Review Of The Year – Albums, One

2010, for me, hasn’t been a vintage year. No Yellow House, no Funeral, no You Forgot It In People, no Boxer. Some good albums, sure, but there was little that really grabbed me by the balls and forced me to listen. Here’s the first part of a three-part review of the year, with the first two featuring albums, and the last songs, gigs, and other stuff. You can sense this feeling in all those end-of-year lists that have been hosing around the web since the end of November (and, to whit, surely you should do your end of year list at the actual end of the year? No? Oh, just me, then). How many of them have actually agreed with each other on anything? Yes, you could argue that the lack of agreement between anyone this year shows a healthy and diverse musical scene, but you’d be wrong1. It just shows that no-one’s stepped up to the plate and made anything as thrilling, unusual, or just plain damn good as any of those records above.

Out of all the records released this year, there’s been a load of records released by bands who have good form. Records that you’d expect to light up the year. But didn’t. Which leads me onto….

The Year Of Disappointing Records By Bands Who Should Know Better

A whole bunch of records came out this year by some of my favourite bands. From the likes of The Hold Steady and Band of Horses, through to Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, 2010 had the chance to be a bumper year. But for some reason they all turned out to be some shade of disappointing, ranging from “could do better B-“ for Arcade Fire to “See me after D-“ for Band Of Horses. The latter compounded a poor album with the kind of heavy handed blog bullying you’d expect from Metallica or some other horrendously uncool breadheads. The Hold Steady didn’t recover from the loss of Franz Nicolay, and their bread-and-butter-rock’n’roll-with-clever-lyrics just disappointed. Broken Social Scene returned after a pair of disappointing “BSS Presents…” albums with a proper BSS album that was also disappointing. Sufjan Stevens came back with his take on Kid A – and I think about the same of it as I do Kid A. Overall, there’s lots of disappointment round here this year.

The Almost There List (or “Runners-Up”, as more professional blogs may have called them)

For each of the bands who have been plain disappointing this year, there’s also been a bunch who have released new records that haven’t quite hit the heights of their previous records, but are still pretty good.

The National – High Violet

So near, and yet so far. “Boxer” was enthralling and essential. “High Violet” is sporadically fantastic (“Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”), but never quite reaches the peaks of “Boxer”. It’s a very good album, but not quite as good as you, I, and possibly the band themselves, know they can do better.

MP3: Bloodbuzz Ohio by The National

Amazon’s The National Store

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter Of Mixed Drinks

So near, and yet so far. Etc. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” burst in at the end of 2009 and nailed it as my favourite song of the year; I had high hopes for the album, especially after obsessing over the joyously glum Midnight Organ Fight. Nothing on it even comes close to matching “Swim”, sadly, so there’s a faint air of failure around this. Still good though, and well worth it if you’ve worn out your copy of Midnight Organ Fight.

MP3: Swim Until You Can’t See Land by Frightened Rabbit

Amazon’s Frightened Rabbit Store

Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky

Or “How to grow old disgracefully”. If only other bands could reunite and make themselves as vital, as thrilling, and as plain cantankerous as this. See, The Pixies? This is how it’s done.

MP3: Jim by Swans

Amazon’s Swans Store (yes, really)

Spoon – Transference

Still not sure about this lot, despite repeated listening to this undoubtedly good record a whole bunch of times. The problem with deliberately being all clinical and precise is that you can lose the human touch. Then again, the precision has a certain allure that hasn’t tarnished with time, yet.

MP3: Got Nuffin by Spoon

Amazon’s Spoon Store

Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

Ten months on from its release, I’ve still hardly chipped into this record. Too bloody long. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its own sense of beauty, the coherent vision of someone who could safely be called a genius. In years to come, it may make more sense, or it might not, but I’d like to say it’s good now and be proved wrong, rather than the other way round.

MP3: Good Intentions Paving Company by Joanna Newsom

Amazon’s Joanna Newsom Store

That’s it for the disappointments and partial successes. Join me tomorrow for the albums that I properly liked. Not that I didn’t like these ones. Oh, you know what I mean.

1 So sue me

Live – Joanna Newsom, Royal Festival Hall

Joanna newsom is a genius. There, I said it. The G word. A proper, certified, unambiguous genius. There is no-one, but no-one out there (except perhaps Sufjan Stevens) who writes music so perplexing, so full of unexpected twists and turns, with lyrics so poetic and mysterious. She’s something of an enigma. After all, she’s also certifiably beautiful, graceful, whimsical, and more than a little bonkers. Comparisons with Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell are easy to make, but only tell about a hundreth of the story. This woman is once-in-a-decade special, and always a massive pleasure to watch live.

