The Null Device

2017/12/31

2017 is almost over, and so, here are my records of the year:

  • Alvvays - Antisocialites (BandCamp)

    The Canadian indiepop band's follow-up to their self-titled album turns up the polish, sounding in places a bit like a bolder, more expansive Camera Obscura. Weighing in at a slender 32 minutes, with 10 songs, Antisocialites brings catchy melodies and even catchier choruses, jangly guitars, driving riffs, the odd keyboard pad, and upbeat anthems seasoned with tasteful amounts of alienation and angst. Highlights include the jangle-tastic twee-pop-night floor-filler Plimsoll Punks, the gorgeously shimmering, almost My Favorite-esque melancholia of Dreams Tonite and the epic closing track, Forget About Life (hint: if someone gives you a mix tape ending with this, they almost certainly fancy you).

  • LCD Soundsystem - American Dream

    The surprise comeback from a band that came to both epitomise a certain strain of New York hipsterdom and dissect it, laying bare its contradictions; returning a mere handful of years after their definitely-final farewell gig in Madison Square Gardens. Was it the wisdom of David Bowie, with whom James Murphy worked briefly on ★, that made him change his mind? Was it all a cynical marketing gimmick, or perhaps even a meta-art project toying with the concept of “selling out”? In any case, it doesn't matter, as the record is as strong as anything LCD have done before.

    There are a number of standout tracks here: Call The Police is a driving 7-minute party groove with more than a passing resemblance to All Your Friends; How Do You Sleep?, a wrathful indictment of a former associate (widely believed to be ex-DFA partner Andrew Weatherall), builds up through five minutes of pounding drums and sparse synthesisers, before exploding into the usual LCD groove juggernaut. And then there's the title track, which broaches James Murphy's trademark subject, the plight of the aging scenester. This time, this takes the form of a midlife existential crisis, narrated in the second person, equal parts sympathy and mockery; the subject, one gets the impression, is an aging American Nathan Barley, in toxic, chronic denial about pretty much everything, not least of all being well over halfway into his metamorphosis into a bum from a Charles Bukowski novel. The track is just over six minutes long, and its synthesised rock'n'roll ballad stylings and crescendos give it a mock-heroic pathos that is just perfect. The album ends on a personal note with the 12-minute Black Screen, where Murphy lets his guard down and addresses his late hero, mentor and eventual friend David Bowie (“you fell between a friend and a father”). A welcome return.

  • Jens Lekman - Life Will See You Now (BandCamp)

    The long-awaited follow-up to 2012's I Know What Love Isn't is an upbeat record. Jens has been getting more deeply into the production of his tracks, and is now at the culmination of his journey from indie-pop minimalism to a sort of cut-and-paste baroque, applying the playfulness that goes into his wordplay and storytelling to stacking up beats, loops and samples, and you can tell that he's having fun. As well as the big disco buildups he loves (What's That Perfume You Wear?, because the cure for a broken heart is to get down on the dance floor like nothing else matters, and the epic How We Met, The Long Version, equal parts funk and romantic whimsy), Wedding In Finistère ruminates on the passing of life milestones over a South African township-style groove, and the opening track sets up a theme, knowing one's life's calling, with an anecdote about a Mormon missionary and the death of Princess Diana recounted over some Wham!-doing-Motown grooves, built up and playfully stripped back as he breaks the fourth wall. Lekman, it seems, is as much a postmodernist as he is a romantic. Thematically, though, he has moved beyond his usual comfort zone of romantic love and its absence; two of the songs on this album confront that timely theme, the toxicity in masculinity, or in particular, the way its rules cut those subject to them off from meaningfully connecting with one another.

