#41 Gravenhurst, The Western Lands
Every so often I become convinced, just for a few minutes, that I went to school with Gravenhurst’s prime mover (and my fellow Bristolian) Nick Talbot, though there’s no evidence to suggest that I did, and plenty of reason to suspect otherwise. In fact there’s a lot about Talbot I’m not sure of, including some of the opinions he expresses on his blog, and quite a bit of his odd writing project Ultraskull. But of this we can be certain: Gravenhurst’s fifth album is fine work indeed. I’ve been listening closely since their early Flashlight Seasons, which I bought on the strength of its cover alone; and on the whole I’ve liked the way that over time the slightly sour, Ballardian tinge to the lyrical content has gradually soaked through the tones and instrumental arrangements of the songs, giving the sound an appreciably more serrated edge at times on the recent records. The Western Lands is a pretty sombre affair, but Talbot’s an incorrigible melody maker and delicate tracks such as “Song Among the Pine” and opener “Saints” create a remarkable sense of scale and locality that make this a richly appealing listen with occasional and by no means unwelcome redolences of Low, say, or classic Durutti Column.
#42 Do Make Say Think, You, You're a History in Rust
Toronto’s Do Make Say Think have been around for over a decade and sort of on my radar for much of that period, but this is the first time I’ve paid much attention to them: which I regret partly because, on this evidence at least, they’re a terrific band, and partly because the worst thing one can say about this album is that at moments the instrumental palette, and the organization of its recording, seems slightly old-fashioned or over-familiar: no fan of mid/late 90s classics such as Tortoise’s Millions Now Living... or David Grubbs’s The Thicket will feel estranged from the warm and plashy soundworld that the record wraps itself in: so I kind of wish I’d been listening to them as they first emerged, when post-rock maybe wouldn’t have felt so pre-something else. But there’s something so adroit about what DMST make that these quibbles reflect more on me than them. In particular, the relative distinction of having two drummers in the line-up works beautifully, both dynamically and structurally: the band as a whole is able to throw more ambitious shapes as a result -- though the gorgeous closer, ‘In Mind’, is so good-natured that their technical skill as players could easily be mistaken for a happy irrelevance.
#43 Dntel, Dumb Luck
Jimmy Tamborello is probably best known as half of The Postal Service, but his longer-standing project is as Dntel. Dumb Luck is Dntel’s first album for Sub Pop and it sounds kind of like a Postal Service album that’s accidentally been left in a trouser pocket and gone through the laundry: plangent melodies and airy vocals coming in and out of focus in a complicated ambience of electronic jitters and samples that seem to have been phoned in to the studio using two yogurt pots and a length of string. Each track apart from the first has its own guest vocalist and becomes a sort of de facto portrait of that voice and the textures and timbres that will set it off to its best advantage: sines and squelches and an approximation of ring modulation for Lali Puna on “I’d Like to Know”; a pixellated creche mobile with Pigs in Space detailing for Fog’s Andrew Broder on “Natural Resources”; warping 1970s motel muzak for Conor Oberst. Very occasionally there is a fussiness to these environments that can make it hard to relax altogether in Dntel’s company, but if the alternative to fussiness is being classified as ‘chillout’ and ending up on the soundtrack of a mobile phone advert, then fair play to all concerned.
#44 Eddie Vedder, Into the Wild
It probably goes without saying that this has been two different albums to me: the one that I listened to with interest on its own terms before I saw the movie that these songs accompany, and the one that I now hear which has a whole bunch of different images laid over its moments. It’s difficult to know in which of these lights to try to assess the disc, but it holds up extremely well in either case. Vedder’s yawp, and the constellation of values and commitments which we fancy we can hear encoded in its increasingly distinct fractions, makes him the perfect fit for the movie, and he cleverly mirrors the radical downsizing with which the narrative of the film is concerned in the strip-down of his sound: he’s here with a small band at most, campfire banjos and mandolins much to the fore. But there is an arresting cogency and condensation to these songs, which combined with the slightly coarser edge to Vedder’s current voice makes him sound like he really means business in a way that I haven’t heard in him since No Code. I’d have liked to hear an album that combined these songs (which barely add up to half an hour’s play-time) with Michael Brook’s music for the film, but Vedder nonetheless evidently has a sure sense of the heart of the movie and is commendably able to match in this set the candour and integrity of its best moments.
#45 Black Moth Super Rainbow, Dandelion Gum
Labels are for Heinz cans, not music. Right on. But... Bucolic squelchtronica, anyone? ...Yeah, maybe not. But I’m not quite sure how else to describe this incredible record. It’s sort of ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ and Minnie Riperton’s ‘Les Fleur’ and Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman’ and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works vol.2 all melted down for glue, which a little barefoot kid in smiley-face dungarees then uses to make a scrunched-up-tissue-paper collage of a bunch of magic animals in a safari park on the longest day of the year. While the Heat Ray from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds shrieks “Ulla!” in the background. This is a seriously sticky, gloopy, lazy-ass record, blurrily conceived in a warm haze of electronics as fuzzy as a bumblebee’s ‘fro. The vocals are so vocoded they make 'Believe'-era Cher sound like Kathleen Ferrier, the mellotron is set if not to ‘stun’ then certainly to ‘stupefy’, the synths are so analogue they’re practically running off punch-cards. The songs are called “Neon Syrup For The Cemetery Sisters” and “The Afternoon Turns Pink” and the lyrics are almost exclusively about sunshine, flowers, and combinations of all two. The vaguely perky beats are so irrelevant it’s almost absurd. Don’t quote me but I think it’s possible somebody involved in this band may at some point have taken controlled substances. I couldn’t listen to it every day but right now, at the point of the year remotest from the mere prospect of a lost summer’s afternoon in a secret field with ginger beer and sensimilla and squirrels and half-naked people of no gender whatsoever lolling about me on all sides, it’s completely invaluable. Oh, jeez, I want a Mivvi now.
