Tag Archives: pj harvey

PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)

Stories+from+the+City+Stories+from+the+Sea+Stories+from+the+City+StoriesLike many teenage boys I was scared of and confused by women for a long time. Especially strong, passionate, intelligent women. I suspect this isn’t all that unusual given the culture we live in, sadly. I was also, as an adolescent, bemused and perplexed by the idea of solo artists – for a handful of years back then I liked bands, and the platonic essence thereof, and I was intrigued by the dynamics thereof (and still am), and couldn’t quite see how one person could produce something as multifaceted and complex as I was generally looking for in music. I’ve never subscribed to the myth of the romantic artist or the lone genius, and I had somehow come to the belief that (slightly antagonistic) collaboration was the key to artistic success (in music). The Beatles, and all the cultural mythology that surrounds them, are probably to blame for this. I had a vague notion that all solo artists would be like folk singers, dolefully strumming acoustic guitars and maybe mouth-farting into a harmonica occasionally whilst telling me a boring story. Bob Dylan, and all the cultural mythology that surrounds him, is probably to blame for this.

Which is to say that, apart from brief glimpses of videos (“50ft Queenie” as a particularly memorable example thereof) or snatches of singles on the radio (“Down By The Water”, for example), I didn’t listen to PJ Harvey during the 90s at all, because she was a woman and a solo artist to boot, too. In 2013 I feel rather stupid about this; I wasted a decade in which she was a prolific and vital musical force, one that came from (essentially) my neck of the woods and who, I would discover in 2000 with Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, I find to make beautiful, exhilarating, emotion-rich music.

I’m not sure what it was what prompted me to dive into PJ’s oeuvre with this record; the acclaim it received, a certain emotional and aesthetic maturation in my listening habits, the way people described it as being melodic and direct, the fact that it’s the only PJ Harvey album that Captain Beefheart didn’t like (she solicits his opinion of each album prior to release), but some confluence of circumstance occurred, I tried it, and I was smitten.

Listening again, knowing her full discography, worshiping the energy of her debut and the drama of To Bring You My Love and the artistry of Let England Shake and the raw passion of Rid Of Me, and the punchy, guitar-driven songs and clear vocal melodies that typify Stories… now seem a little prosaic to me, but at the time it was an incredible gateway drug. I went backwards through her records, discovering the rich textures and emotions and changes of direction that existed elsewhere, and cursed my teenage self for being scared of listening to PJ Harvey for so long.

Ironically, the opening four songs are all so clear, so direct, so good, that they almost merge into one in my mind, harmonium and electric piano and keyboards and accordion mixing together into anonymous beds of sound which exist purely to drive the melodies, which are bright and lucid. The thrashing guitars and throaty energy of “This Is Love” and the lusty haze of “This Mess We’re In” add texture, but even the elegiac, deathly “Horses In My Dreams” and dreamy, metronomic “We Float”, which are both beautiful, feel a little like exercises in producing perfect moments for AM radio. The unhinged, black-eyed savagery and uncompromising, beautiful art of PJ’s best, most idiosyncratic work isn’t quite present, but Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is still an amazingly communicative, forthright, and brilliant record.

Let’s talk about Destroyer

Over Christmas and New Year I read Carl Wilson’s excellent book about Celine Dion, in which he examines not just Dion’s music (and the album Let’s talk About Love in particular) but also her ontology, her place in Canadian, and specifically Quebecoise, culture, and the nature of kitsch, emotionalism, and above all taste.

Much of the rumination on what Celine means in French-Canadian culture is, of course, a little lost on a boy from South Devon, but the stuff about the nature of taste appealed massively to my interest in the utility of music, the question of what we use it for and how we choose it. In particular, at one point, Wilson describes Sonic Youth as (and I’m quoting from memory here, as I’ve lent the book to Rob, so forgive me if I’m a little wrong) a band who make music which is especially well suited to a certain kind of “aesthetic contemplation”.

This idea of “aesthetic contemplation” seemed to ring home particularly hard, more so than the stories from Celine fans about exactly what it was about the woman and her music that they loved, and more so than Carl’s own perspective of a disintegrating relationship and a kind of typical white-male emotional reserve.

