Category Archives: Pop music

Embrace

Embrace_-_EmbraceSo what does it actually sound like?

A subdued synthesizer oscillation forms the basis for an understated, slightly unsettling verse; this is how the album opens; it is not how previous Embrace albums have opened. This is “Protection”. Danny is restrained, his voice a slightly richer tenor than before, perhaps. It’s vaguely threatening, ominous. Something that might be guitar strings scrapes weirdly out wide in the mix, and a house-y drumbeat and treble-y synthesizer arpeggio flesh out the sound. Two minutes in, this verse suddenly explodes into a briefly enormous chorus, detonated by a live snare and a sudden surge of guitars that seems to swell impossibly. It collapses again to nothing but bass and those scraping strings.

Phenomenologically, the arrangement and mix are extremely impressive; the electronic elements don’t feel tacked-on, they feel intrinsic; dare I say ‘authentic’? That’s a horrible, loaded word that seldom gets used for anything but coercion, but the way that synthesizer pulse moves and reverberates through the soundstage, given space and allowed to breathe, makes it become substance rather than signpost, makes it feel honest and committed and real, somehow. Just the way that chorus really does surge, buoyed up on a mammoth bassline and propelled by layers of synth chords at high altitude, reeks of attention to detail. Someone really cared about how this album sounds. And it says exactly who on the sleeve; he produced, recorded, and mixed it, as well as writing the songs.

As a result there are a thousand details in the mix, all the way through the album, that will take you an age to notice, and keep you coming back and listening for more: the way the chorus of “Refugees” seems to be backed by an infinitely distant children’s choir; the layers of burbling synth behind the middle eight of “Follow You Home”; the entirely new melody, played out on distant bells or some such, buried in the decaying notes closing “I Run”; the universes of melody being destroyed at the end of “…Thief…”.

There are aesthetic shifts here, for certain. New Order, and dance music in general, are an overt influence feeding into things throughout the record; synthesizers, drum machines, dance floor rhythms, and occasionally that high, melodic bass that drives songs in a different way. Embrace always talked about these influences but, outside of a couple of remixes and some b-sides, they were seldom heard. Now they’re right here, front and centre, starting an album they’ve seen fit to name Embrace, and run right through the heart of it.

Embrace have been famously schizophrenic over the years, running an aesthetic gamut from orchestral grandeur to shoegazing thuggery to kazoo-led homilies via a thousand other things; their first three albums, in particular, betray a massive and diverse love of music that spans the horizons from funk to hardcore to soul to pop to metal to dance and beyond, all underpinned by a windswept, northern songcraft and bare-faced emotionalism that’s always been resolutely uncool. This scope has threatened to be their undoing in some ways.

Finally, two decades in, after eight years in a literal wilderness with no label, no A&R, and practically no contact with the outside world, it feels almost as if they’ve realised who they are, and, in their own words, come full-circle to the band they were before they were signed, before the record industry got hold of them and ran them through the mincer over and over again. (And oh boy, did they get run through the mincer; so many expectations, so many manipulations, people placing bets on them, the band trying to please everyone and forgetting themselves.)

“In The End” is a glorious pop song, energised and direct, with another fantastic, surging chorus and a gamut of thrilling, dynamic pauses and rushes in all the right places. A really powerful riff to start and then restless drums and a big, melodic, Hooky bassline that runs through everything else. Synth chaos painted over the top of the chorus itself. A great, exciting drop-out to just bass before the final furlong demonstrates the dynamic at play, the rise and fall, stop and start; yes, it’s manipulative, but you don’t get on a fairground ride to sit still, do you?

The chorus comes from an ancient, unreleased version of “Too Many Times”; as documented elsewhere, I thought it was the best chorus they’d written, and basically felt cheated for a decade that they’d never done anything with it. It’s a little frustrating that almost literally no one else in the world can ever know the feeling I experienced when I first heard it explode out of this song, completely unexpected. It was bizarre. Over the intervening years I’d forgotten what this band and their music can mean to me, and all of a sudden everything, all the hopes, dreams, memories, experiences and emotions came back in one big rush.

I’ve talked about “Refugees” elsewhere; in some ways it’s Embrace’s “Made Of Stone”. By that I don’t mean that it sounds like that song at all, though; rather it’s about a similar feeling and atmosphere. If “Made Of Stone” was “making a wish and watching it happen” then “Refugees” is wanting to make a wish and being afraid it won’t happen; both songs are about wanting something different, something more, something better, but one comes from a gang of young guys wanting to escape where they grew up and the other comes from a someone trying to raise kids in a country he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in. Perhaps. (Because I have a theory that all of Rik’s songs are actually about his family and/or his band.) After the restless pace of “In The End”, “Refugees” feels like a pause for rumination, but it’s still loaded with dramatics and melody and intensity.

“I Run” is a slower song; you could call it a ballad if you wanted, but the swirling guitars and keys over the chorus, the muscular, cavernous bass driving the verse, the sheer force of emotion when Danny sings “because everything I ever do is wrong”, makes that seem like a very small word for something so emotionally big. And this is unashamedly massive, whilst still retaining a degree of intimacy somehow; again, that’s largely down to the way things are mixed. There’s incredible emotional intensity as the singer lays bare a lot of inner secrets, takes down some protective walls and confesses, apologises, and promises to do better.

Melodically it’s incredibly strong, piling line-upon-line as bridges and choruses change places. Emotionally, though, it’s even stronger; I’ve not always been a fan of these kinds of songs in the past, but something about this feels more honest, more painful, than they ever have before. When Danny hits the notes that build to his confession about doing wrong, it smacks me in my chest the way he’s been trying to do for decades. And when he gives up and just screams “no, no more” towards the end… Musically, the contours of the song rise and fall, find space to ramp up the intensity in the second chorus when others might have had nowhere to go, and Danny matches it move for move.

The chirpy “oh-ohs” and fidgety guitar riff of “Follow You Home” initially hide what’s actually quite a creepy sentiment; pop as Trojan horse for something a little darker. To me the stalking being done here isn’t necessarily of a romantic target so much as it’s of a creative muse; an audience or fanbase, perhaps, or a moment of musical inspiration. An illustration of the trepidation the band must have felt; what if no one cared anymore? “I wrote you letters / sang you songs / but nothing works on you no more” could easily be addressed to the band’s fans. When it takes eight years (8 years!) to produce an album, the struggle to make it must inform what it’s about thematically.

If I’m brutal, this is the song I’m least excited about on the record; that it’s still as catchy as hell, and gifted with an excellent middle eight and denouement that I think are fabulous, says a lot about the level of quality throughout the album. Insert something here if you like about poor singles choices over the years – “New Adam New Eve” should have been a single; “Glorious Day” and “I Can’t Come Down” never should have – but I don’t think this is a poor choice as a single. That said, it’ll be criminal if the next track isn’t a single.

I always wanted Embrace to work with a dance producer, because I had a feeling that it would end up sounding like “Quarters”, which is aesthetically, if not structurally, pretty much straight-ahead dance music; parts of it sound like nothing so much as The Knife, even while the guitars chime like something from The Unforgettable Fire. Compositionally it’s still about songwriting, though, rather than dancefloor build and release (although the component parts do that quite nicely too, actually); there’s a crazy bridge that goes all Justin Timberlake / Michael Jackson / Prince as Rik squeezes himself into a bizarre falsetto.

Meanwhile, ‘insouciant house diva’ as a vocal style suits Danny surprisingly well; there’s a certain semi-medicated quality to his vocals through the verses that really suits the sonic context. The chorus feels like it should soundtrack a scene in a film where the protagonist is out of it in an underground rave, lost and paranoid and chemically affected. Some people will feel like this is an ‘off-brand’ move, but the Perfecto remix of “One Big Family” was one of the first things Embrace ever released, and Danny used to bang on about how Prodigy and Chemical Brothers were the only bands releasing exciting music in the country. To me it was always inevitable that they’d go in this direction; I’m just baffled it took so long.

Or am I just imagining this, because I want them to sound like that? I played “Quarters” to a friend, apros of nothing, with no warning or context regarding who it was; the first response was “this is really good”. I revealed who it was. “Fucking hell” was the second response, “it’s not a remix?”. It isn’t. There is a definite ‘rock band go dance/electronic’, Achtung Baby / Reflektor etc etc (delete as appropriate) vibe happening here, but this seems more overt; less live-band-plays-disco than lone-guy-with-drum-machine-and-laptop makes a dance track. Except there is a live band here – just not all the time; the two merge into one another. Like I said, this was always meant to be in their DNA.

The riff that opens and evolves through “At Once” reminds me of the dappled sunlight guitar that ushers in “New Grass” on Laughing Stock by Talk Talk; it has that quasi-improvised feel, very beautiful and very fragile, always moving slightly out of pattern and off-center. Like a lot of the album, lyrically it could be about a relationship, or (more likely?) it could be about being a band, making this album – “we can build it brick by brick” – before the chorus and coda take things in a slightly different direction; they could easily be read as a (pretty excoriating) description of clinical depression. I really love the brevity here, especially of the coda; it adds a modesty and intimacy to the song that lends it emotional heft just as much as the way the bridge into the second chorus piles up on top of itself.

“At Once” is the closest thing to a moment of respite or calm here; there are no palette cleansers, no interludes or opportunities for quiet contemplation. But even this moment of self-reflection is leavened with a certain degree of melodrama, which comes from the strength of the tune and the conviction of the delivery. Might it have been ‘better’, somehow, if they’d taken the delicacy of its opening and let it drift, like “Now You’re Nobody” did all those years ago? It certainly would have been different, but I’m very happy with how it is.

As an aside, the start of “New Grass” by Talk Talk is one of my favourite things ever, because it’s incredible delicacy and beauty follows 10-minutes of emotional and sonic tumult, and chaos, and confusion (called “Taphead”). Very few people who’ve taken inspiration from those late Talk Talk albums have captured this properly; they tend to facsimile the beautiful bit without the tumult. The problem is that, as in life, the downs contextualise the ups; the chaos makes the beauty even more wonderful; just listen to Sunbather by Deafheaven. Those first two Embrace EPs juxtaposed the tumult and the beauty very well, of course. Sandwiched where it is, “At Once” seems to understand that dynamic too.

And so onto “Self Attack Mechanism”. I’ve basically been waiting seventeen years for Embrace to produce stuff like this and “Quarters”. Punishing, angry, technological, forward-thinking, still imbued with melody and structure and, importantly, emotion. Again, this is where, in my imagination, they were always meant to end up. “Contender” pointed towards this; drum machines and slashing guitars; massive, grinding bass; big wafts of synth as the tune pauses; self-lacerating lyrics (“it’s me who’s alone with no sense of direction / and it’s me who’s a fool running scared of the message”). Extraordinarily exciting.

And the sound again, that mixing. At one point in “Self Attack Mechanism” something strange happens and it feels as if the sound is coming from behind you somehow (assuming your speakers are positioned properly, that is). The whole album sounds better and better the more you turn it up and up, the bass filling out and thumping you, the intricacies of the sound enveloping you and overwhelming you; it coaxes you towards the volume knob until you’re making the entire house pulse. Which is the way it should be. It’s addictive.

Lyrically Danny has said explicitly that this is about post-traumatic stress disorder, which he suffered with, by all accounts quite horrifically, in his early 20s; it’s pretty unforgiving. It also borrows a line from an ancient, never-officially-released Embrace tune called “Say It With Bombs”; specifically the bit about “the birds eat the bees”. Which is weird and cyclical and kind of awesome in terms of contributing to the strange, eternal, internal narrative of this band, and adds weight to the suggestion that they’ve come full-circle.

I’m not sure what to say about “The Devil Looks After His Own”, because it’s just a really good, bitter pop song, loaded with tune and given a fabulous arrangement. I can’t really ascribe any semiotic or narrative analysis to it, it doesn’t change the paradigm of the band in the way “Protection”, “Quarters”, or “Self Attack Mechanism” do, it doesn’t feel like a ‘significant’ moment in their career; it’s just a great song, done incredibly well. Which is amazingly refreshing, and, in the midst of a paradigm-shifting album, probably a blessed relief.

Danny spits (almost literally at points; I’ve never heard him sound quite so angry as he does towards the end) fantastic lyrical epithets all over the place, about how “the winner of the rat race is still a rat”, and “the web you weave unravels itself”; if it’s about anything specific, it might be the way the band have been treated over the years, the plans people hatched for them, and how they’ve somehow made it through the bullshit; but of course, like any song, it’s about what you, the listener, interpret it as being about. There’s something metronomic in the triangulated drums and the mechanical, chugging rhythm guitar (which could almost be a bit early-PJ Harvey, another pre-record-deal influence). It’s obviously Embrace but I can’t find an analogue for it elsewhere in their discography; this pleases me.

