Ding Dong

‘Nuff said.

George Square Thatcher Death Party by Mogwai

Buy “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” by Mogwai

Through The Static And Distance

Music does many things. It can make you dance, it can make you cry, it can make you sing along through joy or loneliness or redemption. Jason Molina’s music was often more complex than a simple dance or expression of sadness. His music was strung through layers of grief and pain and sunlight and understanding; rarely an easy ride, but with a depth and richness than few others can reach, sung by a voice that spoke to you with a bare humanity, with beauty and gorgeous closeness.

My own involvement with Molina’s music was through a sole record; 2003’s Magnolia Electric Company (by Songs: Ohia). I loved big chunks of that record, but something scared me away from delving deeper into his work. Quite why, I don’t know – sometimes, with bands, I get the fear that I’ve already heard their best work and anything else from them will be a crushing disappointment1. So, on seeing a headline yesterday in Drowned In Sound titled “Jason Molina: Farewell Transmission”, my first thought was “Excellent, he’s got a new record out, about time I tried some of his other music”.

Sadly, the article was about how he had finally succumbed to the alcoholism that had dogged him for many years, and he had died at the age of 39. Many musicians struggle with demons; with most of them, the music helps to pull them through and find some way to come to terms with what’s inside. With Jason, the music simply wasn’t enough. Sometimes there are places in the soul that music cannot touch, cannot heal. The standard rock stories of redemption and old age, or glamourous fast living followed by a less glamourous fast death, don’t apply here. The drink took him over years, through numerous interventions and clinics, through friends and family giving their all to save a man they loved. That wasn’t enough either.

The kids are put to bed, the chicken is roasting in the oven. I’m going to go downstairs and listen again to the whole of Magnolia Electric Company, for the third time in as many days. For all of you out there with demons like Jason’s, I hope that the music can reach them, and calm them, even for a little while.

Farewell, Jason.

MP3: I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost by Songs: Ohia

1 If, from this statement, you get a strong whiff of neuroticism with underlying tones of ASD, you’re not the only one, chum.

Buy “The Magnolia Electric Co” Here

When I Go Deaf

Time flies. Whilst I’ve been away, all sorts of things have happened.

A new Yo La Tengo album that sounds like the last ones!1
A new My Bloody Valentine album that sounds like the last one!2
A new Thom Yorke/supergroup album that isn’t as hideously, tooth-clenchingly dreary as you’d expect it to be and is actually, at some points, almost fun!3
A set of Kraftwerk shows so exclusive that I had to cadge a ticket off a mate, and then found another mate just walked up to the doors when it opened, asked “You got any spares?” and was told “Yes, go over to that door there” and he got in 10 minutes later!

Anyway, yes, stuff’s been happening.

And last night a tiny little part of my brain said “Let’s have some Low then” and so my playing fingers responded, last night and today on the commute. Only to hear that there’s a new Low album out. Don’t you love it when that happens?

I love Low.

This makes me a happy man.

The Invisible Way is out on 19th March 2013 on Sub Pop, and you can pre-order it here. Please do so. You won’t regret it.

1 This is not a bad thing
2 This is not a good thing
3 Yes, that got me too

Album Of The Year – M Ward

Once an artist has released a few albums of pure gold, those albums that get an easy 100 plays, they have a nasty habit of plummeting downhill faster than Bode Miller on PCP. Very few bands manage to keep up a level of quality that sets them apart from their peers, and almost all disappear back into the gloom and mire and a possible 2015 reunion tour, remembered by a few loyal fans and few others. The first sign is normally an album that just seems listless, lifeless, lacking in energy and vim and verve and other lively whatnots. Item 1, for the jury’s deliberation, is M Ward’s “Hold Time”. The second sign is a whole load of guest appearances, “superband” recordings and the like. Item 2, “She And Him” and “Monsters Of Folk”. Do you need me to go on?

So it was a great surprise and shock to me when I first listened to M Ward’s “A Wasteland Companion”1. First off, there was the opener, “Clean Slate”. Starting off with that wonderfully dextrous, woody guitar that he can apparently toss off in his sleep, followed by his wonderfully warm, woody voice, I had an inkling that I was in safer hands than his last effort. Then lead single “Primitive Girl” came along, all glam-rock-gone-Americana stomp, initially feeling somewhat thrown off, but with the payoff lines “That primitive girl, she don’t need me” telling me there was more to the song than met the eye.

Song by song tumbled past, each making me think that there was something good happening. “The First Time I Ran Away” with its charming ease. The rollicking rockabilly of “I Get Ideas”, a song that he’s managed to cover not once but twice in entirely different ways. The way that he’d finally managed to make Zooey Deschanel sound not utterly irritating on “Sweetheart”. And the fact that after a whole bunch of albums on which he’s been unable to find a decent song to end on, he’d found four on “A Wasteland Companion”, from “There’s A Key” right through to “Pure Joy”.

