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.

    Archers Tangoing

    So, Midlake are back, back, back!

    Sort of.

    Start again.

    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 solo1. 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.

    2 The second being making words up, of course3

    3 The third being copying David Foster Wallace1

    Best. Gif. Ever. (even if I've missed the meme by 5 years)

    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.

    MP3: Van Occupanther (Live) by Midlake

    Roll Up, Roll Up, For Midlake’s Amazon Store

    Gaga Goes Gaga Over Gira

    Now, I’m not normally one for posting breaking news and that, but the announcement early this morning about Lady Gaga got me really curious. And excited. If you haven’t already heard, the electropopess has recorded a cover of Swans “Time Is Money (Bastard)”, in an electro-folk-pop stylee, with backing provided by those beardy folksters Midlake.

    Lady Gaga, Yesterday

    Early reports, from the Italian blog Follis Aprilis, say that the track “sounds like Devendra Banhart on acid being french kissed by Shakira, with a shaved monkey banging a syndrum in the background with his fists, furiously, furiously, until the moon is broken like all our dreams”. We’ll take their word for it, shall we?

    MP3: Time Is Money (Bastard) by Swans

    MP3: Poker Face by Lady Gaga
    (Track removed due to Band Of Horses related paranoia.)

    Buy “Cop/Young God/Greed/Holy Money” (CD)

    Buy Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster” (CD/MP3)

    PS: Thanks to SF!

    The Week Of Mixed Gigs – Midlake, or Poor Band (Minor Key)

    Many years ago, I went up to the eastern Highlands of Scotland with a bunch of friends, for a long weekend of walking and drinking. Mostly drinking. One sunny day, we took a walk up into the mountains to Loch Brandy, and (as tends to happen in Scotland) the weather turned. There we were, hunkering down behind a rock to avoid the worst of the horizontal rain, when a thought struck me. “It sure is beautiful up here”, I pondered, “But I wish I was somewhere else”.

    Loch Brandy, In Glorious Monochrome

    Which is exactly where I am with Midlake’s new album, “The Courage Of Others”. One song is beautiful, but taken as a whole, all adds up into one big melange of doom and gloom. Writing an album with 11 songs, and making 10 of them in a minor key, doesn’t make for a chirpy or pleasant listen. And this is a real shame coming from a band whose previous album (“The Trials of Van Occupanther”) was, for the first half at least, an absolute joy. Tender, rollicking, evocative, deftly written, wonderfully played and sung, it’s one of my top albums of the naughties. I’ve given the new one a chance, and whilst I can see that it’s lovely, in its own way, it’s not really for me.

    Will I change my mind seeing them live at the Shepherds Bush Empire?

    On trundled the band, augmented by a couple of extra guitarists, beards and all, launching first into “Winter Dies”, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. Then “The Horn”, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. Then, “Small Mountain”, a, yes, you got it, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. By this stage, I was thinking “Well, they are great musicians, the flute playing is all well and good, but I’m getting, you know, a touch bored.”

    Set List (in E#m)

    Thankfully, the band heard my errant brainwaves and played “Bandits”. And herein lies the rub, like Billyboy Shakespeare said. Hearing the new songs interspersed with older numbers just threw the problem with the newer songs into sharp relief. “Bandits” was lovely. “Young Bride” was equally lovely. You know, these songs have texture and style and are little bundles of exquisite songwriting. They don’t batter you into submission with their minor keys and unvarying tone of doomosity.

    Then, after a power cut (dealt with in charmingly insouciant manner), came some more tracks from the new album. Minor key, major key (“Fortune” – the only major key song on the album, fact fans), minor key with a dual flute assault. And then relief! “Van Occupanther”! Hurrah! A charming little song, with the most heartbreaking chorus, with the ascending “Let me not be too consumed\With this world”; if the band aren’t playing your heartstrings like a harp at that point, you should just give up on seeing bands. Or give up on music altogether.

    And then “Roscoe”! Double hurrah! Which, the clever clogs amongst you will point out is also in a minor key. But it doesn’t matter. The song moves along at a pretty decent clip; the harmonies are exquisite, there’s a palpable tension in the lyrics and it tells a story – it’s not just “Minor key, we’re all doomed, here’s a flute solo”. Speaking of which, we then had “Acts Of Man”, “Children Of The Grounds”, “Core of Nature” and “Bring Down”. All of which were, yep, minor key. Except Sarah Jaffe came on to sing one of them, which lightened the mood a touch.

    Thankfully, the set closed with “Head Home”, with a bolted-on new intro, fooling us all into thinking it was another slow-mid-tempo minor key number, but of course mutated into a truly wonderful stormer. And having “Branches” as the encore again showed exactly what this band can do when they want to.

    Minor Key!

    I wouldn’t want you to think I dislike the new album, or didn’t like seeing them live. Not in the slightest – we had a great night1 out, the band are charming, friendly and wonderful musicians, and seeing the work experience kid (joke courtesy of Arseblogger) run out those guitar solos like he wasn’t even trying was an experience all on its own. That kid is the new Slash, I tell you. Genius.

    It’s just that these songs work well when they are listened to individually. On a whole record, the listener gets battered into submission by about track 6 and it’s a struggle to keep listening. Live, a track here or there interspersed with their other material would be fine. They are good songs, after all. The problem is that there’s precious little variety. The songs are so similar compositionally that they just blur into one. I don’t want to get all Fix Your Mix on you (go to this utterly amazing article on “Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear to see how this compositional analysis lark should be done – frankly, it’s completely beyond me), but there are ways of making minor key songs interesting. “Van Occupanther” had a few (“Head Home”, “Roscoe”), but you didn’t notice, as they were gorgeous songs, interspersed with diverse and varied songs. “The Courage Of Others” doesn’t. My sole notes from the first listen I had to the new album simply read “Minor Key? WTF!”.

