Monday, May 30, 2016

Amen & Goodbye by Yeasayer: A Track-by-Track Analysis

Brooklyn weirdos Yeasayer released their fourth LP, Amen & Goodbye, last month, and it's definitely one of my favourite albums of the year thus far, a colourful cornucopia of bouncy pop and blissed-out psychedelia that's easily up there with 2010's sublime Odd Blood.

Yeasayer decamped to the Catskill Mountains to record their latest opus, and they must have done a lot of reading while they were there because Amen & Goodbye is packed to the rafters with arcane scientific and biblical references. As a result, the record's lyrics can seem kind of impenetrable, at least until you remember that Google exists; some might wistfully suggest that search engines have robbed works like this of the bewitching, impenetrable mystery that could otherwise have been such a large part of their charm, but if you yourself are one of those people then I'd advise you to stop reading now because I'm about to perform a Google-assisted dissection of every track on the album.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Mandy's Universe

Universe was written and recorded by Mel Fung and her husband Andy in the years leading up to Mel's untimely death from cancer. The album, with its psychedelic through-the-keyhole artwork, invites us to briefly view the world through the eyes of someone who knew she wouldn't be here much longer; as such, it is a sad, confrontational listen, but to Fung's eternal credit, her songs never totally succumb to despair even as they stare death square in the face.

Indeed, Angela - the album's bouncy opener - will come as a disarming surprise if you're braced for a Hospice-style miserython:

Things do get a bit more contemplative further down the tracklist, but the only truly devastating track here is This is Nothing. The title initially suggests a cheerfully dismissive handwave ("How's it going, Mel?" "I'm fine! This is nothing!"), but the song itself is actually a numb-sounding number that imagines the afterlife as a vast, empty void:

"Never any shelter from this rain
Never anything to bring you pleasure again
This is Nothing
This is Nothing
No pleasure whatsoever
No pleasure whatsoever"

In the main, though, Fung uses her final recordings to ponder not her own death but the mysteries of Life itself. "Can you tell me who I am, can you tell me why?" she asks searchingly on the Trwbador-esque Can You Save Me, perhaps attempting to answer The Big Questions before her time on Earth runs out. Elsewhere, on Look Up at the Stars, she implores the rest of us to consider those same questions now instead of waiting for terminal illness to force us into contemplation:

"Wherever you are tonight
Look up at the stars tonight
Wherever you are tonight
Look up and remember"

Universe is a lot of things: a knowing swansong, one final artistic statment, a heartfelt message to the people Fung was preparing to leave behind (had I known Mel personally, the beautiful I Don't Miss You would have had me curled up and weeping into my kneecaps for months). But perhaps more than anything, this album serves as a friendly hello from beyond the final curtain; Fung won't be here to learn whether there's life beyond this planet's boundaries, or what The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything really is, and so the purpose of Universe is to ask the rest of us to keep searching for those solutions in her memory.

Universe by Mandy (Mel + Andy = Mandy, geddit?) is out today on Bubblewrap Records. Buy it here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

In Praise of Neu! '75 (Guest Post)

Today's guest blogger is Christophe Forme of La Forme, who describe themselves as an "electro/alternative band from South Wales but with a French heritage". Head over to La Forme's SoundCloud page and have a listen while you read Christophe's take on krautrock classic Neu! '75, which turned forty years old last year:

Never exactly close friends, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger reconvened in Cologne in 1975 to record their third album as Neu! simply to fulfil a contractual obligation. Arriving in the studio with nothing planned or written and recognising that they were never going to reconcile their considerable differences, they decided on a unique approach to '75 and cut the album straight down the middle, taking a side each. On paper it sounded like they were heading for disaster, but on record they produced an original, fresh and unique album that hasn't aged in the forty years that have passed since its strange conception.

Monday, May 23, 2016

One-Album Wonders

As I believe I've mentioned before, I love a band with a big back catalogue. There's nothing quite like discovering a whole new seam of great music to devour and trying to decide what route you'll take through it all; it's even better when your new favourite band is still active, because you know there's even more good stuff to come.

