Wednesday, December 30, 2015

December Playlist: Something New Going On

And so here we are: the last blog post of the last month of 2016. Truth be told, I've spent most of December listening to crappy Christmas music, but I did find time for some other stuff too. Here's the cream of what I've been subjecting my ears to these last 30 days:

1. Hi How Are You - Addie Pray
(from Screentime)
A slacker-rock anthem for staying up too late and watching crap on your laptop. "And I'm not getting enough rest/'Cause I can't stop watching Top Chef!"

Monday, December 28, 2015

First Impressions: Black Sheep Boy by Okkervil River

What's the best Okkervil River album? It's a question that I find difficult to answer, and as it stands, I've only heard four-sevenths of their discography; The Stage Names is probably the most cohesive start-to-finish experience, although the The Silver Gymnasium yearning nostalgia-pop is every bit as invigorating a listen. And then there's Down the River of Golden Dreams, which while not as outwardly concept-y as its successors does feature three of the best OR tracks I've yet come across (It Ends With a Fall, The War Criminal Rises and Speaks, and The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion).

Of course, if you've heard the album that separated Down the River... from The Stage Names, the question is a far easier one. More or less everyone on the internet seems to agree that Black Sheep Boy is Okkervil River's magnum opus, from the good folk at Stereogum to my own Twitter followers:

I've never listened to Black Sheep Boy, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. I know that it's supposed to be one of Will Sheff's darker outings (no mean feat considering that its immediate predecessor was the album that introduced us to these lyrics), and I know that it's some kind of concept album, but that's about as far as my knowledge goes: I haven't heard any of the 11 tracks that make up the record, and as I type this sentence, I've no idea whether or not its generally accepted status as Okkervil River's Best Album is justified.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Top 10 Albums of 2015

2015 has been an excellent year for new music, and selecting just 10 outstanding albums from the riches lately lavished upon my ears was no easy task. Several deserving LPs have cruelly been excluded here, but rules is rules (even if I made them up) and only 10 records can make the final cut.

So here they are: The Album Wall's Top 10 Albums of 2015. How many have you heard?

10) The Sovereign Self by Trembling Bells

This is a glorious folk-proggy mess of an album. The Sovereign Self finds Trembling Bells straddling the river of history, dipping a big net in the water, and throwing everything they catch into the pot. Straightahead krautrock, medieval ballads, psychedelic hard's all here, bubbling noisily away, and the resulting stew is quite remarkable indeed.

Best Tracks: I is Someone Else // Killing Time in London Fields // Sweet Death Polka

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Top 20 Songs of 2015 (Part 2)

Here we go, then - the cream of the cream of the crop. Here are my Top 10 Songs of 2015 (if you missed the first half of this list, click here to read it before continuing):

10) Eugene & Maurice by Ariel Sharratt & Mathias Kom
(from Don't Believe the Hyperreal)
Eugene & Maurice is a bit of an oddity on Don't Believe the Hyperreal, which is - for the most part - an album of duets. However, this song (the album's closer) is sung by Ariel and Ariel alone, lending a sad, lonely feeling to a song that frankly would have been heartbreaking enough anyway. Eugene & Maurice tells the true story of author Maurice Sendak and his partner Dr Eugene Glynn; since both men are now (spoiler alert!) deceased, I suppose this biography was never going to have a happy ending, but Sharratt's splendidly sad and decidely Anway-esque delivery somehow makes the whole thing even more devastating.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Top 20 Songs of 2015 (Part 1)

It's that time of year again! Time to take stock, to look back, to make a big list of the year's best music and put it all into some sort of order. Here's a rough schedule for The Album Wall's End of Year Week 2015:
  • Today: Top 20 Songs of the Year (20-11)
  • Wednesday: Top 20 Songs of the Year (10-1)
  • Friday: Top 10 Albums of the Year
It's been a heck of a year, musically speaking, and we've got a lot to get through between now and Black Friday, so let's jump right in. Here's the first half of my 'Songs of 2016' list:

20) Wish Upon a Bar by Frog
(from Kind of Blah)
Verbose, slow-building indie rock? Slurry wordplay on a Disney classic? The sense - implied by the warm, glowing sound and made explicit by the second verse - that all of this is happening around Christmastime? It's like this song was made for me.

Friday, December 11, 2015

My Albums of the Year (from Other Years)

Next week, I'll be compiling a list of what I feel to be the best albums released this year. Which artists will make my top ten? Which outstanding LP will follow in the hallowed footsteps of MEN by Quiet Marauder and Days of Abandon by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart? Will Sun Kil Moon's Universal Themes do as well as Benji did last year?

These questions will be answered next Friday (although Mark Kozelek, if he's reading this, probably shouldn't hold his breath on that last one). In the meantime, I have a different sort of list to share with y'all: a list of superb albums that weren't released in 2015.

You see, my CD-buying budget isn't exclusively reserved for brand new releases, and many of the albums that touched my soul this year were released...y'know, in the past. The five records listed below would be ineligible for any self-respecting 'Best of 2015' list worth its salt, but they've nonetheless brought me a lot of enjoyment this year, and I feel that this deserves to be recognised in itself.

So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Albums of 2015 (That Weren't Released in 2015):

5. Wishmaster by Nightwish
Released May 2000
I was given this album as a Christmas present back in 2013, but I only really discovered the full extent of its brilliance this year. I particularly love Bare Grace Misery, which should have been the theme for Gladiators, and FantasMic, a mind-blowing multi-part metal odyssey about, um, Disney movies. Trust me, it's far more epic than I've just made it sound.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


One would be hard-pressed to argue that All of Something by SPORTS was a happy album; on the contrary, the album's peppy, perfect choruses and 'four friends rocking out in the garage' feel belied a deep, desperate melancholy that only really became apparent after, ooh, four or five listens. "Take my mind off the empty space in this heart of mine" indeed.

In spite of this, though, All of Something was unmistakably a summer album. Songs like Saturday and Get Bummed Out sounded like school holidays, like endless August afternoons, like skateboards on sun-blasted pavements, and even if Carmen Perry's lyrics were kind of depressing at times, the music itself was mostly pretty upbeat.