    (In case you’re thinking “This guy is a total muppet! He wants happy music!”, well, let’s just say that Tindersticks first three albums are amongst my favourites, and there’s about a handful of major key tracks on there. And even the major key songs are effing miserable. It’s not about the key, or the message, it’s about what you do with it)

    I’ve got no doubt that this lot are hugely talented; you don’t write an opening four song sequence as seen on “Van Occupanther” unless you really, really know what you’re doing. But it seems as though they’ve got themselves stuck in a musical place that may well be interesting for them, but isn’t for us. Or me, at least. Please come out of the dark, dark woods and into the sunshine, chaps.

    1 Notwithstanding the usual London gig-going idiots, who think it’s fine to talk over the intros and the quiet parts of the songs, and then bellow along to the songs they know, out of tune, like a drunken walrus. Not that it would help if they were in tune. I came to the gig to see and hear the band, not listen to some fool yell along. This isn’t Oasis, you know. Shut up.

    MP3: Small Mountain (Live) by Midlake

    MP3: Van Occupanther (Live) by Midlake

    Buy “The Courage Of Others” (CD/MP3)

    Buy “The Trials Of Van Occupanther” (CD)

    A Wintry Cheerio From Me (Featuring Midlake)

    Right, I’m off for a few days of snowboarding. First time in four years (aside from an odd little episode in Richmond Park1), so it’s likely to be painful and hilarious in equal measure.

    To celebrate this wintry event, I thought I’d post this from Midlake, whose new album “The Courage Of Others” is a thing of dark, wintry beauty. I’ll write more about it when I see them live later this month, but for the meantime, here’s “Acts Of Man”, as performed live for The Guardian (courtesy of the marvellous Bella Union Records). Hope you have a great week and I’ll be back Monday. Or possibly Tuesday.

    1 I realised looking at this that I’d missed the site’s first birthday, on 31st January. Anyone who knows me IRL will know this is entirely like me. I am truly the world’s most forgetful man. Sorry, blog, I love you very much and I won’t do it again.

    MP3: Acts Of Man (Live) by Midlake

    Buy “The Courage Of Others” (CD/MP3)

    New Year New Music Part Five – Midlake

    Here’s another biggie. Midlake‘s last album, “The Trials Of Van Occupanther”, was one of my favourite albums of the decade. I loved the old-age feel to the record, it was like The Band jamming with ELO in a theme park about the Wheeler Survey. And they are back on February 1st with “The Courage Of Others”. From what I’ve heard, it’s somewhat more minor key than “Van Occupanther”, but carries over that lovely pastoral 19th Century backwoods town feel to it. You’d expect them to turn up in an episode of Deadwood, singing about how men are doomed to their fate or somesuch.

    Midlake Midwoods

    Whilst digging around for more information about the new Midlake record, I came across a track by Ellie Goulding on this German blog. Covering a Midlake track is a dangerous thing, given how beautifully the band craft their songs, but with just an acoustic guitar and her voice, she makes “Roscoe” her own. Good work, highly-touted lady, and it just goes to show how good a song it is underneath all the instrumentation and multi-tracked vocals and whatnot.

    MP3: Rulers, Ruling All Things by Midlake

    MP3: Roscoe (Midlake Cover) by Ellie Goulding

    Pre-Order “The Courage Of Others” (CD)

    Buy “The Trials Of Van Occupanther” by Midlake (CD)

    Pre-Order “Lights” by Ellie Goulding (CD)

    Albums Of The Decade (Part Five)

    So, here’s part five of my series of personal albums of the decade. No Radiohead, eh?

    Albums Of The Decade (Part One)
    Albums Of The Decade (Part Two)
    Albums Of The Decade (Part Three)
    Albums Of The Decade (Part Four)


    Midlake – The Trials Of Van Occupanther (2006)

    I recommended this to a friend’s husband. He called the next day to complain about “Horrible 70’s soft-rock”. I told him to give it a chance. A month on and he was playing it every day. The greatest ever concept album about a mathematician living in a 19th Century American town.

    MP3: Head Home by Midlake

    Buy “The Trials Of Van Occupanther” (CD)

    Tap That Table

    The National – Boxer (2007)

    A raging indictment on modern America, possibly. The best drumming, ever. I’ve played “Apartment Story” more than any other song in the last two years, according to my iTunes.

    MP3: Brainy by The National

    Buy “Boxer” (CD/MP3)

    Don't Fancy Yours Much

    Iron and Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (2007).

    Or how a folk-rock balladeer can fill his sound out and make a wonderful, lustrous album. The stripped down acoustic versions are bizarrely even better.

    MP3: Innocent Bones by Iron and Wine

    Buy “The Shepherd’s Dog” (CD/MP3)

    Or, A Reminder To Get A Better Graphics Artist Next Time

    Feist – The Reminder (2007)

    I really wasn’t sure about putting this in the list. Great singer, great musician, some great songs, but the album? Then I listened to it again and changed my mind. It’s great. Though I think she could do much better.

    MP3: My Moon My Man by Feist

    Buy “The Reminder” (CD/MP3)

    See Feist and Sam, Now This Is An Album Cover

    Band Of Horses – Cease To Begin (2007)

    Like Josh Rouse, there’s nothing revolutionary about this album, it’s just superb, melodic, dramatic, emotional alt-rock.

    MP3: No One’s Gonna Love You by Band Of Horses

    Buy “Cease to Begin” (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 Four)