Friday, 17 February 2012

New Music: The Men - Ex Dreams

Last year's Leave Home from Brooklyn pysch/noise-rockers The Men was one of the year's most exhilirating releases; it charted at #11 on KILAS' top 20 albums of the year, but it passed under a lot of people's radars. On the strength of Ex-Dreams, however, Open Your Heart, The Men's forthcoming album, will suffer no such problems; it has the sound of a band about to make the big time.

Listen to it here. Open Your Heart comes out 5th March on Sacred Bones.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

New Of Montreal album Paralytic Stalks streaming now!

The ever-prolific wonder project of Kevin Barne's deranged mind Of Montreal are back with a new album Paralytic Stalks, out on Ferbuary 6th in the U.K., and its available to stream in full on Spin's website (the link below includes a full song-by-song guide from Barnes). Expect a review here very soon, but darn me if Ye Renew The Plaintiff isn't the most brilliant thing they've come up with since The Past Is A Grotesque Animal from 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer.

Paralytic Stalks - listen here

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Review: Guided By Voices - Let's Go Eat The Factory

Do you know the main reason I will always prefer indie rock to pop? It's that in the case of the former, perfection can come from the most imperfect of sources. By necessity, the best pop is clinical, manicured to be fully-formed. But indie-rock? Well just listen to the run of records by the "classic" line-up era Guided By Voices, which started with 1992's Propellor, ended with 1996's Under The Bushes Under The Stars, and peaked in-between with 1994's Bee Thousand and 1995's Alien Lanes. These albums were a car-crash of ideas, one hook cast aside for another amidst a menagerie of scrappily produced songs which borrowed from post-punk, metal and British Invasion, played with more enthusiasm than technical proficiency. And therein laid the brilliance of those records.

And now GBV are back, with that same classic lineup (welcome back, for the first time since 1997, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell) for the first GBV record since 2004's supposed swanswong Half Smiles Of The Decomposed. Robert Pollard, of course, has never been away, having released an endless stream of albums of solo material and various side-projects, including the rather excellent Boston Spaceships. For better or worse, those albums have always carried Pollard's influences and distinctive touch, and so it would've been easy for Let's Go Eat The Factory to sound like a simple continuation of Pollard's non-GBV work.

That it truly sounds like the band who released those aforementioned classics is sufficient to make Let's Go Eat The Factory a successful return. The album's 21 songs are in glorious cut-and-paste lo-fi, and dispensed of within 42 minutes. Sonic details like the blast of organ on The Head cut through the musical soup in ungracious but certainly not unwelcome fashion. Doughnut For A Snowman opens with what sounds like the excerpt of another song entirely. Vocally, Pollard and the honey-voiced Tobin Sprout sound the same as they always did. To say that it recreates the classic GBV sound would be doing the album a gross misjustice, as in no way does it sound contrived or studious; it's like these guys simply don't know any other way to play and record together.

Where the album does stumble slightly compared to those previous records is in the song-writing itself. There's nothing on Let's Go Eat The Factory that quite hooks you in with the same force as an Echoes Myron or Game of Pricks, nor are the albums more curious moments in anyway as inexplicably spell-binding as the likes of The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory or Almost Crushed Me. In the past, the band's 30-second songs served as invaluable segues to the more comprehensive songs but somehow they don't function quite so well here, making Let's Go Eat The Factory an uneven listen, even by GBV standards. The album's lowest point comes during a typically ill-disciplined mid-section with The Big Hat and Toy Show, a directionless two minutes of noodly guitar and Pollard's warbling.

With that said, there is still much to enjoy here, with Sprout's contributions in particular a great reminder of why this lineup of GBV clicked better than any other. He provides the album's finest moment in Spiderfighter, a wonderfully gnarly rocker which gives way to a gentle piano outro, as well as the album's most direct hook in God Loves Us. Not to be outdone, Pollard's gorgeous mellontron-tinged Chocolate Boy and the album's hefty closer We Won't Apologize For The Human Race provide high points worthy of any classic GBV record.

Whilst certainly not up there with their best records, there are enough flashes of inspiration on Let's Go Eat The Factory to make for a highly enjoyable record and a welcome return, one which provides every indication that their next release (thankfully we won't have to wait long; Class Clown Spots A UFO is slated for a May release) might just hit those heights on a more consistent basis.