But don't worry, because here's Addie Pray, Perry's solo thing. If you enjoyed All of Something but longed to experience its melancholic undercurrent without having to peer through those deceptively joyous pop-punk songs, then Screentime is the album that you've been waiting for.

If All of Something was the soundtrack to a bummed-out summer, then Screentime is perfect for autumn/winter, particularly if you spend the colder months in bed with only your laptop and your favourite jumper for company. It's a hibernating album; Carmen Perry has retired to her quarters for the winter, and aside from the occasional visitor (one of the guys from SPORTS shows up to help with a few of these tracks), she'd like to be left alone, thank you very much.

Monday, December 7, 2015

EP Corner: These Things Are Not That Fun

You won't hear a more perfect piece of misdirection this year than The Woods, the first track on These Things Are Not That Fun by West London four-piece Fresh. Singer/guitarist Kathryn Woods opens the EP by apologising for a couple of errors on the (unheard) preceding take:
"I fucked up one chord and I think I messed up a time, so more take. Okay. Sorry."
This snippet of studio chat implies a certain perfectionism, and the gently lovely acoustica of the song itself suggests that These Things... could be your new favourite record for lazy Sunday afternoons.

Friday, December 4, 2015

On CDs as Gifts

Earlier this week, I rang my mum to ask what granny (her mum) might like for Christmas.

"There's a CD she's asked for," came the reply. "I'll text you the name of it."

Now, I'm always happy to have an excuse to go CD shopping, and obviously my gran can request whatever she wants for Christmas - I still haven't received that text, but I daresay I'll be happy to go into Spillers or HMV once it comes through and purchase whatever's desired. Nevertheless, this conversation reminded me of a rather grim thought I'd had the previous week when reading about the exorbitant sales that Adele's new album, 25, had been racking up.

Within seven days of its release, 25 sold 800,000 copies in the UK alone. Its first week in America saw 3.38 million copies shifted. Obviously, downloads account for a large portion of both numbers, but not as large as you might think - this article suggests that it's been a roughly even split between digital sales and CDs so far, at least in the USA.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Your Christmas Songs

It's December, which means that - according to 64% of those polled - it's now officially acceptable to listen to Christmas music. As ever, this watershed has prompted a flurry of 'Best Christmas Song' lists; not just the Wizzard 'n' Mariah countdowns you used to watch on VH1, but also the now-obligatory 'alternative' Christmas playlists so beloved of indie rock websites.

Oddly, those cool, hip, left-of-the-dial lists are fast becoming just as predictable as the Top 100 video marathons. Just as every Now That's What I Call Christmas! compilation is obliged to feature Slade, Shakin' Stevens et al, so the likes of Low, Sufjan and The Killers have made every 'alt. Xmas' playlist an exercise in going through the motions.

Monday, November 30, 2015

November Playlist: Hang Like a Star

Eek - it's almost December! Before I give my ears entirely over to Christmas music, here are 10 of the tracks they've enjoyed this month...

1. Eugene - Sufjan Stevens
(from Carrie & Lowell)
Carrie & Lowell may not be as emotive as I'd hoped, but its constituent tracks - including this pretty ode to holidays in Oregon - are never less than lovely.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A'r Enillydd Yw...

Despite the best efforts of several teachers, I don't speak Welsh. Well, I know a few phrases - useful stuff like  "rydw i'n hoffi sboncen" and "rydw i'n hefyd y gaeth i heroin" - but certainly not enough for a proper conversation, and absolutely not enough to fully appreciate Welsh-language albums like Gwenno's Y Dydd Olaf.

Y Dydd Olaf won the 2015 Welsh Music Prize last night, and good on it. I got the album for my birthday back in August, and I was instantly drawn to its foreboding, overcast feel and its thick stew of synthesisers. Weirdly, I also love how dated it sounds - '80s stuff seems to be very en vogue at the moment, but where Taylor Swift et al merely tip their hats to that era, Y Dydd Olaf genuinely does sound like it was recorded around the time Margaret Thatcher took office.

But, being a wordy sort of person, I've always found it hard to fully appreciate albums in languages I don't understand. Sure, I can pick out the odd word on Y Dydd Olaf (I know that the title of closing track Amser means 'time', and I'm guessing that Patriarchaeth translates to 'patriarchy'), and various online materials have given me clues as to its inspiration and themes, but I would nevertheless be very hard-pressed to actually, say, write a decent blog post about Y Dydd Olaf.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Voyage of Discovery

I've discovered a lot of great new artists (and not-so-new artists) this year, but it occurred to me the other day that my methods of discovery have become a lot more passive of late. Most of the bands who have joined my iTunes library in 2015 got there because I happened to encounter them at a festival, or because somebody emailed me a link to their album, or because I heard everyone saying that Wolf Alice/Kendrick Lamar/whoever had just released the album of the year.

What I don't do very often these days is sit and actively search for my new favourite band. I used to spend hours trawling through Listmania lists, reading music magazines, and typing random words into radio in the hope that I'd come across something spectacular; nowadays, I lazily let most of the new music I hear find me.

In an effort to remedy this, I decided last night that I would sit down, click my way through the internet, and listen to whatever I found. The web is full of music, and of links to yet more music, so I figured that a musical Wiki Walk would quickly serve up a whole bunch of songs that nobody else is talking about.

All I needed was a starting point, and happily, I had one right on my doorstep. Fresh, who describe themselves as "a punk band from West London", recently followed me on Twitter, and so I opted to begin my journey on their Bandcamp page and, well, see where I ended up.

Here are the notes I made as I listened and clicked...

Track #1
Passing by Fresh

This singer's voice sounds vaguely familiar. The guitars sound big, much bigger than I expected, as if there are flames coming out of the amps. It's good stuff, though very stop-starty. Oh, and very short, apparently. What next? Here's a link marked 'Recommendations'...

Monday, November 23, 2015

Songs About Albums: Volume 2 is Coming!