(Unsurprisingly these tales revealed Celine’s fans not to be brainless housewife drones gazing into the middle distance whilst changing a nappy to the strains of “My Heart Will Go On” and dreaming of a handsome lover from the wrong side of the tracks with a heart of gold, which I suspect may be the default straw(wo)man fan in the minds of a certain kind of pop fan.)

Being well suited to “aesthetic contemplation” isn’t, I imagine, the predominant thing most people look for when they go about the business of choosing what music to listen to. In fact, most people try and avoid choosing what music to listen to as much as possible; from digital radio to last.fm to iTunes Genius, technology is getting better and better at choosing music for us.

But for many “serious” (I use the word practically pejoratively) music fans, the kind who are, or would aspire to be, “critical” and “discerning” in their listening, “aesthetic contemplation” is probably a more likely end-use of music than, say, dancing. Which is why, perhaps, drawing on Carl’s theories, music like Sonic Youth wins more critical favour than music like Celine Dion. And why albums like Destroyer’s Kaputt can inspire such fervent, frenzied discussion.

A week or so ago, Charlie on ILM drunkenly started a thread asking if Destroyer’s Kaputt is any better or worse than PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, after the former beat the latter in the forum’s end-of-year poll. I got in early, said something about Kaputt being very American and Let England Shake being very English, and imagined the thread would die off relatively quickly, as both albums have been discussed to death on ILM over the last 12 months.

But it didn’t. It went on and on and on and on and on, to over 800 posts, many of them very detailed and considered and impassioned, and most of them extolling Kaputt’s virtues.

I included Kaputt in my favourite albums of 2011, positioning at number 5, but not saying much beyond a surface reading of the aesthetic and how lyrically compelling it is. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to it more and more, and even bought a second copy of it on CD in order to get another 20 minutes of it (in the form of vinyl & UK only track The Laziest River, which takes up all 20 additional minutes in a hazy, semi-ambient amble).

Kaputt is, as for many people I gather, my first exposure to Destroyer. Initially I was intrigued but not struck; Dan Bejar’s weak, walkabout voice is an acquired taste, which didn’t come across well compared to my other favourites of 2011 (Patrick Wolf, PJ Harvey, Wild Beasts, Antlers), his lyrics are complex and abstruse, requiring an amount of attention to decipher their intricate layers which I’m not entirely used to giving, and, on Kaputt at least, the song structures are so meandering and keen to avoid obvious repetition (there’s nothing so uncouth as a chorus) (and yet, somehow, it’s still catchy) that one can easily find oneself lost in a tune’s topography.

Still, there’s something exquisite here, on many levels: lyrical, musical, physical. The sound of it is a rich pleasure, with extravagant, fretless basslines and twirling horns atop a bubbling plateau of synthesizers and modernist ambience. Yes, aspects of it are descended from a very particular kind of smooth 80s sophistication, with gated, damp-sounding, synthetic drums, and echoing, distant trumpets, but there’s such care here, such love, such craft (everything is rendered and mixed beautifully), that it’s clearly not merely the homage or pastiche that some people claim.

Bejar’s claimed Kaputt to be his most ‘pop’ record, which seems bloody-minded when you take his lyrics, vocals, and winding, chorus-avoiding structures into consideration. But somehow it is: although there’s a huge amount of space between his vocal lines, acres of drifting time where guitars, synths, keyboards et al vamp off each other like cool kissing cousins, there are also an obscene amount of nagging hooks; the sudden eruption of a guitar solo, a bizarrely-phrased lyrical turn which doesn’t scan melodically but somehow gets stuck in your head, one of those glistening trumpet runs. At times the album can feel like a procession of strange, delightful moments. Because that’s what it is.

Lyrically I’ve still not got to grips with it; I’m not sure I can. When Bejar sings “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME / all sounds like a dream to me” in the title track it feels almost as if he’s breaking the fourth wall, or whatever its musical equivalent might be, but I’m not sure how. It’s almost like Kevin Rowland exhorting Dexys Midnight Runners to “make this precious”, the sound of a ravenous, helpless, compulsive music fan singing about making music itself. But Bejar is at a remove, singing about dreaming about making music, or remembering dreaming about making music.