Today's blog is about the exact opposite of that. Today, I'd like to talk about three bands who only released one album before breaking up or just disappearing and never surfacing again. Where some LPs are puzzle pieces that constitute only a small part of the discography's broader picture, these three albums stand alone, each one making a single, concise statement that the artists concerned presumably never felt the need to expand upon.

Without further ado, then, here are three of my favourite one-album wonders:

Manifest! by Friends
(Released 2012)

I've been listening to this album quite a lot over the past week or so. Every song sounds like it could have been a single, perhaps because the album's ever-changing sonic palette makes every track stand out. That said, most of Manifest! is predominantly percussion-led, which appropriately enough makes the album sound like a bunch of friends gathered in a big warehouse to bang drums, shake tambourines, and sing some songs together.

Lyrically, Manifest! covers quite a lot of ground: Friend Crush is simply about wanting to friends with someone and Sorry is about wanting to be more than friends, but Ideas on Ghosts gets all deep with musings on death and I'm His Girl is a full-blown manifesto for how to have a healthy relationship with someone. Friends split up not long after releasing this debut LP, but by including loads of different sounds and pondering loads of different topics, Manifest! manages to be an extremely fulfilling listen that does indeed give us a very rounded impression of what frontwoman Samantha Urbani must be like to be friends with.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight (Guest Post)

Today's guest blogger is Libby O'Neil, a singer-songwriter from Lawrence, Kansas. Her EP, Not Enough, came out earlier this month - you can check it out on Libby's Bandcamp page or read my review of it here.

If, having heard her music and read her thoughts on this Neko Case album, you fancy following Libby on Twitter, her handle is @libbyoneilmusic.

I was first introduced to Neko Case through The New Pornographers, but her vocal additions to A.C. Newman's songs, while lovely, pale in comparison to the power of her solo work. Over the last three decades, Case has constructed an intimidating discography; anyone who's heard even just a few minutes of her work knows that her voice alone can make the hair on your arms stand to attention.

Case's most recent solo album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, was released in 2013 on Anti Records. Recorded after a series of deaths in Case's family, this album is her most emotionally incisive collection of songs to date. On her previous album, Middle Cyclone, Case's characters and emotions were painted into the forces of nature; on The Worse Things Get..., Case's writing is firmly rooted in the minutiae of human life, from the slog of being a touring musician on I'm From Nowhere to the heart-breaking portrait of a child being verbally abused by their mother in Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

EP Corner: Not Enough

We're always being told to 'live in the moment', but is that ever truly possible? This is the question at the heart of Not Enough, a new EP from Kansas-based songwriter Libby O'Neil. Across the EP's five tracks, there's a sense of struggling to stay in the present; O'Neil is trying her hardest to put both the past and the future out of mind, but inevitably, this proves to be easier said than done.

Track one is The Edge, a pretty, piano-led number that features O'Neil describing a gorgeous dawn scene before begging "please don't tell me what's beyond the edge, please don't tell me yet".

This song does an excellent job of capturing what it's like to be in the middle of a beautiful moment and desperately trying not to worry about what comes next. When our narrator sings "I need a beautiful obstruction", she's searching - perhaps in vain - for the thing that will finally get her mind completely in the present and stop her from constantly thinking ahead.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Eels: Where to Start?

With 11 studio albums, 7 live albums, a couple of compilations, and goodness knows what else to choose from, newcomers would be forgiven for not knowing where to start with Eels. Do you begin with Beautiful Freak (home of Novocaine for the Soul, probably the best-known Eels track of all) and go from there? Or is it better to work backwards from The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, the band's most recent release?

The first Eels album that I bought was Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, released in 2005. As a ninety-minute double album that's slap-bang in the middle of the band's back catalogue, Blinking Lights is hardly the most obvious entry point for an Eels virgin, but if you were to ask me which album you should start with, I'd almost certainly recommend this one.

Blinking Lights is a concept album that tackles the largest concept of all: life, and what it's like to live it. We follow Eels mainman Mark Oliver Everett (better known as 'E') through all the ups and downs of his turbulent lifetime, from the very beginning to the almost-end: Disc 1 begins with E's birth (From Which I Came/A Magic World), and Disc 2 ends with him as an old man looking back on it all (Things the Grandchildren Should Know).