Across the entire record everything feels ramped-up a notch (or several) musically; arrangements feel more creative across the board, either subtly (the guitar in “At Once”) or radically so (all of “Quarters”). Mike and Steve in particular seem almost like a different rhythm section; the way the drums evolve through “Refugees” and the way the bass shifts across “In The End” are totally unlike anything they’ve played before. Some might find it initially difficult to tell how Mickey’s contribution has altered, because the sound palette he’s working with is so radically different to before, but the synthesizer craziness he’s responsible for is by far the most seismic change on show. It’s not that Embrace have made a synth pop record; it’s that they’ve practically retooled their entire sonic armory, from individual timbres to mixing techniques to the thrillingly dynamic approach to mastering, while keeping hold of the emotional territory and songwriting focus they’ve always held dear.

I like to think I can second-guess what an Embrace song will sound like before I’ve heard it, based on running time, title, and sequencing; “this is a delicate moment”; “this is a rocker”; “this is an experiment”. Sometimes I’m right; probably less often than I’d like to think, though. I was sort of both very right and very wrong with the last track here. Structurally “A Thief On My Island” is similar to “Out Of Nothing”, but it smashes it in the brutality and dynamics stakes. I’d argue that it’s melodically richer and more personal lyrically, too; a lot of the lyrics across the album repeat themes and ideas and motifs from earlier in their career, as if things have been tiptoed around before and are now being fully realised and admitted to.

At one point during the creation process for this record Danny or Rik posted something, somewhere, about being influenced by dubstep, which seemed like a red herring or misdirection or else some horrific attempt at being contemporary; with hindsight the second half of this song is probably the result of that, but it’s not about producing a track that people can (not) dance to at a dubstep night somewhere in Bristol – it’s about saying “here is a sound; what can we do with it to our own ends?” And the answer to that question is ‘techno Swans’. Halfway through listening to “…Thief…” for the first time I thought to myself “well, it’s pretty intense and dramatic, but it’s not exactly Swans, is it?” And then, for the final three minutes, it went techno Swans; a bludgeoning, incredibly deep, repeated electronic noise-chord hammered over and over again like an obscene tectonic movement shaking buildings apart. Or at least I think it did; I don’t quite trust myself with this band, with being able to discern between what’s actually happening and what I want to happen. Many listens in, in many contexts, I think the two are very close.

This album has finally calcified what I always thought Embrace could be; what they ought to be. Some people still won’t get it, and that’s fine. Their music doesn’t usually lend itself to ‘aesthetic contemplation’ the way that some acts do, but I’ve never heard Sonic Youth, say, or any ‘noise’ act, take something so bludgeoning and use it to emotional ends the way Embrace do at the end of “…Thief…” or, a decade ago, “Out Of Nothing”; to insert that chaos, both sonic and emotional, into a pop song. And pop songs is what they do – bold melodies, big hooks, enormous choruses, all those early brass fanfares and ba-ba-ba backing vocals, all that communality. They’ve always been unashamedly populist.

Very early on Embrace were accused of having a Thatcherite work ethic, as if working hard to produce something of quality for consumption by anyone and everyone wasn’t actually a socialist work ethic, as if the communal nature of their music wasn’t socialist through and through, as if Danny hadn’t worked on a building site with his dad while he was writing the songs that would form their debut album, as if they weren’t from mill towns in Yorkshire that Thatcher tried to destroy. Singing to yourself might be beautiful and rewarding but it’s also kind of selfish in many ways, and shared emotional experiences are unbelievably profound; more and more as I get older I’m finding myself overwhelmed by large crowds of people and shared cultural experiences – the Olympics, public demonstrations against the government – and I’m naturally exclusionary by instinct in many ways. To me, Embrace’s music somehow, sometimes captures that feeling and ties it to something that’s also incredibly isolating, far more so than any of the people who’ve emerged in their wake and (in some ways) eclipsed them. I think a big part of this is because the man delivering the words atop most of these emotions is a weirdo hiding in plain sight; simultaneously garrulous and uncomfortably intense.

It’s about sublimation within a crowd, loss of sense of self whilst, at the very same time, feeling something deeply personal and emotional. It’s that eternal pang of pop music, or rock music, or dance music, or soul music, or whatever you want to call it; that thrill of movement and emotion and connection and alienation all at once, joy at sadness and sadness at joy; recalling memories that aren’t actually yours because someone else can channel them, somehow, right into you. We don’t have a word for it. It’s liking a piece of music, or art, or culture, or whatever, not because it says anything about you, but because it does something to you, whether you like it or not. And I like this a lot.

Records of 2014

I don’t normally like writing summaries of what’s been out so far this year until at least the summer, but January and February have been embarrassingly good, and I’m not really reviewing records for anywhere at the moment (increasingly I can’t see the point in writing reviews, for various reasons), but I still feel like there are various things I want to say about some of the things I’ve heard. So I will.

(And there are still records I fully expect to be great due in the next couple of weeks; Liars, Hauschka.)

Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
Thinking of re-doing my iTunes genre tags, because genre tags are so vague as to be essentially useless and irrelevant. I’d put Elbow down as ‘Real ale prog’ these days. Take that as a pejorative, I think. The opening song here consists of seven minutes of acoustic guitar and mumbling. I don’t remember a beat at all. I don’t remember much, actually. I’m not sure why I bought it; some sense of loyalty to the band they were for their first couple of records, some hope that one day they’ll be really awesome again.

Because Elbow have ascended to a kind of tasteful stateliness over their last three albums, a middle-aged comfort and mild melancholy that’s seemingly devoid of edge and excitement. This is fine, if you like. Emotional northern men. We should have seen it coming from the second side of Leaders of the Free World. The creepy, creeping, occasionally cacophonous disquietude of the first two albums has almost entirely dissolved. I’m kind of happy for them that this is the case (that they’re not angry / distressed / etc anymore), but it’s taken a great deal of the tension and release out of their music, and that tension and release was a key part of why I loved them.

All that said, “Fly Boy Blue / Lunette” is pretty wonderful (that brass! that bass!) and maybe other bits of this record will reveal themselves unto me over time. I thought the same about the last one, though, and it didn’t.

Get the Blessing – Lope / Antilope
Bristol jazz; I have the debut album by these guys (when they were called The Blessing, before legal nonsense forced a prefix) and enjoyed it a lot, so I bought this, which is about their fourth. I’ve not been disappointed; it’s really good. I don’t know what to write about jazz; it’s kind of a default listening choice for when I just want to listen to something musical and semi-exciting and intricate and groovy (which is a lot of the time) but don’t want (mostly) to get really emotionally involved. This is rocky – it has a back beat (albeit and intricate one) most of the time – and it shouldn’t scare anyone off. There’s no real honking. It’s not free. It’s just tunes. Get over it. Get up with it.

The Notwist – Close to the Glass
Back to electronics; in fact, way deeper into electronics than before, in some ways. After the rather enervated last album (which was still beautiful, albeit in a very subdued way), there are some proper pop moments here (“Kong”), and far more energy, but still shot through with a sense of melancholy that comes from the linguistic distance of the lyrics and their delivery (ie because the singer’s German). They cover a lot of ground here – as well as being more deeply electronic, some tracks are more overtly rock, too; “Seven Hour Drive” is a pure My Bloody Valentine tribute, layers of (digital?) distortion and scree with melody painted through them. I wasn’t expecting much, six years on, but this has been a really, really pleasant surprise, especially given that it came out the same day as Neneh, Wild Beasts, and St. Vincent, and I expected this to be the runt of the litter.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense
There’s been lots of talk about this being brave and a change and a statement from various people – including the band themselves – and suggestion that they didn’t just want to produce Smother all over again (not that there’d be much wrong with that, as Smother is excellent, and moreish, and a grower). Which is fair enough; change is a good thing. Except that, to my ears, off half-a-dozen plays or more, this does, in many ways, just sound like… if not a repeat, than a logical progression and minor evolution, rather than a radical break or a revolution, from Smother. Which is also fine. Smother with synths, if you will. The sauciness is slightly more domesticated, perhaps.

There is not enough whooping, not enough drama, not enough noise, I’m tempted to think at times. It’s still beautiful and compelling, and they’re still wonderful, I’d just prefer it if, after the deeper one sings “the destroyer of worlds” at the centre of the album, the synths actually did rend and destroy, with a dramatic dynamic leap and edges of chaos, rather than just oscillate beautifully once again, albeit slightly ominously. I have absolute confidence that this will unfurl layer upon layer of sound and tune and interpretation over the next 12 months and beyond; I’d just prefer it if they’d taken some of the roiling chaos of latter day Talk Talk as well as the subtlety. (I’ve said it before and will again; everyone leaves out the chaos.)

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
Some context regarding creation: Neneh wrote the songs for this, and then sent the vocals – with nothing else at all – to Rocketnumbernine, who wrote the music around it. Kieron Hebden has been eager to explain via Twitter that he pretty much just pressed ‘record’, rather than ‘producing’ it in the way that, say, Timbaland might produce a Justin Timberlake record, despite people’s assumptions. Anyway, this is fabulous; vocals, drums, and synthesizers, with a really light, improvisational feel. Rocketnumbernine are ostensibly a jazz duo, in some ways, and given Hebden and Cherry’s involvement this spontaneity makes perfect sense. Wonderfully open sound, some great hooks, and just amazingly rewarding to listen to; the lyrics are darker than you might think, with several songs dealing quite bluntly with depression, and whilst Neneh sometimes relies on borderline cliché phrases, that fits the aesthetic perfectly. Brilliant.

Warpaint – Warpaint
I was baffled by a handful of reviews of this (part of the reason I can’t see much point in writing reviews – people do just hear things differently) which complained at a lack of hooks and tunes, talked about it meandering and grooving aimlessly in pejorative terms. Who the hell comes to Warpaint looking for a soaring chorus and a churning middle eight? Go to the Embrace album for that. Warpaint’s entire raison d’être is meandering, aimless grooves and subtle, barely-perceptible hooks; they’re brilliant at it. They’re like really early Verve stripped of Ashcroft’s ego and the squalling, post-shoegaze guitars.

Anyway, we saw them live a few weeks ago and I vaguely expected them to go full-on Grateful Dead, jamming everything out into 10-minute spectral hazes, but actually they played stuff incredibly tightly, almost exactly as it is on the albums. Which could seem pointless, if the sheer volume and physical weight of sound that live PAs are capable of didn’t make their groove an awesome experience. It also made me reconsider how I’ve got them mentally filed; they’re clearly not quite the ‘jam’ band I thought, and now I get the idea that their songs are highly taut, composed entities.

Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
More jazz; less rock-influenced and more in thrall to dance music, I guess, and minimalism. This is almost the opposite of the Melt Yourself Down record from last year (they share some personnel); where that was frenetic and chaotic and taut and hook-driven and rocky, this is loose and strung-out and sparse. I find it fascinating. Some of it gets close to drone, almost, and there’s a lot of playing around with space and rhythm. And, because it’s Polar Bear, there are tunes and melodies coming out of its ears even so. Marvellous.

Planningtorock – All Love’s Legal
I need more time with this; it seems a little one-dimensional in terms of tune and sonics compared to Shaking The Habitual, to which it is clearly related, although “Let’s Talk About Gender Baby” perhaps does everything that album tried in 80-odd minutes in just under four and a half.

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Fisher Price electronica. My first krautrock record; it tries a little bit of everything, settling on not quite anything. And a really bad, weird pun for a title. This is perfectly fine, but I’m not getting the hype, quite. The songy-songs are definitely better than the tracky-tracks, as it were; his reach exceeds his grasp as far as technical skills go thus far, but he has an ear for a tune. I’m intrigued to watch him develop.

St. Vincent – St. Vincent
All hook and no tune? Possibly, but that’s harsh. Certainly more direct and poppy than Strange Mercy, but I fear it won’t be as long-term rewarding as Actor, which was a fabulous grower. But time will tell. And right now, the weird, arty hooks and strange turns and over-processed percussion and weird, pseudo-lo-fi scratchy guitar sound of this are massively beguiling, because Annie Clark is a disgustingly talented musician, and listening to disgustingly talented people make music is great.

When you settled for less than I promised you

This band, they come around like a comet.

A couple of years ago I’d resigned myself to the fact that Embrace would never put out another record, and I was OK with that. I’d invested a lot in this band over the years – as well as time, money, and words I poured an almost obscene amount of hope and idealism into them – and I was OK that the adventure, which had some ups and downs like all adventures, had reached its denouement, and that there wasn’t really anything left worth saying or doing. Was there?

Evidently Embrace have spent the last eight years feeling like they had unfinished business. In fact, creatively they seem more fired up than ever. Like they’ve got something left to prove. Things unsaid, unexplained. Bad decisions that need exorcising from their consciences, from our memories.

Years ago Danny McNamara expressed the fear that he felt emotions less deeply than other people. Given that his band are known for being overtly emotional, this seems nuts. Embrace are about wearing your heart on your sleeve, even if it’s not appropriate, or sophisticated, or cool. Or the right heart. Or the right sleeve.

Their last album, although a commercial success, seemed to knock a degree of enthusiasm out of them; they didn’t seem happy with the process that created it or the end product, and although they got to play arenas and were within spitting distance of a number one single, it seemed like a place they weren’t entirely comfortable with. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

Embrace have always been at their best when they’ve retreated, like a wounded bear, and taken time and taken stock, before coming back refreshed and reinvigorated. Their best albums – their second, fourth, and now their sixth – all follow increasingly long lay-offs during which time they went silent; eighteen months, three and a half years, eight years. The third and fifth albums both tried to build on momentum and follow swiftly on from what came before, and neither worked. I don’t believe in creativity being some magical, fleeting thing; there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that yes, you can, if not force it, then charm it, coerce it, manage it, and harness it. But people work in different ways and that approach simply doesn’t suit some. Some people need to retreat. Some things take some time.

