This Isn’t About Zooey

So M. Ward is back, back, back! Ok, so he’s hardly ever gone away, what with all the duets and collaborations and whatnots, but there’s a new solo album on the way in April called “A Wasteland Companion”1. Which, I guess, is reason for us all to yell and shout and go wooo! a great deal. Although if it’s as disappointing as Hold Time, maybe not so much.

Oh put that flower down, you're 32 for Christ's sake

Another track has popped out today, called “Primitive Girl”, and I can safely say he’s not returning to the acoustics round the campfire feel of Duet For Guitars #2. I would say this is a disappointment, but after playing this a few times, I’m quite enjoying, so I’ll just have to wait and see what the whole record is like before making a knee-jerk reaction.

1 I’m assuming this is not a reference to Fallout 3, though I’d have to be impressed if it was. I am a geek.

Buy Stuff From Amazon’s M Ward Store

For The Lovers

Ok, so I know Richard Ashcroft is an over-earnest ham of the highest order, but this song is just gorgeous, and if I can’t post it today, when can I, eh?

Happy Valentines day.

MP3: A Song For The Lovers by Richard Ashcroft

Buy Richard Ashcroft (And The Verve) Stuff Here. I recommend “History”

Aren’t You An Old One Now

Before the Cocteau Twins became the band you, I, and anyone with any musical taste whatsoever1 adores with their still-beating bloodthumping heart, there was a darker, stranger version. Before all the delicate chirruping, the apparently nonsense lyrics2, those chiming, echo-drenched arpeggios, that whole sonic cathedrals of sound3 thing. Before Blue Bell Knoll, Treasure, Heaven Or Las Vegas, all those stunning EP’s (the Love’s Easy Tears, in its CD form, must rank as one of the finest 14 minutes of music anywhere, ever), came Garlands. A jagged, fraught, mechanised, angry, gothic beast.

For those of you only used to the The Trees! The Flowers! Wibbly Wobbly Woo! version of Cocteau Twins, have a listen to “Wax And Wane” below. Yes, the basic ingredients are there but in a strange, twisted form. You can just tell this is a band that needed to make music, but making it was tough, and they were taking in whatever musical influences that could reach Grangemouth (The Cure, PiL, Joy Division) and churning them into something utterly unique.

And the thing about Garlands is that the bloody thing is 30 this year. Bella Union’s Twitter feed (@bellaunion – a good follow, even if they are Sp*rs fans) mentioned it earlier today, Liz Fraser’s mentioned briefly in Word magazine this month, and my brother keeps hassling me to listen to a YouTube clip of them in Brixton, so now’s a good a time to talk about them as any, frankly.

From this start they’d go on to make Peppermint Pig, something different again, and then songs like Sugar Hiccup would be the first rushing steps toward the glorious run of form from Treasure to Heaven Or Las Vegas, a seven year purple patch that few bands before or since could match. Bassist Will Heggie departed not long after the release of Garlands, forming a band called Lowlife4, and his dark and doomy and surprisingly innovative bass was replaced by the equally innovative, but somewhat less dark and doomy playing of Simon Raymonde. Garlands wasn’t the first of their records I heard (that would be, I think, something off Head Over Heels) but it was one of the first CDs I bought, and whilst I’ve pretty much ignored it for, ooh, 20 years, there’s nothing quite like a big birthday like this to make you look back and evaluate the start of a stunning band, and band who I have lived with for nearly 30 years now. Thirty bloody years old, eh? Don’t they grow up fast?

MP3: Wax And Wane by Cocteau Twins

1 Here’s a test for you. Have you ever met anyone who didn’t like Cocteau Twins and wasn’t a cloth-eared, blithering baboon? Nope? Me neither.

2 Which, it may surprise you to note, were indeed only apparently nonsense; they were, by and large, proper lyrics, even if their meaning was somewhat opaque.

3 Go to Google now and type in “sonic cathedrals of sound”. See? If I can ever claim to have done anything in this world, because it certainly hasn’t been spreading joy and fucking happiness, it’s to get to the top of Google page rankings for something obscure, that will make at least two other people on this planet smile wryly and think “What a bloody fool”.

4 Who I’ll, one day, write about.

Buy “Garlands” Here

RIP Etta James

The first Etta James song I remember hearing was “Tell Mama”, on Soul Jazz’s marvellous “Chicago Soul” compilation. I remember being dumbstruck by the force of her voice; how she could somehow combine being angry, pleading, triumphant, playful, lustful, and yearning, all within the space of a single song. Or sometimes even a single line of a song. Frankly, I was hooked. Etta James songs have featured on whatever iWhatsit device I’ve had in the past ten years, waiting for that moment to get transported to a whole new world. To me, she was the best soul singer out there; no-one had such emotion in their voice, no-one could be quite so goddamn, well, soulful.