You all remember Songs About Albums: Volume 1, right? It was a free-to-download compilation consisting of ten musical homages to such excellent LPs as Murmur and Tindersticks II and The Blue Album. It came out back in June - you can listen to it here if you missed it first time around.

Now, if you enjoyed Songs About Albums: Volume 1, you'll no doubt be pleased to learn that Songs About Albums: Volume 2 is coming very soon indeed. There's no solid release date yet, but I've already sorted out a list of ten contributors, and all being well, their tributes to their favourite albums will be online by the end of January 2016 at the latest.

In the meantime, here are a couple of things to whet your appetite. The artwork, supplied once again by the fabtastic Nest of Cogs, is already in the bag - here's what it looks like:

Rather eye-catching, no? But that's not all, dear reader! It gives me great pleasure to reveal that one of the ten tracks that will eventually make up Songs About Albums: Volume 2 is already done, dusted, and available to hear RIGHT NOW.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Crack in Everything: Fevers and Mirrors

It's the long-overdue return of A Crack in Everything! This is the part of the show where I spit on the albums I love and pretend to think them anything other than great. Click here to see which albums I've spat on in the past.

We can all agree that Fevers & Mirrors is the best Bright Eyes album, right?  Or, okay, Lifted is the "best" one, but Fevers is our favourite, the one we all secretly prefer in spite of the fact that Lifted and maybe even I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning are objectively better records. I may be a little biased because Fevers & Mirrors was the first Bright Eyes CD I owned, but I suspect that most other fans share that personal, 'but this is my Bright Eyes album' sense of attachment regardless of their own entry points.

It seems kind of dumb to give Fevers & Mirrors the ACiE treatment; I mean, of *course* it's not perfect, the flaws are the whole point. To iron out the musical creases and Polyfilla the cracks in Conor Oberst's voice would be to fundamentally alter the very heart of the Fevers & Mirrors experience, and for the worse; the fragility, the confusion, and the raw shakiness are all crucial components of the LP, and major factors in my own enjoyment thereof.

So, like my write-up of Neutral Milk Hotel's winningly nasal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, this post will ignore the flaws and faults that I consider to be integral parts of the album's appeal. However, there are still a few improvements that I feel could stand to be made to Fevers & Mirrors, so let's dive in and, um, reflect on those things.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The First Track Faux-Pas

You've probably heard Hello, the lead single from Adele's long-awaited new album 25 (if, by some miracle of avoidance, you haven't, the song's video can be found ↓down there↓ somewhere). Now, 25 isn't actually out yet, but it was leaked yesterday - kinda, sorta - and this is how I discovered that Hello has committed the cardinal sin - in my book, anyway - of being both the album's lead single and its opening track.

Why does this bother me? It's not like I'm not used to it; the 'lead single = track one' approach has been a pop music mainstay for years. All kinds of different artists from all sorts of different genres have done it: Independent Women Part 1 was the first track on Survivor,  The Wicker Man was the first track on Brave New World, Leaving New York was the first track on Around the Sun, and so on and on.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Carrie & Lowell

"This is not my art project; this is my life."  
  -  Sufjan Stevens, speaking to Pitchfork in 2015
How, as a music writer, can you criticise somebody else's grief?

For one thing, it seems extremely callous to subject an expression of mourning - and that's effectively what Carrie & Lowell, the latest Sufjan Stevens album, is - to the same scrutiny as an album that aims to entertain or challenge. When I was thinking about what to write in today's blog, I considered comparing C&L to Electro-Shock Blues by the Eels; both albums were written in response to family deaths, and I could draw a lot of similarities between the two, as well as some interesting differences.

Here's the problem: I like Electro-Shock Blues more than I like Carrie & Lowell,  but to explain why would require a degree of heartlessness on my part. Tracks like Dead of Winter (below) have a dark, defeated feeling that, for me, is absent from the songs that make up C&L, and Sufjan's vocals have always had a polite emotionlessness that falls a bit flat on a record that's supposed to bare his deepest, darkest feelings. True, bleak lines like "We're all gonna die" (from Fourth of July) are arguably made more striking by the balanced, inflection-free tone in which they're delivered, and there's some shock inherent in hearing the word 'masturbate' from the buttoned-up voice that once sang "I almost touched your blouse" like a guilt-stricken monk in a confessional booth...but, crucially, Sufjan Stevens never sounds to me like a man who's just lost his mother. Mark Oliver Everett, on the other hand, kinda does:

But I shouldn't really be writing any of this, because what I'm basically saying is that Sufjan's grief isn't as good - or as affecting, or as powerful - as the grief I've heard expressed elsewhere. And that's horrible! You don't go to a funeral and give the son of the deceased notes on how his heartfelt eulogy could have been impoved, and that's kind of what I feel like I'm doing when I say that Carrie & Lowell doesn't wreck me like it seems to have wrecked everyone else.

Friday, November 13, 2015

In the Best Case Scenario...

In the Best Case Scenario We'd Die at the Same Time (or In the Best Case Scena..., as my iPhone would have it) is the brand spanking new album from My Name is Ian. It's out today on Bubblewrap Records - the Cardiffian indie label that was barmy enough to release MEN back in 2013 - and it's well worth a listen if you get a spare thirty minutes or so this weekend.

My Name is Ian are kind of like a British version of Frog, a band I've found myself coming back to a lot over the last few months. For one thing, MNiI's lyrics are steeped in pop culture, much like Frog's - one of my favourite moments is this couplet from Either Slugs are Getting Faster or My Brain is Getting Slower (Welcome to Planet Earth), the album's opening track:

"Welcome to our planet, I hope you enjoy your stay,
The dolphin that played Flipper in the sixties killed itself by refusing to breathe."

Best Case Scenario also shares a kind of frayed lo-fi-ness with both of Frog's releases, which could be why the New York duo came to mind when I first heard this album. But there's one important difference between My Name is Ian and Frog: where the latter band use hazy production and pop-cultural titbits to obscure their true feelings, My Name is Ian do the opposite. References to Flipper and Castaway are used to illustrate the blunt, honest, emotive points being made, and...well, I don't know, I guess the lo-fi sound makes it all sound more frail and human and mortal.

