22 Dec 2010

10 From '10: My Favourite Albums Of The Year

I don't have the money to assess every new record that comes out, or even all the critically-praised or hyped ones, so I wouldn't presume to comment on the 'best' albums of the year. I can, however, say with confidence that this short list represents my ten favourite albums released in 2010.

29 Nov 2010

Everything Is New #2: Swanlights and the Ghost in the Garden

So now it's Antony and the Johnsons' turn to completely undermine one of my exhaustive analyses with a new album and a new direction. October's Swanlights is quite a different work from the earlier records that I discussed in my last post about the band, but to be honest, it does represent the following-through of the kind of stylistic changes that 2009's The Crying Light indicated. Already, by then, Antony had knotted his sheets together, or tressed and meshed some long flaxen wig, preparing to escape the dark attic room of his Gothic mode, descending the tower walls and taking refuge in the grounds. The Crying Light was Antony's first outdoors album, with its fixation (both musical and lyrical) on the natural - snow and dust, light and earth, birds and streams. Swanlights continues this trend - it is a druidic ritual of minerals and water.

25 Nov 2010

One Saved Message: On the Retirement of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone/Munch Munch - 14th November - The Haymakers, Cambridge

Back in September, Owen Ashworth announced his decision to retire Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and move on to new projects and monikers. As much as I always admire a musician who has enough sense of integrity and focus of intention to divide their creative career into distinct projects, this is still a sad event. With CFTPA, Ashworth explored the unique pathos of lo-fi electronics, and throughout the last thirteen years, he has remained fixed on this powerful aesthetic.

16 Nov 2010

Extended Pleasure, or How To End A Song

Sometimes we kid ourselves that our particular taste in individual songs and songwriters is based on some intangible personal connection - with projected nostalgias, secret meanings which only we pick up, or a melody or lyric that is all the more perfect for its unaccountable perfection. However, in my case, just a little consideration can quickly shatter this pleasant illusion. There are some quite basic material features that reappear in many of those songs that mean the most to me. I'm going to discuss one of the most prevalent, with reference to its occurrence not only throughout the work of my favourite artist, but also in my decided 'song of the year' (so far) and in one of the songs which I'm quite sure I'd have played at my hypothetical funeral. These are all monumental musical beacons in my life, and yet they are united (though not completely defined) by a simple structural trend, specifically the introduction of a new vocal countermelody over a looping chorus or coda in the final moments of the song.

11 Nov 2010

Everything Is New #1: The Age of Adz and Extraterrestrial Parasites

At some point in the last year or two, aliens laid eggs in Sufjan Stevens's brain. Evidently, these eggs hatched just as the gorgeous, harp-like guitar texture of The Age of Adz's opener - 'Futile Devices' - draws to its delicate close. Yes, Sufjan has gone electronic, but the style that is introduced on second track 'Too Much', along with most of the rest of the album, is not that of the trippy, explorative, unbridled Sufjan of his latest EP, of Enjoy Your Rabbit, or of his other most alien moment to date: Dark Was The Night's 'You Are The Blood'. Sufjan is back in song mode (against all odds, even album mode) and somewhere behind The Age of Adz is another perky songbook of pioneer fanfares and cheerleader folk choirs. There are some brilliant upbeat melodies; 'Too Much', 'I Walked' and 'Get Real, Get Right' are all, in their way, relentlessly pop. Moreover, most of his familiar troops are out in force: the girl choirs, the flute scales, the triumphant brass. It's upbeat Sufjan at his most distinctive - and yet, what's that crawling down the inside of his spinal column? Sufjan's sound-world has been quite literally invaded by a huge new alien palette.

4 Nov 2010

Synthetic Theatre: Xiu Xiu and Zola Jesus and Former Ghosts

Xiu Xiu/Zola Jesus/Former Ghosts - 1st November - XOYO, Shoreditch

I had always considered both Former Ghosts and Zola Jesus to be 'sub-Xiu Xiu' acts, having approached Former Ghosts through Jamie Stewart's involvement, and thence Zola Jesus through Nika Rosa Danilova's own involvement in that project. Seeing them all together in a line-up which stressed their equal standing (with big 'AND's inserted between identically capitalised band names) seemed to confirm their musical affiliation, but in reality the two younger bands don't seem particularly interested in borrowing from Xiu Xiu's work. If Former Ghosts occasionally recall Xiu Xiu's sound, it's solely because of Stewart's own penchant for certain synth and drum machine timbres. No, these bands are more purist in their influences, digging right back to when synths became cold enough to solidify a new goth aesthetic.

