Friday, January 29, 2016

Confessions of a Romance Novelist

Before I share my thoughts on Confessions of a Romance Novelist, a quick note about Mansun. As a big fan of Mansun, I was naturally very excited when, last year, it emerged that their former frontman Paul Draper was to co-produce the debut album from somebody called The Anchoress. That album came out two weeks ago, and in a few moments I'll be typing out my take on it.

First of all, though, I'd like to make a promise: I promise not to spend this entire blog post talking about the parts of
Confessions... that remind me of Mansun songs. Sure, I could waste paragraphs and paragraphs pointing out that What Goes Around bounces along in the same kinda way as My Idea of Fun, or that Doesn't Kill You puts me in mind of both Cancer and Television, but I'm not going to do that because a) it would do The Anchoress and her album a grave disservice, and b) I realised that I'm only hearing Mansun because I know that Paul Draper was involved. If someone had told me that Confessions of a Romance Novelist was co-produced by Neil Hannon, or P!nk, or the keyboardist from Nightwish, I'd probably be hearing their influence instead of Mr Draper's, when really the overwhelming majority of ideas on show here came from The Anchoress herself (a.k.a. Catherine Anne Davies). This is a dramatically chameleonic album; one minute you're thinking it sounds like The Dresden Dolls, then you come across a bit that sounds like Evanescence, and eventually you realise that it's kind of futile playing the 'sounds like' game at all when the album you're dissecting skips across so many different styles in so little time.

So, once this italicised introduction is over, I shan't be using the word 'Mansun' for the remainder of today's blog post. If I do, you have my permission to come to my house and kick me in the shin.

I don't read a lot of romance novels myself, but my girlfriend Vicky has been researching this market a lot recently and she informs me that writers who work within the romance genre have to stick to a pretty strict formula if they want their books to sell. One of the most important rules, as I understand it, dictates that romance novels must always conclude with a happy ending; if, by the final full stop, your lead couple aren't living happily ever after (HEA), or at the very least happily for now (HFN), your book is almost guaranteed to flop. Rulebreaking and bittersweetness apparently don't play well at all in the world of Mills & Boon.

It is this stubborn rigidity that gives Confessions of a Romance Novelist its central conflict: our narrator is a (presumably somewhat successful) romance author, and yet she herself is the polar opposite of all the oppressively formulaic love stories that spill from her pen. She doesn't want to get married; she doesn't believe that finding a partner is the most important thing in the world; and she knows from bitter experience that, for every HEA, there are DORTEB - dozens of relationships that end badly.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

This Happened

Back in 2010, people were pretty certain that This is Happening would be the last album LCD Soundsystem ever released. We now know that those people were wrong; shortly after LCD were confirmed as one of the headliners for the 2016 Coachella festival, James Murphy issued a statement saying that a new album could be expected "sometime this year".

This is great news - I can't wait to hear the music that prompted Murphy to get the band back together, not least because This is Happening never truly satisfied me. It's a great album, for sure, but it's certainly no Sound of Silver, and the plodding likes of Somebody's Calling Me did give me the impression at the time that Murphy had decided to quit not because he wanted to go out on a high, but because he'd simply run out of ideas.

Being an awesome band's final album is a hell of a cross to bear, and truth be told, I always found This is Happening to be a slightly disappointing swansong. However, since TiH is now just 'LCD Soundsystem's third album' and not 'LCD Soundsystem's last album', I figured it was time for a reappraisal. Perhaps I asked too much of this record back when I thought I wasn't getting another?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Let's Pretend We're Stephin Merritt

What are you doing for Valentine's Day this year? Catching a film? Enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner? Jetting off to Paris for a long weekend in the City of Love?

Well, whatever you had planned, cancel it, because you're coming to this instead:

Remember when, a little while back, I convinced a bunch of talented people to cover their favourite tracks from 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields? Well, many of those talented people will be getting together in Cardiff on the 14th of February to perform their covers live and pay musical tribute to Stephin Merritt and his magnificent three-disc masterwork.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Why I'm Happy to Wait for a New Radiohead Album

Hey everyone! Radiohead are back!

