Monday, December 31, 2007
11 Battles, Mirrored
There was a time earlier in the year when the ramped-up coverage of this album and the band behind it became so ubiquitous I half-expected Mirrored to be playing in Morrisons supermarket (rather than, as is required by local statute, the greatest hits of Go West and/or Jaki Graham). Given that the album reached the less-than-giddy heights of number 70 in the charts, that weight of interest can only be attributed to a general sense that Battles represents the future of something. They’re now and they’re new and they seem to have some bearing on what’s next: which is partly to say, as it always is, that they refer enough to past models that their novelty doesn’t present a problem of daunting or disorienting unfamiliarity. But any such churlishness about the lionizing of Battles in the music press quickly evaporates each and every time you hit ‘play’ on this staggeringly accomplished album. From the opening moments of ‘Race: In’, which seem between them to cover three different continents, to the dying strains of ‘Race: Out’, tossing around a bundle of self-conscious axe licks, riffing – if you will – against the dying of the light, everything about this album suggests a mischievous, spirited dedication to the cause of provocation – very much including self-provoking; I’d find it awfully easy to believe that many of these tracks had been created around a simple instruction: do the most annoying, obnoxious, thing you can, and then let’s see how it can be redeemed. That such recuperations are even possible, let alone thrilling and occasionally hilarious, is a sure index of how capable these guys are, and what furious energies they’re able to whip up out of sometimes the most unpromising raw materials.
#12 Pan Sonic, Katodivaihe
Pan Sonic’s A was arguably the last great album of the last century: it felt like both culmination and harbinger, and in its abstract and sometimes daunting textures and rhythms, something terrible and profound seemed to be at work. To those who haven’t heard it, this description will sound hyperbolic; to those who have, it will seem merely inadequate. It is, to my mind, the benchmark by which all other industrial electronic music is inevitably measured: including the group’s own. Not even their (nearly six-hour) last album, Kesto, which provided a pretty thorough survey of the group’s current lexis, could quite match A. In Katodivaihe, they employ a similarly panoptic perspective to Kesto, but more concisely and perhaps ultimately to greater effect. A lot of their influences come through loud and clear, from the Grey Area throbbings of the opening “Virta 1” to the almost comically abrasive “Koneistaja” which kind of sounds like a novelty big beat stab at Einsturzende Neubauten, to the Luigi Nono-like textures of “Suhteellinen”. It is a very noisy record indeed, even at low volume (though I can’t imagine you’d care to listen to it at low volume anyway), and only occasionally do they revisit the brutalist minimal techno of A, though “Hinaaja” comes pretty close and is the most out-and-out lovely thing on the record, if lovely is the right word, which we had better hope it is. Nobody does this stuff better than Pan Sonic, and the mark of their genius is, if it’s Pan Sonic you want to listen to, nothing and nobody else will even come close to satisfying that desire.
#13 Martin Grech, March of the Lonely
In (approximately) the immortal words of a great amphibian: it’s not easy being Grech. After his jaw-dropping teenage debut, Open Heart Zoo, in 2002, his overwrought follow-up Unholy a couple of years ago seemed to me, though by no means to everyone, a misstep into overgeneric gothic metal. Apparently his label Island shared my doubts (which reflects suckily on me, really) and a hiatus ensued: from which Grech now emerges with March of the Lonely. If anything, it overcompensates, throwing out the dramatic baby with the histrionic bathwater: but what we get nonetheless is a staggeringly accomplished and frequently achingly beautiful album. Grech’s songwriting has taken another step forward and, crucially, now sounds like nobody else’s I can think of; and always at the centre of it all is his astounding singing voice, which somehow manages to seem, like a drug might be maybe, both very pure and very complicated. I love the way his songs unfold, faithful only to their own logic; whatever is added or taken away is unfailingly perfectly judged, particularly the occasional use of multitracked voice. Cruelly, I am going to essay a comparison with Nick Drake – it’s bound to be cruel because Drake only recorded three albums and all three were among the greatest ever made, which is probably setting the bar a bit high: but on March of the Lonely Grech begins to show signs of a poet’s intelligence and an artist’s instinct in comparable measure to Drake’s, and one can hardly praise a singer-songwriter more highly. I hardly know whether to wish on Grech the wide success and acclaim he deserves, or the semi-obscurity and patience he possibly needs; but he certainly has the talent to grow into either.