What’s even more pleasurable is, having seen her play only her second London show, back in 2004, developing into such a stunning artist. First time, in the Conway Hall, she was shy and self-effacing, just her and her harp. Now, she’s bantering with band and audience alike, demanding that we ask questions of the band whilst she tunes her harp (standout question – “What’s your opinion of the pedestrianisation of Norwich High Street”; this met with huge applause from the crowd and an exasperated “We’re sitting ducks up here!” from the drummer Neal). Her music has developed exponentially too; from the relative simplicity of “The Milk-Eyed Mender” through the stunning “Ys”, to this year’s baffling, astounding, and undoubtedly soon-to-reach-modern-classic-status-once-we’ve-all-listened-to-it-100-times “Have One On Me”.

Given that the new one has 18 tracks, some of which are about an hour long, it’s no shock that tonight’s set is taken mainly from it. This does pose something of a problem, in that this is an album that clearly needs about a year of solid listening to make sense, but this isn’t stopping our old Joanna. The easier tracks, like, er, “Easy” and “Good Intentions Paving Company” (if that’s not song title of the year I want to know what is) are more easily digestible, and met with rapturous applause. Some of the tougher songs still get the crowd going, but you can tell that we’re all still a bit confused.


Earlier songs are given a tasteful wash and brush up. “The Book Of Right-On” maintains its air of tentative flirtatiousness, with the band adding beautiful touches here and there. And “Inflammatory Writ” has become much more delicate, and a far better song as a result; I’d love to have that on another “Ys Street Band” EP. The work she has done with the band has worked wonders for the show; she is blazingly confident, and with good reason.

Sadly, there’s no space for easy-going crowd favourites “Emily” or “Bridges And Balloons” (as if a nine-minute long song, and one about bleedin’ Narnia, can be classified as “easy-going”), both of which were yelled out by crowd members as the band returned for the single encore. “Excellent choices”, Joanna replied, “But we kind of have our own plan”. Spoken without a hint of apology, there’s a determination in the subtones of her voice that show you exactly what a fiercly ambitious and hugely intelligent musician she is.

For she truly is a special talent. How the hell does she memorise all these songs, let alone remember the lyrics? Whilst I know I’ve gone on about Mew or Russian Circles in the past, but Joanna really is in a different league in the challenging yet accessible music stakes. She even got a London crowd – normally filled with morons yapping to each other about a scarf they had seen in a boutique in Hoxton – to shut up. Now that’s genius.

MP3: Kingfisher by Joanna Newsom

(Note: MP3 originally posted on Drag City website)

Buy “Have One on Me” (CD/MP3)

Note: Apologies for the somewhat slapdash post. Normal over-verbose service will be resumed once Real Life buggers off to its hole.

What Is The World Coming To?

So there I am, with a spare five minutes, walking between New Office and Old Office, when I stumble into HMV. I’m not usually one for buying my CD’s from chain stores, being a fan of either shops like Rough Trade or online folks Amazon (or buying direct from artists, frankly). But as I hadn’t got a copy of the new Joanna Newsom yet, I thought I’d shell out there rather than order online, if it was at a decent price1.

You Need Some Braces, Luv

But it wasn’t on the shelf. “Typical”, I thought, “Someone makes a great, brave album, which gets unanimously fantastic reviews, and the mainstream shops don’t even bother to stock it”. So I try the desk.

“Hello, have you got the new Joanna Newsom album?” I ask, expecting a “Durrrr…who?” response.
“No, we’ve sold out” said the man, astonished.
“Sold out?”
“Yes, it sold out yesterday. We’re getting 20 more copies in tomorrow but they might not be enough” said a second man, who was equally as astonished as his colleague.
“Are you serious?”
“Totally! The record company wasn’t expecting to have sold so many either. They are getting it re-pressed, apparently”

We all laughed at the strangeness of discussing the fact that a Joanna Newsom album had sold out and I went my merry way.

So there you go. We’re constantly being told that no-one buys CDs any more, yet an esoteric artist like Joanna Newsom sells out in a day. In a chain store in Canary Wharf. Either there’s loads of bankers irresistably drawn to a triple-CD evocation of lost love by a musician for whom the term “kooky” was invented, or she really is rather more popular than anyone realised.

I go for the former, personally. Canary Wharf is an odd place.

1 Ok, I do have a pre-release copy, but it’s 192Kbps MP3. I want to rip this to AAC, to go with my lovely new iPhone and lovely new Phonak Audeo earphones. And I want artists I love to be able to make a living.

