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.