Sun Kil Moon are a band, well, bloke, that’s kind of passed me by. Now I love a good middle-aged American singer-songwriter dude as much as the next – after all Bill Callahan and Mark Eitzel are regularly played round here – but you can have too much of a good thing. And whilst Mark Kozalek’s solo material has wandered through my Approved Mobile Listening Device occasionally, it’s never really stuck.
Until now, that is, with the release of his new LP1 Benji. Or at least, single “Ben Is My Friend”, which ends the album on a particular high. It’s a tale of writer’s block, of increasingly frustrating middle age, of leg pain, and of seeing a friend play to 8,000 people when you used to see him on tiny stages fourteen years previous. All these things I am more than familiar with (aside from the friend bit; none of my friends have quite found success in that way). This tale of understated woe may seem tedious; after all, a guy talking in a particular key about ordering crabcakes in a sports bar could become somewhat superfluous, but in Mark’s steady hand, with a sax-led backing, you find yourself singing along. Until you realise that you’re singing “Blue Crabcakes” in a tuneless warble far too loudly, and your loved ones are backing away slowly.
In short, the album seems good, so far; “Ben’s My Friend” is genius.
The Soundcloud is here, but some jackass posted it as “SK Moon”:
I got an email from a PR before Xmas. Ok, I get a lot of emails from PR people and each one provides me with a little burst of guilt in recognition of the fact that I will never, ever listen to the stuff they are sending.
Except this one was different. It told me that Paul Thomas Saunders – a longstanding favourite round here despite the fact he’s only ever released a handful of EP’s – has signed to Atlantic Records. Atlantic! Home of some fucking great soul music! And…er….The Darkness! Despite that, it’s been wonderful to see an artist who first came to my attention1 a few years ago when he was releasing tracks here and there on tiny labels, to get A Proper Record Deal. Yes, such things still exist.
And here he is with a new track. He’s parked the reverb-laden guitars for reverb-laden keyboards, but the glorious other-worldliness remains, and I can imagine the new EP Good Women will be filled with much the same. Have a listen to taster track “Mutually Assured Destruction”, below.
First off this year, here’s something from last year. Trawling around some music blogs using the marvellous Hype Machine, I came across a band called Blessed Feathers. I knew nothing about them whatsoever, other than they made sort of folky, bit of banjoey music, and what I heard was quite frankly, lovely.
So in wanting to dig around a little bit (hey, I do try and put some effort in you know), I came across a single comment in their Soundcloud page which said simply “In February of 2013 we shoved our apartment into a storage unit to travel the continent and live out of a tent. These are songs”. Curious. Now, if I were a proper journalist I’d have followed that up a few days ago, rather than just listening to their songs a bunch of times and going “Hey, this is lovely stuff”.
Turns out there’s rather more to this than just taking a nomadic turn to your life. Donivan Berube met Jacquelyn Brupre whilst working at a pizzeria, but he was a Jehovah’s Witness, and she wasn’t. Trouble ensued, as it shouldn’t do, and just the other day an interview on the NPR website was the catalyst for a fraught and somewhat overwrought set of comments on religion and freedom and whatnot. Donivan has posted a follow up the Blessed Feathers site here in which he makes the salient and ever-lasting point that hey, we should all just get along1.
Which is, of course, 100% correct. There are many people out there who wish to impose their views on you, and tell you that you are wrong for following their own path. These people, Mr Berube and Ms Brupre, are to be mostly ignored. Don’t let the suckers get you down. The grace and delicacy with which you’ve handled this situation is exemplary. I can’t imagine being anything like as nice.
Anyway, back to the music. It’s great, with “Real Song For Emily” being the one I’m listening to the most right now. They had an album out in November last year, as well some EP’s, which should give me plenty to listen to on the cold January morning commute, when all you want is lovingly crafted, beautifully sung songs.
So here’s the second part of my review of 2013. Part one’s here.
The Decent Album By Great American Bands Of Their Generation
Not featured – The National or Arcade Fire. For The National, buck your ideas up, chaps. You can only moan for so long, especially when you are critically acclaimed and loved internationally by legions of fans. For Arcade Fire, without meaning to sound rude, they really were a one-album wonder, weren’t they?
Not a great Low album, but a good one. Ok, maybe I should say a little more. I realised earlier this year that Low are up there as one of My Favourite Bands Of All Time. They’ve been part of my life, on and off, since the late ’90’s, but I never quite got fully – as in, obsessional – into them until The Great Destroyer. With that album, something clicked, and off I went scurrying into their back catalogue. C’Mon was a fantastic album as well. Problem with Low is that they’ve set themselves such a high bar, that anything that jumps gracefully but catches the bar on the way down can only be seen as a failure. Terrible metaphor, I know.
