Review of 2013 (Part Two)

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?

Runners Up

Yo La Tengo – Fade

Not a great Yo La Tengo album, but a good one.

Low – The Invisible Way

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.

MP3: Plastic Cup by Low

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

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.

MP3: Unbelievers by Vampire Weekend


Midlake – Antiphon

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

    Runner Up

    Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft

    Made me realise just how good July Flame was, that an album as good as this pales in comparison.

  • Joint Winners

    Bill Callahan – Dream River

    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.

  • Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost

    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.

  • The We’re Not Metal, Honest Album

    Joint Winners

    Russian Circles – Memorial

    As ever, fucking majestic. Lighter and heavier than their last record, and just as addictive. Even features vocals, for the first time, for that early Cocteau Twins aura.

  • Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

    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.

    There’s Such A Lot Of The World To See

    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.

    Sweet Jebus

    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.

    Oh, wait, not "Moon"

    Oh, wait, not “Moon”

    MP3: Riding For The Feeling by Bill Callahan

    MP3: I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX

    Buy Bill Callahan Music Here (Now)

    TWOAG Part One – Bill Callahan at The Barbican

    I think I’ve seen Bill Callahan, in one guise or another, play live more than anyone else. Whilst this may mark me out as some kind of strange stalker type figure (and indeed, I did once drive from Zurich to Strasbourg, via Luxembourg, to see him play, during his “Rain On Lens” phase), you do need to consider that this is a man who has been touring for close to 20 years. And I’ve loved his music – and I use the word “love” with absolute honesty – for a good 12. Indeed, I still think that one of my truly happy moments on this planet was driving in the Taunus mountains1 on a warm summer’s evening in a borrowed car listening to “Teenage Spaceship”. When an artist has been part of your life for so long, it’s foolish to not try and catch him live every few years.

    This is starting to get a little hard now. When I saw him in Strasbourg it was to about 50 people. Now, playing in the hardly small Barbican, he’s selling out a venue that comfortably seats 2000 people, with the good seats selling out quickly. After all these years, he’s getting more press than ever before and even being covered by grizzled jazz poet Gil-Scott Heron. There is the distinct possibility that the world at large is waking up to this most talented musician. As I’ve posted before, he’s probably the finest lyricist of his generation, someone whose words are so cunningly crafted that you are teasing out new meanings after years of listening, or are still gobsmacked by the same interpretation ten years later. I, for one, cannot listen to “I Was A Stranger” or “Cold Blooded Old Times” without getting shivers.

    Not that he’s exactly doing much to win over new fans. There’s no flash new live show, in which he interacts with the crowd, telling jokes and stories. No video backdrop. No choir of backing singers, no string quartet, no multi-instrumentalists. No guest spots, or celebrity friends joining him onstage for a duet. Nope, just him, resplendent in a dapper white suit, joined by a permanently-seated guitarist and a drummer who ably replaced Thor by tapping away on the drums with his hands, covering them with a blanket, and carrying out all sorts of jiggery-pokery that at one point Bill turns to him, as he’s rearranging his drumkit, and drolly mutters “Whilst we’re still young….”.

    This is, of course, not quite the Bill Callahan who used to wander onto a barely-lit stage, and play his already doleful songs at half-speed with his back to the crowd2, but you’re left in no doubt that he is here to sing songs, songs which have multiple layers of meaning, need to be unwrapped, need to be misunderstood in haste and unravelled at leisure. Opener “Riding For The Feeling” appears to be telling us about his spoken word tour a few years ago and touring in general (“All this leaving is neverending”), and how it made him reassess what message he was trying to put across to us, dear listeners (“I realized I had said very little about ways or wheels/
    Or riding for the feeling”) but at the back of your mind, you are more than slightly concerned at the use of the word “Riding”.

    Or the stunning “Baby’s Breath”, which, on unravelling, shows the secret and dark history at its core. At least, the secret I think it’s got, the tale of an abortion – all that “living grave” and “she was not a weed, she was a flower” – and although Bill himself has said it’s about the American settlers spreading across the land, having a spotlight shine on my obviously pregnant wife, and with Bill staring at us through the performance of the song, makes me suspect he’s not being entirely truthful to us here. Plus, the final words “Or sing”, growled in that quite worrying bass, also used on “My Friend”, sent shivers down our collective spines.

    All of Apocalypse gets an airing during the night. “Drover” and “America” both thundered out of the traps in a way you don’t quite expect of Mr Callahan. More surprising was a beefed up “Say Valley Maker”, during which his backing band were left free to make a stunning noise. Ok, not exactly Russian Circles, but all the more shocking for the unexpected nature of the noise. There’s still that disconcerting little dance he does, too, which he showed off to us a few times during the evening.

