The Null Device
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It's the last day of another year, and time to take stock of the year's musical releases once again:
ANOHNI — Hopelessness (BandCamp)
Formerly known as Antony Hegarty (of The Johnsons), ANOHNI is back, and she's angry. She has swapped the wyrd-folk trappings of her earlier career for electronic beats (produced in collaboration with Hudson Mohawke); the result is an album of songs, each taking on a different target, such as global warming and climate denialism (4 Degrees), NSA mass surveillance (Watch Me), the US's attachment, alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia and North Korea, to capital punishment (Execution) and drone-based targeted killings (Drone Bomb Me); over beats and synthesizer sequences, she sings resonantly, embracing the evil with scathing sarcasm, at one moment imploring to be killed as a gospel singer would for salvation, and at another welcoming the mass extinction of entire ecosystems and the burning of the world with demented glee. Some tracks have stood the test of time less well, though; Obama, a scathing excoriation of the outgoing president's failures delivered in a low monotone set to stark electronic drones and pounding drums, will look like a grim joke in the coming years; even more so if one counts the possibility that its sentiment may have helped swing crucial votes away from Clinton. (Perhaps, once they round up all the liberals in America and put them in camps, this will play on a loop on the loudspeakers?)
The Avalanches — Wildflower
A herculean feat of crate-digging and mixing—hunting down countless tonnes of obscure vinyl, sampling elements from them, and blending them into just over an hour of seamlessly chilled groove-collages—that has been some 16 years in the making (though, to be fair, a significant proportion of that was probably sorting out of sample clearance rights). The result is a soup of breakbeats, flute trills, rich strings, clunking basses, orchestral segments and vocals, chopped, looped, processed with judicious reverb and the occasional touch of phasing or delay. Several of the tracks feature guest performances from rappers, including Oakland oddball Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. Also, this is probably the most American cultural product from any Australians not named Baz Lurhmann; there's nothing on the record alluding at its Antipodean origins; instead, there's a sort of displaced-nostalgic reverie for the fabled fifty states as imagined by Australian kids brought up on a diet of American television and music, a magical land of golden summers, cool cars, snappy dialogue and brightly coloured breakfast cereals. This Aussie fantasy-America is, due to being constructed from original materials, slightly more real than the neon-hued French fantasy-America conjured by the likes of M83, but nonetheless differs interestingly from the real thing, as places seen from outside tend to do.
beGun — AMMA (BandCamp)
beGun is a producer from Barcelona, and AMMA is 11 tracks of chilled sequenced melodic electronic soundscapes, building up out of layers of warm synth pads, bass lines, subbass drones, melodic lines, FM texture sparse beats and the odd thumb piano, field recording and vocal sample (mostly from African traditional music, it seems. If you like that sort of thing done well (and this is), check them out.
Cavern of Anti-Matter — Void Beats/Invocation Trex
The new band from Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth of the massively influential Stereolab veers off in a post-krautrock direction; metronomic, hypnotic rhythms, patterns and electronic treatments (one of their members is synth wizard Holger Zapf). The opening track, Tardis Cymbals is almost 13 minutes of TR-x0x percussion and synth loops in ¹⁴⁄₁₆ time or similar, with processed guitars and synths coming in and out over that, and could easily have been ten minutes longer. Blowing My Nose Under Close Observation continues in the motorik/electronic vein, albeit is shorter and in the more familiar ⁴⁄₄ time. More familiarly Stereolabesque elements emerge in the third track Insect Fear, with its phased drum loop and overdriven Farfisa chords echoing something from the Transient Random Noise Bursts era, and later in Echolalia; one almost expects to hear Lætitia singing about the human condition. Of course, she doesn't, and to Cavern's credit, nor does any other French-accented female vocalist show up and attempt to fill her place. There are, however, other guest appearances; Bradford Cox of Deerhunter sings on Liquid Gate, taking it into New Order-meets-Doves territory, and perennial psychonaut Sonic Boom expounds impenetrable theories of planetary folklore, neat and through a vocoder, over layers of synth arpeggios and treated guitars and cymbals on the track titled, appropriately, Planetary Folklore. Much of the rest of the record consists of combinations of similar elements: synthesiser arpeggios, metronomic rhythms; texture and repetition, closing with the lullaby-like Zone Null. Void Beats/Invocation Trex plants its flag firmly in the psychedelic/kosmische space, though manages to avoid sounding derivative or too in thrall to any specific influences, even Stereolab. A good contender the psych/kosmische record of the year.
The Chandler Estate — Infrastructure EP (BandCamp), and My Favorite, Christine Zero/Killed For Kicks (BandCamp),
Two uneasy halves of the Long Island new-wave cult heroes My Favorite, who (in their original incarnation) broke up some ten years ago. The current My Favorite is the project of frontman Michael Grace Jr., a self-styled Sicilian-American Mod/Goth/Morrissey acolyte, and Christine Zero is coruscating new-wave synthpop about a recurring theme of his, the intense lives and deaths of life's misfits (Grace, in his vocal delivery, gives a nod to David Bowie on this record, as he did to Bryan Ferry on the single that preceded it). Meanwhile, The Chandler Estate is the new band of My Favorite's angelic-voiced former frontwoman Andrea Vaughn, breaking almost a decade's silence; the first track, Spies No More is like Homeless Club Kids Part 2, ten years later, and yet as urgent and poignant and aflame with the sublime anguish of being alive as always (“so with the kid on my hip I'm asking you to dance / let's put the kid in the crib, it could be our last chance”). Let's hope there is more to come.
David Bowie — ★, and Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Of the titans of music who left the world in this year's musical Gotterdämmerung, Bowie and Leonard Cohen released albums shortly before doing so, and in both cases, the albums were, judged aside from their finality, local high-water marks of the artists' late periods; had providence seen fit to accord Bowie and Cohen a few more years each, both ★ and You Want It Darker would have stood up solidly in their careers.
★ (or Blackstar, where Unicode isn't available), coming out three days before Bowie's death, raised eyebrows even before its significance became starkly apparent; eschewing the retro-rock nostalgia of its predecessor, the conspicuously self-quoting The Next Day, Bowie also broke from his regular collaborators, instead recruiting a then relatively unknown experimental jazz ensemble fronted by Donny McCaslin. The result is bold and uneasy; the titular opening track evokes a non-electronic Kid A for its first four minutes, then emerging into more melodically familiar, yet still lyrically oblique, Bowie balladeering. The secret the notoriously private Bowie was carrying emerges, in retrospect in places: in the claustrophobic edginess of Lazarus, and most obviously, the elegiac Dollar Days, where the New York-based Bowie laments the prospect of never seeing the English evergreens again, before telling the world (“I'm dying to... / I'm dying, too”); this is followed, chronologically and thematically, by the upbeat I Can't Give Everything Away, ending in a fade-out, as if truncated by circumstance before its time to end.
Cohen's final album is less oblique or experimental, but nonetheless a bold statement from an artist in command of his great talents to the end. Varying in style from old-time soul/rock balladry (On The Level and the almost Lynch/Badalamenti-esque Leaving The Table) to darker, starker sounds (the sparse, bone-dry It Seemed The Better Way with its violin, Hammond organ and minimal bass guitar, and the titular opener, with its synagogue choir). Cohen's aged voice adds a smoky darkness and the gravitas of someone who has made his accommodations, on whatever terms, with the all-devouring Chronos; the subject matter tends towards the human condition; the complexities of relationships (Treaty), devotion (If I Didn't Have Your Love) and a foreshadowing of mortality (Leaving The Table). Cohen's wise way with words will be missed.
Kero Kero Bonito — Bonito Generation
Kero Kero Bonito are a London-based trio, fronted by an Anglo-Japanese frontwoman, Sarah Midori Perry, and connected with the millennial club-pop powerhouse PC Music. Bonito Generation, their second album, is a polished affair, consisting of 12 playful, immaculately produced electropop songs, mostly in English, though with the odd verse in Japanese, about subjects like taking snapshots, graduating from university, the challenges and possibilities offered by big cities and the joys of idleness. The sound is crisp and glossy, shining like the neon of Shibuya, and borrowing heavily from the sonic language of Japanese pop and Shibuya-kei, down to the layers of 90s-era digital synths and autotuned choruses. (The veneration of smallness in the songs—about things like fish in bowls, getting out of bed in the morning—also feels very Japanese; though lyrics celebrating slacking off and subverting the surface meaning of a song about education (“I didn't learn a thing anyway”) remind us that this is a product of Britain, not superlegitimate Japan.) Highlights include the exquisite J-pop of Big City, the 2-step-infused floor-filler Lipslap and the punchy, euphoric pop of Trampoline. This is an album in bold primary colours.
Let's Eat Grandma — I, Gemini
As the giants of music fell, one by one, over the past year, one could be forgiven for thinking that all that's left is X-Factor contestants, a thousand interchangeable forgettably tasteful hipster bands and Kanye West. Unless one sees Let's Eat Grandma, two 17-year-old girls from Norwich who have been making music together since they were 13, and who play about six instruments each. Well-versed in the idioms of pop music that they play with, they nonetheless do their own thing, unconstrained by commercial considerations; sometimes they eschew the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-8-chorus-gear-change pop song structure in favour of multipartite songs with instrument swaps, tempo changes and layers of melody and countermelody, and sometimes they just reclaim the recorder as an instrument for use in dance-pop. The next best thing to seeing them live, their debut album is proof that the kids are alright.
Lindstrøm - Windings (BandCamp)
Lindstrøm, along with his compatriot Todd Terje, are part of a new Norwegian school of house/electronica which is to mainstream dance music what the 1960s Batman TV series is to the big-budget cinema Batmen of recent decades; instead of the grim-faced muscularity of mainstream house and alpha-masculine swagger of brostep, there is a playfulness, a lightness of touch and a sense of palpable joy. His latest EP. Windings, is no exception; the three tracks, all between 6 and 9 minutes, motor on propelled by the 4/4 pulse of a vintage drum machine, into a landscape of analogue synth arpeggios, sequenced bass lines, sawtooth synth-brass stabs, filter pizzicatos and the odd keyboard solo, flowing and reflowing into melodies, all seasoned sparingly with the odd digital drum machine handclap and 808 cowbell for good measure. The three tracks, as the title suggests, wind their way through a sonic landscape at once familiar and novel.
Lush - Blind Spot
In 2016, the 1990s shoegaze quartet Lush briefly came back, released a new EP, spent most of a year playing gigs and festivals around the world, and then spit up again, returning to the underworld of defunct bands. The one musical artefact of this revenance was this EP, containing four new songs that are unmistakeably Lush. As I wrote about it when it came out, it could almost be considered as an artefact from a parallel universe, one in which the conditions existed for them to have avoided the alternative-rock/Britpop hype whirlpool, instead building on their ethereal-yet-spiky sound to an audience of fans; in that universe, something like that could have some out some time after Split. In this one, however, it came out 20 years after they broke up, and so the key difference is that the songs are from that point of view. The opening track, Out Of Control, seems to be about the fraught complexities of the relationship between a parent and a child on the cusp of adolescence, written with the straight-talking intimacy that the younger Lush reserved for more youthful forms of intense emotion. Lost Boy, meanwhile, is a poignant tribute to their drummer Chris Ackland, who took his own life in 1996, (“I feel your fingers slipping out of my hand / now I've lost you, where'd you go to”), and the void his death left. This is a powerful record, among Lush's finest work, and the fact of its existence is a bittersweet one; it's great that it exists, but also sad that this is, finally, the end.
The Radio Dept. - Running Out Of Love
The long-awaited return from the Swedish shoegaze-pop duo, last seen with an album six years earlier, aside from the occasional MP3 railing against fascism over electronic loops. As one might expect, the new album is a departure in several ways. Stylistically, the warm guitar fuzz and distortion-cooked beats have been (partly) replaced with cool, precise electronics (more specifically, with a reference point more specifically somewhere around Manchester, circa 1989); thematically, the wistfulness has been replaced by a righteous (if understated, in very Scandinavian ways) anger, at the rightward-leaning political situation, but also at their record label, Labrador and the injustice of recording contracts. (The latter has been resolved, the result being yet another imminent departure, for a label of their own.)
The short opening track, Sloboda Narodu (Serbo-Croat, I believe, for “freedom of the nation”) sounds familiar enough, with its languid guitar licks and conga loop, but the familiarity doesn't last long. Swedish Guns addresses Sweden's huge arms export industry and its incongruity with the country's vaunted humanitarian reputation; it takes the form of a sarcastic marketing jingle, in minor key, set to dubby electro backgrounds like a more downbeat Ace Of Bass (which may be in itself a reference to fascism). We Got Game is a dubbed-out piece of pop-house, apparently about protests and/or police brutality. Occupied, sounds somewhere between James Figurine's wintry electronica and 1980s New Order at their most detached, all chilly synth pads, sequenced basslines and 808 cowbells. Can't Be Guilty and This Thing Was Bound To Happen are the closest to The Radio Dept's earlier works, albeit more electronic, and with the wistfulness feeling more, well, 2016 (as the album's title suggests, this is not the time for personal introspection), while Committed To the Cause takes a detour into Stone Roses/Happy Mondays-style baggy territory. The album's parting shot (at the comfortably apolitical, presumably) is Teach Me To Forget, (“So teach me to forget, 'cause baby you're so good at it”), icy sarcasm over a bed of cold gated synth pads.
The Second-Hand Marching Band & Benni Hemm Hemm — Faults, and Throws — Throws
Two vaguely folky British-Icelandic collaborations. The Second-Hand Marching Band are a large band from Glasgow that could be lumped into the broad category of “folk” if one isn't a purist, with the beards, vintage spectacles, stringed instruments, glockenspiels and accordions that the name suggests; here, they collaborate with Icelandic singer/songwriter Benni Hemm Hemm, producing a record of warm intimacy. Throws, meanwhile, are from somewhere near London, and have more soul influences, along with fuzzy analogue electronics; their self-titled album was, however, recorded in Reykjavík with a massed choir of beer-drinking Icelandic gents (at least if their performance at Airwaves is anything to go by).
Vanishing Twin - Choose Your Own Adventure (BandCamp)
Vanishing Twin (for a while known, confusingly, as Orlando) is a band put together by Cathy Lucas, formerly of My Sad Captains and Fanfarlo. As the title suggests, this is an album of conceptual play, with pop meeting psychedelic improvisation. In some ways, Vanishing Twin is in the same fluid genre as Stereolab and Broadcast, only their end abutting the realms of exotica and library music. Highlights include the groove of The Conservation of Energy and the Yma Sumac-meets-Emperor Tomato Ketchup of the closer, It Sends My Heart Into A Spin.
