Monday, December 31, 2007


#21 Múm, Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy

Fat Cat’s finest (though man that label’s had a good year), and one of the best bands working out of Iceland (and man that country’s done well in 2007), Mum – and I have to thank Analogue’s Liam Jarvis for drawing my attention to them a couple of years ago – are very special indeed. This year has seen some radical personnel changes for the group and Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy is of a markedly different cast than their earlier albums, with the balance shifting towards much more integration of acoustic elements into the incredibly detailed electronica on which their reputation rests. On the whole, the changes are refreshing and steer the band into a whole new territory where they seem to be very happy playing. “They Made Frogs Smoke Til They Exploded” is approximately “Weakling Child”-era Aphex Twin reinterpreted by a homely folk group with a consignment of digital watches and electronic toys all going off simultaneously in their bathroom; even the miniature “Rhuubarbidoo” sounds like the soundtracks of four different Czech cartoons being played simultaneously on BBC2 in 1978, and that’s barely ninety seconds long. This kind of oscillating wildly between the sublime and the ridiculous will become wearing if it’s the new model Mum’s principal modus operandi, but as a way of ventilating their practice it’s obviously invaluable. My one cavil would be an overreliance on melodica to get the point about lo-fi fun across: surely they read the instructions on the box that said ‘Use sparingly’? Nonetheless, for those many folks who have been longing to find the middle ground between Sigur Ros and Kenny Everett (or, for that matter, between Bogdan Raczynski and Dana), this album will be like manna from Marks & Spencer. ("This is not just manna...") Oh, you can keep your Led Zeppelin reunion: I want my Mum.

#22 Axel Dörner, sind

One of the more straightforwardly entertaining consequences of the ‘extended technique’ that instrumentalists in free improvisation sometimes employ, which often leads to them generating sounds not necessarily characteristic of their source instruments, is that it can make for some odd aural illusions. When the fine Colombian flugelhorn player Guillermo Torres lived at Thompson’s HQ for a while a few years ago, I would sometimes wonder what had gone wrong with the central heating or what was going on with the tree surgeons out in the road, only to realise that the suspicious sounds I was hearing were emanating from Guillermo’s room. Similarly, getting a lift home from CPT one night, I worried that there was some kind of trouble brewing with the car, which seemed to be making alarming noises; in fact, it was the vocalist Phil Minton, warming down in the back seat. All of which is a slightly unworthy introduction to this remarkable solo disc from one of my favourite improvisers anywhere, the trumpet player Axel Dorner, whom I first encountered ten years ago when he was playing with Chris Burn’s stupendous Ensemble. There is, across the hour-plus of sind, hardly a sound that you would necessarily associate with the trumpet: you might think a fair bit of it was electronics, or field recordings, or percussion, or simply a kettle boiling dry. In fact, there are no electronics and no processing on this album, just sparing overdubs and a lot of attention on the spatial field. Even aficionados of this kind of stuff have struggled with the extreme abstraction of sind; my tip, for what it’s worth, is to pay very close attention to the shape of individual tracks (of which there are 22, mostly around the three or four minute mark): it helps to have a series of frames, or stanzas, to relate to, rather than letting the whole album just go seamlessly past. There is a problem about how to deal with the extremes of level here: if you want to figure out whether some of these tracks really are completely silent, you have to turn the volume up pretty high, and the sudden rasping opening of the next track may then take your head off. Not for those of a nervous disposition, then. But the warmth of sind is just as impressive as its militancy: its conceptual rigour is not as severe or as absolute as some commentators would have you believe. Having told you all of which, I had better come clean and say that the (beautifully produced) absinthRecords edition is limited to 300 numbered copies, of which I have #131: so I fear owning it may be even more difficult than actually listening to it.

#23 Brian Harnetty, American Winter

Well, here’s a treat: but you need to know the backstory. There is a large sound archive at Berea College in Kentucky which documents Appalachian music and culture; the musician and sound artist Brian Harnetty was invited to explore and work with these recordings, and the utterly captivating American Winter is the result. Essentially Harnetty has chosen a number of extracts (mostly unaccompanied songs, though he is careful to leave in accompanying bits of chat; but also stories and bits of radio broadcasts), and overlaid them with music of his own: piano (with particularly effective use of thumbtack and toy pianos), banjo, percussion and so on. If what I’m describing sounds like highbrow Moby, banish such thoughts now: Harnetty has worked with immense sensitivity to his sources and managed to create what feels like a genuine dialogue with them. Quite often he simply creates an accompaniment for the a capella singer: but there is something almost uncanny about the way he’s able to place his own interventions in relation to the archive material, sometimes appearing not merely to respond to but slightly to anticipate the movements and nuances of their vocals, which creates a most curious simulacrum of liveness. This album is up with the uses of taped sources in Gavin Bryars’s Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet and John Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity for emotional depth and affect, but like both of those it also creates something not merely poignant but also celebratory, and something respectful but lively and, in the best sense, playful. I’m so pleased to have come across American Winter and, through it, the work of an obviously immensely gifted artist.

