Monday, December 26, 2016

Taking a Break

Hi everyone - hope you had a lovely day yesterday whether you were celebrating Christmas or not.

I was planning to take a week off from the blog after Christmas, then resume normal service on the 2nd of January. However, I'm writing this on Boxing Day to let you guys know that The Album Wall's winter hiatus will actually last a little longer than provisionally planned: not only will there be no new posts before the end of December, I won't be posting anything throughout January either.

I've decided to take a full month off in order to recharge my batteries and have a proper think about what I want The Album Wall to be in 2017. The odd holiday aside, I've been publishing three blog posts a week on this website since mid-2013, but I'm worried that my rigid Mon/Wed/Fri schedule has resulted in a lack of focus and left me prioritising quantity over quality. Here's something that's been happening far too often of late: blog day arrives, I realise I haven't picked a topic for today's post, and I end up pumping out a few paragraphs of gushing but ultimately pointless praise for, say, The Soft Bulletin because I happened to listen to it the other day. If you read a post on The Album Wall in 2016, there's a good chance I wrote it at work during the thirty minutes I get for lunch each day; on most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I spend that half-hour break frantically typing up half-formed thoughts about music while also trying to eat a sandwich. It's exhausting, and frankly it too often fails to yield something that's actually worth reading.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Top 10 Albums of 2016

Crikey, this was a hard list to make. So many ace albums had to be left off - I considered doing an 'honourable mentions' list as a way of recognising the albums that fell just barely outside my top 10, but that list could easily have included another 20 albums and I probably STILL would have had a crisis of conscience over any I missed out.

So instead of going down that road, I'd simply like to present my top 10 albums of 2016. These are the cream of the cream of the crop, and interestingly, two of them weren't represented at all in my Songs of 2016 list. Just goes to show that the whole is sometimes stronger than the sum of its parts, eh?

Once you've finished reading, feel free to tell me how wrong my opinions are on Twitter.

10) Still Valid by MJ Hibbett & The Validators

To call Still Valid a light-hearted album would perhaps be a touch misleading, given that it contains songs like Burn it Down & Start Again (about corrupt politicians) and The 1980s How it Was (about the hairspray whitewashing of a decade primarily characterised by poverty and nuclear terror). Still, MJ Hibbett's sense of humour always shines through, even - especially - when he's worrying about his age on tracks like Can We Be Friends? and That Guy. In fact, as I mentioned in my (and my mum's) review of Still Valid, Hibbett's lyrics have really helped me to stop worrying about the fact that I'm no longer in my early 20s.

Best Tracks: Can We Be Friends? // That Guy // We Did It Anyway

9) Adult Teen by Lisa Prank

Father/Daughter Records became one of my favourite record labels this year, and Lisa Prank's album Adult Teen is a big part of why (although I would also strongly recommend Air Guitar by Sat. Nite Duets). It's a pretty straightforward set of songs - each track consists of little more than a vocal, an electric guitar track, and a synthetic drum machine beat - but the album's attitude, breakneck delivery, and acute understanding of how messy the transition from teenager to grown-up can be make for a great listening experience. It's flippin' catchy, too. Read my review of Adult Teen here.

Best Tracks: Drive Anywhere // Take it All // Heart 2 Heart

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Top 20 Songs of 2016 (10-1)

My top 10 songs of 2016 are listed below. Be sure to read numbers 20 through 11 first!

10) Drive Anywhere by Lisa Prank
(from Adult Teen)
The sound of your life hurtling headlong into the jaws of adulthood like a car speeding towards the edge of a cliff. A rushing thrill of a song with a kernel of time-waits-for-no-man melancholy hidden somewhere in the middle.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Top 20 Songs of 2016 (20-11)

Christmas is less than seven days away, and so it's list week here on The Album Wall! Here's what to expect between now and the weekend:
  • Monday 19 December: Top 20 Songs of 2016 (20-11)
  • Wednesday 21 December: Top 20 Songs of 2016 (10-1)
  • Friday 23 December: Top 10 Albums of 2016
Below is the first half of my 'Songs of 2016' countdown. All of these songs (to the best of my knowledge) were released on full-length albums for the first time this year; some selections, such as #17, were available on singles/EPs prior to 2016, but as this is primarily a blog about albums I'm using the release date of each song's parent album in order to determine eligibility for this list.

(The above rule does mean that a few great songs are sadly absent from this top 20. Most notable are Phoebe's Lips by CHUCK, which first appeared on Happy New Years Babe in 2015 and was re-released as part of the My Band is a Computer compilation this year, and Fuck the Government, I Love You, which was the second track on Ariel Sharratt & Mathias Kom's Don't Believe the Hyperreal several months before it was the third track on The Burning Hell's Public Library. Fuck the Government was actually my 19th favourite song of 2015, so it would be kind of weird to include it in the 2016 list too.)

Without further small print, then, here are my top 20 songs of 2016 (part one):

20) Attached to the Lamp by Sat. Nite Duets
(from Air Guitar)
This is one heck of an opening track. I love the chugging pace, and I love how the words and the tune fit together like two pieces of K'Nex. "Maybe we could go back to Cleveland and play for the sound guy and the other band..." Playing a gig to an empty room never sounded like so much fun.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Clarity (Guest Post)

The third and final guest post of the week comes from Simon and Dyfrig of Scumbag Familiar. They've written some words about Jimmy Eat World's Clarity and why they chose to record a song about it for Songs About Albums: Volume 2.

1999 was a dark time for rock music. Limp Bizkit were the one of the biggest bands in the world, but on the positive side, Will Smith had just released the hip-hop epic Wild Wild West. However, we've chosen Jimmy Eat World's Clarity as the cultural highpoint of that particular year, and it still sounds fresh and exciting.

We both first discovered Jimmy Eat World through Bleed American, their breakthrough album which fused big riffs with poppy goodness. Their preceding album, Clarity, is a much more ambitious affair. Not many rock albums start with a ballad, so Table for Glasses is a startling and beautiful opening to what is a genre-defining album.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Paul McCartney Can Do What He Likes (Guest Post)

MJ Hibbett on Paul McCartney's always-unpredictable solo career and why he wrote a song about it for Songs About Albums: Volume 2.