With honourable mentions going to: Asher Levitas — Lit Harness (immersive ambient/industrial/noise soundscapes; uneasy listening about tranquility amidst chaos) ¶ Factory Floor — 25 25 (more minimal, x0x-driven electro-house music(k), going on as their debut started) ¶ Fatima al-Qadiri — Brute (the Kuwaiti-born New York electronica artist's latest release, a concept album about protests and their heavy-handed suppression, following stylistically from the arabesque dubstep of Asiatisch, only more, you know, 2016) ¶ The Fireworks — Black And Blue (skronky post-C86 garage indie from London with attitude) ¶ Goat — Requiem (the latest from the northern-Swedish masked “tribal” psychedelia combo, equal parts Rousseau and Amon Düül II) ¶ Hana Maru — Hana Maru (nice indie chamber-pop from Melbourne, with piano and violins) ¶ Steve Hauschildt — Strands (kosmische analogue electronic ambience, in a post-Tangerine Dream vein) ¶ I Monster — Bright Sparks (a concept album, with booklet, about the history of analogue synthesizers, featuring the Moog, Buchla, ARP and Mellotron among others, and done rather well), Jenny Hval — Blood Bitch (the follow-up to Apocalypse, Girl mixes deceptively nice-sounding electronic pop with themes of vampirism, menstruation, fraught romance and capitalism) ¶ Josefin Öhrn and the Liberation — Mirage (10 tracks of propulsive, motorik krautrock/psychedelia done better than most) ¶ The Julie Ruin — Hit Reset (Kathleen Hanna's back with some righteously skronky garage-punk-pop) ¶ Ladyhawke — Wild Things (the LA-based Kiwi songwriter/producer turning her golden ear to late-80s FM-radio pop à la Diane Warren, with the electronic gloss cranked up and the occasional Millennial Whoop to remind us that it is 2016; somewhere between Taylor Dayne and Taylor Swift) ¶ The Leaf Library — Nightlight Versions and Versions (two variations on their last year's album, Daylight Versions; the former is drony instrumental takes; the latter, remixes by artists including Cavern Of Anti-Matter and Greeen Linez) ¶ Memoryhouse — Soft Hate (the Canadian dreampoppers second full-length album goes bigger, with a more expansive sound, though keeping the understatedness at its core) ¶ Momus — Scobberlotchers (sonically leaning on samples of old Japanese records, as his recent albums have done, Momus engages with the rise of populist xenophobia and personal responses to it; titles include Neo-Weimar, Year Zero and What Are Facts?) ¶ Pascal Pinon — Sundur (languid, minimal Icelandic folk-pop from two sisters, one of whom also is in Samaris) ¶ Penny Orchids — No Maps (the London klezmerbilly quartet bow out in style) ¶ Pikelet — Tronc (Surprising, comparison-defying songs crafted from wonky loops, improvised electronics, pianos and layers of voice) ¶ Samaris — Black Lights (the Icelandic chilled electronica trio's third album, and their first in English) ¶ She-Devils — She-Devils EP (loop-based rockabilly-styled pop from two women in Montreal) ¶ ₩€$€₦ - ₩ALL OF PAI₦ (a boy-girl duo from Reykjavík, making an understated autumnal indiepop with electronic loops, keyboards and the odd acoustic guitar, sounding in places like Pipas, had they signed to a Berlin glitch label)
And then there were the 2015 albums I unfortunately only discovered this year, but which should have otherwise featured on a record: Josefin Öhrn's metronomic psych juggernaut Horse Dance was one such revelation, as is the indiepop yé-yé of Iko Chérie's Dreaming On and I was late in picking up The Spook School's rambunctious queer tweexcore opus Try To Be Hopeful and the darkly luminous Subcontinental dubstep of Aisha Devi's Of Matter And Spirit. But the most poignant member of this list would be Remain, from Californian duo Them Are Us Too. Their sound is somewhere between The Sundays and early-1990s American swirlygoth bands like Love Spirals Downwards, with maybe a bit of The Cure circa Disintegration; drum machines and synthesizers, immaculate processed guitars, the singer's powerful soprano voice and plenty of reverb, making for a work of ethereal beauty. Tragically, I only heard about them because one of them was one of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Rest in peace.
There is now a mix of tracks from these releases on Spotify, here.
With 2015 drawing to a close, it's once again time for a list of the records of the year, so here it is:
- Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
I have written more about this record here. In short, Belle & Sebastian continue to get more polished, add an EDM direction to a few of their tracks, and Stuart keeps his eye on the ladies. The rebetiko knees-up of The Everlasting Muse is probably the big surprise, though from sequencer-pulsed disco to string-saturated misfit melancholia, it's all good.
- Braids — Deep In The Iris (BandCamp link)
A new band originally from Calgary, Canada, Braids started off doing shoegaze but their sound has evolved since, taking more from the more syncopated and glitchy ends of electronica; Deep In The Iris combines grand piano, layers of electronic instruments and effects (reverbs and various forms of aliasing are used to interesting textural effect), breakbeats (and the drummer's amazing talent for mimicking a speeding MPC-1000 chopping up the Amen break, as evident at their live shows) and the frontwoman's voice, powerful and yet intimate. Highlights include Miniskirt, a piece of rage against sexism over layers of subtle yet glitchy electronics, which sounds like a post-rave Sinead O'Connor.
- Brideshead — Never Grow Up (BandCamp link)
If you have fond memories of the previous post-C86 indiepop scene—not the recent Brooklyn-based one with its fuzzy guitars and mildly gothy affectations, but the circumbaltic one, with jangly guitars, trumpets, handclaps and naïvely upbeat lyrics about love, music, the love of music, and music formats as metaphors for romantic love—this record is for you. Brideshead, formed in the 1990s in Wiesbaden, Germany, and influenced by the wave of indiepop coming out of Britain in the 1980s and the Swedish indie scene of the 1990s), were one of the bands on the German label Apricot (who also had Spearmint and Eggstone on their roster), and their aptly titled 2015 reunion album recaptures the summery feel of that soberingly long-past zeitgeist. (They even have one song, At 45 RPM, using the vinyl recording medium as a metaphor for romantic relationships, which is perhaps the most indiepop song concept possible.) File alongside The Electric Pop Group, Math And Physics Club and other popkids who keep the sound alive.
- Death And Vanilla — To Where The Wild Things Are (BandCamp link)
After having taken and perfected post-C86 indiepop, balearic electro, house music and synthpop, the Swedes turn their attention to that most English of genres, hauntology, or so the Ghost Box-esque cover art promises. The music itself follows that direction with some minor changes; there are no samples of old public-information films or received-pronounciation-accented voices saying unsettling things, and the mood is somewhere between Angelo Badalamenti's David Lynch collaborations and the brief and underrecognised wave of records that straddled the gap between trip-hop and hauntology (think Parsley Sound and the like). Death and Vanilla, the Malmö band responsible, have their roots in Scandinavia's black metal scene (and get their name from a Nick Cave lyric), though you wouldn't know it from the instrumentation; vibraphones, clunking bass guitar notes and fuzzy analogue synths underpin the sleepy valium-infused vocals.
- Holly Herndon — Platform
A leftfield record in several ways. Herndon (who has studied experimental electronic music at the graduate level) builds up tracks using samples of her own voice, as well as other sounds, processed through custom Max/MSP patches; chopped up, layered and reconstituted in a granular fashion. In some cases, the result is the popular song form by other means; in others, it's textural pieces. Sonically, much of Platform's palette consists of the human voice; sometimes it's reconstituted, chopped up and layered electronically into abstract forms; at other times, it's straight, (sometimes sounding more like choral, liturgical or early music; in particular, Unequal); the rest consists of abstract digital sounds (synthesizer drones, glitchy percussion) and fragments of samples, often ambiguously small. Don't expect something unlistenably difficult; while this is not, strictly speaking, pop (and it does make other leftfield pop acts like Björk and Grimes sound like Taylor Swift by comparison, by virtue of its unusual construction; though perhaps the hit factories of LA and Stockholm are retooling as we speak), the elements somehow coalesce, like a particle system of sound, to form some undeniably banging tunes. The themes also lean towards the leftfield: in Locker Leak, disembodied voices utter vaguely commercial-sounding nonsequiturs over Herndon's granular choral vocals and glitchy beats; Lonely At The Top, with ASMR artist Clare Tolan performing the vocals, is an imagined ASMR stimulation/therapy programme for oligarchs in need of relaxation, and Home touches on mass surveillance and the violation of having one's activities and innermost thoughts monitored by algorithms. Stylistically, though, Holly Herndon has invented a new futurism; the old ideas of what sounds cutting-edge no longer apply.
- Julia Holter — Have You In My Wilderness
Subtle yet maximalist baroque pop; there's a lot happening, but it doesn't get overwhelming. Equal parts Björk and Laurel Canyon, with more than a touch of Jherek Bischoff—esque orchestral sumptuousity; the sonic palette mostly eschews overtly electronic-sounding timbres, in favour of the orchestral; pianos, harpisichords, double bass and a surfeit of strings make their appearance, with judicious use of reverb. Highlights would be the opener, Feel You, and and the languid Lucette Stranded On The Island.
- Jenny Hval — Apocalypse, girl (BandCamp link)
Norwegian avant-gardist Jenny Hval's latest album sounds like a therapy session set to music; Hval's vocal delivery varies from spoken-word to jazz vocals; she sings over electronic beats, sequenced synthesizer lines and other instruments; as the title suggests, the album deals with femininity, sexuality and the human condition, in a way that is wry, confessional and at times transgressive (example line: “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit”). The final track, Holy Land, is sublimely lovely: well worth listening to the end of its 10 minutes.
- Briana Marela — All Around Us (BandCamp link)
I had the good fortune of seeing Briana Marela play at St. John's in Hackney, following Let's Eat Grandma, and bought the record on the strength of that. Marela, from Seattle, builds up rather lovely pop songs with loops of her voice and adding beats, melodic lines and subtle electronics on her laptop, with judicious use of reverb and delay. The songs glow and shimmer; they are intimate, introspective and yet encompassing and enveloping; reminiscent somewhat of The Motifs, Pikelet and early New Buffalo, or perhaps what Rose Melberg might have done had she grown up with laptops rather than guitars.
- New Order — Music Complete
Yes, without Peter Hook on bass, as the old joke goes, it's not New Order, it's The Other Two plus Barney; and the matter is complicated by Hooky suing the band essentially for going on under their existing name without him (they tried renaming themselves to Bad Lieutenant, but abandoned that plan in the face of a massive lack of interest). Nonetheless, Music Complete lives up to the cocky swagger of its title, and is perhaps the first New Order album in several decades to produce a palpable sense of excitement. This is mostly because they go back to what was their forte: combining ambiguous post-punk rock with copious amounts of euphoric electronics. The second track, Singularity recaptures the spiky edge of LowLife. After that, the album goes a bit Moroder, which, from New Order, can only be a very good thing; layers of precise electronic rhythms and textures like grids of coloured light. The midpoint of the album is Stray Dog, a tense instrumental, sounding like something off a film soundtrack, with a grizzled Iggy Pop delivering a spoken-word piece meditating on love and happiness, after which the guitars come back for a few tracks. The penultimate track provides a soaring climax, but the album is closed by Superheated, a breezy pop song whose staccato sequencer evokes early OMD. If you can live without Hooky's low-slung, high-played basslines, you may find this to be New Order's strongest album since the 1980s.
- Oh Peas! — Difficult Second Chair (BandCamp link)
“Sausage roll in the glovebox on the 2:01 to Bristol, the driver's looking at the road”, the opening track, Broke Yr Tv, begins over reverb-drowned guitar, before the song kicks in, a choppy strum, a Field Mice-esque bass guitar and drum machine and a Casiotone keyboard accompanying Rosie Smith's bell-clear soprano. The rest of the album consists of lo-fi skronk, new-wave angularity, echoes of vintage rock'n'roll, the odd nice pop melody, layers of multitracked bedroom-pop instruments, introspective spoken-word and a panoply of quotidian observations and clever plays of words (“the loneliness of the long-distance bus journey” being one example, and, indeed, the title being another). With her earlier work, she managed to catch the attention of no less than Euros Childs, and not only ended up playing support for his gigs, but getting him to sing and play Casio keyboard on one of the tracks.
- Tame Impala — Currents
The new album from the Australian psych-rock project which has been rocking festivals for the past few years is a lushly produced affair, combining elements of funk, dance music, yacht rock and perhaps even Bollywood scores in with its acid-bleached guitar and synth fuzz. Thematically, it is very much in the psychedelic tradition of being about internal, subjective experiences; Kevin Parker, the veteran psychonaut buffeted by the swirls and eddies of life, piecing together his seared psyche and writing catchy pop songs about it. Let It Happen foreshadows some ambiguous yet momentous change just under 8 minutes motorik beats, processed vocals and layers of synths; the second track, Nangs, is like an impressionist painting rendered in prog-psych electronica. Yes I'm Changing is a letter to someone (a friend? a partner/lover?) outlining why he must move on, half bidding goodbye, half inviting them to come along. Past Life is the album at its Bee Gees-esque apex of too-slow-to-disco smoothness; a song about unexpectedly seeing an old ex in the street shattering one's contentment with one's present-day routine, extended into four minutes of synth arpeggios, finger snaps and chorused and pitch-shifted vocals. (One could draw comparisons to Hissing Fauna/Satanic Panic-period Of Montreal, only without the perviness and period stylings.)
- Tigercats — Mysteries
Tigercats' second album is a more polished and (slightly) smoother affair (the B-side cover of Fleetwood Mac's Everywhere they did before recording it perhaps having foreshadowed the shift of influences). The opening track, Junior Champion, sets the scene with a shaker and two guitars leading into a languid ballad, using chess as a metaphor. Later, the groovy, synth-driven Wheezer goes further towards making a case for Tigercats as the true heirs to Architecture In Helsinki, and Sleeping In The Backseat is the album's big pop single.
YACHT — I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler
YACHT are the late-period Boing Boing of electro art-rave; very LA, compulsively futurismic, playful, somewhat cartoonish, and mixing subversiveness with unapologetic commercialism. Their latest album is no exception: gorgeously produced, multi-coloured, multi-layered chopped'n'screwed post-DFA electro-rave brain candy. The theme, as the title suggests, is technomalaise, partly in a where's-my-rocket-car Jetsons-kitsch sense, and partly in a Google/Facebook/NSA/email-spam weltschmerz sense. On listening to it one does get a sense of cartoonish flatness, of mashing up various levels as if they were semantically neutral ingredients; hence we get lyrics referencing Tinder ennui and drone strikes alongside each other. Because of this flatness, it's hard to tell where the boundaries between irony and sincerity, and between critique and complicity, lie; as one example, the album was promoted by being made available whenever the much-criticised predatory transport broker Uber had surge pricing in LA; whether this was a cross-promotion, critique, the former disguised as the latter or vice versa, is an open question. The album has its highlights: the opener, Miles And Miles, is an eight-minute electro juggernaut; War On Women suspends the postmodern irony to make a serious point, and I Want To Fuck You Till I'm Dead (in which Claire waxes poetic about her intentions for the second person, who, one gets the impression, is a really hench yet soulful twentysomething “creative entrepreneur” of some sort in London) has the playfulness of a lost Talkshow Boy song.
