Saturday, January 31, 2009
THE TUNES OF 2008:
1. MGMT – Electric Feel
‘Time to Pretend’ may have been the tune that broke them, but the second single taken from Oracular Spectacular was even better, a glorious synth-funk groove that called to mind the Gallic gloss of Daft Punk, the falsetto decadence of the Scissor Sisters and the carnal pulse of vintage Prince. “All along the eastern shore / Put your circuits in the sea / This is what the world is for / Making electricity”… Is it about sex? Drugs? The harmony of the universe? When it sounds this good, who cares?
2. M.I.A. – Paper Planes
‘Paper Planes’ was included on last year’s Kala, but 2008 saw the song explode and gain the kind of commercial success that must have seemed incomprehensible to an artist as defiantly uncompromising and controversial as M.I.A. The catalyst was its inclusion on a trailer for Pineapple Express, and soon enough its rapid rise up the Billboard charts had censors everywhere fretting over its ambiguous lyrical content and the gunshot sounds that rang out over the chorus. The slew of remixes that flooded the internet this year reflected the invention and creativity at work: taking a sample from The Clash (‘Straight to Hell’) and using it as the cornerstone of an infectious hip-hop anthem that satirises and skewers anti-immigrant prejudice, this is pop music at its compelling, subversive best. You get the feeling Joe Strummer would have approved.
3. MGMT - Time To Pretend
4. JOHNNY FOREIGNER - Salt, Peppa and Spinderella
5. MGMT - Kids
6. HOT CHIP - Ready for the Floor
7. CUT COPY - Far Away
8. FOALS - Olympic Airways
9. PORTISHEAD - Machine Gun
10. ESTELLE feat. KANYE WEST - American Boy
Thursday, January 29, 2009
On the off chance that there's anything approaching a regular readership here, i apologise for my recent lack of activity. there were extenuating circumstances: i developed an addiction to last fm, lost my broadband connection, my arms fell off and i developed a debilitating brain disease which has thankfully eased off. there will be lots of articles up from here on in so do come back.
You know you’re dealing with a great record when it’s still revealing new layers and textures months after you’ve first heard it : Los Angeles, the second LP from Californian Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison), is the gift that keeps giving. Ellison is generally regarded as a hip-hop producer, but such genre pigeonholing does a great disservice to his music: an utterly addictive blend of liquid, ambient grooves, smoky hip-hop beats, off-kilter percussion, skittering electronica and crackling background static. It’s an album you can lose yourself in, with each track – be it the woozy, disorientating ‘GNG BNG’, ‘Golden Diva’’s subaquatic ambience or ‘RobertaFlack’’s hazy trip-hop – bleeding seamlessly into the next, until the gorgeous, hypnotic ‘Auntie’s lock/Infinitum’ provides the perfect curtain-closer. A grower, and how.
Comparisons to New Order tend to crop up whenever Cut Copy are discussed, and it’s not hard to see why: in terms of making exuberant, uplifting synth-based music that indie boys/girls can dance to, the Melbourne trio have taken plenty of tips from the masters. One of the main strengths of In Ghost Colours, the follow-up to 2004’s impressive Bright Like Neon Love, is the nigh-on-perfect sequencing: dreamy interludes like ‘Midnight Runner’ and ‘Visions’ segue into thrilling, hands-in-the-air anthems like ‘So Haunted’ and ‘Nobody Lost, Nobody Found’; reflecting frontman Dan Whitford’s DJ background. There’s so many magical moments here, such as when the day-glo pop of ‘Feel the Love’ gives way to the opening synth stabs of ‘Out There On The Ice’; or when the pounding (think Doves) guitar workout of ‘So Haunted’ breaks down into a sublime electro-pop outro; or the moment the irresistible beat of ‘Far Away’ kicks in. Hell, the album’s worth buying for the backing vocals alone. What’s more, the tunes take on extra life in the live setting, as evidenced by the Australians’ sensational Electric Picnic performance. And it shouldn’t go without mention that the album is co-produced by DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy, which – along with Hercules and Love Affair (see below) – provides further proof of his Midas touch.