Ironically, he’s said in interviews that Kaputt is the album where he’s paid least attention to the words, that it’s all about the delivery and not the content. Which might seem strange given that he’s hardly Rufus Wainwright, but he’s doing something here, something unusual that I haven’t come across before, which feels avant-garde and mysterious and intriguing. I’m not a songwriter so I never know how anyone has written any given song, but here I really cannot fathom how these compositions might come together. Bejar’s said he couldn’t play you any of them on a guitar. But he could sing them to you unaccompanied.

The more I listen to Kaputt, the more fascinated by it, moved by it, and excited by it I become. That’s an amazing trick to turn.

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.

The Best Mercury Music Prize Winner Ever?

Mike started a thread on ILX polling the twenty albums to have won the Mercury Music Prize since its inception in 1992, and people, as they are wont to do, went about it by listing all 20 album and proffering (generally negative, sarcastic) opinion on all of them, one by one, in chronological order.

A few years ago this would have been the kind of activity I’d have been fulsomely involved with, but my working days for the last couple of years haven’t afforded me the time to keep tabs on forum discussions like this, so I read the morning’s posts during my lunch and the afternoon’s when I got home from work and longed to get involved. Rather than post directly into the thread it struck me that this is the kind of thing I should probably blog about while I’m invalided out of cycling (perhaps more on that later), so here I am, this evening, with the laptop and a list of winners and my abhorrent and disgusting elitist opinions.

1992 – Screamadelica – Primal Scream
Matt, who is the same age as me, posted this about Primal Scream’s opus: “Voting for Screamadelica now is like admitting defeat, a bit like buying Beatles albums because you can’t think of anything else you want.” Earlier this year I bought the remaster of Screamadelica, after much deliberation, pretty much exactly because I wanted to buy a new CD but couldn’t think of anything actually new. And I already own all the remastered Beatles albums. So I can empathise.

I do love Screamadelica dearly though, and enjoyed revisiting it again massively in the late spring and early summer. Despite it being the inaugural winner, I never think of it as a Mercury album, for some reason, so it seems strange to consider that it might be my favourite on this list.

1993 – Suede –Suede
I like Animal Nitrate; the guitar is awesome, and sounds like a synthesizer. It overwhelms the bass and drums almost completely (not hard to do, admittedly), but beyond that song Suede mean practically nothing to me. I think I owned this album, and Dog Man Star, once upon a time, pre-university, but lent them out and never bothered to call the loan back.

1994 – M People – Elegant Slumming
I have never heard this album; it is one of only three on this list that I haven’t. M People exist for me even less than Suede do. This seems to be routinely laughed at as the most incongruously mainstream winner of the Mercury, M People aligned with Simply Red as pseudo-sophisticated pop it’s OK to dismiss out of hand.

1995 – Portishead – Dummy
Portishead command my respect but I will never love them. I prefer Third, these days, to Dummy. Again, I think I lent this to someone before I went to university – I did buy another copy, though. I can’t remember the last time I listened to it.

1996 – Pulp – Different Class
I feel much the same way about Pulp as I do Portishead – there are a handful of songs, generally singles, from across their career that I adore in the way one adores anything that you never think of except when in direct contact with it. Which means that I never put an album on, not even this one. 1996 also marks the first year where my favourite record on the shortlist may just have been the notorious token jazz choice – Courtney Pine’s Modern Day Jazz Stories, which would have split my vote with Underworld.

1997 – Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms
We still own this; I doubt I’ve listened to it since 1998, though. Drum n bass never really spoke to me, though the surface aesthetic appealed; it’s too urban, I suspect. I like my electronic music to be expansive, to speak of open skies and coastal vistas, or else to be microscopic and solipsistic. I should probably play this again, and a handful of other drum n bass and jungle records we own (Goldie, Boymerang, T-Power), if only because unlistened-to records may as well not exist.