Oxfordshire's most elusive sadsacks have been keeping pretty quiet for the last few years; they haven't played any gigs since 2012, and their most recent album, The King of Limbs, will turn half a decade old next month. Yesterday, however, it was announced that Radiohead are to appear at several European festivals in 2016, and now we're all wondering whether this uncharacteristic willingness to go outdoors is a sign than the Popes of Mope are preparing to release their long-awaited ninth LP.

In other words: OMG guys there could be a new Radiohead album on the way!

Weirdly, though, I'm not all that excited by this prospect. Yes, Radiohead are one of my all-time favourites (I still can't believe that, when Ed O'Brien did a Q&A session at my university back in 2011, I actually managed to ask him a coherent question instead of just giggling inanely), but The King of Limbs was - truth be told - a bit of a disappointment, and I'm kind of concerned that its follow-up will sound equally unremarkable next to OK Computer and In Rainbows and so forth.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On Belatedly Discovering Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

"Why did US emo songwriter Owen Ashworth name his project Casiotone for the Painfully Alone? The origins of the band involved a set of self-imposed Dogme 95-style restrictions: every song is as short and efficient as possible. Only white keys. All songs are in the key of C. No happy songs allowed."
- David McNamee, writing for the The Guardian in 2010

Why oh why did it take me until last week to finally purchase a Castiotone for the Painfully Alone CD? The description quoted above ticks practically all of my favourite boxes:
  • Short, to-the-point songwriting? Check!
  • Reluctance to stray from the key of C major? Check!
  • Miserable as all get-out? Check!
It's like Owen Ashworth went out of his way to write songs that I personally would be sure to like. Casiotone (and subsequently Advance Base, Ashworth's current project) have been on the scene for almost twenty years, churning out catchy emo-pop and patiently waiting for me to properly investigate them.

Now that I've added Etiquette to my library, I feel sorry to have kept Mr Ashworth waiting for so long.

Monday, January 18, 2016


As this viral video recently demonstrated, cassette tapes can be strange and mysterious things when you've only been consuming music for the past few years. I suspect I'm a fair bit older than the two boys struggling with their mum's Walkman in that YouTube clip, but while I am reasonably familiar with the format - my parents used to have a stack of Play School tapes that kept lil' Joel entertained on many a long car journey - I still see the cassette as something of an enigma.

You see, when you listen to a CD (my format of choice), you're usually given a clear indication of which track you're hearing, and it's easy to skip to your favourite song and generally find your way around the album. Cassettes, on the other hand, are far harder to navigate; you have to keep track of what's playing pretty vigilantly, otherwise you'll hear a song you love and you'll have no way to accurately establish which of the titles listed on the case it corresponds to. Oh, and heaven help you if the damn thing hasn't been rewound.

Weirdly, cassette tapes have enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, presumably because the hip young things whose inexplicable purchasing choices led to the recent vinyl revival decided that, what with Tesco now selling vinyl LPs alongside their microwaveable Italian dishes, it was time for an even more inconvenient and obsolete format to become the fashionable choice. Hence such nonsense as Cassette Store Day.

Still, while I personally will not be trading my CDs for cassettes any time soon, I still appreciate it when artists do something unusual with their chosen format, even if that format's heyday ended while Margaret Thatcher was still in office. This brings me to Kassette, a release from last year that features music from both Schizo Fun Addict (from New Jersey) and The Bordellos (from Merseyside). 

Fun Fact: The artwork was provided by John Squire from The Stone Roses.