When Joel put the call out for bands to record songs about other artist's albums, my thoughts turned immediately to Paul McCartney. Admittedly, this isn't in and of itself a particularly rare occurrence. When I'm writing a song, when I find myself shaking my head excitedly during a gig, when I use a zebra crossing, when I play the pipes of peace - on these and on many other occasions I think of Paul McCartney, because Paul McCartney is BLOODY BRILLIANT.

What I struggled with was deciding which album to write a song about. As everybody with 1% of a brain knows, Band on the Run is a solid gold bona fide absolute classic of ROCK up there with heavyweights of Sunday Magazine Lists like Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde, or his first band's discography. There are good cases for a lot of his lesser known early releases (like Ram, McCartney, McCartney 2Tug Of War) to be cited as Underappreciated And Revolutionary, and he's currently on a pretty AMAZING streak of Actually Flipping Great Albums stretching back (according to expert critics*) (*me) to the release of Flaming Pie in 1997.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Monitor vs. The Virginia (Guest Post)

Owen Chambers (a.k.a. Tremolo Ghosts) on Titus Andronicus, their masterpiece of a second album, and why he wrote a song about it for Songs About Albums: Volume 2.

The Monitor by New Jersey punk band Titus Andronicus is an album about civil war. Not, strictly speaking, the Civil War fought between the Union and the Confederacy in North America from 1861 to 1865, although the band do utilise historical events and speeches from that period to enrich their sprawling punk masterpiece.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Dark Houses

After nearly two years of radio silence, The Lost Music Club - a record label dedicated to releasing "unreleased gems of the analogue age" - are back with a) a vengeance, and b) their best release yet. Dark Houses were a short-lived British band whose lineup included three former members of Hope of the States, and Dark Houses is the eponymous debut album that was committed to tape circa 2006 but kept from the public ear until The LMC got their hands on it earlier this year.

It's strange, given that Dark Houses was recorded roughly a decade in the past, but I don't think I've heard another album this year that so perfectly captures the prevailing mood of Great Britain in 2016. It's hard not to be reminded of our present mid-Brexit malaise upon hearing the lyrics of the wonderfully drunken-sounding Rot and Gin:

"We're an island lost at sea
Save yourselves, here monsters be
A land of drunken drinkers drink
To everything we used to be"

There's a nostalgia in that lyric (and elsewhere on this album) that very closely resembles the longing that seemingly drove many people to vote Leave back in June, the longing to return to an idealistic past version of Great Britain that may or may not ever have existed. "This country isn't what it was," sings Sam Herlihy on Pidgin England, and for a moment you wonder if this thrilling, widescreen rock album was masterminded by a Daily Express reader.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Hidden Cameras Come Home

The last couple of Hidden Cameras albums have seen Joel Gibb and co. moving further and further away from the signature sound that Gibb once dubbed "gay church folk music". 2009's Origin:Orphan explored a variety of different genres and tossed bombastic brass arrangements and cool electronic touches into the pot, while 2014's Age had a darker atmosphere and an '80s underground sort of feel that incorporated elements of goth and dub music.

But now it would appear that Joel Gibb - who was born in Ontario but moved to Berlin some time ago - has had his fill of exploration for the time being and is ready to go home. The Hidden Cameras' new album is called Home on Native Land, and Gibb has described it as both "a return to my homeland" and "an inquisitive ode to Canada".

Monday, December 5, 2016

EP Corner: Wilds EP

Wilds are a band from Seattle who cite Mclusky and Built to Spill among their influences. Their debut EP - simply titled EP - came out back in October, and at just over 9 minutes in length, it's a bite-sized chunk of thick, fuzzy indie rock with a pleasantly noisy centre.

The first track, Endings, sounds a bit like Death Cab for Cutie, but it's less clean, less neat than any Death Cab track I've heard, and the stuttering snare drum blast that kicks in about two-thirds of the way through is probably too harsh to sit comfortably on the likes of Plans or Codes and Keys. It's the sort of song that Ben Gibbard might write after driving through a Mad Max-style wasteland for a day or two with Single Mothers on the car stereo.

Friday, December 2, 2016

November Playlist: Winter's On The Phone

Hey everyone - it's December! But before you break out the Christmas hits, here are 10 non-Yuletide tracks that I really enjoyed listening to in November and that I hope you'll enjoy listening to right now.

1. Holy Hell It's Cold by Quiet Marauder

(from MEN)

I tend to revisit MEN (originally released in 2013 - read my three-year-old review of it here) every year at around this time, and this rib-tickling but also slightly sobering cut seemed like an appropriate choice given the current temperature outside.

2. Treaty by Leonard Cohen

(from You Want it Darker)

You Want it Darker - which it's probably safe to assume was written and recorded by a Leonard Cohen who knew that he would soon be dead - has a certain duality to it. Many of its songs make it sound like Len had made his peace with the world and was ready to go, but a couple of songs (including Seemed the Better Way and this beautiful number) suggest a certain amount of regret, a desire to go back and change something. More thoughts on You Want it Darker here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ruminations on Conor Oberst's Ruminations

Given that I'm a huge fan of Bright Eyes (especially Lifted and Fevers & Mirrors), it's perhaps odd that until a few weeks ago I'd never listened to anything Conor Oberst released under his own name. There have been almost half as many Conor Oberst albums (4) as there have been Bright Eyes albums (9), and yet it wasn't until the 9th of this month - the day we learned that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States - that I bothered to buy one of them.

Ruminations came out last month, and it's *wonderful*. I quickly formed a closer bond with this album than I formed with either of the last two Bright Eyes LPs; Cassadaga and The People's Key were both fine records, but in my view they lacked the intimacy and feeling of Oberst's best material.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Don't Believe the Hyperreal

Don't Believe the Hyperreal by Ariel Sharratt & Mathias Kom was one of my favourite albums of 2015, but oddly enough I never really wrote anything about it here on the blog. One year on from its release, I'd like very much to rectify that state of affairs.

