Tuesday, 6 September 2011

33. My Bloody Valentine - Loveless

Now this is a bit of a cheat because as a floppy-fringed, indie guitar loser boy, of course I've heard Loveless before, but not for years. And going back to it a couple of days ago was a strange experience, it was like hearing it for the first time, hearing it for it really was, after all the hype and nonsense which surrounded the album on its release had disappeared. I was sent to the album after listening to Pure X, when I was left hankering for more twisting and chopping guitars, more buried vocals. What I hadn't realised before is that Loveless is in fact a pop album, pure pop. When Loveless came out at the time it was often described with words such as: experimental, dense, impenetrable, cacophony, and for me back then, a 14 year old from a small town, a half-hour bus journey away from the town with a decent record shop, where you would still be lucky to find a solitary copy of Loveless amongst the latest albums by Marillion and Motley Crue, those words made a lot of sense. At the time I admired the album, perhaps because I was told I should by the tastemakers, but I couldn't love it. But listening to it now all I can hear is huge catchy riffs, massive hooks, and pop song after pop song. That's not to play down its adventurousness - nobody's guitars sound like the churning, seesawing, fuzz and roar of My Bloody Valentine's guitars, and of course it's a world away from the trudging rock bores it was competing with at the time, and whilst I have a huge soft spot for the bands who eventually followed in their wake, bands like Slowdive and Chapterhouse, they barely touched the surface of what MBV achieved here. But whilst MBV might be out there on their own with their textures and sounds, there isn't one song on Loveless that isn't anchored firmly to the floor by a massive tune. Of course you can't hear the words, but this isn't Waits, Dylan or Cohen, you don't listen to MBV for words, you listen for the sounds, and after a few listens you realise Loveless is a drugged, majestic, unhinged version of Bananarama's greatest hits. Which is the highest praise possible, of course.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

32. Kasabian - Empire

All quotes below are lifted from the recent Observer interview with Kasabian. It gives you more an understanding of their music than my writing ever could.

Lead singer Tom Meighan is in WH Smith, stockpiling Monster Munch and Capri-Sun against any unknown European food the band might be served on their two-day round trip.

Meighan spots the band's security man, Marty Farrow, wedged into a seat nearby, and shouts at plane-silencing volume: "Got any porn mags, Marty? Hey, Marty, did you bring any of them Mayfairs?"

We're pondering the legality of the war in Iraq when the shout comes again – "Golds!" – and Meighan makes his clattering entry from the upper deck. He rushes through, wrenches open the door to the driver's cabin, and disappears. I can hear the murmur of urgent discussion within, and then the bus begins to slow, to enter a service station. I ask what Meighan was shouting. "Golds," sighs Farrow. "It's his word for McDonald's. He can spot them from miles off, those golden arches."

Where are they going?" He has seen the rest of the band, boarding the tour bus. "Going to get a Ginsters, y'think? Shall we go and get a Ginsters, mate? Actually, that's not a bad shout, is it, a Ginsters? Seriously, that's not a bad shout."

"Has anyone seen my Danny Dyer book?" asks Meighan

Friday, 2 September 2011

31. Kasabian - West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Cold. Grease. Slow-witted. Lonely. Kasabian. Overdrawn. Blackpool. Alienated. Rising damp. Infection. Bored. Tired. Rival football fans in same train carriage. Football fans. Football message boards. Football. Kasabian. Disenfranchised. Gastroenteritis. Gas leak. Broken Britain. Senseless death. Cold chicken skin. Negative Equity. Lump. Grey. The Bigg Market. Kasabian. 2 Meals for £5. Panic attacks. Super morbidly obese. Underclass. Illness. Broken heart. Scared. Kasabian. The Trafford Centre. Darkness. Black eye. Mould. Kasabian.

Friday, 19 August 2011

30. Pure X - Pleasure

Remember indie music? Not the shiny britpop bullshit of 'Alright guvnor how's yer tin pan alley' bollocks, but the stuff from before, the proper indie, when 'indie' meant 'independent', not a Paul Weller haircut and a new pair of converse. When a cover of the NME or Melody Maker didn't send you to the top of the charts but guaranteed seventeen paying punters when you played The Falcon. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I'm talking about The Good Old Days, when guitars drowned out vocals and it was for the best because the singer couldn't really sing anyway. And who wants a singer who can sing? That way leads to Mick Hucknall, Celine Dion and eventually Leona Lewis (not to mention Fleet bastard can we fit another harmony in here Foxes). I'm talking about music that was recorded for seventy five quid in the back of a laundrette, and sounded like it, but simultaneously filled your pathetic, moping teenage heart until it almost burst. Dirty, scruffy, romantic music that didn't ever think about its midweek chart position because that could never happen to an indie band. In fact, it so obviously couldn't happen, indie music had its own chart. I remember getting a lift off my cousin when I was sixteen, and he told me his mate was in a band and their ep had gone into the indie charts at number seven. That to me then, and if I'm honest, even now a little bit, seemed the most extraordinary thing that could ever happen to a man. Fuck walking on the moon, if I was ever in a band that debuted at number seven in the indie charts my life would surely be complete for ever.