On Saint Dymphna, their fourth album, Manhattan’s Gang Gang Dance showcase the unique sound that has led to them sharing bills with such luminaries as Sonic Youth and TV On The Radio. A mixture of pulsing tribal rhythms and eerie, discordant electronica, it’s lent a further air of mysticism by Liz Bougatsos’ rapturous vocals and the frequent religious imagery in their lyrics. Saint Dymphna is another excellent example of an album where each track segues flawlessly into the next: for example, opening instrumental ‘Bebey’ expertly builds tension with its insistent percussion and atmospheric electronics, before ‘First Communion’ sends everything skyward with what is surely the musical equivalent of tent revivalism. Elsewhere, Bougatsos recites ominous incantations over rattling, primitive percussion and disorientating sound effects on ‘Afoot’, and the superb ‘House Jam’ harnesses their sensibilities to an irresistible dance beat. Gang Gang Dance sound exactly the way you want a band from New York to sound : dangerous, unique, and utterly compelling.
Detractors and critics are inclined to dismiss the music of Hercules and Love Affair as mere revivalism or pastiche. It’s an understandable viewpoint, given the obvious debt their debut LP owes to vintage late-70’s disco or Chicago house, but such labelling sells the New York-based collective short: there’s too much inventiveness to the arrangements, too much naked emotion in the vocals, too much vibrancy to the beats for this to be regarded as shallow imitation. Main-man Andrew Butler and co-producer Tim Goldsworthy may be the brains behind the operation, but their choice of collaborators is crucial: Antony Hegarty was the main attraction upon the album’s release, his extraordinary voice combining with a propulsive disco beat and infectious horn stabs to take ‘Blind’ into the stratosphere; Nomi’s turn on the almost weightless ‘You Belong’ is immaculately-judged, pitched somewhere between soulful and seductive; while Kim Ann Foxman steals the show on the gorgeously evocative, downtempo ‘Iris’. Pervading the album is a sense of doubt and loss that adds an extra flavour of poignancy to its dancefloor-friendly grooves: this is good-time music with one eye on the comedown.
One of the most divisive acts of 2008, singer Alice Glass and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Kath certainly don’t seem to be out to win any popularity contests. Most of the controversy surrounding them centres around their lax attitude towards issues of copyright: they used artist Trevor Brown’s striking black-eyed Madonna image without permission, and uncredited samples were featured in a number of their tunes posted on MySpace. As well as that, they have an unfortunate habit of cancelling gigs, and had the plug pulled on their Glastonbury set due to Glass’ reckless rig-climbing antics. However, the vicious backlash they’ve suffered at the hands of the blogosphere has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing what is a very impressive debut album. While their trademark Atari-like 8-bit synths, pounding percussion and distorted, barking vocals are present and correct on tracks like ‘Alice Practice’ and ‘Xxzxcuzx Me’, the music on offer here is far more eclectic than their reputation as electro noise terrorists would suggest: the hypnotic, atmospheric soundscape of ‘Magic Spells’ rubs shoulders with the deliriously catchy ‘Good Times’; ‘Reckless’ and ‘1991’ recall the Gallic grooves of Daft Punk; while the biggest curveball of all is saved for the final track, ‘Tell Me What to Swallow’. A haunting shoegaze lament reminiscent of Kevin Shields’ solo work, it’s typical of Crystal Castles that a song that sounds so outwardly beautiful is, on closer inspection, the narrative of a child who enjoys being abused by her father. Some people are just magnets for controversy, eh?
Every time I’ve put my iPod on shuffle in the past few months, I’ve done so with an acute sense of fear that a track from Rip It Off will follow up a quiet acoustic interlude, thus shredding my ear-lobes and increasing still further my chances of being a very deaf old man. On their third studio album, the Ohian trio cover their exuberant, lo-fi punk with a blanket of treble-shredding feedback and fuzz: the result is a thrilling, adrenalised rush, characterised by scuzzy riffs and deranged hooks. Some claimed that their extreme noise aesthetic was nothing more than a calculated gimmick, but they missed the point on two counts: firstly, underneath all the frenzied squall and distortion are 24-carat tunes like ‘My Head’, ‘Faces on Fire’ and ‘The Early ‘80s’. Secondly, if a deafening wave of noise is the alternative to the horrifically compressed production that blights all too many albums these days, then that’ll do very nicely indeed, thank you very much.
