Tag Archives: nicolas jaar

Albums of 2011

It’s December again, miraculously, so I’ve taken all the released-this-year CDs that Em and I have bought, put them in a couple of piles, and taken a photograph of them. It seems to be becoming a tradition. You can click on the photo to see a larger version and read all of the spines, if you like.

Anyway, ten is a nice number, and words about records are good, so here are words about my ten (arbitrary) favourite records of the year, in reverse order, because, y’know, tension…

10. Wilco – The Whole Love
There can, and often does, come a time when you have the sad realization that you don’t so much love a band, as love a small part of a band. In my case, with Wilco, I love I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and Reservations, and Spiders (Kidsmoke), and Company In Your Back, and At Least That’s What You Said, and Misunderstood, and I Can’t Stand It, and Poor Places, and Sunken Treasure… but there are whole big chunks of them that I’m not bothered about, even if there’s very little (maybe nothing) that I dislike. So I pretty much ignored Wilco (The Album), having been a little nonplussed by the smooth, mature proficiency of Sky Blue Sky. And I was trepidatious about The Whole Love, despite talk about it being a (slight) return to more experimental textures. In truth, I’m staggered by the two bookends, and especially Art Of Almost (when Cline and Kotche let rip for the last two or three minutes!), and could (almost) take or leave the rest of the album. But I’ll take it; the whole thing sounds stunning, and there’s something intrinsically pleasurable about watching (or listening to) human beings doing something they’re very good at; even when the songs are traditional and/or predictable, there’s always a skill, dexterity, and panache to the playing here that is impressive. And on top of that, songs like I Might and the title track are good pop/rock tunes in their own right, even if tracks like Capitol City veer a little too far into pleasantly inconsequential Beatles homage.

9. Walls – Coracle
I reviewed this for The Quietus; it’s very good. The opening track, Into Our Midst, rivals Art Of Almost as my favourite opener of the year. Lots of records tried something similar this year – The Field, Blanck Mass, Tim Hecker, Robag Wruhme and more all had at least something in common at some level – but Walls seemed to do it best.

8. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
We saw Laura Marling perform at Exeter cathedral a month and a bit ago; I’d say that her voice was possessed of a surprising power in a live context, except that it wasn’t surprising. Her debut now sounds callow and naïve, and even last year’s excellent I Speak Because I Can, which I adored, has paled a little in relief; A Creature I Don’t Know adds a sensuality and tension to her tunefulness and musicianship which provides a new dimension. On The Beast, the album’s central, emotionally unhinged, most electrifying moment, Marling channels something of the dark magic that crept into Mojo Pin and Lover, You Should’ve Come Over by Jeff Buckley. I look forward greatly to watching her career develop even further.

7. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
I was initially a little nonplussed by this much-hyped record when Tom played it at Devon Record Club; it seemed at first to be a clattering mess. But at some point in autumn it opened up to me, and clicked neatly into place; the energy and chaos of the opening trio, clattering hooks and beats and amazing, corrupted and pure voices, and the beautiful swoons and twists of Powa, still imbued with a passion and strength. Garbus is an intriguing musician and a great, soulful singer.

6. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
A continuous, sensuous, aesthetic pleasure, Jaar’s debut isn’t quite the minimal house odyssey some people wanted, but it is immaculately constructed, captivating and unusual, a strange nowhere land between techno and jazz and minimal and Germany and South American and east and west. I love it, and I can’t wait to watch him grow.

5. Destroyer – Kaputt
My first dalliance with Dan Bejar has impressed me enough to make me go back and investigate Rubies, Your Blues, and Trouble In Dreams; I like them all, especially Rubies, but Kaputt has something else going for it. Maybe it’s the aesthetic of smooth, 80s sophistication, the tight, highly held guitars, the saxophones and synthesizers. Or maybe it’s the strange nostalgia for other countries and other cultures. Bejar seems to do something different with every album – Bowie pastiche, bizarre orchestral midi-dreams, shoegaze overtones – so I doubt the aesthetic adopted on Kaputt will be continued into whatever he does next, but right now both Em and I are finding moments of this buzzing through our heads between plays.

4. Patrick Wolf – Lupercalia
I reviewed this for The Quietus too. It accompanied us on car journeys throughout the summer, something Patrick’s not done since The Magic Position. The first four tracks are almost too much to bear, too ebullient, too happy, too in love, but the album fulcrums on Time Of My Life, which might just be Patrick’s best pop song yet, and which tilts the emotions out of fairytale happily-ever-after into something much more prosaic and, therefore, more moving and real. And the tunes! Bermondsey Street! House! The Falcons! Together! I want Patrick to make an album of full-on German techno next.

3. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clark’s previous effort ended up being my accidental favourite album of 2009, a long-burning grower that crept up on me (and Emma, too) over months and months, intriguing and beguiling us. So there were high expectations for Strange Mercy, especially when she let Surgeon into the world as a teaser. In truth, the album didn’t strike me straight away, but I kind of wasn’t expecting it to after Actor, and I’m glad it didn’t. We saw Annie live last month, and I wrote the following:
“Strange Mercy has a disorienting drama, a never-ending tension in some songs that builds and builds and frustrates by never quite climaxing, at least not in the way you might expect. It’s almost like jazz – you expect a refrain to develop or repeat in a certain way, and it doesn’t; you expect an introduction to end, but it continues, and reveals itself to be an entire verse (such as a verse is) rather than a mere prologue; you’re left waiting for the pattern to alter, for musical satiation, and you’re left without it, like unending, climaxless foreplay. This might be enough to drive some mad. Live the new songs fitted pretty seamlessly with the handful of older ones – a few from Actor, very little from Marry Me (a splendid Your Lips Are Red) – even though on record they are perhaps a little more disjointed, more awkward, more complex. She’s a very special musician. Some seemed to think that Strange Mercy would be her breakthrough record; I don’t think she’ll ever “break through” in that mainstream-crossover audience way. She’s too complicated, too dreamlike, too dangerous, perhaps. I feel like the artifice of her music – the unusual, varied guitar tones, synth washes, unreal-sounding drums – are manifestations of her attempting to create the music she hears inside her own head. I suspect the inside of her head is an interesting place. Twice onstage she swore in songs, adding the word “fucking” to a lyric where it doesn’t appear on record, and the affect was a little frightening, a real example of a curse word holding emotional power.”

2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
I wrote this, and also this, and also this about PJ Harvey’s latest album, which is taking plaudits left, right, and centre this year, as well as various tweets, messageboard posts, and snippets in blog posts about other things. So I’m not sure I can write anymore, except to say that it’s wonderful, and poetic, and enticing, and moving, and a massive, massive accomplishment.

1. Wild Beasts – Smother

Likewise I waxed extremely lyrical about Wild Beasts’ third album back in May; it’s stayed near the top of my pile, where it’s accessible, because it needs to be, because I play it often, ever since. It, and its b-sides (especially the marvelous Thankless Thing), and Two Dancers, have been in the car, on the iPod, on the hi-fi, more often than any other records over the last 12 months, even Polly’s. Between These New Puritans last year and Wild Beasts this year I now feel like there are bands of boys with guitars (as opposed to bands of men with guitars, or lone women with guitars, or bands of women with guitars, or lone men with computers) who I care about, who I can invest in, who I want to go and see play live, and wear t-shirts adorned with their name. Smother is a subtle, creeping, emotionally and sexually tense and intense affair, passionate and impassioned at the same time as being incredibly controlled and nuanced. It’s my favorite album of the year.

Albums of 2011 (so far)

So it’s about that time that I wax lyrical about the records I’ve bought, listened to, and enjoyed so far this year, as much to keep my mind clear with what I think of things as for the sake of spreading a little listening love around. So here goes.

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!
I’m unsure what I think of this, and indeed, by extension, Elbow, in 2011. On a phenomenological level, the act of listening to this is pleasurable; it sounds gorgeous. But I never do want to listen to it. I suspect, partly, that there’s a sense of darkness, of bitterness, of spite, that’s been eroded from Elbow’s music slowly since their debut, and I need that contrast to their wide-open humanism in order to give contrast, subtlety, and emotional drama. It’s lovely, like the last album, and I’m glad people like it, and I admire it, but I don’t love it.

British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
I want to like this more; I’m not sure why I don’t. Here’s what I said back when it came out.

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
I listened to this very intensely, and with great frequency, during darker evenings. I have no doubt I’ll pull it out again when the nights draw back in; it’s that kind of record.

LCD Soundsystem – The London Sessions
A clandestine ‘greatest hits’, perhaps; a posthumous wave to appreciative fans. I dearly wish I’d seen them live. I’m pretty sure I’d got guest-listed for a Bristol gig in 2007, but circumstances changed and we couldn’t go.

Primal Scream – Screamadelica (Remastered)
I love this as much as ever; I thought I didn’t / couldn’t.

Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
The melodies are delicious, but the arrangements are a little too slick for my tastes. I must investigate his early stuff soon, in the hope that his compositional gift hasn’t changed, and that he started out more minimal.