I mean this from the bottom of my massively impressed sixteen year old heart - Pure X sound like they would debut at number seven in the indie charts. Scruffy, fuzzy, sweet and sometimes angry guitars roam, vocals are buried in there somewhere, wrapped in reverb, the words hidden amongst the noise, drums lazily thump, just about in time, and a rumbling bass spills out of a distorting amp. To be specific they sound like a cross between The Jesus and Mary Chain and Mazzy Star, the perfect down-at-heel indie guitar band then. They don't do anything as uncouth as writing tunes as such, they're too good/cool for that, leave that to the chart wannabes, but clearly a lot of care has gone into the recording of the album. The guitaring particularly is wonderful - at times dopey and docile and then a sudden switch, and it feels like someone is poking your brain with a knitting needle. If you want an instant pop hit you will have to look elsewhere, but if you want an album that a 1992 Melody Maker review would probably call: dreamy and dozily hypnotic - it will stone you to your soul - this is the album for you.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

29. Fionn Regan - 100 Acres Of Sycamore

The mop-topped Irish vagabond Fionn Regan is back and there is quite a tale to be told in the history behind this album. Regan's debut, The End of History, came out on Bella Union in 2006, was critically heralded all over the place and nominated for a Mercury. He then signed to Lost Highway Records in America and recorded an album with Ethan Johns, famous for producing Ryan Adams amongst other people, but that album was rejected by the label. Regan flew back to Ireland and quickly recorded the rockier, electric-Dylanesque Shadow Of An Empire, an album which sounded the polar opposite of his delicate debut. This album whilst again critically well received, didn't seem to connect with his fans, and although I don't have the sales figures in front of me, I suspect it didn't perform half as well as his debut. Which, only sixteen months later, brings us to his third album, 100 Acres of Sycamore, and a return to the intimate sound and fingerpicked acoustic guitars of his first album. Now there are two ways of looking at this: the cynical view is that Regan realised his last album turned a lot of fans off so he intentionally returned to the sounds that made his debut popular, the more positive take is that he is a man who records what he wants when he wants, and this album reflects where he is at the moment. And regardless of all that, is it actually any good? And that's the tricky thing - it is, but it also manages to disappoint.

To get the criticism out of the way first - the album is very similarly paced throughout. Slow, acoustic song follows slow acoustic song, the tone varies very little. It doesn't have the playfulness of his debut, nor the energy or attitude of Shadow. And whilst on both previous albums there were stand out songs, songs that immediately lodged themselves in the songbank of your brain, nothing here leaps out, knocks you to the ground and shoves its tongue down your throat. Which is a bad thing, obviously.

But it's still an intriguing listen, and more often than not it is the lyrics which pull you in. Regan's always been a man in love with words and where many songwriters seem more interested in the music and throw any rhyming couplets on top of their chords (I'm looking at you Gallagher, both of you), Regan has always taken delight in the words. The album opens with the sinister lines:

We'll go knuckle to knuckle,
and buckle against buckle,
your nostrils will flair,
as you push out the air,
rise up, brother, rise up,
rise up from the trappings of flesh and the holdings of skin,
We'll steer car towards the reservoir,
and poison our senses as nightfall commences...

So where the music might occasionally be your usual finger-picked, string-drenched, songwriter stuff, you can usually guarantee that Regan will be dropping an interesting tale in there, giving something for your ears and brain to lose themselves in, but, on initial listens at least, the tunes themselves aren't ones which will lodge in your head. But I will keep listening to see if he ever quite fulfills the promise suggested on his debut album, and even when he's not quite getting there he's still more interesting than most other singer songwriters.

And to finish, just for fun, please let me let me quote from the Guardian review of the album:

'Regan's guitar a moonlit stream weaving through a forest of glimmering piano and velvety strings.'

They mean he fingerpicks his guitar over a piano and string backing...

