybody coming to a party like this in search of open-minded self-expression is setting themselves up for a letdown.
It’s punk. It’s good. It’ll do. UGH!
Soundcloud > Spoiled Little Brat
39. The Advisory Circle – As The Crow Flies (Ghost Box)
By this point, the ‘hauntology’ aesthetic that Ghostbox helped define should really have jumped the shark - named and defined and discussed and picked over in Cultural Studies journals, we should be sick of this shit – fed up with the easy nostalgic cues, recycled webs of imagery and hints of pagan otherness lurking ‘neath the covers of second hand Penguins.
By rights, the label’s artists should be moving on before things get silly – expanding their operations into less thoroughly explored realms, or else pulling apart the threads of electronic/occult coziness that underlie their work in search of deeper mystery beneath. Or at the very least, dropping the aura of lounge/library politeness and writing some fucking good tunes.
Ironic then that ‘As The Crow Flies’ should find Jon Brooks aka The Advisory Circle digging his heels in, sticking stubbornly to the familiar, and emerging with one of the most enjoyable records on the label to date. From the nod to ‘The Owl Service’ opening titles on the cover art to the well-worn patterns within, this is Ghostbox by numbers really, but served up on this occasion with a solid musical heft and major key melodic inventiveness that makes it hard to resist sinking once again into the familiar idyll of a ‘70s that never was.
Opening – how else? – with BBC news pips and a faux-Orwellian public service announcement, ‘The End of the Beginning’ kicks things off with a convincingly stately fantasia of ‘motivational’ synth lines and hypnotic percussion, reminiscent of Neu!’s ‘Isi’, before the faux-radiophonic nature docu music of ‘Here! In The Wychwoods’ shimmers with a kaleidoscopic grandeur last seen on the best of Boards of Canada’s ‘Geogaddi’. Stranger idylls follow, such as the rolling pastoral love theme of ‘Innocence Elsewhere’, the mildly menacing action movie electro of ‘Modern Through Movement’ (which evolves into something like John Carpenter scoring a new theme for ‘Rainbow’), and the beguiling school hall dance therapy banishing ritual of ‘We Cleanse This Space’.
So far, so ‘YEAH, THAT’S KIND OF EXACTLY WHAT I EXPECTED’, but by this point you’re already hooked on another journey down the Ghostbox rabbithole, and let the zeitgeist shift as it may – the strength of this record makes a good case for this being a consistently rewarding place to be. There are a few missteps along the way – an overreliance of cutesy synth-bliss here and there (a touch more creep in the mix please!), and a misguided step toward vocodered indie-dance-pop falls rather flat on the closing ‘Lonely Signalman’, but by and large ‘As The Crow Flies’ is less the redundant retread we might have feared, instead playing out as a painstakingly realised perfection of this particular form.
Soundcloud> Learning Owl Reappears
38. Fergus & Geronimo – Unlearn (Hardly Art)
Not so much a ‘disappointment’ as a sudden, unexpected left turn, Fergus & Geronimo’s debut LP singularly fails to deliver on the kind of exultant, high energy soul-pop that their superb run of singles had promised, instead shanghaiing us for a trip to altogether choppier, more conceptual musical waters. Fusing disconnected genre pastiche to a series of cynical lyrical diatribes, invigorated by an occasional outburst of salty passion, ‘Unlearn’ is a curious record indeed – weird and offputting to the extent that when the duo do fall back on their talent for Awesome Pop suss, its use seems more assaultive than earnest – killer hooks and heart-on-sleeve vocal delivery used to rub salt into the wound, like hints of the fun we won’t be getting whilst these guys are still pissed off about something.
All of which can be taken as a compliment… kinda. Regardless of what it might not be, ‘Unlearn’ is certainly a pretty intriguing prospect, assembled with a kind of skewed, malign intellect reminiscent of Sparks or John Cale. Branching out in all directions from a straight-forward garage-psych base-camp, ‘Girls With English Accents’ plays as an eerily dead-eyed recreation of ‘Aftermath’-era ‘Stones, whilst vicious anti-music critic rant ‘Wanna Know What I Would Do?’ is one the most evilly catchy tunes you’ll have heard this year, it’s sing-song flute-led melody aimed at staying lodged in your head for weeks, even as the uncompromising venom of the song’s message lunges audaciously toward career suicide. Anti-boomer screed ‘Baby Boomer / Could You Deliver’ and slightly more obtuse anti-yuppie screed ‘Where the Walls are Made of Grass’ both benefit from elaborate baroque-psyche breakdowns that seem to exemplify ‘Unlearn’s focus on detourning traditionally upbeat musical gestures with negative lyrical snark – a tactic that’s in danger of turning terminally sour by the time ‘Forced Aloha’s indie-rock-album-closer sunset drift takes time out to announce that “your life is nothing / but an ugly beach-house fuck”.