2 Nov 2010

Lyrical Anchorage

So I've been going back and forth to Cambridge over the last month on trains and coaches, and for most of those journeys I've been listening to Surfer Blood's Astro Coast on loop. Now it's November and rather than talk about another summer album, I'm instead going to focus on one song from Astro Coast, with particular reference to a small structural feature.

Pop songs, miniature and regular as they are, work on a scale by which such small features can completely define or transform them, yet such moments are rarely defined or discussed. Most pop commentary tackles music at album-level, making reference to individual songs as units, perhaps occasionally highlighting different sections within songs. But the intoxicating effect of pop operates on a much smaller scale: in intervals, two-chord relationships, one-word gestures, little motivic licks, or the emergence of some new timbre, which is then contextualised within the larger structure of the song as a unique happening, as a marker in a cycle or arc which will then anticipate its return, or as the progenitor of a new, looping texture.

9 Sept 2010

alright alright alright alright alright alright

I read this article on one of those papers that you get on the train in London, which claimed that the Mercury Prize organisers (whoever they are...) aren't actually looking for 'the best album of the year', but 'the album that best represents that year in British music'. So in a way, that kinda suggests that they're looking for the most 'average' record of the year - the one that is closest to most of the stuff that's going on, the 'median' or the 'mode', potentially the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road, default album of the year. Obviously this isn't what they think they're doing, but it explains why so much of the shortlist is always predictable dross.

6 Sept 2010

Sweet Kink: The Meaning of Antony

Just one month until we get to hear Antony & The Johnsons' new album, Swanlights, which, along with the recent release of their Thank You For Your Love EP and musings on the upcoming Mercury Prize (which they won with I Am A Bird Now), has prompted me to consider the very particular place which Antony Hegarty has won for himself within today's music scene.

'Grown-up Music' and the Mercury Prize

The Barclaycard Mercury Prize 'Albums of the Year' award event thing is tomorrow. It's always a mildly interesting event, if only for the seemingly random outcome. It is, however, not an event that bares much scrutiny - just a brief glance at their website cannot help but leave me unsettled by my complete incomprehension at how such a thing can actually operate...

I'm not criticising the Prize. It has very clear positive aspects; mainly the highlighting of a number of musical acts for consideration by the least actively curious of the nation's listenership. People, often older people who don't keep in touch with new music, are presented with an immediate, consolidated list of notable albums which they can then go and buy from HMV or iTunes in the knowledge that they're not being naive. By presenting these albums as art-works, disconnected from the demographic of the fans and the public image of the artist, those people who are wary of the complicated value systems which operate within popular culture can placate themselves by showing interest in pop music which has a claim to traditional 'artistic' merits. The shortlists give kind of an insight into some sort of mainstream British musical identity. Occasionally, it will push a smaller artist towards a larger audience, via the broadsheets and in-store publicity, and potentially even open up a more 'alternative' sound-world to a fundamentally passive or conservative audience.

28 Aug 2010

Summer Moods: Wavves' King Of The Beach VS Best Coast's Crazy For You

A few weekends ago, I was surprised to find write-ups for both Wavves and Best Coast in several of the British broadsheet culture supplements. Firstly, I was impressed that these papers had found room in the very small space allocated to weekly album releases to review two US indie bands that I actually liked. Secondly, it was interesting that these albums had clearly been pitted against each other, both sharing similar themes, related aesthetics, the same timeliness, even comparable cover art (more on that later), and the fact that the lead singers of both bands are (still currently) dating. But most of all, I was surprised that in every case, Best Coast's debut - Crazy For You - managed to collect for itself one or two little stars more than Wavves' third album - King Of The Beach. Although I'd heard neither in its entirety, I'd preferred the bits and pieces that I'd heard from the Wavves album to the material I'd heard from the Best Coast. So... I decided to review them both, weigh them up, and in doing so possibly try to penetrate a little into this whole beach/summer/surf/wave thing that's clearly, clearly been going on.

27 Aug 2010

Ailing Puppets

You wait years for another great video about a dying puppet, and then two come along at once!