MP3: Good Intentions Paving Company by Joanna Newsom

Buy “Have One on Me” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Have One on Me” (Vinyl)

(By the way, if you buy the Vinyl, this is what the inner sleeves look like. I’m getting my record player out of the attic).


New Year New Phone

Ok, I’m starting to push it with these New Year titles. This is the last one, I promise. But what a treat! For me, at least. Because I’ve finally got a new iPhone – one of the sparkly white ones – with 32Gb1. So I can put all the new music that’s coming out onto it without removing a whole bunch of old stuff2. Huzzah!

Vision Joanna Newsom

As a celebration of this momentous event, I put a live recording of Joanna Newsom from earlier this month, from those lovely folks at Fan Made Recordings. Considering it’s recorded from the audience (rather than the mixing desk), the quality is decent as can be expected. And it has to be said too, it’s not particularly easy listening to new material from an artist quite as complex as Ms Newsom, as it takes time to seep properly into your brain.

All worth a listen though. You can download the whole set from the link above, in preparation for the triple album (Triple!) out next month. Go on, have a listen. It’ll get your brain prepared for the real thing.

MP3: Have One On Me (Live) by Joanna Newsom

MP3: Soft As Chalk (Live) by Joanna Newsom

1 I was waiting to see if a new iPhone would be announced at the same time as the iSanitaryTowel, but it wasn’t. I reckon a new iPhone will be out in the summer, with that there A4 chip. And what’s all this immediate backlash about the iPad? I might get me one of those, especially if I can get a Bluetooth audio connector thing so I can play music in the kitchen from it whilst lying on the sofa surfing the web. Honestly, people these days want everything handed to them on a plate (or tablet); getting themselves so worked up about what they wanted from it that when Steve Jobs announced an iTouchOnSteroids, everyone’s upset. Seriously, get over yourselves. It’ll be nice to use. It’ll look good. It won’t crash (much). You’ll enjoy using it. The end.

2 It really hacks me off when I’m on the tube and I want to hear an old favourite – say, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, but I can’t, because I’ve taken it off to make room for Yeasayer’s new one. Which happened just the other day. And precipitated this existential crisis.

Pre-Order “Have One on Me”

New Year New Music Part Seven – Joanna Newsom

Ooh, another biggie. I’ve been an enormous fan of Joanna Newsom after seeing her support Smog at the Conway Hall in London some years back. Having never heard her before, we were all perplexed by this winsome lady in full Renaissance garb strolling onto stage and playing a harp beautifully whilst wailing in an unconventional manner.

You Rawk!

Which is lovely if you like that sort of thing. Which, unbeknownst to me beforehand, I did. Isn’t music great? Anyway, she’s got an album coming out called, perplexingly, “Have One On Me”. No, me neither. It’s a triple CD. Triple CD! I haven’t got time to listen to all the stuff I reallly like at the moment without some eccentric beauty foisting about twenty thousand new songs on us. Enough!

Sorry, rant over. The first track from it has crept out onto tha Interwebz, and jolly nice it is too. To be honest, I’ve only listened to it the twice and so far, I rather like it, but I can’t hand-on-heart say it’s the best song I’ve ever heard. ‘Tis good, though.

As for my views on the picture that come with it, well, I’m not going to comment. You’ll just have to download the track and see for yourself.

MP3: ’81 by Joanna Newsom

Hat tip to Tsururadio!

Buy “The Milk-Eyed Mender” (CD/MP3)

Pre-Order “Have One on Me”

Albums Of The Decade (Part Three)

Here’s part three of my list of albums of the decade. These are albums I love and have listened to, ooh, hundreds of times over the years. Pretty much all of them are still on my very full iPhone, instead of more current stuff like Animal Collective or whoever, because they are great. Oh yes.

Part one is here
and part two is here. Enjoy.

One Swan

Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans (2004)

For all the wondrous musicality of his “States” albums, this stripped-down, acoustic album shows the beauty and tenderness of his songwriting at its absolute height.

MP3: The Dress Looks Nice On You by Sufjan Stevens

Buy “Seven Swans” (CD/MP3)

Swim Until You Can't See A Band

American Music Club – Love Songs For Patriots (2004)

Making an album with the word “Patriots” in the title at the height of post-9/11 anguish and rage, then filling it with songs of anguish, rage, and the wonders of male strippers, was never going to make them too many new friends. But it’s their best album, and Mark Eitzel at his finest.

MP3: Home by American Music Club

Buy “Love Songs for Patriots” (CD/MP3)


Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)

If you find the first minute of “Bridges and Balloons” utterly wonderful, then you’ll love this. If you think she is a wailing harpy, then you may probably just want to move onto the next record. You’re missing out though, mind.

