Monday, December 31, 2007


#31 Cornelius, Sensuous

Tokyo’s greatest contemporary musical genius, Cornelius produced one of the first bona fide masterpieces of the millennium in 2001’s extraordinary Point, a truly virtuosic exercise in almost pointillistic pop-electronica, building gorgeous immersive structures out of little isolated cells and samples, like a meticulous engineer able to get in four minutes flat from a vacant lot to a whole city (complete with green spaces and fully integrated transport system). Sensuous is his first new release, copious remixes aside, since then, and it too is a doozy: the only problem with it, really, is that it’s not Point, but it also doesn’t depart terribly far from the pattern of Point: the complex rhythms that initially appear lopsided until they’re properly filled in; the lyrics built out of single collaged words and phonemes; the occasional breaking waves of lush harmonic wash; in fact the most fully realised tracks, “Fit Song” and “Music”, feel like little more than remodels of the earlier “Point of View Point” and “Drop”. But that’s not to say there aren’t still plenty of surprises and much to amuse and engross. Certainly he covers a lot of ground: “Gum” is a cheerily raucous bit of synthetic Motorhead, complete with matching left and right Lemmybots; while “Like A Rolling Stone” (no, it’s not) could almost be Tomita, and closing track “Sleep Warm” turns the kitsch dial up so high it’s enough to make a baby unicorn barf a rainbow (barf a rainbow, barf a rainbow too). If you haven’t heard Cornelius, Sensuous is a perfectly good place to start, it’s basically a fantastic record; but if you have heard Cornelius before, you’ve pretty much already heard Sensuous.

#32 The Sea and Cake, Everybody

Ah, The Sea and Cake, my two favourite things to sit in front of and stare at while I ponder my own mortality. The band of that name have also, over the years, had quite a bit of my least focused attention: even in their earliest days, on their self-titled debut, they may have been loose-limbed but never scrappy, and their immensely likeable style has for the most part been lowkey and undemonstrative: and maybe in some ways that’s not such a good thing. It’s almost impossible not to drift off. Everybody is tight enough to bounce threepenny bits off, and it’s not undynamic in places, such as the slightly alarming cavalcade of low-end buzzing that is “Left On”, or the rather radio-friendly “Crossing Line”, and still there’s something diffuse about it: possibly it’s the unassertiveness of Sam Prekop’s vocals, possibly it’s the restrained and seamless field of guitars and John McEntire’s expert drums. What I love about this record, though, and about The Sea and Cake generally, is that you can keep going back, and it will never be less interesting than it was the time before. Tracks such as “Coconut” (I admit I was hoping against all reason that it might be a cover of the Harry Nilsson song) and the almost Can-like “Lightning” are so brilliantly made that their diffidence seems like an almost moving refusal of grandiosity or contrived drama. And ultimately it’s this confidence in the originary concepts of post-rock that makes Everybody so valuable.

#33 Happy Mondays, Uncle Dysfunktional

Oh Lordy it’s the Happy Mondays. What were the odds against this being a great record? I was never all that bothered about them twenty years ago when they were at their peak; why should I care about a comeback nobody asked for (except possibly Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs)? Well, because this turns out to be an amazingly loveable album. Baggy enough to three-point-turn an aircraft carrier around in, and with a blurry, dubby quality that, combined with Ryder’s characteristically behind-the-bikesheds nursery-rhyme lyrics, occasionally makes for rather a queasy listen, Uncle Dysfunktional nonetheless is full of a contagious esprit that probably only a band with Bez in it has any hope of achieving. The soundworld conjured by producer Sunny Levene has a lugubrious larkiness about it that perfectly matches the material, and Ryder’s vague, alternately insinuating and bellowing vocals must surely bring a smile to all but the po-est of faces (albeit this may be the first great album to have been recorded with the singer apparently having taken their teeth out since Margaret Barry’s Songs of an Irish Tinker Lady). The kind of record of which it can truly be said that the worst songs – the execrably named “Cuntry Disco” and “Anti Warhole on the Dancefloor” - are also actually kind of the best.