  • Loney Dear - Loney Dear

    Swedish melancholist Emil Svanängen made a name for himself as Loney Dear, a purveyor of romantic (in a Sorrows of Young Werther sense), and sometimes enigmatic, chamber-pop; intricate miniature sonic dioramas of longing and inner anguish. His new album, the first since 2011's Hall Music, sees him move further away from the woodsily acoustic sound of his earlier work and dive deeply into electronic sounds; which is not as great a change as one might imagine, as he has always had a thing for intricate arrangements with multiple parts coming together. It opens with a flight into darkness in the frantic, minor-key Pun, its unusual time signature, descending basslines and chorus of disparate elements sounding almost Radioheadesque. The third track, Hulls, is a ballad about fraught, complex relations, driven by fraught, complex minor-key harmonies; it begins with a muted one-handed synthesiser line and Emil's plaintive vocals, and, as is often the case, soars to a crescendo for that brief moment when the narrator's inner demons are in harmony with the celestial spheres. It is followed by Sum, which combines layers of pulsing electronics and shuffling beats with enveloping harmonies like the Pet Shop Boys at their most classicalesque. Isn't It You? is another high point, a simple but lovely miniature of pure, ill-omened longing, like the most hopeful point in a tragic opera. The album ends on an upbeat note with the splendidly titled There Are Several Alberts Here, which sounds probably not unlike what you'd get if someone commissioned Sigur Rós to write a love song.

  • Briana Marela - Call It Love (BandCamp)

    Marela's follow-up to her 2015 album All Around Us is a more expansive, ambitious and complex affair. Warmly intimate, melodic pop songs about the permutations of friendship, love and their absence, built up from layer upon layer of processed vocals, subtle beats, programmed basslines and the odd bit of live drums. Most of the work is done by Marela's voice, passing through various layers of effects, loops and digital artifice, carrying melodies and harmonies and the odd instrumental accents, complemented by the odd subbass synthesizer or crisp drum machine loop. Marela explores the liminal spaces between intimacy and artifice, and has made a particular space—layered, textured, at once warm and pulsatingly luminous, ethereal and immediate, technological and human. Highlights would include the opening track, Be In Love, which arrives in a waterfall of synth arpeggios and vocal harmonies and then erupts into a groove driven by live drums and synth bass, and the title track, a driving, major-key M83-esque electropop number spontaneously forming from the haze of granular sound particles. Recommended to anyone who wished that Holly Herndon wrote pop songs, wondered what The Softies would have been like as a 2010s electronic project or misses Sally Seltmann's New Buffalo recordings. (Not recommended, though, if you're allergic to reverb.)

  • Milk Teddy - Time Catches Up With Milk Teddy (BandCamp)

    Five years on from their debut, Zingers Melbourne's Milk Teddy have honed their craft further and delivered a shimmering mirage of slightly off-kilter perfect pop. The opening track, New York Rhapsody, kicks off with chiming guitar chords evocative of The Sea Urchins' Pristine Christine and chorused vocals recounting subjective snapshots of the narrator's travels; by the time this has faded into Rock'n'Roll Cretin, a short, melodious slice of vintage radio pop, which, two minutes later, fades out through a recording of an Australian-accented radio announcer talking, for some reason, about pasta, to a surf-guitar instrumental, you get the feeling that you've slipped into a parallel world of indiepop, a widescreen, technicolor dreamscape, melodious and with a hyperreal vividness, displaced in time by some unknown and possibly unquantifiable amount from the flattened languor of Melbourne's recent crop of “dolewave” indie. Other highlights include Gothic Skyline, with its FM keyboard accents and FM-radio polish, the pop romanticism of Iron Rose and the impeccably named closer, Too Young To Vote Too Old To Cry, with its echoes of The Beach Boys. Not sure if this is as good as guitar pop gets, but, in any case, it has to be pretty close.

  • Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked At Me (BandCamp)

    A chronicle of mourning; recorded by Phil Elverum in the room in which his wife, Genevieve Castrée (a musician and songwriter in her own right, who recorded as Ô Paon), died of cancer, and recounting, plainly, the many sad milestones as someone close passes away, the moments shared falling further into the past. Neither affected nor embellished, nonetheless, this is the heaviest thing one is likely to hear; infinitely heavier than a thousand corpsepainted Norwegians cookie-monstering about sodomitic necromutilation and such. Forget all the posturing darklings, this is death, and loss, and abject human anguish at its most primal and inevitable. There is no comfort or closure here.