    Don't Go

    “Say Valley Maker” shows another of his little tricks; the repeated words, like “blooms blooms blooms” and “dew dew dew”. “The Well” has that marvellous “black black black”, “Riding For The Feeling”‘s “my my my apocalypse”. A great little trick that gets you to snap to attention. Focussing is of paramount importance seeing him live; watching and hearing him recite his marvellous words close-up brings a whole new layer of clarity. With Bill, it’s all about the words. Even backed by the most sympathetic band I’ve seen him with, your brain is working ten to the dozen to glean meaning, rather than being distracted by a beautiful tune here or there. “Our Anniversary” tells its tale amongst the backdrop of a humid Southern night, all chirping crickets and singing bullfrogs.

    Even the addition of harmonica didn’t spoil the atmosphere, despite Bill’s concerns that “I had a nightmare that you would all walk out when I played this”. Only “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” didn’t work; the band seemingly playing a different time signature and possibly a different song entirely. As for the rest? Superb. Wonderful. Somewhat disturbing. He’s one of the finest living singer-songwriters doing the rounds, and you are a fool to yourself if you haven’t dived deep into his sizeable back catalogue. Or seen him live.

    Harmonica, Melody, And Bill

    Who are the others? Well, I’d put Sufjan Stevens and M Ward up there too, both of whom are visiting London this week. So, The Week Of American Greats it is then.

    1 Without meaning to sound wanky. I lived abroad for many years.

    2 See Ben Thompson’s marvellous “Seven Years Of Plenty” for a brutally apt description of his early shows.

    MP3: Riding For The Feeling by Bill Callahan

    Buy the wonderful “Apocalypse” (CD/MP3)

    The Coming Of The End

    Hearing that Bill Callahan has a new album out will always fill me with a quiet joy. I’ve been a big fan since the days of Knock Knock, a good decade and a bit ago. The new one – cheerily titled “Apocalypse” – is out on the 16th April, and he’s been good enough to release an MP3 of the second track, “Baby’s Breath”.

    A Pretty Painting

    As always, his songs take a few times to get stuck in your craw, to drill under your skin like a particularly unpleasant parasite, laying its horrendous cargo of eggs. “Baby’s Breath” meanders around for a while, then undergoes a quite disconcerting change of tempo. Imagine you’re walking down the street and you pass a strange-looking man, who is gently shuffling along, apparently minding his own business and oblivious to the wider world around him.

    Then, a moment after you pass, he suddenly picks up pace and before you know it, he’s alongside you, whispering basso profundo into your ear about “Reaping what you sow”. You are not entirely sure what he means, but you know, just know that it’s something very, very bad, and you wish you didn’t have to know more, but you will.

    That is what this song does. It is, frankly, utterly disconcerting.

    Ah, Bill, it’s good to have you back.

    MP3: Baby’s Breath by Bill Callahan

    Pre-Order Apocalypse Here

    Bill Callahan/Smog/(Smog), A Quick Retrospective

    Bill Callahan’s got a new album out today. As the man behind Smog, and (Smog), he’s been one of my favourite musicians for over a decade now, since the release of “Knock Knock” got my attention back in 1998. Thanks to my (hopefully) temporarily straightened circumstances, I haven’t pre-ordered the new one, but I spent last night listening to some of his older stuff. Just for old times sake, you know.

    Bill Looking Happy

    Bill Looking Happy

    For me, Bill Callahan has been one of the best lyricists around for some years. He has a disturbing ability to be able to say just enough to discombobulate you. Sometimes, it’s just with a few well-placed words that, on their own, don’t seem to mean much, but as he builds a song to its climax, he says something that makes you stop in your tracks.

    One of the great early examples of this is the song “All Your Women Things” off The Doctor Came At Dawn. In it, he describes how a woman that is no longer with him (and whether she actually left him of her own volition, or whether he got rid of her in some way is tantalisingly, and typically, left unsaid) left all her clothes and other items in his room. All fine and creepy, but then he sings (and look away now if you want to hear it for yourself before going on further):

    “Oh all of these things\I gathered them\And I made a dolly”

    You what?

    “I made a dolly\A spread-eagle dolly\Out of your frilly things”

    Oh Lordy. It was bad enough saying he’d made a dolly out of them, but then saying “A spread-eagle dolly” makes you really, really scared.

    It gets worse:

    “Why couldn’t I have loved you\This tenderly\When you were here?”