1998 – Gomez – Bring It On
Oh, Gomez. I owned this, and sold it later on, after their second album seemed to lose all the idiosyncratic, accidental garage-pop-blues charm that a handful of songs on this managed to achieve, and instead turned into trudging, worthy, heritage-railway rock.

1999 – Talvin Singh – OK
Much like Roni Size, we own this but it’s been unplayed in over a decade. That these are essentially the only two “electronic” / dance (as opposed to “urban”, whatever arbitrary genre tags mean) records to win the Mercury saddens me a little. Where were Orbital, Underworld, Four Tet, Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, Boards of Canada, etc, etc, etc? Some of them got nominated, sometimes, but none of them won, when Talvin did. A nice record, as I recall, a good, and worthy record, but not one that excited or delighted me.

2000 – Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast
I make no qualms about having loved this record. 2000 felt like a very strong year to me, and this, alongside XTRMNTR, was a highlight. It’s overlong, it meanders terribly, many of the songs are unfinished snippets and snatches, but it oozes melody and character and charm, even if he looks, and sometimes sounds, like a busker. I’ve just put it on again. Those opening strings and trumpets, giving way to gently strummed, melancholy, but not sad, guitars. It’s lovely, unassuming, pleasurable, sonically varied, as songs dissolve, or are submerged, or emerge from behind bus stops, beguile for a moment, and then pass by to leave another melody in place. But still, XTRMNTR wasn’t even shortlisted, and it felt like an epochal work of art to me as a 20 year old. Occasionally it still does.

2001 – PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
I think this felt like the moment when the Mercury started to feel like it mattered as a cultural event; perhaps it coincides with me finishing university, coming home, starting to really use the internet as a channel for discussing music; maybe it was the gravitas of the way Polly won, trapped in Washington watching the Pentagon burn. This was my gateway drug into PJ Harvey, who had always scared me before. I love her catalogue right the way through now; the conversion was strong and comprehensive. This isn’t my least favourite record by her, but perhaps is the one I’ve outplayed the most.

2002 – Ms. Dynamite – A Little Deeper
I loved the singles from this but never fell for the whole record. I was thoroughly happy for it to win, though; the field in 2002 seemed a little wan and pale. Looking back at lists of albums from 2002 and it seemed like a strong American year – Wilco, Missy Elliott, Spoon, Justin Timberlake. I was deeper into mainstream radio pop than any other time, and Ms. Dynamite fitted that pretty well. I may have preferred The Streets to have won, but my passions didn’t run deep, I don’t think.

2003 – Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner
This was the year I flipped for Four Tet and Manitoba, was asked to write for a specialist electronic music journal (as if I was some kind of authority rather than a dilettante– ha!), and felt as though rock and indie had collapsed beyond the point of ever being saved. Like Ms. Dynamite, I never really fell for Dizzee beyond the singles, but I was pleased to see him win, I think. If not him, who? The Thrills? Please no.

2004 – Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
Better this than Keane, but really, 2004 felt to me like a year on a different planet to the judges and the shortlist. I can only presume that no one paid the submission fee for Bark Psychosis…

2005 – Anthony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
I was convinced, utterly, that this would be the year, that Polar Bear would win, that the token jazz nomination would no longer be token, that the panel would throw hands up and say “you know what? the rest of these records suck”. But alas, they pulled the wild card, the record nobody expected to be nominated because everyone thought he was American, and, besides, nobody expected it to be nominated because nobody had heard of him. Steve, who I worked with for a while, had worked in marketing for the bank that sponsored the award this year, and asked to be involved in the awards. He claimed he was delighted that this record won, even though it pissed off his employers mightily. I believe him. I like the record, too; but I adored, adore, the Polar Bear, and thought this really would be the year.

2006 – Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
I liked half the shortlist in 2006, and hoped for Richard Hawley or Guillemots to win. Even the actual winners thought Hawley was robbed. This felt like a safe political choice, a return to populist indie, after the curveball of 2005, but really, I think the potential politics of this award are over-emphasised by naysayers – I’ve emailed Simon Frith asking if I could get on the panel, and he replied with advice that I was silly not to pursue further. It’s always difficult to find out who is actually on the panel, and I try most years without success. I suspect that it’s actually just the same as any committee – consensus belies passion, and breeds conformity, which is why so often a safe and disappointing choice is made, rather than any ulterior motives.