Monday, 15 August 2011

28. Drugstore - Anatomy

In this age of full disclosure I will be upfront. A few months ago Isabel Monteiro (Drugstore singer, songwriter and chief) set up a Pledge account to help fund the recording of a new album and I pledged a tiny, tiny bit of cash because I have a long history of fandom with this band. I can't claim credit for this good taste, it comes from my girlfriend. When we first got together she was regularly playing Drugstore's first album and we have followed them ever since, seeing them at various venues from York to London. Now brace yourself for a sad story. At a Christmas gig at The Garage (I think), in 2002 (maybe), in London (pretty sure about that), the band were running a raffle and my girlfriend, let's call her Anne, bought a few tickets. After a fantastic gig Ms. Monteiro announced the winners and if she called out your number you had to go up to the stage to collect your prize. I noticed Anne looking panicky as one number was repeatedly read out. I grabbed the ticket off her to see that it was her number, but it was too late, Isabel had moved on to a new number. Anne was desperate to win the prize but she'd been too shy to walk up to the stage to claim it. Why didn't she hand the ticket to me?! I know! At a later gig I managed to snaffle a handwritten set list to try and make up for it. We still have the set list, and one day will get it framed and up on the wall. All this is a long way of saying I bring baggage to this review and was very sad when the band disappeared after their 2001 album Songs For The Jet Set. That was ten years ago, and there is quite a story contained within those ten, seemingly lost years, which you can read about here.

To the album. It's always an exciting yet scary moment when a much loved artist returns - what if it's shit? What if it had been better if they hadn't bothered? There are plenty of reunions which reek of cashing in and which leave nobody convinced. Well, you can't accuse Drugstore of doing this for the cash, they've had to raise the money just to record, and thankfully, the music is beautiful. Call it alt. country or hushed, confessional pop, call it whatever you want, it's a brilliant piece of work. You may think that a band who have been away for a decade would want to kick the door in on their return, but Drugstore have gone the other way. This album creeps in and keeps creeping pretty much until the last song. This is battered, bruised, broken and then rebuilt and defiant Drugstore. And whilst the album is wonderfully recorded and produced you can thankfully still hear the intimacy of the early scruffy demos Isabel began to post online a couple of years ago, when she first began to toy with the idea of some sort of return. So it may be quiet, and at times defeated, but that it exists at all is a testimony to the strength of human spirit, the creative spirit. 'Life can break your heart, but it can make you great' she sings on Falling Rocks and I think that just about sums up the story behind this wonderful album.

Oh, and if they need to, the band should set up a Pledge account so the label can afford to nominate Anatomy for a Mercury next year (I think it's quite expensive to nominate, but I could have invented that). That would be the perfect end to this story.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

27. The Horrors - Skying

At least when Viva Brother swagger along, gurning away in their slightly slow, inane, manner you get to your swing arm, tighten your fist. Whereas what is there to say about The Horrors' album? By the fourth, or maybe it's the fifth song, it's hard to keep track, you find yourself wondering if ITV3 are showing any Taggart (Can't believe they axed Taggart).

There's a lot of talk about how The Horrors sound like other bands with this release, mainly Simple Minds and other eighties culprits, but that's not the problem, loads of bands steal from/sound like other acts. But it is a problem that they don't sound like themselves. When Suede referenced Bowie they sounded like a band acknowledging a Bowie fascination, when Teenage Fanclub jangled and swooned like Big Star, they sounded like the perfectly formed sunkissed Scottish pop band they were in their hearts. With The Horrors it's like they've collected a bunch of sounds and kicked them into their songs, which are, sadly, as unremarkable as the sounds they've plundered. Not even disappointing, just, you know... Oooooh look, Taggart is on!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

26. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

Bill Callahan sounds like a man who's seen things. A dead horse on a highway. A trailer park fire in Wyoming. A man shot in the leg over a woman. You know, that sort of thing. He also sounds like the kind of man who would get dumped by a woman, not say a word to anyone, and then five years later write an album about it. A real man, if you like. He does, occasionally, give off the air of being a serial killer, but we'll let that go because of the voice. I knew that a lot of his earlier records as Smog were lo-fi and self recorded, so I presumed that he would be a wobbly, half-singer like Mark Linkous or Stephen Malkmus (both of who are great singers in their own way). I assumed he was a shy indie kid, hiding his voice behind scruffy attitude. So when the beautiful, restrained, Jim Cain crept out of the speakers and his voice hit, singing the lines: I started off in search of ordinary things, How much of a tree bends in the wind, it fairly knocked me sideways. Here was this deep, resonant voice, singing a gorgeously produced, stately song. It didn't sound like the king of lo-fi at all, it wasn't what I expected, which is a good thing. It's good to be surprised by music, it keeps you on your toes, stops you making stupid presumptions drawn from articles read in Melody Maker sixteen years ago. God I miss Melody Maker...

What sets Callahan apart from many singer-songwriters is his restraint. He writes wonderfully direct songs, but even at the most intimate moments you feel he is keeping the listener at bay a little. There is a real mystery within these songs, a distance in the delivery. And without wanting to sound like an old bastard, it makes a refreshing change in these days, when we share almost everything with anyone, it sets him apart. You get the feeling he has to write and record these songs, but does he actually want to? I'm not so sure.