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: Hotel by Matthew Pastkewicz

When I reviewed Matthew Pastkewicz's Quarters EP last year, I described it as "percussive, pulsing electronica [that] sounds positively triumphant, like the sort of thing you hear in your head when you run for a train and actually catch it".

Today, Pastkewicz releases a full-length album: it's called Hotel, and it's a markedly darker listen than Quarters. While 'percussive, pulsing electronica' remains a fair description of what's on offer here, the euphoric feel of the EP has largely been replaced by a sort of towering dread, as if Pastkewicz was trying to make the soundtrack to a dystopian sci-fi film that takes place amongst the imposing industrial architecture of the old Soviet Union.

Harsh synthesised sounds are the order of the day, although I do like the way those otherworldly noises are juxtaposed against earthier-sounding (but no less intimidating) drum parts. These tribal-sounding beats underpin the electronic squall very nicely, giving Pastkewicz's compositions a visceral organic edge that keeps things from becoming too alienating.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Survey Results: This is How We Consume Music

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been conducting a survey that I hoped would reveal a little more about the way we consume music here in the UK. The survey is now closed, and I'm pleased to report that I received a total of 217 responses from music fans in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

First of all, I'd like to say a massive 'Thank you!' to everyone who took the time to fill out the survey and submit it to me - your input is very much appreciated. Before we get stuck into the results, I should point out that this survey won't be 100% representative of the UK's music consumption habits, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Self-selection bias. Everyone who responded to this survey did so voluntarily, presumably because they were interested in the topics concerned. For this reason, it's probably safe to assume that respondents generally had a greater interest in music than the average UK resident. Please bear that in mind as you read the survey's findings.

  2. Location bias. I shared this survey on my personal Facebook page a couple of times, and I know that many of the people who filled out this survey are people I know personally who live here in Cardiff. This means that a disproportionately large segment of the total response came from people in Wales, while Scotland and Northern Ireland were somewhat under-represented.

With those two caveats in mind, let's tuck into the results. Some are completely unsurprising (I didn't need a survey to tell me that not many people use Tidal), but others were a little more unexpected...

Which format(s) do you use to listen to music?

Key Points:
  • CDs are more popular than vinyl
  • Lots of people still listen to music on the radio, but video sites like YouTube aren't far behind
  • More people use paid streaming services (e.g. Spotify Premium) than free services
  • Most people would buy a physical version of their favourite band's new album

This part of the survey consisted of three questions. The first (above) was a simple 'tick all that apply' affair; lots of people said that they listen to music on the radio, but only 11 fewer people stated that they 'frequently listen to music on video sites', suggesting that music fans will soon be just as likely to open up YouTube as to switch on the wireless.

The 'vinyl revival' has been a hot topic of late, and I was expecting 'I buy vinyl' to be a far more popular option than 'I buy CDs' in this bit of the survey. Surprisingly, it went the other way, with more people claiming to buy CDs on a regular basis than vinyl or digital albums or (less surprisingly) cassette tapes. In fact, just over half of all respondents stated that they frequently buy CDs. For all the hype currently surrounding vinyl - just look at all the articles and thinkpieces that were published in the run-up to Record Store Day last month - it seems like people still consider compact discs to be the more convenient, appealing option.

Monday, May 9, 2016

No Boys

A long time ago - the summer of 2005, it was - I bought an issue of Uncut magazine that came with this free CD:

Michael Stipe Presents... was a compilation album put together by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe to accompany a feature about the band that Uncut were running that month (guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills each curated their own comps, too; you had to buy the mag three times to collect 'em all).

Mr Stipe's hand-picked playlist introduced to me to several great bands (including Tilly and the Wall, who I wrote about only the other week). But it also brought me a bit of frustration: one of my favourite tracks on Michael Stipe Presents... is a song called No Boys by a lady called Leona Naess. It's a sweet song that goes something like this:

"No boys in my room
Just the sweet wooden smell of my guitar's perfume
And in my head, a melody
Baby, you'd be proud of me"

The version of No Boys that appeared on MSP... was a live recording, on which Naess's wonderful voice was accompanied by beautiful strings and some lovely piano work. It's very moving stuff, not least because it always sounded to me like a bereaved woman's message to her dead lover.

