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.