2007 – Klaxons – Myths Of The Near Future
As borne out by 2007’s choice, which shows that no one on the panel can have had any sense, let alone any ulterior motives. I thought 2007 was a fantastic year for music – Battles, Caribou, Patrick Wolf, 65daysofstatic, LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, Studio, Electrelane, Menomena, Stars Of The Lid – but the Mercury nominations from that year make no sense to me at all. I recognize barely any of the names. OK, most of the records I’ve just listed where American or Canadian, but even so. Klaxons is the second of three Mercury-winning albums I’ve never heard, because what little I did hear angered me (in the midst of my sound-quality campaign). Probably the most wrong-headed winner of the 20, to my mind; I’d been convinced that Acoustic Ladyland’s epochal (to me) Skinny Grin would be not just the token jazz choice but the only really exciting, experimental choice, and would thus win. It didn’t even shortlist.

2008 – Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
Not their best album, but probably the one I wanted to win. 2008, as I’ve written before, felt like a dreadful year for music, and this was a dash of comfort. I cannot begrudge the panel or the winners at all, even if it was an unexciting choice.

2009 – Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
Poor Speech Debelle has probably been the victim of the most opprobrium for winning, as if it was somehow her fault that she was up against such absolute tosh as Glasvegas and Kasabian. My own British favourites from the year, Fuck Buttons, Super Furry Animals, Patrick Wolf, all escaped nomination, and I was left thinking that I’d quite like The Invisible to win for obscurity giggles. The previous year’s winner had seen it as a vindication and celebration, and experienced a tipping point that pitched them into stadiums and living rooms across the nation. Speech Debelle, whose album I have not heard and have no opinion of whatsoever, was lambasted from all sides as being worthy, urban, black, female, as ticking boxes and being chosen for that rather than for her music, as being a choice emblematic of the do-gooder liberal taste-maker ennui that the Mercury is purportedly guilty of. My brother-in-law tells me he loves her album, is shocked that she was the object of such scorn. Heaven only knows what Matthew Cain thinks. Me? I don’t pay attention to lyrics so there’s sod-all point in me listening to it, at a guess.

2010 – The XX – XX
I wanted Laura Marling or Wild Beasts to win, really, or These New Puritans, Steve Mason, and Four Tet to have even been shortlisted. The XX seemed like the obvious consensus choice, and I am fine with that. It’s a stylish record, but a little vapid to me. It suits the endless incidental-music usage it has fallen into. So it goes.

2011 – PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
So it’s almost certainly a pitched battle between the first winner and the latest winner for my favourite. Right now, PJ wins.

Why I’m pleased Let England Shake won the Mercury Music Prize

My wife was reading Matthew Cain’s spectacularly wrong-headed blogpost over at the Channel 4 website earlier and exclaiming things like “has he looked at the winners over the last 20 years?” and “there’s only two obscure artists this year and one of them’s the token jazz one”.

Cain seems to think that Let England Shake, Harvey’s fourth nomination for and second winner of the Mercury Prize in her twenty-year career, is an obscure album that “no-one liked or bought”. Let England Shake actually garnered pretty massive critical acclaim, and has sold 70,000 copies since February. For a “difficult” female artist in her 40s releasing a concept album about the first world war, in the midst of a collapsing record industry which has harboured inherrent sexism and ageism at the best of times, 70,000 units seems pretty good to me – especially when you consider that sales have shot-up by 1000% since the prize was awarded last night, surely propelling the record towards gold status.

Judging by Cain’s blog post and tweets, he’s actually just miffed that his beloved Adele didn’t win, and carrying some kind of schoolyard trauma regarding being teased by the cool kids for not liking whomever they thought was cool that morning. Both of which would be fair enough if he was just another amateur voice in the social media maelstrom, but when he’s employed as C4 News’ cultural correspondent and placing his opinions under their masthead, it seems a little… embarrassing. Even if you don’t particularly like PJ Harvey, it’s churlish in the extreme not to recognise the artistic and musical merit of the record. The XX wasn’t my favourite album nominated last year, but I could totally understand why the judges chose it without getting my knickers in a twist about ulterior motives.