Friday, 6 January 2012

Classic Albums 10 Years In

I particularly rever artists with true staying power. Stereogum's Listomania feature recently came out with an inspired list of 10 Classic Albums Released 10 Years Into A Band/Artist's Career. The original list is here, but it inspired me to think of a few of my own, less obvious but equally noteworthy, inclusions. Alas, scanning quickly through my record collection I've only come up with a further six, so I would be interested in your own suggestions.

Animal Collective - Merryweather Post-Pavilion (2009)
A decade into one of the most unpredictable and genre-defying careers of recent times, Animal Collective finally hit the big time with this gorgeous yet vibrant concoction of ethereal pop. Arguments will rage on as to which AC album is the best (with the exception of Danse Manatee, I'll accept cases for any one of their releases), but there can be little argument that Merriweather Post-Pavilion is their most cohesive and consistent release to date. The world waits in anticipation of what they'll come up with next.

The Flaming Lips - Transmissions From The Satellite Heart (1993)
Transmissions Of A Satellite Heart marked the first unlikely success story for Oklahoma's acid-fried rockers, thanks to the wonderfully goofy single She Don't Use Jelly (the only song which dared to rhyme the word "store" with "orange"). It was indicative of an album with a wealth of deranged yet oddly endearing riches, whilst the uber-drums and digitised guitar sound of the closing Slow Nerve Action pointed the way towards the even more fruitful Dave Fridmann years.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Let Love In (1994)
There perhaps isn't such a thing as the definitive Bad Seeds album, a fact which owes more to their unwavering brilliance than any paucity in quality recordings. But Let Love In may be the closest they've got to it. It has textbook examples of all their calling cards: unhinged rockers (Jangling Jack); songs of unrepentent lust (Loverman); hilarious gallows humour (Lay Me Low); a clutch of Cave's finest ballads (I Let Love In, Nobody's Baby Now, the all-encompassing two-parter Do You Love Me?) and of course, in Red Right Hand, one iconic song about a man of shadowy deeds.

Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer? (2007)
With 2007's game-changing Hissing Fauna... Of Montreal were transformed from fey, anglophilic popsters, to dark, damaged electro-glam-funksters. They hadn't completely forsaken their love of the UK; pushed to the brink by a messy break-up from his then-girlfriend, bandleader Kevin Barnes took on the persona of African-American tranvestite Georgie Fruit, a definite nod to Bowie's alter-egos of the 70's. Faberge Falls For Shuggie would casually toss out the titles for the band's subsequent string of releases, none as good as this landmark record.

Sleater-Kinney - The Woods (2005)
In what unfortunately turned out to be their swan song (though at least we now have Wild Flag as compensation), the Washington all-girl trio beefed up their guitar-playing chops and enlisted producer Dave Fridmann to amp up their sound even further, resulting in their heaviest sounding record. The Woods shamelessly revelled in a love for bluesy 70's rock - few suspected that Sleater-Kinney could write an 11-minute song, let alone pull it off with such fortitude - but the siren-like vocals of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein gave it that crucial gut-punch.

Talk Talk - Laughing Stock (1991)
After a painstaking recording process which would ultimately break the band, 1991's Laughing Stock found Talk Talk worlds away from the (admittedly darker than most) New Romantic outfit which had started out 10 years previously. It stands alongside its predecessor, 1989's Spirit Of Eden, as a stunningly singular piece of work, Mark Hollis' haunting vocals put to music which, with the aid of a host of fellow musicians, resonated with atmosphere, managing to sound both wildly improvised and impeccably crafted. Few albums are so hugely influential, and yet so utterly inimitable.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Albums of 2011: #5-1

5. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Like the best homeland-inspired albums, there was an uneasy sense of patriotism about PJ Harvey's 8th studio album, even as it recounted in gory detail our horrible history ("I've seen and done things I want to forget/I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat"). Complemented perfectly by spine-tingling musical arrangements (just how disarming is that bugle on The Glorious Land?) and Harvey's pleading vocals, it was the pick of the crop from what's been a fine year for British music, and the most deserved Mercury Music prize winner since, oh, yeah, 2000's Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.

4. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Anthony Gonzalez hasn't exactly shied away from sounding "epic" in recent times, but on his latest, maybe greatest work, he made the most unashamedly huge album of the year. Doffing its cap to like-minded works of bloated majesty such as Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness, this was an album where no Phil Collins-sized drum fill was too much, no synth too stadium-sized, no child's choir (or child's ode to a frog) too cringe-inducing. That he pulled it off so effortlessly is testament to the heart and soul embodied in his work, and perhaps in part to a clutch of quite astonishing songs like Midnight City, Claudia Lewis and Ok Pal.