I have to mention the production. How can a man who has sold as few records as Bill Callahan record such an expensive sounding album? Particularly in an age where nobody pays for music. Who paid to record this album? Well, I'm grateful that they did. And hope they keep coughing up the cash so we get more music like this.

Friday, 29 July 2011

25. Viva Brother - Famous First Words

This is abysmal. It makes Beady Eye sound like My Bloody Valentine. It makes me puke up the soles of my feet.

So that's the review sorted then. But then the devil on my shoulder began whispering in my ear. It's such a terrible record, it's an open goal, and many people will be saying the same thing in newspapers, magazines, websites, in tweets. Jesus, people will be stopping strangers in the street to tell them how bad this album is. So why not go the other way? Why not try to defend it? Look for a single positive and take it from there. They're just four lads, it's just an indie pop album made by not very bright people, don't let it get to you... But no, because (pomposity warning) music is important. It can be joyful, beautiful, angry, funny. It can make you think, it can make you dance like a motherfucker, cry like a drain. It can change people's lives, it might even, sometimes, occasionally save lives. In short, it's too important to let people get away with crap like this.

Think about that moment when a band goes into a studio and the tapes are still clean (it's an analogue studio), not a note recorded. Think of all the things they could put onto the tape, the instruments, the imagination they could use. The possibilities are endless. Anything can be done. And think about what has been done. To name a few: Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Prince, Public Enemy, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, the Milltown Brothers. Of course, not everyone has the divine talent of these artists, and it would be unfair to approach every album with expectations of greatness, but everyone can try, everyone can show a tiny bit of ambition can't they? Well, apparently not. Which brings us to Viva Brother.

Imagine the dullest, ploddiest, least imaginative, stupidest of the britpop bands. Now put them in a blender. That feels good doesn't it? Really squash those bastards in there. Hang on Heavy Stereo, where the fuck do you think you're going? Get in the blender! Turn the setting to 'dismal' and plug in. Pour the sludge created into your stereo/computer/ipod. Press play. The sound coming out, that's Viva Brother. It's weedy, wet, drab, and cold. Every song is worse than Digsy's Dinner. In interviews they've claimed to have written the best songs of the last 20 years. They haven't written the best songs of the last 20 minutes.

Now for some good news. You are not the A&R person who signed this lot. Unless you are, and then I don't have the words for you. But the good news for the rest of us is that no matter how much our lives crash and burn, even if we find ourselves with liver failure, begging outside an arcade on the front at Blackpool on a freezing Friday night with drunken stags throwing cold bits of half-chewed kebab meat at our head - just remember, we didn't sign Viva Brother. WE WILL NEVER BE THE PERSON WHO SIGNED VIVA BROTHER. There will always be that.

But this will not do. This will not do at all.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

24. Katy Perry - Teenage Dream

When she sings 'melt your popsicle' she doesn't mean 'popsicle' she means 'dick'. Get over it, christians can use dirty metaphor.

Katy sometimes makes what can only be described as 'sex noises'. Get over it, christians can make sex noises.

Occasionally she sounds like a non-vocodered Cher. This is not a criticism. This observation has nothing to do with religion.

There are some really big, catchy pop songs on the album. Again, this observation has nothing to do with religion.

When she, repeatedly, sings, 'I wanna see you peacock, cock, cock, cock, I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock, cock', she doesn't mean 'peacock' at all, she just means 'cock'. She does mean she wants to see it. I've done some research and apparently christians can look at cocks, and sing about them, they just can't touch them, so she's still ok.

Shit. Oh, no. Well, the thing is, I've done some research and according to the Book of Revelations, chapter 3, verse 17, it's forbidden for christians to squirt cans of whipped cream from their tits. So, sadly, she is going to hell.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

23. King Creosote and Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine

Just so we know who we are talking about, King Creosote is Kenny Anderson, a singer-songwriter from Fife. He has released around forty albums to date, some with record labels, many self-released, and is a founding member of the Fence Collective. Jon Hopkins is a musician and producer, more commonly associated with dance and electronica, although he has worked on many albums including Coldplay's Viva La Vida... and yeah, that's about it.

'I wanted to really make the point that this is an album that is in no rush to grab you and force traditionally structured songs up your arse' says Hopkins of this album, which immediately got me interested, although, to be fair, there is very little experimental about the record. True, the songs and performances aren't showy, everything about the record is slight, but really it is a traditional singer-songwriter album with some interesting production applied to it. Anyway, that out of the way, it is still pretty fantastic.