They’ve been away longer than The Beatles’ entire career lasted. What does it mean that they’ve taken this long to make a record; does it suggest that something is wrong? I can’t say; maybe something was. Or maybe life got in the way. I can think of plenty of other people who’ve taken as long, and longer, and come back as strong as they ever were – Portishead, Kate Bush, Scott Walker, Bark Psychosis – and in each case that’s fine. As far as I can tell, and I’m an unreliable narrator when it comes to this band, Rik’s basically spent eight years teaching himself how to make an album better than anything they’ve done before. It’s worked.

If nothing else, this prolonged absence proves that they’re in this for the right reasons (whatever they are); they’ve rolled with the punches, ridden out scenes and trends and hype and critical brickbats and come back, again and again, with music. They don’t know how to do anything else. They never moved to London or became a part of the machine, didn’t get programs on 6music or jobs in A&R or start their own record labels or fashion companies or go into acting or anything else. It seems that all they ever gave a shit about was making music and playing it to people. (It baffles and upsets me to this day that some people seem to despise them.)

My musical taste and sense of identity are less passionately interwoven now than they were when I was younger. Having this band, formerly such a strong part of my musical/identity intersection, one that’s given great pleasure and not inconsiderable disappointment, suddenly land back in my life, and in many ways finally be and do many of the things I hoped they would be and do half a lifetime ago, is difficult to deal with, to reconcile to, to understand.

Because seventeen years ago (half my lifetime, now) I set up an array of hopes and expectations for this band, things I wanted them to achieve – things that they seemed to promise, in the way that bands sometimes do – which were unrealistic, to say the least (and which could probably form the basis of a whole article about bands as brands, and the cognitive dissonance that occurs when fans perceive a band to have done something “off brand”). So I struggled with this record at first. Struggled with it quite a bit. There’s a lovely, if slightly strange, twitter account called A Single Bear, which tweeted this the other week: “How can I know what I think I have experienced is truly what I have experienced and not just what I wanted to experience?” Which is a sort of epistemological problem, at root. It’s also exactly how I felt about this record for about the first dozen listens.

The very first listen, about a month ago now, was about phenomenological confirmation: yes, this thing really exists; yes, it sounds really good; no, it doesn’t seem to have any glaring issues. Subsequent listens have been about slowly clarifying and piecing together what’s actually happening. I’ve held off from saying anything about it until I’ve been reasonably sure that it is what it is, and not what I want it to be (and also until I know that copies are out there for the press, so conversation can begin). As far as I can tell (and again, I am an unreliable narrator), what it is and what I want it to be are pretty close.

So what the hell is it actually like? To frame it reductively in the context of previous works, I might say it’s got the songs and drive and passion of their fourth, but it’s also got the creativity and energy and range of their second. But it’s not really like either of those two, or any of the others. Or maybe it’s like the last one, except completely without compromise in quality or approach. Or maybe it’s like I dreamed the first one would be all those years ago?

What’s definitely, defiantly still there is the emotional punch that defines this band. They’ve never been able to do cool detachment or minimalism. The thing that makes people love them is the way that, at their best, their songs punch you in the gut. Some people don’t get that, don’t like it, distrust emotional reactions. That’s OK; different things affect different people in different ways.

Ten years ago they released a b-side called “Too Many Times”, which was a roiling, raging thing with multiple drum kits and a bit of Fugazi’s DNA and a nod towards the tumbling rhythms and layers of Caribou (or Manitoba, as he was known then) in the intro. It was, and still is, one of my favourite things they’ve released, and it’s always saddened and frustrated me that the songs like this, the ones dripping with creativity as well as tune, weren’t necessarily the ones that other people got to hear, that they were hidden away.

But this time out they’ve synergised those creative elements completely with the songs. So this time we have big tunes that are catchy as hell and pack a huge emotional punch and, on top of that, they’re composed of brilliant mad shit; dark disco, nasty tech-rock wigouts, some kind of dubstep apocalypse thing at one point. A lot of drum machines, a lot of slashing guitars, a lot of synth chaos. It starts, confusingly, pleasingly, with a really addictive, satisfying electric pulse and house-y drum (machine) beat. None of this should actually be much of a surprise if you’ve paid attention over the years, and it feels entirely organic and natural, like they’ve been doing it for years; if you consider how long they’ve been making this record, they probably have. And there are plenty of pointers from earlier in their career; remixes, b-sides, uncomfortable mutterings in codas, pre-“Retread” descriptions of the band as Joy Division-esque.

Anyway, many years ago I had the pleasure of hearing an unreleased, extended version of “Too Many Times” which never saw the light of day. This extended version was identical but for a coda; an additional, unexpected key change and a whole extra, different chorus that surged in from nowhere and took the song in a brand new, wonderful direction. I thought it was probably the best chorus they’d written, and when it was edited out of the version released on the b-side of “Gravity” I was gutted. “We’re saving it” was the excuse; this wasn’t the right context, it needed a different song to make the most of it. I could kind of see what they meant. So I waited. But it didn’t end up on the next album or on any of the b-sides. And then Embrace vanished, and years went by, and I kind of assumed this secret chorus was lost to the ether, never to be heard by anyone, and I forgot about it. There are other missing songs like this that few people have heard; one that Aimee Mann was meant to record; one about being effortless; one recorded for the greatest hits compilation, which they made a video for but that got buried for various reasons. I’m sure every band has them.

The first time I played this new record, that brilliant, secret chorus suddenly burst out of the middle of the second song, and my tear ducts exploded. It was the weirdest sensation; instant familiarity, a surge of absolutely unexpected emotion that brought back feelings from a different time, a different life, but which also felt brand new. It was uncanny and euphoric at the same time. It knocked me for six. It’s amazing. And it’s not the thing I’m most excited about on this record. I’m excited about all of it, even after a lot of listens.

So. There are some big, glorious pop songs on this record, but they’re tinged with bitterness, regret, and obsession. There are moments of real savagery and disorientation, and of sublimation and blissful emptiness. There are moments of brittle emotional heft and clarity that will summon tears. And there are plenty of other moments that I don’t fully understand and can’t describe because they blur all these elements together. I won’t go into details too much, because why spoil the fun that’s on the horizon, but there’s a vocal line in one song where Danny hits a note that makes my heart break every time, and there’s a guitar line so delicate and fragile in another that it makes my eyes hurt, and in another there’s this ungodly, nasty, perpetual motion and chaos noise that wont stop until it obliterates itself. I feel like there are a dozen moments in every song that I’m addicted to and want to hear over and over again. Often drums. Or bass. Or electronics. But very often a melody, or a twist in a tune, or a feeling I’ve never felt before but feel like I remember.

I’ve come to distrust artists who don’t pay attention to how their records sound, to take that as a shorthand signifier of the fact that they don’t really care about what they’re doing or their audience. The sound of this record is meticulous without being fussy, the elements coalescing into something blisteringly exciting. It’s almost eccentrically dynamic at points; quiet moments collapse to practically nothing, while choruses surge and explode, and chorus like you haven’t heard anyone manage for a long, long time. It’s like they’ve rewritten a songwriting paradigm that people had forgotten.

It covers a lot of ground but it also hangs together very cohesively. There’s been talk about it being ‘dark’; certainly there’s a lot of desperation, obsession, and self-loathing on show in the lyrics; hyper-melodic songs that hide uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant sentiments. An awareness of bad patterns of behaviour and trying to break them, a fear of compulsive self-sabotage, of time wasted. If Rik’s spent eight years perfecting sonics then Danny might have spent eight years excoriating himself so he’s got something to write about. There’s a hint of redemption in some songs. In others there really isn’t.

There’s a theory that states that our brains work on two systems. System A is instinctive, animalistic, and emotional, governs things like the instinct to fight or flight. System B is the thinking, logical, reasoning, problem solving, intellectual part. Psychologists have done research (I’m a big fan of research; I work in higher education) and reckon we often make decisions with the inappropriate system sides of our brains. What’s the ‘appropriate’ side for listening to music? Is rational choice even relevant here?

My suspicion is that if rational choice gets involved to much, then you end up more defined by what you don’t like than what you do. And that seems pointless to me. But being defined by anything seems pointless to me; being recognised I can understand, signifiers as signposts, but not as limitations. ‘Brand’ is about identity: I am the type of person who listens to music like this; who dresses this way; who drinks this beverage; who goes to this university; who drives this car. But that’s not the extent of who I am. You can, and I do, like Embrace as well as jazz, and minimal techno, and pop music, and krautrock, and hip hop, and weird art drone, and postpunk, and electronica, and anything and everything else. And likewise Embrace can do pretty much anything and still be Embrace: and at times they have; those kazoos again.

Music doesn’t have to be a reaction to what came before. It either makes you feel something, or it doesn’t. Understanding why is useful – it can help you find other stuff that’ll make you feel something, and analysis for the sake of itself, in an autotelic way, is just a good thing – but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. You can’t always control emotional reactions, and, although it’s arguably what separates us from animals, it’s not always desirable to do so, anyway. Catharsis is a good and valuable thing; emotions are fun, and exhilarating. Not everything lends itself to ‘aesthetic contemplation’, and that’s fine; if I only listened to stuff that did that, I’d live a pretty ascetic musical life, and I’ve always been interested in soaking up as much as possible where music is concerned. Try everything twice, in case you get it wrong the first time.

I have no idea how this record is going to be received; I don’t even really understand how I’m receiving it at the moment. Part of me wants to collapse and say it’s epochal; part of me just wants to feel relief that it’s not dreadful. I think the truth lies somewhere in between, if there’s any truth at all; this is a really good record, full of really good songs, done really well. Really, really well. Does it justify all those hopes and expectations I had way back when, and all the bullshit in between? Of course not; nothing ever could. Who cares? It doesn’t matter.

The thing is, this doesn’t need to be my favourite record ever, or the best record ever, or my favourite record of this year, or Embrace’s best record, or anything else at all (and what do ‘favourite’ and ‘best’ mean, anyway?); it just needs to be good, to be worth listening to. And it is. Of course, it’s just a rock record, and I’m not sure what rock is or whether I care about it anymore in 2014; I didn’t think I did. But I am finding myself caring about this, even 30+ listens in, and awful lot, and getting a buzz and an emotional hit from it, over and over again.

So, crazily, unexpectedly, it probably is their best record. How did that happen? They went away and made it happen. Because there wasn’t any point in coming back if it wasn’t.

Oh, and about the actual songs? There’s more to come.

A few words on image, style, band-as-brand, and so on…

I was at a conference the other week all about marketing in HE, and one of the last plenaries started with someone playing “Anarchy in the UK”. They asked us if we knew why they were playing it (their stated reason was because UK HE is basically anarchy at the moment because of govt policy) and I was the only person to pipe up and say “because Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren are outstanding marketers”, and explain that everything I knew about branding and image and loyalty and emotional investment I knew from being into music and following bands.

So let’s tear up Embrace’s image and brand, for a moment.

Embrace’s (really) early image was pointedly of the ‘non-image’ school of thought – long-sleeve v-neck jumpers from Top Man, skatewear shoes, tatty jeans, long, greasy hair, massive corduroy coats – basically they looked like Ride, the complete antithesis of Britpop. (Actually, their ‘really’ early image, way before then, was that they were a bunch of post-Bunnymen goths. Well, they are from near Leeds.) What the semiotician derives from this early image is the message that “we know we look shit but we don’t care; we’re about the music and nothing else matters”, but it’s a little more complex than that; they were mocked for looking rubbish in some areas, and Danny has said, with more than a hint of hurt, that they literally couldn’t afford to dress any better. (Danny clearly got an expensive shirt at one point that he then wore all the time.) I actually really liked this phase of how they looked; it was pretty much how I dressed, it made them feel like a gang, and it made them seem as if they were outside fashion and trends. All of these things appealed.

In comparison at the time you had Jason Pierce wearing a spacesuit; Paul Weller dressed like a 60s Carnaby Street dandy; Noel Gallagher looking like a man from Stockport who owned a race horse and a pub (all signet rings and suede jackets); Blur in their Adidas and Fred Perry and bead necklaces; Elastica in all-black skinny jeans; Richard Ashcroft wearing a pair of Wallabies and a leather jacket over a denim jacket; Keith from Prodigy with his chaotic clown make-up. Embrace, by contrast, dressed like one of the ‘faceless techno duos’ I was so enamoured with back then.

Then there were the EP covers; stock photography of American youths in the 70s, gangs of street kids hanging out, climbing fences, the band not appearing on the cover of one of their own records until the album, which, of course, was shot in New York, and clearly went for that same kind of vibe, but just missed it ever so slightly.