SO what frail, human points are being made here? Well, if I may resort to bullet points, here are some examples:
  • Earth is a terrible place
  • People are irrational
  • Also, we're all dicks
  • Every relationship ends badly
Honesty is a key part of this album's appeal - you probably won't feel particularly happy by the time you've reached the end of track ten, but you will feel oddly refreshed and perhaps even vindicated if you're the sort to think about this stuff too. In the Best Case Scenario... doesn't so much make sense of the human condition as point out that there's no sense to be made of it. We're mean to some animals and nice to others; we fear rejection even when we've nothing to lose. We're all full of contradictions, and perhaps we should all just accept that and get on with it and, hey, maybe write some nice tunes while we're at it.

In the Best Case Scenario We'd Die at the Same Time is out today on Bubblewrap. Buy it here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom (and numerous other countries, apparently). In case anybody's reading The Album Wall in some nook of the globe that's unfamiliar with this tradition, allow me to explain: Remembrance Day is observed on the 11th of November each year, and it serves as an annual opportunity for us to collectively remember and mourn the countless people who died in history's bloodiest wars. The occasion is marked by the wearing of small paper poppies, poppies being native to the fields in France and Belgium where so many lost their lives during World War I.

Unfortunately - and having never spent the 11th of November abroad, I can only speak for the UK here - Remembrance Day has, in recent years, become kind of problematic. Every year, we hear of more instances of 'poppy fascism': people being forced to wear those symbolic floral badges against their will, or being criticised for refusing to do so. Failing to wear the poppy - particularly during a television appearance - is taken by many to signify a lack of respect for the dead, or even as a slight against Great Britain herself.

But that, for me, is exactly the problem: Remembrance Day shouldn't be an excuse for nationalism. This is a day on which we're told to think long and hard about the losses and the atrocities endured during times of war, and yet it seems that a few too many people see it as a time to fondly remember those times when we gave Jerry a good kick up the bum and proved once again that Britain was best. Wahey.

Monday, November 9, 2015

On All-Inclusive Setlists

As you may or may not have noticed, I didn't post a new blog last Friday. This was because I was in Bristol for a Titus Andronicus gig at Thekla, and it's difficult to concentrate on blogging when your legs still ache from being jackknifed into a Megabus seat.

Also, I'd left my laptop at home.

Anyway, Titus Andronicus were excellent, exuding a remarkable energy and giving me plenty of opportunities to shout my favourite lines at the top of my voice ("You will always be a loser", indeed.)

Perhaps the best thing about the show, however, was the setlist, which ran roughly as follows:

Upon Viewing Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'
Still Life with Hot Deuce and Silver Platter
Stranded (On My Own)
In a Big City
Fatal Flaw
Come On, Siobhan
Joset of Nazareth's Blues
Tried to Quit Smoking
Dimed Out
A More Perfect Union
Titus Andronicus Forever
A Pot in Which to Piss
No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming
No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future
Titus Andronicus
Brown Sugar (The Rolling Stones cover)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Low's Last 4 Albums

Low have released eleven studio albums since forming in the early 1990s. I have four of these albums in my collection - the most recent four, as it happens:
  • Drums and Guns (2007)
  • C'mon (2011)
  • The Invisible Way (2013)
  • Ones and Sixes (2015)

Now, I appreciate that Low probably released loads of great stuff in that fourteen-year period that, to date, I've completely ignored (cue people on Twitter telling me I simply MUST buy a copy of Things We Lost in the Fire), but I love that run of four because it displays an admirable tendency to completely flip everything on its head from one album to the next.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Ten-Month Year?

Yesterday was the first of November, or - as some corners of the music press would have it - New Year's Day. With some websites already taking votes for the best albums of 2015, it would appear that many music fans had mapped out their end-of-year lists before they'd even taken down their Halloween decorations.

Now, to be fair, I already have a pretty clear idea of what my top ten albums of the year will be. But it will be at least six weeks before I post that list online, which means that there's still a fairly large window for new albums (and, indeed, stray releases from earlier this year) to crash through. If any instant classics come out between now and Christmas, a lot of music websites - not to mention most magazines, although they at least have an excuse - are going to look silly when they all inevitably name Carrie & Lowell the best album of the year.

Friday, October 30, 2015

October Playlist: Keep it a Secret

What have I been stuffing in my ears this month? Well, since you ask, here are ten tracks that have rocktobered my October:

1. Daisy - Fang Island
(from Fang Island)
I bought Fang Island on a whim earlier this month, and I'm pleased to report that Fang Island's description of their own music as the sound of "everyone high-fiving everyone" is as applicable to this album as to Major (which I bought ages ago - why did it take me so long to pick this one up?!)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

All of Something

"I'll pretend like I don't care and you will laugh at me" - GDP, the eighth track on All of Something

In sound and in theme, All of Something by SPORTS (all caps, all the time) reminds me of nothing more than Martha's Courting Strong, a.k.a. my 4th favourite album of last year. However, where Martha's debut album presented the band as earnest, heart-on-sleeve types, SPORTS would have you believe that they're too cool to care; every bit of this album, from its production to its length to its shrug-shoulders title to its 'random photo of some guy' cover, seems designed to paint its authors as a bunch of people who simply don't give a fuck.

Monday, October 26, 2015

3 Halloween Party Alternatives

The 31st of October has had relatively few songs dedicated to it over the years. Whereas innumerable artists have released Christmas albums, I'm not sure anybody has ever entered the studio and recorded an LP's worth of Halloween-themed material; even Halloween singles are few and fairly far between.

This dearth of spooky music means that every Halloween party in the country will be dancing to the same handful of songs this coming weekend. The Monster Mash, Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London, the entire Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack...these are the songs that soundtrack our fancy-dressing and apple-bobbing year after year after year.

So, if you're throwing a party of your own this Saturday, why not shake things up a little? Here are three appropriately Halloweeny albums that you can toss on if you fancy a change from the usual stuff:

The Royal Society by The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster
A slightly lengthier listen than its predecessor, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Horse of the Dog, this album is a ghost train rollercoaster ride that's almost cartoonishly fiendish in places.