Honourable mentions include: Alpine — Yuck (the Melbourne band move from the Scandinavian-Balearic sounds of their earlier work towards a more laptop-R&B vibe), Beach House - Depression Cherry (lush and enveloping; a fine successor to Bloom; BandCamp), Björk — Vulnicura (an exorcism of the sundering of her relationship with her long-time partner, from the first doubts to the terrible, numb aftermath—the whole Kübler-Ross; lush yet harrowing), The Catenary Wires — Red Red Skies (Amelia Fletcher and her husband and long-time bandmate Rob Pursey's latest project eschews the indiepop shimmy and skronk for a more understated and (dare one say) mature vibe, somewhere between old country 78s and the Go-Betweens; Throw Another Love Song On The Fire would be the standout track), Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit (wordy indie songwriting in a distinctly Australian voice over real rock riffs, somewhere between The Lucksmiths, Pavement, Sonic Youth and a coolsie Chisel), Cuushe — Night Lines (an EP of tastefully chilled electropop grooves from Japan's Cuushe; BandCamp), Desperate Journalist — Desperate Journalist (taut new-wavey indie-rock by numbers; reminiscent of early My Favorite in places), East India Youth — Culture Of Volume (a bit more pop than his debut; Carousel stands out as the highlight), Fever Dream — Moyamoya (some fine shoegaze à la Chapterhouse/MBV from a young London band to watch), Four Tet — Morning/Evening (a 40-minute 2-track EP/album, combining Indian vocals with kosmische analogue synthesizer pulses and making an entrancing work; BandCamp), Grimes — Art Angels (interesting and idiosyncratic hook-laden electronic pop; highlights include Flesh Without Blood and REALiTi), Gwenno — Y Dydd Olaf (Welsh-language haunto-pop, not too far from Broadcast), Haiku Salut — Etch And Etch Deep (the Haikus go on as they started, only (perhaps appropriately) a shade deeper, more intricate and more expansive), Jean-Michel Jarre — Electronica 1: The Time Machine (get your arpeggiator/sequencer/modular-synth fix here), The Leaf Library — Daylight Versions (more languid and contemplative than their previous albums, eschewing (most of) the Stereolabesque motorik buildups of their earlier work in favour of a more pastoral, cozy feeling, with a warm, pre-used sound palette), Martin L. Gore — MG (an instrumental affair, following on from his Vince Clarke collaboration, VCMG, only without the Clarke's dancefloor-friendly influences; i.e., 55 minutes of frosty, vaguely post-Depechey noodling with synths, beats and electronic effects; pairs well with ambiguous footage, ideally in black and white), Pinkshinyultrablast — Everything Else Matters (another good shoegaze record, this time from Russia), Purity Ring — Another Eternity (more witch-house-tinged electropop from the Canadian duo), Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (the riot grrrl pioneers return in fine form), Stealing Sheep — Not Real (playful electropop from Liverpool; the title track is my favourite), Teeth Of The Sea — Highly Deadly Black Tarantula (not too far from Ben Frost, with its post-industrial drones, ominous moods and (perhaps scenery-chewing) obsession with the Burkean sublime that's evident in song titles like Field Punishment and Have You Ever Held A Bird Of Prey; the album closer, Love Theme From 1984, is rather lovely, somewhat reminiscent of New Order's Elegia; BandCamp).
Were I to choose an album of the year, it'd probably be Holly Herndon's Platform, with Briana Marela's All Around Us as a runner-up. There should probably also be a special mention for Björk; while her album didn't finish in the top this year, her influence is on at least three of the albums that did.
Anyway, here is a companion mix on 8tracks.
Once again, the year is almost over, so it's time to look back on the music of the past year; and so, here are the records of 2014 (in alphabetical order):
- Ben Frost, A U R O R A
Frost's most recent album sees him put aside the processed electroacoustic sounds he has used on previous records and instead start experimenting with electronic/dance-music instrumentation (as alluded to in one of the track titles, Diphenyl Oxalate, after the chemical used in glow sticks); though, by the time they've been put through his production process (whose details are a closely-held secret), the sounds are almost unrecognisable, Frost also collaborates with two drummers, who play in tandem. The result is layers of vaguely distressed textures; slow build-ups, often of corroded timbres, and intricate soundscapes, punctuated by bursts of searing, cathartic noise; contrasts between vast spaces and overwhelming intensity. Highlights include Venter and the closing triptych of No Sorrowing/Sola Fide/A Single Point Of Blinding Light. Sublime, in the Burkean sense of the word.
- East India Youth, Total Strife Forever
William Doyle, aka East India Youth, juggles the hats of songwriter, minimalist composer and producer of bangin' choons; as such, Total Strife Forever could be summed up, somewhat reductionistically, as two parts Hot Chip to one part Philip Glass. The opening track, Glitter Recession, seems to have begun its life as a piano piece in the Glassian vein, before being given a doing-over in Ableton Live; the result is an atmospheric buildup, easing into a more typically dance-music second track, albeit with an unusual 5-bar loop. Track three, Dripping Down takes it into more mainstream club-ballad territory, combining beats and basslines, a chorus of “soulful” gospel-via-Radiohead backing vocals, and lyrics with asomewhat introspective and soul-searching theme (as befits the inner-space exploration that so often happens when electronica meets songcraft). This segues into Hinterland (a rather good bleepy techno banger that transports you to a sweatily euphoric basement rave in Hackney), possibly the highlight of the album, before Heaven, How Long, (a techno-ballad of chemical alienation morphing, in its chorus, into a club floor filler), and Looking For Someone (which sounds like a spiritual for millennials). Doyle's more avant-garde tendencies reëmerge in tracks like Midnight Koto and Song For A Granular Piano, as well as the four-part title track interleaved throughout the record.
- Fatima Al Qadiri, Asiatisch
A relentlessly postmodern, multilayered cross-cultural mashup like something out of a William Gibson novel; a Kuwaiti-raised, Brooklyn-based producer's concept album about the futuristic Far East, titled in German for some reason, and executed in a dubstep/grime idiom. Asiatisch starts off with the appositely-titled Shanzhai, a knockoff of Sinead O'Connor's cover of Nothing Compares To U, performed on synthesized choir pads, with the vocals replaced with nonsensical lyrics in Mandarin. The interlude Loading Beijing ramps the cyberpunk up to 11, as affectless machinelike voiceovers seemingly announce the initialisation of the virtual reality that is Al-Qadiri's gritty, high-tech new Orient. Other tracks, with titles like Forbidden City, Dragon Tattoo (its very title a semiotic layer-cake, juxtaposing Orientalism and cyberpunk via a recent Swedish crime thriller; the song itself sounds like M.I.A. reinventing Warm Leatherette) and Shanghai Freeway, combine oriental (and occasionally Middle Eastern) scales, synthesized shakuhachis and subbass drones to create an impressionistic sound-painting of something sprawling, neon-lit and aggressively futuristic.
- I Break Horses, Chiaroscuro
The Stockholm electropop duo's second album is a decidedly darker affair than its predecessor, seemingly having picked up DNA along the way from witch-house, coldwave and/or the recent wave of neo-goth synthpop like Former Ghosts and Cold Cave, and having an brooding, elegiac majesty to show for it. The opener “You Burn”, with its heartbeat rhythm, slow minor-key piano chords and measured vocals, sets an ominous mood; this is followed up eight tracks, alternating icy detachment and urgency over layers of coruscating synth arpeggios, bass drones, pulsing sequencers, gothic/industrial drum machine patterns and cathedraline reverb, with titles like “Faith”, “Denial” and “Disclosure”; the album is bookended with “Heart To Know”, knowingly weary vocals over a stripped-back piece of dusty, distorted ambience somewhat redolent of Polygon Window (i.e., Aphex Twin)'s Quino-Phec.
- Makthaverskan, Makthaverskan II
Technically a 2013 release, but it was released outside of Sweden this year, so it scrapes in, and if anything qualifies, this does. Among some of the better C86-almost-meets-shoegaze indiepop of recent times, sounding in places somewhere between The Sundays and The Cure's poppier mid-80s moments, with tight bass lines, choppy processed guitars and punchy, reverb-drenched female vocals; a highlight is No Mercy, which burns with righteous energy.
- Oh Peas!, Shades Of Intolerance (BandCamp)
Welsh multi-instrumentalist Rosie Smith, who is also one half of post-punk duo Totem Terrors, makes an impressive solo début with a collection of varyingly askew yet technically meticulous bedroom-pop songs, a few spoken-word pieces and the odd instrumental, layered from a variety of instruments (guitars, keyboards, melodicas and such) and lyrics alternating between pop idioms, quotidian observations, and the odd touch of wry surrealism and clever wordplay (example: “take a book of poetry to your best friend's birthday party, read them every poem about love, hate, war or death”, “you're so much sexier since I found out that you had dyslexia”). Highlights include the opening track Thick Like Snow, the Casio VL1-and-skronk punk-pop of Peanuts And Pickled Onions (which almost reinvents the key concepts of Ninetynine's Wöekenender from first principles), and the closing track Warm World, which is sweetly romantic and yet not cloying, not unlike early Mirah. This record manages to be at once uncontrivedly sincere and technically accomplished. Look for Oh Peas! to go places.
- Penny Orchids, Worse Things
London's Penny Orchids theatrically straddle the spaces between the scabrous end of rock'n'roll and older, though not necessarily more salubrious, traditions such as sea shanties and outlaw balladry; one could compare them to the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave, though the artists they remind me of the most are two antipodean bands, The Paradise Motel and Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen. It starts off in fine form with One More Drink, a nautical murder ballad of sorts, and then goes on from there. About half of the album is themed, being the story of an Irish immigrant named Maloney who falls in with old New York's Jewish mafia; it's set sometime between the late 19th century and the Prohibition era, and adopts a klezmer idiom, which the band manage to pull off respectably (indeed, if one were to coin a genre name for this album, it would be “klezmerbilly”). The album closes with Shell Beach, a wistful piano ballad sung by the Penny Orchids keyboardist Kate Dornan, whose voice sounds a little bit like Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar. Dornan has been doing more singing in new, yet-to-be-recorded songs, which can only be a good thing.
- The Royal Landscaping Society, s/t (BandCamp)
Another new band from Spain's increasingly vibrant indiepop scene, The Royal Landscaping Society wear their Sarah Records influences on their sleeves, and combine that with more electronics. This year, they played at Indietracks and released their eponymous début EP, on French online label Beko. The opening track, Goodbye, starts off a little like The Field Mice's Five Moments; the Sarah comparisons continue in the third track, La La La, which doesn't sound too far from The Orchids or similar bands; other tracks (such as Frost) lean more on the synthesizers and drum machines, though often adding a guitar, not unlike bands like Kuryakin. The EP proper ends on a mellow note with Early Sunrays, all guitar arpeggios and synth strings, but this is followed by three remixes, from other Spanish indie artists. As this sort of classic indiepop goes, there are few better examples from 2014.
- Todd Terje, It's Album Time with Todd Terje
They like to have fun with their house/disco/electro/whatever up in Norway, and Terje Olsen, aka Todd Terje (his pseudonym itself a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chicago house DJ Todd Terry), is no exception. The album comes with playfully colourful, retro-styled cover artwork, and starts with a short theme tune, followed up by two tracks (Leisure Suit Preben and Preben Goes To Acapulco), which sound like TV-show themes and surf the fine line between cool and cheesy. The pace steps up into an unselfconscious 80s-flavoured retro-disco with Strandbar (which means “beachable”, I think) and Delorean Dynamite, before suddenly dropping the pace with a cover of Robert Palmer's anthem of middle-aged coupled ennui, Johnny and Mary; it's glazed over in soft, glossy layers of mid-to-late-80s overproduction (listen to those delayed drum-machine handclaps!), and sung by a weary-sounding Bryan Ferry, who could be the sharp-suited, melancholy drunk riveted to his barstool at the end of the night, his tie loosened and a cigarette burning to a stub in his fingers. The highlight, in my opinion, is the bipartite Swing Star (whose first part, all ambient synth arpeggios and drones, manages to sounds uncannily redolent of the Reload (The 147 Take) remix of Slowdive's In Mind, and whose second part reprises this with beats); finally, the album ends on a high with the bouncy disco anthem Inspector Norse.
- Jane Weaver, The Silver Globe
Jane Weaver was hitherto known mostly as a “folk” singer in a Wicker Man-esque vein; her new album is a surprise in its maximalist intensity; a densely cosmic, psychedelic affair, stacked with propulsive grooves, analogue synthesizers and lush textures, and not too far from Broadcast or Stereolab. The opening (and title) track is 47 seconds of ambience, all analogue synths and tape delays, easing into the metronomic kosmische grüv of Argent; a Krautrock juggernaut which motors along on a wave of pulsing bass, filter sweeps and choppy guitars. Weaver's ethereal soprano floats over this, weaving a tale of technological enchantment, and setting the mood and the theme for the rest of the album. Next up is The Electric Mountain, a prog-rock ballad built up over a Hawkwind sample and analogue synth riff, its story-telling vocals sounding somewhat like a more sci-fi-influenced Wendy Rule. Arrows (apparently based on a meditation on the cycle between the feathers from killed birds and the arrows used to hunt them) is a lovely, languidly ethereal piece, Weaver's vocals, singing a repetitive mantra, melting into a clunking bass guitar, wash of reverb over string machine and home-organ drums, before segueing into the Casiotone-driven disco stomp of Don't Take My Soul, with its circus-style melody and country-style falsetto, which would probably be the obvious radio hit. Cells has a dreamy languor about it, sounding not unlike Saint Etienne as heard from another room whilst still waking up; the tempo goes back up with the cosmic disco of Misson Desire, which one could imagine as the theme song from an obscure, infinitely cooler Barbarella-analogue filmed in, say, Yugoslavia or somewhere during the early 1970s. (There are undoubtedly layers of reference and allusion throughout this work; Weaver's husband and partner in music is the arch-obscurantist curator Andy Votel, after all.) The album eases to closure, with a few more mellow, though no less intricate, tracks, before bidding adieu with Your Time In This Life Is Just Temporary, its reverbed barroom piano courtesy of BC Camplight. In any case, this is a record which reveals more with each repeated listening.
The album of the year is, of course, Taylor Swift's 1989, but were it not, it'd be Jane Weaver's The Silver Globe.
As far as the gigs of the year go, the highlight would be a tie between the Slowdive gigs I saw; they were all great, but I'd say either the very first one at Hoxton Bar (for the “I'm watching Slowdive play live!!” factor), the one at Primavera, for its epic scale and energy, or the very last one at the Forum (by when they had had half a year of live gigs under their belt and some appropriately psychedelic visual projections to boot); they were all magnificent. I'll just say that watching them play what their cover of Syd Barrett's Golden Hair has grown into—a sonic cathedral of coruscating majesty—is the musical equivalent of watching the most breathtaking sunset one has ever seen, until its very last rays disappear below the horizon into the velvet night.
This, of course, is a very hard act to follow, but the very strong runner-up was seeing
For your listening pleasure and/or curiosity, there is a streamable mix taken from the records mentioned above here.
As 2013 draws to a close, it's once again time to look back on the records of the year, and so here is this year's list (ordered by artist name):
- Beaches - She Beats
The second album for the Melbourne indie-rock combo features kosmische legend Michael Rother guesting on three tracks. Musically, it straddles the boundaries of shoegaze, post-rock and the more impressionistic end of rock. Layers of guitar fuzz drive forward, propelled by metronomic drumming, as bass and guitar lines interweave and play off each other and reverbed vocals float ambiently over the mix; at times, it sounds like the bastard child of Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, or possibly the first Wolf and Cub album. The overall effect is vaguely mesmeric.
