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...featuring 737 albums from 1965 to 2008. Leaning towards the progressive, electronic, ambient, alternative, post rock, and generally arty... but anything that's good is considered!
On Monday (13 April) a sold-out Junction hosted a thrilling concert by Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, promoting her second album "Two Suns". She is getting more and more praise for her heartfelt songwriting, exotic productions and plain great tunes, which build on influences such as Kate Bush and Björk in a pleasingly non-cloney way, and this gig confirmed the praise is deserved. The stage was set with curtains of glitter and cute props, including a scarlet lampshade on stockinged legs, china Jesuses and a couple of life sized model deer. An elegant fur-ruffed Khan then emerged to perform the propulsive album opener "Glass". With a minimum of theatricals and banter, her diverse and colourful music spoke for itself, and her strong and ever more versatile voice sustained well over the set. A supporting band of three or four players swapped an array of distinctive instruments, most notably drummer Sarah Jones who provided a vital pulse for Khan's tribally percussionistic arrangements.
Nearly all of "Two Suns" was played, omitting only the duet with Scott Walker. The stylistic whirl included electronic pop songs of joy ("Sleep Alone", "Pearl's Dream"), Tori Amos-like piano ballads ("Moon and Moon"), powerful confessionals ("Siren Song") danceable exotica ("Two Planets") and surreal miniatures ("Horse and I"). The first album was represented best by the darkly nuanced "Sarah" and "What's a Girl to Do". An excitable audience demanded a second encore, which comprised current single "Daniel" played in its full synth-pop glory, after having been played earlier in a stripped-down version.
Kudos also to support act School of Seven Bells, who play a very seductive dream-pop / electronic / prog / krautrock mix that I'm certainly going to enjoy more of.
Oh dear. Those high ideals to keep this blog updated every couple of weeks got swept away by the general passage of life. But better a few months later than never.
It's rather lethargic to do an annual roundup in February, but I concluded that the best new music of 2008 was probably something I haven't heard yet. I heard a lot of very good stuff last year, though nothing really outstanding, and a lot of rather disappointing albums by old favourites. In the end, for my new album of the year, there wasn't much to choose between M83, Portishead, the amiable vocal harmonies of Fleet Foxes, and maybe also Mercury Rev's dreamy and lovingly-produced return to form Snowflake Midnight.
What else has given me musical joy in the wintry months? I still think some of the most inventive and interesting sounds are being made in electronic music , and I'm only really catching up with everything that's happened in the last 10-15 years. Biosphere's Substrata, for instance, how did I miss that gripping Arctic ambient classic? A lot of quality bleeps have been emitted from Germany in recent years - Apparat, Ellen Allien, Monolake, and, most excitingly, The Field's pure and pulsing From Here We Go Sublime. Much further west, from Mexico, Murcof's Martes weaves electronics with classical orchestra in the most natural and warm way.
Indie rock keeps me happy as usual, and lately I've been enveloped in shoegazers Deerhunter's strongest album to date, Microcastle, and seduced by the wintry melancholy of Bon Iver. But most distractingly, I've got back into jazz again. The luxurious ECM label started selling their refined wares very cheaply on my dealer of choice eMusic, so I have overindulged somewhat on the very indulgent pianist Keith Jarrett. His solo improvised concerts are sublime at their peak (Vienna, La Scala), and his overall catalogue is intimidatingly diverse. I've also been exploring all those classics by John Coltrane, Miles Davis et al., like a wide eyed tourist, though I still don't feel knowledgeable enough to write in detail about jazz.
What of the future? I resolved in 2009 to listen to more music. With the emphasis on the listen. I mean, actually pay attention to what goes on the stereo, instead of treating it as background wallpaper to accompany vacuous internet browsing. At the moment, I'm loving Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion - I haven't been hit that hard, that instantly, by a new album for a while. Exuberant, fantastic tunes and not a moment where there isn't several ear-tinglingly experimental things going on. More like that, please, and it will be a great year for music.
Two years since the death of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, a tribute festival, The City Wakes, is currently taking place in Cambridge, the town where he was born and eventually retired to. A centrepiece of this event is a concert directed by general musical all-rounder Simon Gunton, featuring a band of 10-20 musicians giving colourful interpretations of Syd's songs. It plays for four nights in the atmospheric surroundings of St Paul's Church, and one night in the even grander Trinity Chapel. I went along to St Paul's last night to hear it, a few minutes' walk from my house, free from preconceptions.