Key Halloweeny Track: Puppy Dog Snails

Friday, October 23, 2015

John Grant: Swallowed by Synths

John Grant's music has taken an interesting route since he first went solo in 2010. Queen of Denmark was a lush, verdant album consisting mostly of organic sounds and classic rock instrumentation; it would have sounded quite a lot like Midlake, who served as Grant's backing band on this LP, were it not for the striking sci-fi synth sounds that Grant kept chucking in.

Listen, for example, to the first few bars of Sigourney Weaver:

While this AOR-meets-Star Trek approach was a key part of what made Queen of Denmark so special, those synthesisers were, to begin with, a minor quirk that simply lay on the fringes of Grant's songs, adding depth and colour but never threatening to overwhelm the album's prevailing Midlakeyness.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Frog by Frog

A few weeks ago, I wrote a big stupid rant about money-grabbing reissues that force fans to re-buy albums they've already got. In that blog post, I suggested that Audio Antihero were a shining example of how to re-release albums like a good human being: either stop baiting people with exclusive bonus tracks, or squirrel them away on a separate release that allows people to only purchase the songs they don't already own.

It was only after publishing my bloated thinkpiece that I realised just how little I'd actually said about the Audio Antihero reissue at its centre. Today, I'd like to atone for this sin by telling you a little more about Frog, the hot little mini-album by the New York band of the same name.

Frog is not a million miles away from its full-length successor Kind of Blah (which came out earlier this year), but the goofy country stuff is certainly a lot more prominent here than on the more recent release. Don't get me wrong, those jangly hyuck-hyuck elements were in the mix on Kind of Blah, but I didn't really notice them until I listened to the seven songs that make up Frog.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Red Got Rhythm

Red by the Guillemots was - and still is - an utter oddball of a second album. It was released a mere 20 months after Through the Windowpane (a truly stunning record, and one of my all-time favourites), and yet Red was light-years away from the swooning sound of its predecessor, all glitter and sexuality and weird drum 'n' bass breaks.

And, erm, whatever Last Kiss is.

Nobody was quite sure what to make of Red when it first came out. Many reviews framed the album as an attempt to 'go pop': "the Guillemots have unexpectedly gone all R&B on our asses", wrote one NME staffer, clarifying, "and not in a good way." Other critics were kinder, but still seemed a little baffled: when delivering Pitchfork's middling verdict, reviewer Chris Dahlen called the album "a stylistic trainwreck", "a classic sophomore slump" and "a total mess" before admitting that it offered "reason enough to stay tuned, even when they stumble."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Thoughts on the 2015 Mercury Prize Shortlist

Today, for the first time in years, I found myself taking an interest in the Mercury Prize.

I usually ignore UK releases in favour of new stuff from America, and as such, I'm used to being completely, blissfully unfamiliar with the albums that make up the Mercury shortlist each year. However, 2015 seems to have been an inordinately good year for British music; quite a few of the contenders for my next 'Albums of the Year' list hail from these shores, and I fully expected such outstanding albums as The Race for Space and My Love is Cool to number among the nominees this morning.

And...well, I was half right. Before I go any further, here's the 2015 Mercury Prize shortlist in full:
  • Architect by C Duncan
  • Are You Satisfied? by Slaves
  • At Least for Now by Benjamin Clementine
  • Before We Forgot How to Dream by SOAK
  • ESKA by ESKA
  • Hairless Toys by Róisín Murphy
  • How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful by Florence and the Machine
  • In Colour by Jamie XX
  • Matador by Gaz Coombes
  • My Love is Cool by Wolf Alice 
  • Shedding Skin by Ghostpoet
  • Syro by Aphex Twin
As you can see, My Love is Cool has made the cut (and rightly so - my finger may be slightly west of the pulse, but Wolf Alice do feel to me like the band of 2015), as has ESKA's tremendous self-titled debut album (I did a Q&A with her back in July, don't ya know). Gaz Coombes is there too, which is ace - I haven't heard Matador, but Supergrass were always one of my favourite bands, and it's great to see Gaz getting some of the recognition he missed out on back in the day.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Looking for Jesus with Craig Finn

Craig Finn loves to mingle the sacred with the secular. Religious themes frequently infiltrate the druggy party songs that he writes for The Hold Steady, and his two solo albums - Clear Heart, Full Eyes and Faith in the Future - are if anything even more preoccupied with spiritual matters than their collaborative counterparts.

I've been listening to Faith in the Future (which came out last month) quite a bit this week, and it may well be the perfect example of Finn's fondness for hurling biblical characters into contemporary settings and forcing them to interact with the profanity of the 21st century. The album is populated by apostles ('Doubting' Thomas shows up on Newmyer's Roof, while Simon Peter lends his professional title to Saint Peter Hanging Upside Down) but, in the absence of a messiah to follow around, they seem kind of jaded:

"Doubting Thomas had a cynical take - he said, 'The more you destroy, the more you create.'"

Monday, October 12, 2015

Up vs. Kid A

I was recently asked the following question on Twitter:

Now, that may seem at first glance like an odd question to ask - Up and Kid A are two different albums by two different bands from two different continents, so why hold them up against each other? But I think I understand Charlie's line of thinking: both albums were considered pretty major left-turns for their respective authors, and each one sounds like a deliberate attempt to experiment and take things in a more electronic direction than its guitar-based predecessors.

I answered Charlie's question on Twitter by stating that I preferred Up to Kid A; today, I'd like to explain why.

Friday, October 9, 2015

You Just Keep Me Hanging On

I recently moved in with my girlfriend Vicky, and of course The Album Wall - or The Album Series of Boxes, as it might more accurately be described right now - came with me. Five stout containers' worth of CDs (plus a few stragglers, which I stuffed into a carrier bag) were packed away and shipped to their new home, which has just about managed to accommodate all of them.