  • My Sad Captains - Sun Bridge (BandCamp)

    London's My Sad Captains have recorded three albums, finding a middle road between languid, sun-dappled Americana and gently propulsive krautrock. Their fourth sees them change tack slightly, opening with a synthesizer instrumental reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Not to worry: the guitars, unhurried vocals and gently motorik percussion come back in the next track. The rest of the album goes on from there; layered, languid, enveloping and mildly psychedelic in places, with the odd synth pad or bubbling arpeggio fitting organically into their sound. A welcome return, and a promising change of heading.

  • Ride - Weather Diaries (BandCamp)

    Thames Valley shoegaze bands' comeback albums seem to be like buses: you wait for ages for one, and then two show up at once. Compared to their peers in what became the shoegaze scene, Ride's sound was always relatively clean and free of the usual reverb/delay. Consequently, 20 years on, their sound stands somewhat apart from the genre, and a listener unaware of their pedigree would probably not classify them alongside the likes of Pinkshinyultrablast, perhaps filing them under the catch-all of “psych”. For their comeback album, they recruited by Erol Alkan, the studio alchemist best known for transmuting scraggly indie-rock into something functionally equivalent on the dance floor to house music. The result is a sound that's tough and sculpted, with a clarity and solidity to it; there is some reverb and delay, but it is kept under control. Guitars, with varying degrees of fuzz (though no washes of delay) dominate, though chorused vocals, analogue synths and even the odd clunky drum machine, emerge in places. This is an expansive album, with a good amount of depth.

  • Slowdive - Slowdive (BandCamp)

    When the newly reunited Slowdive announced, in 2014, their intention to record a new album, there were doubts. How would a new album stand up next to, say, Souvlaki or the early EPs? The risk of it being an inessential appendix to the real Slowdive records of the 1990s was a real one. Fortunately, this did not happen; in fact, it's safe to say that they've hit this one out of the park. The new album, confidently self-titled, (mostly) does not radically depart from the style of their first act, but builds on it and achieves the rare feat of surpassing it and establishing Slowdive's reputation anew. The opener, Slomo, picks up where Pygmalion would have left off had most of the band not left, drifting in like a mist from the sea on a wash of processed guitars and vocals. Almost seven minutes later, it eases into Star Roving, which with its choppy guitars and driving percussion sounds like something off the legendary early EPs only more refined. Star Roving was the first single, establishing that Slowdive were back and in classic form. The second single, Sugar For The Pill, opens with a ringing five-note motif; by the time it reaches the chorus, with its synth pads and Neil and Rachel's vocal harmonies, it's as if they've reinvented 1970s soft rock via shoegaze. But it's the tracks in between that stand out for me: Don't Know Why and Everyone Knows, with Rachel's voice soaring over the harmonious maelstrom of howling feedback and chiming guitars, which bring back the sense of the sublime that one encountered upon first hearing Alison or Avalyn. The last track, Falling Ashes, departs from the familiar Slowdive-as-we-know-them sound; opening with a solitary piano line, some understated guitars, with drummer Christian Savill's granular-synthesis experiments subtly filling the empty spaces; there is perhaps a bit of Mojave 3 in the stillness. A return that exceeded its high expectations, overshadows Slowdive's earlier albums; even more intriguingly, there are apparently more Slowdive songs which sounded too different for the comeback album, which makes one intrigued as to what they do next.

  • Moses Sumney - Aromanticism (BandCamp)

    A concept album about, as the name suggests, abstaining from romantic love in a world that valorises it. Sumney's musical backings sound, in places, ironically romantic in tone, with lush string beds and bossa-nova guitars evoking old easy-listening records (and, for a moment, another act who, a quarter-century earlier, queered/queried the subject of romance and intimacy, Blueboy); elsewhere, it's adjacent to trip-hop and R&B, and, in places, could pass for Radiohead. On top of this, Sumney's voice soars in falsettos evocative at times of 78RPM blues record.