    I really hope he means “love” in the cerebral, pure sense, rather than the “make love” sense. Or that would be….eeeeugh. And all this is gently intoned, in almost a monotone, over plucked repetative guitar lines and mournful cello. It’s seriously creepy.

    Next up was “I Break Horses”. I was first turned onto this song by the music journalist Ben Thompson, who in the great Seven Years of Plenty: Handbook of Irrefutable Pop Greatness, 1991-98, described this song as “One that can reduce strong people…to heaps of quivering gelatin”. He’s not wrong. Again, Smog uses his deadpan voice, with just a hint of emotion, to describe how he breaks horses – “Just a few well placed words/And their wandering hearts are gone”.

    But it’s clear that it isn’t horses he’s talking about. His horribly detailed eye for human failings has come to the fore again, and he ends the song with the unpleasantness of “Tonight I’m swimming to my favorite island\And I don’t want to see you swimming behind\I break horses\I don’t tend to them”. Again, it’s about saying just enough to tell you how truly horrible the subject of the song is, without any histrionics.

    Early Smog was generally pretty lo-fi, usually just scratchy guitar and drums, with the occasional cello. But 1997’s LP “Red Apple Falls” was a shock, as the opener started with French horns, of all things. He’d gone through a major change in the way he used instrumentation, and with producer Jim O’Rourke, really opened up the sound. All the better to scare you with, my dear.

    And scariness was still there, to devastating effect, on that album’s “I Was A Stranger”. Still a huge fan favourite, it tells the tale of a new man in town. When my wife (then a new girlfriend) heard it, as we sped through German forests on a weekend trip, she got rather worried that I was actually some kind of serial killer. Listen to it now then carry on reading:

    (Yes, I know it’s rather odd to video yourself miming a song then post it on YouTube, but if the Internet has done one thing, it’s showed the astonishing diversity of humanity)

    Right, got that last line? I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It’s one of the best ending lines of any song – and again, done by just saying the absolute minimum to get his message across. And what’s more, you’re still unclear as to what he’d actually done in the last town. In all the best horror movies, the mind fills in what you’re not shown, and the human brain is really rather good at scaring itself. He doesn’t need to say what he’s done – just say that he was “well known”, and criticises the locals: “And why do you women in this town\Let me look at you so bold?”. Classic.

    Last in this short little retrospective is a rather gentler song, from his last album as (Smog). Now, I wouldn’t want you to think all Bill Callahan/Smog/(Smog) songs are about sociopaths and worse; this song is about how your family can help drag you back from whatever depths you’ve sunk to. To do this, he tells a tale of seeing a gold ring at the bottom of a river, and dives in to take it. But when he’s in the water, he can’t swim back from the bottom and is pulled out by his mother, father, and sisters. Yet again, in simplicity lies beauty. This time, there’s no punchline, just a repetition of the chorus – but now you have the understanding of what he’s gone through to sing those lines.

    I first heard him play this live well before the album came out, and along with “The Well” (sample line: “I guess everybody has their own thing\That they yell into a well”), it got the biggest cheer of the night. By the way, he’s also the only musician I’ve ever seen who does his set-list, then says “Ok, that’s my list – what do you want to hear?” and then takes requests. Having seen him do four live shows now, he does this every time – and he doesn’t appear to be cherry-picking the songs that he’d already decided to play. For a man who really doesn’t seem at all comfortable playing in front of an audience (Ben Thompson described him as “calling into question the whole meaning of the word ‘live'”), it’s an amazing thing to do.

    Anyway, I hope I haven’t scared you off with those songs. There’s loads more I could talk about – even the song titles alone give you some sense of how good he is, from “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” to “Prince Alone In A Studio”. He’s an amazing artist; I just hope that he manages to get the recognition he deserves. And look, no mention of either Cat Power or Joanna Newsom.


    MP3: All Your Women Things by Smog

    MP3: I Break Horses (Peel Session) by Smog

    MP3: I Was A Stranger by Smog

    MP3: Rock Bottom Riser by Smog

    MP3: Eid Ma Clack Shaw by Bill Callahan (from Bill’s new album, Sometime I Wish We Were An Eagle)

    Buy Smog’s “Doctor Came at Dawn” (CD)

    Buy Smog’s “Accumulation:None” (CD)

    Buy Smog’s “Red Apple Falls” (CD)

    Buy Smog’s “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love” (CD)

    Buy Bill Callahan’s “Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle” (CD)

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    New and Old Music – Warp and Bill Callahan

    Warp Records have a special place in my life. When I was getting into dance music, they released a bunch of LP’s under the banner “Artificial Intelligence”. Featuring the likes of Black Dog Productions, Autechre, Aphex Twin (as Polygon Window), B12 and others, they made odd electronic tunes with little or no relevance to any dancefloor you might wander onto. Ranging from strange clanky noise (Mr Twin), melodic tunefulness (B12), ominous rumblings (Autechre), to frankly deranged alien-jazz glitchiness (Black Dog)1, it was an explosion of invention when most people were panting over the dreadful retro-ness of Stone Roses and bloody Primal Scream.