She will be sadly missed, but her voice will live for ever.

MP3: Tell Mama by Etta James

Buy The Very Best Of Etta James: The Chess Singles

New Year New Music Four – Griggleschpot

As I mentioned the other day, I get lots of emails. I don’t listen to many, sadly, and sometimes it takes something unusual to get noticed.

Calling yourself “Griggleschpot” might normally make me wince and move on, but something in the brevity and politeness of the email made me wander over to the Soundcloud link. And waiting there was some quite lovely, if slightly ominous electronica, in the vein of early Aphex Twin, or Boards Of Canada.

And that is really all I can say. Mr or Mrs or Ms or The Right Honorable or Dame or Sir Griggleschpot is somewhat lacking in personal detail, other than describing their debut album as “this album called seaeyesair works backwards in time and narrates drastic transitions therewith”. And that “I was born in 1993, I live an hour-long train journey from London – on the coastline.”. Other than a nice photo, that’s your lot. Nothing quite like letting your music do the talking.

Which it does, in an entirely pleasant, understated way. The album is free to download from here, and I recommend you do, on the strength of these tracks. Intriguing.

New Year New Music Three – Guided By Voices

Guided By Voices are one of those bands that I only know through reputation and a Best-Of, 2003’s “Human Amusements at Hourly Rates”. The problem with such a prolific band is that there’s so much material you just don’t know where to start, even when some of the songs on the best-of have clawed their way into your inner ear and have taken residence with such tenacity that only a post-mortem, or possibly the final decay of the skull, will remove them. I’m looking at you, “My Kind Of Soldier”, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. A borderline neurotic like me looks at the back catalogue and throws his hands up in despair.

Let's Give Up The Day Job

Thankfully for their legion of fans and the interested neurotics like me can now relax and listen to their first full-length in, oooh, years. And the pleasure of a GBV album, as I’ve discovered with Let’s Go Eat The Factory, is no matter how much you might dislike any particular track, another will be along within a couple of minutes which might be far more to your liking. Ranging from Sebadoh lo-fi indie to more tuneful REM style jangle, there’s lots to like. You can only imagine how a bunch of forty-somethings have been sitting in their studies and garages in Dayton, Ohio, humming tunes to themselves for months on end until the thought struck them, “Hey, let’s get the old gang back together”, then negotiating with wives and families and the like to get out on the road again. Sure makes your heart melt; there’s a whole swath of ex-rockers who never quite met the grade, but are getting back together and getting more success than ever before. Someone should do a proper documentary of these bands; the Guided By Voices, the Frank And Walters, the bands that were permanently destined to be fifth on the bill on Friday afternoon at Reading1.

Lovely to have them back, making records again. This one has been on iTunes for a bit and is getting a proper physical release next week. We all need some lo-fi tunesmithery overlain by barmy lyrics in our lives, and GBV do it better than almost anyone.

1 Which is why I’d exclude The Pixies from this; they were proper headline act material.

MP3: The Unsinkable Fats Domino by Guided By Voices

Buy “Let’s Go Eat The Factory” Here (CD)

New Year New Music Part Two – Town Hall

As a music blogger, even one on the dusty edges of the blogosphere1, you have to get used to getting a lot of PR mails. And I mean lots. I get around 30 a day, and I know many bloggers who get up to ten times that. Picking music you might want to listen to can be a tough affair, especially when many of the emails are just basic mass-mailings, with no thought at all about what kind of music you clearly like. No, I am not interested in a mash-up of Lady Gaga and Rhianna. When the email has been written by someone, and it’s usually the band in this case, that has clearly read your blog, then there’s a much higher chance that you’re going to give the music a listen.

One Of These People Is A Gooner

Which leads me to Town Hall. I had an email from them the other day, saying they’d enjoyed my posts on a couple of artists, and then saying their drummer is a huge Arsenal fan. That’s me won over then. Hailing from New York, armed with mandolins and the like, they make experimental folk. In previous years might have made me run the other way fearing a bunch of beardy hurdy-gurdy botherers yelping about Scarborough on acid, but as we all know, folk’s been where it’s at for a while, and, once you get through this interminably long sentence and listen to some of their songs, you’ll realise they’ve written songs of quite startling loveliness, like “Just Watching My Breath”:

“Alright” takes the psych-folk of Grizzly Bear and makes tricksy time signatures, the Lydian mode and odd breakdowns a charming listen:

You know what? Despite getting a million and one emails a day, and the incipient guilty feelings of not listening to 99% of them, I’m glad PR and bands make the effort when you get to hear stuff like this.