  • Warm Digits - Wireless World (BandCamp)

    A curious thing happened to the genre of krautrock, sometime after the term was coined: it became a mostly British phenomenon, eventually merging partly with hauntology (a term which originated in the writings of Jacques Derrida before becoming a byword for pre-Thatcherite institutional kitsch) and memories of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Warm Digits, from Newcastle, are another exemplar of 2010s British Radiophonic/Haunto/Krautrock spectrum (alongside the sequenced Ostalgie of Scotland's Kosmischer Läufer, the unironic retro-optimism of Public Service Broadcasting and the analogue pastorals of Jon Brooks), though this time leaning strongly towards the motorik end of the spectrum, with touches of disco. Two drummers propel the grooves forward metronomically, covered by synthesizer arpeggios, angular basses, taut guitar lines, and in some cases, guest vocals (Warm Digits don't include a vocalist, but have guests including Field Music, Devon Sproule and Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell), stacked layer upon warmly overdriven layer; the effect is somewhat stylised, if not mannered, though they do it well. As is often the case in this genre, the music is self-referential, being both stylistically and thematically about modernity, with songs like Always On and Fracking Blackpool touching on our dependence on technology and the bargains we make. If there were a highlight (and the level is pretty consistent across the album), it might be The Rumble And The Tremor, which veers into punk-funk territory.

