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.

    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

    Albums, Songs, Gigs 2011 – Part Three

    Here’s the third (and final, you’ll be pleased to hear) round up of the year’s music. Or at least the year’s music that I could give a toss about. Parts One and Two here and here.

    The Albums You Wish The Artist Would Re-Record As A Solo Acoustic Album

    Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer

    When I saw Ron Sexsmith perform “Get In Line” on Later…. I was smitten. Not with his looks, of course (he’s hardly Feist, is he?), but with such beautiful tunesmithery sung in such wonderfully world-weary tones. Unfortunately the record from which it stems has been MOR’d to within an inch of its life. If Ron wouldn’t mind re-recording it with just him and an acoustic, I’d be a happy man. Or a slightly less unhappy one.

    MP3: Get in Line by Ron Sexsmith

    Iron And Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean

    2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog was a pretty good record, and an extremely good one in demo acoustic form. I’d love to see what he could do with Kiss Each Other Clean without all the bumpf, because, as it stands, it’s a bit of an overblown mess.

    The Nirvana Unplugged Award for an Acoustic Album/EP From A Band You Wouldn’t Expect It From

    The Twilight Sad – Acoustic EP

    A study in demonstrating that you aren’t just angry noise-merchants. Both “I Became A Prostitute” and “Interrupted” are probably better than their original, noisy incarnations.

    MP3: That Birthday Present (Acoustic) by The Twilight Sad

    New (non-album) Songs Of The Year

    Battles – Ice Cream

    Along with its fantastically mucky/arty video, a real odd-pop treat. Makes you think of horribly trendy young people in Barcelona. Damn them.

    MP3: Ice Cream by Battles

    Errr….that’s it. Sorry. It’s been all about the albums and the old songs this year. Which brings me onto:

    Old Songs Of The Year

    Bizarrely, this year three of my favourite non-album songs have been ones that have sat on iPod/iPhone/iWhatever for many, many years, yet for some reason haven’t registered with my brain until this year.

    The Clientele – We Could Walk Together

    I’ve listened to this song more than any other this year. One on hand, I can easily tell you why; the song is beguiling, with three verses, an instrumental chorus (if such a thing exists), and some wonderfully opaque lyrics (“Like a silver ring thrown into the flood of my heart”, a line apparently stolen from an Italian poet). On the other, I can’t explain why it’s caught hold of my heart after ten or so years of being sat in my collection, being occasionally played. Sometimes you just have to be ready for a song, I suppose.

    MP3: We Could Walk Together by The Clientele

    Low – Laser Beam

    See later in this article, but in short, hearing a song live can sometimes take it from its source album and shine a whole new light on it.

    Yo La Tengo – Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House

    Unlike “Laser Beam”, I didn’t get to hear this live, which was a shame. I did shout out for it though. As I’ve mentioned before, the manifest charms of Yo La Tengo somehow passed me by for many years, and despite owning “And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out” since its release, I’d never picked up on how great this song was. Until now. Oh, and it’s the best ever song inspired by a Troy McClure line.

    Best Gigs

    Bill Callahanfor staring at us during “Baby’s Breath”. My wife was heavily pregnant at the time. We were hugely disconcerted.

    M Ward – for making everyone just stare and go “How, but how, are you doing that?”

    Low – one the finest live moments of a long gigging career was hearing the wonderful “Laser Beam” as the final encore. Thousands of people left utterly silent and speechless by this pure, simple song. The cheering at the end was almost as spine-tingling as the song itself. Watch this video of a live performance and notice firstly how the audience go from irritatingly noisy to raptly silent within about five seconds, and secondly, just how astonishing Mimi Parker’s voice is.

    The rest of the gig was superb; even from our vantage point up in the rafters I loved every moment. Next time, I’m at the front, suckers.


    That’s it for 2011. A year with some highlights, sure, but also some horrendous lows that I hope to not experience for a very, very long time. Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, and hope to see you in 2012.

    Who Will Know?

    The other day, on my fourth consecutive night out, a friend started singing “Don’t Stop Believin'”. As you can imagine, this isn’t exactly a favourite of mine. Quite the opposite. I hate it. Trite, irritating guff that drives me insane. You could safely say I’m not a big fan of this whole “Glee”-inspired reappraisal of horrendous ’80’s songs. I’m not sure my friend was so keen on me expressed my heartfelt hatred, but what can you do, eh?

    So on my way to work yesterday, irritating earworm still buzzing away in my brain, I forced it out by playing Low. Ah, Low. Purveyors of gloriously slow and soft narco-country, they are firm favourites round here. In lieu of a proper post about them, here is a lovely song by the name of “Starfire”.

    MP3: Starfire by Low

    In other news, I know it’s all been a bit quiet round here, but I blame all the parties. Coming up in the next couple of days (hopefully) is an interesting record label, and interesting review of The Fall and hopefully an interesting review of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. All very interesting.

    Buy Low’s “Secret Name” (CD)

    Albums Of The Decade (Part Four)

    First off, let me say, oh balls, I missed something…

    My Photoshop Crashed And Did This

    Devendra Banhart – Rejoicing In The Hands (2004)

    Pretty much kicked off the whole freak folk movement. Not quite as mind-boggling as his first album, but a far more listenable and loveable record.

    MP3: Will Is My Friend by Devendra Banhart

    Buy “Rejoicing In The Hands (Of The Golden Empress)” (CD/MP3)

    Right, back to the list. Here’s my own take on the albums of the decade. My criteria? Do I really, really, really love them and can I listen to them happily all the way through?

    Parts One, Two, and Three. Enjoy!