3. Destroyer - Kaputt
On the fringes of the Canadian indie scene for so long, despite his involvement with the New Pornographers, Dan Bejar finally hit the (relative) big-time with this soft-rock monolith. As self-referential as ever, but tuning down his usual verbosity, Bejar played the lounge lizard, whispering sweet-nothings in your ear whilst indulging in a mixture of cocaine and champagne, all to luxuriant layers of sax and suave new-wave synth. Brilliant and, just in case you missed it first time around, the phenomenal 11-minute suite Bay Of Pigs was thrown in for good  measure too.

2. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
In some parallel, better adjusted universe, House Jam from 2008's Saint Dymphna scored GGD a huge hit. In that same universe, Eye Contact is their ascent to mega-stardom. Vocalist Liz Bougatsos was pitched front-and-centre on Eye Contact, and she embraced the role, cooing over the sensual likes of Romance Layers and Adult Goth, whilst the madcap rave of Mindkilla and sticky sweetness of Chinese High demonstrated how the Brooklyn experimentalists had sharpened their pop talons. But it was over the 12 achingly constructed minutes of Glass Jar that GGD joined the likes of Animal Collective as one of those rare bands whose increasing accessibility goes hand in hand with an ever-expanding sound.

1. Fucked Up - David Comes To Life
For a band who started out with a heady stream of 7" releases, a concept-heavy double album (further fleshed out by a limited edition album, David's Town, a compilation of singles by made-up British 60's bands, all actually variations of Fucked Up) would appear to be the very anithesis of their original MO. But the reason this album rings so true is that it simply refuses to get bogged down in its (admittedly absurd) story, and instead concentrates on stuffing every last one of its 18 songs with an embarassment of big guitar hooks and gooey backing vocals, making them all major ear-worms despite (sometimes even because of) David "Pink Eyes" Abraham's call-to-arms screams. With Abraham casting doubts over his future role in FU, the Toronto-based band's future looks uncertain, but by casting the multi-layered guitar sound of 2008's The Chemistry of Common Life to the immediacy of their earlier work, they couldn't have possibly come up with a better career summary than this.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Albums of 2011: 10-6

10. Björk - Biophilia
Amidst all the fuss about phone apps, it was easy to forget that there was an actual album buried under all of the techno-babble. And what an album; in counterbalance to the futuristic concept was Björk's most organic-sounding record to date. With each song essentially built off a single instrumental motif, Biophilia was almost uncomfortably sparse at times, but fleshed out with haunting choral vocals, putting the harsh electronic beat pay-offs of Crystalline and Mutual Core into even sharper relief.

9. Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
21-year old Chilean/New Yorker Nicolas Jaar's debut LP was a deeply intriguing and strangely satisfying record, its languid, loungey electronic throbs, woozy instrumentation and crackly samples coyly entrancing the listener, before disarming you with a blast of skronky horns. The secret weapon was Jaar himself, his deep voice spouting out cryptic words of advice ("Grab a calculator and fix yourself"). The year's essential late-night listen.

8. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
The casual use of upper- and lower-case letters was enough to make some run a mile, and the vocals were a deal-breaker for many, but in truth Merril Garbus' endlessly acrobatic and percussive voice was a key ingredient to this astonishing album, somehow managing to meet every twist and turn of this breathless collection of songs. Deranged, yes, but her mangling of R&B and afro-pop, followed by its impeccable reconstruction made her the queen to David Longstreth's king.

7. The Antlers - Burst Apart
2009's Hospice was the sort of record one could obsess over, but its overwhelming bleakness is the sort of thing you can only get away with once. Credit then goes to The Antlers for this expertly judged follow-up which, thanks to Pete Silberman's impassioned wail (plus song titles like Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out and Putting The Dog To Sleep) still struck a raw nerve, but with its more spacious, hymnal songs meant that this time, the listener never felt at risk of suffocating under it all.

6. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
On last year's Returnal, Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. OPN, demonstrated his mastery of mind-melting, minimalistic drone. Replica was a reprisal of that sound to an extent, but by juxtaposing it with jarring vocal loops and, on Up, even tribal percussion (percussion of any kind was previously unthinkable), it felt like Lopatin had taken a massive step forward. Child Soldier was the brilliant culmination of this development, but every single cut here was a stunningly composed, endlessly shape-shifting wormhole into another world.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Albums of 2011: 15-11

15. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
Having got bogged down with some concept-heavy albums of late, Okkervil River rediscovered their muse with I Am Very Far. Self-produced by Will Sheff, the use of double-tracking gave the band a punchier sound, and with no overriding theme, the focus seemed to be on producing a diverse and creative set of songs, from the climactic White Shadow Waltz to the haunting Show Yourself, bringing the band close to the heights previously reached on 2005's Black Sheep Boy.