Nevertheless, the current transitional stage seems like a good opportunity to separate some wheat from some chaff and - horror of horrors - downsize my library a little bit. As I knelt on the floor of my old place, filling box after box with the fruits of a decade of frenzied CD shopping while Vicky looked on in bemusement, it became embarrassingly obvious that I could stand to lose a few albums. It's sobering to wonder how many of the discs that entered the flat a couple of weeks ago will never be heard by me again, whether I keep them or not - better to fill a few charity shop shelves with my unfavoured and/or forgotten acquisitions than to senselessly hoard them for the rest of my life without ever actually listening to them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Robert Chaney the 21st Century Troubadour

Back when I still bought Uncut magazine on a semi-regular basis (that is, before I got bored of their apparently unchanging cycle of cover stars - Dylan, CSNY, The Band, repeat), I came into possession of a CD called Homeward Bound: 21st Century Troubadours. This was a compilation of songs by earnest folky types like Josh T. Pearson, The Tallest Man On Earth, et cetera, and it remains one of the best albums I've ever found gunked onto the front of a magazine. It's no Michael Stipe Presents..., but then what is?

Floridian singer-songwriter Robert Chaney may well have picked up that particular issue of Uncut too, because Cracked Picture Frames - Chaney's debut album, released earlier this year - calls that four-and-a-half year-old free-with-a-magazine CD to mind as readily as if I'd acquired it yesterday. While Chaney's album appears to feature only two voices (his own and his guitar's), he manages to cover a diverse range of different styles over the course of those ten tracks; some, like Does Your Love Pay Out in Full? are gentle and wistful, while the likes of Birds and Bees sound more playful and skirt closer to a more traditional definition of folk music. Still others, such as Black Eyed Susan and Patch it Up, are kind of harsh and grungy-sounding, like they were recorded in a rickety wooden shack inside a guitar amplifier.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What's in a Band Name?

A lot of bands put no thought whatsoever into their names. I know this because I used to be in a band called 1964 Llama Invasion, and another called Johnny Inmate; both of those names were completely meaningless and had absolutely nothing to do with the music either group made (punk and funk, respectively). More recently, I've performed under the name Shiny Tiger, which was the answer I blurted out about seven years ago when a friend asked what I'd name my pub if I had one. I eventually decided that 'Shiny Tiger' would be a rubbish name for a pub, and made it my stage name instead.

For some acts, however, the name is far more meaningful, with repercussions that last for years - even decades - after the initial act of choosing it. One of my favourite bands from this category? Hyperliterate indie favourites Okkervil River.

Okkervil River are named after a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya, and while Okkervil River itself is reportedly no more than a "muddy little stream that runs through an industrial park in St. Petersburg", this choice of band name did set a theme that Will Sheff and his pals have revisited numerous times since.  For example, their last album (2013's The Silver Gymnasium) featured a song called Down Down the Deep River....

My favourite song of 2013, incidentally.

...which uses rivers as a very potent metaphor for the irreversible flow of time, carrying us all away like so many pooh sticks. This track's title is somewhat reminiscent of Down the River of Golden Dreams, the title of an earlier Okkervil River LP (first words heard on that album: "'Down the River of Golden Dreams!' You can put that together with your river music!"); heck, there's even a track on Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See entitled Okkervil River Song:

But why did the band name themselves 'Okkervil River' in the first place? The following Will Sheff quote, taken from an interview with MTV Hive, offers some clues:
I was taking a 20th century Russian literature class in college and we were just reading a lot of Russian writers from the 20th century - as the name implies. I really liked Tatyana Tolstaya, she’s the great-grand niece of Aleksey Tolstoy. I really love the very brilliant detail in all these stories and there was this really wonderful sense of tenderness. She would go off on reveries on the details of things and that would bleed into a fantasy scenario or a dream-like feeling. There’s a lot of writing in the second person, a lot of jumping around in terms of what she was talking about, and it just felt very intuitive to me. A lot how those experiences might feel to me, where you’re waking up from a dream and you’re jostled around. I was just really impressed by her writing.
The emphasis is my own - those three sentences in bold are as good a description of Okkervil River's songs as of the work of the author who gave them their name. Their entire back catalogue (or the parts I'm familiar with, at least; I'm stilling missing Black Sheep Boy and Don't Fall in Love..., among others) is a river of golden dreams, as it were, with each song blurring the line between reality and reverie, past and present, sleeping and waking. There's a lot of second person stuff, too - here are some excerpts from a few of my favourite OR tracks:

"Your heart's warm and kind, your mind is your own. Our blood-splattered criminal is inscrutable; don't worry, he won't rise up behind your eyes and take wild control."
The War Criminal Rises and Speaks (from Down the River of Golden Dreams)

"Your dad is half-sleeping - but, really, he's gone. Can you hear his VCR weeping?"
It Was My Season (from The Silver Gymnasium)

"No one wants to hear about your 97th tear, so dry your eyes or let it go uncried, my dear. I am all out of love to mouth into your ear, and not above letting a love song disappear before it's written."
Plus Ones (from The Stage Names)

This unusually liberal use of the second person ensures that practically every Okkervil River song draws the listener right into the thick of the action, and the eyes behind which we're seated are almost always those of a participating character rather than a passive observer. One minute you're fleeing your disapproving parents to engage in a forbidden romance with Will Sheff; the next, you're looking across the dinner table at your wife as you ponder the motivations of a man standing trial for monstrous war crimes. It's a great approach to songwriting, and the results are often far more engaging than songs sung exclusively in the first or third person.

But I'm getting off-topic. Having not read them, I've no idea whether Tatyana Tolstaya's stories actually do bear any resemblance to Will Sheff's lyrics, but judging by Sheff's own description, his work has certainly been inspired by Tolstaya's on a much deeper level than mere nomenclature, and that's what sets Okkervil River's band name apart from so many others. Modest Mouse were supposedly named for a line in a Virginia Woolf story ("...even in the minds of modest, mouse-coloured people..."), but they presumably didn't choose this literary name to reflect the music they were making; Okkervil River did, or if they didn't, the name that they chose turned out to be a very serendipitous and appropriate one indeed.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Audio Antihero, Reissues & The Passing of Time

'There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time', the title of the short-but-brilliant album that The Superman Revenge Squad Band gave the world back in 2013, may well be the truest ten words ever to grace my iTunes library. There really isn't anything more frightening than the passing of time - it happens so damn quickly (I can't believe, for example, that it's been almost two years since I reviewed There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time), and once it's happened, there's no way to make it un-happen.