With honourable mentions going to: Beaches - Second of Spring (a cavernous 76 minutes of psychedelic, motorik fuzz-rock from the Melbourne band) ¶ Boogie Idol - 音楽より遠く (described as “the perfect soundtrack to shopping for vegetables or riding an elevator”, this is a sort of Japanese vaporwave, influenced by 1990s Japanese commercial background music; to non-Japanese ears, it sounds exotic and somewhat retro-futuristic) ¶ The Bran Flakes - Help Me (the plunderphonic collagists return, with their characteristic playfulness; this is essentially the Generation X zine culture's analogue of vaporwave, brightly coloured sound sculptures made of the detritus of the 20th century) ¶ Jon Brooks - Agri Montana (Warm, Buchla-driven kosmische pastorals, inspired by vintage postcards and climbing hills in Wales) ¶ Children of Alice - Children of Alice (the surviving members of Broadcast, paying tribute to Trish with a track of eldritch, and very British, hauntological musique concrète) ¶ Even As We Speak - The Black Forest (the Sydney band, who were perhaps the most eccentric act to sign to Sarah Records, return after a few decades, with four tracks of sunny indiepop and a rocking cover of the Horst Jankowski lounge standard made famous by The Goodies' pirate radio episode; short but sweet, and hopefully a harbinger of more to come) ¶ Jakuzi - Fantezi Müzik (krautrock meets synthpop, in Turkish) ¶ Lindstrøm - It's Alright Between Us As It Is (the latest slice of bouncy good-time electro-disco from the prolific Norwegian producer; also features an appearance by Jenny Hval) ¶ The Luxembourg Signal - Blue Field (Moody post-punk indiepop from Beth Arzy (of the Sarah band Aberdeen) and friends) ¶ Makthaverskan - Ill (their third album shows the Gothenburg post-punk indie-pop combo polishing their sound further, with Maja's voice soaring over crisp guitars like something off a John Hughes film soundtrack) ¶ Kelly Lee Owens - s/t (ethereal vocals floating over sequenced Hackney-warehouse-rave electronics, with some interesting progressions; there's also a guest appearance by Oslo angsteuse Jenny Hval) ¶ Pasocom Music Club - SHE IS A (Japanese retro electronica, nostalgic for the vibe of boom-era Tokyo; sounds like electro-funk made with Korg M1 presets, which is, needless to say, not a bad thing) ¶ Hannah Peel - Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia (A short concept album about a fictional spacefarer, performed with modular synthesizers and a brass band, could have gone either way, though Peel manages to pull it off. Coruscating arpeggios, classical arrangements and the odd choral voice meld seamlessly into a beguiling whole.) ¶ The Radio Dept. - Teach Me To Forget EP (released on the back of their 2016 album, this nonetheless stands on its own due to a few excellent additions and an overall cohesion; I've written more about it here) ¶ Raven - The Night Is {dark,silent,bright,loud} (the full-length debut from the Sydney avant-gardist and cellist, a series of instrumentals, made with cello, piano, the odd field recording and digital processing; atmospheric, and in places discombobulating) ¶ She-Devils - She-Devils (the full-length debut album from the Montréal duo, recreating 1950s rockabilly/lounge grooves with loops and beats; vintage-styled fun) ¶ Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid (Smith has moved in a more pop direction than her earlier works, though the songs here have a layered, psychedelic sensibility, like Pikelet with a Buchla) ¶ Street Cleaner - Payback 2 (a concept album, the concept being the incidental music from 1980s direct-to-VHS action thrillers, which was made entirely with synthesizers, as that was cheaper, and thus sounded incongruously crisp and futuristic; file alongside John Carpenter and 1980s video-game music) ¶ Tornado Wallace - Lonely Planet (chilled, funky electronic grooves falling somewhere in the space between yacht rock, Balearic electropop and incidental music for a travelogue, with perhaps echoes of Virgin Suicides-era Air. Sui Zhen makes a guest appearance. Smooth sailing, or perhaps a 747 taking off into a neon sunset somewhere near the equator.) ¶ Underground Lovers - Staring At You, Staring At Me (known briefly during its gestation as Melbournism, this album follows on from their 2013 return Weekend, this time not veering far from the Undies' art-rock stylings; Vince does get his TR-808 out on a few songs) ¶ VAR - Vetur (the Icelandic post-rock band's follow-up to their 2014 debut; sweepingly atmospheric as one would expect, and sounding in places like iLiKETRAiNS crossed with a heavier Sigur Rós) ¶ Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology (the follow-up to The Silver Globe continues further along the kosmische-disco line, with analogue fuzz aplenty and echoes of Stereolab and Neu! in places; oh, and one of the members of Can shows up, but only to say something psychedelic about the cycle of life and death and such).

If I had to choose one record of the year, it be either Slowdive or Milk Teddy; two very different records, but both of them superb. I guess it would depend on whether one wants shoegaze or pop music.

As usual, there is a Spotify playlist here:

2017 cds lists music 0

2017/12/22

Recently, I have been listening a lot to The Radio Dept.'s Teach Me To Forget EP, and have realised that, to me, it feels in many ways like an echo of a record from a quarter century earlier, namely, Momus' Voyager.

The similarities are both stylistic and aesthetic; in the tonal palette and the emotional gamut. Both have a coolly electronic feel, built on clean synthesizer sounds and programmed beats; understated and with an undercurrent of disconnection under the lights of the nocturnal city, and what Ralf Hütter once described in an interview as “cold feeling”. One could, if one were to, pinpoint where aspects of the older record reëmerge in the new one: Just So, with its dry synth-bass, quietly spoken vocals and sense of guarded futurity, is a tentative Cibachrome Blue for a more anxious age; You're Not In Love, with its funky bassline and cold, fast electronics, has an echo of Conquistador and perhaps Trans-Siberian Express. And the opening extended mix of Teach Me To Forget, itself reprising the nihilistic obliviousness in Voyager, segues neatly from the closing track of Voyager, the 2½-minute instrumental reprise Momutation 3, into its programmed club beats and minor-key tension, the 25-year gap disappearing in the crossfade.