#14 Hans Appelqvist, Sifantin och mørkret
Thompson’s regulars will hardly need reminding of my immense admiration for the albums of Hans Appelqvist, including Naima (narrowly pipped by Christopher Willets at the top of last year’s fifty) and his earlier masterpiece Bremort. If you’re playing catch-up: well, Appelqvist, who currently records for the estimable Swedish label Hapna, creates delicate, complex, witty music that threads in and out of field recordings, taped conversations and sound effects. The more I listen to him, the more I think it’s weird that more people aren’t doing this sort of thing more often: but my suspicion is it’s awfully hard to do well. With only about six months separating it from Naima, the new album is a smallish record with modest ambitions, though it still finds room for more ideas in its half hour running time than can be discerned in the entire output of the Kaiser Chiefs. I admire its tenderness and like its offbeat humour - though the mewing kitten that keeps popping up might not charm everybody, I suppose, nor the trio for sheep, baby and wasp. Which reminds me: one perceptive blog reviewer notes how child-friendly Sifantin och morkret is, and how readily his young son and daughter respond to it: which I can well imagine (with the possible exception of the scary werewolf who interrupts “Full the Moon” and certainly frightened the bejasus out of me), and that seems to me to be another reason to approve of Appelqvist’s weird ways. He is a quite wonderful maker of records - though if he wants to take a whole year over the next one, I won’t object.
#15 Opsvik + Jennings, Commuter Anthems
Opsvik + Jennings: sounds like a firm of architects, right? Well, actually, not far off. This quietly impressive album, on the superlative Norwegian label Rune Grammofon, frequently sounds, at least up to a point, as if it may have been constructed by two demure men in sharp suits, peering over rimless spectacles at laptop screens late into the night. (Isn’t that what architects do? The Scandinavian ones, anyway?) But that sounds a bit clinical, and that’s not right at all. I didn’t hear the duo’s first album, but as with so many artists this year (several of whom pop up in this survey), 2007’s release sees them warming up their electronica with the sounds of alt.country and 1970s children’s tv. (I don’t suppose either Mr Opsvik or Mr Jennings grew up with Mr Benn, but the album has, even in its most experimental stretches, an unmistakeable whiff of Festive Road about it, particularly on the bumpity “Commuter Anthem”.) The whole thing is so painstakingly made, you might imagine the end product feeling airless and unspontaneous, but that couldn’t be further off the mark, because these wonderfully inventive tracks have not just the precision but also the playfulness that you associate with great architects: these are spaces that change as you walk through them; that offer you constantly surprising perspectives on an environment that you would otherwise take for granted; that breathe with you.
#16 Britney Spears, Blackout
“It’s Britney, bitch.” Yeah, there’s really no point in saying anything about this, is there? Except that, if you’re one of the few people who feel merely indifferent about this record and haven’t heard it yet, then I really would urge you to give it a listen (or two): you may love it or hate it, but it is, dare I say it, one of the three or four most important records released this year, and the fact that it arises anywhere in the vicinity of Britney Spears is truly something to contemplate. Everything you’ve read is true: it’s brilliant, virtuosic, chilling, sexy, dumb, cynical, misogynistic, and brilliant again. Britney herself is AutoTuned and vocoded out of the organic realm altogether: this must be the most disembodied carnality ever advertised. It’s also the most, as it were, forward album I’ve heard in a while, in its seeming insistence that a harshly futuristic aesthetic is necessarily coupled with a really sexually assertive – you might nearly say aggressive – programme. Tracks like “Get Naked (I Got A Plan)” and “Perfect Lover” are scarily erotic not least because this cyberBritney almost seems post-gendered. (And yet the charge of misogyny definitely sticks. Look at the crowd of male producers – solely excepting Kara Dioguardi – who turned up to prettify and/or obliterate a screwed-up young woman who only wants to be popular. Make no mistake, this is Britney Does Bukkake.) When we were little, the overriding promise of the future was that everything – food, music, intelligence – would come in a little capsule like a painkiller; this record is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a dispatch from that future, and I feel the same titillated dread on hearing it that I associate with human-ear-growing mice and suchlike. I suppose all I’m saying is, this is a truly remarkable record, and I’m scared of the day – which will surely come – when it sounds as quaint as Mary Hopkin.
#17 Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, Plastic Bag in the Tree
An amiably unassuming side-project for Chris Funk of the excellent Decemberists, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble deals in plangent instrumentals full of twanging dobro and doodling Moog and a little dab of Omnichord behind each ear: and if Plastic Bag in the Tree doesn’t put a big silly grin on your face and a little Jack Daniels glow in your heart, you may need to see a doctor. Imagine, if you will, Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” made over in the style of the Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorcerer” (better known as the theme to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Can’t imagine it? No problem: the FHPE have done it for you, and it’s incredibly charming. In fact if you’ve a taste for off-the-wall cover versions – and what Thompson’s reader hasn’t? – then welcome to the veta madre. The best of the bunch, even (I suspect) if you don’t know the original, is a front-porch rendering of Radiohead’s “Amnesiac/Morning Bell”, with glockenspiel and dulcimer set amid steady banjo and distant crooning lap steel: it couldn’t be more different from the original in mood and tone, and yet it manages to articulate something about the song that elevates the Flash Hawk version way above any novelty value or sardonic intent. Towards the end of the album, a version of “In Christ There Is No East Or West”, the old traditional hymn most associated now perhaps with John Fahey, feels almost avant garde in its looseness and the weirdly synthetic quality to the ensemble (which is only somewhat to do with the burbling Moog in among all the fingerpicking). My only slight misgiving – and I always hate people who say this, so I don’t know why I am – is that the album is too long: but then, why would you listen to it any longer than you wanted to anyway? That shouldn’t detract a bit from the fond appreciation this wonderfully eccentric record deserves.