- Black Hearted Brother - Stars Are Our Home
A surprise collaboration from Neil Halstead (originally of shoegaze legends Slowdive, though ploughing folkier furrows in the decade or two since), his producer Nick Holton, and Mark Van Hoen (of IDM outfits Seefeel and Locust), which dropped late in the year on US indiepop label Slumberland, though sounding anything but twee, or, for that matter, folky; instead, we are presented with a coruscating slab of kosmische prog-disco, space rock and more than a hint of shoegaze; maximalist music which is not afraid of layeredness. Stars Are Our Home opens with the title track, a portentious minor-key electronic instrumental one would expect to have been brought into being on a modular synthesiser the size of a room (in reality, it may well have been made on a MacBook running Ableton Live like every other track these days, but such is modern life); this leads into the most Slowdive-esque track, the gloriously fuzzy (I Don't Mean To) Wonder; the rest of the album consists of a mixture of Halstead's languid vocals and honed songwriting, underpinned with combinations of strummed guitars, analogue fuzz, bold, crunchy drums and electronics both subtle and bold, often building up into layered, gleefully multitracked crescendos reminiscent at times of Caribou/Manitoba. One of the highlights was My Baby Just Sailed Away, a cut of supercool kosmische disco that motors through the darkness in a haze of analogue synth arpeggios and guitar crunch.
- Factory Floor - s/t
Factory Floor, a trio who originated in the industrial/noise scene in East London, purvey an album of ecstatic electro workouts which meld the icy cool of early-1980s New York disco à la Arthur Baker with the minimal club scenes of Berlin and Cologne and just a hint of Throbbing Gristle-style menace lurking beneath the glossy surface.
- Haiku Salut - Tricolore
The début full-length album from the band that formed from one half of The Deirdres treads a far less rambunctious, and slightly less twee, path. Eschewing the handclaps-and-glockenspiel mayhem of indiepop, Haiku Salut venture at times into cinematic chamber-pop reminiscent of Yann Tiersen (Los Elefantes, Lonesome George), Múm-style glitchy dreampop (Leaf Stricken) and the more pastoral ends of the post-rock spectrum (Rustic Sense of Migration), alternating between piano, classical guitar, various percussion, accordion and electronic beats.
- Kosmischer Läufer - Volume One
This year's faux-Krautrock record comes with a backstory of being a compilation of tracks composed in the 1970s and 1980s by "Martin Zeichnete", a young East German sound engineer who, because of his illicit listening to West German Kosmische Musik, was drafted by the Stasi to create training music for the DDR's athletes. Which is a more interesting story than it having been made by two guys in Edinburgh in 2013. With a bit of suspension of belief, this record creates a semi-convincing alternate-history Krautrock fantasia, like a less fanciful Endless House. Besides the implausible story and even more implausible digital crispness of the recording, it is a compelling and listenable piece of motorik electronica; if you like music self-consciously rooted in 1970s Germany (and aren't too fussy about it citing the wrong Germany), you might find this to be an enjoyable homage.
- The Magic Theatre - The Long Way Home
Seemingly tailor-made for those missing Isobel Campbell's Gentle Waves project, The Magic Theatre (from two of the members of indiepop cult heroes Ooberman) delivers a package of immaculately retro-styled and impeccably artful chamber-pop. Released on credible Madrid indiepop label Elefant, The Long Way Home has the widescreen Technicolor sheen of high-end 1960s productions, with sweeping strings and woodwinds and nary a distorted guitar to be heard. Of course, in 2013, making a record that sounds like this is a deliberate decision, and some would say an affected one. The record nails its stylistic colours to the mast at the outset with The Sampler, a fairy-tale account of making a dress for a ball, sung over sweeping strings and sugarplum bells; this is followed by It Was Glorious, an paean to a youthful summer and/or a soundtrack to Jack Wills catalogue photography. (There are vaguely posh undertones to much of this album, perhaps echoing él Records' faux-aristocratic indie in the 1980s.) Festival of Fire veers in a Bollywood-via-Wes-Anderson direction, while Cathedrals Of The Mind, a whir of erudite references, explores the complexity, and ultimate futility, of civilisation, with more than an echo of Windmills Of Your Mind to it; this song in particular seems written for the end credits of a vintage spy thriller. The highlight would be the lovely I Want To Die By Your Side, which sounds like a synthless Dubstar and will undoubtedly end up a fixture of many mix tapes and indiepop kids' weddings. The closing track, which is also the title track, ends the record on a high.
- Samarís - Samarís, and Cuushe - Butterfly Case
This year's odd couple of albums; this time the shared theme being chilled-out electropop from volcanic islands. Samaris hail from Reykjavík, Iceland; their self-titled album actually consists of two EPs released last year, but those were not widely available prior to being rereleased as an album this year. They make a sort of low-key electronic dream-pop, with subtle subbass, skittering beats, artful use of dub delay, the odd arpeggiated synthesizer and quiet vocals in Icelandic; I was reminded a little of GusGus' 1997 album Polyesterday; not so much by the sound, but by the feel of it. Meanwhile, Cuushe, who hail from Kyoto and Tokyo, are slightly more upbeat and (for want of a better word) electronic-sounding; though sharing the IDM influences; there are slightly more layers of synths, the tempos are a bit faster, and the overall impression is a bit more urban. Their vocals, often multitracked and layered, are in English on all but one song, and sound slightly reminiscent of Múm.
- Underground Lovers - Weekend
It has been a long time between records for the Underground Lovers; their last album was 1998's Cold Feeling, a homage of sorts to their influences (Suicide, the Velvet Underground, Neu! and New Order are all in evidence there). And those who waited 15 years would not have been disappointed; this album has all the elements one expected from the Undies' 1990s heyday; the skronky too-cool-for-school alt.rock guitar lines married with slightly obsolescent dance-music electronics (no wubwubs or mad drops here), the mild incongruity adding texture. The Go-Betweens' influence can be felt in places in the record, in some of the more wistfully reflective songwriting (such as in the almost shoegazey Haunted (Acedia)), and more explicitly in the track Riding, recounting a party in the bygone days of a scene. The lushness of the production is particularly evident on the quieter tracks, including the opener Spaces, and the stylish dream-pop of Dream To Me, which is a Bacharachian trumpet accent away from being a Birdie song. The album closes with The Lie That Sets You Free, a motorik workout on a par with Cold Feeling's Feels So Good To Be Free. This record carries its weight in years, as befits a band of the vintage of the Underground Lovers, and does so gracefully. All in all, a fine return, and hopefully not the last we'll hear from the Undies.
- Veronica Falls - Waiting For Something To Happen
The best New York C86-revival band to come out of London, Veronica Falls hone their chops for their second album, which is a somewhat more tightly-coiled, groovy and melodic affair than the affable scruff of their début, whilst maintaining a similar theme of stylised teenage drama executed in boy-girl vocal harmonies.
- T.R.A.S.E. - Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble
Not a new record per se, but a new find, consisting of demos and experimental recordings made by Mancunian teenage synth boffin Andy Popplewell in the late 70s/early 80s on synthesisers he built himself; abandoned for a few decades, it surfaced when Popplewell, now a middle-aged tape-restoration consultant, used his old tapes as an experimental subject for restoration, and then happened to chance upon obscurantist cratedigger Andy Votel, who was getting some tapes restored for his Finders Keepers reissue label. A lot less rough than one would expect; highlights include the proto-shoegaze of Harmonium, the beats of Electronic Rock and a cover of Gary Numan's We Are So Fragile.
Nothing immediately jumps out as a record of the year, though Samarís and Underground Lovers are strong contenders; had Black Hearted Brother come out earlier, it could well have given them a run for their money.
My gigs of the year would be:
- Loney Dear, Majornas Missionsyrka, Gothenburg, 5 October; Loney Dear performing a number of songs, including some classics and a few new ones, accompanied by a chamber orchestra, in a rather lågom church next to a Gothenburg tower block. The orchestral arrangements were exquisite, and the whole experience was worth the flight to Sweden.
- Kraftwerk, Harpa, Reykjavík, 4 November; not having managed to see them in London or New York, I jumped at the opportunity when they announced a show in Reykjavík, making my second trip to Iceland of they year. The show was spectacular; more about it here.
- Haiku Salut, St. John's, Bethnal Green, 12 October; Haiku Salut playing in a church, accompanied by several dozen electronically controlled lamps that lit up in time with the music. A great show and a somewhat twee spectacle.
For your listening pleasure, there's a streamable mix taken from the records of the year here.
And now, as usual, here is my annual list of records of the year:
- Aleks & the Ramps - Facts
Melbourne's Aleks and the Ramps have made a career just on the music side of the border between music and comedy, being a bit like a Doug Anthony Allstars with a stronger focus on musical composition and arrangement. Facts, their first record in three years (and their first since the departure of Janita Foley) follows in this. It sounds slightly smoother and more polished, with layers of shimmering keyboards, guitars (ranging from languid slide to funky African grooves and the odd crunchy power chord), the odd banjo and ooh-aah backing vocals forming pop melodies that reach an almost loungey smoothness at times, serving as a bed for Aleks' laconic, deadpan croon, delivering a continuous stream of zingers like “it's hard to breathe in the back of a horse costume, or pay attention to the tension in the room”, “now he never leaves the house looking less than presidential, as he studies all the bridges for their suicide potential”, and “meanwhile back on the Serengeti, my shirt's still smelling all cigarettey". I'd love to see these guys on a bill with Tigercats.
- Beach House - Bloom
With Bloom, Beach House have transitioned to being the closest thing to a Cocteau Twins for the 2010s; they're different, of course (the guitar work doesn't sound quite like Robin Guthrie's, and the vocals are in comprehensible English), but subjectively, the experience of listening to Bloom is like that of hearing the Cocteaus' Victorialand was; the way that the songs come together, build up and envelop the listener. Beach House's previous albums didn't quite gel for me, but this is the one where it all comes together.
- Crocodiles - Endless Flowers
The latest from the San Diego garage-rock classicists, Endless Flowers; it's somewhat more light-hearted than the Dionysiac/Baudelarian darkness of their previous works, perhaps due to happy romantic circumstances in the frontman and songwriter Brandon Welchez' life; No Black Clouds For Dee Dee certainly appears to be dedicated to his new wife, Dee Dee from NYC86ists the Dum Dum Girls. Nonetheless, the Crocodiles do a certain kind of studied yet louche underground rock'n'roll really well, and got quite a few spins where I am. Highlights would include Electric Death Song, Sunday (Psychic Conversation #9) and Hung Up On A Flower, a paean to narcotic languor which ends with the drummer reciting poetry in German through a Space Echo.
- Eccentronic Research Council - 1612 Overture and Purity Ring - Shrines
Two quite different records with a few common themes running through them. Both are predominantly electronic, albeit in different fashions; the warm analogue radiophonica of the ERC contrasting with the icy autotuned crispness of Purity Ring. Both have a connection to the eldritch; 1612 Overture is a concept album about the Pendle witch trials, juxtaposing those with the inequities of Cameron/Clegg Austerity Britain, while Purity Ring's vocals juxtapose a Cronenbergian body-horror imagery with a sheen of airbrushed eroticised glamour associated with commercial pop music. And finally, both albums lift their forms from underground trends; The Eccentronic Research Council (who consist of two musicians–one of whom was in early-2000s Mancunian chilled-beat mongers I Monster, best known for the German lounge orchestra-sampling Daydream In Blue—along with solidly Northern actress Maxine Peake providing the monologues) borrow wholesale from the hauntology milieu pioneered by the Ghost Box label, with their faded retro-modernist cover art featuring geometric forms and Helvetica, and their name, like The Advisory Circle and the Moon Wiring Club, evoking a fantasy pre-Thatcherite Britain of ghost-haunted analogue circuits and a vaguely socialistic yet faintly ominous technological optimism. (And then there's the opening track being titled Autobahn 666, and starting with synthesizer arpeggios and sampled car sounds; I'm fairly sure I've heard something like that before somewhere.) Purity Ring, meanwhile, take the Witch House/goth-crunk trend that all the cool kids in Brooklyn were into a few years ago and run with it for a good distance.
- Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't
The Swedish crooner and sometime Melbourne resident's first full album in five years, and a welcome return. It's less upbeat than his previous album, 2007's Night Falls Over Kortedala, with Jens having gone through a breakup before writing it, though this is welcome; as a songwriter, he does melancholy better than contentment. (I thought Kortedala was a bit too cheerful, and generally skipped the romcom-in-a-pop-song that was Your Arms Around Me when it came on). And while it is tinged with melancholy, Jens' pop sensibility manages to keep it from being a downer; there is a lushness to its arrangements, and, of course, to Jens' voice. Highlights include The World Moves On (a story of romantic (mis)adventure in Melbourne's inner north on the hottest day on record), I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots, and the bare, elegiac Every Little Hair Knows Your Name, which, along with its reprise, bookends the album.
- The Rosie Taylor Project - Twin Beds
Leeds' The Rosie Taylor Project made their appearance in 2008 with This City Draws Maps, an 8-track album of understated folk-pop songs for overcast days, all finger-picked guitars, breathy vocals and the odd trumpet and glockenspiel, somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne bands like Gersey or Sodastream. On their 2012 follow-up on London's Odd Box label, the sun breaks through the clouds as the band finds more of a groove. The first track is a two-minute quasi-instrumental, starting with synth pad, with a dubby bass guitar and drums joining in; the second track, For Esme, gets things moving, with an almost mariachi-esque trumpet. The rest of the album manages to combine the introspective lyricism of its predecessor with a more elaborate production and some catchy grooves, the height of which is probably Sleep, which almost reinvents disco from first principles. Keep an eye on these guys.
- Still Flyin' - On A Bedroom Wall
Not quite the full album of polyester-smooth yacht rock I was expecting after Victory Walker, though these guys sure know how to rock a party. On A Bedroom Wall sees Still Flyin' take a more electro/new-wave direction, almost meeting Cut Copy in the middle. If all the hipsters in your town were wearing cleats for some portion of 2012, this album could be the reason.
- Tender Trap - Ten Songs About Girls
It's fair to say that Amelia Fletcher is no underachiever; having co-founded the groundbreaking Sarah Records indiepop bands Talulah Gosh (whose other alumni include 2012 Turner laureate Elizabeth Price) and Heavenly a quarter of a century ago, she has maintained a presence in the genre all the while becoming the senior economist overseeing mergers and acquisitions in the UK, possibly making her the most senior civil servant with an active recording career. The latest album by her current band, Tender Trap, stands solidly alongside her earlier bands' classic output. Ten Songs About Girls is a record firmly in the Talulah Gosh/Heavenly style, honing and perfecting it and even in one song (Step One) laying down a template-cum-manifesto for it. Highlights include the opening track, Train From King's Cross Station (is that a nod to Betty and the Werewolves' Euston Station?), with its spiky punk guitars and bass and cupcake-sweet girl-group harmony vocals, Leaving Christmas Day (a song about breaking up with someone over his creationist beliefs, which will have a place on indiepop-for-atheists mix tapes next to McCarthy's Should The Bible Be Banned?) and the lovely, poignant Memorabilia, an account of a long-lost relationship in the past through a box of badges, mix tapes and letters. Unlike the works of other veteran indie acts (like, say, Tracey Thorn, The Would-Be-Goods and Saint Etienne), Tender Trap have eschewed writing songs set in later adulthood, staying in the boyfriends-and-girlfriends milieu of an extended adolescence set sometime between the heyday of C86 and now; this works well for them.