This lot are slowly becoming global superstars. Ok, so their debut made them stars, kind of, but this is the kind of album that cements you in that firmament. Can’t say I listen to it that often though; it’s a record that I admire more than I love.
Well, blow me down with a jazz flute. I, well, no-one, expected great things from Midlake after the departure of singer/songwriter Tim Smith. And they didn’t deliver something great, but they did deliver something pretty good. Without meaning to damn them with faint praise, Antiphon was a much better record than anyone could have hoped for, and in “The Old And The Young”, showed that they had the talent left in the band to make a truly special song.
The Decent Album By Great American Singer/Songwriters Of Their Generation
In which Bill Callahan demonstrates, as if he needs to, that he’s the finest lyricist of his generation. The line “The only words I’ve said today are “Beer” and “Thank you”” paints the kind of picture that a million poets, singer-songwriters, screenwriters and novelists would give their small intestine for. Bill knocks this kind of quality out on every single record. Amazing. What’s even more, the world seems to be slowly, slowly wakening up to him. He sold out a night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2014 so a second night was added, and Amazon happily tells me he’s the #1 seller in “Americana and Country”. There is hope in this world, my friends.
After Kiss Each Other Clean, I had real worries about our ol’ bearded chum Sam Beam. The over-instrumentation, the easy rock production, the running away from everything that made his records so damned special. But on Ghost On Ghost, it all made sense. Whatever impulse he’s got to step away from beautiful, sparse acoustic records and turn to massively detailed, lush soundscapes finally came good. Just listen to “The Desert Babbler”:
The way his vocals rise into the chorus, man, that gets my arm-hairs rising every single time. But I’d pay good money for an acoustic set any time. Make it happen, Sam.
This should, by rights, have sounded their death knell. A series of disappointing records, serious illness, and other such malaise, made me wonder if Josh Homme’s time had finally come. But the brush with mortality, just like it did for Kurt Wagner’s Mr M album last year1, invigorated the fuck out of Mr Homme, and this is the best thing QOTSA have done in years.
The Album Of The Year
Ok, ok, so I said before that I didn’t have a favourite album. But listening back through all these albums I came to realise something. Whilst 2013 hasn’t been a vintage year, there’s been some pretty fine albums. And the two that got me smiling the most are these:
Iron and Wine – Ghost On Ghost
Bill Callahan – Dream River
And there you have it. Who’d have thought that my two favourite records of the year would be by two of my favourite artists? Predictable, me?
As for gigs and the like; well, I didn’t see much this year. But two shows that I did see were Mew and Television, both at the Roundhouse. Whilst the view was terrible for the latter thanks to train trouble and the like, it was great to finally see Venus and Marquee Moon played live. And Mew were reliably superb.
Until next year, folks. Thanks for reading, and for commenting. Hope you have a great New Year.
1 I absolutely guarantee you I am the only person who has found a link between these two records.
Funny old year. To be quite frank, there’s not been a single outstanding album of the year, just a bunch of good albums I’ve enjoyed. Nothing’s massively stood out from the pack, and it says something that much of the music I’ve listened to this year isn’t from this year.
This is probably for three reasons. One, I’m getting older, and simply don’t have the inclination to seek out new music which, by and large, is either overhyped or just not as good as what’s come before. Two, now that Popular Music has been around for about sixty-something years (let’s not get into how old jazz and blues are; this ain’t a jazz or blues blog), pretty much anything released now has to be viewed in a sixty-year history of music. Tough to make something great that’s not been heard a billion times before. Third, I’m lazy.
In which our charming friend finds his voice, and you know what? It’s pretty damned good. Let’s hope he’s right and that he’s worked through his issues on his first three albums, and now he can go and make the superb album that’s certainly in him.
Best Fingerstyle Americana Instrumental Guitar Whatsit Album
I once got drunk with William Tyler, many years ago. Lovely chap, far too modest for his own good, and it’s great seeing him step out from under the Lambchop banner to make a record of luminous beauty.
Meant, like many things this year, to post about this album, but never did. By rights, this should have been terrible – famous dad, hugely influenced by the joint greatest singer-songwriter of his generation1 – but turns out to be a great listen. He could really do with finding is own voice rather than just making a very good Elliott Smith pastiche though.
The Best Song Titles In Post-Rock-Jazz-Noise, Often Involving Jim O’Rourke
Ok, so it was originally released in 2012, but give me some leeway here. I hold no truck for grumpy sods going on about drug abuse unless it’s done exceptionally well and then I love it(see: Mark Lanegan, Elliott Smith). I come close to loving this album, and if I’d heard it in my twenties I’d have worn the record out.