Airel Sharratt and Mathias Kom are both members of The Burning Hell, but sometime towards the end of 2015, they took a break from their day job and recorded a collection of duets called Don't Believe the Hyperreal. The album's artwork is a collage of famous couples such as Princess Leia/Han Solo, John Lennon/Yoko Ono, and Rachel Green/Ross Geller, and most of the songs here are pretty lovey-dovey in theme (Sharratt and Kom are themselves an item), but as love songs go, these ones do a really good job of being sweet without ever being sickly. Fuck the Government, I Love You chronicles Mathias and Ariel's first meeting with arch humour instead of gooey 'love at first sight' hyperbole, while the likes of Your Military and What You Want show how perfectly these two complete each other but do so in an off-kilter sort of way that tugs at the heartstrings but never makes you want to roll your eyes.

No roses or chocolates here - just lines about druids and broken stereo speakers. There is a Princess Bride reference, but they don't even compare themselves to Buttercup and Westley; instead, Sharratt likens herself to Inigo Montoya, and her lover to the six-fingered man who slew Inigo's father. I Got You Babe it ain't.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Songs About Albums: Volume 2 Coming Soon!

UPDATE (10 DEC 2016)
Songs About Albums: Volume 2 is now available to download from Bandcamp and SoundCloud!

* * *

Well, it's been a long time coming, but the second volume of Songs About Albums is finally almost ready!

For those who don't remember, Songs About Albums was a free-to-download compilation that The Album Wall released last year via Bandcamp and SoundCloud. It featured 10 songs by 10 different artists, each of whom chose a favourite album to sing about. There were heartfelt tributes to Murmur, Shoot Out the Lights, Transatlanticism, and a whole bunch of other LPs; it was rad, and now there's going to be another volume of it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fossil Scale

Perhaps it's just because I've lived in Wales for most of my life, but Week of Pines (Georgia Ruth's Welsh Music Prize-winning debut album, released in 2013) doesn't sound like anything so much as it sounds like home. Listening to Week of Pines is like putting on an old jumper that's so familiar it feels like hugging an old friend, and so well-worn you can stick your thumbs through the sleeves as if they were a pair of fingerless gloves.

pictured: me wearing my Week of Pines jumper

Conversely, Fossil Scale (Georgia Ruth's second album, released just last month) sounds like an album that's very far from home indeed. Week of Pines wasn't unadventurous by any stretch of the imagination, but its overall sound - harp strings, brushed drums, a purring electric guitar - felt very cosy and comfortable, whereas Fossil Scale is exploratory and experimental by comparison. The album covers a colourful range of genres, displaying an almost restless quality as it wanders from the funky Fossil Scale to the proggy climax of Grand Tour. Suhail Yusaf Khan’s sārangī playing lends a far-flung Eastern flavour to songs like The Doldrums and China, while new single Cloudbroke sounds like a track that was cut from some chillout compilation for sounding just a smidge too anxious about things.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Famous Last Lines

As I flicked through my Twitter feed yesterday morning, I spotted this tweet from @fourfoot:

I too revisited Martha recently (along with the other 13 songs on the excellent Asylum Years compilation), and Fourfoot is totally right about that last line. If you haven't heard it before, do yourself a favour and have a quick listen now:

"And I remember quiet evenings, trembling close to you"

Fourfoot's assertion about Tom Waits and his talent for devastating final lines got me thinking, not just about the last lines of songs but about the last lines of albums. A good last line leaves you reeling long after the song has ended, and that impact is magnified tenfold when there's not another song straight after it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Will 50 Song Memoir Be Another 69 Love Songs?

Yesterday, The Magnetic Fields announced that 50 Song Memoir - the first new Mags album since 2012's Love at the Bottom of the Sea - will be released on the 10th of March, 2017. They also shared the album's cover art, which looks like this:

It's just an image for now, but in a few months' time, it will be a 5CD set (as well as a 5LP set for you vinyl bores) that people can go out and buy and take home and listen to and cherish forever.

The idea behind 50 Song Memoir is pretty intriguing. Magnetic mainman Stephin Merritt wrote the album just after turning fifty years old, and each of the album's fifty tracks represents one year of his life (hence song titles like '66 Wonder Where I'm From and '86 How I Failed Ethics). Spreading the album over five CDs may seem a little self-indulgent given that the more densely-populated 69 Love Songs was squeezed onto just three, but it makes sense if you think of each disc as a decade: disc one will be the first ten years of Merritt's life, disc two will chronicle his pre-teen and teenage years, disc three his twenties, and so forth.

This is the sort of gimmick I love to see (remember when I named Quiet Marauder's 111-track magnum opus MEN my favourite album of 2013?), and it's all the more exciting for the fact that it's The Magnetic Fields doing it. 69 Love Songs may well be my favourite album of all time, and I was thrilled when I learned that Merritt and Co. would be releasing another jumbo-sized album with a similarly large-scale concept.

But will 50 Song Memoir be another 69 Love Songs? Sure, it's nearly as long and equally brilliantly gimmicky, but is it reasonable to expect that it will deliver the same sort of listening experience? I'm thinking probably not.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Beautiful Freak's Beautiful Freakishness

Beautiful Freak, the first Eels album, turned 20 earlier this year, so I thought I'd look back and offer my take on its weird wonderfulness.

The first Eels album I ever heard (and the one I recommend that you start with, too) was Blinking Lights & Other Revelations, Mark Oliver Everett's bittersweet magnum opus that was both an outstanding double album and a kind of musical autobiography. Over 33 tracks, it charted the ups and downs of Everett's life, starting from his birth and ending with its sights set firmly on the future in Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Released in 2005, Blinking Lights contained a few breakneck pop moments (such as euphoric lead single Hey Man) and a few noisy wig-outs (such as Mother Mary), but on the whole it was a downbeat, introspective listen that deftly demonstrated how life's quiet moments could be even more powerful than its loud bits.