#18 Patrick Wolf, The Magic Position
Back in the spring of 2003, when my pal and sometime colleague Charlie Phillips was enthusing to me about some intriguing young cove-about-town name of Patrick Wolf, a free-range Minty alumnus whose first album Lycanthropy was still months away from release, it didn’t seem likely to me that within a few short years, Wolf would be Britain’s favourite half-naked pansexual boy-scout, turning up on Loose Ends and modelling for Burberry. Indeed, even this time last year, it also didn’t seem likely that Wolf would ever make an album that truly captured and crystallised his obvious talents as songwriter, mythmaker and self-made libertine. But then Patrick Wolf doesn’t seem likely, period. So I was a fool, but a happy one, to be so pleasantly surprised by the release of The Magic Position. This is the album that those of us who desperately wanted to love Patrick Wolf but were beginning to feel the chills of an incipient scepticism longed to hear. This is absolutely ravishing stuff, never more so than on the joyous title track, the reckless “Accident and Emergency”, and the awesomely romantic “Get Lost”. The sound of fireworks on “Bluebells” is the sound of a real artist, with youth and passion on his side, writing his name over the sky. It’s the sound of Sappho and absinthe and the most profoundly improper bareback cavorting. All of which I will gladly take over raindrops on roses and whiskers on etc. My only regret is that I never asked him to work with me at the point that he might conceivably have returned my phone call.
#19 Talib Kweli, Eardrum
O, Lord, don’t make me do it, don’t make me write about hip-hop. I can’t, I just can’t. Look, I love old school stuff; but from the mid 80s onwards it all goes a bit vague, and after the early days of gangsta rap I’m really not at home with it all. There are certain artists that I keep an ear open to – Ghostface Killah, MF Doom, and of course all the alt-stuff associated with Anticon, which I love – but really I’m stumbling blindly around, bumping into records I like, without much of a clue as to how they all fit into the wider ecology. In a good year for getting lucky with this blind stumbling policy, which has brought me particularly instructive and enjoyable encounters with Seattle’s Grayskul and Sydney’s Figgkidd, above all I was really impressed by this latest album from Talib Kweli, of whom, I must shamefully admit, I had barely heard. There’s a whole phalanx of top-flight producers behind this material, including the always brilliant Madlib and the force of nature that is Kanye West (who does a super-sweet job with “In the Mood”). Technically substantial tracks like “Country Cousins” and “Listen!!!” impress, but Kweli really comes into his own most on the more morally agitated cuts, such as “Hostile Gospel pt. 1 (Deliver Us)” and the risky but just-about achieved “Eat to Live”. He even finds time to namecheck Chloe Sevigny. This is fine work, and I’m glad to have its light shining in the pitch darkness of my ignorance.
#20 UNKLE, War Stories
Praise be to Wakan Tanka, sometimes the big surprises still come not out of too-cool underground venues and darkling suburban bedrooms, but from the speakers of HMV Oxford Street. I was a very casual admirer of UNKLE’s debut, Psyence Fiction: it was something that at the time I classed alongside Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and The Verve’s Urban Hymns as accomplished work that I could appreciate without actually having to go out and get a copy of my own. Certainly, nothing would have led me to expect that, the best part of a decade later, War Stories would be pretty much my favourite ‘big’ mainstream rock album of 2007 (excepting Radiohead, who no longer seem to belong to that, or to any, category). But this is a really terrific album, bold, exciting, dark, sober. The rampaging guitars of ‘Chemistry’ are the first sign that something exceptional is afoot; from then on, it’s partly about the marriage of songs to vocalists. Josh Homme (of the mediocre Queens of the Stone Age) yawps abrasively all over ‘Restless’ with just the right amount of bluster; Liela Moss of the Duke Spirit banks the stonking ‘Mayday’, and the great Ian Astbury comes over almost like late-period Johnny Cash on the enormous ballad ‘When Things Explode’. Best track for me, though, is ‘Broken’, on which Gavin Clark sounds uncannily like an early-80s Mark Hollis, on a wonderful pop-rock song that somewhat recalls the Golden Palominos’ ‘Boy (Go)’. The critical reception of War Stories has been surprisingly muted, and the album could perhaps fairly be criticised for its portentousness: but I’m more inclined to hail its sincerity, its scale and, at many moments, its genuine power.