I could go into a prolonged examination of what the Mercury Prize is for, and what it’s worth, and how irrelevant it is, and how I’m irritated that Patrick Wolf and Wild Beasts didn’t get nominated, and how not enough electronic music gets nominated, and how, if they’re not to be perceived as a joke, one of the token jazz nominations surely must win one year, but the fact remains that, over the last decade of its existence in particular, the Mercury Prize has proved to be a very valuable part of the British musical landscape – it gets people interested in, talking about, and buying music, and generally music that sits a little bit out of usual mainstream cultural saturation. That’s a good thing, unless you’re Speech Debelle.

But actually I’d rather lavish yet more praise on PJ Harvey. Let England Shake may have been the obvious choice for the Mercury judges, the bookies’ favourite, but it deserved that esteem. Alongside Wild Beasts, it’s the album I’ve listened to by far the most this year, an album that, despite the specificity of its theme and topography, works incredibly well in a number of contexts – on the living room hi-fi with soe oomph, on the iPod while ambling through town or countryside, in the car, curled up on the sofa with a pair of headphones. We listened to it as we drove through the mountains of Andalucía in June and it worked there as well as it did on misty Devon mornings in early spring.

Maybe this is because it’s a record that lures you enticingly, and comprehensively, into its own world, a world outlined with sound and coloured in with words, a world of mud and blood and meaningless death. I find Let England Shake both exceptionally aesthetically pleasing, from the organic, hazy grooves of the autoharp and drums to the intriguingly appealing dissonance of the strange samples and musical appropriations, and also incredibly emotionally moving, the starkness of the lyrics and the distanced delivery of the vocals which obliterates any traces of mawkish sentimentality. It feels to me like a masterpiece, like a work of art, like something that will only grow in stature and influence and importance as the months and years pass. Looking down the lost of past Mercury winners, and only Screamadelica, and perhaps Dummy, stand out as being of the same quality as Let England Shake, to my ears at least. My favourite Mercury winner ever.

Music we have listened to in the mountains

We knew that the house where we’ve been staying in Andalucía had no TV and no internet (theoretically; we found some going spare on the roof) when we booked it, which was kind of the point – this holiday has definitely been about getting away from it all. But we also knew that it has a CD player (two in fact), and while we suspected that they wouldn’t quite be up to my usual standards of fidelity, we thought we’d bring some music along, just in case.

So a couple of nights before we left I tweeted asking for recommendations of music to bring along, and inspired by the answers received (thank you all) we selected about 18 albums to pack into our old CD travel case (not something which gets used that often in the iPod age).

(Regarding what people recommended: there were a handful of things I’d never heard of or didn’t own; lots of postrock, most of which I felt was a bit too doomy for the kind of break we had in mind; and some ambient / gentle electronic stuff, which seemed like a very sensible option, but not something I’d want too much of).

So, here is what we’ve been listening to, when we’ve been listening, over the last six days in the mountains. I’ve broken it into two chunks; music we’ve listened to in the house, and music we’ve listened to in the car (after I got comfortable enough on crazy Spanish mountain roads to be able to have music on).

en el interior de la casa

Luomo – Vocal City
Susumo Yokota – Grinning Cat
Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase
Yokota and BoC were both Twitter recommendations; the former someone I’ve to listened to or thought about in probably six years, but who instantly seemed like a good suggestion. I picked Grinning Cat over the other three or four albums we have as, well, we couldn’t take a real cat with us; I also remember it being more cheery than The Boy And The Tree or Sakura, if less ambiently beatific.

BoC just seemed like such an obvious choice that I hadn’t considered; I picked Campfire Headphase as I feel I have more ownership of it than most of their other material; perhaps because I reviewed it for Stylus way back when.