    So, taking their oddness fully to my heart, I listened to those albums again and again and again. Great driving music (I used to regularly drive 300 miles in a Morris Minor so you need something to distract you from the fact that the wheels are going to come off if you go above 90), great comedown music, and quite good fun to scare friends, family and neighbours with. After the label’s electronic start, they diversified into everything from Grizzly Bear to Jamie Liddell. As important a label to music as Rough Trade, or 4AD, or Factory, or SST, they are the work of pure genius.

    Amazingly, it’s their 20th anniversary this year, and they’ve done gone and set up a little vote for us to go and choose our favourite tracks. The top 20 will be released on a compilation later this year. So go on, register, and vote. I’m loftandlost by the way.

    Any excuse to post this:

    Rather different to Intelligent Techno is the work of Bill Callahan (Smog). A longtime favourite of mine, he’s made some truly jaw-dropping music over the last fifteen years or so. Listening to “Teenage Spaceship” whilst driving through the Taunus mountains near Frankfurt one summers evening as dusk drew in, is one of my happiest moments on this sweet earth. Strange what makes some people happy, isn’t it?

    Look, a horsie!

    Look, a horsie!

    Ol’ Bill has moved to Austin, Texas (lovely place) and has recorded a new album which is out on April 14th. “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle” is his thirteenth album, and he’s brought back the horns and violins for this one. Whilst not quite as unexpected as on “Red Apple Falls”, they add some welcome colour to the songs. Of which I have one here, the oddly titled “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”. In it, he tells a tale of dreaming the “perfect song”, only when he wakes, and scribbles down the words, they read “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”. All the keystone Callahan-isms are there, from his sardonic baritone, to the dry, black humour in his lyrics. Bodes well for the album. Let’s hope it’s better than M Ward’s or Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s latest, eh?

    1 I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Timbaland totally nicked Black Dog’s ideas, toned them down a bit, then chucked some rappers over the top. Not to belittle him one bit – he’s fantastic – but it would be great for the originators of that clicky, glitchy sound to get some recognition.

    MP3: Caz by Black Dog Productions

    MP3: Eid Ma Clack Shaw by Bill Callahan

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    Some New Old Music – Grizzly Bear, Here We Go Magic, Devendra Banhart

    Little bits and bobs of Grizzly Bear’s new album keep creeping out, mostly live versions. It’s likely to be one of the highlights of 2009 (well, musical ones anyway), and their last album Yellow House was my most played album of 2008. Yes, yes, I know it came out in 2006. I was busy, ok? (and on that note, whilst I would love to be able to post funky new tunes every day, I really am not disciplined enough to find great things every day. There’s loads of fantastic places for that, and you can find some on the right hand side of this blog. Sorry, rant over. Anyway, next I’ll be finding a great new collective from Toronto called Broken Social Something or other and posting their stuff soon. Oh ok, only kidding)

    Anyway, courtesy of Gorilla Vs Bear, here’s a lovely new-ish live track, called Cheerleader. Certainly promising, and Lord only knows what it’ll sound like after being put through the famous Grizzly Bear Studio Technique. Probably uniquely wonderful in that Grizzly Bear way.

    And whilst we’re on the subject of new albums, here’s a lovely tune from some people called Here We Go Magic. Now I must admit, I know very little about them, but this tune is a charming little bit of dreamy pop. And they are liked by Grizzly Bear. And they like Department of Eagles. Anyone see a connection?
    (In fact, just listening to it yet again, it’s a bit of an earworm this one. I rather likes it)

    And lastly, Kath Bloom, another person about whom I know next to nothing (shame on me) has an album out, consisting of covers by, amongst others, L&L faves Bill Callahan (Smog) and Devendra Banhart, plus an additional sort-of-best-of. Well worth a listen, I say.

    Speaking of which, I’ve just got to post some Bill Callahan/Smog stuff soon. I love him, but not in that way.

    Cheerleader (Live) by Grizzly Bear

    Forget About Him (Kath Bloom cover) by Devendra Banhart

    Tunnelvision by Here We Go Magic