#46 Minus the Bear, Planet of Ice
This is my first encounter with Seattle indie band Minus the Bear and I wouldn’t say my world is turned upside down by it but it’s a really nice listen. It manages to be busy, or restless anyway, while seeming to have no particular place to go, and that’s quite an appealing combination; it’s broad rather than deep but repeat plays yield numerous instances of nuance and fine-tuning that may not be instantly apparent – and the appeal to a listening relationship rather than a sensational one-night stand is attractive, charming almost. It’s hard to know what’s feeding into them as a band: at times they sound like they’re tidying up some pretty out-there inclinations to get them fit for radio play; but at the same time, a track like ‘White Mystery’ suggests Minus the Bear could almost be the Steely Dan of leftfield rock, while ‘Part 2’ nods towards post-credible Pink Floyd. (Neither of these are the out-and-out negatives I might be making them sound.) I suspect it may be necessary to hear them live to place them accurately, but in the meantime Planet of Ice is smart and skilful and, in its best moments, pretty sublime.
#47 Fridge, The Sun
Fridge is, in some quarters at least, a near-legendary band, given that its members include Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and Adem, both of whom had solo releases in last year’s fifty: and your correspondent having assumed that the band as an entity were on a terminal break, news of The Sun was excitedly received at Thompson’s HQ at least. As it goes, the album doesn’t so much match or miss those expectations as evade them altogether: its immensely likeable, freewheeling personality is so cheerfully devoid of apparent ambition or focus that to judge it at all would be to grab the wrong end of an acutely thrown stick. The opening title-track is a case in point, a ramshackle jam in which funky rehearsal-room drums and percussion are twinned with a weedy swannee-whistle motif: it bounces along happily and heartily until you’re three minutes older, and then it’s time for something else. It’s the longer tracks that impress more: the build on ‘Clocks’ is pretty captivating; raggedy ‘Oram’ pulls itself together into a kind of Sarah-records gamelan texture which then gets comprehensively smashed like a pinata. And the boys have an unbelievable talent for texture, as evidenced by the plangent, slightly overripe ‘Comets’ and the surprisingly controlled closer ‘Years and Years and Years’, which fills out its stereo field like David Beckham fills his Armani pants. The Sun is a delight and a doodle-pad; a sweet nothing.
#48 Hauschka, Room to Expand
Volker Bertelmann has been making really cute music as Hauschka for some years now, based around the multitracking of little looping melodic cells; starting with The Prepared Piano in 2005, he’s also been using preparations – various bits of gubbins inserted into the business region of the piano so as to alter the sounds produced by the striking of the strings – to broaden the available tonal lexicon. As you might expect from its title, Room to Expand widens Hauschka’s focus still further, with strings, woodwinds and brass added (still sparingly) to the mix, and what this sacrifices in terms of distinctiveness and the creative benefits of constraint is more than compensated for by the new textures thrown up and the ways in which those additional elements become temporary frames that change the way you hear the piano itself. This is modest music, engrossingly detailed (especially to a pianist manqué like your host), occasionally a little twee perhaps: the build on the robust ‘Sweet Spring Come’, achieved with sustained glissandi directly on the piano strings, is a rare moment of lift-off; the pleasant Penguin Cafe pottering of ‘La Dilettante’ is closer to the mean. But as a gentle Sunday morning album, Room to Expand is utterly lovely: if your toes are in any way twitchable, Hauschka gonna find you out.
#49 Fennesz/Sakamoto, Cendre
On paper, this first studio encounter (following a live EP a couple of years ago) between idm pioneer Christian Fennesz and revered pop experimentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto looked as tantalising as Al Pacino finally sharing screentime with Robert deNiro in Heat. I suppose the match isn’t quite so glaringly obvious as that: though separated by only ten years, the two men belong to different musical generations and operate on somewhat different wavelengths. But nonetheless, these guys are just about as good as it gets. What else could Cendre do but disappoint? Well, the answer is, actually, impress a fair bit too. It is for the most part a cautious meeting, with both parties on restrained form and generally occupying familiar territory. There is something oddly jarring, especially initially, about the parched, granular surface of Fennesz’s constructed fields meeting the chic, resonant interventions of Sakamoto’s piano — not for the first time, he sounds as if he’s playing in Debussy’s ‘Cathédrale Engloutie’, half a world (and several inches of loft insulation) away from the low-fidelity fissures and vaguely industrial texturings in which Fennesz places him. But the coupling does, in the end, persuade, and more than persuade: which is a measure of the acute sensitivity of both musicians and their absolute understanding of each other’s worlds. Yes, too often it sounds like the soundtrack to a French perfume ad; it could use more variation, more risk-taking, more irreverence even. But on tracks like ‘Haru’ and ‘Cendre’ the sage listener will stop quibbling and let herself simply be bowled over by these two superb musicians and the seductiveness of their gently insinuating propositions.
#50 Cartel, Cartel