Obviously there’s more to branding than just the band’s image, clothes, and record sleeves, though; there are musical signifiers which represent what a band is (and/or isn’t too, obviously). For Embrace these early musical signifiers, to me, included big choruses, brass (far more so than strings), loud guitars, ba-ba-ba backing vocals, middle eights that took the tune to somewhere new, a disorienting juxtaposition between loud, fast rock numbers and incredibly delicate, slow, sad numbers, and a post-acid-house sense of communality. Oh, and very long song titles.

Embrace’s early brand was also a lot to do with the music they talked about, which functioned as aspirational pointers; wannabe ‘strategic partners’ almost. I’ve always loved mining interviews for ‘influences’ (yes, I know it’s a problematic word), and Embrace’s early name checks were awesome; Sly & The Family Stone, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Beastie Boys, My Bloody Valentine, Elvis, Prodigy; they gave me a huge amount of background listening that helped build expectations, like a manifesto or, you guessed it, brand handbook.

Emotionally there was, to quote Danny, “a ‘Made It Through The Rain’ vibe”, a sense that bad things had hit you but that you’d overcome them. We know now that this was post-traumatic stress disorder, in Danny’s case, and that, emerging on the other side of it, writing the debut album, he was “hearing orchestras everywhere” and trying to squeeze this massiveness and colour into their music. This all amounted to a sense of forward momentum, of leaving the past behind; which is why “Come Back To What You Know”, i.e. a song exhorting some kind of retrogressive safety, felt off-brand to me. When it became their biggest radio hit, it altered the brand perception massively in the eyes and ears of the public. And how people perceive you is as much your brand as how you perceive yourself. Probably more so.

By the second album it was all dreadlocks, organ solos, bright t-shirts, kazoos, and unconscionably baggy trousers; the whole thing, image and music, was attempting to go dayglo and psychedelic, and almost getting there (if it failed it’s because, bar Steve’s acid flashbacks, Embrace have never had any truck with [illegal] pharmaceuticals; beta-blockers are a whole other story, though). Just look at the album and single covers – they documented a literal journey from black & white into technicolour, and while the band are still on the cover, it’s a drawing of them; figurative, expressionistic. At the time it felt exciting, like a prolonged party, a discovery, an epiphany, a realisation that you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, and it’s OK, because life is about change. A rebranding exercise, if you like.

The third album continued the dress sense pretty much (of course; it followed so quickly on) but with the colours muted, the mood toned down. Vaguely moody, atmospheric photography of the band in rural landscapes replaced the drawings and lurid colours on the covers. What did it mean? It felt less fun, but it didn’t seem like a conscious, deliberate move, more an evolution born of necessity and lack of space (or perceived need?) for reinvention. Musically it felt like a muted version of the second album, too; plenty of richness in terms of instrumentation, but the eccentricity knocked out, and the big choruses, when they appeared, felt half-hearted.

The fourth album, after years away and signing to a new label, very clearly saw the band’s image worked over by a stylist; these didn’t look quite like the clothes they would have chosen themselves; haircuts, while still long for some of the band (but never the drummer) looked more expensive, as if ‘product’ was involved (in my day we used to call it ‘gel’). Leather jackets, designer labels, stylised and pointedly professionally lit photography inside the sleeve, an abstract-ish cover photo that is of the band, but not at first glance (and, ahem, they’re ‘embracing’).

Musically, though, they felt galvanised, as if they’d codified their brand-book, as it were; Rik said as much to me during an interview; “songs; guitar; stuff” he explained, as a sliding-scale of significance in their sound. So the big choruses were back, with a vengeance, as were the crashing riffs and chords. That juxtaposition between fast numbers and slow numbers wasn’t though, and tempos instead edged closer together, resulting in a morass of mid-pacedness. (Still faster than the third album though.)

(An aside. The b-sides compilation, which I love and had the pleasure of writing the sleevenotes for, irritates me slightly because the font is wrong for the title and the band’s name; instead of being Arial Bold it’s Arial in bold, or vice versa, or something. Either way it’s not quite right. This is an example of disconnected record companies – it was released by EMI following their merger with Virgin / Hut, rather than Independiente, making for a gap between artist and label – not understanding how important a band’s visual branding and legacy is; because it’s ever so slightly wrong, it feels ever so slightly like a bootleg or an unofficial release, even though the photography and layout works hard to stay on-brand. Such simple little inconsistencies. I bet most people never consciously notice, though.)

The fifth album, like the third, followed on so quickly that little changed; the wardrobe got refreshed, but stylistically things were very similar. Given the timescales (and comments from Rik about tax years) it seems as though they were driven and marched by Independiente far harder and more stringently than they ever when they were signed to a major label; I get the idea they were seen as something of a cash cow by Andy MacDonald. (Notably Independiente have released no music by anyone since 2009, and, now Embrace have signed to Cooking Vinyl, they have no one currently on their roster.)

Fast-forward to now, and Steve wearing a Cardiacs t-shirt, Danny a streak of piss in skinny jeans, Rik in Dr Martens, and the rest of the band looking sombre, and, yes, a little goth; the aesthetic is somewhere between those very early days and the stylist-era. The graffiti’d front cover of “Refugees” is radically different from anything else they’ve released, whilst the back cover is almost Hieronymus Bosch or Chapman Brothers-esque; a mass of writhing, scribbled, gothic bodies. And then the eponymous album cover; a scrawled white tally on a black background that looks more like something from the Ian MacKaye Embrace; what does it mean? Does it represent, figuratively, the band again, the five of them still together, more than 20 years since they formed? I don’t know. Time may tell. But it certainly looks a bit goth. And musically? Well, that’s still to come, almost.

So Embrace, like all bands, are (or have) a ‘brand’; ‘brand’ is an unpleasant, late-capitalist term to use for it. You could say ‘identity’ or ‘self’ or ‘character’; ‘brand’ is just the term i have in my professional toolkit from my day-job. It’s something existential; the interface between how a band projects themselves and how fans perceive them.

The problem with brands, of course, is that we look to them for stability, to an extent, in an inherently unstable world (someone somewhere has probably written a PhD thesis on brands as manifestation of the desire for immortality in the face of death). But the things that make up brands – that’s people, in case you didn’t realise (which is the same thing that makes up bands, of course) – are inherently volatile and given to change. And bands are even more volatile than that. And don’t tend to have brand handbooks or manifestos (well, some of them have manifestos) providing guiding principles and keeping them on the straight and narrow, and preventing the kinds of off-brand activity (kazoo solos; songs written by the guy from Coldplay; dub remixes; football songs) that can and do cause fans cognitive dissonance.

Inspiration for this post comes from BB’s brilliant “Image bands” thread over at ILM.

Missing pieces


Never do anybody a favour? No, that’s a crap motto. And you can’t just do things you ‘believe’ in, either, because how do you ever find out what you believe in, in the first place? And what’s ‘belief’ anyway?

Once upon a time – I forget exactly when but I think it was summer or autumn 2005, and it was in Leeds, or London (a large city, anyway) – I was sitting in a hotel room for a spare couple of hours, and someone gave me an iPod with a load of songs on it. So I listened to them. They were rough – not fully mixed, rather than amateurish – and some of them didn’t have vocals yet, but they were amazing; alive, and unpredictable, and creative, but still loaded with melody and tune. Some were savage and exciting, and others were outrageously direct and poppy.

One of these tracks was called “Mountain Song”, and it was probably my favourite. It started small, with a strange, shlucka-shlucka guitar riff working in one channel, and it grew and grew and grew, and grew some more, somehow avoiding obviousness and cliché along the way. It had no lyrics at this point; no vocals at all. That growth never pushed over the crest into bombast, if I recall correctly; it edged into and remained within tension but never collapsed into release. It was wonderful.

Nearly a year later it was retitled “World At Your Feet” and released as the official single for England’s World Cup campaign. And it was… lackluster. Not unlike England’s performance at that World Cup. Oh the utter inevitability of it.

(Why does the England team need an ‘official single’ anyway? Wouldn’t tactics be more helpful?)

Some context. Steve is the only member of Embrace who actively gives a damn about football; I know this because I asked them back in 1997. They didn’t apply to do the England song; they were asked, and they likewise didn’t write a song especially for it; they adapted one they had leftover from the album sessions. Danny, not knowing or caring about football at all, got Tony, the band’s manager, to help him write parts of the lyric in order to make it obliquely interpretable as being about football. Rik, unhappy with the way This New Day was mixed and mastered, made sure that at least “World At Your Feet” had more air and life in it than “No Use Crying” (which is a great pop song ruined by airless mixing; and lyrically would have been more appropriate as an England song anyway, given the inevitable tears; “Target” would not have been).

Straight away I thought doing a football single it was a bad idea, which is probably why I never wrote anything about it, the accompanying b-sides, or the two singles that followed it and their b-sides, even though those b-sides ended up being more interesting than most of the stuff that made the album, if only because they weren’t so badly mixed and so loudly, shrilly mastered.

I probably only listened to “World At Your Feet” half a dozen times. It felt tired, and wrong, and uncomfortable somehow. A bad decision. Everybody makes them.

But there’s a silver lining, because “Love Order” and “Whatever It Takes”, which accompanied the CD release, are great songs; the former a lavishly-stringed pseudo-disco number, named in tribute to New Order, the latter a strung-out bait-and-switch number that hints at euphoria but actually delivers complete despair. Together, as a pair, they’re amongst the very best b-sides this band have done; if you took them along with the likes of “Flaming Red Hair”, “Madelaine”, “Feels Like Glue”, and “Too May Times”, you’d be able to piece together an album that smashes This New Day into tiny pieces.

To me, “Love Order” is a classic ‘should’ve been an a-side’ b-side, with its sweeping intro and campy, dramatic string stabs. The groove is tight and lithe, decorated with little colourations of synth and other electronics underneath and to the sides of the prominent string riff. Rik plays a weird, non-solo guitar break that shouldn’t work but does. I’m gutted that “Love Order” came too late to get on Dry Kids, but, as with a handful of other b-sides from across both Out Of Nothing and This New Day, faintly glad it didn’t get on the album it accompanied, because the b-sides all sounded better. With hindsight, it points the way slightly towards where the band are now.

“Whatever It Takes” is a strange, oddly structured beast. It starts small, with low-key mumbling and ambience; it’s a minute before the tune proper begins, three minutes before a drum hits (and when they do it’s as part of a taut, unsettling pulse). The vocal from Danny is faintly ominous and questioning to start; the whole song is a series of questions and false promises. The chorus, which emerges more than four minutes in, and seemingly from an entirely different place to the rest of the tune, is an enormous, gospel-esque effort that promises euphoria; a mass of voices asking, “how does it feel to be loved?” But then comes the switch. “I don’t know”, is the response, and it’s sung with such heart-rending desperation that you worry for the singer. It’s monstrous, huge, unhappy, and wonderful.

There were a handful of other b-sides from “Target” and “World At Your Feet”, some of which I don’t really remember (“What Lies Behind Us”, “Run Away”), and some of which were enjoyable dirty rock moments – “Just Admit It”, “Thank God You Were Mean To Me” – one of which is notable for a filthy, bleeped-out lyric and an extravagant, reverberant guitar sound. Another tune, “One Luck”, did something similar to “Whatever It Takes” by riding a strange chorus atop an awkward groove, but with far less emotional clout.

And then there were the pair of b-sides that accompanied “I Can’t Come Down” (the only Embrace single, apart from the too-limited-to-chart “All You Good Good People” 7inch to fail to hit the top 40; that fact that it stalled at 54 made it feel as if the game was up); two live recordings of otherwise unreleased songs. I remember a discussion in an aesthetics lecture about what the ‘essence’ of a piece of music was, the thing that captures the spirit and gets passed down, and a vague conclusion that different kinds of music had different essences: for classical it would be the score; for jazz it would be the live performance (captured on tape, most probably); and for rock and pop (and the various subgenres thereof, from soul to dance to hip hop and beyond) it would be the studio recording, replete with production touches, mixing, mastering et al.

Of course, this is a vaguely reductive conclusion that fails to deal with some things – fusion jazz, modern minimalist classical, the performative aspects of hip-hop like breakdancing – but it made a certain amount of sense to me, as someone who bought in fully to the concept of ‘Platonic essences’, as a useful foundation point. It’s why I care so much about the records, and how they sound – in twenty years they’ll be all we have left, and it won’t matter how good you were live or whatever. They’re your music’s legacy.

So what does it mean when a ‘rock’ song exists only, in the public sphere, as a live recording, replete with crowd noise and the odd missed note? History is littered with examples (many courtesy of Neil Young, plus the entirety of Kick Out The Jams, various James Brown tunes, etc etc), so it’s not that rare, but it does feel strange, unusual, and faintly intangible.

Of course, both these Embrace songs have been recorded in the studio, and I heard studio versions of both of them in that hotel room. “Contender” (“pop metal”, according to Rik) existed in several forms, some organic and punky, emphasis on the guitars and drums, and other versions electronic and chaotic, all drum machines and crazed organ riffs. I loved all of them, and didn’t know which I wanted to eventually emerge. Inevitably the live version that did emerge is all of those different versions and none of them; crazy organ riffs, guitar chaos, the most amazing, insistent bassline, a groove loaded with momentum that seems purpose built to move large groups of people. I’d love to hear a studio version again, but suspect from talking to Rik that we never will.