Friday, January 15, 2016

My Top 10 Wolf Parade Songs

Here's some exciting news: Wolf Parade, who have been on 'indefinite hiatus' since 2011, updated their website yesterday. There's not a whole lot of information on at the moment, but what little they've given us to go on is still ample cause for excitement:

Yes, it appears that Wolf Parade will indeed be back (hopefully with a new album) in 2016. While I try to decide whether I'm more pumped for this or for the imminent return of LCD Soundsystem, here are my 10 of my favourite Wolf Parade tracks - if you're new to the band, the content of this list should be more than enough to seize your interest!

10. You are a Runner and I Am My Father's Son
(from Apologies to the Queen Mary)
Hell of a way to open your debut album, this. You are a Runner is a primal, trashy marching song - it's hard to imagine a better call-to-arms for newcomers to the band.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Indie Music Murders

What is it about well-read American indie bands and songs about brutal acts of violence?

That's right, it's a blog about The Decemberists!

Oregon's most successful sea shanty merchants are kind of notorious for the dark, gory narratives that singer Colin Meloy writes to accompany all those hot accordion riffs. However, I'm not just picking on The Decemberists today; since I've been listening to Black Sheep Boy and Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See almost constantly over the last week or two, I'd also like to include Okkervil River in this discussion.

Monday, January 11, 2016

RIP David Bowies

David Bowie, who died yesterday at the age of 69, meant - and continues to mean - a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

For many, he was a jumpsuited glam-rock icon, like Marc Bolan but freakier; for others, he was the pop mastermind behind such hits of the '80s as Let's Dance and Ashes to Ashes. Still others will remember him primarily as the man who did that 'Major Tom' song, or perhaps as the English guy who cut a Christmas single with Bing Crosby, or even as the baddie from Labyrinth.

Heck, there are probably *some* people out there who first heard of Bowie in that one episode of Flight of the Conchords.

This, I suppose, is par for the course when you spend your entire career reinventing and reimagining yourself at every turn. Few other artists have so warmly embraced the idea that every new album should bring something new to the table, that each project should exist in its own fully-realised little world rather than being a meek continuation of what came before it. Though I don't wish to appease those insufferable fandoms whose memes clutter my Facebook feed every evening, David Bowie really is like a musical, real-world version of The Doctor from Doctor Who; one extraordinary man cycling through countless different incarnations, miraculously regenerating at the end of each tour.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Negative Qualities

I first discovered Single Mothers in the dying hours of last year's Primavera Sound festival. They were the very last band I saw that week in Barcelona; it was about 3 o'clock in the morning, I was completely knackered, and yet somehow, this bunch of Canadians and their rowdy punk rock music persuaded me to summon my last ounce of energy and jump around a bit before shuffling back to the hotel.

If this unexpected second wind was attributable to one factor in particular, then that factor was Single Mothers frontman Andrew Thomson. His unhinged on-stage behaviour and reckless disregard for his own body was unlike anything I've ever seen before; when he wasn't spitting throat-shredding vocals into the microphone, he was throwing himself around, tumbling over the crowd barrier, and generally trying to ensure that the sting of tomorrow's hangover (I'm pretty certain he was plastered) would be drowned out by the pain of a thousand bruises.

Upon my return from Spain, I more or less forgot about Single Mothers, although happily I did remember to add their latest album, Negative Qualities, to my Amazon wishlist before the memories of that evening (well, morning) faded away.

Fast-forward to the 25th of December and what should I unwrap on Christmas Day but, well, this:

The image above is the cover art for Negative Qualities (the only non-Okkervil River CD that joined my collection this past Christmas), and its primitive cave-painting portrayal of men in their underpants assaulting each other against a backdrop of spilled booze and broken glass serves as a pretty neat summary of what's on the disc itself. This is a punk record that packs a punch, even before Drew Thomson sidles up to the mic; the meaty basslines and trashy drums and gnashing guitar lines make Single Mothers sound like some sort of angry, sped-up cross between Queens of the Stone Age (Overdose in particular reminds me of the first track on Songs for the Deaf) and Urusei Yatsura.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Albatross Archive on Clouds (Guest Post)

Earlier this week, I wrote about the albums I'm most looking forward to hearing in 2016. However, I realise now that I made one glaring omission: the 2nd volume of Songs About Albums!

