Monday, December 31, 2007
#1 Astrobrite, Whitenoisesuperstar
Safety goggles and gumshields to the ready, cats. This is some serious stuff right here. Scott Cortez has been recording as Astrobrite (one among many projects) since 1994, but this fourth album is the first I’ve heard of him. A little Googling reveals a small but committed fanbase in ecstasies over this record, and I’m with them all the way and further: I honestly think this is one of the most exciting albums I’ve ever heard. The sound world of Astrobrite is not that difficult to describe: it’s basically My Bloody Valentine multiplied by early Fennesz, overlaid with the sound of Emma Bunton singing to herself while she does the hoovering. It’s the biggest noise I’ve heard that retains some vestige of pop: these are five minute songs with melodic hooks (often barely detectable in the wispy vocals) and verse/chorus structures and four-chord progressions; there are fairly standard issue breakbeats skittering away much of the time, nothing to frighten the horses there; it’s just that every bit of space that’s left over is filled with the sound of electricity being bent and broken. The album starts brilliantly in media res with the uncompromising title track, but for me the first peak moment is “Dragonfly Pinkfuzz”, which I’m sure has reduced sterner folks than me to gibbering blobs of protoplasm: the overload of the chorus is so sublime it’s just impossible to know what to do with yourself. And then you just have time to towel down and breathe easy before the monumental “Goddess” has you again returned to your elemental greases, leaving nothing behind but a pair of smoking shoes. And yet it’s not a macho album, it’s not playing at being harder than the rest: this is just the sound of a very fine musician pursuing beauty way beyond the point where all the little LEDs are constantly on red and all the needles are all the way over to the right. By the time you reach the closing, clinching “Kisspeach”, you will have abandoned all thoughts of ever having sex while this album plays, but you may have started trying to figure out a way to have sex with this album. (That guy who got arrested earlier in the year for knobbing his bicycle: did anyone think to check his iPod? Cherchez Astrobrite, I reckon.) Seriously, this is an unbelievable, life-changing record: the best I’ve heard not just this year but in several years. I’m definitely giving it, oh, eight out of ten. Somebody stop me.
#2 Richard Youngs, Autumn Response
I’ve been hearing the name of Richard Youngs for some time, often in connection with some alt icon like Jandek or Matthew Bower, though the only work I’d heard before this was his collaborative ‘Radios’ project with Brian Lavelle. An intriguing review sent me off in the direction of Autumn Response, however, and I’m completely astonished by it: it’s the most striking man + guitar record I’ve come across in ages. There is a lot of genuinely beautiful songwriting here, a slightly edgy tenderness and intimacy and what I can only describe as a plainness, such that a straight down the line rendering of these songs would certainly still have been an unusually rewarding listen. But what particularly distinguishes Autumn Response is its extensive use of doubletracking (and, in some instances, bigger multiples), in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. Right from the start, on the stunning “I Need the Light”, we seem to be listening to two takes of the same song, recorded without reference to each other and superimposed blind; I literally can’t tell (and haven’t wanted to find out) whether this is actually what’s happening, or whether what would otherwise be some remarkably serendipitous moments of apparent correspondence and dialogue between the seperate recordings are actually contrived. Whatever, the complexity it creates, the tension, the sense of space being extended and time being fractured, is weirdly compelling. The second song, “Before We Were Here”, uses a similar technique, but with the second recording offset by a whole measure so that Youngs is initially singing a round with himself, and then gradually catches himself up. “One Hundred Stranded Horses” uses multiple overlays to create a sort of hypertextual matrix, in which all parts of the song seem to exist at the same time, creating a structure like a turning mobile; but it’s the cascading layers of “I Am The Weather” that eventually prove most affecting, the track on which the fascinating experiment really yields its most developed emotional resources. I can’t think of a truly solo record since Alastair Galbraith’s Mirrorwork in 1998 that I’ve found so fascinating. (More than a little perplexed by that goatse-ish cover, too...)
#3 MIMEO, sight
MIMEO is a sort of experimental supergroup convened by Keith Rowe, late of AMM, and featuring such luminaries as Christian Fennesz and Peter Rehberg. The group’s most prominent recording to date was probably the remarkable (and in some quarters mildly controversial) The Hands of Caravaggio, on which they were joined by Rowe’s then-colleague John Tilbury. Here, on sight, an intriguing project has been initiated. Each of the eleven musicians involved was invited to contribute, in isolation and without any discussion or negotiation, a total of about five minutes of sound, distributed across the time frame of an hour. These eleven separate recordings were then collated and stacked, and the album sight (so named, and issued in a plain black sleeve with black embossed text, with reference to the painter Cy Twombly’s occasional practice of working with a blindfold) is the outcome. It hardly needs saying that when you have to begin discussing an album with a description of its conceptual basis, your expectation might reasonably be that the recording could be more interesting intellectually than musically. In this case, no such worries apply: this is a great album, fascinating if you know how it was made but a fantastic listening experience anyway. The weird thing is how ‘live’ it sounds, how easy it is to imagine sight being the document of a single unedited improvisation, with all the participants in a room together and fully (if perhaps rather reticently) responding to each other’s propositions. So it’s ultimately the success of the music, rather than the concept itself, that raises the intellectual eyebrows. Rowe himself recently said something (which I don’t have to hand and therefore maybe am remembering inaccurately) about the preparation of the individual components that made up sight being an exercise in remembering: in the sense, I suppose, that each of these musicians was required to turn inwards and access a nearly but not quite intuitive sense of musical architectonics, and some version of the capacities they have for listening, and apply these almost subjunctively. Which is to say, sight invites you to think about music, but it is also in itself music that is more than somewhat about thinking, about process and commonality, and as such it has a sort of ethical dimension which is perhaps ultimately what makes it so satisfying.