At this point, I'd normally embed the song in question so that you could hear it for yourself. Unfortunately, I can't find No Boys anywhere on the internet - it's certainly not on YouTube or Bandcamp, and it even seems to have been removed from Grooveshark, where I'm certain I've seen it previously. In fact, it seems like No Boys doesn't exist anywhere outside of that Uncut CD; as far as I can tell, the song doesn't appear on any of Naess's albums, and there's precious little information to be found in the compilation's inlay:

11. LEONA NAESS - No Boys [live] 
(Naess) Copyright Control
Recorded live at the Living Room, NYC on
December 10, 2003

You know the worst part? After hearing Tilly and Bright Eyes on Michael Stipe Presents..., I immediately set about devouring those bands' back catalogues, and I've been ardent fans of both ever since. Perhaps if No Boys had actually featured on a proper album, I would have bought that album as well, and maybe Leona Naess would be as high on my charts as Tilly and the Wall are. But because I didn't have that 'in' - buying the album with the song I already know - it never happened, and until today, No Boys remained the only Leona Naess song with which I was familiar.

However, I have just listened to a couple of her other tracks, and I'm pleased to report that they're very good too. So, in lieu of No Boys itself, I invite you to enjoy the beautiful Ballerina (from Leona Naess, released in 2003)...

...and the more upbeat Charm Attack (from Comatised, 2000):

Perhaps this will be the start of my long-overdue journey into Leona Naess's actual discography; in the meantime, if you have any information about No Boys (Why was it never included on a studio album? How did Michael Stipe know about it?) then do get in touch. Especially if you're Michael Stipe or Leona Naess.

Friday, May 6, 2016

There Are 3 Las in Shalalalas

The Shalalalas were one of the many bands I discovered at last year's Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. On the festival's final night, after a stunning set from Interpol, Vicky and I made our way over to a smaller stage (situated, wonderfully enough, right next to the sea) and sat on a set of stone steps to rest our aching feet while we enjoyed an altogether more gentle performance.

Italian duo Sara Cecchetto and Alex Hare describe the music they make together as 'lo-fi dream folk', but that description does The Shalalalas a grave disservice; if you sent me an email with the phrase 'lo-fi dream folk' in the subject line, I'd probably delete it without even opening it so as to save myself from a dozen tracks' worth of duff, hazy-sounding rubbish that says nothing and doesn't go anywhere.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Women in Music & 'Classic' Albums

As you may be aware, I'm currently conducting a survey on how we consume music here in the UK (if you haven't already filled it out, please do so - your contribution will be much appreciated!)

One of the questions on my survey reads as follows:

Respondents are then presented with the same list under a different heading: "Which of these albums do you own on CD, vinyl, or cassette?"

I included this pair of questions in the survey because I hoped to compare the number of people who had heard those albums with the number of people who had actually bought a physical copy. At time of writing, for example, 101 people have said that they've heard Thriller, but only 51 people profess to own a physical version. Conversely, while only 65 of my respondents have heard Bloc Party's Silent Alarm, 43 of them also own a physical copy - that's nearly two-thirds of the people who've listened to it.

The twelve albums I chose for this part of the survey represent my slapdash attempt to cover several different genres so as to see if fans of a certain genre are more likely to get physical than fans of another. There's the hip-hop album (To Pimp a Butterfly), the heavy metal album (Master of Puppets), the classic rock album (A Night at the Opera), and so forth.

But while Queen, Metallica, and Kendrick Lamar are each associated with very different types of music, they all have one thing in common, as do all but three of the other artists on my list. Can you guess what it is?

They're all men.

Monday, May 2, 2016

April Playlist: Shut Your Dirty Mouth

Another month has come to an end, and that means it's time for another month-end playlist. Here are 10 tracks that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to in April:

1. By the Throat - Laurence Made Me Cry
(from Titans' Daughters)
The first track from Jo Whitby's new EP signals a darkening of tone and a raising of stakes. Read my review of Titans' Daughters here.