Likewise I doubt we’ll ever hear anything but the live version of “Heart & Soul”. I vaguely recall the studio version feeling elongated and layered, like a piece of techno, synth melodies building and building. The live version includes a chaotic, almost-jazz-y breakdown as the tune tries to dismantle itself, which I found incredibly exciting. Maybe there’ll be a rareties box one day, a way for people to hear “Effortless Now” and “Fear Fighter” and all those other missing pieces that I’ve caught glimpses of over the years. Except that in some ways we have heard those missing pieces, because they often end up being recycled, filtering into future material so that, even if we don’t know them on their own terms, we can feel their influence. There are rippling future echoes of some of them, and of the likes of “Contender” and “Heart & Soul”, in the band’s new material. And that might be enough.

Refugees EP

refugees-ep-digital-packshot-1024x1024Despite misconception on behalf of some, Embrace were never a Britpop band. In fact, twenty-odd years ago when they started out, they were a dodgy goth band, sort of.

Seriously. Way back when – pre-“Retread” being written – Embrace were a miserable, moping, typically northern post-punk band, of the type that’s seemingly been back in fashion since Interpol et al repopularised wearing black and singing doomily a dozen years ago or more. By the mid-90s, though, Embrace had had a soul music epiphany, become communicative, communal, painted the dark edges into the corners and left those influences behind somewhere.

If you don’t believe me, look up an ancient demo they recorded in 1993, which contains three songs – “Say It With Bombs”, “Overflowing”, and “Sooner Than You Think” – that owe more than a little debt to the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division, and The Chameleons. And then listen to this new EP, which is both the past and future of the band, tied together to make the present.

“Refugees” itself is so comically dynamic that they had to do a second master of it for radio, TV, and YouTube; the opening drum machine disquietingly distant, so as to make the sudden rush into the chorus all the more affecting. Understandably this pleases me no end. There’s been some chatter about Rik’s vocals in the first verse, but that’s not Autotune, as far as my ears can tell; it’s an effect – as much performative as electronic – applied for aesthetic reasons, to create a deliberate mood – specifically one of alienation and fantasy. The fact that it masks who the song is by initially is an added bonus, adding to the sense of weird familiarity later on when Danny comes to the microphone.

“Refugees” is about escape: from a town; a culture; a political mood that’s infecting an entire country. It’s about feeling like you don’t belong, and finding a way to extricate yourself. Or at least it is while Rik’s singing; when Danny becomes the calm centre of proceedings during the final middle-eight and electronic breakdown, the song changes, and becomes about Embrace’s return from the wilderness – “when you settled for less than I promised you / knowing that all of our barrels were scraped” acting as some kind of apology to fans who were left bewildered when the band just disappeared after that last tour and single. Which is why this was the perfect choice as comeback – as well as being a great tune, it builds a meta-narrative, comments upon the bands return.

Even more than the lyrics, though, the sound of “Refugees” is about escape. From streaming the more compressed version with the video I was worried it might just be identikit indie-electro that the likes of Friendly Fires and Delphic have pushed over the last few years, but the bones of the song beneath the aesthetic have Embrace’s DNA run straight through it – the surging chorus, the middle eight that takes the tune somewhere different.

And that arrangement and instrumentation, especially that distant drum machine and the middle-eight, with its pizzicato synth-string stabs, distorted vocals, glitchy details and swirling layers, are as much an epiphany as “Hooligan” was all those years ago; the realization that you can change your voice and still be true to your essence. There’s a real care in the way elements are mixed and layered together to create a rich, almost synaesthetic experience, which says to me that this isn’t a token gesture or desperate reaching for something ‘new’; it’s something genuine and deliberate. It’s that breakdown, and the vocal from Danny that follows, that makes the song complete, that makes it feel like both a homecoming and a breaching of new ground.

And so those other three songs, which despite being new, somehow seem to represent that past. Danny has said that it feels as if the band have come full-circle back to their original set of influences – Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, early U2 – and this is where it most sounds like it.

“Chameleon” definitely has something dark, faintly goth-y and 80s about it, in the stabbing, ominous strings and disquieting electronic murmurations and faintly sneered, self-lacerating chorus. You could read the lyric “I will crowbar all I’m worth” as perhaps referencing back to “Blind” and “Dry Kids”; Danny’s always played with repeating lyrics from song to song. The bass and drums, when they arrive, are harsh and physical, jabbing you in the gut and taking the song up a notch or two of drama than was suggested by the subdued opening. The bass, in particular, is like gunshots.

Like “Refugees”, “Decades” is also about escape. Or more accurately, about being imprisoned, and unable to escape. Get a load of the insistent, rumbling bass, the lyrics about being “boarded up from the outside”, “four to a cell”, and the spectral, post-punky guitar tone; not ‘angular’ but ghostly, the tone that lead indirectly from post punk to shoegaze (and remember that a stated aim way back when was to be “My Bloody Valentine with an orchestra”). It might be about confinement paranoia, a result of locking yourself in a studio for years on end and bloodymindedly refusing to leave until you’ve got to a certain, almost indefinable place. The opening riff is great, but it’s the glorious, swirling, surging chorus that keeps me coming back; even though it’s about feeling trapped it’s somehow euphoric.

Musically it’s actually very close to those ancient demos from 1993 in some ways, but without quite being a heritage reconstruction, either of that period in the band’s career or the influences that bled so strongly through what they were doing back then (when Danny really was singing a lot like Ian McCulloch). Twenty years later, despite the ground they’ve covered – and from “One Big Family” to “Hooligan” to “Satellites” to “Ashes” to “A Thief On My Island” it’s a lot of ground – they have their own character and essence, and that essence is identifiable even if the tools they use to express it vary. So it might sound a little like The Mission or The Chameleons, but mostly it sounds like Embrace.

“Bullets” completes the trio of non-album tracks on the EP in hushed, faintly sinister tones; the lyric could be read as being lovely or creepy depending on your point of view. It’s the most delicate of the new songs, but still retains a degree of physicality, knuckles beneath the sentiment. To be honest, I’m not that excited with these b-sides the way I have been with previous crops. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, mind; they’re three very strong songs, I like them a lot, and would count them without hesitation amongst the best b-sides this band has ever done. It’s just that I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s coming, and I’m far more excited about that.

On vinyl vs CD (again)

People say some bloody silly things about vinyl.

Take this guy, who taught his 13-year-old son the “sheer joy of listening to vinyl” via the medium of Cameron Crowe’s bullshit rose-tinted rock-mythology nostalgia-fest, Almost Famous.

The particular scene Nostalgia Dad bangs on about – “when the young aspiring music journalist has his mind set free by his older sister, who leaves him her LP collection under his bed when she leaves home” – isn’t actually about vinyl; it’s about music, and adolescence, and family, and missing someone, and a million other things. The fact that the music is on vinyl is a chronological accident because the film is set in the 70s, and is about as important to the emotional impact as the fact that the bedspread is made of polyester.

I could get angry and swear at Nostalgia Dad – for describing Miles Davis and Art Blakey as “cats”; for teaching his son that his father’s adolescent experiences are more valid than going out and forming his own; for making his son listen to Dire Straits and Dark Side Of The Moon; for confusing mythology and nonsense with significance and lived reality – but I’ve already written a ranty, opinion-spouting thinkpiece about the whole mythology side of the vinyl-vs-CD debate, so instead I’m going to gather some actual evidence and make a reasoned argument with supporting quotes from people who know far more about vinyl and CD as formats than I do. Because you can quote Henry Rollins waxing nonsense about “the sublime state of solitude”, or you can quote the guy from Pere Ubu stating that vinyl distortion is “NOT what we wanted” and link to him explaining exactly why.

Because, frankly, there have been a raft of blog posts, puff pieces and shitty listicles this year telling me how great vinyl is, and none of them have contained any evidence whatsoever beyond borderline solipsistic pontification. “Vinyl’s great! It’s really warm! You can hold it! The artwork’s really big! You can skin up on it!” This is post-blog writing at it’s worst, the kind of navel-gazing that we’re in increasing danger of mistaking for journalism (and increasingly replacing journalism with), where all you need is an opinion and a feeling and a few people to click ‘like’ or ‘share’ to give that opinion instant validation, even if it’s based on nothing at all.

Take that Buzzfeed piece (sorry Matt; I know it’s your job and fully understand why pieces like this have to live alongside the proper stuff); half the things it posits as being great about vinyl are dreadful things that I hate (surface noise; crate-digging; super-specific genre names in independent record shops that act as obfuscating gatekeepers rather than navigation aids), and the other half are completely incidental and can be ‘enjoyed’ with CDs (amazing set of speakers; sorting things alphabetically; supporting local independent shops; meeting someone cute while browsing). Neither Nostalgia Dad nor Fetish Hipster substantiates any of their proclamations with evidence, research, or fact; they just make vague claims and allusions and presuppose that the weight of rock mythology will carry them aloft. Well I hate rock mythology and I pretty much always have.

Some context.

A few months ago I pitched a feature idea to NME about the relative merits of vinyl and CD, with specific focus on the negative side-effects that the current resurgence in vinyl sales is having. Dan Stubbs, NME’s news editor, said yes, and commissioned 600 words from me on the subject, which got published a couple of months ago. Sadly, Dan and NME have style and deadlines and readership and publishers to think of, and 600 words weren’t really sufficient to explore this massive, divisive, and hearsay-riddled topic, and I had many, many thoughts, quotes, and pieces of evidence left over, so I’m going to use them here.

One of the main thrusts of my NME piece was essentially that demand for vinyl is outstripping supply, vinyl pressing plants being unable to press vinyl as quickly as they used to in the past, because no new vinyl pressing machines have been manufactured since 1981; so the industry is relying on old machines. Poor technology + increased demand = falling quality. Vinyl gets used as a marketing hook, and has become a signifier of a premium product, promising you more than CD; the elusive experience that so few people seem to be able to qualify or quantify properly. It’s priced, packaged, and sold correspondingly, but it’s often not actually fit for the purpose it’s meant to be for; at least not as fit as it ought to be for the premium. Remember that the redemptive obverse of a record is to play music, not to look good on a shelf.

So here’s Steve Albini on the merits and demerits of clear, black, and coloured vinyl at The Quietus; scroll down to the penultimate answer, which starts with: “There’s a theoretical point there, which is that polyvinyl chloride is colourless, so if you’re adding something to it to colour it, then you’re changing the chemistry of it slightly, and that has potential to make it sound not as good by having inclusions.” The conclusion? New coloured vinyl probably sounds like crap most of the time, and is a gimmick, a piece of ‘added value’ designed to make you buy a record on one format rather than another (i.e. to buy it at all, rather than download it for free). Records for looking at, rather than listening to.

But Albini’s got no beef with vinyl as a format if it’s done properly, and that’s fair enough. Some people do, though. This is what David Thomas of Pere Ubu has to say about some technical myths regarding vinyl on his website:“The putative ‘warmth’ of vinyl is another one of those mass-hysteria hoaxes that the human race is prone to. ‘Vinyl warmth’ is not some semi-mystical, undefinable phenomenon. There is actually a technical term that audio engineers have for what you are hearing – it is called distortion. The bottom end is distorting. Now, distortion is a valuable audio tool, and an Ubu favorite, but only when the distortion is distortion we choose. You may like the phenomenon but it is NOT what we wanted and it is NOT what we heard in the studio.”

Which seems to contradict what some people claim regarding vinyl being closer in sound to the master tape than CD is. David Thomas isn’t the only person to think so; here’s what David Brewis from Field Music said to me via Twitter the other day: “When we’re putting records together, I have to steel myself for the deficiencies inherent to the vinyl pressings, even though I enjoy those same deficiencies in other people’s records – especially when combined with the ‘sit and listen’ element.” So vinyl is deficient, isn’t the sound people hear in the recording studio, and isn’t necessarily how they want you to hear their records, even if it can be enjoyable.

Michael Jones, much-loved ILX poster who works in digital media somewhere, and who co-engineered The Clientele’s lovely debut album, The Violet Hour, and mastered a bunch of Matinee comps for CD, dropped some serious science on ILX a decade ago, regarding the myths and misunderstandings about what CD and vinyl each bring to the table, from relative resolution and sample rates to analogue waveform reproduction and the happy euphonic accidents that David Brewis alluded to. Highlights and key points include (questions Jonesy’s responding to in italics; his answers in quotation marks; my emphasis in bold):

are you saying that 24/96k can rival the resolution in the grain of good vinyl? (I realise it’s not really comparable and that there are many other factors involved)
“Well, what is the resolution of good vinyl? In information theory terms (resolution = dynamic range x bandwidth), vinyl is miles behind – not even very close to 16/44.1k. It’s a mistake to think that an analogue system is inherently more ‘natural’, or has more detail. Every recording and replay system has its limitations.”

Do circuits exist that can provide a smooth (actually analogue) interpolation between the x levels available in a digital recording? Do good digital players do this?
“*All* digital equipment does this. There are no gaps or stair-steps in the sound – a continuous analogue waveform is reconstructed from the sampled info. The Nyquist theorem states that we only need sample a waveform at at least twice the highest frequency within that waveform to gather a complete record of the data. Now, bandwidth-limiting a musical signal to just above the upper limit of adult human hearing may produce its own set of problems, but we can be sure that the subsequent sampling doesn’t chuck anything *else* away.