And two live shows during the year helped cement my feelings about this record. First off, supporting Feist, made me pleased that so many people seemed to be there to see him, though I can only vaguely remember “I Get Ideas”. But a headline show at a sold-out Koko gave me great, great joy; a man clearly loving what he does, and starting now to reach out to his audience and talk to us, talk to us I say! And that gig made me think that yes, this record was great. Maybe not quite up there with Transistor Radio, or Post-War, but great enough.

1 Now I’m sure I’m being stupid here, but is this solely named after Fallout? Not some Henry David Thoreau essay?

MP3: I Get Ideas (Lauren Laverne Show 200312) by M Ward

Buy “A Wasteland Companion” (CD/MP3). Still under a fiver!

Albums Of The Year – James Blackshaw

As I idly flicked through my iPhone the other day, looking to see what I’d been listening to this year, a thought struck me. The thought was this: In this year of being unadventurous, not actively seeking out much new music, retreating into known acts releasing their umpteenth album, a record that I would choose as one of my favourites of the year would be one by a largely unknown English guitarist whose album takes its name and song titles from a somewhat obscure SF writer named James Tiptree JR. Or rather, Alice B Sheldon.

For “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” is James Blackshaw stepping away from the 12-string, bringing in a vocalist for a song, and learning that sometimes, less is more. His albums have previously been marvellously technical affairs, with a guitar-playing style that borders on the obsessively, ludicrously skilled, leading them to become exercises in going “Oooh, how the hell does he do that?” rather than “Oooh, that’s a record I want to play again and again”. For all their beauty, they do not necessarily have the musical charm to keep you coming back for more. That’s not to say that they weren’t often heartbreakingly beautiful; they were, but at times they were just too much.

But “Love…” is different. Blackshaw has moved to using a 6-string nylon guitar, simplifying his sound, and overlaying gentle piano and other keyboards. Instead of the flurry of notes, there’s more space, a breadth to the music rather than the somewhat cloying feel of some of his older records. That’s not to say he’s suddenly become simple, or easy listening. This isn’t the kind of music you can make without putting a huge number of hours in, refining and purifying each bar, each scrape of nail on string.

The opening, title track, sets out his stall early. I first heard this driving down one of those wide, wide American roads, four lanes and about as many cars, in the twilight of a hot humid day, window down, wanting to hear what James had come up with. As the song progressed, I can still remember thinking to myself “Hold on a second here…” and realising that there was something special going on. “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” follows with delicate arpeggios falling into beautiful chordal work.

Then comes the momentous moment, the moment all true Blackshaw fans had been dreading….the singing. And whilst I’d never knowingly pick out “And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways” to listen to all on its own, it’s better than I was expecting; it’s vaguely reminiscent of one of those Jarboe Swans songs off of “Children Of God”, which I’m assuming won’t insult either Blackshaw himself or singer Geneviève Beaulieu. “The Snows Are Melted, The Snows Are Gone” is probably Blackshaw’s finest piano piece. Normally his piano playing is far, far removed from the skill of his guitar, to the degree that with a fair wind and some practice, I could do a passable replication. On “The Snows…” he’s finally transcended his prior limitations and made a stunning piece of music. Again, it’s not the skill on show, it’s the haunting nature of the melody, the simplicity, the space between the notes.

In all, “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” is Blackshaw’s finest album, an album filled with beauty, melancholy, joy, and above all, tunes. Blackshaw himself might be annoyed to read this, but you know what, great music comes down to melodies that fix in your skull and refuse to be removed. From Beethoven, through The Shangri-Las, to this, they all share that ineffable essence of greatness. By spending less time demonstrating his near-unique skills, he has finally made an album that demands to be played again, and again, and again, to become the album I played more than any other this year.

Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death by James Blackshaw

Buy “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” Here

Albums Of The Year – An Introduction

This year, I haven’t been listening to that much new music. Combination of things, I suppose – tinnitus, laziness, Skyrim, fecklessness – but by and large it’s been trawling through older music and the cursory listen to favourite artist’s new records.

And so there hasn’t been much action round here, which means my normal end of year round-up would seem a bit odd, what with me going on about records that I haven’t really talked about. And there only being about four of them. So instead follows five short-ish essays about the bands who have released albums this year, that I’ve been to see live (mostly), and that I very much enjoyed. As is customary with me, this’ll go on till next year.

But first off, two quick honorable mentions. Firstly, Daniel Rossen, of Grizzly Bear fame, took a slight detour earlier in the year and released a solo EP which was easily as good as most of “Shields”. And secondly, I had the sheer joy of going to a gig and seeing a support act that I quickly realised would be a fixture in my sporadic listening for some time to come. That act was RM Hubberd, who ticks a few of my boxes by:

a. Being a writer of largely instrumental acoustic guitar numbers (with added guitar thwacking for good measure)
b. Being Scottish
c. Being simultaneously miserable and funny as fuck.

So there you go. Seal broken. Go and buy these two records. Both will make your lives better.