MGMT's 'Congratulations' features a kinda Dark Crystal kinda creature that's having trouble coping with the Tatooinian climate.

26 Aug 2010

America - A Prophecy: Sufjan Stevens's All Delighted People EP

So Sufjan Stevens has broken his silence with a very long EP entitled All Delighted People, and the promise of a new album out in October called The Age of Adz. And as delighted as I am that he is still alive and recording, my slightly guilty response - after The BQE, the Christmas arrangements and The Avalanche, which is, after all, an out-takes CD - is that I would be SO excited to pull up the Pitchfork homepage one day and see news of Welcome to Nebraska, or Now Entering New Hampshire, or Postcards from North Dakota. It's a guilty response because I know that Sufjan himself has expressed clearly his own ambivalence towards the '50 States' project, and in fact towards the release of albums in general. He wants to go in new directions and that's good, but my reaction to a lot of the in-betweeny things that he's been producing over the last few years, as well as this EP, has helped me formulate just why I think the 'States' concept suited Sufjan so well, and why it produced (in my opinion) his best work.

23 Aug 2010

Some heartening notions...

I try more and more to view art and culture, as a whole, with as much optimism as I can muster. It isn't hard at the moment, because I genuinely think that pop music has never been better (and the same could be said for cinema and television). There are various lines of cynicism that it can seem easy to subscribe to, but when I start to become more cynical about contemporary culture, then I will know that I am old. Meanwhile, here are some nice (alphabetised) quotations from Pitchfork's column, Poptimist (by Tom Ewing), which present a more upbeat take on some familiar moans:

'B is for Bloghouse: And Bleep, Broken Beat, Bassline... the proliferation of electronic microgenres seems to truly rile some people, who assume any differences are barely detectable. In fact these taxonomies are vital for tracking shifts in the bigger pictures: ways of telling stories about scenes which are often still doggedly star-free. Besides which, they're so much fun-- each one the light-trail of an idea being tested and refined in public.'

22 Aug 2010

Bon Eté: S. Carey

I wrote my third-year dissertation partly on 'the nostalgic evocation of "America as place" in recent independent pop music'. My argument had something to do with the combination of minimalism and folk, and while I'm not sure how much Bon Iver, Sam Amidon, Sufjan or Why? the examiner actually listened to in order to validate my points, it's still a relief when another artist turns up that fits the bill (even if it is the solo work of Bon Iver's percussionist).

20 Aug 2010

Art Folk/Folk Art: Sam Amidon

Artur Dyjecinski/Caitlin Rose/Sam Amidon - 19th August - CAMP Basement, Shoreditch

Seeing Sam Amidon last night in this small, exciting venue was indeed the religious experience that we always knew it would be. Amidon has the voice of ancestral visitations, he owns his songs completely and delivers them with a glazed and eloquent stare, suggestive of the quiet witness to centuries of memories spanning their fireside composition to their continued relevance in the stunned, red-lit basements of today.

Postcard from the Sprawl: The Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Like much of the Western world, I am currently navigating the Arcade Fire's third album and large-scale portrait of the archetypal suburban sprawl. And sprawl it does, in every direction, to the extent that while each song seems pleasantly familiar now, there's still clearly a lot more ground to be covered before every lyrical and musical detail of the sixteen-track work is mastered, and eventually exhausted.

18 Aug 2010

Curating the Underground: YES WAY 2010

YES WAY 2010 - 13th-15th August - Auto-Italia, Peckham

Upset the Rhythm have hosted many of America's most provocative and exciting bands at their London gigs, but their three-day festival at Auto-Italia, Peckham, was designed specifically to showcase their favourite new UK artists, many of whom have supported at their gigs and released records on their label. The whole event was deeply entrenched in Upset the Rhythm's own 'sound' - where punk meets art, dirt meets paint, chains of pedals meticulously arranged to produce the perfect obstructions. The venue itself, prepared by the resident artists at Auto-Italia, upheld this same aesthetic - a dingy, former car showroom set out with banners and sculptures, and a conscientiously turned-out audience. 'The best and brightest of the UK's art and music underground', the promoters boldly declared. The label and its festival have as good a claim as any to this accolade, but it comes as no surprise that the underground tributaries which Upset the Rhythm chose to tap were ones heavily indebted to their US darlings - No Age, Abe Vigoda, Mika Miko and Times New Viking.