#34 Iron & Wine, The Shepherd's Dog

Probably I wasn’t listening closely enough, but nothing about Sam Beam’s classic second album as Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (which contains in “Naked As We Came” one of the most goshdarned beautiful songs you’ll ever hear), or interim adventures such as the collaborations with Calexico (which incidentally produced, among other things, the best cover I’ve ever heard of the often-attempted “All Tomorrow’s Parties”), prepared me for The Shepherd’s Dog. The expansion of I&W’s palette and the increasing ambitiousness of the songwriting really are striking developments, all the more so given the critical acclaim and cult affections lavished on the previous album, which might have led a lesser talent than Beam to proceed with caution here. I would have to concede that I slightly miss the directness of that earlier material, but there are tracks on the new album, such as “Carousel” and the closing “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”, that satisfy and indeed overwhelm that desire while providing a supportive context for less immediately appealing songs like “House By The Sea”. Even so, there are two or three tracks here that I think I probably won’t ever be reconciled with: but if that’s the trade-off for having Beam extend himself so exemplarily, I’m fine with it.

#35 Adam Bohman + Roger Smith, Reality Fandango

An unexpected (by me, anyway) encounter between two significant figures from the London improvising scene. Roger Smith is, as I’ve said before on these pages, perhaps my favourite guitarist in this territory: the late Derek Bailey of course was, and remains, matchless, but if I’m reaching for a CD to put on, it’s more likely to be the mercurial, sometimes baffling, but always intensely fascinating Smith (whose previous solo and duo outings on Emanem are as highly recommended as anything on this consistently excellent label). Adam Bohman, meanwhile, is a familiar figure from the long-running series of gigs he has curated with his brother Jonathan (currently, encouragingly, as part of BAC’s regular programme), and from appearances with groups ranging from Morphogenesis to the London Improvisers’ Orchestra. Indeed he provided one of my live highlights of the year, a tiny gig in the Ray’s Jazz series at Foyle’s bookshop, in bewildering duet with my old CPT pal Patrizia Paolini. This disc is full of sensual pleasures of the most excruciating kind: convulsive, rebarbative, murky, abrasive: but also delicate, funny, and utterly true to itself. As the fine, almost incongruously elegant liner poetry by Elizabeth James has it: “you choose your friend / on the basis of interesting frictions” – which is a pretty good epigraph not only for this irresistible disc but for all productive artistic conversations, everywhere.

#36 Tunng, Good Arrows

Everything - or at least a lot of what – you need to know about this third album from Tunng, following the exquisite Comments of the Inner Chorus (which was #12 in last year’s fifty), is that the eleventh word sung on it is “A-woah”. That’s, “A-woah.” Or however you spell it. And you can’t blame a boy for being nervous about that. Readers two or three years older than me may still remember the first time they heard Jim Kerr produce the word “A-woah”, a chilling indication that stadium rock and marriage to Chrissie Hynde were just around the corner. Tunng may or may not be on that slippery slope but let’s just say this record could perhaps in time come to be seen as their New Gold Dream. We’re not in rustly snuffly alt.folk-land any more, we’re in plinky and perky leftfield rock territory: and all puritanical misgivings aside, good grief they’re good at it. You’re halfway through “Bricks” before you know quite what’s going on, but once you’re tuned in, Good Arrows quickly reveals itself a genuinely enjoyable and beautifully crafted set of eccentric / experimental pop songs which cram an incredible amount of detail and invention into three-minute capsules. This will almost certainly appeal to folks who still miss The Beta Band and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, though I suspect all of those folks know that already. Also, track three has the word “aorta” on it, that’s “aorta”, so maybe it’s not quite time for Tunng’s Breakfast Club close-up just yet.

#37 Fog, Ditherer

For the best part of a decade, Andrew Broder was alternately hailed and overlooked in his recording persona of Fog, with 2003’s Ether Teeth on Ninja Tune being perhaps the high water mark of that phase of his project, a deliciously strange and soupy mix of warped turntablism and docile acoustic jitters. But now, 2007-issue Fog is a three-piece rock band, and this, their first recorded dispatch, has been simultaneously hailed and overlooked, which I guess is a kind of progress. Ditherer feels like the culmination of a line Broder has been pursuing since his brilliant collaboration with Yoni Wolf as Hymie’s Basement in 2003: essentially, an awkward embrace of song forms as a way of pushing beyond the merely and mutely enigmatic into an acceptance of the expressive authority that songwriting can confer. This is music that can turn on a dime, angular and surprisingly proggy, full of augmented fourths and nicely inverted chords, but also breezy and luxurious when it wants to be: (just about) singalong choruses embedded in fraught and frangible blocks of texture. The drama of its quick-changes repeatedly punches way above the emotional weight of the lyrical surface. The overlong and underachieving “On the Gallows” is a rare misjudgement in an otherwise awesomely compelling album. If you ever wanted the Eagles to sound more like King Crimson and King Crimson to sound more like cLOUDDEAD, then welcome my friends to the show that never ends.