MP3: This Side of the Blue by Joanna Newsom

Buy “The Milk-Eyed Mender” (CD/MP3)

It's Supposed To Be A Funeral

Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)

Or how the Internet will get you noticed. Sure, there’s more that a touch of the U2’s about their later material, but go and listen to this again and be utterly transfixed by their tales of lost childhood all over again. So filled with drama that you need the quieter songs to catch your breath.

MP3: Neighborhood #2 (Laika) by The Arcade Fire

Buy “Funeral” (CD/MP3)

Loneliness Hangs In The Air, Indeed

Richard Hawley – Coles Corner (2005)

Lovelorn tales from Sheffield’s finest guitarist. His most complete album; this could just as easily have been made in 1957 or 1963, but it’s far too lovely to be snooty about.

MP3: Coles Corner by Richard Hawley

Buy “Coles Corner” (CD/MP3)

Lonesome Fire

M Ward – Transistor Radio (2005)

This could also say “The Transfiguration Of Vincent” or “Post War”, but look, I had to make a choice and as this was the first record of M Ward’s I ever heard, this is my choice. Go for all three, frankly. Ageless, timeless beauty.

MP3: Hi-Fi by M. Ward

Buy “Transistor Radio” (CD)

(2005 will continue in Part Four)

And out of chronological order, because I forgot it earlier:

Stripes And Stars And Stripes

Tortoise – Standards (2001)

Electro-free-jazz-noise-post-rock-funk, as played by aliens. Wonderful, exasperating, confusing and brilliant, usually at the same time.

MP3: Seneca by Tortoise

Buy “Standards” (CD)

Albums Of The Decade (Part One)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Two)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Four)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Five)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Six)

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News (and comment) – Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom is like Marmite. She’s made from the leftovers of the brewing process in Burton-On-Trent, England. Wait a second, I’ve got that wrong. What I meant to say is that you either love her, or you can’t stand the very sight of her.

And round these parts, we’re big fans of Joanna. I’d never heard of her before seeing her supporting (Smog)1 at the Conway Hall, back in 2004. When a harp was brought on stage we though “Uh-oh”, and when a fey-looking, if rather beautiful woman took the stage in full baroque gear, I really did think “Oh God, this is going to be awful”. But as soon as she started playing it was like someone had cast a spell over the audience. Then she started singing. At that point, about half the audience went “What the bloody hell is this?”, and the rest were amazed. For, it must be said, Joanna has a challenging voice. Bjork is the closest reference point; or possibly a drunken lady elf on helium.

And the words were astonishing: “We sailed away on a winter’s day\With fate as malleable as clay\But ships are fallable, I say\And the nautical, like all things, fades\
And I can recall our caravel\A little wicker beetle-shell\With four fine masts and lateen sails\Its bearings on Cair Paravel”. Of course, I didn’t catch all that the first time. But it was obvious that here was an astonishing new talent.

Since then, I’ve seen her a couple more times – once at the Royal Albert Hall, where she fitted beautifully with her band (the Ys Street Band – please don’t make me explain that to you) and finally her last live show last year, at Somerset House in London. At that show she played some new, mostly untitled material, and she played live a couple of days ago in Big Sur, as seen by Naturalismo.

The show was performed under the moniker The Beatles’s, playing with Mariee Sioux (who I must confess to never having heard before), and the setlist was made up of almost entirely new songs. According to Devin Woolf (alerted to the show by two sisters who’d casually asked at the venue who was playing that night), around 2/3 of the songs were harp-based, with the rest of the songs played on piano. Now, I’ve always preferred her harp songs, as Joanna’s piano technique is certainly weaker than her harp skills, but at Somerset House it was clear that her piano has come on in leaps and bounds.

It sounded like an amazing evening – one of those rare instances where you see a great musician trying out new material, without the pressures that usually attend the dreaded “Here’s one from our new album” scenario. There’s a full review at the Naturalismo site.

I’ve got to say, I’m thrilled that there is a new album on the way (at some point). Both Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys were favourites of mine, and both hit the tops of “Best Album of the Year” lists – could Joanna Newsom make it three in a row?

MP3: Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie by Joanna Newsom

1 As he was at that time; now of course he’s recording as Bill Callahan. And yes, I know they’ve broken up now.

Buy Joanna Newsom’s “The Milk-Eyed Mender” (CD)

EDIT: When making additions to a blog, like the nice little buttons below, always make sure they work in both Firefox and IE7. I guess that’s why I’ll never be a developer…

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