It begins with chitter chatter taped from a Scottish cafe before mournful piano chords ring out, which, eventually segue into John Taylor's Month Away, what you would call the first 'proper' song. But that is the wrong way to approach this record. The album is made up of tiny moments of revelation, it lulls and pulls you through from beginning to end, and to skip any tracks, any of its carefully constructed pieces ruins the flow, and with the whole album finishing in under thirty minutes, even the most high-powered, brylcreemed executive can surely spare the time? They would find their day better for it.

Anderson calls the album, 'a soundtrack to a romanticised version of a life lived in a Scottish Coastal Village' which, depending on what you want from an album, will either sound fascinating or a load of boring old bollocks. I loved it and am delighted it won a Mercury nomination.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

22. Gillian Welch - Time (The Revelator)

There has been a brief break, apologies (like you noticed). We've had builders in for three days knocking the crap out of everything. 'Can you be careful with those wires?' I asked, nodding to the wires which get me online. 'Of course mate.' An hour later said wires were disconnected and dangling, seemingly severed. Plus it's hard to listen to and concentrate on new music when Key 103 is blasting out from the kitchen and three lads are trying to harmonise along with An Eternal Flame. It was quite touching actually. But I'm glad they're gone. Oh well, to the review.

Male video director to modern female recording artist: 'You know on the line you sing 'I do what I want when I want, and it's all on my terms too'? Can you hitch your tiny skirt up just another inch and bend over a little more to really emphasise how in control you are?'

Oooohhh, the evils of the recording industry! Of course there are many female artists who won't have anything to do with the above scenario. Thank fuck. And one of those is Gillian Welch, although I am a little disappointed with the amount of ankle on display on the cover. Anyway, all primary school girls should be given a Gillian Welch album. They might hate it at the time but at least they will learn the lesson that you don't have have to wear tiny skirts show your tits and shake your ass. If you want to, if that's where your artistic ambition lies, then knock yourself out, but hopefully they may realise that writing a scorched, hushed, mysterious, heart-breakingly beautiful fourteen minute song called, I Dreamed a Highway, which includes religous imagery, folklore, myth, country and western musical history, and god knows what else, is also an option. A truly great song.

The album is only acoustic guitar and vocals, with the odd pluck of a banjo here and there. The man playing the guitar is called David Rawlings, and without wanting to sound like a hairy dude from Total Guitar, but, shit, can he play. Not in a lots of notes really fast kind of way, or a did you hear that tricky chord change? kind of way, but in a perfect notes for the song he's playing on way. A bit like Neil Young I suppose.

There are nine songs on this record, forty five minutes of spirited Americana. Nine brutally brilliant songs and she doesn't flash her tits once.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

21. Beady Eye - Different Gear, Still Speeding

I'm aware I've been neglecting white boys with guitars so, to redress the balance, let's have a look at Beady Eye. Now, you probably don't keep your ear to the musical ground quite as much as I do, so let me fill you in. Noel walked out of Oasis. I know! The rest of Oasis changed their name to Beady Eye and Different Gear, Still Speeding is their debut album. And that's about it, but with a bit more venom and fashion range launching in between.

Before the kicking comes, let me tell you that I wanted to like this. Really, honestly, wanted to like it. As a teenager I endured an hour and half bus journey through the grimiest northern towns (it's ok, I'm from the north) on a wet day, to Manchester, all because I wanted to buy Live Forever in Oasis's home town. And whilst the debut album Definitely Maybe wasn't all that great in the end, it did contain Slide Away perhaps their best song, a song that almost justified they hype. And Liam has always been a brilliant pop star, funny, menacing and cool. That's all I have sadly because this album stinks. It didn't start too badly, Bring The Light was released to radio stations to preview the album, and it was pretty good. Not amazing at all, but it had the energy lacking from the last few lumbering Oasis albums, and it was fun, it had spirit, maybe something was going on here. Sadly not. The rest of the album sounds like it could have been written by Noel. Plodding, meaningless, dreary rock songs. The question you have to ask is 'Do they not like music anymore? Have they broken their ears?' This is Millionaire. Please listen to it. This was a single. A single. Andy Murray wouldn't sound that bored reading the shipping forecast on 24 hour loop. And do you know what, if they can't be bothered to try any harder than that, I can't be arsed write any more about their lazy, clumsy album.

But before we go, the lyrics. The lyrics. Now, I did originally copy some of the lyrics into this review but it didn't seem fair. It was like at primary school, back in '88, when Jonathan Clarkson was made to recite the six times table in front of the class and couldn't get past two sixes are twelve but Mr.Tindell wouldn't let him sit down, so he just stood there panicking, looking stupid, until he eventually wet himself. In short, it felt cruel. The difference of course is that Mr. Tindell isn't making anyone from Beady Eye write lyrics. So maybe they should stop.