The second Eels album I heard was Beautiful Freak, originally released in 1996  and officially two decades old as of a few months ago. This album came as a huge surprise - Blinking Lights had offered up a pretty rich stew of different sounds, but not one of those 33 tracks indicated that Eels had once been a grunge band.

Monday, November 14, 2016

4 Reasons Why I Haven't Made My End-of-Year List Yet

Now that we're approaching the middle of November and Halloween, Bonfire Night and Remembrance Day are all in the rear view mirror, it's apparently now acceptable to start showing Christmas movies on TV and talking about end-of-year lists. Twitter account @TheFestive50 yesterday posted a tweet suggesting that they'll be taking nominations from Friday onwards, and when I went into Spillers last week to pick up the new Conor Oberst album, owner Ashli asked me if I wanted to email them my top 10 albums so that they can put my list up on the wall with everyone else's in a few weeks' time. (Incidentally, that new Oberst album is great and will most likely be somewhere on my top 10 list when I do eventually make it.)

I'm as thrilled as the next man that Christmas is on the horizon once again, and I'm very much looking forward to revisiting all the great music I've listened to in 2016 and deciding which songs and albums are worthy of the all-important year-end list this time around. However, I haven't given any serious thought to the contents of that list yet, because there are a few albums I still want to spend some time with before I make my mind up. I don't intend to commit to any final decisions on what constitutes the 'Best of 2016' until I've got my hands on the following LPs:

N.B. All of these albums are out now - I just haven't got around to them yet.

Home on Native Land by The Hidden Cameras

The Hidden Cameras are one of my favourite bands, so it wouldn't do to compile my 'Favourite Albums of 2016' list when they've a brand new album out that I haven't yet heard. It especially wouldn't do to thus discount an album that apparently features guest turns from the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Feist, Neil Tennant, and Mary Margaraet O'Hara (I've been revisiting Falling Down a Mountain by Tindersticks recently and she's amazing on Peanuts). Rest assured I'll be stuffing this one into my earholes just as soon as I feel I can afford to buy it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: Love is Enough by Lia Pamina

Why is love the topic that has dominated popular music for as long as there's been such a thing as popular music? Is it because love, more than any other emotion, makes us feel like singing? Or because love is something almost everyone has felt and can relate to?

Perhaps it's just because love is simply the richest possible seam of musical inspiration. A vast breadth of different emotions and experiences fall under love's general umbrella; Stephin Merritt managed to write 69 love songs, and no two of them cover the same feelings in quite the same way. That first giddy rush; getting devastatingly dumped; growing old together; getting irritated with your significant other and wondering why you got together in the first place; making love; losing your lover to someone else, or to the grave; using love as leverage to get a pair of pet zebras. Perhaps people are still writing love songs because there is a nigh-infinite number of love songs to write.

Lia Pamina is a singer-songwriter from Spain, and her first album Love is Enough delivers us a dozen lovely new love songs that sound like they fell through a wormhole from the 1960s. Pamina plays a variety of different roles over the course of this album, proving - as Stephin Merritt did before her - that love wears many masks and comes in all kinds of different flavours. In Sycamore Tree, she's an innocent young thing, leading her beau by the hand as they make their way to their favourite spot in the park; conversely, in Walking Away, she sounds jaded, singing of darkened halls, narrow streets, and jealous mind.

Opener Better Off Without You and penultimate track Talking to Myself are both break-up songs, broadly speaking. But the former is almost celebratory, with Pamina sounding like her Elefant labelmates The School as she jubilantly pulls the plug on a relationship that's past its peak, while the latter - my personal highlight, along with The Boy I Used to Know - is far more melancholy.

There's a good deal of both joy and sadness on Love is Enough, but whether Pamina is falling in love (Party in the Night), giving up on love entirely (Love), or smugly watching another woman fail to turn her man's head (Keep On Dancing), her sweet songs and the lush, expansive arrangements never cease to delight. More than that, though, this album offers a great answer to the question that asked at the beginning of this review. Why is love the topic that everyone writes songs about? Because love can mean practically anything. Because love covers zillions and zillions of different, unique experiences and feelings.

Because love is enough.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Darker, Deeper

I was introduced to Leonard Cohen by my father. He used to play Len's More Best Of compilation around the house, thereby exposing me to songs like Everybody Knows, Take This Waltz and Dance Me to the End of Love (Dad's personal favourite) long before I heard older and perhaps more celebrated Cohen cuts like Bird on the Wire and So Long, Marianne.

This past Saturday, I was in the car with both my dad and my girlfriend Vicky. 1988's I'm Your Man was on the CD player, and I asked Dad - who I've only ever caught listening to post-1980 Leonard Cohen releases - if he'd ever heard the Canadian artist's earlier, more folk-influenced work. He replied that he had, but wasn't all that fussed on it; "you know me," he continued, "if it hasn't got any jokes in it then I won't stay interested for very long."

Friday, November 4, 2016

Review: Wyatt at the Coyote Palace by Kristin Hersh

You know that wrung-out, strung-out sensation you get when you wake up wearing yesterday's clothes on someone else's sofa or the back seat of a car? Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, the new album from Throwing Muses singer Kristin Hersh, kind of sounds like those mornings feel. It's the leftover Chinese food you find sitting in your kitchen on a Sunday morning. It's the cigarette that you smoke, bleary-eyed, on the balcony at 9am while the world goes about its business below. It's the half-empty glass of rum and coke that you pour down the sink because you didn't finish it last night and the thought of drinking it now makes you feel nauseous.

Perhaps this album's hungover, barely-hanging-together appeal comes from Hersh's wonderfully weathered voice, which sounds like it was made to sing about the morning after. Or perhaps it's the relatively raw production, which makes each note feel like it's had a layer of skin peeled off it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

October Playlist: Can We All Please

October's over, the clocks have gone back, and as we all know, music sounds better at this time of year. Here are 10 tracks that have been sounding pretty good to me over the last few weeks...