#4 The Field, From Here We Go Sublime
Interestingly – all right, maybe not all that interestingly – the first three records in the list are all really about verticals: about superimposition, about layering, piling up. In the case of the aptly named The Field (and, incidentally, what a confusing year it’s been with considerable albums coming out also from Fields and Field Music – not to mention Open Field by the splendid Taken By Trees), it’s all about horizontals. Whether this album conjures mental images of high-speed trains hurtling through the countryside or simply wiggly audio tracks scrolling by on a laptop screen, it’s all about linear structures, about putting sounds next to, rather than on top of, each other. This seems so elementary that it’s sort of curious that music that sounds like From Here We Go Sublime wasn’t done and dusted years ago: rudimentary studies for the first Oval album (which, lest we forget, is now fifteen years old), say, or some forgettable subgenre of early ambient techno. And yet, right here, right now, in a world where the highpoints of The Black Dog and Farmers Manual are already starting to seem a bit old-hat, this music sounds not only brand new but also kind of revelatory. The first of numerous interesting Scandinavians on this year’s list, Axel Willner (a.k.a. The Field) has done this sort of imaginative excavation job to create an enthralling and beautiful album which almost entirely eschews dynamic variation or drama in favour of a sense of frictionless cruising, but which nonetheless – as the title suggests – does end up transcending the minimalism of his methods and the unassertiveness of his raw materials. Tracks like ‘Over the Ice’ and ‘Silent’ are essentially musical polymers, and if you imagine the quiet exhilaration of helter-skelter sliding down a model of DNA, you’re not far off the mark. In fact it’s crucial to his achivement that Willner manages to capture the warmth of that sense of play; when ‘A Paw in the Face’ finally divulges its source materials, it’s one of the funniest moments in the year’s music. A thrillingly effective debut.
#5 Loney, Dear, Loney, Noir
As I’m careful to say in my preamble, it’s almost certain that I haven’t heard many or most of the year’s best records: as proof of which, I suspect Hans Appelqvist may well have been displaced from last year’s number two slot had I heard in time the 2006 release Sologne from Loney, Dear, discovering whom has been one of the undoubted highlights of my listening year. Loney, Dear is actually a lyrical Swede called Emil Svanängen, whose reasonably robust frame belies a fledgling-like tremulousness of voice that makes early Bright Eyes sound like Bryn Terfel. His mix of knowingly ardent ballads (check out “The Warm Dark Comforting Night” on the early River Fontana album, but be prepared to surrender your heart without any further ado) and fireproof singalong pop (most memorably “The City, The Airport” on Sologne) is hardly ripping anything up and starting again but he is ceaselessly inventive within those classic formats: as Loney, Noir amply demonstrates. Those with a blanket aversion to twee should look away now; but anyone who was ever touched by the splendours of Sarah Records at its heights will take this album promptly to their heart: though Loney, Dear outdoes even those fondly loved bands with the strength of his melodic lines, which I suspect indicates a passion if not for Abba themselves then for the same lineage from which Benny & Bjorn seem to have drawn so much: show tunes, hymn tunes, operetta, the great second-string English Victorian and Edwardian composers; see for example the nearly anthemic fast waltz “The Meter Marks OK”, or the etiolated oom-pah electro of “I Will Call You Lover Again”. All of which might perhaps make Loney, Dear sound unconscionably nerdy to you. Well, fine. This is the kind of album you don’t really want to share with anyone anyway, you want to hide it under your bed, where the vividness of your secret love for it gives off just enough light to read comics by.
#6 The Twilight Sad, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
Best (more-or-less) conventional rock debut of the year by a country mile is this extraordinary record from Glasgow fourpiece The Twilight Sad. There is absolutely no moment of this substantial album that is ill-judged, tricksy, attention-seeking or in any way meretricious; it’s just a series of exceptional songs, confidently and forcefully delivered and faultlessly produced. What early records often don’t have is a very distinct signature, but here you get an absolutely clear sense of what this band are doing, what they’re about. That personality is partly the projection of the remarkable vocalist and co-writer James Graham, whose intensity throughout is breathtaking and cumulatively quite devastating: much of which is to do with the early song “That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy”, with its grim, harrowing refrain, “The kids are on fire in the bedroom”; the later “Mapped By What Surrounded Them” is similarly haunted and direful. It’s a vast, densely packed 45 minutes, and though it’s by no means the most leftfield record on the list it’s certainly not an easy listen; I’m somewhat reminded of another great band fronted by a Scot, the late lamented Prolapse, who also had a talent for making the violent and unnerving sound edged with beauty. Fourteen Autumns is not a date record, you don’t come out whistling the big tunes, you emerge a bit bruised and needing a cup of tea. None of this is a bad thing.