Edit - The biggest shame in all this is that Andy Bell, ex Ride, not Erasure, now a member of Beady Eye, was once at least partly responsible for creating something as glorious as this.

Edit - Erasure had their glorious moments too.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

20. Alfie - Do You Imagine Things?

I met a London music biz type once. He wasn't called Tarquin, but let's pretend he was. You could tell he worked for a record label because his trousers were too short for his legs and his socks were pink. And he was a cunt. Anyway, he told me a game him and his biz type mates played. The game was to try and find anyone who had ever bought an Alfie single or album, his theory being nobody actually liked Alfie enough to buy any of their music. Now, what I should have done is say, 'ME! I've bought Alfie singles and albums you pink socked bastard, and I bought them wearing trousers which rested on top of my shoes like a proper person.' But I didn't, I just took the bag of free cds he'd given me and edged towards the exit.

But, sadly, he did have a point. I don't think I've ever met a person who's bought an Alfie album, and I'm exactly the kind of person who would meet someone who's bought an Alfie album, and I lived in the band's home town of Chortlon-cum-Hippy for three years. Anyway, the lack of record sales in their early years wasn't unexpected - they were on the tiny Manchester indie label Twisted Nerve with enough budget for a crisp sandwich each a day. But surely that would all change when they signed to Regal Recordings which was really Parlophone which was really the giant behemoth EMI? Well, sadly not because do you know what they did? They released this fucking barmy, brilliant, nutjob of an album called Do You Imagine Things. An album with songs called My Blood Smells Like Thunderstorms on it, an album which finishes with a twelve minute song about a mole called, wait for it, Hey Mole (I think the mole may have been used as a literary device to represent people who bury their heads in the sand and are incapable of seeing the true beauty of the world we live in, but still...). They released an album full of jerky songs which stop and start and st st st stutter and almost collapse in on themselves. Which isn't to say it's not good, it's really good, it just isn't an album that people were going to rush out and buy, it isn't an album with any songs bland enough to make it on to daytime radio.

The highlights are the the aforementioned epic Hey Mole, the pretty and concise Isobel (although you can't quite forgive them the 'Isobel by name is a belle by nature' line), and the dreamy and disorienting Protracted where it sounds as if lead vocalist, Lee Gorton, can barely keep his eyes open. It's a very english sounding album, from the muted brass to the sixties sounding harmonies throughout. The record is peppered with words like sparrows, willows, pastures, marrow and it sounds like an album which could have been recorded by a band called Shipton Village Post Office in the mid sixties before they split up due to intense confusion or because the bass player disappeared in a forest in Gloucestershire or something.

Interestingly (for me at least) the album was produced by Ken Nelson, who came to the record after producing Coldplay's mult-million seller A Rush Of Blood To The Head. It sounds like he had more fun here. Alfie's next, and last album, was the more simple and truly poptastic Crying At Teatime had genuine possible hits on it. But it didn't matter because nobody was listening anymore, not that too many people ever had. Which is a real shame because Alfie were a band who were a bit barmy and did what they wanted. And most of all, they were interesting, which is what every band should be isn't it?

Monday, 4 July 2011

19. Boards of Canada - Twoism

They aren't from Canada, they're from Scotland - the tricky bastards. I've known the name for years but could never be bothered to give them any time. A cooler than thou electronica duo, signed to Warp, no vocals, one probably has a beard, the other one will wear a hat, not to mention their self-conciously hip sleeves. The kind of men you suspect would bore the fuck out of you in the pub, telling you about an amazing Korg synthesizer they picked up at a car boot sale for ten quid.
'He had no idea man, it's a genuine miniKorg 700 and he didn't have a clue, didn't have a clue!'
'Yeah Mike, listen, I've got to run for my bus. I know I've hardly touched my pint, it's ok, you finish it for me, enjoy it. And no Mike, I can't come to the record fair with you next week, I'll be busy hammering nails into my scrotum then.'
And that's about it, that's about where my preconceptions end.

It's a surprise then to find their music is particularly humane and touching. And whilst it sounds at times that they may have based this whole album on the theme tune of the massively brilliant 1984 kid's tv show Chocky, they get away with it because the music is so affecting. It's often said that said BOC deal with themes of childhood and nostalgia, and that is exactly what I hear on Twoism. Much of it takes me back to my childhood in the eighties - suburban streets on a summer's night, riding my bike back from a mate's house in the twilight, the chemical factory on the other side of the estate, blinking away in the background. But most of all it takes me back to childhood imagination somehow. And the fact that whilst you were just a kid, in a normal town, you were instinctively aware how weird and strange being alive as a human being was. A child's innate understanding of the oddness of being born at a particular time in a particular place I suppose. Does that make any sense? It doesn't does it and now I sound stupid. Have a listen and tell me if you can hear what I'm struggling to explain.