Josh T Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
I’ve only listened to this once and only vaguely; it made me feel like a voyeur, and I don’t want to be made to hear the feelings contained within songs called Honeymoon’s Great: Wish You Were Her. But Pearson is such a talented that I know I’ll come around eventually. It’s only art.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
This is magnificent. Strangely, Americans I know seem not to get it as much as Brits.

Joan As Police Woman – The Deep Field
Ostensibly Emma’s (she loves Joan), but I like this a lot too; it’s an r’n’b album, essentially, but the kind of r’n’b that’s played live in a room, with long, crunchy, richly-textured guitar lines. A little bit Maxwell, a little bit… Second Coming by The Stone Roses, almost. Modern electric blues I guess (not Griff Rhys Jones stuff).

Iron And Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
I like this a lot when I listen to it, but I don’t remember to listen to it quite enough (possibly because the opening track is maybe my least favourite); it feels like a journey through the whole of American popular music, from country to soul to jazz to indie rock and back again. The tunes deserve more attention.

The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
I’d hate to repeat myself, so just read this.

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Likewise.

Tyler The Creator – Goblin
Above and beyond anything else, this is too long; 15 tracks lasting 73 minutes is just far too much to take in, and it becomes boring. In fact, it starts boring; the opening track is a 7-minute “woe is me” monologue with a pretty tepid backing track. Beyond that… sonically, Goblin is Fisher Price El-P / Def Jux, a kind of lo-fi, schoolroom version of The Cold Vein without the sci-fi vision. It’s not got the concision, incision, or, and this is crucial, hooks of Dizzee Rascal, for instance, who was perhaps the last rapper this youthful, energetic, and (almost) controversial to get so many words typed about him.

And as for the controversy… lyrically, Goblin is the Aristocrats joke, but without a punch line. “I’m awesome / and I fuck dolphins” is absurd enough to elicit a laugh; “I raped a pregnant bitch and told my friends I had a threesome” is reaching so far for controversy as to cause a nasal snort as you try and decide whether laughing at is as bad as laughing with. To my mind the only things it’s not acceptable to make jokes about are rape, and infant death; the latter is what turned me off Chris Morris’ Jam TV program a decade ago.

The Lex nailed many of my feelings regarding Odd Future Wolf Gang in his blog for The Guardian; Tyler may be gifted (I’ve not listened enough to appreciate his talent for internal rhymes or his flow yet), but he’s not transgressive. He’s just very, very young, and trying very, very hard. But so were the Beastie Boys, and they grew up from snotty misogynists into something far more palatable, without losing their musical verve along the way. Because there is something somehow compelling about kids yelling “kill people / burn shit / fuck school” and “golf wang!”

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
I’ve listened to this about four times, most of them in the car while driving to the airport. My initial impression is that it fits, sonically and in mood, almost exactly halfway between Check Your Head and Hello Nasty. This is where Beastie Boys ought to sit in 2011, as far as I’m concerned. The tunes, hooks, noises, beats, etc, are far more catchy and enjoyable than Tyler.

Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
People bitching about the brevity of this annoy me; it’s longer, and with far less songs, than Revolver. I like it; I really like about half of it. They seem, to my ears, to have finally interpolated the influences they’ve been wrestling with for the last decade. It’s not got the tunes or approachability of In Rainbows, or the impact of Kid A, but it’ll do nicely.

Panda Bear – Tomboy
I pretty much standby what I wrote a few weeks ago; I like this a lot. It doesn’t have the absolute peak, sublime moments of Person Pitch, but it’s more consistent, more structured.

Wild Beasts – Smother
I’m only a few listens into this, and none of them at volume of with intensity, but I’m enjoying it immensely; Anthony Hegarty and Guy Garvey / Paul Heaton fronting a subdued, sensual, 21st century Tears For Fears; which is not surprising given the Talk Talk name-drops made in the run up to its release. Could perhaps do with a little more energy, a little more chaos, a little bit of loss of control

Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
This might be the album I’ve played the most (proportionally to the time I’ve had it for) this year; there’s a mix of electronic textures, live instruments, technoness, jazziness, etc etc, that is just bliss to my ears; vatic enough to stand calmly in the room and be ignored if needs be, but gorgeous enough to entwine around you and take your full attention if you want.

There’s a lot of white spines this year, so far.

Wednesday’s listening

I spent yesterday on the train to London, in a darkened room in London with lots of strangers, looking for a record shop in London, and then on a train back from London, so regular listening patterns, whatever they are, were out of the window.