Buy “Silent Hour / Golden Mile” by Daniel Rossen here

RM Hubbert-Car Song (featuring Aidan Moffat)

Buy “Thirteen Lost & Found” by RM Hubbert here

There Ain’t No Sanity Clause

It must come as no surprise to anyone to know that Sufjan Stevens loves Christmas. I mean, really, really loves Christmas. If he loved the Great States project anything like as much, he’d be on Rhode Island by now.

But no, he loves, loves, loves Christmas and he wants you and your cat to know all about it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, when he makes videos like these to promote his new Xmas album:

What a whopper it is too – five CD’s worth, with booklets and stickers and bootlaces and an inflatable Santa Claus1. It’s available here or from the usual usual Amazon place.

As for my Xmas present, well, I’d rather like a release of that Solar System concept album he was working on with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner. Wonder whatever happened to that?

MP3: The Midnight Clear by Sufjan Stevens

Not The Stump Song, Sadly

alt-J are one of those bands that somehow come from left-field and suddenly do something unexpected like, oh I dunno, win the Mercury Prize. Now there have been some pretty damn fine winners over the years – PJ Harvey and Portishead, anyone? – and the less good artists that have won have managed to at least be successful, like M People, or the actively awful Primal Scream. alt-J are up there with Roni Size as a “What? Eh?” winner1, and it would be remiss of me to not have a bit of a listen. Thankfully the generally-not-great Later With Boogie Fucking Woogie Jules Fucking Holland came up trumps the other week, and I got a chance.

First thoughts. A bit Radiohead. Singer’s a bit annoying.

Second thought. Might be a grower. After all I wasn’t all that sure about Grizzly Bear until I’d had a few listens.

Third thought. I’m hungry.

So it goes. They’ve got a song on a new filum and all that. Here it is. Listen and make your own mind up. I’m not the boss of you.

1 Nothing whatsoever against Mr Size; just that his win was a bit of a shock and all.

Buy “An Awesome Wave” here (CD/MP3)

Play It All

Shamefully, Caitlin Rose is one of those artists that I somehow managed to miss posting about after a single solitary post back in the day. Why, ask you? Because “Shanghai Cigarettes” and “For The Rabbits”1 were two of my favourite songs of 2010, I reply, and shamefully I forgot at the end of the year. But that was then and this is now. For she has a new record coming out, named “The Stand-In”, and lead single/track/download/Soundcloud whatsit is “No One To Call”.

And it’s bombastic, passionate, melodic, heartfelt, and over far, far too soon for its own good. I’ve just listened to it three times in a row. You should too.

It reminds me of prime Roy Orbison mixed with Loretta Lynn, produced by Phil Spector before he went crazy(er) and started shooting people. February 25th can’t come soon enough.

1See here:

Oh, and here:

Can you believe she was a teenager when she wrote these? Taylor Swift, eat your heart out.

Buy “Own Side Now” (CD/MP3)

That Lovely Idea

One day, I will be rich. One day, I’ll win a big, big lottery win and with that money, I will call M Ward and ask him for some guitar lessons. I don’t care if I’ll have to fly to Portland to see him. I don’t care if I’ll have to pay him much money for this honour. All I’d care about is spending some time with this marvellous individual, just to see how the hell he plays his goddamn guitar.

Because, frankly, there aren’t many people out there who can play like him. Sure, James Blackshaw can do the whole long-fingernails-what-the-blazes-is-going-on-there thing, him from Russian Circles makes some astonishing music with pedals and tapping and whatnot, and there’s all sorts of fretwankery from the likes of Steve Vai, but no-one, no-one I tell you, can take an acoustic and just play and sing and make something astonishing sound like the most natural thing in the world.

And what’s caused this belated mash note? Alcohol? Why, yes, but also having played this little-listened to excerpt from the Lauren Laverne show back in March on YouTube for a good few weeks now, I thought I’d finally say something about it1:

It’s had 2,474 views. I suspect around a hundred of them were me. M Ward has a gift of taking someone else’s song and making it utterly his own. I can only imagine what songwriters that he covers think. He sneaks into their house and moves the furniture, hoovers the carpets and gets some new curtains, and before you know it, he’s inviting them arond for a cup of tea and some cake. And they are glad he’s done it.

Sure, in this case, the songwriter (a certain Julio Cesar Sanders – thanks, Wikipedia!) is long gone, but the idea still remains. Not only has M Ward done one cover of this song, he’s done two – the first being the rock’n’roll version on A Wasteland Companion, the other being the solo acoustic version presented here.

Just listen to the way he strums to keep the rhythm going. Just listen to how he deftly picks out the bassline. Just listen to the elegantly played melody. And just listen to his wonderful warm, soft, intimate singing, full of smiles and love and promise and just a hint of sadness. Above all, just listen.

The guy’s a fucking genius.

MP3: I Get Ideas (Lauren Laverne Show 200312) by M Ward

1 It being dreadfully quiet round here, and all.

Buy “A Wasteland Companion” for £4.99. £4.99! You’d be a fool not to.