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.