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.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

11. The Black Eyed Peas - The Beginning

You have to go on the stag do. You've known the stag for years, you were at school together and although you've lost touch and haven't spoken properly for ages, there is no way you can get out of it, he's just so damn excited about the whole thing. You meet at seven on a Friday, in the kind of bar you haven't been to since you were twenty and hated even back then. It's all a bit awkward because there are his work mates, his uni mates, lads from his Thursday night football, the brother of the bride to be, nobody really knows anyone else, and you can't hear anything anyway because the music is too loud. You make an effort to chat to people, to appear friendly and willing, but the night has hardly started and already you're exhausted at the effort required to pretend you're having a good time. To make matters worse you've been told to wear shoes, because it will be a late one and you are going to a club, a club that only lets you in if you're wearing shoes and a shit shirt. Drinking games commence. Seven hours later you are in the alley at the side of the club, throwing up onto a greasy pizza box, sweating and freezing at the same time. You get a cheer from a passing group. Someone slaps you on the back and shouts, 'Good lad!' Your stomach hurts and you lean against the wall of the club to rest before the next bout of vomiting begins. The wall is pulsating into your back, the music still trying to get you, even out here in your illness. You strain your ears to hear what generic, machine constructed, horrible piece of boastful shit they are playing now. Then you realise. It's any song off this album.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

10. Ella Guru - The First Album

You know when that man who looks like a horse from The Apprentice, about three series ago, the one who used to shout, 'That's what I'm talking about!' in that slow, lumpy voice? Well that, a hundred times that. Because this album is exactly the kind of find oneyearonehundredalbums was set up to discover. It's just, well, hang on, let me put on my finest journalistic hat, 'fucking brilliant.' And the criminal thing is it's been sat on my shelves for five years and I've never bothered to give it a chance. I've moved houses with it, walked past it a thousand times, was nearly sick on it once, and never released it from it's plastic case. What a dick.

There are various Ella Gurus out there but this Ella Guru were an eight piece band from Liverpool and The First Album was their first and only album, released in 2004 on a label called Banana. Their website was last updated in November 2005 so it's fair to say they are probably no more, unless they are attempting to challenge The Blue Nile for length of time taken between albums.

First off, they sound nothing like all the Liverpool bands you can think of. The music is a mix of acoustic guitars, brushed drums, trumpets, cornets, boy and girl vocals and pedal steel guitar. But don't go thinking this is similar to the twee folk arse currently doing the rounds, because there is a real steel to this music, a beautiful darkness, a sinister undercurrent throughout. Many reviews mention an Americana influence on the record; Lambchop crop up as a reference a few times, and whilst those influences are undeniable, the majority of the album sounds very English to me. This is a 'dusk' album, it makes me want to jump in the car drive up the motorway and head into the Lake District as the sun goes down. Always a good sign.

Park Lane Speakers is a standout track, a jumble of whispered words delivered with intent. I've listened to it seventeen times now and still can't work out what it's about. Another song that immediately strikes is Blues Is The Root, six minutes of delicious heartbreak, jaw dropping vocals and soaring trumpets. Kate Walsh sings the lead vocals and they should have won the Mercury Prize for that track alone. The record finishes, bizarrely and brilliantly with two guest vocals from The Mother's of Invention's Jimmy Carl Black. Why? How? you may ask, who the fuck knows, but as with everything else in the world of Ella Guru it's odd and magical at the same time.

It's a shame they are no longer around, probably due to the fact that whilst they received rave reviews across the board, they didn't shift many albums. But just maybe they realised they'd delivered everything they had to say so well on the first album and there was no point in spoiling their legacy. Did you hear that Strokes? Anyway The First Album along with Smother from the Wild Beasts set the bar for the rest of the year.