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.

    Laura Veirs Live

    Going to see an artist live that’s got a hefty back catalogue – you know, four or five highly acclaimed albums which are, as far as these things are worth these days, sort of commercially successful, and with a rabid, loving fanbase that sells out a thousand seater venue in the blink of an eye – live, when you’ve only heard a couple of said albums, even if one of those albums falls comfortably into your End Of Year List and has sent you off to your acoustic to bash out cover versions cackhandedly, torturing the neighbourhood cats and dogs, can be a proposition even more daunting than trawling through a ridiculously obtuse and longwinded and just out-and-out daft sentence like this one just here.

    In short, and I can do “in short”, just not now: How can you sit there, enjoying everything, when you’ve only heard about 1/6th of the material played, when all around you are slavering, drooling fans, and outside are more slavering, drooling fans who’d take your right arm off like that for a momentary chance to watch their beloved perform live?

    You stop being neurotic, I guess, and sit down, shut up, and enjoy the show.

    Which is easy when you’re watching Laura Veirs. And even more easily when you are in the gorgeous Union Chapel, now safely ensconced as My Favourite Venue In The World Ever!, even more so than the marvellous Bush Hall or the summer outside stage at Rote Fabrik in Zürich. Look, you’ve got to love a place where they’ve got home-cooked food in the church hall next door. The venue totally suits the music tonight, with Laura’s intricate acoustic finger-picking style and warm, clear voice reverberating round the Chapel.

    Laura’s songs of love and the woe love brings aren’t the kind to immediately grab you by the balls and force you to listen. Instead, they insinuate themselves on repeated listens, and before you realise it you’ve got “Sun Is King” whistling around your head at inopportune moments. Which, of course, makes for an interesting live show if you’ve only heard a couple of records. But contrary to expectations, the set list tonight consists of everything off July Flame, with a few other bits and bobs – like “Spelunking” and the closing “Ether Sings”, plus the obligatory covers thrown in for good measure. Which makes a new-found fan like myself. Though I can imagine there are some corners of the internet aflame with indignation as I type this, thanks to this newie-heavy setlist.

    I Can See Your Setlist

    Though, frankly, hearing her and her hugely talented sidekicks Tim Young and Alex Guy (who also doubled as one of the two support acts, more on which later) sing “Happy Birthday” would be a pleasure, which is lucky, as they sang it for Alex about halfway in, followed by an acapella version of a song titled “The Old Cow Is Dead”. That’s juxtaposition for you. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Following Alex Guy’s violin looping extravaganza, and a very nice chicken curry in the bar, on came Sam Amidon. Now, I’ve not heard of this fella before, but he’s a young fellow who’s worked with Nico Muhly and Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson. Instead of taking the Bonnie “Prince” Billy and M Ward authenticity route by trying to make his songs sound old, he goes the whole hog by singing old songs. Very old songs. Some of these date back to the (US) Civil War1, all muskets and smoke and sons saying goodbye to their mother and father and beautiful sister. I was shocked that he didn’t play “Wayfaring Stranger”, but I guess that would be too obvious. Sam’s all about digging up lost gems and playing them gently and gracefully, with a fine voice, even amongst the scat-jazz section. A confident player too; you can just imagine him pitching up in your front room and singing these songs whilst chatting away. I bought his CD too, which is something I’ve not done in a while.

    Back to Laura. Starting off with “Carol Kaye”, she seems slighty hesitant and, to be frank, her voice doesn’t always get the right notes at the right time. But no matter. A wonderful “Sun Is King” snaps her into life, beautiful harmonies on the lines “Did you see the ice in his eyes?/Did you see the dagger caught in his smile?” giving the song that transcendent beauty. This is where she really excels. Those little hooks, little lines, like the ascending chords underneath the lines “And my stampeding buffalo/Stops in her tracks and watches the snow”, or the “You’re halfway down to New Orleans” bit at the end of “I Can See Your Tracks”, catch your breath and drag you into her world, enraptured by the natural world and the intricacies of the human heart.

    She’s clearly trying hard to entertain us too. At one point, her and Tim give a demonstration of how the 6-5-4 “Song Of Songs” chord progression (look it up) is responsible for everything from “Don’t You Want Me” to “Into The Groove”, with “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” in between. A discussion of the band’s tour troubles in France amuses and revolts in equal measure. And as the night goes on, Laura gets into her stride, gaining confidence, nailing those ambitious notes and generally making a damn good show. The band provide subtle backing, with Tim’s electric guitar filling out the fingerpicked lines by Laura, and Alex doubling up on violin and an old synth, with all three making some beautiful harmonies. The sprinkling of earlier songs get a big reception, but not as much as a resplendent “I Can See Your Tracks”, ending in a huge round of applause and cheers.

    So, a good night. For all my worries that I wouldn’t know most of what was played, the opposite happened, and though that might annoy some diehard fans, it made for a wonderfully pleasant evening. Great support, too. Mark another one up for the Union Chapel.

    Oh, and on the note of playing songs badly. I noticed that on the merchandise stand, they were selling the “July Flame Songbook”, featuring tabs, chords and lyrics for all the songs off July Flame, all for £5. What an absolute steal. I can imagine that, if you’re on a major, the whole Publishing thing would come and banjax this kind of deal, but you know what, artists: If you’re an indie, do a songbook for each of your albums and sell it at your gigs – I’d happily pay a fiver for most albums by M Ward, or Sufjan Stevens (!), or Cotton Jones, or, well, you get the idea.

    MP3: Wedding Dress by Sam Amidon

    MP3: I Can See Your Tracks by Laura Veirs

    1 A quick historical note for any Americans reading. We had one first, you know, and it was bloody and harsh and started us down the road to turning our monarchy into the powerless figureheads they are now.

    Amazon’s Laura Veirs Store

    Buy Sam Amidon’s “All Is Well” (CD/MP3)