That’s it for Part One. Please join me tomorrow for Part Two.
Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Indeed. Been one of those years, again, and sadly I’ve not been willing or capable of spending time posting stuff here. There’s been music, sure, but much of what I’ve been listening to is old. Either it’s music by artists I know and love and I’ve been digging into their back catalogue, or it’s stuff that I’d either never heard of (Jim Croce?) or I’d never in a million years thought I’d like.
Yep, Fairport Convention. That got me too. Reading the marvellous Electric Eden by Rob Young, I thought “Ok, maybe I should give Fairport Convention a go” and listened to Unhalfbricking on YouTube.
Twenty minutes later, I’ve bought the album, and I’ve now listened to it more than almost anything this year.
Shit, I’m turning into a hippy. People died in The Punk Wars for this kind of thing.
Oh, and believe it or not, but I’m writing my end of year report. Two posts worth. Come back tomorrow.
MP3: Who Knows Where The Time Goes by Fairport Convention
Frightened Rabbit are a band who do all the modern things very well. The band emails and diaries are funny, endearing, informational, and generally make them come across as a nice bunch of lads genuinely bemused by the success they have stumbled upon. They do small gigs in small London venues for their fans, then sell out the big venues too. They use Soundcloud well, they’ve got good PR people, and even though they have signed to a major label they don’t seem to be doing the whole heavy-handed lawyer Mugabe blog shutdown behaviour that’s so plagued US counterparts Band Of Horses.
Which is all very nice. But of course, the main thing is the music, and again they’ve come up trumps with most recent album Pedestrian Verse1, and now EP “The Woodpile”, from which new track “Radio Silence” stems:
The EP can be pre-ordered here. Which is nice. And there’s a rapidly selling out tour too, which is nice, too.
MP3: Swim Until You Can’t See Land by Frightened Rabbit (any excuse to post this)
1 Ok, so it’s no Midnight Organ Fight, but you can’t imagine that lightning would have struck twice there.
Some of Midlake are back, back, back! Back without lyricist and vocalist and all-round lead man Tim Smith, who has legged it to form a band called Harp. New track “Antiphon” certainly isn’t the doomy-gloomy cobblers that infested their last album “The Courage Of Others”, which is right up there near the top of the “Whatever the hell were they thinking?” pile. Some years ago I summed it up as “Minor key, we’re all doomed, here’s a flute solo“1. Which was obviously a shame as “Van Occupanther” was, just, you know, fucking ace.
And a fucking ace record which I still listen to today, and as “Roscoe” is the third most-listened to track in my iTunes4, so I have a vested interest in wanting “Antiphon” to be good.
Which, after a few listens, it seems to be. Good, not great, maybe, but certainly good. With new vocalist Eric Pulido (previous backing vocalist) being a better singer than many frontmen, and assuming that Tim Smith was responsible for much of the moany eco-catastrophe nonsense of “The Courage Of Others”, I’m quietly hopeful that on November 8th, I might be in for a pleasant surprise. More news here, from those marvellous people at Bella Union.
Oh, and a quick tip to the band – when you’re offering the first track from your long-awaited new LP on your website, best tell your web host first, eh?
1 Yes, yes, yes, quoting yourself is the first sign of uparsedness2, but you know what? Go and write your own blog and keep doing it (sporadically) for four years, whilst working and raising kids and all that. Go on, do it.
4 In case you’re interested, joint #3 is “Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear, #2 is “Marquee Moon” by Television and #1 is “Sun Is King” by Laura Veirs, which was something of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one.
Things I wasn’t expecting, relating to Bill Callahan:
1. That he’d release a press photo of him smiling
2. That a photo of Bill Callahan smiling wouldn’t look like a serial killer just released from prison early, even though he did all them murders, and yes, sirree, there’s sure going to be a-killin’ happnin’ again soon
3. That he’d release a dub version of the first single from his new album.
That’s 1 and 2 screwed then
So, Billy Boy has a new album out, named “Dream River“, on 17th September. Call me happy, as “Apocalypse” featured a couple of his finest ever songs (“Riding For The Feeling” still being a regular play round here). The non-dub version of the track “Javelin Unlanding” is below, and is frankly, a tad odd:
I guess he’s been listening to that Jamie XX/Gil Scott-Heron “I’m New Here” cover.
Still, when you’ve written songs like “Teenage Spaceship”, you can do what the hell you like. Your place amongst the immortals of music is assured.