- Tigercats - Isle of Dogs
Tigercats have become one of my favourite London bands recently, and their début album captures the energy of their gigs as well as can be done. Their sound is a tightly angular, ecstatically rhythmic, Afrobeat-tinged post-punk party pop, in some cases shading into Architecture In Helsinki territory (such as Limehouse Nights). Highlights include the opening track, a manifesto for the gentrification-besieged Isle of Dogs, The Vapours, which gets its name from a dream of 1980s new-wave one-hit wonders, and the epic roof-raiser Banned At The Troxy. I'd love to see these guys on a bill with Aleks & The Ramps.
- The Wake - A Light Far Out
Glaswegian indie veterans The Wake's previous record was 1994's Tidal Wave of Hype, released by Sarah Records in the wake of Madchester and as Britain's indie underground was exploding into the marketing phenomenon known as Britpop. 17 years later, they return, opening the third chapter of their recording career. A Light Far Out does not sound like either The Wake's starkly monochromatic Factory material nor the almost baggy grooves of their Sarah material, though there are echoes of their material; their melodic basslines, synth pads and an air of wistfulness, augmented with subtle and skilful use of electronic music elements such as granular delays and glitchy loops. The opening track, Stockport, starts with a familiar jangly guitar and melodic bass sound, accompanied by subtle electronics, and soon builds up into something lusher, yet with a yearning quality not unlike The Field Mice, a combination which recurs on If The Ravens Leave, the contemplative Methodist and the layered instrumental Faintness. Carolyn takes over vocal duties on the gentle and yet almost sinister Starry Day, a song with a hint of the Wicker Man about it. A highlight is the 9-minute title track, which is given time to evolve, through gentle guitar arpeggios, vocals and then languid seascapes of synths, subtle electronic beats and, eventually, violins. All in all, a welcome return, and a very strong record in its own right.
Had I to choose an album of the year, it would be either Tigercats' Isle Of Dogs or The Wake's A Light Far Out; two very different records it would be very hard to choose between.
The rerelease of the year would have to be Clag - Pasted Youth, which is more of a retrospective compilation of the Australian twee-punk band's releases and live gigs, long unavailable except on badly digitised MP3s, now remastered and accompanied with liner notes. Were there to be a track of 2012, it would be Peaking Lights' Lo Hi.
For your listening pleasure, there is a mix here.
And now, here is my list of notable records of 2011:
- Architecture In Helsinki Moment Bends
With their previous album, released way back in 2007, AIH shook off the "twee" label and let rip with some nitro-charged machismo; now, four years later, they turn to the daggy side of the force. Moment Bends celebrates all the elements of mainstream pop that filled the airwaves in the 1980s by building them into a neon edifice to vintage electro-pop kitsch. It's all here: synth licks you swear you've heard before in a mid-80s movie soundtrack or album (is that Glenn Frey? And over there, you can just about hear Control-era Janet Jackson), shimmering arpeggios, a plastic reggae riddim here (in the opening cut Desert Island), some synth brass there, even the odd gear change and Clearmountain break for the sake of completeness. The word "chillwave" may come to mind, though AIH differ from the chillwave aesthetic in their eschewal of the gauzy haze afforded by shoegaze-style reverb and delay; everything here is clear and upfront, with the possible exception of the lyrics, which, in AIH fashion, would be a little too oblique for the 1980s-vintage Top 40. File alongside the new M83 double album.
- Constant Light, Mag - Amplitude
Released as a download on Constant Light's Bandcamp page, the Melbourne duo's debut, Mag - Amplitude consists of a mere six tracks, varying in length between 2 and 10 minutes, and falls somewhere in the post-rock/instrumental spectrum, driven by bass guitars, synthesiser patterns, processed guitar and layered textures. The influences range from the kosmische musik of 1970s West Germany to the monochromatic drone of 1980s New Wave (Factory Floor captures the mood of a certain Manchester label and takes it for a ride down the Autobahn). Half of the album is taken up with a three-piece composition,
Dreams of Dreams Denied, which opens with languid acoustic guitar and harmonica figures, like Morricone meeting Mogwai, drifts through layers of shifting texture, motors on into a driving rhythm propelled by guitars and drums, before coming to rest in a glorious finale of coruscating synths.
- Geoffrey O'Connor, Vanity Is Forever
The capsule summary sounds almost like the punchline to a hipster joke: "Inner-Melbourne coolsie makes yacht rock album". On the surface, this is what Vanity Is Forever is: Geoffrey O'Connor, the fey, long-haired frontman of twee-pop combo Crayon Fields has come back with a radical image change. Gated drums, syrupy synth keyboards, and the kind of production that sounds like a million dollars in 1980s money; only the label (Guy Blackman's credible Melbourne indie Chapter Music) and year of release hint that this wasn't recorded in an bleedingly expensive studio in Aruba. As for Geoffrey, he has, well, "grown up" is perhaps not the right cliché, though as he himself puts it, embraced the artifice of it all; his previous sound of 1960s-vintage pastoral innocence, naïve almost to the point of childlikeness (itself arguably an artifice) has been buried beneath a sheen akin to Bryan Ferry in his imperial phase, with touches of Italianate chintz worthy of the San Remo Ballroom. Geoffrey's old façade of elfin faux-naïveté reappears in places (particularly in Like They Say It Does, where he pushes it almost to the point of self-mockery), though the album is in a much more adult mode, hinting copiously at the exhilarating heights of erotic passion with a new lover (voiced, in one song, by Melbourne's own Jessica Says), and mentioning offhandly that it's going on her indolent soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend's credit card. An intriguing change of direction, and a stylishly crafted album that picks its references well.
- Hong Kong In The 60s, My Fantoms
Their first full-length non-instrumental album (before they had an EP and an instrumental album), and it's as subtle as you'd expect, starting off with the dreamy Casiotone-driven ballad of When You Were Dreaming, and proceeding to the bossa-tinged, synth-accented You Can Take A Heart But You Can't Make It Beat, before foraying into a Les Petits Chasseurs Du Son, an instrumental interlude which sounds like Wendy Carlos scoring a Dario Argento film. The rest of the album is in a similar vein, mixing subtle pop with the odd cinematic pretension (such as Theme From King Of Chinatown), before drifting off with the ethereal Shadow Of The Bear.
- I Break Horses, Hearts, and Korallreven, An Album By Korallreven
Two albums, both from Sweden and exploring the spaces between electronica, shoegaze and what, for lack of a better word, may be termed "indie rock". Korallreven are the latest practitioners of the improbably-named Swedish Balearic Pop subgenre, and, for the most part, don't veer wildly from the footsteps of predecessors like Air France and Boat Club. (Swedish Balearic, for what it's worth, is somewhere between chillwave and the Café Del Mar chillout compilations that were big about a decade ago; think pulsing synthesizers punctuated with acoustic guitars, bongos and reverb-drenched vocal fragments; tropical-holiday-island imagery and a production sensibility informed by shoegaze.) Having said that, Korallreven (a duo, one of whom plays in Stockholm shoegaze-pop combo The Radio Dept.) are pros at it and do it well, doing for the subgenre what pop veterans Empire Of The Sun did for indie-dance in Australia. I Break Horses, meanwhile, started off as a duo and grew into a band; they're not part of the Balearic scene, though explore their own space a similar space; their album consists of layers of electronics, guitars and live drums, with songs evoking the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Suicide and New Order, as well as more recent bands like M83 and The Radio Dept.
- The Leaf Library, Different Activities, Similar Diversions
The long-awaited full-length début from the London motorik pop combo (available from their BandCamp page) alternates between driving rhythms backed with choppy guitars and washes of Casiotone keyboards and more languid moments of hushed vocals backed by layers of subtle instruments; equal parts Yo La Tengo and Stereolab with perhaps a hint of Aphex Twin in places. This album is understatedly lovely, and gets its beauty from artful arrangements of texture and repetition. It sits well alongside both Constant Light and Hong Kong In The 60s.
- My Sad Captains, Fight Less, Win More
Their début album made my list of 2009, and I've been eagerly awaiting their follow-up; I'm glad to say that it does indeed live up to my expectations. It doesn't depart far from their sound. Fight Less, Win More is an appropriate title; its laconic pop sound could scarcely be less combative, and its catchy melodies and literate lyrics are hard to resist. It stays mostly in an understated, vaguely pastoral indiepop vein, driven by clean guitars, drums, low-key vocals and the odd Mellotron, though toys with krautrock dynamics in places (the motorik crescendo of The Homefront Pt. II, and the rhythm that propels Heavy Lifting forward). Other highlights include the anthemic Little Joanne, the opening cut Orienteers, which evokes a number of pastoral pop groups from Melbourne, and Resolutions, which ends with fuzzy guitar.
- Still Corners, Creatures Of An Hour
One of the more intriguing bands to come out of London in recent years; Still Corners are equal parts Broadcast, early Paradise Motel and the Twin Peaks soundtrack; their debut album, released on Sub Pop, keeps true to the dreamlike quality of their 7"s and shows, with Tessa's lovely vocals floating spectrally over swirling organs, keening guitar feedback, clunking bass guitars and the odd drum machine. The whole album has a subtle, somewhat unreal quality; it doesn't sound like something belonging to any specific place or time. Highlights include the opening track Cuckoo, the previously released Endless Summer, with its Be My Baby-quoting opening, and the unseasonably summery The White Season.
- Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
The latest in a decades-long game of transatlantic stylistic ping-pong: in 1980s Britain, the movement that became known as C86 reacted against expensive overproduction and/or the yuppie excesses of the Thatcher era by returning to the basics of guitar-and-drums pop music circa the 1960s updated for the post-punk era. (This was the 1980s, when synthesisers and studio effects cost real money.) A few decades later, hip bands from Brooklyn like The Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts dusted off C86 and made it their own. Now, Veronica Falls (a band formed from veterans of several London and Glasgow bands) takes the New York sound and brings it back. The result is a slab of tight garage rock with choppy guitars, boy-girl harmonies and classic themes of love and death like something out of a pulp paperback from the 1950s. It doesn't break much new ground, but it does what it does well.
- various artists, The Endless House Project
Ostensibly a rerelease of the brief recorded works of an art collective, as short-lived as it was improbable, that flourished in a futuristic studio-discotheque behind the Iron Curtain in 1973, prefiguring kosmische krautrock and Detroit techno; in reality, almost certainly a more recent work of counterfactual history, presenting a fantasy view of a glamorous European avant-garde, with an almost Wes Andersonian unreality that could only be imagined from the splendid isolation of the English-speaking world. The Endless House Project works both as an exercise in hauntology (as long as one suspends one's disbelief about its geopolitical impossibility; which is where being British, and taking a vaguely orientalist view of the European continent as an exotic whole, might help) and as a collection of retrofuturistic analogue electronica. The opening track, Ostend (Invisible Cities) by one "Johannus Arpensium", starts with mighty, swelling synthesiser chords that soon break into driving, proto-Kraftwerkian arpeggios zooming down luminous highways with vocoded vocals. From there, we are led on a tour of retrofuturistic utopias and dystopias, expressed in analogue electronic music: ominous chords play over rhythm tracks of electronic clicks, as European-accented voices intone obliquely. Other tracks, meanwhile, (like Ernest Kantor's Jealousie (Escape To Outer Space) and Rasmus Folk's luxurious yet melancholic Coupe) are almost weightlessly breezy. the whole thing ends with the last work ostensibly played at the doomed Endless House, in which mastermind Jiri Kantor asks why it all happened so quickly and then leaves the stage, leaving the synthesisers to run by themselves and foreshadowing New Order's stage shows circa 1983. The album (sold only directly, in physical format, by an outfit named Dramatic Records) comes in an envelope with postcards giving capsule biographies of the ostensible composers of the pieces, a motley crew of European playboys and avant-gardists with names like Felix Uran, Klaus Pinter and Earnesto Rogers.
Were I to anoint one title as my record of the year, the accolade would probably go to My Sad Captains.
Poptimist Tom Ewing has written a future history of the 2020s CD revival:
But for the fans, the music is still at the core. Unlike today's collaborative, crowdsourced, and automatically generated playlists, a CD's tracklisting is fixed, and the CD-burning scene is an opportunity for music lovers to show their deep individual loves of music, its sequencing and presentation. The 74 Sessions is one of many CD-burning clubs and groups-- some ban members from remixing or mashing up material, others ask people to theme their CD-Rs. Chantal Fielding, who runs the Prismatic Spray trading club out of Rochester, NY, loves the way CD-Rs make her focus her fandom. "You've got all this information, literally everything you look at you can find out everything about it right there, and for music that means there's no mystery anywhere. So saying no, you can't explore endlessly, you have to reduce it down-- it's powerful."The romance of CDs in Ewing's 2020s world isn't just about working within finite physical constraints, like a sort of music-curatorial Lomography; while there is that, and undoubtedly an element of nostalgia as the hipsters and scenesters of the day relive hazy early childhood memories of the CD age (you've probably seen these kids, being wheeled through Stokey or Fitzroy in three-wheeled prams, dressed up in their Ramones onesies), a lot of the physical media revival would be driven by a backlash against the network-centric age of social software, recommendations, playlists and crowdsourcing, and the ever-hungry target-marketing apparatus beneath the surface. (Or, as one of the interviewed CD fetishists says, "when you can't see what the product is and someone's still making money, the product is you.")
While earlier physical-music movements fought to preserve analog formats in the face of digitization, CD revivalists see music's physical existence as a rebuke to a world where people's digital presence has overtaken their physical one. "It's not just about the music," explains Wolfe. "Words like 'social' and 'sharing' became absolutely twisted. It used to mean things people did together, now it's about how well you fit into algorithms. We leave snail trails of data everywhere, and all 'social' means now is that two trails have crossed and somebody's making money off it. Forcing people to collaborate for a fuller experience helps restore some of the real idea of 'social.'"
Wolfe sees CD-R revivalists as part of a 'post-social' wave of digital mischief-makers and situation-builders, in the tradition not of industrial or noise culture but of Fluxus and Neoism. He's sympathetic to "troll artists" like bot-creators and recommendation-scramblers. A friend of his was involved with the 'artificial hipster' Karen Eliot, a digital taste bundle whose infiltration of music friendship networks in 2020 caused scores of trusted playlist generators to start throwing in 00s tracks like "Starstrukk" and "My Humps".Another dimension of CD revivalism would, of course, be the sonic characteristics of the medium; the brittleness of 44kHz 16-bit audio compared to what everybody's listening to in the future. Of course, the revival would take this even further; much as 2000s "electro" ramped up the electronicness of 1980s synthpop by throwing in anachronistically vocoded/robotised vocals, some participants in the CD revival will go beyond the limitations of the CD and start playing around with low-bitrate audio compression, with subsubcultures of hipsters settling upon a right form of crappiness as a cultural touchstone.
The sound on most CDs Wolfe releases is deliberately low-bitrate, with a glossy, uneasy, skinny sheen that's a stark contrast to the lossless warmth of most streamed music. Some fans call lo-bit music "ghostwave", because, as Hall Of Mirrors act Cursor Daly puts it, "you start listening to stuff that isn't there, phantom sound-- your ears are filling in the gaps. Below 128 kbps you're essentially hallucinating sound, no two people hear the same thing. Loads of CD nerds were neuroscience majors."
Another year is drawing to an end, and once again, it's time to look back on the past year in music. So here's my list of the top records of 2009, in alphabetical order.
- Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion
Animal Collective's new record, released at the start of the year, took their sound further away from their psych-folk roots and into the realm of dubby electronica, with the help of producer Rusty Santos. Expect washes of delay, percussive polyrhythms and soaring vocals somehow making their way through the electronic haze. They followed it up at the very end of the year with an EP, Fall Be Kind, turning up the layering and sampling the Grateful Dead.
- Arthur & Martha - Navigation
The London-based electropop duo's long-awaited album, combining the synthpop of New Order at their most Kraftwerk-influenced and guitar-led indiepop which (cliché warning!) wouldn't have sounded amiss on Sarah Records circa 1991. Highlights: there's the obvious Kraftwerk homage of Autovia, the vocoder-driven Squarewave To Heaven and the mighty electronic buildup of This City Life. It's all good.
- Ben Frost - By The Throat
This unanimously grabs the title of "best record of 2009 featuring the grim snarling of dire wolves". Adelaide-born, Reykjavík-based Frostí's latest album is an assemblage of frosty, shadowy ambiences, with stark electronic waveforms, minor-key melodies and processed field recordings (breaths, thuds and the aforementioned wolves), rounded off with references to The Cure and Twin Peaks. File under "dark ambient".
- Cold Cave - Love Comes Close / Memory Tapes - Seek Magic / Rainbow Arabia - Kabukimono / The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa
Not so much a record as a clutch of four forming a trend; they're all electronic, a bit to the left of pop though not in the realm of "electronica". Cold Cave are a trio whose sound is a sort of synth-driven new-wave with nods to 1980s gothic rock (highlights: "Life Magazine"). Memory Tapes makes layered tracks, mixing electronic and organic sounds, building up and stripping down and building up again, and turns them into songs (highlights: pretty much any track; let's say Stop Talking). Rainbow Arabia are a US outfit who craft a sort of electronic exotica for the post-(new-)rave generation (let's call them "electroxotica"), celebrating the global other with exotic scales on synths, drum samples and song titles like Holiday In Congo and Kabukimono (highlight: let's say Harlem Sunrise). The Very Best is a collaboration between Malawian musician Esau Mwamwaya and French/Swedish/London-based (delete as applicable) production team Radioclit, and sounds like what 1980s electropop would have sounded like had it been invented in Africa (highlights: let's avoid the obvious bits—the Ezra Koenig and M.I.A. collaborations, the AIH sample—and say Chalo, which starts with an epic synth riff and follows through in appropriate fashion). Together, they
fight crimeform part of the sound of 2009.
- Crayon Fields - All The Pleasures Of The World
The long-awaited record from the Melbourne twee-pop combo; pocket-sized pop symphonies, most of them expressions of love for an unnamed second person (sample lyric: "I'd mess up my collar just to feel you correct it"), with ringing guitars and the occasional string arrangement; in places it sounds like a twee version of The Clientele. Without a doubt the most fey record in this list.
- The Drums - Summertime
Simple, summery guitar pop done well, with good melodies and harmonies. It's not groundbreaking, thematically or stylistically, but it's an old formula, slightly updated and done better than most. Highlights: Saddest Summer, perhaps.
- Hong Kong In The 60s - Willow Pattern Songs
A six-track EP by a band comprised of two librarians and a BBC researcher, playing Casiotone keyboards and guitars and citing Stereolab, Sean O'Hagan, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Dario Argento and 1960s Hong Kong pop as influences, and a brilliant one as well, reminiscent of early Minimum Chips EPs in its understated feel. I've listened to this one a lot this year.
- Jónsi & Alex - Riceboy Sleeps
Iceland's second entry in this year's list, from the frontman of Sigur Rós and his boyfriend. It's wordless soundscapes, though lighter and more blissful than Sigur Rós; one could say that this is the yin to Frostí's yang.
- My Sad Captains - Here & Elsewhere
- The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - self-titled
In a lot of ways, 2009 was the Pains' year. A New York band, though wearing their classic British indiepop influences on their sleeves and given to touring the UK with an almost suspicious regularity, the Pains released their self-titled album early in the year, with songs like This Love Is Fucking Right (see if you can spot the reference there) and Teenager In Love becoming cornerstones in the soundtrack to 2009. Not content to rest on their laurels, they followed this up with an EP, Higher Than The Stars, bringing more immaculate indie-pop, guitar fuzz and stories of young lives and fraught situations; nonetheless, they can only have one entry in this list, and it'll have to be the album.
They're from London, but remind me more of Melbourne bands like The Smallgoods, Gersey and even the (sadly departed) Lucksmiths. Multilayered melodies and harmonies, plays on words and buildups of unassuming lushness, not quite threatening to go into shoegazing territory in places, make for a very listenable record, and a promising band.
Were there a gong for the record of the year, it'd have to go to The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.
And now, here come the lists of things of the year. Starting with the top 10 records of 2008 (in alphabetical order of artist's name, as usual):
- Animal Collective - Water Curses
The futurefolk combo's follow-up to last year's Strawberry Jam, a 4-track EP further building on their textured yet organic sound. Highlight: Cobwebs, which sounds a little like something Björk might well have done.
- Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
Australia's Modular label have been the toast of the electrofashionista elite of London and New York, and the core of a mass youth movement in Australia (one now hears disparaging descriptions of vast hordes of "mogans", unsophisticated fluoro-shirted teenage party kids from all over the suburbs and provinces of Australia, sharing musical tastes with the hippest of Shoreditch and Williamsburg's hipsters; how funny is that?), but they do release some good stuff from time to time. Case in point: Cut Copy's second album, which combines the vogue for 1980s New Wave stylings (cribbed both from international sources (listen out for the Peter Hook-esque melody lines) and Australian 80s top-40 sounds) with electro/house the way Australians like it (i.e., muscular, body-conscious and not too chi-chi or pretentious), and manages to make something quite listenable out of it, a collection of well-formed pop songs driven by coruscating synths, 4/4 dance beats, melodic vocals and the odd jangly guitar and glockenspiel. Highlight: the opening cut, Feel The Love, is a good start, starting as pop and morphing into something more clubby like a disco Transformers robot.
- The Deirdres - Why Do My Glasses Give You The Heeby Jeebys?
The Deirdres, a young unsigned band consisting of seven kids from Derby, are, in my opinion, one of the most exciting indiepop bands in the UK now. This self-released CD-R (the first versions had handmade photo-collage covers, and buyers got a raffle ticket to decide which one they got) shows that they're as good in the studio as they are at live shows, sounding in places like a more melodic Los Campesinos! or a much more compact I'm From Barcelona. These kids deserve to go a long way (and three of them are currently in Australia, gigging with The Motifs and Summer Cats). Highlights: Milk Is Politics is more typical of the exuberant pop mayhem of their live shows, and Rise And Fall is just sublime.
- Eine Kleine Nacht Musik - s/t
Another Modular release, this time from an American artist lovingly taking off the more electronic end of krautrock (think Harmonia, Tangerine Dream and such). With titles like Feuerprobe, Bardolator and Götterdämmerung, this album wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it does what it does well. Highlights: perhaps the penultimate track, Das Regenecho.
- El Guincho - Alegranza
Influenced by Afrobeat, Tropicália and 1970s Canary Islands psychedelic rock, this record is a collection of loop-based Latin party music, assembled by a hipster from Barcelona. Imagine Panda Bear making party-rocking grooves, and you'll have some idea of what this sounds like. Highlights: Antillas perhaps?
- Glass Candy - B/E/A/T/B/O/X
What you get when some people from the DIY hardcore punk scene decide that Italo-disco is where it's at. As much influenced by cult 1970s Italian horror movies as 1980s Italian disco anthems, this brings a somewhat askew take to the genre. Highlights: Their cooler-than-ice take on Kraftwerk's Computer Love, followed by the Goblin-esque eerieness of Last Nite I Met A Costume.
- Momus and Joe Howe - Joemus
A collaboration with Glaswegian glitchcore mentalist Joe Howe (Germlin/Gay Against You), Momus' latest album sees a combination of influences; perhaps conscious of the youthful cutting-edge electronica Howe brings to the party, Momus digs into the past somewhat, covering a Cliff Richard teenage heartbreak anthem and a Ryuichi Sakamoto piece (the lovely Thatness and Thereness). This was somewhat overshadowed this year by Momus' decision to post the MP3s of his Creation-era albums online in his blog, but is still worth a listen. Highlights: Fade To White
- Moscow Olympics - Cut The World
The grey days of 1980s Britain, with their anomie and internal alienation, have become a golden age of indiepop to some; certainly, to Moscow Olympics, a group of kids from Manila, the Philippines, who plant their flag halfway between the Glasgow of Orange Juice, the Manchester of Factory Records and the Bristol of Sarah Records, with perhaps a slight lean towards Gothenburg. Cut The World, their debut EP on Swedish (where else?) indiepop label Lavender, sound for all the world as if they emerged from beneath the leaden skies of mid-Thatcher-era northern Britain with a defiantly optimistic song in their hearts, sounding like the Bodines with Peter Hook on bass and Keith Girdler (of Blueboy) on vocals. The EP continues in this vein for seven tracks, before shimmering away in a Slowdive-esque crescendo; this is as perfect a slice of C86-esque indiepop as one could hope for. Highlights: the opening track, What Is Left Unsaid is a good one.
- Parenthetical Girls - Entanglements
A lavish piece of 1960s-style symphonic pop splendour. The music is exquisitely orchestrated, wrapped sumptuously around finely-crafted words which, through baroque circumlocutions, tell a story of a torrid romantic tragedy, somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and Lolita, filtered through a sort of gauzy Technicolor impressionism. Highlights: the tango-infused cover of Windmills Of Your Mind is one.
- Vampire Weekend - s/t
Yes, it has been hyped to death. Yes, they're a bunch of privileged urban haute-bourgeoisie taking the music of the global downtrodden and crafting from it songs about the lives of the wealthy ("lobsters' claws are as sharp as knives"; see, a UHB's life is not without its hazards). But at the end of it, they do what they do quite well, combining Afrobeat influences, chamber-music strings, clever lyrics and good songs. Which doesn't mean you can't laugh at some of the toffishness. But who outside of a posh university would write a song titled Oxford Comma? Highlights: start anywhere on the album; the opener, Mansard Roof, is a good a point as any.
If I were to choose a record of the year, 2008's would be Moscow Olympics' Cut The World.
I recently received in the mail a new EP by a band named Moscow Olympics, and have been listening to it rather a lot (as is evident in my last.fm stats). Anyway, I think this is a cracker of a record, and possibly the début of the year.
I found out about Moscow Olympics' Cut The World via the indie-mp3 blog (though had heard the band mentioned before), and ordered a copy. Soon enough, an envelope arrived bearing Swedish postage stamps and containing a CD, its cardboard case printed with photographs of the interiors of 1980s East German apartments.
The record itself starts strongly, with gated drums straight out of 1988 and the plaintive ringing of a guitar line; within the first 30 seconds of the first track, What Is Left Unsaid, it is obvious that this is going to be a slice of classic indiepop in the post-C86 vein. Choppy guitar chords, wistful chord progressions, tensely wound rhythms and Hookier-than-thou melodic basslines are reminiscent of the likes of The Bodines, Factory-era Wake or something from Manchester before it became Madchester; just listening to the record, one is transported back to northern England in the 1980s, to visions of row houses snaking their way downhill under the leaden glow of grey skies; views from grotty bedsit windows, the BBC on the telly, and the miners' strike in the headlines. Which is all the more unusual, as the band hail not from Thatcher-era Grey Britain but from Manila, in the Philippines. Yet, obviously, they are driven by a deep love of 1980s British indie-pop, as this record is imbued with its spirit, with all the awkward exuberance that still keeps this genre fresh and relevant.
The next two tracks go on as the record started; in the fourth track, Safe, the vocals, which already were low in the mix and washed with reverb, blossom into full-blown shoegazing à la Slowdive or Secret Shine. Meanwhile, track 6, Ocean Sign, ramps up the New Order influences, with extra-Hooky basslines; it almost sounds like something off Low-life. The finale and title cut starts innocuously, but rises to a crescendo of gloriously delayed guitar, like a brighter, sunnier version of Slowdive's Primal (the closing track from their first album), before exiting gloriously in a tail of shimmering reverb.
I'm tipping this to be one of my records of 2008. Well done, Moscow Olympics.
And now, with 2008 knocking on our door, it's time for the annual lists of things of the year.
acb's top 10 records of 2007 (by order of artist):
- Aleks & The Ramps, Pisces vs. Aquarius
The more eclectic edge of the recent crop of great new artists coming out of Melbourne; Aleks & The Ramps play epic, lavishly structured pop songs with banjos, glockenspiels, a few synths and Casio keyboards and the odd crunchy heavy-metal chord and dry-as-dust lyrics about car crashes, paranoid schizophrenia and the sensation of waking up (un)dead. Highlights: No Sé Si Es Amor, a pretty impressive Spanish-language cover of Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love".
- Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam
A boundary-breaking, and very catchy, slab of left-of-leftfield psychedelic folk, sounding like a futuristic village celebration, combining a pastoral folk-rock feel with layers of instruments and electronics, along with world-music influences (one can hear elements of South African township songs in places) and quite good melodies. Highlights: Fireworks, For Reverend Green.
- Beirut, The Flying Club Cup
Zach Condon reprises his amazing début with a new album, with the Balkan sounds of his previous work largely replaced by those of old France, and it doesn't disappoint. Highlights: Cliquot, Cherbourg
- Julian Nation, We Are All Writers
Another brilliant young songwriter from Melbourne, Julian Nation is three parts Jens Lekman to two parts Lucksmiths and a bit of Stuart Murdoch, and crafts pop songs with clever lyrics and without choruses, over multi-tracked melodies with guitars, basslines, piano, glockenspiels and handclaps; his début recording is released through Book Club Records. Highlights: 1992, All The Capital Cities' Names.
- LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
Before New Rave™ was even a twinkle in a NME hack's eye, when there were no fluoro T-shirts in high-street shops, there was DFA Recordings and LCD Soundsystem; now, James Murphy returns with a new album, furthering his vocation of updating New York's mutant-disco sound for the present day, and doing a bang-up job of it. This album is more of a mature effort than their first album, with more solid songs; a collection of party-rocking jams, finished off with the Lou Reed-esque piano ballad "New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down". Highlight: All Your Friends
- The Motifs, Away
An unparalleledly lovely collection of 24 pop songs (plus one remix), small and perfectly formed, written and recorded by an indie-pop genius and multi-instrumentalist named Alexis Hall in her North Fitzroy bedroom. The Motifs has since evolved into a band, have gotten support slots for well-known international bands touring Australia, and are getting much-deserved acclaim from all over the world; Away may be purchased from Japanese indie label Lost In Found, and there's now an EP out through UK label WeePOP! (which I haven't yet heard). Highlights: right now I'd say Dots and Set Of Wheels, though it's all good.
- Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer
This record dominated the first half of 2007; equal parts psychedelia, prog-rock and upbeat pop; funky basslines, falsetto harmonies, intricate chord progressions and layers of glitchy electronics, it's a record that can turn on a dime between being Prince and Pink Floyd (as it does, in Labyrinthian Pomp). It works as exquisitely assembled (and somewhat epic) pop music, whilst avoiding the realms of pop cliché, and the musical arrangements remains sufficiently interesting to hold one's attention. Highlights: "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger", an jolly, upbeat pop number about the narrator's nervous breakdown, followed by the lengthy krautrock-tinged epic "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal". Oh, and see them live if you get the chance.