1. I Don't Want Love by The Antlers

(from Burst Apart)

And neither would you if you'd survived Hospice, the Antlers album that preceded this one. Here's something I wrote about Burst Apart (originally released in 2011) a few weeks ago.

2. Simultaneous Contrasts by Warehouse

(from Super Low)

Probably the most accessible track from Warehouse's unpredictable new album Super Low, which I reviewed here.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Guillemots: Through the Windowpane at 10

On the 26th of October 2006 - that's 10 years ago last Wednesday - I went to the Cardiff University Students' Union with a couple of friends to see a band called Guillemots. They were touring in support of their first full-length album, Through the Windowpane, which had hit the shelves a few months prior.

The show the Guillemots put on that evening at the SU still stands out in my mind as one of the best and most memorable I've ever witnessed. The stage was crowded with props: strange costumes, instruments of all shapes and sizes, television screens lit with snowy static, bubble machines spewing bubbles into the air. Kooky animation loops were projected onto a screen behind the band, a different cartoon for each song. And the songs themselves were just stunning - from the hits like Made-Up Lovesong #43 and Trains to Brazil to the fragile, swooning moments like If the World Ends and Blue Would Still Be Blue to the cacophonous, life-affirming climax of the spectacular finale São Paulo, it was a bodymoving, heartflipping musical rollercoaster that left me feeling genuinely elated for days afterwards.

Through the Windowpane remains one of my personal all-time favourite  albums, and last night - not realising that I was maybe 96 hours off the exact ten-year anniversary of that amazing gig - I ran a bath and gave Windowpane a proper listen for the first time in several years (I tend not to listen to my favourite records too often because I never want them to start sounding ordinary). I lit a candle and lay there listening in the low light, and I'm pleased to report that those twelve tracks made me feel every bit as alive and in love as they did back in 2006.

Friday, October 28, 2016

EP Corner: Golden Tongue

Jeni Magana has been making music for years: playing the clarinet in school, writing jingles for adverts, and doing all sorts of session work for other people's bands. However, Magana is a bit like ESKA (who spoke to this blog last year about her long-time-coming debut album) in that, while she's been a hard-working musician for most of her life, she's only recently got around to releasing a set of her own songs.

"This is a chance for me to carve out a space for myself to speak," says Magana of her new Golden Tongue EP. The record's cut-up cover art is reflective of that manifesto: after years of working behind the scenes, her contributions overshadowed by other people's aims and artistic statements, Jeni Magana can now show her face and allow a little of herself to peek out from behind it all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Air Guitar (or, A Tale of Two Gigs)

In a moment, I'm going to tell you all about a rather excellent album called Air Guitar by a rather excellent band called Sat. Nite Duets. First, though, I'd like to share a story from several Octobers ago.

Some of you will already know that, when I'm not blogging about other people's music, I sometimes make my own under the name Shiny Tiger. I post the occasional track on SoundCloud and play the occasional gig in Cardiff - it's never going to be a career, but it's fun to indulge my rock star fantasies every so often without having to commit to attending regular band practices or actively trying to market myself.

One of my favourite Shiny Tiger gigs ever took place on Halloween night in 2013. The venue was Gwdihw, a lovely little space on the edge of the city centre; I was singing and banging the drums, and my sometime bandmates Sion and Drew were backing me up on guitar and bass respectively.

That Halloween gig was a fantastic time: all my friends were there, in costume, along with a whole bunch of other strangers who were probably there to see the other bands but nonetheless arrived early enough to fill out the room for our set. The sound was great, we all played pretty well, and Sion and Drew poured fake blood over me in the middle of one of the songs. It was sharp contrast to the show I'd played one night earlier.

On the 30th of October, 2013, I played a short set to an almost empty room at a venue on the other side of central Cardiff. I was flying solo that night - I couldn't be bothered mobilising the band for two after-work gigs in one week, so I decided to go it alone, just me and my electric guitar. The act I was opening for disappeared after completing his soundcheck, so my audience that evening consisted of just four people: the sound guy, the guy on the bar, the guy who was on after me, and his friend.

So you can understand why, when I listened to Air Guitar for the first time and opening track Attached to the Lamp came rollicking out of my headphones, this verse in particular really resonated with me:

"Maybe we could go back to Cleveland
And play for the sound guy and the other band
And the opening act got picked up by his dad
It'll happen before, it'll happen again"

Monday, October 24, 2016

Away: Pointedly Not Trying to Look Back

Away is Okkervil River's eighth full-length album, and it presents itself as a sort of new beginning for the band. Frontman Will Sheff recorded these nine tracks with a new set of musicians, and this change is reflected even in Away's artwork: William Schaff's nightmarish illustrations, featured on the cover of almost every Okkervil River release to date, have been traded for a gorgeous piece by Wisconsin-based artist Tom Uttech. His beautiful painting is filled with birds in flight, and the theme of taking wing and flying away reverberates throughout this record.

Away's first track is called Okkervil River RIP, which is a pretty strong statement right out of the gate. Before proceeding any further, Will Sheff symbolically slays and buries the band that made Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names and my personal favourite Down the River of Golden DreamsOkkervil River RIP makes it immediately, inescapably clear that Okkervil River is dead, long live Okkervil River!

Friday, October 14, 2016

On Getting Excited for Sad Albums

When I learned last year that Nick Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur had fallen to his death, my reaction was of course one of sadness and horror and deepest sympathy. However, when I learned earlier this year that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds had a new album coming out, I was excited - not just because I like Nick Cave's music, but because the circumstances surrounding the new album's conception would surely make for an extremely emotive listen.

As long-time and possibly even short-time readers of this blog will know, I love depressing music. I love listening to sad songs and sinking into that sadness and luxuriating in it, feeling what the artist is feeling as I listen. Here's something I wrote in anticipation of Skeleton Tree, that at-the-time forthcoming Bad Seeds album, back in July:

This, Nick Cave's sixteenth album with The Bad Seeds, has the potential to be a very harrowing listen indeed. It's Cave's first set of new material since his son died at the age of fifteen last year, and one can only speculate how he will translate this tragedy into music. I'm personally hoping for something along the lines of 1997's gloomy The Boatman's Call.