As the light-projected oil bubbles squirmed prettily over the walls, strains of Pink Floyd's space-rock anthem "Astronomy Domine" began to seep through, before the band came on and launched into their straight-ahead version of the song. Throughout most of the concert, a yellow-shirted Gunton bounced around at the front, playing a role somewhere between a conductor and a dancer. I'm sure the band could have kept time without his antics, but his presence enhanced the show at key points, like the cymbal crashes at the climax of "Astronomy Domine". The band included at least three singers, drums, several percussionists, bass, guitar, trumpet, piano and the occasional oboe, harp and other splashes of colour. R+B singer Tor added an exciting touch to several of the songs, extemporising on the lyrics with virtuosic rapping.
Syd's songs were performed spiritedly and successfully. In the introduction to each song we wondered "what's this one going to be", and were usually surprised as the first words were sung. "Terrapin"'s already bluesy mood was made pleasingly heavier and dirtier. This song has one of my favourite Syd lyrics, "well oh baby my hair's on end about you". And "The Scarecrow" was presented, naturally, as a fluffy pastoral ballad with oboe and piano. With the interpretations of a couple of his more obscure and disturbing songs, we could speculate what Syd might have made of these fragmented ideas if he'd been in full health. "Maisie" built up a dark gothic atmosphere with a theatrical crescendo, and "Dominoes" was interpreted in downtempo jazz style as a slice of urban melancholy.
But one song which fell flat was "Jugband Blues", Syd's final recording with Pink Floyd. Here they got too carried away with the event's spirit of fun, and transformed it into a gormless sunny calypso. It was totally inappropriate for the one moment where Syd wrote with real lucidity about his own developing mental illness, and really shouldn't have been messed with.
The theatrical centrepiece of the show was Syd's exuberantly surreal "Octopus" / "Clowns and Jugglers", rendered as a grand circus march, with the band introduced as circus performers. Scraps of actual Pink Floyd pieces played over the PA kept the audience's attention while the musicians rearranged themselves offstage. The two Sydless Floyd tracks the band chose to play were "Brain Damage" (note the festival is in aid of mental health charities) and a rather beautiful rendition of "High Hopes", probably included because it alludes to Cambridge. They returned quickly to Syd's material, and a silly chorus of miaowing introduced a darkly gripping rock performance of "Lucifer Sam", one of the strongest tunes from "Piper". "Arnold Layne" worked surprisingly well as a propulsive dance track peppered with staring-eyed lunacy. Though I wasn't sure what they were doing with "See Emily Play". As the theme song of 1967 psychedelia, the band's elaborations seemed self-indulgent, and I'd have preferred a more straight-ahead approach.
Three bicycles were then placed on the stage (we're in Cambridge you know) for the whirling finale "Bike", which leapt frenetically between nursery rhyme inspiration and dazzling psychedelia. I'd never noticed this song has a ska rhythm - it wouldn't sound too strange sung by the Specials or Madness! Gunton's children's TV presenter-ish attempts to make the audience dance here and for the encore ("Astronomy Domine" again) fell a bit flat. But it was a fitting final tribute to a local hero whose period of great creativity was all too short.
Having said that, if you're in town then pop along to the exhibition of Syd's art - he'd been painting all his life, right up to his death two years ago. There's the odd bit of random splish-sploshery, but he was a pretty decent artist.
Along with Eluvium, Stars of the Lid (Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie) have produced the best consistently good warm ambient music of the current generation. Their music is based on manipulating a multitude of soft organic sounds in equally many ways. Brian Eno's much-cited recommendation for the ambient genre suggested it should be as ignorable as it is interesting, and they balance these qualities as delicately as anyone I've heard. With their music proceeding at a patiently slow pace, with melodies only existing as little repeated fragments, Stars of the Lid are easy to enjoy semi-consciously. But it's only minimal on the surface, and listening closely exposes their admirably subtle sense of timing, and allows you to luxuriate in their lovingly-shaped string, guitar, piano and other samples. They avoid synthesizers, instead using electronics to shape "real" acoustic instrument sounds. This is a key ingredient in their success at remaining serious sound artists rather than vacuous chill-out or space-music proponents.
Stars of the Lid must be one of the very few bands for whom the clichéd interview question "where did your name come from?" is actually helpful in appreciating their music. The lid is the eyelid, and the stars feature on the screen you see with closed eyes. But the same can't always be said of their song titles, e.g. the last track of this!
Apart from the three albums featured below, also recommended are Adam Wiltzie's The Dead Texan multimedia project (a good accessible introduction to their sound) and Brian McBride's dreamy solo album.