- Panda Bear, Person Pitch
If someone left a stack of Beach Boys, Caribou and My Bloody Valentine records out in the hot Portuguese sunshine and they all melted together, the result might sound somewhat like this. Highlights: hard to pick one, but "Bros" is a good track, as is the opener, "Comfy in Nautica".
- Pop Levi, The Return To Form Black Magic Party
The bass guitarist from Ladytron makes a solo début with a sound grounded in the early 1970s, with its haze of drugs and free love; a bit gimmicky, but well-made, with some good songs, and a fun record to listen to. Highlight: From The Day That You Were Born
- Radiohead, In Rainbows
Much more has been said about the way this album was released than about the actual album itself, so one could be forgiven for thinking that it is all hype. However, this is not the case; this is a rock-solid return to form for Radiohead, who come back with the sorts of rain-hued sketches they made a career of. If anything, the contrast between this and Thom Yorke's (somewhat less compelling) solo album demonstrates the indispensable influence of the rest of the band. Highlights: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Next: my list of the gigs of 2007.
I recently acquired a copy of the special edition of the new Morrissey album, Ringleader of the Tormentors.
I must say that I was impressed by the packaging design. Those who have seen the CD package will know that it is styled on classical records. However, only when you open it up do you notice that the disc itself is designed to look as much like a vinyl record as possible, black on the underside (like the old PlayStation CDs) and with vinyl-like ridges along the top (like the Verbatim Vinyl CD-Rs). Which was a rather nice touch. I suspect that only the limited-edition copies may have this:
The album itself is not bad either; it's a more optimistic album than a lot of Morrissey's previous work, including You Are The Quarry, with songs like At Last I Am Born ("once I was a mess of guilt because of the flesh, it's remarkable what you can learn once you are born"), not to mention Dear God Please Help Me, whose Moz-angsty title belies its hopeful, upbeat tone. It's as if, having left socially atomised Los Angeles (and, before that, grey Britain) behind for the dolce vita of sunny Rome, Morrissey has found somewhere he feels content, made peace with his past (as evidenced in On The Streets I Ran) and decisively buried his awkward celibate image (you have undoubtedly heard about the "explosive kegs" lyric, and possibly about his mystery romance in Rome).
Musically, it follows on from Quarry. Moz's lush quasi-falsetto is still there, couched in equally lush arrangements. Among collaborators on the album are producer Tony Visconti (who has worked with David Bowie, among others), guitarist/lyricist Jesse Tobias (that's Mr. Angie Hart to the JJJ listeners in the audience), and the legendary film composer Ennio Morricone, who does a string arrangement on Dear God. Oh, and there's also a children's choir, though it's kept unobstrusive and appropriate.
And here are my records of 2005, in no particular order:
- Machine Translations, Wolf on a String*. Six tracks, subtle and impeccably produced, layering guitars, electronics and understated vocals, and with a great deal of thought in the arrangements and compositions. The title track is hauntingly lovely, and Miss China and Paris Road are low-key pop gems. The other three tracks are good too.
- Broadcast, Tender Buttons. Their last album was a bit bland compared to The Noise Made By People; this one is a return to form. It's like early Stereolab playing on a Game Boy, all sparse, motorik grooves, gloriously dirty aliased waveforms and Trish's dreamy vocals.
- Sambassadeur, Between The Lines EP. A four track EP, released in Sweden last year but the UK only this year, from another good Swedish indie band. They also released a quite decent album later this year, but for some reason, this grabbed me more. The title track of the EP is a joyous piece of upbeat indie-pop; the other tracks are fitting B-sides, pop songs with guitar, trumpet, melodica, and a bit of shoegazing feedback and Mary Chain-style fuzz.
- Holidays On Ice, Playing Boyfriends and Girlfriends* Classy, polished indie-pop from various established Australian musicians, including Angie Hart of Frenté/Splendid; has echoes of Yo La Tengo. Even though the idea of a group of thirtysomething Australian band veterans releasing a record with an unbelievably fey title and a naïve picture of kids playing in the snow (presumably somewhere in Northern Europe or North America) on the cover does seem a tad contrived, the product is eminently listenable. Highlights include the upbeat pop of Sailor Girl, Speak-n-Spell-driven semi-instrumental Spell Happiness, the board-game-referencing (though not AIH-referencing) glock-pop of Fingers crossed and some of the instrumentals.
- Minimum Chips, Kitchen Tea Thankyou* This one took me by surprise. After getting used to the Chips putting out one EP every few years, I did not expect them to drop an entire album one year after their last EP. But they did, and we get almost 50 minutes of Minimum Chips goodness: modular organ grooves, jagged guitar jangle, sophisticated Continental pop sounds filtered through Melbourne/Brisbane indie-rock, and Nicole's floating vocals, more "aaah" than "ba ba ba". ("Lady Grey", in particular, could be descibed as "Golden Brown", had it been written by Stereolab about tea rather than The Stranglers about heroin.) A few of the tracks were familiar from Minimum Chips gigs two years ago, and had only made it onto record now.
- Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd, the Mysterious Skin film score Possibly the best thing Guthrie has put out since Victorialand. Ethereal and moody, like golden sunlight in a dream. The film was quite good too (though somewhat more disturbing).
- The Winter Ship, Teardrops EP*. Four tracks of shoegazing post-rock goodness, with rather nice string arrangements, from the Melbourne instrumental outfit. Swimming Through A Narrow Space sounds not unlike Mogwai's Helicon 1 only with words. The other tracks are no less lovely.
Honourable mentions go to Architecture In Helsinki, In Case We Die, Broken Social Scene's self-titled album (which I received only in the last days of the year, too late to fully get into, though I get the feeling it may be a grower), LCD Soundsystem's self-titled album, The Magic Numbers' self-titled debut (which has some strong guitar-pop tracks, though is a bit bland in places, and may not be a proper CD in all territories), Momus, Otto Spooky, Francis Plagne, Idle Bones (which has a few good songs and a lot of meandering ambient field recordings; were the ratio reversed, it'd be quite impressive), and Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, #3.
It was also a good year for rereleases, with the entire Field Mice back-catalogue seeing the light of day again, in the form of new releases of Snowball, Skywriting and For Keeps, all extended with non-album tracks, and all three Slowdive albums (Just For A Day, Souvlaki and the exquisite Pygmalion) being rereleased—the first two with bonus discs full of EP and live tracks—through Sanctuary; meanwhile, neo-shoegazer Ulrich Schnauss's first album, Far Away Trains Passing By, is seeing the light of day again (good to see that Domino are using their NMECarlingnuwaveartrock windfall for good).
My gigs of 2005:
- Belle & Sebastian playing If You're Feeling Sinister at the Barbican. They brought their second album to life really well, and played a few other favourites before and after it.
- My Favorite, playing at Underbelly, 17 June. The last ever gig they did in the UK before breaking up. Their brand of immaculate, upbeat, New Order/OMD-influenced pop with lyrics of suburban alienation and existential angst really appealed to me.
- One of the three Architecture In Helsinki gigs I caught on their two UK tours; let's say, for the sake of argument, the one at the Dublin Castle in Camden. Their live performances seemed a lot tighter and more energetic than they were when I saw them back in Melbourne.
- Broadcast at Koko. They brought their new album to life quite well, and played some of their old tracks too.
Freedom To Tinker has a tutorial on how to create "copy-protected" CDs, describing how the protection works:
Notice that the tracks are grouped into two sessions -- essentially two independent CDs burned onto the same disc. Unprotected CDs that combine audio and data files contain audio tracks in the first session and a single data track in the second. The only difference in the passive protected CD you just created is that the second session contains two tracks instead of one. ... This simple change makes the audio tracks invisible to most music player applications. It's not clear why this works, but the most likely explanation is that the behavior is a quirk in the way the Windows CD audio driver handles discs with multiple sessions.
For an added layer of protection, the extraneous track you added to the disc is only 31 frames long. (A frame is 1/75 of a second.) The CD standard requires that tracks be at least 150 frames long. This non-compliant track length will cause errors if you attempt to duplicate the disc with many CD drives and copying applications.It says that this only works on Windows. I wonder whether this is the same scheme as used by EMI Australia, circa 2004. Their scheme resulted in errors reading the table of contents under Linux, with tracks having anomalous lengths. Strangely enough, it only worked on some drives: a then-recent Pioneer DVD drive choked on it, but an old 24X CD-ROM (borrowed from a beige G3 Macintosh) had no problems.
Despite these limitations, who wouldn't enjoy finding a homemade copy-protected CD in their stocking? They're a great way to spread holiday cheer while preventing anyone else from spreading it further.
(via bOING bOING)
Never ones to allow reality to get in the way of the Great War on MP3 Terrorism, Sony BMG, the company behind the copy-protected CD rootkit, have announced that they will be adding copy protection to CDs in Australia. Perhaps someone in the Australian office missed the memo about DRM having been thoroughly discredited throughout Sony BMG by the recent rootkit fiasco. Though the company has announced that the CDs will magically prevent users from making copies without causing the problems that affected users of their CDs in the US, so that's alright then.
It looks like Sony's CD copy protection compromises Macintoshes too; at least if you're trusting enough to enter the administrator password. Which just means that Sony's copy-protection geeks haven't found a local privilege-escalation exploit in MacOS X that they can use. (I'm sure that Sony would believe that they are within their rights to do this because their prerogative to control access to their intellectual property by all means necessary overrides the user's right to maintain the integrity of their computer, and the ability to use it to potentially use Sony's IP in unapproved ways.)
(via bOING bOING)
I picked up a copy of The Clientele's most recent album, The Violet Hour, today. As far as sound goes, it's much the same sort of thing as their previous album, Suburban Light; reverbed vocals and slide guitars and live drums, a bit like a less twangy, more ethereal Mojave 3, or perhaps like the Warm Inventions with male vocals instead of Hope Sandoval.
Anyway, this CD came with a data section containing two MPEG files of videos for various songs. These videos take the form of two monochrome Super 8 movies, and suit the music perfectly. The Reflections After Jane video consists of shots out of the window of a moving train at passing houses and trees, reflections of trees and the sky in puddles, and two blokes walking along a path. It appears to have been filmed in the environs of London or nearby, and makes no attempt to hide the everyday nature of its setting. We see rows of terrace houses, post-war brutalist tower blocks and semi-detached suburban houses go past, amidst the everyday magic of the play of light. Which, I suspect, is the whole point of the title of their first album.
A quick review of various items which arrived at my PO box today:
- Various artists, "Romantic and Square is Hip and Aware": a Smiths tribute album featuring mostly guitar-based jangly indie-pop bands who can probably trace their lineage back to Manchester's Finest. They're not bad, though many of them don't add much in the way of new ideas to the originals; don't look for too many radical reinventions here. Brazilian band Pale Sunday's bossa-tinged take on I Know It's Over is quite good, Anglo-Spanish popsters Pipas do a slightly dubby take on This Night Has Opened My Eyes and Jason Sweeney does a good Morrissey impression over bedroom electronics. Meanwhile, Australia's national indie band The Lucksmiths' take on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out sounds much like the original, only as a duet, deviating from the master about as much as Neil Finn's version from some time ago, while The Guild League's take on Panic has a jaunty, slightly brass-bandish take on it. The liner, by someone from The Snowdrops (who cover Bigmouth Strikes Again) notes are much the usual autobiographical tale of growing up awkwardly in the bedsits of Thatcher's England with one's Smiths records. (via Traffic Sounds.)
- Harvey Williams, California: I had the MP3s for this, and decided to get the CD. In the decade or so between Another Sunny Day (who brought us bedsit anthems like Anorak City and the unforgettable You Should All Be Murdered; check the filesharing nets for them) and this 1999 release, Harvey Williams had mellowed somewhat, bringing a CD of piano ballads, both touching and satirical, with a wry, and very English, turn of phrase, about the usual boy/girl situations. In a parallel universe, some of these have probably been picked up by Working Title for a London-based Gwyneth Paltrow romcom and Harvey has become the next Badly Drawn Boy. But there are some nice tracks here; the Bacharachesque instrumental Introducing..., for one.
- The Autocollants, Why Can't Things Just Stay The Same?. Lo-fi sweet indie-pop which starts off OK, though sounds a bit samey in places. Perhaps it's the production (the guitars sound like they were recorded on a four-track in someone's bedroom), or perhaps Laura Watling's voice is just that much too breathy for prolonged listening.
- Stereolab, 2004 Tour CD: whilst the groop don't look like visiting Australia this year, a copy of this 3" disc has made it into my hands courtesy of an American source (ta, bfd!). Contains three tracks, with the exquisitely Labbish titles "Banana Monster Ne Répond plus", "Rose, My Rocket-Brain!" (subtitled "Rose, Le Cerveau Electronique De Ma Fusée!"), and "University Microfilms Limited". And, yes, it's quite good; this isn't mere filler. The first track has an epic, multipartite quality akin to the best of the Lab, in its 5 and a half minutes, the second one sounds like the output of an automatic Stereolab song generator (in a good way), and the third one's not bad either.
I also got a copy of that CD of HP Lovecraft-themed retro fonts. Had I paid any more for it, I'd be disappointed; some of the letter spacing is a bit inconsistent, and more annoyingly, all the fonts have "HPLHS" as the style (where "Bold", "Italic" and so on should be), with the different weights and slants in each family showing up as separate faces. I suspect that the designers are not professional typographers (btw, who would call a font "Italic"?)
It looks like there's a new Slowdive CD release coming out on the 24th; titled Catch the Breeze it's presumably a best-of/retrospective, though details are scant. Oddly enough, it's not being released by Sony but by some outfit named Castle.
The Onion AV Club's Least Essential Albums of 2003 list includes things like awful poet Jewel's Britneyfication (I'm surprised Liz Phair didn't make it onto the list; though perhaps she was 2002), Russell Crowe's pub-rock band, and the usual dodgy tribute albums, band members' solo albums and the obligatory Tupac necrophilia. (They also give a gong to Dave Gahan's solo album, in which they have a dig at Martin Gore's Counterfeit2, which I thought was quite decent.) (via Rocknerd)
Meanwhile, the Graun has a list of 50 things we'd like to see less of in 2004.
I picked up the Kill Bill vol. 1 soundtrack CD today. Like film soundtrack CDs (well, the better ones, anyway), it's a bit of a mixed bag, though has enough good moments to make it worthwhile. Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) is, of course, beautiful and haunting, and Bernard Herrmann's Twisted Nerve is a very stylish piece of retro ambience. Luis Bacalov's The Grand Duel (Parte Prima), taken from the score of some old film, is spaghetti-Western music in the Morricone tradition, and I'm sure I have heard Zamfir's The Lonely Shepherd before. I wasn't too fond of RZA's contributions, particularly Ode to Oren Ishii, a rather gratuitous piece of gangsta rap. (I suppose it makes marketing sense to have it there, though, and it probably beats having LL Cool J rapping about whatever cardboard-cutout character he played in his latest film.) The CD is padded out with loops of drumming and sound effects created by RZA for combat sequences; listening to them is not unlike listening to an electronic-music magazine CD of free samples.
One annoyance: they only put a bit over a minute of Neu!'s Super 16 on the CD. Given that the disc clocks in at 59 minutes, they could have fit the whole track on it. Though perhaps it'd have cost them higher licensing fees or something.