#7 Radiohead, In Rainbows
With all the slightly inflated excitement about the business model surrounding its release, it may be that it will take a little while for In Rainbows to be properly evaluated as a album. For what it’s worth, I like this album more than anything the band have done in the decade since OK Computer, together or separately; it took me precisely two minutes and thirteen seconds to let my guard down (the point in “15 Steps” at which a small crowd of children first shouts “Yayyy!”), and until track four, the lowkey but expertly crafted and ineffably moving “Weird Fishes (Arpeggi)”, to start loving it. That’s the song I most love on the record – I mention this because most reviews have singled out other tracks, but not that one – partly because it’s one of the points where the band really fuses, where it’s clear that Radiohead is the confluence of five immensely creative musicians plus, in Nigel Godrich, a producer of unassailable skill and imagination. In Rainbows is probably the album I’ve returned to most often this year; it’s arguably a more modest achievement than Kid A but its lighter and less wilful tone lets some air into the band’s project and opens out further than ever before the possibilities of where they might go next.
#8 Icarus, Sylt
Interesting fellas, Icarus. They started out in the mid-leftfield of drum‘n’bass and have drifted – or, I should say, travelled – ever further leftwards, arriving on 2004’s seminal I Tweet the Birdy Electric (on Leaf) in some hinterland between glitchy, fidgety i.d.m. and full-on free improvisation: a journey that has involved not only a loosening of form and structure but also an expansion of their sound world, such that they’re now among the most interesting kids in the playground when it comes to combining the acoustic with the electronic, and the possibilities of live interaction with the probabilities of studio gameplay. This latest dispatch worries me a bit because I can no longer tell what’s what, and I haven’t figured out yet how much that matters. I guess in the end it’s all 1’s and 0’s, but then, so are we all... At any rate, all such ideological paranoias aside, this is an album of such deft and various invention, it’s almost exhausting. Sylt is constructed around two extended live tracks, “First...” and “Second Inf(E)Raence”, which indicate just how quickly they’re able to throw ideas around even outside of a studio setting. Five shorter pieces present more manageable frameworks for trying to read their process, but eventually I, like most people will I guess, simply have to accept that I can’t keep up, and enjoy being delighted and bamboozled by this wonderful duo, who, interestingly, have become ever more entertaining in direct proportion to the increase of experimentalism in their outlook.
#9 Tetuzi Akiyama + Josef van Wissem, Hymn for a Fallen Angel
My favourite out-and-out improv record of the year has to be this utterly amazing duo between Tetuzi Akiyama (guitar) and Jozef van Wissem (baroque lute). Actually, even this turns out to be not quite out-and-out improv, as the recording actually captures van Wissem improvising to a prior recording of Akiyama: but I suspect that might not be detectable even from the closest listening – I don’t think I’d have figured it out for myself. Not that lending this record a careful and attentive ear doesn’t yield other benefits. It seems to me that this meeting is as much about the decay of sounds as it is about their activation; and as it explores the differences in tone and timbre between the two instruments (and their players’ approaches), and microtonal dissonances in their tuning, it creates an extraordinary sense of space: particularly in pieces such as “The Cry of the Hawk” where Akiyama’s employment of bottle neck opens up a kind of cultural gap too. It can be a slightly sour listen, this record, but if you can withstand its occasional astringencies, there is a plaintive and yet deeply mysterious tenor to its content which tends to pull you in and hold you almost uncomfortably close.
#10 Deerhoof, Friend Opportunity
There were times when, mostly for professional reasons (or lack of them), quite a bit of 2007 felt wasted: but let the record at least show that this was the year that I finally got into Deerhoof, after far too long not really paying enough attention. The straw that finally cleared the camel’s ears was this fantastic new release, which certainly offers a more easily approachable Deerhoof than previous recordings may have done. The recipe is an uneasy but bracing melange of angular, bumpy, proggy stuff, fused into catchy and not totally disorienting patterns, with the occasional lush harmony or learnable chorus, and a sticky glacé cherry on the top in the form of vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, who sometimes sounds as if she’s wandered in from the band next door to ask for a cup of sugar. These ten ruthlessly restless tracks take in smalltown Batman riffs, marching band fanfaronades, filthy dirty funk, noirish fifties girlband sob stories, and overextended Spinal Tap jazz odysseys, often all pretty much at the same time: it’s a dazzling, sensorily disarming concoction, of the kind that might be conceived at the Fat Duck of indie rock, wherever that might be.