“The fixed number of amplitude levels associated with digital means a limit to how small successive changes in the amplitude can be – but with analogue and its greater associated self-noise, the limits are even more restrictive. The noise obscures anything smaller than itself. So there’s *less* resolution in the amplitude domain with analogue despite it being a continuous system.

Is this one reason that LPs can sound better?
“There are lots of artefacts associated with vinyl replay which don’t completely go away with even the most exotic turntables or pristine pressings. Happily, many of these artefacts are euphonic – phase anomalies magically expanding the stereo image, tonearm resonance warming up the mid-range, HF roll-off giving that silky tone. It’s more of a case of what vinyl adds to reproduction, than what CD omits. Beyond that it’s a matter of preference.”

Why not watch him say some of this stuff in person on Youtube? The ‘closer to the master tape’ fallacy gets mentioned here, too.

You can also read the Hydrogen Audio FAQ he linked me to when I asked him for a quote for the NME piece.

Graham Sutton is my usual go-to record producer and technical guy when I need a quote about dynamic range compression or distortion. Sadly he was out of the country working when I wrote the NME piece, but here’s a quote from an interview I did with him a few months ago which has some serious relevance here: “As an aesthetic, for the sort of music I’m involved in making, I also find I don’t like the sound of tape. I don’t want the medium to sonically alter what I’m hearing, I want a linear response and I don’t like hiss. I think part of why digital gets a bad rap is because engineers early on tried to apply the same tape-based tricks to digital without really using their ears, and things came out excessively bright and hard as a result. There’s also a sentimental attachment in the ‘rock’ world, bordering on elitism, to analogue – the smell of tape and the love of big old dusty machines – that just isn’t there in many other areas of music, for example classical, jazz, EDM, broadcasting, film, where this debate ended a long time ago.”

So love of analogue warmth seems like it might be a rockist hangover, a comfort-blanket for an industry, which, 40 years ago, was forward thinking, and cutting edge, but which is now retrogressive and paranoid and faltering. Looking through the records I’ve bought and enjoyed in 2013, and there’s notably less and less ‘rock’ (and pop and associated genres or whatever) and more and more electronica, jazz, avant-garde, whatever-you-want-to-call it. This has been an increasing trend in my tastes for quite a while now.

If you really wanted, you could visit the Steve Hoffman forums and get involved in some of the ranty exchanges that the vinyl-vs-CD debate regularly inspires over there. Neither side comes out looking particularly good though, and it’s very easy to descend down the audiophilia wormhole, which I’ve got no interest in.

A few years ago I got really into headphones and spent far too long (and far too much money) on Head-Fi, where I noticed that people would describe Sennheiser headphones as being ‘veiled’ in terms of sound; i.e. that the sound signature was dark, obscuring detail a little via a thin layer of distortion or lack of focus. This description is how I hear vinyl, pretty much; as if someone is holding a layer of net curtain between the speakers and my ears, which takes away clarity and space, stops me fully getting a hold on individual sonic details. For me a lot of the magic of recorded sound is how psychedelic and otherworldly and magical it can be, and clarity is a big part of that. Mythology isn’t, and though I like the fact that we have shelves full of CDs and I have to pull them out and put them on one at a time in a CD player, that’s less about ritual and mythology than it is about convenience and concentration and not feeling like a data-entry temp.

Here’s another shitty listicle by Matt, except that this one isn’t shitty, and actually talks some sense, in that it admits that a huge amount of vinyl fandom is about aesthetics and lifestyle and not about sound quality.

So I guess I am saying that CD is better than vinyl, in terms of cold, hard, technical, objectively measurable factors like dynamic range, frequency response, and resolution, but that’s not really the key point here: the main thing is that I prefer it; it suits how and why I listen much better than anything else. Vinyl sounds different, and if you prefer it, that’s fine, just don’t tell me, sans evidence, that it’s “better”. Because it isn’t.

(While we’re at it, let’s not conflate and confuse the terms ‘vinyl’ and ‘record’ anymore: ‘vinyl’ is the format, the medium; ‘record’ is short for ‘recording’, and is the content delivered by the format. My ‘record collection’ is mostly on CD, which is how I like it.)

Post-script
A few people have asked me why I don’t just listen to MP3s (or any other digital file type). The answer is quite simple: I’d rather browse shelves than databases when choosing what record to listen to. Accessing and maintaining a digital music collection mostly makes me feel like a data entry temp. I used to look after library databases for a living. I’d rather not do it for my hobby.

It’s also been suggested that I’m the only person banging on about this debate and that no one else cares. That may be so, but I get sent a lot of links to articles, lists, and opinion pieces about how great and magical vinyl is (and occasionally about its actual merits as a format). In addition to the pieces linked in the original piece, here are some more things that people have written about vinyl over the last few years, some of them stupid, some of them sensible.

“Vinyl, they say, just sounds better, warmer, more immediate than digital.”

A whole radio show devoted to vinyl mythologizing.

A sensible piece by Graham Jones.

Over-pricing for packaging and ‘feel’, rather than sonic benefits.

“Vinyl-only” New Year’s Day; on a digital-only radio station.

Mark Richardson talking sense at Pitchfork.

Another Steve Hoffman debate.

Do records really sound warmer than CDs?

“We tried an A and B test with some vinyl freaks and found that they could not really tell the difference but they still genuinely swore that vinyl was the king.”

Top ten reasons why vinyl sounds better than digital. Particularly check out point 6, which is so unbelieveably wrong-headed and loaded that it makes me actually angry. “The quality [of vinyl] is incomparable as each groove contains every intended detail captured holistically, every frequency shift perceived.” Just nonsense. Never mind points 5 and 4.

Sense from a mastering engineer. Even if he does like Dark Side Of The Moon.

At least this guy knows he’s semi-coherent.

“I am sure I know absolutely nothing about how it all works and why, but the one thing I know for certain though is that music sounds better on vinyl.”

Reddit gets in on it.

£2,500 vinyl records. Insanity.

Here’s another quote from Graham Sutton, which he posted on Facebook yesterday in a conversation about the original piece: “I hope you guys realise that almost all vinyl cuts (with a couple of notable exceptions) for the last few decades have passed through a digital delay via A-D-A converters, as a last safety stage before hitting the cutting lathe head, regardless of the analogyness or otherwise of the Master medium, or indeed whether the sequencing had been assembled on Sadie or whatever.

“If you like your music with added distortion that you find pleasing then great, but for anything else this argument is bunk. Vinyl has so many technical limitations it ain’t true.”

And that’s enough for now.

Not albums of 2013


Of course the full ‘story’ of 2013 musically, as far as I’m concerned, involves a lot more than just the twenty albums in my last post. There are several other categories of records beyond albums newly released this year, and which I liked enough to include in that list, that made up my musical year. Hark at me, using terms like ‘musical year’. These are those, roughly divided into some sort of taxonomy.

Compilations etc

Archivists are under-valued in this country, perhaps. By me, certainly, probably because I worked in a library for five years, so I’m kicking against something. Anyway, I’m not really one for compilations, as a rule (because I’m such a dreadful rockist, probably), but I’m coming to appreciate them more as I get older, especially well-curated ones. These are three new ones I bought this year.

Deutsche Elektronische Musik 2
I still can’t deal with the proggy, folky ones, but the swirly, metronomic stuff and the crazy, rocky stuff is outstanding. Luckily there’s considerably more of the latter two types, especially the swirly, metronomic stuff. This is every bit as well put together as the first volume from a couple of years ago. Brilliant. (It’s krautrock, if the title didn’t give it away.)

I Am The Centre
The term ‘new age music’ makes you feel a bit sick in your mouth if you’ve bought into any kind of post-punk counter-cultural indie bullshit philosophy, but, honestly, what’s more ‘punk’ in spirit than this bunch of fucking crazy hippies making music to revolutionise your inner spirit to? I can’t think of much that’s more alternative than this. Some of it is very close to what ‘cool’ people call ‘minimal’, almost all of it is practically indistinguishable from the ‘ambient’ stuff that Eno and Aphex Twin et al have been praised for, and bits are very similar to The Necks or Stars of the Lid or whoever else you care to name. Just because there are field recordings of birds chirping in the background, or a flute, seems to make it unpalatable conceptually. Get over it. Why is Steve Reich famous but not Michael Stearns?

Who Is William Onyeabor
Caribou, Four Tet, and their mates have been dropping this guy’s name for a while, as well as sampling and just outright remixing him too. He made a handful of albums of Nigerian synth funk in the early 80s – extended afrobeat jams, but closer to kraut or disco than jazz compared to Fela – and then stopped and became a preacher and a businessman and stuff. Now he refuses to talk about his music, and those original records either sell for 50p or £500, depending on whether the seller knows wtf it is and thus how to pitch it. This compiles a load of his stuff together (duh), and it’s great.

Near misses / nonplussed

This is the largest and most awkward of the taxonomical sections that make up this weird list, and contains taxonomies within it; new stuff released this year, which I liked enough to buy, and perhaps liked really rather a lot, but which I wasn’t blown away by, or merely thought was ‘quite good’, whatever that means. Some of it was inches away from the other list, and got deleted last minute. Some of it was never anywhere near.

Close, but no cigar

A minor tweak, a moment of punctum; these were so close to being in that other list. The Pantha is too pretty and lightweight; The National over-arranged and busy; Primal Scream a touch workmanlike a touch too often.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Pantha Du Prince – Elements of Light
Satelliti – Transister
Primal Scream – More Light
Brandt Brauer Frick – Miami

Liked it, but nowhere near enough

Plenty of people seemed to love these, and I liked them, just not that much. The Fuck Buttons album simply didn’t hit me emotionally like their previous one; BSP and PSB were both accomplished and musical but lacked that final spark to make me love them; the Daft Punk was 20 minutes too long and burdened with cloying over-indulgence at times; Arctic Monkeys stuck together three great singles and some other stuff that was OK; Steve Mason was as emotive as ever but not as creative, perhaps.

Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
British Sea Power – Machineries of Joy
Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain
Factory Floor – Factory Floor
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa
Steve Mason – Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time

Not listened to it enough to form a full opinion

Stuff I only just got hold of (Hecker, Emika, Dawn of Midi, Souleyman), never quite got to grips with (Dean Blunt), or couldn’t find time for, for whatever reason (Marling).

Dean Blunt – The Redeemer
Emika – Dva
Tim Hecker – Virgins
Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia
Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle

Thought it was awful

A dreadful, dog’s dinner of an album that I ought to have returned straight away. Flawed product. Useless.

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Old albums

Possibly the most interesting bit of the list; nothing ‘new’ here, but it was all new to me, one way or another. Some things, like the Basinski, Russell, and Fleetwood Mac, I’ve been aware of for a decade (or several) but simply never got around to, until Devon Record Club exposed them to me and made them feel essential. Others are filling in the blanks of new stuff I’ve got excited by this year (Stetson, Holden, Grant), or revisits to things I thought I didn’t like first time around, but was wrong about (Fake). Others – House of Blondes – are whole stories in and of themselves, that I can’t quite explain.

William Basinski – Disintegration Loops
Arthur Russell –The World of Arthur Russell
Nathan Fake – Drowning in a Sea of Love
John Grant – Queen of Denmark
House of Blondes – Clean Cuts
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 2; Judges
Holden – The Idiots Are Winning
Various Artists – New Orleans Funk
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

Albums of 2013

I’ve been debating whether or not to put together a list of my favourite records for 2013. Various thoughts are telling me not to bother; who cares about a list I might compile? Will I get shouted at for not having enough women in the list, or any hip hop, or the right dance music, or too much indie, or the wrong jazz, or Miley Cyrus? Are these types of lists, which are being published earlier and earlier each December (so early that most seem to emerge in November now), especially by record shops (who, in the age of the internet, now have inexpensive ways of publishing their own lists to a very wide audience very easily), just corporate shills, desperate attempts by a dying industry to make a coin during the silly spending season? How long should they be? 10 albums? 20 albums? 34 albums? 100 albums? What if there are only so many albums you really *like*, but other albums you have opinions on and want to talk about; is it worth mentioning them just in passing, even if they’re not an actual favourite? What are these lists even for, anyway? When’s the cut-off point? Do you include compilations or reissues?

Are your favourite albums of any given year not the ones that you’re still listening to in one, or two, or five years’ time, anyway? How do you know in December (or earlier, given when lists are published and how long they take to compile) which your favourites are? Something might have only been released streamed sent out on promo leaked in November, and some albums take time to get to know and to appreciate. Other albums are showers rather than growers, and make an immediate impact before fading away; if they land in October or November they may assume inflated positions in people’s esteem. What if you get the order wrong? Oh the existential angst.