Stars of the Lid - Gravitational Pull Vs. The Desire For an Aquatic Life (1996)
Stars of the Lid's second album asserted their status as current masters of minimal ambient texture. Here they create beds of slowly-shifting drones from guitars and strings processed into oblivion. The result is absorbing, while subtle enough to allow itself to drift in and out of perception. ...Read more
Stars of the Lid - The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001)
Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride's most definitive work is this ambitious double album of warm ambient music. While the title and genre suggests functional sleep-inducement, putting this album on in the background misses the delights of its careful and subtle construction. With real-instrument samples smoothed beyond recognition, they explore the possibilities of sound textures, slow pacing and timing....Read more
Stars of the Lid - Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline (2007)
With this equally monumental follow-up to their revered "Tired Sounds" album I think I've worked out how Stars of the Lid distinguish themselves from other ambient artists. They're catchy. No, really. OK, you don't go "You remember that bit where a sample of 4 cellos is crossfaded with white noise for 4.6 seconds?", but you recognise it every time. Each of the album's eighteen pieces does something different, and memorable in its own way...Read more
In an slightly delayed attempt to keep this blog in touch with current happenings, I note that the Mercury Prize, or whatever it's called these days, happened last week. I've always approved of this award. Yes, it firmly occupies the middlebrow, Guardian-reader territory of music criticism, but by and large it's highlighted quality instead of big-label money and pop loudmouthery. And it gets people talking about what matters - good music. Like any award, don't take it too seriously. The winner is arbitrary and doesn't mean much - for every M People or Gomez there's been a Portishead and a Pulp, and you can take the shortlist as a reasonable cross-section of the good stuff that appeared in a particular year. It gets some stick for its token inclusion of jazz, folk and classical nominees, but this is probably a necessary evil. While apples can't be compared to oranges, it's worth knowing the best apples and the best oranges, and people sometimes need to be nudged towards diversity.
I've huge respect for this year's winners Elbow. For once the judges (perhaps being predictably unpredictable) have chosen seasoned songcrafters over trendy scenesters. I wrote briefly about the winning album here, and, though it doesn't deeply affect me, I do admire it. Below are reviews of the other albums from the shortlist I own - I'm fairly certain my pick would have been Radiohead (the Martin Scorsese of the Mercury prize). I also have and enjoy the Portico Quartet album. Understated, tuneful jazz. They play an unusual instrument called a hang which is like a little steel drum - they use it like similar combos might use a vibraphone. I would write more, but I have a mental block about reviewing jazz, and it would have taken this entry behond the de-facto three-review limit.
Very casual impressions of the rest of the shortlist? I do like the jazzier moments of Adele's 19 but her poppier songs are too wallpapery. Laura Marling does nice singer-songwritery stuff, pleasant but hard to grasp anything to really draw me in on first listen, maybe it needs time. Similarly with Estelle, decent hip-hop, but I'd rather M. I. A.'s Kala was on the list. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss? Has its moments, but a bit on the trad-country side for me. More immediately interesting is the colourfully-arranged Geordie folk of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Two more slots are taken by intriguing singer/producer collaborations. Neon Neon's Stainless Style is a concept album in a lovingly authentic 80s style, with the guy from Super Furry Animals - sounds great though I've had a fair amount of this style already this year from M83. The Last Shadow Puppets feature the chap from Arctic Monkeys doing Scott Walker style orchestral pop - I can certainly live with that.
Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)
Sometimes I get asked "what sort of music do you like then?" I usually pull a face and mumble some vague cliché about having diverse taste or liking "anything that's good". But I'm seriously considering preparing a stock answer which casually mentions Radiohead. Because I can think of no better example of a contemporary band who practically everyone has heard of, and embody so many of the things I like in music. ...Read more
Burial - Untrue (2007)
I'm a city-dweller at heart. I do moan about noise, pollution and overcrowding, but it takes great music to really make me appreciate the beauty of those peculiar human colonies. In-ear headphones on a tube train might isolate me in a world of my own, but music such as London producer Burial's first two albums still makes me feel like I belong among the lights and bustle. ...Read more
British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music? (2008)
The Mercury judges' pick of the best straight-ahead indie rock from the past year was the third album by British Sea Power, who burst onto the scene a few years ago with the exciting "Decline of British Sea Power". Here they've puffed up their sound, with mixed success. ...Read more
The Dead Texan - The Dead Texan | Brian McBride - When the Detail Lost its Freedom | MONO & World's End Girlfriend - Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain | Tarentel - From Bone To Satellite | Yndi Halda - Enjoy Eternal Bliss | Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band - 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons | The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band - Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward | Thee Silver Mountain Reveries - The "Pretty Little Lightning Paw" EP | M83 - Digital Shades | Protogonos - Strange Geographie