Luomo’s minimalism I thought would suit the massive blue skies I was anticipating, and I thought would also be good to read to; it was – all three of these albums got listened to while I read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

Caribou – Andorra
Panda Bear – Person Pitch

Andorra begins with the same first three letters as Andalucía, and I suspect is similarly mountainous, sun-drenched, and beautiful; the album certainly is, dynamic rhythmical peaks and troughs, stretches of exquisite beauty, and sunshine melodies abound. I think Emma put this on the CD player, again while we were reading in the first two nights here, but rather than encouraging me to consume words on the page I found it distracting; probably because I like it so much.

Person Pitch I bought because Noah Lennox lives in Lisbon, which is where he made the album as I recall, and I wanted to see if the aesthetic transplanted as well as I suspected to the Mediterranean; it does. In fact it works so well with pueblo blancos and views of the straight of Gibraltar that I’m tempted to slap anyone who over-emphasises its Beach Boys / West Coast heritage. Again, it was put on while we were reading, but distracted a little; though not as much as Andorra. I don’t think we got all the way through it before either going to bed or leaving the house (I forget when exactly we played it).

Brian Eno – Before and After Science
Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

The Eno I brought because I’ve been hankering after listening to it since I chose Another Green World for Devon Record Club; there’s been a recent ILM poll about it, too.

The Marling I brought because Emma loves it as much as I do, if not more. However, neither of us could identify it just from the picture on the disc, so we played it blind; the opening rising note almost fooled me into thinking it was another ambient album for 15 seconds; we wee both pleased when it wasn’t. I remember I purchased this album in Tesco, as a present for Emma, one evening in the week of release while popping out for bread or something. Perhaps the best thing I’ve ever bought there.

en el interior de la automóvil

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
The Patrick Wolf and Wild Beasts albums have both lead to me talking about this record in recent weeks as one of my three favourites so far this year, but I’ve not actually listened to it in a while, hence bringing it on holiday. I also had a fleeting suspicion that, despite its overt Englishness, it might work well when translated to Spain, and Andalucía in particular; the graphic talk of limbs hanging from trees and men hid with guns in valleys could easily be about struggles against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, or any of the other pitched battles this part of the world has seen, against the Moors, the English, everyone else who has seen the gateway to both the Mediterranean and Africa as strategically essential territory. Likewise the colonial influences o the music here, samples of Arabic singing, reggae lilt, Constantinople, etc etc. I was right; of course Let England Shake is of such quality that it works anywhere, for anything, but it was particularly good as we drove the winding, ascending and descending road from Gaucin to the autovia on the way to Tarifa, the southernmost point of all Europe.

Beirut – The Flying Club Cup
Wild Beasts – Smother
Four Tet – There Is Love In You
Owen Pallett – Heartland

The Beirut was brought because a; I believe he has a new record soon, which I am looking forward to, and b; because of its European influences. Admittedly these are French rather than Spanish, but beyond Spanish Bombs by The Clash I couldn’t think of a great deal of music we owned with any kind of Spanish heritage at all. Given the dross I’ve heard being pumped out of young men’s cars, and the horrific selection available in the one music shop we ventured into in Gibraltar (they had the Joe McElderry album, for heaven’s sake; I’ve never even seen it in the UK), I’m not surprised by this, but vaguely inspired to investigate; there must be some Spanish music that doesn’t make me feel ill, surely? Recommendations welcome.

Wild Beasts was brought simply because I’m in love with it at the moment; likewise Four Tet, which I was in love with so dearly last year but haven’t played in so long, such is the arbitrariness of the cut-off points music geeks enforce on themselves. It fitted the winding coastal road out of Tarifa beautifully, even more so than Smother fitted the frustrating mission to find a parking space in Tarifa.

The Owen Pallett album was brought along for two reasons; firstly much the same call to listen to a favourite from last year as with the Four Tet, and secondly I thought it would fit well with the Beirut (Owen guests on the Beirut album). We listened to Heartland on the second stretch of the return journey from Tarifa, as we wound our way back through the mountains. It struck me that it would make an excellent choice for the record club one time…

We have another 24 hours before we leave for Malaga airport and home; if we listen to any more music tonight, which we may, as after three nights out in a row I think we want a quite evening with a bottle of wine and books again, I shall make a note and edit in our choices.

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

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.