Unsurprisingly it wasn’t an ad hoc trip, so I had some time for planning. Consequently, fearing 3G eating my iPhone’s battery life as I tweeted through the day (I can’t help it, it’s like crack to me), I loaded some music onto the iPad, which has never really been used as a music-playing-device before (more often it facilitates listening via bigger, better devices, by allowing us to multi-task while on the sofa in front of the proper hi-fi). I just dumped the most recently added albums in our iTunes library on their, which are all 2011 releases – Tomboy, Mountain Goats, PJ Harvey, Nicolas Jaar, Juliana Barwick, King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, Radiohead, and an Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All playlist someone sent me, plus the two recent Patrick Wolf singles.

My train didn’t leave till 10am, so I put Tomboy on via the iPod and Zeppelin dock while I pottered around, made breakfast, updated the list of people taking part in this week, made sandwiches for my wife and myself for lunch, packed my back, checked my itinerary, updated our Oyster Card, etc etc. I wasn’t exactly paying attention – in fact I was wandering from room-to-room – but I doubt Panda Bear would mind; there’s so much reverb on Tomboy, so much repetition, that it’s difficult to touch, to focus on. This is no bad thing; in fact it’s lovely.

Once ensconced on the train I read Mark Richardson’s book on Zaireeka. Mark and I know each other very vaguely via the web; we’ve got roughly similar taste and hang out in some of the same spaces. He saw me tweet about Devon Record Club the other week, and replied saying it sounded like great fun, and could he send me a copy of his book to read. Who turns down a free book?

I’ve got Zaireeka and have organized playbacks of it on about three occasions, but I’m not an enormous Flaming Lips fan (even though they provided a couple of the best live music experiences of my life), so hadn’t really been interested in reading the book. I actually read very little music writing as a general rule, as very little of it speaks to me. I’d rather write/communicate about music, via forums, via Twitter, via this blog, than read Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau or Paul Morley (though I do own books by the first and last of those people, and the middle one put something I wrote in a book he edited once).

Mark’s book isn’t just about the Flaming Lips, though; the nature of Zaireeka, and Mark’s sensibilities regarding music, mean that a big chunk of the book is really about how we listen, and the history of communal listening, and individual listening, and headphones, and the Sony Walkman, and public transport, and how format and technology influences consumption. The first six weeks of my degree, way back when, were very heavy on the Marxist cultural theory, and I’d chosen my degree, as I said to someone the other day, at least in (subconscious) part, because I hoped it would make me a better music writer. I don’t know whether those six weeks shaped my current sensibilities or whether my sensibilities at that time matched what we were being taught and consequently grew together, but consumption, technology, production, base and superstructure, the economics of culture influencing the form of culture, the practicalities and utilities of listening, of living, are all things that fascinate me. I’ve never wanted to be in a band or make music (aside from one 2-hour stretch the other evening when I downloaded GarageBand onto the iPad, which quickly faded); I’ve always just wanted to understand better what music is for, and how it does what it does, and how and why we use it, and love it so much.

Mark’s book on Zaireeka is one of only three books about music that have ever made me feel elated to identify with the thoughts within. The other two are The Manual by The KLF, and Music: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cook. Lester Bangs, Paul Morley, etc etc, all that romantic stuff, that postmodern stuff, it can go to hell. These three books, exploding, in simple terms and brief formats, how music works (Cook), how the music business works (or worked: The KLF), and how we use music (Richardson), moved me emotionally far more than reams of emotive prose about The Velvet Underground. All three of them made my eyes well up a little. Maybe that’s weird.

So what did I actually listen to? On the journey to London I listened to the Panda Bear album again, as I read, and then the Nicolas Jaar, still reading. On the way back I listened to Panda Bear for a third time of the day, and then All Eternals Deck by The Mountain Goats, which I’ve been asked to review for someone, and then I listened to the first 6 tracks of Let England Shake. It struck me during the PJ Harvey record that the three albums I listened to yesterday were on a continuum; at one end is John Darnielle, organic instruments and voices, drums, guitars, bass, piano, clear songs, clear melodies, words and emotions, a band-playing-live-in-a-room sound. At the other end is Panda Bear, floating in a reverberating haze, repeating beatifically, semi-incoherent, intangible. And in the middle is PJ, her songs as direct as John’s but hidden behind mist.

On the way home I tried to write about Source Code on the iPad, but found the train’s motion too much to overcome, and ceased. I typed the following over the course of listening to Tomboy:

“Sod writing. Let’s just listen and watch the world go by as dusk encroaches.

Can’t leave my bloody phone alone. Reminded of baudrillard thing about a life of screens. Screens screens everywhere.

Scheherazade made me think of infinite expanding shared subconsciousness. Because that’s what pop music is for.”

I got home circa 10pm and watched some TV before I went to bed.