You may remember that I unveiled one song from Volume 2 - Laurence Made Me Cry's tribute to Moloko - back in November. The full compilation will be made available for free download in the springtime, but don't worry if you can't wait that long because I've got another track to share with you today.

Painting is a song about Joni Mitchell's Clouds. It was written and recorded by Richard Jackson of Albatross Archive; the track can be found below, along with Richard's explanation of why he chose Clouds as his subject.

With the brief as wonderfully open as it was ("Write a song about one of your favourite albums"), there was a lot of scope in the initial direction. Though we'd initially wanted to choose an album which both myself and my bandmate Kit had mutual attachment to (Polar Bear's Peepers was a strong contender; Joanna Newsom's Ys felt impossible to comment on in any suitable way), time/deadlines led to this becoming a more focused solo effort on my part than normal.

For some reason, whenever I think of important/favourite albums, Joni Mitchell's Clouds always sticks out to me, despite the fact that I couldn't, off the top of my head, give you a track listing for it. It's an album I associate with growing up, hearing it played around the house before I could even's just an album I've always known, and which has always just 'been there'.  A friend of mine once told me that her favourite album wasn't necessarily the best album, not necessarily even a good album, it was just one that meant something that no other album ever could, and that is what this record is to me.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2016: What's in Store?

With a whole year of new music ahead, here are the upcoming album releases I'm most excited for...

The Waiting Room by Tindersticks
The first all-new Tindersticks album since 2012's The Something Rain is due out on the 22nd of January. I wasn't a huge fan of The Something Rain, and I'm afraid I didn't bother with Across Six Leap Years, the retrospective thingy that came out in 2013 (six of its ten tracks are already in my iTunes library anyway); for my part, I'm hoping that The Waiting Room will be a return to the more colourful, dramatic likes of Falling Down a Mountain (2010) and The Hungry Saw (2008).

Confessions of a Romance Novelist by The Anchoress
A 'revenge pop' concept album produced by former Mansun frontman Paul Draper? Sign me the heck up. Oh, and speaking of Mansun...

Friday, January 1, 2016

Most Read of 2015

Happy New Year everyone! On Monday, I'll be looking ahead to some of the releases I'm excited to hear in 2016; for now, let's take a moment to look back on the year we've just left behind. Here's a quick countdown of The Album Wall's Most-Read Blog Posts of 2015...

10) 10 Questions for ESKA
A brief Q&A with Mercury-nominated musician Eska Mtungwazi.

9) Dimed Out
A preview of The Most Lamentable Tragedy by Titus Andronicus, written a couple of months before its release (spoiler: the album is every bit as excellent as I hoped it would be).

8) Review: Wasting Away and Wondering
Thoughts on the fab third album from Cardiff pop troupe The School.

7) Day-Glo Dreams & The Art of Depressing Me
What makes a truly depressing album? In this blog, I suggest that Helen Love may well have a better idea than the moody likes of Thom Yorke et al.

6) Abstract Heart
My review of Zervas & Pepper's latest LP.

5) Revisiting Little Kix
Is Mansun's much-maligned third album really as bad as some fans would have you believe?

4) 10 Questions for Trembling Bells
The genre-juggling folk-rockers offer up some insight on their latest album, The Sovereign Self.

3) Under the Western Freeway
My first blog post of 2015 revisited Grandaddy's full-length debut and found it to be, well, something of a downer. Who would have thought?!

2) Mogwai Albums from Worst to Best
Mogwai celebrated their 20th anniversary this month - here's your ultimate guide to their 8 studio albums.

1) Björk Battles the Leakers
In my most-read post of 2015, I examined the fallout that ensued when Vulnicura, the new Björk album, was leaked online months in advance of its scheduled release date.

Hope you've all enjoyed reading The Album Wall over the past 12 months - I can't wait to hear what sort of sounds 2016 will serve up!