The band have a Bandcamp here where you can buy their first EP “Sticky Notes and Paper Scraps”, and check out their website filled with photos and stuff here. I look forward to hearing more from them over the year.

1 Or whatever it’s called this week

New Year New Music Part One – Craig Finn

So here we are, on the 13th day of the New Year, and my writer’s block that has been dogging me since last year has managed to get itself distracted for long enough for me to get my fingers on a keyboard and start writing some goddamn posts. Every year, I’ve spent January hunting through emails, blog posts, Soundcloud streams and the like to find the most exciting, most thrilling, most stunning new bands and songs, for your delectation. Previous finds, such as Freelance Whales and Cotton Jones, have ended up being albums of that year. And what better way to start this year than to do the same?

Craig Finn has been delivering classic Springsteen-esque meat-and-two-veg rock par excellence for a number of years now, as lead man of The Hold Steady. Taking advantage of a break in that band, he’s going solo with a new album out on 24th January, titled “Clear Heart Full Eyes”. Here’s a new track from the album, named “New Friend Jesus”.

Now I quite like this new, more acoustic Craig, like he’s just wandered into a bluegrass bar in South Carolina and decided to jam along with the house band, before drinking some blue liquor that looks like it should be used for cleaning combs and passing out in someone’s chicken coop.

You can pre-order the album from here, and if you order quickly you’ll get a free bandana, which must be up there as one of the oddest free gifts of recent years.

More to come, soon, hopefully.

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.

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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.

Albums 2011 – Part Two

Here’s Part Two of my list of my favourite things from 2011. And by things, I mean albums, songs, and gigs, as opposed to huge steaming piles of crystal meth.

(Disclaimer: I do not have anything to do with huge steaming piles of crystal meth. It’s all meow meow round here, you know)

Part One is over here.

The Others

Elbow – Build A Rocket, Boys!

The Seldom Seen Kid was always going to be a hard act to follow. Instead of trying to copy it, or repeat it, they retreated into themselves and made a lovely, personal record, that I originally though wasn’t quite as compelling. Until I listened to it again a few more times before writing this, and realising that, you know what, it’s excellent.

Feist – Metals

Not content with earworming us into submission with the likes of “1,2,3,4”, Feist took some time away and wrote this gorgeous paean to loneliness. A far more complete album than anything she’s made so far; musically fascinating, lyrically enthralling, she’s a talent far above her peers. Her next record is eagerly awaited, and I hope her head is in a better place for it.

Wye Oak – Civilian

A band sadly ignored by most, this duo continue to write some damned fine songs, and Civilian is their strongest record by far. The title track positively roars in its melancholy fervour, and the rest of the record ain’t bad either. Miss them at your peril.

MP3: Civilian by Wye Oak

Antlers – Burst Apart

A record that drove into view in the slipstream of the (far inferior) Wild Beasts, Antlers do that whole windswept, broken-hearted earnest indie-rock that comes close to The National in terms of latching itself into the sadder parts of your heart with silver fishhooks, and refuses to leave. Perfect for your inner teenager.

The Scottish Duo Duo

Bill Wells and Aiden Moffat – Everything’s Getting Older

An album seeped in both the usual grimness of Aiden Moffett’s subject matter of death and f***ing, mixed with Bill Well’s beautifully understated music. “The Copper Top” is the album’s majestic highlight; anyone who has ever been to the funeral of a loved one will nod wryly and blink back the tears, but this isn’t the only highlight. “Glasgow Jubilee”’s circular, poetic tale of a series of sex-obsessed Glaswegians will simultaneously make you smile as well as disgust you. “Dinner Time” is utterly creepy up until the song’s final payoff line. Perfect for your inner miserable sex-obsessed loner.

MP3: The Copper Top (Radio Edit) by Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells

King Creosote and Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine

Lyrically poles apart from Wells/Moffat but sonically a cousin, this is a much gentler listen. Apparently recorded in a Scottish tea-room, this pastoral gem takes a little while to settle in, but once it does, becomes the perfect go-to music for those nights when anything more dramatic might just send you teetering over the edge.

Wilco – The Whole Love

(Note: I forgot to paste this in on the first draft, so apologies to anyone who gets the email. Sorry!)

Being around for the best part of twenty years can mean that it’s hard to keep things fresh. Wilco, then, did superbly with The Whole Love, their strongest for years, if not quite at the heights of their best. I even wrote a review, you know.

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That’s Part Two done with then. Part Three is over here.