When I wrote that, I was actively trying not to sound too ghoulishly thrilled that Arthur Cave had, in death, provided his father with some A-grade material for his next album, but in truth I was really, really looking forward to hearing the bleak aftermath of that accident (Nick Cave described himself as feeling 'paralysed' after it happened) set to music. And that's kind of horrible, isn't it? Obviously I would never hope for Death to darken the doorstep of a favourite artist and cast the shadow of sadness over their songwriting, but I have been feeling kind of guilty nonetheless.

Skeleton Tree came out last month and it proved, if anything, to be an even bleaker listen than miseryphiles like me could reasonably have hope for. It doesn't sound very much like The Boatman's Call at all; whereas that record took a simple sadness that we're used to hearing in pop songs (the sadness felt at the end of a relationship) and expressed it using death as a metaphor, the altogether more complex new album looks into the abyss of death itself, inevitably resulting in a far more confrontational listening experience. Listening to The Boatman's Call is like putting on a hoodie that you purloined from an ex-lover: it might make you feel a little melancholy, but it's warm and it's comfortable. Neither of those adjectives could reasonably be applied to Skeleton Tree, on which the Bad Seeds create a sparse, barren soundscape just to see if life can still flourish there. Skeleton Tree is the sound of Nick Cave unflinchingly challenging himself to find wonder and beauty and reasons to carry on in a world that was harsh enough to rob him of his child. In the end, he manages it - Rings of Saturn and Distant Sky offer a glimmer of hope, a sense of life somehow going on - but this is still easily the most devastating CD you'll put in your stereo this year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Super Low

Warehouse are a band from Georgia, and their music sounds a bit like what early R.E.M. might have sounded like if Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe had taken a field trip back to 1920s Germany and spent a day deep in thought at the Bauhaus.

Super Low - reportedly named after a supermarket that's just across the road from the studio where this album was recorded - is a dense, intricate slice of tightly-wound art indie that's kind of difficult to pin down. Each song is full of musical ideas, and even the most accessible, straightforward track (lead single Simultaneous Contrasts, a krauty number that has something of Electrelane about it) features several surprising colour changes and gear shifts.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Happy Birthday Dog Man Star

Suede, the debut album from the band of the same name, came out in 1993. It topped the album charts, spawned a top 10 single in Animal Nitrate, and arguably laid the foundation for the Britpop movement that would come to dominate the mid-nineties.

However, as much as I love Suede, but I'm not a particularly big fan of Suede. I find the production a little too murky, and the songs - bar the exhilarating Moving and one or two other exceptions - never really grabbed me as tightly as it seems like they grabbed everyone else.

Perhaps my opinion would be different if I had heard the album at the time, when it presumably sounded fresh and new and exciting, but I wasn't even two years old when Suede first appeared on the racks at HMV. In actual fact, Suede wasn't even the first Suede album I heard when I eventually *did* get around to investigating them: that was Dog Man Star, the band's sophomore effort.

Dog Man Star was released on 10 October 1994, which means that today is the record's 22nd birthday. A couple of months earlier, Oasis released Definitely Maybe, one of the defining records of the Britpop era and an album so overrated that it makes Suede, which I find somewhat overrated, look not at all overrated. But while Oasis were codifying the sound we now think of as standard Britpop fare - swaggering guitar rock with no interest in moving hearts, minds or feet - Suede were working on something far more ambitious, far more grandiose, and...well, far better.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: Cosmetic by Nots

I think Memphis four-piece Nots were being deliberately ironic when they named their second album Cosmetic. Their music - delivered with ragged aggression and tousled by raw, lo-fi recording techniques - is pointedly not interested in cosmetic concerns. Rather, it's just here to beat you about the ears with pummelled drums and a harsh, hard cocktail of guitar, bass, and burbling synth noises.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Burst Apart

Last week, I blogged about Mutual Benefit's Skip a Sinking Stone, an album that's all about getting over past breakups and learning to believe in love once more.

Today, I'd like to talk about an album that's similar in theme but far more visceral and desperate in its delivery: Burst Apart by The Antlers.

Released in May 2011, Burst Apart is the sequel to Hospice, also known as The Most Depressing Album of All Time™. Hospice was a concept album about an abusive relationship with someone who has terminal cancer, although it's possible that the terminal cancer was just a metaphor for the gradual deterioration of the relationship itself; either way, it made for very miserable listening.

Monday, October 3, 2016

September Playlist: Gonna Be Young Again

September is a weird, transitional month that's half summer, half autumn, and doesn't really feel properly like either. That's also true of this month's playlist, which mingles the last faded rays of summer sunshine with the first crackles of autumn.

Or it's just 10 songs I listened to lots last month. You decide.

1. Paint with the Sun by Arc Iris

(from Moon Saloon)

The piano-led new single from Arc Iris is a truly majestic thing that's just the right side of psychedelic. Read my review of Moon Saloon here.

2. Please Don't Kill Me by Reptar

(from Body Faucet)

I got this album ages ago - Please Don't Kill Me itself was a staple of my summer 2013 playlist - but I revisited it last month for the first time in a while and was pleased to find it even more packed with sweet riffs and surprises than I remembered.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Moon Saloon

If I had to describe Moon Saloon by Arc Iris in one word, I would choose the word 'colourful'. I don't appear to be the only one, either; in their review of Moon SaloonThe Line of Best Fit made mention of the album's tendency towards "technicolour star-gazing" described its sound as being "dyed in a myriad of colours".

It's irrational, of course, to describe music in this way. Saying that an album 'sounds colourful' is a bit like saying that a flower 'smells red': unless you've got some form of synesthesia, it doesn't really make sense.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The First Time Ever I Saw Los Camps!

One of the best gigs I ever went to was the time Broken Social Scene played at The Point, a former church in Cardiff Bay that was one of the city's best venues back in 2006 but - infuriatingly - has since been closed down due to noise complaints from the neighbours.