By now the mythology around this album is so entrenched that it feels gratuitous to repeat it, but here goes: after the break-up of his band and a relationship, and suffering from a bout of mononucleosis of the liver, Justin Vernon retreated to an isolated cabin in the woods of northern Wisconsin and stayed there for three months; chopping firewood, hunting for food and eventually deciding to write and record the songs that constitute his debut record, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon originally considered the recordings to be simply demos that would be fleshed out later, but the positive reaction he received from friends persuaded him to release them in their original form. Unsurprisingly, there’s a pervading atmosphere of loneliness and regret throughout the album. For the most part, the musical backing simply consists of acoustic guitar and occasional percussion (a couple of tracks were re-recorded after his return from isolation, notably ‘For Emma’ which features horns and a more uptempo arrangement). However, Vernon treats his voice like another instrument, layering and overdubbing it, resulting in striking passages like the choral intro to ‘Lump Sum’ or the cathartic climax to the haunted ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’. Although some of the songs lay bare his inner anguish (‘Skinny Love’s ‘I told you to be balanced / I told you to be kind / now all your love is wasted? / then who the hell was I?’), Vernon is said to have written most of the lyrics in response to the syllables of the melodies. It makes sense, because this album isn’t so much about lyrical meaning so much as it’s about sound and atmosphere: every hushed chord and every aching falsetto convey a sense of deep loss, the kind for which words are inadequate. It all ends on a tentatively hopeful note, with the devastatingly beautiful ‘re: stacks’: ‘everything that happens is from now on...'
After a period in the late 90’s where Cave seemed to be losing the edge that first marked him out, he is now in the midst of a creative revival that began with the gothic sprawl of 2004’s Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus and continued with the garage-rock ferocity of his Grinderman side-project. Lazarus, the Bad Seed’s 14th studio album, has more in common with the latter, laying on more distortion, squall and tight, lean riffs; but whereas Grinderman’s themes were predominantly of the carnal variety, on Lazarus Cave’s trademark religious imagery and fascination with mythical Americana adds extra flavour. The Bad Seeds are on excellent form throughout, the songs infused with countless eerie, unnerving or compelling touches: the disorientating loops of ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters’, the sleighbells that add atmosphere to the twilit ‘Moonland’, the random guitar licks spattered like paint over the canvas of ‘We Call Upon the Author’. Then of course there’s the delirious, surrealist poetry of Cave, spinning darkly humorous modern-day Biblical yarns such as the Dylanesque ‘More News From Nowhere’ and the unhinged ‘We Call Upon the Author’. To quote: ‘Bukowski was a jerk! / Berryman was best! / he wrote like wet papier mache / went the Hemming-way / weirdly on wings and with MAXIMUM PAIN!...’
Elbow are a band who understand the importance of the LP as an artform. Lead singer Guy Garvey has railed against iTunes for not allowing bands to lock their albums (so individual tracks cannot be sold separate from their parent record),and listening to The Seldom Seen Kid, it’s not hard to see why they put such stock on treating a long-player like a cohesive entity rather than as a collection of songs. For a start, it features immaculate examples of how to open and close an album: the sublime ‘Starlings’ punctuates its gently chiming ambience with choral harmonies and short orchestral bursts, the track swelling slowly and building tension expertly as Garvey delivers a typically poetic lyric; while curtain-closer ‘Friend of Ours’ is a bleak, poignant, unspeakably beautiful tribute to late friend of the band Brian Glancy, who died tragically in 2006. Both are pieces of music that stop you dead in your tracks and stay with you long after you stop listening, something that Elbow have proven themselves masters at after four top-class albums. In between these two bookends, the record takes in the bluesy, lurching prison-gang-chant of ‘Grounds for Divorce’, the desolate atmospherics of ‘Some Riot’, the stately sweep of ‘Mirrorball’ and ‘Weather to Fly’, and the genuinely uplifting mini-symphony ‘One Day Like This’. Threading it all together are Garvey’s frequently superb lyrics, conveying tragedy and triumph from the minutiae of everyday life, and the attentive sequencing which emphasises the peaks and troughs (in terms of mood, not quality) of the music. A deserved winner of the Mercury Prize: sometimes the good guys do win.
Preceded by the lauded Sun Giant EP and the enchanting single ‘White Winter Hymnal’, Fleet Foxes’ debut LP was one of the most eagerly hyped releases of the year, and ended up as probably the strongest across-the-board performer in the end-of-year lists. It’s a stunning album, combining the layered, almost spiritual vocal harmonies of tracks like ‘Ragged Wood’, ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ and the superb ‘Quiet Houses’ with the sparse, wracked Americana of ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ and the windswept intensity of ‘Your Protector’. Whether the secret to their success is the way Fleet Foxes seems rooted in an idealised, nostalgic vision of America – conveying a sense of community and brotherhood that seems in short supply in modern-day society – or the rich detail and warmly retro feel of the music, the Seattlites touched the hearts and minds of many in 2008.