#24 Ulrich Schnauss, Goodbye

I have had occasion before on these pages – possibly in last year’s review of Kelley Stoltz, if I remember correctly - to fulminate against the modish notion of ‘guilty pleasures’, for which I have little time: a song is either good, beautiful, smart, exciting, likeable, or it’s not: and whether its source is the latest bright young thing to have been fingered by Dazed & Confused or some old fart who used to be the housewives’ favourite on ‘Pebble Mill at One’ shouldn’t matter to anybody: if you can only enjoy Supertramp by doing waggly-finger air-quotes while you’re tapping your toes, then we should be more concerned with your impoverished soul than with the fact that they’re on Sarah Kennedy’s Radio 2 playlist. However even I must admit to a pang or two when I listen to Ulrich Schnauss’s latest, the undeniably pleasurable Goodbye. This is Schnauss’s third album and one of the loveliest things to come out of Berlin since JFK’s public announcement that he was a jam doughnut. (Actually, he didn’t, apparently, but it’s a nice story.) His melancholic techno-inflected electronica has always had a touch of the shoegazey about it but here the blurry guitars and smeary vocals are far more to the fore than on previous outings. And so I can at least point you to the striking “Medusa”, which sounds like an occultists’ Pong tournament and is one of the most nakedly exciting things I’ve turned up loud all year, before admitting that there are whole swathes of this record that sound like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream and even Francis Lai (of Bilitis infamy), which is probably not what the inventors of the 21st century had in mind. Nonetheless this feller (just like Vangelis and The Dream) really knows how to put a record together, and if I’m a sucker for falling for such middlebrow stuff, well, I’m more than content to plead guilty as charged.

#25 Seabear, The Ghost That Carried Us Away

Welcome to Seabearia, the fantasy realm of this drop-dead gorgeous septet from Reykjavik, home to or origin of almost everything good and noble in the world. The Ghost That Carried Us Away is their first album but if the blogosphere is anything to go by (and if it’s not, I might as well stop all this nonsense and go out to play), it’s already gained them a lot of fans. Nearest relatives I can think of would be the (apparently dormant) Liverpool eightpiece Ella Guru, but if you’ve basked in the unassuming company of Mojave 3 or Lullaby for the Working Class or even Tigermilk-era Belle & Sebastian, there’s every reason you’ll find this album as congenial as I do. It may be an increasingly familiar sound world – acoustic guitars, ukulele, banjo, glockenspiel, spindly but mellifluous strings, the sweetest of harmonicas – but actually this is more robust stuff than it may at first seem. It’s exceptionally well recorded, too, with an intimacy that takes you right to the material heart of the matter: breath and fingernails and the unmistakeable sound of people smiling at each other. (Incidentally, if you can’t find the album, there’s an exquisitely strange video for the standout track “Hands Remember” up at YouTube.)

#26 The Go! Team, Proof of Youth

I’ll never forget the first time I heard The Go! Team. It was the summer of 2004, I was in Edinburgh and (of course) miserable and had been comfort-bingeing in Avalanche Records to such an extent that I’d earned myself a free sampler of forthcoming releases: nothing very remarkable until right out of nowhere came “Bottle Rocket”: a completely bewildering, unplaceable mix of Betamax action-hero fanfares and Bronx jump-rope rhyming which built to an almost unlistenably sublime, ecstatic climax that made me feel like Danny the Champion of the World. The ensuing Thunder Lightning Strike was one of my four or five favourite albums of the noughties, no question. This eagerly awaited followup doesn’t quite hit the same heights, though I think that says more about how surprising TLS was than its relative merits as a record: if you were to come to Proof Of Youth first, never having heard the band before, you might well find it the stronger of the two albums. Certainly it’s less various, the focus is more on the raucous and the rambunctious at the expense of the lazy and the plangently funky (though an astonishingly faithful cover of the theme to the schools’ tv programme ‘My World’ provides some breathing space), but there are some really brilliantly conceived tracks here, especially the closing “Patricia’s Moving Picture”, and the immediately foregoing “Flashlight Fight”, with the almighty Chuck D in the Teammobile driving seat. You can’t argue with music as joyously inventive as this: The Go! Team are the best thing to happen to British music this century.

#27 Daphne Loves Derby, Good Night, Witness Light

Daphne Loves Derby are five eager-looking young whippersnappers from Kent, WA, home of the Oberto Sausage Company; produced by Matt Squire (who’s worked with Panic! at the Disco and Boys Like Girls among many others), Good Night Witness Light is their second album, and it’s just a complete pleasure from beginning to end. In fact the beginning is particularly strong: at under two minutes and with the kooky title “Are Two Chords Enough, Dear?”, it doesn’t seem to promise much, but in fact it’s one of the most brilliantly achieved openings to a record that I’ve heard in a long time: wide, measured, poised, totally captivating. They had me at hello, in other words, but though that may be the highlight, this is a consistently strong record throughout. Outstanding, or at least exemplary, tracks include the smoothly bracing “That’s Our Hero Shot” and the jampacked “Hello Color Red”: big guitars, supple songwriting, and harmony vocals stuck resolutely in thirds like Chang and Eng sing the Greatest Hits of the Everly Brothers. The band that Daphne Loves Derby remind me of most is, perhaps weirdly, Dada – or at least, their spanking debut Puzzle; weird because Dada in 1992 seems half a lifetime ago, I guess it almost is, and Good Night Witness Light sounds so new you might expect the cover art to still be wet. Certainly this will be way too vanilla for many Thompson’s readers, but if you’re fond of Dashboard Confessional or secretly attracted to the rockier end of McFly’s output or the most energised of Ben Lee’s songs, you’ve got a friend in Daphne Loves Derby.