#38 Interpol, Our Love to Admire

A number of people, most memorably the Guardian’s poppet-in-chief Maddy Costa, tried to turn me on to Interpol while they were still cool, but to little avail. Nonetheless I thought I should have a go at Our Love to Admire and I’m as every bit as impressed with it as many of the band’s diehard fans seem to be disgruntled. This is clearly a rather predictable shift widescreenwards for the band, the album is positively refulgent with money and capital-L legitimacy; one online reviewer is beside himself with indignation at the appearance of an oboe at one point. Well, so it goes. What I think works for me about this record in a way that their previous stuff hasn’t so much is exactly the resounding depth of the production, which sets Paul Banks’s bitter-edged vocals on top of some notably vast and tremulous spaces, giving rise to an impression that the songwriting – its melodic lines in particular – amply bears out: that the tradition in which Interpol sit is not that of their heroes Joy Division but that of the great Spector girl bands, the Crystals and the Ronettes. (Listen past the guitars to the drums, the percussion, the piano, the backing vocals at various points.) I think it could be argued that Our Love to Admire never quite reapproaches the heights of its stunning opening track, “Pioneer to the Falls”, though almost everything here is truly convincing. It’s not the kind of record you get unspeakably excited about, and I won’t be becoming an Interpol proselyte, but nor is this a band I’ll be quickly taking my eye off in future.

#39 Just Jack, Overtones

Such was the amount of airplay it seemed to be getting back at the start of the year, you may have found that there was a gap of maybe forty-five minutes between hearing Just Jack’s indelibly catchy “Starz in their Eyes” single for the first time and quite liking it, and hearing it for the seventh time and wanting to kill yourself with a well-placed hammer blow to the tune-storing lobe of your brain. After a while it’s incredibly difficult to hear what’s actually going on in a ubiquitous track like that. But it would be a pity if, as a consequence, anybody was put off lending an ear to this terrific album. Jack Allsopp has very considerable gifts as a lyricist, his nicely ramshackle rap style drizzling quirky streets-of-LDN observations and chirpy puns over some very likeable dance tracks, from the laidback shuffle of “Glory Days” (“Stop at the caff, coffee and a salt beef bagel / Yeah I know I’m caned but now I’m feeling able” just about sums it up) to the lite-ish garage of “Life Stories”. Better get to it quickly, though: this is the kind of super-fresh record that goes off quickly and in two or three years its soft-shoe cool may well sound as dated as Matt Bianco. But from now until its use-by date, genuinely smart stuff.

#40 The Bird and the Bee, The Bird and the Bee

Also from the start of the year, and also as fresh as a 6 a.m. daisy, this terrifically slinky record came out on Blue Note, which naturally led one to expect a jazzier affair than this turned out to be. There are some lovely harmonies here and the arrangements are breezily sophisticated but the contexts in which these set the pure and limpid vocals of Inara George are as likely to call to mind Natalie Imbruglia as, say, Astrud Gilberto – though closer correspondences would be to Laetitia Sadier, or Anja Garbarek, perhaps, or Regina Janssen (of Donna Regina), all of whom bring a distinctly indie sensibility to everything they do. In part it’s all a big dressing-up game: as you listen you’ll see flashes of Audrey Hepburn or Brigitte Bardot or Giulietta Masina or Goldie Hawn, you’ll be in Cannes or Tokyo or Manhattan (though B&B themselves seem to be LA through and through)... So the worst I can say about this record (and Lord knows I try) is that it comes across as confectionery of the most Wonkatastically artificial kind. But, as you know, Augustus and Gloop are my middle names, and there’s little point in trying to resist songs as fetching as “I Hate Camera” and the coquettishly poised “Fucking Boyfriend”. Charmed, I’m absolutely sure: and any album with a song that depicts pigs eating popcorn is a friend of mine.

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