Broken Social Scene are a phenomenal live act. It's rare to attend a sold-out show and see the stage as crowded with people as the dancefloor itself, but it wasn't just a case of strength in numbers: every person on that stage was giving it their all, creating a euphoric racket that we in the audience didn't tire of even after a marathon two-hour set plus encores.

But I'm not here today to talk about Broken Social Scene, or their two relentlessly awesome drummers, or how pleased I was when I and the guy next to me simultaneously shouted for I'm Still Your Fag and they actually played it. I'm here today to talk about the support act who kicked off that magical night at The Point.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Skip a Stone, Let it Sink

It's a sad truth that the vast majority of romantic relationships eventually fail. The oft-quoted statistic is that 50% of marriages end in divorce, but how many more millions of couples split before they even get as far as the wedding? What are the true chances that any given relationship will last until one person dies?

At the beginning of Mutual Benefit's new album Skip a Sinking Stone, we find Jordan Lee (the man at the centre of this ever-shapeshifting musical project) reeling from a relationship that unfortunately didn't work out. As he tosses pebbles into a vast lake, he wonders if he'll ever be able to fall in love again, and he observes that making a relationship stick is like trying to skim a stone: some of them sink straight away, while some hop along briskly for a little while before running out of steam and disappearing into the water after all.

When you embark upon a new relationship, you're hoping against hope that, this time, the pebble will bounce away over the horizon and somehow keep going forever - unlike all the failed skimming stones cluttering up the foreground of the CD cover.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hello Autumn (Playlist)

I love autumn, and I especially love listening to music when it's autumn. The crisp, cold air, the changing colours around me, the fact that I'm wearing a jumper that's I've had since I was in secondary school...all of this stuff serves to enhance the sounds I'm hearing and up the general feeling of warmth and nostalgia. This is my time of year, people.

Yesterday (the 22nd of September 2016) was the autumnal equinox and the official beginning of autumn in the northern hemisphere. To mark the occasion, I asked my Twitter followers to suggest some of their favourite autumnal albums - the following playlist is made up of songs from the records they chose (plus a few favourites of my own).

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Backchat: Charles Griffin Gibson on CHUCK's Back Catalogue

Welcome to another edition of Backchat, where bands and artists look back at the albums they've released over the years and share their memories with us fans. My guest this time is Charles Griffin Gibson, a songwriter with a wonderfully nasal voice who lives in New York City and makes top-quality laptop pop. Most of his albums and EPs have been self-released, but earlier this month, Old Money Records - an imprint of the Audio Antihero label - issued a compilation of CHUCK tracks entitled My Band is a Computer (read my review of it here).

With CHUCK's music now in front of a wider audience, this seems like a good time to sit down and look back at what Charles has been putting out over the last few years. Here's the man himself to tell us the whole story:

(self-released, 2010)

I made People when I was 23. I had just moved to New York. I was living up in Washington Heights in Manhattan. I was in a 3 bedroom apartment with 4 friends. I was sleeping on an air mattress that would deflate every night, so I would just wake up on the ground. Rent was $400 a month. I'm not trying to glamorise any of this; I'm just painting the picture.

My sister's friend got me a job as a production assistant on The Celebrity Apprentice. The job was mostly driving to CostCo to buy snacks, and then I would distribute the snacks on set. After several months of that, I had a few weeks of unemployment and decided to record an album. I had already made two in college, but they weren't really that good. The songs I had written up until that point were generic and sappy. But when I got to New York, I made friends with a group of guys who were in a band called Uncles (core members are now in the band Frog, also on Audio Antihero) and I remember being really inspired by their music, in particular their lyrics. They were much more compelling and visual and specific than the other stuff I was listening to. Also, there was a lot of humour in their work that I related to.

Monday, September 19, 2016

They Are The Gothic Archies

Longtime readers of this blog will not need to be told that 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields is one of my favourite albums ever. I bought the triple CD set in Bristol in 2009; I was there for a university open day, but I managed to squeeze in a trip to Fopp before catching the train home. I spread the album over a whole weekend, listening to Volume 1 on Saturday morning, Volume 2 on Sunday morning, and Volume 3 on Saturday night. I Don't Believe in the Sun, Papa Was a Rodeo and Promises of Eternity were among the instant stand-outs, but I quickly learned to love all 2 hours and 52 minutes of it. It established Stephin Merritt as one of my favourite songwriters, and I've since delved deeper into his work: I now own all the Magnetic Fields albums, plus several other discs released under other names like The 6ths (Hyacinths and Thistles), the Future Bible Heroes (Partygoing and Eternal Youth), and plain old Stephin Merritt (Showtunes).

However, somewhere along the line I realised that 69 Love Songs hadn't been my first taste of Merritt's musical talents after all. In October 2006, a few years before that trip to Fopp in 2009, I bought an issue of Uncut magazine that came, as all issues of Uncut magazine do, with a free CD featuring tracks from some of the latest new releases. One of those tracks was Crows by a band called The Gothic Archies.

I liked the singer's bewitchingly deep voice and his knack for a clever internal rhyme (example: "Every day we hear the same dumb list of those crows' woes"), but for whatever reason I didn't bother to investigate The Gothic Archies any further. Only much later, when I had fallen in love with 69 Love Songs and was digging around to see what else its author had created, did I twig that The Gothic Archies were yet another Stephin Merritt side project, just like The 6ths and the Future Bible Heroes.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Goodbye Darlin'

Earlier today, everyone's favourite indie poppers Allo Darlin' announced on Facebook that they will be calling it quits after one final show in London this December. This news made me sad (not least because I was under the impression that they were currently in the studio, beavering away on a new album) and so I'd like to offer this short tribute to Allo Darlin' and, in particular, their superb second album Europe.