14. Radiohead - The King Of Limbs
Radiohead's 8th LP arrived with all of the drama we've come to expect, and opinion was predictably divided. Was it too short? Was there a follow-up (the album's parting words of  "If you think this is over, then you're wrong" was very knowing)? Did it break any new ground for the band, or the world of popular music in general? Whilst a Kid A-style reapprasial may not be on the cards, time will tell just where it stands in the Radiohead canon, but for now its intricately textured songs, drawing as much from Bon Iver as they did James Blake, sounded just right in 2011.

13. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
Formerly of alt-folk act Gowns, Erika M Anderson's debut solo LP was the year's most cathartic and beautifully damaged record. By turns stark and vulnerable (Marked), brash and resolute (California) and unhinged (Milkman), lyrics such as "I wish that everytime he touched me left a mark" could be translated in multiple ways. A suitably harrowing record on the woes of drug addiction, it made total sense when Anderson wound up covering Endless, Nameless on a tribute to Nevermind.
12. Metronomy - The English Riviera
Joseph Mount's third LP with Devon-based Metronomy saw the band continue to evolve from their giddy electronic beginnings to purveyors of super-smart pop, falling somewhere between XTC and the Pet Shop Boys. Deliciously bittersweet songs such as Everything Goes My Way and The Look sunk their hooks in deep, whilst the ravier likes of Corinne and album highlight The Bay showed that Mount hadn't completely lost touch with his roots.

11. The Men - Leave Home
Brooklyn-based the Men channeled every form of noise-based rock from the past 30 years into a single exhilirating release. Whether it was Sonic Youth-inspired no wave, Harvey Milk-esque doom metal, or Spacemen 3-style space rock (they even had the bare-faced cheek to crib lyrics from Take Me To The Other Side), everything was pushed up into the red and played with unwavering tenacity. They could go in any number of directions from here.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Albums of 2011: 20-16

Whilst this blog has hardly been a hotbed of activity this year, I promise you that I haven't been completely resting on my musical laurels. As with last year, I will be counting down my top 20 albums of 2011. Here are nos 20-15:

20: Tom Waits - Bad As Me
Tom Waits' first body of entirely new work since 2004's Real Gone was worth the wait, and at 61, he's showing no signs of losing his vigour. The songs - flicking between raucous junkyard blues and rickety ballads - never strayed too far from his trusted template, but when the sequencing and strength of the songwriting is as good as it is here, there can be few complaints, and the album only furthered the legacy of an artist whose longevity and continued relevance are practically unparalleled.
19. Beirut - The Rip Tide
With his previous albums globetrotting between the sounds of balkan, riviera, and mariachi, respectively, on this occasion Zach Condon chose not to spin the globe and place his finger down at random, but rather collate those previous sounds into stronger, more structured songs. A wise decision, and one which resulted in an album that somehow managed to be more restrained, and yet more confident than any Condon had ever managed before.

18. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will
Historically, the best Mogwai albums have always been those with a continuous flow to the songs, but Hardcore... followed the disparate template of 2006's Mr Beast, only with better songs. An injection of much-needed pace, and just enough nudges towards new directions, as on Mexican Grand Prix, made this the best Mogwai album in a decade. A fine year for the Glaswegian post-rockers was capped off with the subsequent Earth Division EP.

17. Iceage - New Brigade
These Danish teenagers have gained a reputation for their fierce live shows, the energy of which was carried across into their terrific debut LP. Clanging post-punk guitars were put to breakneck hardcore tempos; New Brigade's 12 songs are over within 25 minutes. But no amount of dischord or no-frills production could mask some genuine tunes, such as the riveting Broken Bones.