The music industry, mind you, LOVES the passing of time. It gives them an excuse to recycle their old stock, to make more money on the same old product by adding nothing more than a smattering of crap bonus tracks (boo, hiss!) and telling everyone to re-buy something they already own simply because it's a particular number of years old now.

Even Audio Antihero, the self-professed "specialists in commercial suicide" who released There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time back in 2013, have decided to get in on the reissue game; to be fair to 'em, though, they're playing it a lot cooler than most.

Today, Audio Antihero are reissuing Frog, a lo-fi, seven-track mini-album from the New York band of the same name. You remember Kind of Blah, Frog's full-length debut, released earlier this year? Well, that album went down so well that Audio Antihero decided to dig up the set of recordings that preceded it and rehash it on their own label so as to ride the Frog wave that little bit further.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September Playlist: Come What May

Blimey, another month over - this place will be filled with Christmas music before long!

In the meantime, here are 10 of the tracks that have been tickling my fancy over the last 30 days. Click here for last month's playlist.

1. Grown-Ups - The Burning Hell
(from People)
I spent roughly 700 words analysing this album's closing track last week. Today, I'd like to draw your attention to the equally ace opening track - from the awesome first line ("You were a Nazi hunter...") to the wistfully ambiguous ending ("By the time you read this..."), Grown-Ups is the perfect representation of what it's like to not be a kid any more.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Trawl Through Yo La Tengo's Record Collection

I must admit that I was slightly disappointed a few weeks ago when I realised that the new Yo La Tengo album - which I had just purchased on a whim from Spillers Records - was basically a covers album. Of the 14 tracks that make up Stuff Like That There, only 5 are YLT originals, and 3 of those (All Your Secrets, The Ballad of Red Buckets, and Deeper Into Movies) are simply re-recorded versions of songs from previous albums. What a waste of a tenner, I thought to myself that day as I wished I had bought the new Iron Maiden release instead.

However, I may owe Yo La Tengo an apology, because Stuff Like That There is actually far more up my street than I initially anticipated. For starters, the matter of who wrote which songs does nothing to change the fact that this is a lovely-sounding LP; the whole work has a gentle, laid-back feel that makes it an appropriate soundtrack for both sunny summer days and cosy autumn evenings.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Review: The Sparkle in Our Flaws by Chantal Acda

When a character in historical documentary series Game of Thrones says that "winter is coming", the words are usually meant as a warning. Jon Snow isn't just making idle chit-chat when he drops the catchphrase that launched a thousand hoodies; he's reminding everyone that darkness, death, and ice zombies are just around the corner.

I mention this because Chantal Acda's The Sparkle in Our Flaws strikes me as a 'winter is coming' sort of album...but not, I'd like to make clear, in the Westerosi sense. These eight songs conjure up images of a far lovelier winter, where sunlight shimmers on frozen lakes and everything feels crisp and fresh and invigorating.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Industrialists and Other People

Industrialists is the ninth and final track on People, an album by The Burning Hell (you may remember that I wrote some words about Flux Capacitor, another LP of theirs, a couple of months ago). The song, which clocks in at precisely 7 minutes, takes the form of a eulogy, posthumously telling the story of a young man who...well, did a lot things. Over the course of the track's 420 seconds, he tames a wild horse, starts his own company at the age of ten, buys a property in Mexico, duels a man for his wife, and brings her back to America along with 400 immigrant labourers, whom he then instructs to build a golden pyramid. Oh, and then he's found dead, presumably - although it's not explicitly stated - murdered by a disgruntled employee who was sick of neglecting his family to slave away on some guy's pyramid.

It's quite a tale.

The central character of Industrialists is never named, but we do know that, prior to his gruesome death (he was coated, Goldfinger-style, in the molten gold that the labourers were using to construct his office building), he was fond of reciting this mantra, which also gives the song its chorus and the album its title:

"It takes all kinds of people to make a world,
It takes all kinds of people to make a world,
From the farmer in the field to the spaceman in space,
Everybody has a reason, a purpose and place."

These words are effectively a mission statement for People as a whole: each of the record's nine songs has a title that refers to a specific group of people (e.g. Travel Writers, Barbarians, Amateur Rappers), and by singing about all these different kinds of people, Mathias Kom and his musical mates do indeed "make a world" - or, at the very least, a pretty great album, populated with keenly-developed characters and fun vignettes from their lives.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tindersticks I vs. Tindersticks II

Most bands only release one self-titled album, but Tindersticks - narcissists that they are - released two: one in 1993, and another in 1995. The first one was adorned with a painting of a woman in a red dress, the second with a black-and-white photo of the band's guitarist, but both covers bore the same eleven letters, and the band wouldn't release a non-eponymous studio album until 1997's Curtains.

When Tindersticks afficionados talk about these two albums, they eliminate any potential confusion by referring to the red dress album as Tindersticks I and to the black and white album as Tindersticks II. What nobody can quite agree on, however, is which of the two albums is superior; I've seen arguments for both sides, and today, I'm going to throw my 2p in as well.

Friday, September 18, 2015

EP Corner: Quarters

Matthew Pastkewicz was one of the many talented musicians heard on MEN, the record-breaking, quadruple-disc, 111-track debut album from Cardiff's favourite bedlamites Quiet Marauder.

Quarters, an EP that Pastkewicz released under his own name earlier this year, is absolutely nothing like MEN. For one thing, it has 109 fewer tracks, making it pretty short even by EP standards. For a second thing, its two songs have more in common with Mogwai and their Rock Action roster than with the lo-fi, melodica-heavy unfolk in which Quiet Marauder specialise. Pastkewicz's own press release thingy describes his sound as "drone based post-rock", but speaking as someone who briefly heard drone daddies Sunn O))) boring the Primavera crowd to death back in June, I will say that Quarters is far more exciting than that description might suggest.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Walking with Music

Yesterday, I caught the train to work for the first time in months. I've missed catching the train since I got a car - it's a nice opportunity to read a book and rest my head on a window for twenty minutes or so - but what I've missed even more is the part where I have to walk between the train station and the office.