I am not a particularly keen traveller. My parents took me on many foreign holidays when I was little - Italy, Portugal, even Australia - but since I became an adult and assumed responsibility for my own movements, I've made little effort to continue adding pins to my map. In the last five years, I've been to exactly three places outside of Great Britain: Porto (for a music festival), Barcelona (ditto), and Copenhagen (where I ate at one of the best restaurants in the world courtesy of my uncle, who lives in Denmark and sometimes reads this blog - hi Mark!). While my friends have traversed the globe, slept in hostels and met all sorts of people in all sorts of places, I've mostly stayed put here in Cardiff and observed their adventures through the window of Facebook. And I've mostly been perfectly happy to do so, partially because I've got a lot of things keeping me here (a relationship, a full-time job, my family, a fantastic local record shop) and partially because I'm just not of a travelling nature.

All of that being said, there's one album that has proven consistently capable of making me forget my aversion to check-in desks and unfamiliar public transport systems, and that's Europe by Allo Darlin'. This record is like a key that unlocks a quite uncharacteristic feeling of wanderlust in me; it's very difficult to listen to songs like Northern Lights and the title track without wanting to zip over to the continent and see what's going on in all those other places you've heard about. Even the sad, spare Tallulah triggers a yearning for the sort of rich melancholy you can't really feel in your own homeland.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Currents & Contour Lines: Lisa Hannigan's At Swim

Lisa Hannigan's new album At Swim was recorded in New York and largely inspired by an extended stay in London. Instead of revelling in the big city atmosphere, though, Hannigan spends most of this LP torn, struggling to choose between the heady fun of a foreign metropolis and the cosy comfort of home. Opening track Fall gives us a taste of the illicit thrills and vibrant unknowns to be had in places like London or NYC...

"Drain the spirits from the jars, hop the fences, steal the cars, run on fumes and from the law, burn for us right through the fall"

...but the singer herself never sounds entirely ready to commit, to book a plane ticket and make a bee line for the life she's describing. Over the course of At Swim's eleven tracks, we hear several references to feeling lost or adrift or 'off course', and the emotional heft of this album hinges on that idea of being unsure where you're heading, or even where you want to be heading.

Monday, September 12, 2016

10 Questions for Martha

"Courting Strong was about punks growing up. Blisters is about grown-ups who stayed punk."

Martha are four people from Durham. Together, they make noisy indie pop that is emotive, socially conscious, and a whole lot of fun, all at the same time. The band's debut album, Courting Strong, was one of my favourite albums of 2014; their new record, Blisters in the Pit of My Heart, came out earlier this year, and it is every bit as good as its predecessor.

A fantastic listen from start to finish, Blisters is made up of eleven  songs that cover everything from relationships to menial employment to influential anarchist Emma Goldman. I've been listening to it a lot, and so I was thrilled when two of Martha's members, Nathan Stephens-Griffin and JC Cairns, very kindly fielded a few of my questions about their new album for this blog...

Photo from (Nathan Stephens-Griffin far left; JC Cairns far right).

The Album Wall: Let's start with the new album's title. The phrase 'blisters in the pit of my heart' appears in the lyrics of Ice Cream and Sunscreen, but why did you decide to name the whole record after that line?

Nathan Stephens-Griffin: We were originally going to name the album 'Christine' after our friend Christine from Milky Wimpshake; we had the song about her, and it seemed to sum up where we are as people and the kind of central thesis of the album, with the visceral, messy, terrifying side of life juxtaposed with love and romance and companionship.

Friday, September 9, 2016

My Band is a Computer

The past is the place to be on this superb compilation from Audio Antihero spin-off Old Money Records

Funny thing, nostalgia. The most mundane experiences start to seem glorious once they're in the past; as Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff sang on Pink Slips, "show me my best memory, it's probably super crappy".

A yearning for the past is one of the main driving forces behind My Band is a Computer, a selection of songs recorded by NYC resident CHUCK (a.k.a. Charles Griffin Gibson) over the past five years or so. This compilation is the inaugural release from Old Money Records, an offshoot of the always-ace Audio Antihero Records that will reportedly focus on "reissues, compilations and archiving of the under-heard and under-appreciated". If that's the goal, then MBiaC is a great first play; I had never even heard of CHUCK before I listened to this record, and now I find myself compelled to go back and check out the albums from which these thirteen tracks were culled.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Predictions for the New Young Knives Album

Here's something I posted on Twitter a couple of weeks ago:

Here's the reply I received shortly afterwards:

Monday, September 5, 2016

It's a Wonderful Life

Over the weekend, I ran a Twitter poll asking people to vote for their favourite Sparklehorse LP. Debut album Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot shot into an early lead, but after 24 hours and a total of 70 votes, the final results were as follows:
  1. It's a Wonderful Life (41%)
  2. Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (34%)
  3. Good Morning Spider (19%)
  4. Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (6%)
2001's It's a Wonderful Life, the third of Sparklehorse's four albums, is an intriguing winner. It was conceived as a slightly sarcastic response to critics who complained that Good Morning Spider - an album written and recorded shortly after Mark Linkous overdosed in a hotel bathroom and temporarily lost the use of his legs - was too depressing, and while every Sparklehorse album has its fair share of sad bits, Wonderful Life is easily the most sombre of the bunch.

This album doesn't have a soaring indie anthem like Vivadixie standout Someday I Will Treat You Good. It doesn't have a moment of breakneck fury like Pig from Good Morning Spider. King of Nails admittedly rocks pretty hard, but even that track feels tethered and thoughtful rather than angry or cathartic:

Besides, King of Nails is something of an anomaly amongst the album's overall sound and feel. This was the first time Linkous recorded an LP outside of his own home studio, and the time he spent in the studio with Dave Fridmann (the man who produced - among many, many other great recordsDeserter's Songs by Mercury Rev) resulted in a far warmer, fuller-sounding release than either Vivadixie or Good Morning Spider. Listening to Wonderful Life is like wrapping yourself in a blanket and sitting in front of a fireplace on a cold autumn evening: it's not as thrilling a rollercoaster as Vivadixie or as patchwork a quilt as Good Morning Spider, but if you're looking for an album that you can sink into like an generously-cushioned armchair or a hot bath at the end of the day then step right this way.