My copy of the new Ninetynine EP, Receiving the Sounds of Science Fiction just arrived. I've posted a brief write-up to ninetynine_fan. I'll probably write something more detailed later, possibly for Rocknerd.
Executive summary: it's all good.
First impressions of the 3 CDs which arrived in the mail today:
- Stereolab - Instant 0 In The Universe. The groop are back in fine form; this album follows on from their earlier material, in classic Stereolab fashion. Lætitia appears to harmonise with herself on one track, which works. This is more the jaunty Stereolab than the experimental Stereolab. No huge departures, though the last track does go a bit disco-y towards the end. I rather like it.
- Spearmint - My Missing Days - much like their earlier albums; spiky powerpop with Shirley's impassioned vocals. Some tracks have string arrangements; the songwriting is pretty good too.
- The Pastels - The Last Great Wilderness Only 24 minutes long, and most of it is short instrumental themes, ostensibly for a Wicker Man-style film. There's one song with Katrina singing, and a "sleazy electropop" track featuring Jarvis Cocker, which seems, at least to me, a bit bland.
Pitchfork's list of the 50 most common CDs in secondhand shops, each bagged with Tanya Headon-esque exactitude. The words "shoegaze", "grunge" and references to Dawson's Creek/90210 and aging yuppies disposing of their Lollapalooza merchandise upon moving to the suburbs come up repeatedly. (via VM)
Though I think they were entirely unfair to Lush's Lovelife (a good record, even if it is somewhat more mainstream than Split; tell me that Runaway or Olympia aren't good songs, and 500 (Shake Baby Shake) doesn't have a classic pop appeal).
The new Ninetynine mini-CD is out, and it's called Receiving the Sounds of Science Fiction (how's that for a cool title?). So how do you get it? Well, you can't buy it, but you can get it by joining the Dark Beloved Cloud singles club. No, it's not a dating service. To join, you send your details and six hand-decorated 3"x3" cards (which will become the artwork for other people's singles) to a PO box in New York.
If your creative skills aren't up to it, you can always wait for the UAR Australian rerelease next year, which apparently will have bonus tracks. (I wonder what those will be; new original material, remixes, live tracks, or multimedia content?)
(Thanks to Leigh for the heads-up)
I got the limited-edition CD version of the new Radiohead album yesterday (from the US, where it's available on proper CDs). I haven't listened to the whole thing yet, but I've noticed some differences from the preview: there are additional, rather faint, voices at the start of the first track, for example. Disappointingly, however, they've cut the entire third verse out of The Gloaming, reducing it in length by some 50 seconds.
I've just ordered Radiohead's Hail to the Thief from the U.S. The local copy, you see, is "copy controlled" (i.e., distributed on a deliberately defective CD which doesn't work in some computer CD-ROMs and other devices). It works well enough if you run Windows and run a player application on the CD, not minding the poor quality of the low-bit-rate WMA versions provided and having to have the disc in the drive the whole time and trusting EMI's proprietary player program not to spy on you, delete your MP3s or fux0r your registry out of malice, stupidity or both, but if you use Linux, you're SOL. Unless you're lucky and your CD-ROM drive ignores the "Copy Control" voodoo and lets you rip everything without a hitch; but IMHO, that's not good enough, and if the local EMI subsidiary disagree, they can do without the hefty subsidies I've been paying them over the years. And with the peso being at a high, ordering from the U.S. is affordable again.
This isn't the first EMI disc of which I've ordered a Red Book copy from abroad. A while ago I picked up Goldfrapp's new one, Black Cherry (which is OK, though not as good as Felt Mountain; and it does seem that she's trying to be fashionable and jump on the '80s tinny-synth neo-electro bandwagon like everybody else), and Martin Gore's Counterfeit2 (which is very, very nice; basically a collection of covers, done with the combination of cold electronic glitches and bleeps and aching humanity that Depeche Mode fans will feel right at home with; I'd say it's probably better than any Mode since Violator, in fact). I also picked up the quasi-official fan edition of David Bridie's Hotel Radio (which is also excellent, and not as far from Martin Gore's territory as one would think).
Of course, some EMI titles have fallen by the wayside; for example, I probably won't be bothered to import the new Placebo album.
Information on CD copy-denial systems and how they work.
I got my hands on four EMI Copy Controlled pseudo-CDs today, for research purposes. One of them appears to be a regular Red Book CD with no bogosities, but the other three have corrupt TOC data. It's funny because generic IDE CD-ROMs, like the one on my old Mac, rip them perfectly, whereas both the DVD and CDRW drives on my Linux box choke. More on that later.
I picked up the new Seascapes of the Interior album, All Safe, All Well today. (I won it from 3RRR's Local and/or General show last night.) It's pretty impressive; six tracks, ranging from just under 2 to 20 minutes, lots of lush, multi-instrumental textures with piano melodies, guitars, synths, violins, chromatic percussion and sampled voice fragments; very atmospheric and textured. And that applies to the packaging too; the disc came in a two-part sleeve of very rough recycled paper (mine still has pieces of newspaper classified ads visible; your mileage will doubtlessly vary), printed in monochrome and with a window cut in the outer sleeve.
Seascapes are launching this CD at the Great Britain Hotel this Friday; I probably won't be able to make it, as the once-off Strange Tenants reunion is on that night. Oh well.
A somewhat iffy review of the new Massive Attack album in the Graun. To be honest, I'd agree with much of it; a lot of the songs go on for too long and yet somehow seem somewhat flat, at least compared to Mezzanine. Though it's not all that bad an effort.
Indeed, on the only occasion when 100th Window props itself up and makes a point, you wish it had stayed supine. A Prayer for England concerns child abduction and murder - an issue virtually ignored by the media in recent years and thus in desperate need of the boost in profile that only a protest song on a chill-out album can deliver. It's certainly difficult to argue with the thesis - infanticide is a bad thing - but a point this facile hardly warrants O'Connor's finger-wagging fire-and-brimstone routine. By the second verse, she is addressing God as "Jah", an affectation that recalls a wackily hatted student reaching for his bong. At this point, one's thoughts do turn to murder, but not quite in the way the song intends.
(Is 100th Window the 18 to Mezzanine's Play? Discuss.)
I've been unusually disciplined so far this year, with regards to CD buying. I'm trying to keep my habit under some measure of control (for reasons which will become apparent later), and not to grow my collection too rapidly. So far, the total number of CDs I have has only increased by two.
Over the past two weeks I picked up Flunk's For Sleepyheads Only, an OK piece of chill-out electronica from Norway. It hasn't really grabbed me; the version of Blue Monday there, incidentally, is a bit irritating IMHO. (Aside: why is it that every cover of that song ends up sounding disappointing; we had Orgy's whiny mall-goth take on it, Pee Wee Ferris' cheesy commercial-dance cover (don't ask), and Flunk's, while not dire in the way that they were, is still disappointing.)
Last night, I picked up local spoken-word artist Klare Lanson's Every Third Breath; which is mostly ambiguous cyberbabble over glitchy, vaguely Björkish electronic beats and bleeps (proviced by Cornel Wilczek, aka Qua), replete with lyrics written in cod-XML. It's technically quite good, though whether it'll have lasting appeal remains to be determined.
Today I went to Dixon's Recycled and picked up three more CDs, though sold three which I wasn't likely to listen to anymore. One of my new acquisitions were plunderphonic art piece Deconstructing Beck (on a classy unprinted CD that just screams "copyright violation"). Another was an equally (if not more) choice find; one of the Least Essential Albums Of The '90s. That's right, dear readers; I'm now the proud (but only in an ironic sense) owner of The Adventures Of MC Skat Kat & The Stray Mob. It'll sit proudly in the bulldada section of my record collection, next to Acid Brass, my Wesley Willis CDs and Spaced Out: The Very Best of Nimoy/Shatner.
A brief review of a few of the CDs I picked up in the UK (well, the ones I've had a chance to at least partially digest), in alphabetical order by artist:
- Ballboy, Club Anthems 2001: File alongside The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian. The spoken-word track about space travel isn't bad, and Sex Is Boring, which bags house music and club culture, also has its charms.
- Below The Sea, the loss of our winter: Credible guitar-driven post-rock instrumentals from France. tropic of cancer is probably my favourite track so far. Unfortunately, my copy seems to have a defect which results in a fluttering noise when played; though one could argue that it's not as noticeable as it would be in other musical genres.
- Bis, The End Starts Today: some remixes from their most recent album, along with their speech synth-driven cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart, which is probably the highlight.
- Clan of Xymox, Medusa: A combination of reverb-heavy 80s studio rock, minor-key synthpop and goth-club floor-filler material, with the distinct touch of 4AD about it; a sort of Frankie Goes Eurogoth. Check out the heavily-processed guitars, rapid-fire drum machine patterns and po-faced Brendan Perry-meets-Andrew Eldritch vocals, as imitated by every other dodgy Cleopatra band from the US Midwest since, though this is a notch above all that.
- Colourbox, Colourbox: Another 80s 4AD outfit, this time doing electronic dub instrumentals. They went on to form M/A/R/R/S, you know.
- Cure, The, Collectors Curiosities Vol. 2: With Carnage Visors and numerous B-sides and no reference to the band on the disc itself (presumably to evade copyright audits at the pressing plant), this is another one of those London market specials. The "bonus tracks performed live in a recording studio 1984" certainly adds to the air of suspiciousness of the entire package.
- Curve, Come Clean: Curve-by-numbers; crunchy overcompressed beats and overdriven guitar whines and Toni's distorted vocals and textures of analogue synth warbles and bleeps. I suppose that's the nice thing about Curve records; you know what to expect, and you're not disappointed. All much of a muchness, though Beyond Reach is nice.
- High Llamas, Buzzle Bee and Snowbug; somewhat twee, post-Beach Boys/Bacharach melodies. Sort of like Stereolab without the difficult bits. (Indeed, Tim and Lætitia appear on the latter disc, as does producer John McEntire.) Good background music, though not the most compelling records ever made.
- James, Laid: I picked this up for the title track, and because it was cheap. For some reason, they sound more Australian than British to me; not sure why. Perhaps they sound a bit like the Go-Betweens or the Triffids or someone, or otherwise give a sense of wide spaces and harsh sunlight in their music?
- Miss Kittin & The Hacker, The First Album: minor-key neo-80s synthpop with disjointed, emotionless Euro-accented vocals, and KOMPRESSOR-style songwriting.
- Primal Scream, Autobahn 66 promotional single: just the 3-minute version of the track. Blah.
- Spearmint, Songs for the Colour Yellow: their early works, with 1960s power-pop touches; not as baggy as A Week Away or as bowlie as A Different Lifetime. Interesting to hear that they recycled the melody of the title track for one of their subsequent songs.
- Trembling Blue Stars, She Just Couldn't Stay CD single: No, he's still not over her. Though isn't that the whole point of Trembling Blue Stars? Compelling, but in the way car accidents are.
- Will To Power, Journey Home: early-90s LA studio outfit, best known for their cover of 10CC's I'm Not In Love; I remembered them for Koyaanisqatsi, their spoken-word rant over a slickly-produced electronic background, going on about corporate domination, animal research and damage to the environment from a gun-toting anarchist perspective (think early Moby meets an arts-degreed Eric S. Raymond). That and the Nietzchean sleeve notes add a touch of eccentricity to the rather overproduced, vaguely Madonna/Lewis Martinee-esque bulk of this CD. I wonder what Bob Rosenberg ended up doing after this; producing commercial dance music, or retreating to a cabin in Montana? Either sounds equally likely.
Anyway, I picked this up for something like 50p at the cheapo branch of Music & Video Exchange, and am quite pleased with that. If I end up doing DJ sets, you can probably expect Koyaanisqatsi to end up in them, next to other curiosities.
Hmm... Ninetynine's The Process comes out on Monday, and chaosmusic.com already have a page for it. The track listing looks very promising (and the excerpts I've heard on 3RRR do too). The artwork doesn't seem to have the same indie-geeky quality of previous albums (they've ditched the graph paper, I see, along with the numerical album title thing), but it's probably appropriate, as their sound has become more fluid and organic and, dare I say, more mature.
Right now, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of this disc.
An Israeli company has developed CD-ROMs which cannot be copied. The CDs contain a smart card with a photodetector and LED and a chip containing a decryption key; to decrypt itself, the software requests the key from the card. Though I'm skeptical about the practicality of such a system; CD-ROM drives are read-only devices, and whether or not the software can control the laser enough to communicate with the chip (to send requests for codes) seems rather uncertain, given that it's not part of any standard that drives have to comply with.
In live music news, Ninetynine have completed recording, mixing and mastering their new album. It'll be titled The Process and should be out in 3-4 weeks.
(I dragged myself along, doped up on pseudoephedrine, to see them tonight. They put on an intense show; more so than you'd expect from a group of people who had been up for 48 hours putting the finishing touches on an album. And they're playing in about 2 weeks' time at the Rob Roy.)
Angry Robot reviews the new Curve album, which is only available by mail-order from a UK niche retailer. Sounds promising, though I'm not sure if I'll buy it; I've already got 3 Curve albums I don't listen to much and mail order from the UK is expensive. (Besides which, they never got back to me about the remix I sent them.)
Oh yes, I picked up the new Piano Magic album, Writers Without Homes, today. Currently am halfway through it. The packaging is very nice (4AD's house design firm v23 were involved), and so far, the album sounds mellow and understated, with poignant bits of atmosphere, song and spoken-word about lives, stories and such. I think it'll take a few listens to fully get into though.
When I watch old films in which animals appear, I get sad because those animals are certainly dead now. And that certainly prompts my private epitaph and I have to say it out loud "That dog is dead. That cat is dead. That horse is dead..."
Interesting to see that Simon Raymonde, of Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil fame, is involved on some of the tracks here. (This sort of cross-pollination, I've noticed, is something characteristic of 4AD acts; what, with This Mortal Coil, and Robin Guthrie producing the first Lush album, and so on...).
Looks like Curve have a new album out, The Adventures of Curve, and this time they're self-publishing and self-distributing, after the recording company dropped the ball with their last release. That's what to get when you sign to a major label and you're not Limp Bizkit or Puddle of Mudd or some other fashionable yoof-metal outfit, I suppose.
Meanwhile, further down on the page, it appears that the new CD from Californian swirlygoth-turned-drum'n'bass outfit Love Spirals (formerly Downward) is out, and the description sounds somewhat interesting. I may have to give it a spin next time I'm near Heartland. (via Cos)
A propagandistic News Corp. article about the evils of coin-operated CD duplicators, how they threaten to kill musical artists, and how outrageous it is that they're perfectly legal, as a result of our inadequately lax copyright laws. (Keep in mind that News Corp., along with Disney, is one of the major advocates of legally mandating copy-protection in all electronic devices in the US.)
NEW machines installed in Adelaide convenience stores make the illegal copying of the latest CDs and computer software - which costs artists and software designers millions of dollars - as easy as buying a loaf of bread.
It also makes legal copying of CDs you already own, for backups or use in the car, for example, or of your band's demos, or whatever, easy. But we all know that consumers have no legitimate reason to copy CDs.
The machines are able to operate under the same legislation as public photocopiers, where the burden of responsibility for copyright breaches lies with the user and not the owner of the equipment.
How much do you want to bet that there'll be legislation in parliament to remedy this promptly?