Lists are an arbitrary way of assessing records at the best of times, and don’t seem to chime with how I actually experience music on a day-to-day basis. The way regular music fans start talking in early January about “contenders for album of the year”, as if they’re going to give out a special trophy in December to the maker of their very own personal favourite record, always strikes me as bizarre. Meta-narratives about ‘what kind of year it was’ don’t interest me that much anymore now that I’m not contributing to any collaborative publication list or ethos. I don’t even have a ‘favourite’ record this year, or most other years, anyway, nor do I know how to qualify or quantify what that even means anyway; the one you listened to most often? Most intensely? With the most happiness? How do you discern the differences? I’ve just got a load of records I’ve listened to and enjoyed a lot, and trying to codify which ones I liked most seems bonkers when I liked them for different reasons in the first place. And some of them I don’t really have anything to say about, anyway. And yet others that I’m not especially keen on make me want to write lots of words.

So I nearly didn’t make a list at all, as if that matters to you in the slightest. But then I remembered the difficulty I had when faced with trying to choose an album from 2008 for Devon Record Club; so disenfranchised was I for various reasons in that year that I didn’t bother to make a list at all, even on my blog, and so it struck me what these lists are, for me anyway, and presumably for most other people who start talking about “contenders for album of the year” in January; they’re an aide memoire, a diary, a personal note, a link to a past self, written from a present self, for a future self to find whatever utility in that they need, however far down the line they need it.

So, with 2018 me in mind, I’m making a list of the records I’ve listened to most and enjoyed most this year, and written some comments about why and how and where and when etcetera. It’s my list, not yours or anyone else’s. It’s not meant to be a narrative of anything other than the music that I have listened to. It represents and expresses no one but me. If it stimulates conversation and comment, then that’s brilliant. If it doesn’t, that’s also fine. If there’s something missing, I either haven’t heard it, didn’t like it enough, or only just got it and don’t feel I can pass judgement yet.

Here are some records of new music that were released this year. The ones near the top are probably the ones I like the most.

Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down
Ostensibly, awkwardly described as a jazz band (not least by me), Melt Yourself Down are actually an incredibly intense, incendiary party band, melding jazz, funk, Nubian influences, punk, and whatever else they fancy into a maelstrom of crazed energy and hooks. I reviewed them for The Quietus and played them for Devon Record Club too, and their album is one of the records I’ve played most often this year, be it in the car, in the kitchen, walking to work, on the big hi fi, or anywhere else.

We went to see Melt Yourself Down live at the Exchange in Bristol, a proper small venue with stages on different floors; they didn’t go onstage until after 11pm, so it felt like properly seeing a band at a club, like when I was a teenager at the Cavern in Exeter. They were awesome; it’s hard to express just how good they were to someone who might be scared off at the outset by the word ‘jazz’, especially if you then qualify it by saying there’s an Ethiopian thing going on, even if both the crowd and the singer spend their time moshing and crowd surfing at gigs. The energy was incredible. Amazingly, the album captures the live sound (if not the spectacle of Kushal Gaya, the maddest/best frontman I’ve seen since Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav) of Melt Yourself Down, primarily by being crunchy, in-your-face, over-excited and slightly chaotic; it feels like a live performance but thumps like a studio recording too.

I’m sad not to see it placing on more end-of-year lists (or get Mercury nominated), because there seemed to be some potential for crossover, with airplay on 6music and a presence at cultural events like the Manchester International Festival. Melt Yourself Down (whether it’s a band, an album, or a project) rocks harder than any guitar record I’ve heard this year, and makes me want to move more than any dance record.

These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Once again, I wrote about this for The Quietus, and made it my debut choice at my second record club, so I’m not sure I have much to say. I’ve not played this anywhere near as often as Holden or Sons of Kemet or Melt Yourself Down, but when I have it’s felt absolutely important and urgent and special. Talk Talk similarities are over-emphasised in some circles; this is something quantifiably different to that, even if the odd musical moment or the ethos as a whole feels redolent. Very much about space, and landscape, and identity, Field of Reeds seemed to scare the people who voted Hidden as NME’s album of the year in 2010 despite being, to my ears, as logical a next step from that album as These New Puritans could have taken.

Sons of Kemet – Burn
One of the things Em always said she loved about hip hop was the sense of community that it tended to engender, especially in sub-scenes; people guesting on each other’s records, producing tracks for each other, lending a hand and helping out with each other’s music. Aside from sharing phone numbers of drug dealers and sleeping with each other, the 90s British indie poppers we were pushed as teens didn’t seem keen on this kind of natural collaboration, unless it consisted of doing a guest vocal on a dance track. Or Primal Scream.

Sons of Kemet are part of the same scene that begat Melt Yourself Down, and Acoustic Ladyland, and Polar Bear, and The Invisible, and Portico Quartet, and probably lots of other bands too. They’re made up of the drummer from Polar Bear (and Acoustic Ladyland), and the drummer from Melt Yourself Down too, plus the saxophone player from Melt Yourself Down (but not the one who also plays in Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland [who are now called Silver Birch]) who also plays clarinet, plus a tuba player who’s played with the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. And, on two tracks, the guy who plays guitar in The Invisible. Who are a ‘rock’ band, nominally.

Sons of Kemet play something much more akin to straight jazz than their hard-partying sibling act, but it’s still not quite straight jazz. Not that jazz was ever ‘straight’ anyway, really. The drums play in crazed synchronicity, sometimes duelling, sometimes mimicking each other. The tuba essentially handles bass duties, and occasionally in a style akin to a 303 deployed for acid techno. The saxophone and clarinet, meanwhile, deliver the melodic patterns atop this whirling rhythmic bedrock. Allegedly the melodies are North African and Caribbean in style but I can’t confirm this as I don’t really know; all I can say is that they’re catchy, and compelling, and at times very beautiful and mournful too.

Some people who’ve been in earshot of me playing this, for instance at work, have complained of jazz skronk, but this is nowhere near The Shape of Jazz to Come or Coltrane’s innerspace explorations, or even the rambunctious freedom of The Thing, not really. Other people have found it surprisingly accessible despite trepidation towards jazz generally. Me? I’m a complete dilettante and musicological luddite, but I adore it nonetheless; the patterns and shapes of ‘rock’ music have become increasingly prosaic and predictable to me over the last few years, and the freedom and expression and pure joy of listening that jazz can give me is increasing every day.

Holden – The Inheritors
I wrote about this record here at length back in the summer, but I don’t feel like I’ve fully nailed what it is that I love about it. It’s hard to nail. The Inheritors is a big, strange record; 15 tracks across 75 minutes of played-live synthesizer drones and reverberations and oscillations and melodies, decorated with strange chanted vocals, bodhran, “guitar/screwdriver”, saxophone, field recordings, “wailing”, “quantized 3-LFO Chaotic System”, organ, xylophone, and “gibbering”. It seems improvised and unplanned much of the time, incredible tension built by seemingly directionless momentums slowly discovering direction and then moving inexorably towards some strange conclusion beyond the horizon and out of the listener’s perception. The sound is huge, redolent of enormous landscapes, forests, moors, lakes, highlands, whilst still being descended (or inherited) from dance music, from techno, from kosmische. It feels pagan and unruly, but also deliberate and sophisticated, if that doesn’t sound stupidly contradictory. It’s almost like something from another time or another place. It contains multitudes, whole universes of sound and discrete genres within itself. A whole album of space-synth-jazz like “The Caterpillar’s Intervention”, or 40 minutes of martian dancefloor build like “Renata”, or a full LP of distracted Deutsche night-driving like “Blackpool Late Eighties”, would have made this list on its own. That The Inheritors contaisna ll these things, and more besides, is remarkable. It’s alien, and I don’t understand it. I love that I don’t understand it.

Jon Hopkins – Immunity
First up, this is fucking LOUD, especially the first half of it. It’s not a problem particularly because it’s a very clean, rich, well-mixed sound, so it’s obviously a very deliberate choice, but even so. Start quiet, and then the loud hits you in the face and grabs your attention. Start loud, and things can surely only wane from thereon?

Secondly, it sounds a LOT like stuff that was happening on the Border Community label in the mid-00s, specifically “A Break in the Clouds” by James Holden, and his remix of Nathan Fake’s “The Sky Was Pink”. These are both beautiful, wonderful, hazily melodic dancefloor hits, but Holden got sick of playing them and they became a bit of an albatross to him. A lot of other people very much didn’t get sick of them though, and their sound was appropriated pretty widely and often very closely. Years later, Hopkins isn’t as close as some of those efforts, but what he does here, especially in the first half of the record, is a lot closer to that than it is to Four Tet, for instance, who a lot of people compared Immunity to. “Sun Harmonics”, for instance, from the second half of the album where things wind down somewhat, is lovely and beatific in a way that neither Holden nor Hebden managed to be this year, or any other year, because what they do is quite different.

There’s a sense with Hopkins that he’s a ‘proper’ musician, and I use ‘proper’ in inverted commas because I think I mean it faintly pejoratively; he’s Eno’s protégé, he’s worked with Coldplay, made an acclaimed post-folk album with King Creosote, soundtracked an acclaimed independent film (the excellent Monsters), probably owns an expensive piano, gets commissioned to make music by people with money, and seems consummately professional in his approach to having a career as a musician. He’s not in any way cool or underground or alternative to anything, and this year he seems to be the go-to crossover electronic musician that indie kids and classic rockers are giving props to.

As a result it’s easy to be harsh on Hopkins. Some of the sound palette is certainly Border Community circa 2005, but not all of it. The way he uses pianos and space on the second half of the record is something quite substantially different to Holden et al, and very different indeed to what Holden is doing now, even if the two records do share some similarities. I like the Holden record a lot more than the Hopkins one – it feels more alive, more epic, more dangerous, more weird – but Immunity is still very good, and I enjoy it a lot, and have played it often.

The Necks – Open
I reviewed this very recently for The Quietus, and was rather pleased with what I wrote, so I refer you there for specific details and analysis. This is The Necks, so it is ‘ambient jazz’, and lasts for more than an hour despite being comprised of only one piece. It is very beautiful. Every time they release a new album I convince myself I don’t need another one, and then people start talking about it, and I end up buying it, because what they do is unique, as far as I’m aware.

Julia Holter – Loud City Song
I was introduced to Julia Holter (having been intrigued by mentions of her for a while) by Tom playing the opening track from Ekstasis at DRC at the end of last year: Ekstasis got bought very swiftly thereafter. I saw some people suggest that Loud City Song was more abstract, but to me it seemed more connected, more ‘pop’. There are less layers here, perhaps, more piano, more directness, but it’s still not straightforward. Holter makes dream music, I suppose, soundtracks to those moments when you’re not sure if you’re awake or not. Phrases repeat across songs like themes across a whole night’s worth of dreaming. This record is extremely beautiful, and, thinking about it, quite jazz too. Some amazing, exciting brass. A big trend this year.

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
I described this as “a big, post-structuralist experiment with cybernetic hooks” back in the early summer, and it is. Defiantly, deliberately avant-garde, with a 19-minute drone at its centre, it has less in common with Silent Shout or “Heartbeats” than it does with the soundtrack they produced for Tomorrow, In A Year, the Darwin musical. The peaks – “A Tooth For An Eye”, “Full Of Fire”, “Networking” – are extraordinary, confusing confrontations that explode techno into gender theory, ideological state apparatuses, Foucault, Judith Butler. It’s a huge beast of a record, and not something I’ve often consumed, but it’s been a hell of a ride when I have.

Matthew E White – Big Inner
Released last year in the States, this is placing on lots of lists in the UK this year, especially those by record shops. Matthew E White is a big white guy with a beard and long hair, from somewhere in America that is far away from water I think, and where they believe very much in God. He very much believes in God, too. I don’t, and often feel uncomfortable in the presence of devotion, especially orthodox devotion, because of this; I think that people who believe in God must be slightly insane, because the notion seems very daft to me, and has since I was a small child, as much as I acknowledge that it must be nice and might be of great use to some people. I don’t feel uncomfortable at all in the presence of the 9-minute paean to Jesus Christ that closes this record, though, because it is a beautiful, immaculately executed soul groove, and it follows a number of other beautiful, immaculately executed soul grooves. This record is phenomenally well arranged and recorded by Mr White, who used to score jazz bands or something. In many ways it’s similar to Nixon by Lambchop, but perhaps without the country element so much.

My Bloody Valentine – m b v
That this exists at all is faintly confusing; that it is good is confounding, but very welcome. It sounds, amazingly, given two decades and then some, like My Bloody Valentine, if they’d made a record 22 months, rather than 22 years, after Loveless. It is sensual and indulgent and control-freakish, like My Bloody Valentine always were. I had some thoughts when it was released, and I’ve not had many more since; despite the fact that their enormous absence made them incredibly often talked (written) about, My Bloody Valentine are still better listened to than pontificated upon. Like all music, obviously.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
I wrote about this only a few weeks ago; I still like it very much, far more than anything else by this band, who more often irritate than inspire me. (Interesting aside; enjoying this record and revisiting Funeral made me listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea again, and it’s still horrific, unlistenable bilge, and I don’t understand how anybody can tolerate let alone love it. Different strokes etcetera.) I accept some of the criticisms – yes it’s long and bloated, yes they’re pompous, no irony doesn’t suit them (nothing ever did, did it? I never, ever believed Win’s sincerity and emoting), yes it’s obviously an Achtung Baby move (but I love Achtung Baby, as much as I love any U2), but none of that matters at all because, quite frankly, I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. All of it. I find it borderline hilarious that some people think their earlier records are amazing and that this is dreadful, or a step down, especially those who loved The Suburbs, which feels much bloatier and less defined and more pompous than this to me. This feels like fun, a lot of the time. I’d try and fathom out how or why this strange dissonance of opinion happens but it amuses me; I’m smiling as I’m typing! Oh, and the one with Eurydice in the title rips off the chords from “November Rain”. Which bugged me for weeks before I got it.

Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light
If you describe this in any wannabe-objective confluence of adjectives and nouns – polyphonic avant-garde pseudo-jazz saxophone experiments – it sounds horrific and difficult and like something you’d want to avoid. But actually Stetson’s saxodrone voyages are incredibly compelling and moving, melodies and rhythms to the fore as much as the (vast) textures and soundscapes. I’d been intrigued but scared by him for sometime, put off by descriptions. Yes, by any measure of ‘pop’ music this is a weird record, but it’s not in any way unpleasant or indulgent or bad. It’s communicative and expressive and alive. It reminds me a lot of the Holden record, actually.

Darkside – Psychic
Something else I reviewed, this is almost nothing beyond pure sensual, audio indulgence, a record for listening to and luxuriating in. That’s absolutely enough.

Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind
I’m still a little nonplussed by this, to be honest, but I think that’s merely because it starts so low key and ends so well; “Buchla” and “Aerial” are so exciting, and “Unicorn” so exquisitely beautiful, that “Gong” and “Parallel Jalebi” seem prosaic and directionless by comparison. Four Tet’s seventh album isn’t my favourite of his – that honour will probably always fall to There Is Love In You now, I suspect – but it shows a degree of craft and skill that other electronic producers don’t quite have; “Unicorn”, possibly the most phenomenologically beautiful track I’ve heard this year, is on some Aphex Twin level of strange, exquisite delicacy. Jon Hopkins, as good as he is, can’t compete.

I struggled a little with getting a handle on what this record’s USP is (I know, I know; I work in marketing), but I think “Kool FM” reveals it; those little fake jungle rushes feel like listening to pirate dance radio in the 90s, the signal fading in and out because the transmitter is up the duff, chunks of the music being snatched away from you but the bits you do hear so exciting, so full of potential and wonder. Beautiful Rewind might be a love letter to a teenage life spent taping those moments onto C90s.

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
This seemed destined to end up in these lists from the moment reviews started rolling out almost a year ago. I was unaware of John Grant before, somehow, despite the acclaim for his previous solo album, Queen of Denmark (which we’ve subsequently picked up), but was intrigued and eventually bought this. Em and I both liked it a lot; the arrangements and production are sophisticated and measured without being at all staid, and there’s so much idiosyncrasy to Grant’s songwriting and lyrics, and so much strength and character to his delivery, that he feels both very singular and unusual, and also very classic, at the same time. I get the idea he fits melodies to words rather than the other way around, which makes for some unusual melodic phrasings and sequences. Fantastic live, too.

Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
Hookworms are the band who, in 2013, if I wanted to be in a band, I would want to be in. They use guitars as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and that end is transportation, of the psychedelic variety, through riffs and repetition and distortion. I’ve only come to it in the last couple of months or so, and thus don’t really have any more to say beyond the fact that certain sounds still tickle me like they used to when I was 16 or 18, and this is one of them, done well.

San Fermin – San Fermin
Another record I’ve only come to recently, this is probably only some kind of post-Sufjan Stevens thing, chamber pop, or something. Probably insufferable to some. But I really like it; there’s an intense musicality to it, that veers from something Tin Pan Alley-ish to jazz (of the Ellington rather than Coltrane variety), to elegies, to indie pop, via trumpets, drums, synthesizers, string quartets, pianos, samples, woodwind. Male and female voices play off against each other, telling a story, singing the same song from different perspectives, the male voice redolent of a several others (Matt Berninger, Nick Cave, Owen Pallett), while the female voices (there are two) almost sound like St Vincent duetting with herself. Beautifully rendered and lusciously produced, it literally tells you a story; I have no idea what about, but it’s lovely listening.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Eight years later and the guitars which so many people had trouble with on The Campfire Headphase have gone, and the numerology and cult influences so many people over-exaggerated on the first two albums have been seized upon and run with more than ever before. The result of these two ostensibly fan-pleasing moves? Gross indifference; net positivitity. I have thoroughly enjoyed Tomorrow’s Harvest the way I have every other Boards of Canada record; as a piece of immaculately produced, semi-soporific, faintly unsettling electronic music, not as some totem of mystic significance or pinnacle of musical creativity. Like their other albums it sounds like the memory of a TV program you saw as a child and remember feeling slightly scared of, without knowing why. To me, absolutely as good as the ones that came before it.

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
This is here through admiration rather than affection; Vampire Weekend are so obviously a good band, and this is so obviously a good record, that I feel absolutely compelled to include it in this list. They demonstrate consummate skill as musicians, arrangers, producers, lyricists; impeccable taste in influence and execution; an understanding of the sense of band-as-brand, of the necessary narrative of their career and their work thus far, of the need to evolve just so in order to maintain, progress, and not alienate; a complete understanding of their responsibilities as the kind of band that they undoubtedly are. They are still, on “Diane Young” and “Ya Hey” and “Finger Back”, fabulous fun like they were when we first heard them, but now they are mature and touching too, with a sense of the passing of time and the mortality of all things and the sadness of growing up. They are so obviously really, really, really good, and yet I can’t bring myself to give a fuck. This is the grudging respect choice you get at the bottom of every list.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

If you’d told me 16 years ago that one of ‘our’ bands would have a number one album on both sides of the Atlantic, win a Grammy for it (and a BRIT, and a Juno, and a Polaris), and then, for their follow-up, release a double-album referencing disco, dub, Haitian rara music, Black Orpheus, and Kierkegaard, with a Rodin sculpture on the cover, songs about Joan of Arc, lyrics in French, guest vocals from David Bowie, veiled references to Baudrillard, produced by an über-cool dance music legend, with a guerrilla marketing campaign involving arcane-looking symbols being daubed on buildings around the world, and which seems to try and comment on and question god, war, rock ‘n’ roll, imperialism, technology, and the way we live now as human beings, I’d have thought you were describing the greatest album ever made, that ‘we’ had ‘won’, and that the world into which this record was being released must be some kind of utopia.

So why am I only ‘enjoying’ Reflektor rather than worshipping it? And wtf is with all this ‘our’ and ‘we’ and ‘won’ business?

The Suburbs is all about tribalism in music; if you’re 16 and feel a little alienated, then you cling to music as part of your identity, as a definition of who you are and who you aren’t. At 16 I, and my friends, talked about ‘we’ as an amorphous entity comprised of people who preferred Smashing Punpkins and Sonic Youth and The Stone Roses to… whatever it was that other people liked. Which, looking back, was never explicitly understood. That’s adolescence for you. I’m in my 30s now. I don’t feel that tribalism in the same way anymore, but I can recall it.

Here are some petty and meaningless observances about the actual music. There’s an incongruous guest appearances from Jonathan Ross. The yelped titular refrain of “Already Know” sounds more like Win is singing “original” to my ears. Tempo switches as tunes start off fast and then shudder to a crawl seem to be a thing; they happen with the punky switch in “Joan of Arc” and the party switch in “Here Comes The Night Time” (which is amazing, genuinely). On “Normal People” Win asks us if we like rock ‘n’ roll music, and suggests that he doesn’t; I can identify. The second side is spacier, more cosmic. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” really reminds me of something in its grand, ascending chords, and it’s the kind of thing I suspect I ought to feel embarrassed about being familiar with. Like Marillion. Or Bon Jovi. “Supersymmetry”, despite its Muse-alike title, is a genuinely beatific and beautiful moment that doesn’t feel like anything else in the band’s oeuvre thus far. Even if it does end with 6+ minutes of almost-silent, arguably pointless tape wibble ambience. There is almost no reason beyond aesthetics and ego why this record needs to be a double. But I’m glad it is; it seems easier to understand as a double.

Sonically, aesthetically, I’m finding Reflektor by far Arcade Fire’s most enjoyable record so far; James Murphy has helped their sound acquire just the right amount of scuzz and scuff and energy. Although Neon Bible used dynamics as an excellent tool after the levelled bombast of Funeral, their first three records all felt a touch too… hurdy gurdy. They seemed to make efforts on The Suburbs to modernise a little with the likes of “Sprawl II”, but it still sounded “buttoned up” (as someone, I think on ILM, put it rather brilliantly). Here, they often sound genuinely loose and as if they’re having much more fun. A little like U2 on Achtung Baby, as many other people have pointed out. As far as arty arena rock goes, Coldplay aspire to this, dream of being this good. My first listen to Reflektor wasn’t via a screen, but rather on a big hi-fi in the livingroom. Maybe this is because I care too much, or don’t care, or have some self-restraint, or just prefer big speakers and amplifiers and CD players (I think they’re more fun, the way a cinema is more fun than a 14” portable TV). There are a lot of things going on here. It’s often the curse of now that we jam many disparate elements of colour together in the hope of making a rainbow, and end up instead with brown. I think they’ve just about avoided brown here; unlike The National on Trouble Will Find Me, perhaps.

A lot of people are saying Arcade Fire aren’t ‘fun’ or ‘sexy’, which is strange, as two of them presumably have sex with each other reasonably often, and have some physical proof of this to boot. wtf does ‘sexy’ mean in this context anyway? Are these reviewers saying they can’t imagine themselves having sex to an Arcade Fire record? That seems like a strange metric.

Matthew Perpetua shows that Buzzfeed isn’t just for shitty horse listicles, and pulls apart Arcade Fire rather well. Despite being continually obsessed with ‘the kids’, Win Butler is a fogey and always has been, and his efforts to develop and change and take risks are all very safe. As Perpetua points out, lunky dunderheaded stadium bands have been “going dance” for 30+ years. I think these days I want them to go jazz.

Win Butler’s band are also obsessed with the idea of being a band, of releasing records, of having fans, of being fans, of being friends. Win or Regine have asked, presumably the audience, if we can be friends several times now. Edwin Farnham Butler III is, lest we forget, the expensively educated son of an oilman, a teenage Radiohead fan from California via Texas who didn’t fit in there or in Boston, and who moved to Montreal and had an epiphany amongst the arts and culture kids. When he sang “if the businessmen drink my blood / like the kids at art school said they would”, he might be singing about his dad. His wife, Regine Chassagne, is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier ‘s regime in the 60s.

A third obsession, linked to the first: with being on the outside and not invited in, a very adolescent sense of alienation by the cooler kids. And heaven! Win has a degree in religious studies, and he wants to get into heaven, too, even though he doesn’t believe in it. Neither do I. Arcade Fire have been supporting U2, playing arenas, since 2005. They’re as ‘in’ as you can get, surely? They’ve gota Grammy? But something clearly still smarts Win; and, you know, even if he did go to a famously posh school, you can feel like a misfit weirdo anywhere. People have been telling me my whole life that I’m odd or weird; they’ve probably been telling Win that, too. It’s just that my granddad machined steel tools in a factory rather than invented the pedal steel guitar.

“We’re a weird band in a mainstream context,” says Win in an NME interview this week, talking about winning a Grammy. And they are kind of weird, but they’re also not that weird at all. Springsteen, U2, disco, reggae; these are not weird musics to be influenced by. They’re not Gnaw Their Tongues or The Necks or Ornette Coleman or Coil or Whitehouse. Compared to The Fratellis, though, Arcade Fire are fucking crazy intellectual boho motherfuckers. Compared to his classmates at Phillips Exeter Academy, who are probably working in international banking and corporate law, Win Butler is some kind of creative genius freakazoid. Compared to Merzbow? Maybe not so much. Weird like Nirvana or The Cure. Those weirdo freaks who sold millions of records. I feel like Win needs a lot of affirmation. Fair enough. So do lots of people; especially popular rock musicians. Rock would be boring if they didn’t.

“They heard me singing and they told me to stop / ‘Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock’.” Some people do think that liking music, and liking making music, is outrageously pretentious. That creativity is for weirdos.

Irony of ironies, given that I don’t much like it, I probably owned Funeral before you did; I bought it on import in late 2004 before it was properly available over here. Because, back then, I was hot shit with the indie buzz bands. Thanks to all the American kids going crazy for it at Stylus, who gave it a rave in September 2004. Let’s not forget that “Rebellion (Lies)” always had a none-more U2 bassline, genetically engineered to get stadiums excited, even if much of the rest of the aesthetic was in line with Neutral Milk Hotel’s hurdy gurdy shouting.

I used to like anthemic rock a lot. I have little room for it in my life now. I’ve been playing “Motorcycle Emptiness” by Manic Street Preachers to death over the last few weeks, and it’s left me feeling as if today’s stadium shakers are just lacking in the kind of melody that feels like it’s squeezing my heart inside a fist, as if today’s kids are being short-changed by their arty stadium rockers. But it’s probably just that I’m older now.