Friday, January 31, 2014

Coming Back to Johnny Foreigner

My first exposure to Brummie indie band Johnny Foreigner came in December 2008, when I saw them support The Futureheads in Cardiff. I thoroughly enjoyed their set and wasted little time in ordering their album from, but in all honesty, the CD didn't grip me like the live show did. Waited Up 'til It Was Light felt messy where the gig had been fun and energetic, and while quite a few of those songs were pretty good on their own - check out Lea Room, below - I found the album in its entirety to be rather exhausting.

I haven't really returned to JoFo in the years since then. They do come to Cardiff every so often, but though I always tell myself I'll go, that Futureheads gig remains the only time I've actually seen 'em in the flesh. My Waited Up 'til It Was Light CD, meanwhile, has scarcely left its case since early '09.

So why, more than five years on from that first encounter, am I writing a blog about Johnny Foreigner? Well, a few days ago, I received an email containing a link to the band's latest set of tracks, You Can Do Better. I sort of ignored it at first, but I eventually decided that it was high time to give JoFo another gogo and see how the new album hangs together.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Crack in Everything: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Welcome to the third instalment of A Crack in Everything, where I look at the bad bits of brilliant albums. Click here to see what it's all about, and to read the last two blogs in the series.

Neutral Milk Hotel's second album isn't exactly a unanimous classic. A lot of people don't like it at all, with the unrefined sound and Jeff Mangum's even more unrefined voice frequently proving to be a fatal pair of turn-offs. And hey, I'm sure that there are plenty of people who just don't care for these songs, regardless of lo-fi production and hypernasal vocalists.

Still, the people who do like this album...well, they really like this album. Numerous publications (including Blender, Pitchfork, and Q) have included In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in a 'Best 100 Albums' list. The vinyl version is among the best-selling records of the digital era. There's a Neutral Milk Hotel fan page on Twitter with over three thousand followers, and this album's artwork is the page's profile picture. In spite of some people's bafflement, there's still a lot of love out there for ItAOtS, and for the record, my tent is very much pitched in the latter camp, the one where everyone gathers around a campfire each night to show off their ropey cover versions of Two-Headed Boy.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Start Slowly and Gently

As far as opening tracks are concerned, my general rule of thumb is to start with a bang. I feel that a big, attention-grabbing gambit tends to make for the best beginning; the five tracks that I mentioned in my Track Ones blog (cripes, that feels like an eternity ago now) are all pretty good examples. The Chad Who Loved Me has its epic movie strings...Cloud Shadow on the Mountain gives us those pounding drums...heck, Grace Kelly Blues starts with a friggin' brass band!

Lately, though, I've been coming around to the opposite approach, i.e. opening your album with a quiet, gentle song. Matthew Jay's Draw (which I recently received in a 1p Album Club swap) starts with a song called Four Minute Rebellion, and it's the most stripped-back, simplistic, and affecting song on the disc:

This track - being relatively unembellished and less than two minutes long - feel like the sort of thing that ought to be buried somewhere in the album's mid-section. And yet there is a certain charm to the idea of easing your listener in, and Four Minute Rebellion is a pretty arresting opener in spite of its slightness. The sweet melody and tactical F-bomb make sure of that.

Matthew Jay's minute masterpiece got me thinking about other such track ones - which other classic openers knock politely instead of tearing the door off its hinges?

Little Bear by the Guillemots springs nimbly to mind. I realise that I was blogging about Through the Windowpane only a few days ago, but the album's first track is also a great example of what I'm talking about here.

Friday, January 24, 2014

My Top Ten

Since this is The Album Wall's 100th post (woo milestone!), I thought I'd give you all a treat and finally explain the reasoning behind my Top Ten list on the right-hand side of the blog. These are my ten favourite albums of all time - of all time! - and today, you're going to find out why.

Fables of the Reconstruction by R.E.M.

Why I Bought It: I was just starting to dig into R.E.M.'s rich discography. I'd already bought Out of Time; this was my next purchase, mainly because it was the cheapest one in HMV that day (£3!)