For years, a large chunk of my music listening was done whilst walking, but it's a habit that I more or less dropped entirely when Darth, my handsome black Volkswagen, entered my life just over a year ago. In many ways, he's made my life a lot easier, but as I dance-trotted my way towards Cadoxton station yesterday evening, I found myself wondering if the benefits of having a car were worth the sacrifice of my daily music walk.

I've been struggling lately to make strong connections with new music the way I used to, and I think there are two reasons for this:

1) I'm old and jaded and nothing sounds as amazing to my ears now as practically everything did when I was a 13-year-old newbie.

2) Where I used to listen to music in parks, on streets, and as I ran to catch my train or the start of a uni lecture. Now I pretty much only listen to music in the car and at my desk.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Traitor Shore

The Traitor Shore is the new LP from Reichenbach Falls, and it's all about being left behind. More specifically, it seems to deal with being left behind by a lover who has travelled abroad, away from the album's narrator, but it will probably hit home for anyone who's ever been left behind by anyone: boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, friends, family members, whatever.

The album's title refers, essentially, to anywhere you're not; it's the city or country or continent for which the object of your pining has abandoned you (closing track Canada suggests that this particular story's 'traitor shore' is the Canadian coastline).

'Pining' is actually the perfect word to describe this record as a whole; it's pining Americana with pining melodies and pining lyrics about pining for someone who'll shortly be half a world away.

Mind you, that's not to say it's all miserable weedy whinging, because it's not - pining isn't the same thing as whining, and tracks like The Departure Lounge and Hey Migrator are among the most invigorating 'baby please don't go' songs you're ever likely to hear:

Even so, this is the sort of album that will sound best if you miss somebody, and if you can picture the somebody you miss as you're listening to the lyrics. It's very en vogue nowadays to leave one's life behind and go travelling, and I'm sure there are plenty of records that are tailor-made for the folks who choose to do that, but The Traitor Shore isn't one of them. It's not an album for people to listen to as they shoestring from one far-flung destination to the next; it's an album for the people back home to listen to as they think about their globetrotting pals and wonder if they're thinking about them, too.

The Traitor Shore is out today, and can be purchased from

Friday, September 11, 2015

Reconstruction of the Fables

There's a great story behind Life and How to Live It, the fourth track on R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction.

Once upon a time in the band's hometown of Athens, Georgia, there lived a reclusive old man named Brivs Mekis. He hardly ever left his house, and most of his neighbours simply referred to him as 'that Russian guy'. When Mekis died, they discovered that the inside of his house was split down the middle - he effectively had two houses in one, each individually inhabitable, each equipped with all necessary facilities and mod cons.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

...And Sometimes I Just Sit

Welcome to the world of Courtney Barnett. Actually, 'world' may be something of an overstatement - it's really more of an island, consisting of nothing more than the armchair and the blue-and-green rug featured on the cover of her debut album:

And what does Barnett do on this island? Well, sometimes she sits and thinks; sometimes she just sits.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Looking Back at LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver

I didn't really 'get' dance music as a teenager. Sure, I enjoyed hearing the odd snatch of Darude's Sandstorm at parties, but my adolescence was an era during which most of my proper music listening was done alone, either on the stereo in my bedroom or via headphones while out for a walk. Dance music was party music, and so I never paid it that much attention; I preferred music that meant things, songs that made you feel things, and as far as I was concerned, the only ambition of this entire genre was to serve as background music for dancing, drinking, and shagging (none of which numbered among my favourite pastimes, at least not until I went to university).

LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver was the album that showed me the error of my assumptions. I purchased it around the end of 2007, having noticed it near the top of practically every 'Albums of the Year' list I encountered, and it instantly proved to me that dance music could mean things and make you feel things (whilst still serving as a perfectly serviceable soundtrack for dancing, drinking, and shagging). James Murphy knew his way around a beat, for sure, but he also knew how to write seriously amazing songs: funny songs with attitude like North American Scum and Time to Get Away, and beautiful, emotive songs like All My Friends and Someone Great.

Humour and emotion. Those two attributes are central to so much of my favourite music, and they're two things I never thought I'd find in HMV's 'Dance' section. For sixteen-year-old Joel, Sound of Silver was a revelation; he could feel all cool and edgy whilst singing along with Time to Get Away, he could feel wild and unhinged whilst listening to Watch the Tapes, and he could pretend he was cynical and jaded and grown-up whilst wondering what NYC had done to warrant New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down.

And, unlike so much of the stuff that spoke to me when I was in secondary school, Sound of Silver still resonates now that I'm 24. Sound of Silver is the obvious example - look at me now, looking back on what it was like to be a "real-live emotional teenager" - but there's also All My Friends, which should probably be kept in a box marked, 'Do Not Open Until You've Grown Up And, Feeling Wistfully Nostalgic, Find Yourself Trying To Recapture Your Youth': 

"You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan, and the next five years trying to be with your friends again." 

Sound of Silver always sounded kinda futuristic (the spacey, metallic-looking cover art probably helped in that department), but I'm realising now that it was also future-proof; no matter when you first heard it, no matter what year it was or how old you were, you'll come back to it several years later and realise that James Murphy is singing about you, now, revisiting the past and pining away for your younger days like some sad old fool with a face like a dad and a laughable stand.

Perhaps that's what he was always singing about?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: Wasting Away and Wondering by The School

The great thing about pop music is its ability to elevate simple, ordinary statements like "I love you" or "I'll see you soon" to the level of poetry, of high art, of grand drama. There's a perfect example of this on The School's new LP, Wasting Away and Wondering; the album's fifth track, Don't Worry Baby (I Don't Love You Any More), doesn't venture much further than the nine words that make up its title, and yet it somehow manages to wring gallons of tragedy and melancholy from the subject of breaking up:

A subject so well-worn and oft-explored that it shouldn't really have any emotional impact whatsoever at this point.