This overriding tone of scatter-gun discontent is hammered home to such an extent that reprises of rousing singles cuts ‘Powerful Lovin’’ and ‘Baby Don’t You Cry’ start to sound lost amid the bile – like hugs from someone you suspect is about to switchblade you. Everything comes together nicely though on ‘The World Never Stops’ – an infectious, darkly funny love song, the protagonist reflecting on the inevitable cycle of life & death as he ogles girls – just about the best Sparks hit that Sparks never wrote.
That Fergus & Geronimo have the potential to knock out any number of smart, soulful garage-pop smash hits is clear. That they seem so sick of the contemporary world that they just want to fuck us up instead is kinda understandable. Outsider status firmly established and fair-weather fans dismissed, it’ll be interesting to hear where they head next.
Soundcloud > Wanna Know What I Would Do?
37. Swamp Witch – Gnosis tape (Gay Scientist Recordings)
Oof! Crashing in with the most suffocatingly heavy doom metal tone I’ve heard this year, Swamp Witch are a band whose name say it all really – a blackened, humid haze of grave soil and stagnant bong water, turned pungent and nasty in the Southern heat, like choking to death on Spanish moss. Fun times! Densely atmospheric whilst never losing their foundations as vicious, recognisable heavy rock songs, the three tracks on the A side here pull in all the best bits of extreme doom stalwarts like Moss and Burning Witch, pressing them down into a relatively economical twenty minutes of trudging terror - a thick, psychedelic mix allows for screeds of feedback, distant, mysterious screams and the vocalist’s coruscating black metal roar, but, crucially, the band never let it slide fully into stoned abstraction, keeping the riffs coming, keeping the heads banging in greasy slo-mo. Praise be. Vinnum Sabbathi!
And as if that wasn’t enough clinically depressed heaviosity for you, side B actually calls in one of those ‘Chopped & Skrewed’ stoner hip-hop DJ guys in to rework the same material, further slowing the pace to a sickening, medicated crawl, cranking the bass and swathing the whole deal in digital echo – basically exaggerating all the excesses of this genre to a level of skull-crushing fuckedness - the sound of being hit on the back of the head with a shovel and buried alive in the Everglades. So if you’re the kind of person who needs that in their life right now, you know where to look. YOU WILL NEVER WASH YOUR HAIR AGAIN.
Great sample from Al Adamson’s ‘Satan’s Sadists’ utilised on both sides too. Never gets old.
Soundcloud > Novem
36. Expo 70 – Death Voyage (Dead Pilot)
I’ve checked in from time to time with Justin Wright’s work as Expo 70 over the years, and whilst I’ve always found the music therein to be a pretty enjoyable tribute to the ‘70s heyday of Kosmische/experimental rock, it’s never really managed to make much of an impression on me beyond the level of a well-executed period dress-up. A nice surprise then to cop a listen to ‘Death Voyage’ and discover that Expo 70 has been forging on ahead into some darker, murkier and altogether more compelling territory of late, here presenting a series of lengthy, drone-based tracks (I know, who’da thought it?) that immediately put me in mind of a soundtrack to some non-existent cosmic horror movie about an experimental submarine expedition, voyaging to uncharted depths in a pitch-black oceanic trough, uncovering vast chthonic ruins of unknown origin and… who knows what else, lurking out in the darkness?
But maybe that’s just me.
I wouldn’t count on it though, as ‘Death Voyage’ is certainly a carefully sequenced record, swinging about as close to establishing a ‘narrative arc’ as an instrumental drone-rock album conceivably can, creating a dense, atmospherically consistent cycle of tracks that builds in intensity throughout.
Second track ‘Silent Watcher’ is particularly good, with rampantly phased synths sounding out like malfunctioning sonars, working an uneasy stand-off with sketchy, post-rock style guitar aggrepios to establish a mood of oppressive, monolithic dread that sets the tone for everything that follows. ‘Metensomatosis’ and ‘Travelling Circular Labyrinths’ up the ante, working with layers of tape-mangled Frippertronic doom guitar, gradually building to an eviscerating celestial din the recalls the work of Birchville Cat Motel’s Campbell Kneale (no small boast). By this point all bets for survival are off, allowing the record to boil over into the epic brownout of ‘Summoning Recapitulation Upon The Pyramid Temple’, as the lights goes out, water floods the hold and human life seems a very long way away indeed.
A brilliantly effective, reassuringly crushing take on the ‘one man drone-rock odyssey’ formula, ‘Death Voyage’ completely flips my take on Wright’s work. Awesome in the sense that it instigates awe, it sees him confidently stepping into the gnarly shoes of his inspirations rather than just paying gentle homage from afar.
Soundcloud > Silent Watcher
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