The music here is mainly drum machines and analogue synths, that's the nuts of bolts of it, but that doesn't get anywhere close to describing the yearning BOC squeeze out of the simplest of tracks. Forget any preconceptions, this is beautiful, spooky, haunting stuff. But I bet one has a beard and the other one wears a hat.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

18. The Library Trust - The A to Z of Mathematics

Twee name - check

Twee logo - check

Terrible attempt at a clever title which makes no sense and is really annoying. And a bit twee - check.

Lo fi 'indie' production (e.g couldn't afford/couldn't be arsed to do a proper job) - check

Singer can't really sing - check

Released on a label called Brownshoe Records - check

Another album of hushed acoustica the world REALLY doesn't need - check

Disappeared without a trace - check

Monday, 27 June 2011

17. Jonsi - Go

You have to feel sorry for the rest of the band when the singer buggers off to do a solo album. What are they supposed to do, stay at home and practise their drum fills? And the front men and women have nothing to lose. If it goes well they can return to the band with a See, I don't need you swagger. If it underwhelms, the band is a safety net waiting for them and they can claim they were just satisfying their artistic bent, letting off a bit of steam outside the confines of the band.

Jonsi's day job, Sigur Ros, are great of course, and sometimes there is nothing to be done but dive head first into one of their massive skyscraping albums. Other times you can't be bothered. It's like standing at the bottom of a mountain and thinking: I could walk up that big bastard and the view will be magnificent, but it's really steep and it will take ages and it looks exhausting. It's just a bit too BIG. That's where Go comes in. It's bouncy, it's mischievous, it's pretty, it's fun! In fact it's the perfect antidote to Sigur Ros' more ponderous attempts. There is still the odd epic moment, Tornado for example, but even that clocks in at a manageable four minutes fifteen seconds. So Jonsi wins then. When the rest of the band heard it I bet they texted each other that it was shit, silently seethed and prayed to the Nordic Gods that it didn't take off. Or maybe I'm a cynical get and they were really supportive.

(Yes, I am aware the last few reviews have been short and lazy. The cat hurt his paw and has required around the clock attention.)

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

16. Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can

Yeah, it's fine. There are songs on it. She can sing and play the guitar. Sometimes there are drums and other instruments too. Did you know she was only twenty when she wrote and recorded this? Sorry, I'm being an arse, it's just hard to get worked up about any of the music here. It's all competently written, performed and tastefully produced, and that's about it. It's just all so polite, so home counties folk. I Speak Because I Can was nominated for The Mercury Music Prize, critically well received and currently enjoys 34 five star reviews on Amazon, so I'm in a minority here, but I've listened to the whole thing four times now and can't really remember anything about it. Quite often I like those albums, it suggests there may be a long relationship of discovery ahead, but there is nothing to wrestle with here, nothing to fall in love with, nothing even to hate.

According to Laura Marling's Wikipedia entry, which is, of course, accurate, 'She suffered crippling social unease and fear of death in her early years.' When she records that album I'll listen again.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

15. Sophie Ellis Bextor - Make A Scene

This is Sophie Ellis Bextor's fourth album. FOURTH. Who's bought a Sophie Ellis Bextor album? Hands up, come on, someone must have done at some point. Nobody? OK, so who is paying for this? Oh, I see, it's released on her own label. Well, good luck then Sophie - those cheekbones are amazing. Oh God! Look! she's covered them up and now people will have to talk about the bored sounding pop music instead. The record label would never have let that happen.

Monday, 13 June 2011

14. A House - I Am The Greatest

Award for terrible band name goes to A House. Maybe that's why they never quite crossed over from cult success.
'What's your band called again?'
'A House.'
'Oh, right, yeah.' - punter walks away, forgets the name by the time it takes to reach the bar.
Which is a massive shame because the music on I Am The Greatest is as far removed from the bland name as it's possible to get. Singer Dave Couse wears many different jackets and is at turns bitter, tender, cruel, funny, arrogant and compassionate. And boy can he write. He pours more ideas into one song than many songwriters manage on an album.

A House are perhaps best known for the song Endless Art, the third song here. 'All art is quite useless according to Oscar Wilde,' Couse intones before listing 48 artistic greats (and, rhymed with Richard Strauss, Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse), dropping birth and death dates here and there throughout. It's all done over a stirring drum, cello and electric guitar backing and is strangely affecting. This isn't an original observation, but it is quite shocking to note that out of the 48 names, not one of them is female. This was brought to the band's attention at the time and they later recorded a version which listed only women, which is admirable I suppose, but really, not one woman on the original, out of 48 names?