#28 Dan Deacon, Spiderman of the Rings

Without wishing to blow my own trumpet – or, pace Axel Dorner, suck marzipan through it – I hope my kind reader will concede that the twenty-seven foregoing discs cover quite a bit of the waterfront between them. Not only am I at home to eclecticism and open-mindedness, but I have left the door on the latch and am awaiting them eagerly in my bedroom, wearing nothing but my special flamingo pants and my NHS corset. So, look, what am I saying?, I’m saying, I don’t often get to use the phrase “I’ve never heard anything like this in my life”. I’ve heard music performed by elephants and something called “The Secret Music of Plants”, I’ve heard Haydn played on car-horns and I’ve heard Leonard Nimoy sing “Both Sides Now”. To borrow a phrase, I’ve been done seen about everything. But I swear, I’ve never heard anything like Spiderman of the Rings in my life. Apparently Dan Deacon is at the centre of a Baltimore-based genre scene called ‘future shock’, which is not a bad place to begin the descriptions. This is frantic, hysterical, self-occluding electro, full of squealing and autoarpeggiating synths, upshifted vocals and unstable sawtooth bass. It’s very like being trapped in an ten-year-old boy’s head. (I expect.) Everything is tartrazine and cartoon piranhas and Domino Rally and boobies and The A-Team and dreams of exploding sisters, or the 2007 equivalent of those 1983 staples. “Pink Batman” is the complete works of Schubert supercondensed into a five-minute polyphonic ringtone; “The Crystal Cat” is a balls-out duet between a cattle auctioneer and a hacked security alarm; most triumphantly, “Wham City” sounds like a completely synthetic marching band forming in a petri dish in a deserted Japanese laboratory overnight before escaping to join a street parade for gay zoo animals (and possibly go on to take Tiger Mountain by strategy): a scenario that takes twelve minutes to unfold and wastes not a single second. This record is bonkers and magnificent and kind of scary and incredible and plain wrong and I love it.

#29 Ladybirds, Regional Community Theatre

A pause first of all to celebrate and applaud the efforts of the many mp3 bloggers by whom I have been introduced to a number of these artists and releases, which I otherwise certainly would have overlooked. Sadly I can’t remember who deserves the credit for making a fuss about the Ladybirds, but whoever it was, I’m totally grateful. This is just one of the many indie-inflected electropop records that caught my attentions this year, but one of the very few that also captured my heart. I guess that’s mostly down to the infectious personality that comes over in the Punky Brewster vocals of the gaily named Teeter Sperber. You’ll hear everything from the Human League to the Postal Service to Imogen Heap to Imperial Teen in this squiffymaking cocktail, and though Ladybirds just want to have fun, they’re not afraid to slow things down when the time is right, and not so high on the party snacks that they can’t wear their heart on their sleeve (provided it matches the rest of their accessories): I can imagine the penultimate track, “Cooper, Thanks for the Birds”, providing the sole impetus for a whole tearjerking two-part Dawson’s Creek reunion special. Which probably isn’t a good idea: but what great idea ever was? C’mon, the night is young, the boys are skinny and the punch is spiked: somebody turn up the Ladybirds.

#30 Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, The Zoo Is Far

Rich and strange and unfathomable, The Zoo is Far is the most beguiling of the year’s releases from ECM. Wallumrod is a fine, exacting pianist, but this is much more about his compositions for a quite remarkable ensemble of players, a sextet which includes the superbly accomplished trumpet player Arve Henriksen, though the point is an ensemble identity which overrides any individual salience. Among the qualities this gives rise to is a sometimes astonishing timbral coherence: Henriksen’s trumpet, Gjermund Larsen’s viola and Tanja Orning’s cello (and occasionally Wallumrod’s harmonium) frequently blending in a foggy mid-to-low register that gives a brooding tenor to many of these pieces. The centre shifts constantly between contemporary composition, baroque chamber music and European folk; you can tell that most of the players are from a jazz background, but there’s hardly a moment that smacks of jazz styling. Even the sketchiest of these pieces have a cogency and acuity that requires the listener to be fully absorbed – there are plenty of ECM albums that you could put on at a dinner party, but not this one. And that in the end is perhaps what distinguishes The Zoo is Far: its dense and intelligent movements demand such close attention that it is totally incompatible with anything other than stillness and curiosity. Not a solemn record, good fun in many ways: but serious, and all the better for it.

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