    Like Kandinsky, Only Less So

    Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)

    A yowling, yelping, thundering record packed full of ideas, vim and vigour. Came out of nowhere, and kept me awake during those early days of being a new father.

    MP3: Grounds For Divorce by Wolf Parade

    Buy “Apologies to the Queen Mary” (CD)

    Great Cloud

    Low – The Great Destroyer (2005)

    Low turn their amps up past 2, and make a great album. Again, I’d forgotten how good this was until listening to it recently. “Low go pop” is probably pushing it, but they showed that they can engage with the outside world at something approaching the outside world’s pace, rather than their own glacial stride. I’d say it was their best album.

    MP3: California by Low

    Buy “The Great Destroyer” (CD/MP3)

    The Recording Studio

    Grizzly Bear – Yellow House (2006)

    The most atmospheric album of the decade. And the most baffling, mysterious, ominous, lovely, chilling and gorgeous one too. I caught onto this late (in 2008) and it’s still a wondrous thing.

    MP3: Easier by Grizzly Bear

    Buy “Yellow House” (CD/MP3)

    My Photoshop Crashed Etc

    Russian Circles – Enter (2006)

    Post-rock meets metal to stunning effect. Doesn’t quite sound like anything else out there, and shows you only need three people to make a Godspeed! style racket.

    Micah by Russian Circles

    Buy “Enter” (CD)

    Boys And Girls On An Album Cover

    The Hold Steady – Girls and Boys In America (2006)

    When I first heard the line “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian” I knew I was in safe hands. Still a high-water mark in making rock and roll transcendant. No-one’s done it this well since Bruce Springsteen back in the ’70’s.

    MP3: Hot Soft Light by The Hold Steady

    Buy “Boys and Girls in America” (CD/MP3)

    Albums Of The Decade (Part One)

    Albums Of The Decade (Part Two)

    Albums Of The Decade (Part Three)

    Albums Of The Decade (Part Five)

    Albums Of The Decade (Part Six)

    Like my blog? Please help spread the word: Add To FacebookAdd To DiggAdd To RedditAdd To DeliciousAdd To TechnoratiAdd To StumbleUpon

    The Les Paul Special

    Les Paul, the man who did so much to build and develop the solid-body electric guitar, died Thursday at the age of 94. Famously giving helping design the Gibson Les Paul, his name is as synonymous with the electric guitar as Leo Fender. The thick, heavy sound his guitar made when being pumped through a Marshall stack is the sound of pretty much every RAWK record you’ve ever heard (or at least, until ‘80’s poodle rock came along). And if you want to hear loads of those songs, you’ve come to the wrong place.

    There's Only Two Les Pauls

    There's Only Two Les Pauls

    Sorry, that was a bit abrupt. But I’m not a huge RAWK fan. Whilst I’m always partial to a bit of Led Zep or Guns’N’Roses, my thing’s always been at the more esoteric end of the rock spectrum. So, when I heard the news of Les Paul passing away, my thoughts didn’t go to Slash, they went to The Pixies, Manic Street Preachers, and Low.

    Yes, Low.

    Because Low, one of the quietest bands ever to grace this fair earth, play Les Pauls (or rather, Alan Sparhawk does). Seeing them live some years ago, they came on and started playing “When I Go Deaf”. As they suddenly kicked off into the loud part, Alan started sawing and pulling at his Bigsby-rigged Les Paul for all it was worth, and carried on even after the drummer and bassist had stopped playing. A fantastic moment.

    Alan, A Les Paul, and a Bigsby

    Alan, A Les Paul, and a Bigsby

    For a band whose whole ethos is pretty much the negative image of the Les Paul-toting rock gods, it’s a great trick to use the same instrument to create slow, (mostly) quiet beauty, as they had used to play songs like Kashmir.

    It’s the same with The Pixies. Although Black Francis used a Fender Tele (with the occasional Strat), Joey Santiago was a Les Paul man. And it was unlikely that such a truly unique sound had ever been made before Joey strapped on his plank. I can still remember hearing “Bone Machine” on John Peel one night, back in 1988. Sounding like nothing I’d ever heard, the lead guitar was discordant and twisted, screaming in unison with Black Francis.

    Joey, A Les Paul, and a Bigsby

    Joey, A Les Paul, and a Bigsby

    And more was to come, with Doolittle taking Surfer Rosa’s twisted goodness and adding a huge hit of pop nous.

    Mmmm, a gold Les Paul.

    Last off, The Manic Street Preachers exploded out of Blackwood, South Wales in the early ’90’s. Can’t say I was a massive fan of them at first, what with me not liking The Clash and all that, but eventually James Dean Bradfield’s fantastic singing and playing, and their great way with a tune, won me over.

    James, A Les Paul, and No Bigsby

    James, A Les Paul, and No Bigsby

    They always said they wanted to sound like Guns’N’Roses, and on “Motorcycle Emptiness”, they sound like what Guns’N’Roses would have been if Slash had spent his childhood listening to Nick Drake.

    So, three bands all using Les Pauls in ways that probably made Les Paul himself come out in a rash. Rest in peace, Les, and thanks for making music so much better.

    MP3: When I Go Deaf by Low

    MP3: Bone Machine by The Pixies

    MP3: Motorcycle Emptiness by Manic Street Preachers

    Buy Low’s “The Great Destroyer” (CD/MP3)

    Buy The Pixies “Surfer Rosa & Come on Pilgrim” (CD) (What, you haven’t got this already?)

    Buy Manic Street Preachers “Forever Delayed: The Greatest Hits” (CD)

    Like my blog? Please help spread the word: Add To FacebookAdd To DiggAdd To RedditAdd To DeliciousAdd To TechnoratiAdd To StumbleUpon