16. Battles - Gloss Drop
Without Tyondai Braxton - the closest thing the band had to a frontman - Battles were left in a precarious position in following up the highly lauded Mirrored. The resulting Gloss Drop couldn't possibly satisfy everyone, but the four songs featuring guest vocalists - a diverse set, ranging from Gary Numan to Yamantaka Eye from Boredoms - acted as brilliant focal points between impressive yet fun technical workouts such as Futura and Wall Street, making for a surprisingly playful record.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Gig Review: Magazine @ The Junction, Wednesday 2nd November

30 years on from their original dissolution, Magazine played at the Cambridge Junction on Wednesday night to an audience which predominantly looked like they caught the post-punk legends the first time around. Coming out on stage with a signboard carrying a typically oblique message, Howard Devoto, now 59, cuts as enigmatic and compelling a figure as ever. 

But in truth, the early signs were not at all great - the sound mix for the opening moments of Definitive Gaze was horrible, with Jon White's bass threatening to overwhelm everything - yet whilst the sound was never truly perfect all night long, matters did improve considerably within the first few songs. Aside from the cutting wit of Devoto, the real star player of Magazine has always been keyboardist Dave Formula, and despite looking worryingly like he belonged in The Lancashire Hotpots, he didn't disappoint, displaying his full expressive range of sounds over four keyboards: elegaic on Parade, spooked out on Permafrost, and bonkers practically everywhere else.

The tour was in support of their fifth album No Thyself ("it was nothing, we had so many years to write it" joked Devoto on it being the band's first recording since 1981's Magic Murder And The Weather) and if nothing else, it was impressive to hear how authentically Magazine-esque the likes of The Worst of Progress... and Happening In English actually sound. Devoto's not lost his way lyrically either; Hello Mister Curtis is a typically acerbic homage to suicidal rock stars. They fit pretty well into the band's canon, but the band wisely chose not to overegg the pudding with new material, but rather sprinkle it like Hundreds-and-Thousands amidst classic material; the likes of Shot By Both Sides and set highlight The Light Pours Out Of Me from 1977 debut Real Life (in my mind one of the greatest musical documents of the original post-punk era) still pack a hefty punch.

Not all of Magazine's material has aged so gracefully; their tacky funk cover of Sly Stone's Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again) should be cast to the anals of history and left there. But when playing old and new material alike, Magazine remain a thrillingly odd, unique and indispensible player in the post-punk story.


Sunday, 2 October 2011

Ancient Melodies Of The Future

Next week I start a new radio show in Cam FM. It's called Ancient Melodies Of The Future which - aside from my love of Built To Spill, as if that wasn't already obvious from the name of this blog - is a reference to how popular (and not so popular) music's past goes on to shape its future.

This show is not meant to be some mere nostalgia trip, more a celebration of how the finest artists of today draw upon their influences; in some cases, the similarities are obvious, but as time goes on, and new music genres and sub-genres are created, deconstructed, and spliced together, it's quite interesting to see just how far the apple can fall from the tree. I revile those with the attitude that popular music reached its peak in Year X, and that those who achieved a particular sound aesthetic first are by default its best practitioners. It's those narrow-minded individuals (Rolling Stone writers, in general) who permanently affix Sgt Pepper or Pet Sounds to the top of every Greatest Albums Of All Time Lists without a moment's thought (not to say that these aren't great records, but for those similarly sceptical of the unanimous acclaim heaped upon these records, Kill Your Idols by Jim DeRogatis should provide a satifying read).

At the risk of contradicting myself, however, it's becoming increasingly difficult to see how even the greatest albums of today can ever be allowed to join the pantheon of those aforementioned "classics". Every publication, from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork to Mojo, will have its own particular spin on the All Time List, but whoever the compiler is, you can guarantee that certain names - Beatles, Dylan, Bowie and so forth - will feature somewhere, and that's because by virtue of being there first, they got to shape both the pop and underground music scenes forevermore. Radiohead - who in 1997's OK Computer and 2000's Kid A have at least two albums which are ubiquitous with those All Time Lists -  are perhaps the last ever band that will ever achieve that level of crossover recognition. As the music scene becomes increasingly splintered into genres and sub-genres, it's almost impossible for a consensus to be reached on any record. With the great commercial success of last year's The Suburbs by the Arcade Fire, we might hope to see 2005's Funeral find its way onto those lists for good. But what about Merriweather Post Pavilion? Sound Of Silver? Return To Cookie Mountain? I'm not going to get my hopes up.

Perhaps the very concept of The Greatest Album Of All Time is defunct. Let's just embrace the sheer diversity of today's music scene; with Ancient Melodies Of The Future, I hope to do just that.

Catch the first show on Tuesday 4th October 8-9pm, and then every Thursday 8-9pm, on Cambridge 97.2FM or