Why I Love It: Its sound is intriguing and mysterious when compared to other R.E.M. releases, and the loose running theme (a lot of tracks focus on unusual characters from the South) makes it a little more cohesive than its cousins. Oh, and it's the album that houses Life and How to Live It, which may possibly be my favourite song of all time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to Buy Supergrass Albums

I'll always think of Supergrass as my second-favourite band, even if dozens of artists have overtaken them over the years. Excluding my 'don't count' years, which were spent listening to stuff like B*Witched and 911, Supergrass is 10 was the joint first album I ever bought (the other was In Time by R.E.M., who of course will always be my very favourite band).

If you've never wiggled your toes in the 'grass - perhaps you judged them on Alright alone, or perhaps you're from one of those countries that doesn't have Supergrass - I'd be more than happy to point the way for you. Here's a list of their discs - I recommend spinning them in the order given.

1. Supergrass is 10: The Best of 94-04
Yep. The band's (slightly premature) greatest hits compilation makes for a pretty obvious launchpad, but hey, it works. It certainly worked for me, anyway - the songs on this album kickstarted a love affair (or a recurring booty call, at the very least) that has lasted for the best part of decade. Yes, you'll hear Alright and Pumping On Your Stereo, but even if you're not a fan of those tracks for some reason, I'd wager that the likes of Mansize Rooster and Going Out will still enchant you. If not, well, you should probably cut your losses and stop here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

More Mountain Goats

Who'd have thought that I'd ever buy another Mountain Goats album? My first impressions of Tallahassee (click here to read) were uncertain at best and downright disappointed at worst, but instead of retiring the CD after one spin, I listened again and, helped along by some insight from Liam 1p, I soon changed my mind.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Welsh Music Prize: 3 Months On

The nominees for the 2013 Welsh Music Prize were announced back in September, and since I'd only heard one of the albums on the shortlist, I resolved that I would listen to all of them before the award ceremony in mid-October. And I did - you can see the blogs I wrote for each album by clicking here.

Exactly three months have passed since (SPOILER ALERT!) Georgia Ruth took home the prize for her album, Week of Pines. I thought that today would be a good opportunity to look back on those twelve albums, and to see if my feelings towards them have changed. Let's go:

Fist of the First Man by Fist of the First Man
I'm still not overly keen on this, with one important exception: once I'd listened to all twelve albums on the shortlist, I made a playlist of the best songs from each one, and Volta Regulat made an excellent opener. The rest, well...I can take it or leave it. See them live if you can, but don't shed too many tears if you can't get your hands on their CD.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Three Small Things by Chris Ridgeway

Image of Three Small Things

Chris Ridgeway has sung his share of songs in this neck of the woods. He's been a part of numerous Cardiff acts - most notably Cakehole Presley - but Three Small Things is the first album to bear his name and his name alone. These eleven songs find Ridgeway looking back on his life so far and trying to establish what he's learned along the way.

It's a nice concept, and you do get a real sense of growing up as you make your way through the record. Track one, the rousing Bluebirds Are Blue, comes across as a note to the Chris Ridgeway of Christmas Past; a recently-dumped teenager, perhaps, who needs to be reminded that heartbreak does not equal the end of the world. Later on, we hit upon more mature themes, like self-improvement (Learn to Behave) and struggling to make a relationship work (Oceans Apart). The lovely title track brings things to close, and it's the most grown-up song of all, ending the album with a 'no man is an island' kind of moral. While life can sometimes be an uphill struggle, it's made significantly easier by the love and encouragement of others.

So Three Small Things gets two thumbs up for lyrical content - what about the music? Chris Ridgeway is very good at genre-hopping, but some hops land more soundly than others. For example, I really like Kiss Your Forehead - a fun foray into gypsy music that arrives about one-third of the way through the album and seems to represent life in your early twenties, where every day is another adventure. Conversely, I find the boogie-woogie Borderline kind of uninteresting, like the sort of thing you'd hear on Jools Holland's NYE programme. I'm no fan of If I Ever See You Again, either; it's too long and it clogs up the middle of the album something awful.

But let's not focus on the negatives. A lot of the genre experiments work very well. not least the brass-assisted catharsis of of Learn to Behave and the spiritual, 'swing low, sweet chariot'-esque Don't Wanna Hurt No More. Three Small Things - rather like life itself - has its ups and downs, but its a strong album that really does take you on a journey. I like Ridgeway's voice, too - it's raspy, but in a rather friendly-sounding way.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Oh Damien Rice

Of all the myriad things you could call your album, why would you choose the letter O? It's hardly the strongest title, and yet there are two completely unrelated artists in my library who thought it would be a good idea.