Thematically, of course, the two records come from very different contexts. Voyager is a product of that particular euphoric moment as the eighties segued into the nineties; a confluence of the end of the Cold War and with it, some say, history, the arrival of computer technology in everyday life, and the rise of MDMA-fuelled club culture. Everything was connected, the world was waking up from history and, indeed, from the old certainties of pre-digital, pre-postmodern reality, into the Long Boom, or perhaps the Long Rave. Music could now be made with samplers, just as images could be made with Photoshop and grunged-up typefaces could be drawn on a Macintosh in Fontographer, and it's there that the idea of postmodernity, of all being artifice and simulacra, starts to leak from academic theory into everyday life. (In Japan, a country with which Momus' career was becoming increasingly intertwined, the discontinuity was even more profound, with the break between the Shōwa and Heisei eras in 1989 serving as a proxy for that entire gamut of changes, the one-way bridge between the analogue and digital, the modern and postmodern.) Voyager (the penultimate of Momus' six albums released on the then ascendant Creation label) rides the crest of that wave—the Ecstasy-infused club euphoria, the melting of genres into electronic club music, the MONDO 2000 cyberculture futurism of smart drugs and virtual reality—though not without ripples of unease. Momus picks out the analogies often cited at the time between this moment and the 1960s “Summer of Love” and posits an “electronic inwardness”; a trip into a vast, luminously pulsating inner space, and in this there is estrangement: We hear the bass talk, it's saying nothing. Love has left the arena and the lost psychonaut attempts to reach out from the gravity well of their trip. Soma Holiday, 1992.

Fast forward to 2017, and things are somewhat different. History has very noisily restarted itself, the balance between democracy and capitalism has tipped in favour of the latter and sinister actors have weaponised freedom, stirring unrest and catapulting extremists into power with swarms of social-media sockpuppets, covert ads and algorithmic manipulation (“nothing is true, we move like shadows across the stage”). In the ever-warming political climate (“there are thunderstorms, and the weather's wrong”), the thawing permafrost has released the bacilli of various anti-liberal ideologies long thought extinct, from theocracy to obscurantist arguments for absolute monarchy, to several dozen variants on fascism, including ones mainly concerned with video games and represented by cartoon frogs. In some ways the period from 1989 to 2001 looks increasingly, in retrospect, as a golden age; its buzzing, coolly luminous optimism replaced by a sensation of preapocalyptic anxiety.

The Radio Dept. were not initially a political band. Starting in the Swedish indie scene of the early 00s, their songs were hazy and ambiguous, both sonically and lyrically, consisting of fuzzy guitars, cheap drum machines and gently wistful melodies, somewhere between The Field Mice and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Somewhere around the 2010s, this started to change gradually; a sample of Thurston Moore ranting about capitalism here, a song titled Death To Fascism there (back when references to fascism sounded like Rik-from-The-Young-Ones-style hyperbole or kitsch), but still the same overall formula. Until their most recent album last year, titled, pointedly, Running Out Of Love. Gone was the haze: in its stead, sharp, cold electronics (they do love the TR-808 cowbell, it seems), sounding more Factory or Mute than Sarah or Creation, and a sniper-like aim at serious issues: the rise of the far right, the arms industry, and, perhaps above all, the comfortably apolitical, the “good people” who do nothing in the face of evil. Of course, being The Radio Dept., this was delivered not as protest-ready bolshie chants but with frosty understatement. Running Out Of Love was a timely return to form, won many accolades (among them, this blog's album of the year title), and spawned three EPs for its singles; the most recent being Teach Me To Forget, the subject of this post.

Voyager and Teach Me To Forget could be seen to bookend an era; the decade or so of the Closing-Down Sale of History and the Long Boom/Now, and slightly longer afterwards—before Trump and Brexit and the Sverigedemokraterna and numerous equivalent local phenomena—when people still thought that we may yet return to this, the natural post-historic state of loved-up transnational consumerist utopia; the coming out of the cold into the futurismic cyber-rave, and the cold crashing in with a vengeance, the party having become the Masque of the Red Death in the interim; a reëngagement with a resurgent reality.

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