Anyway, there are plenty of great songs on this album. When I First Saw You is a truly beautiful love song which segues into the disarmingly honest I Am Afraid, where Couse lists the things that, you can see it coming, make him afraid. Two thirds of the way through the song the backing drops away and Couse's unadorned voice sings:

'Ever since I was a small child,
I cannot sleep at night without the light on.'

Bloody hell - you almost have to take a moment. But if you are running for the door thinking jesus wept I don't need these emotionally retarded indie loser freaks in my life, hang on. The album is beautifully balanced, and yes, it does deal with what you could call the big issues, but it is also funny and touching, and importantly, considering the matters it deals with, light on it's feet.

Hugely recommended.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

13. Bon Iver-Bon Iver

Oh shit. It's good. Really good. And he was the guy to hate, he was the bullseye, the solo Fleet Foxes. 'Oh I'm so sad, listen to me and my sad voice and my sad songs, can you feel my pain, do you understand how real this music is?' Fuck off Justin. His pissy heartbreak album about that Barbara woman in 2008 was just so wet. Give me N-Dubz any day. At least Dappy has some BALLS. Would Dappy run off to a hut in a forest and mope and write mimsy-wimsy acoustic songs about his hurt feelings?* Would he fuck. Dappy would man the fuck up. And the critics fell over themselves to proclaim him a genius, buying that bullshit story about writing and recording it all in a hut and living off rotting fox corpses. How that one, half-assed, piece of folky bollocks rose above the other million half-assed folky bollocks released that year is as befuddling as string theory.

Anyway. Album number two. It has tunes! And drums! And electric guitars! And synthesisers! And it works. It's one of those rare albums where performance, ambition and songs all converge at the perfect meeting point so you can press play, sit back and wait until the album plays itself out. It's hard to pick stand out songs - it's that kind of album, one song finishes and you are tempted to replay it but then the next song begins and pulls you in, and you are off again.

Early reports seem to suggest that some fans of the 'Barbara' album think he' s lost it with this one. I would argue he's found his feet here and is off and running. The acoustic guitars and layered vocals are still there, as is the vulnerbality, but the fuller sound shows the ambition. He isn't prepared to just be known as the man who recorded some sad songs in a shed. Thank god.

There has been some fuss, particularly over at the Guardian website where the album is streaming, concerning the closing song to the album, Beth/Rest. This is due, in main, to the production of said song. It is, very eighties, admittedly, and not your fashionable eighties pastiche sound, not an ironic Nathan Barley type attempt, this is full on eighties ballad production, and it's a touch of genius. One poor Guardian poster writes: 'Horribly disappointed by the last song though, it sounded like a bad version of the Local Hero theme remixed for the prom scene at the end of a crappy 80s high school movie.' Well, one, that sounds like a song I want to hear, and two, Justin Vernon isn't as precious as everyone thought and is brave enough to do something he must have known would piss off some of his more sensitive fans. Brilliant.

On Holocene Justin sings, 'I was not magnificent.' Well, he wasn't, but he's got pretty close this time.

*oneyearonehundredalbums is aware of the irony of championing some artists who deal with heartbreak and emotion and then bashing others for doing a similar thing. But it boils down to how it's done.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

12. The Blue Nile - Peace At Last

This is hard to write. The Blue Nile are special and Hats is one of my favourite ever albums with A Walk Across The Rooftops and High not far behind. So, with loving three quarters of their total output unconditionally, why shy away from Peace At Last? Firstly, look at the sleeve. Does that inspire confidence? Secondly, the thing that works so well with The Blue Nile is the way the steely synths and the cold drum machines contrast with the warmth and longing of Paul Buchanan's voice. So when I read that for Peace At Last the band had turned to acoustic guitars for a more natural sound I was automatically put off. With good reason it turns out. The opening song, Happiness, is perhaps the blandest MOR pop song ever written and recorded, and brace yourself for 3.12 seconds in when the choir barges in - it is horrible. Maybe the rest of the record is better? Unfortunately not. With one staggering, jaw dropping, exception the record is grim. Look at the titles: Happiness, Sentimental Man, Love Came Down, Body and Soul. It's like Phil Collins, Mick Hucknall, and Chris Rea gathered together in attempt to write and record the blandest album they could. And remember, I LOVE this band

But... It's all worth it. Every naff sounding second is worth it, and more, all because of the seventh song, Family Life, one of Blue Nile's greatest songs, and hyperbole alert, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. It is perhaps the most un-rock and roll song ever written, and maybe because most of us lead un-rock and roll lives, it is truly moving. The strings fade away at the end and Buchanan sings:

'Jesus I go to sleep and I pray
For my kids, for my wife, family life.'

It's enough to make a grown man weep. Even a man who doesn't believe in god and has no kids.

Download Family Life, buy A Walk Across The Rooftops, Hats and High in full, and let's pretend this record never happened.