The first is Damien Rice, whose 2002 debut album O contained such hits as Cannonball and The Blower's Daughter. The second is Tilly and the Wall, who already had Wild Like Children and Bottoms of Barrels under their belts before releasing the rather less interestingly-titled o (note the lower case) in 2008.

Friday, January 10, 2014

I Bought it for a Song

Some might say that buying an album because you really like one of its songs is a little excessive - why not just download that song? Or at least listen to a couple of others before you commit to the whole thing?

Still, this is something I've done often, and while purchasing an album with only one track that's definitely any good can occasionally lead to disappointment, I find more often than not that the other stuff is pretty good too. Heck, half the time, the song I paid for isn't even the best one on there!

Here, then, are five albums that I bought for a song but ended up loving all over:

Playing My Game by Lene Marlin
I'll start with Playing My Game, since it's the album that triggered this blog post. I first heard Sitting Down Here a very long time ago; Radio 2 gave it quite a few plays when it came out in April '99 (I'd have been seven years old, just for reference - my mum would put Radio 2 on in the car on the way home from school).

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

3 Love Songs

For the last few days, I've been asking various bands and musicians if they'd like to cover a track from 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields. The plan, ultimately, is to cover all sixty-nine songs; quite a few people have already opted in, as evidenced by the big list on this page.

Last night, the first couple of recordings came in. Today, I received a third. Let's listen, shall we?

Want to submit a cover of your own? Go here, choose a song that's not already taken, and then let me know which one it is. You can do this via email ( or on Twitter (@TheAlbumWall); either way, I'll cross your track off the list and you can send over your version whenever it's ready.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Context and Wild Beasts

Let me take you back to the 14th of August, 2012. It was my 21st birthday, and as usual, most of my presents came in CD form. One of the CDs I received was Smother by Wild Beasts, an album I'd been meaning to check out for some time; you may remember that it was pretty much everybody's album of 2011*. Finally, I had my chance to see what all the fuss was about.

My first impression was underwhelming, as so many first impressions are. Smother was a lot softer than I expected from a band called 'Wild Beasts', and with the notable exception of closing track End Come Too Soon (which frankly arrives too late to really rescue the album), it never really delivers on its tensions. By and large, these songs failed to scale the heights I wanted them to.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Epic Metal for Beginners

Here's an important disclaimer right off the bat: the author of this blog is not an omniscient heavy metal guru. In fact, I am something of an epic metal beginner myself; all I can offer is a light enthusiasm for the genre, along with a few recommendations.

Here are three albums that demonstrate just how blood-pumpingly brilliant this music can be, while remaining relatively accessible to metal novices such as myself. If you fancy sampling some truly epic metal, start here:

File:Iron Maiden - Live After Death.jpg
Live After Death by Iron Maiden
Their first steps were fairly punkish, and their most recent albums are proggy and even experimental at times. If you're looking for Iron Maiden's best metal - and  Maiden's best is generally accepted to be up there with the best - you need to look somewhere in the middle. Powerslave, Piece of Mind and The Number of the Beast are all  worth a go, but since I'm only allowed to choose one, I've decided to go with Live After Death instead. This two-disc extravaganza contains barnstorming live versions of all the hits from the three aforementioned albums, and believe me, it's just as good as any Best Of. Live After Death is a great introduction to Iron Maiden, and to heavy metal in general, I think.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Come On Die Young

So here we are then - the first blog post of a brand new year. I thought about making a list of albums that I'm looking forward to in 2014, but I decided against that for two reasons:
  1. It's too obvious.
  2. I can only think of one album that I'm looking forward to.
Aside from may-not-actually-happen TBC releases from the likes of Titus Andronicus, The Hold Steady and Modest Mouse, Rave Tapes - the much-anticipated eighth Mogwai LP, out later this month - is the only 2014 album I'm really excited about right now. And since I can't write about Rave Tapes yet, I thought I'd do a blog about Come On Die Young instead.

CODY was the first Mogwai album I owned, and as is often the case, it's also my favourite Mogwai album. Their other CDs may boast hits like Hunted by a Freak and Mogwai Fear Satan, but for me, CODY is more rewarding as an album. The flow of songs is practically seamless, and the story that they tell feels like the perfect evocation of loneliness.