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

Swans Live – Koko, London

Nothing, but nothing can prepare you for standing at the front at a Swans gig. Being locked inside a blast furnace might help, or standing on the rim of an exploding volcano could do it, to some extent, but there is nothing to compare with the experience of the thundering, rampaging NOISE that this band of malevolent geniuses produce.

What’s more, it’s not just that noise that dumb kids produce with a big amp and some pedals. No, sir, this is carefully calibrated, thumping, driving noise, created by a bassist and drummer in perfect, horrendous harmony, ably built upon by two guitars, Thor the Percussionist, and a man whose craggy visage would have made the late Johnny Cash look like a L’Oreal model. In those dark, grim Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, Swans would be perfectly cast as the bunch of miscreants riding ominously into a small, vulnerable town, and you would know that what would come next would be bloodshed, and who the perpetrators would be.

And of course, there is Michael Gira himself. A man of absolute and utter belief in his mission to tell us, each of us, individually if need be, that we are the cursed and damned children of an unforgiving and intemperate God. There is precious little redemption, or even much hope, in his music; instead, he uses the words of a firebrand preacher, and the close to “Sex God Sex” spells this out in no uncertain terms. As the squall abates, he yells, in a booming rancorous baritone, “JESUS CHRIST! SAY HIS NAME! JESUS! COME DOWN! COME DOWN NOW!”.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of things here a little. For, as a live experience, Swans make sure you know you are about to face something unique. First off, the set times posted showed the band coming on at 10; a good hour later than any band I’ve seen in London for many years. Second off, the choice of James Blackshaw was possibly a demonstration that Gira’s not merely interested in pummelling us with big fucking boulders of noise; he’s also a record label boss with some uncommonly good bands on the roster (such as Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family).

Seeing James Blackshaw live, up close, can be described in one, simple word: incredible. If you have not seen him yet, do. Do it soon, before he decides to pack it in, as playing such gorgeous songs in front of an audience who seem more interested in gabbling away. Look, you fuckers, this guys is one of the most talented musicians doing the rounds in London, enjoy seeing him, and shut the fuck up for a moment.

A Very, Very Talented Man

Support out of the way, it was a short wait before Thor came ambling on the stage and starting doing something. That something was to kick off some kind of drone machine, part airraid siren, part foghorn, at near-deafening volume. He then buggered off, only for the winner of Mr Craggy Face 2010 to wander on about five minutes later, muck about with his lap steel, adding a whole new layer of deafening noise, then bugger off as well. Thor buggers back on again and starts bashing his tubular bells.

Do. Not. Mess.

So there we are, standing there, trying to resist the temptation to put our fingers in our ears. A few long minutes later and the band saunter back on, and start a thumping, driving one-chord riff that mutated into “No Words/No Thoughts”. The man Gira acts as a kind of conductor to the band, guiding them forward to higher levels of torture. At the end, we try and clap and cheer, but these cheers seemed strangely quiet. Maybe because we were all deaf by this point.

A couple of older tracks followed, notably “Sex God Sex” (the most Swans title ever), featuring the aforementioned Screaming About Jesus bit. Then came the song that, to me, demonstrates exactly why the return of Swans is something to be celebrated.

Stop Doing That

“Jim”, on the album, is a slow-burning, dreadful (in the old sense of the word) waltz. Live, it builds from being loud, and ominous, to hugely loud and deeply disturbing. Watching the band slowly add more and more – in particular Norman Westberg, who taps out time between chords on his guitar – is thrilling, and quite worrying. Every few bars it seems as though another layer of sound is built on top of an already dangerously overloaded behemoth. The effect is stunning. At the song’s climax, the band suddenly strip away much of the sound, leaving a ruined husk of a song remaining. Utterly electrifying.

Other highlights included oldie “I Crawled” – like the other old tracks, slightly prettier than their original incarnations, and a version of “Eden Prison” which, although quieter for the first half than on record, more than made up for it during its destructive second half.

Cheer Up Mate, It May Never Happen

By the end, the volume was such that most of the people who’d been crowding to the front during the first few songs had sought out the relative safety of the rear. They were missing out. Swans are best experienced up front; that was you can truly experience the band’s dynamic – bassist Chris Pravdica and drummer Phil Puleo in their own private world, driving each other on; Thor manically bashing the life out of assorted tubular bells, drums, cymbals, a dulcimer and some kind of home made thing; Norman Westberg and lap steel player Christoph Hahn staring out at the crowd with utter contempt and no small portion of malevolence, indifferent to the squall; and centre-stage, Gira himself, driving the whole affair like a damned preacher at the fiery gates of Hell. Some songs even featured a pair of startled trombonists who, frankly, struggled to make themselves heard over the din.

Run Run Run

One encore, and they were gone. Much of the band departed with no wave at all, but Gira and Thor stayed for a moment; Thor grinning, Gira looking as though he knew a job had been well done. A job of making us feel as uncomfortable as possible. They were majestic. To have taken the core of their sound from the eighties and update it so successfully, to make Swans vital and urgent and damn well unmissable, is a remarkable achievement.

See them now, see them from the front, and have a story to tell the grandchildren when they play you something unlistenable in years to come. Then you can tell them: “You find this noisy? That’s nothing. I saw Swans live”.

Did I say they were loud?

Swans – ‘Eden Prison’ by theQuietus

Buy “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” (CD/MP3)

A Steady Gale Force Wind of Hydrochloric Acid

So, there I am in a lovely hotel on the lovely, if somewhat hot and dusty, island of Cyprus. “Wonder where the web cafe computers are? Surely, in a lovely hotel like this, they should be free?” I wonder to myself. And off I trot, and find a PC in the “business centre”. Laughing at the Windows Genuine Activation error onscreen, I fire up Internet Explorer (no Firefox on this baby).

“Internet Access Is Charged at €10 per hour” says the screen.

“!&%^£*(&&!!!!” says me.

Which is why it’s been quiet round here. Speaking of quiet, whilst I was away, The Quietus posted a fascinating track-by-track commentary by Michael Gira of SWANS, on their new album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, as well as posting a couple of tracks on Soundcloud.

The Backsteet Boys Have Seen Better Days

I’ve only had a chance to listen to the penultimate track “Eden Prison”. When news of the reunion/reformation broke, my immediate thought was whether this would be the melodic, though loud, neo-folk of the later incarnation, or the brutal, horribly thundering noise of their ’80’s years. On the evidence of “Eden Prison”, the answer seems to be about 70% the latter, and 30% the former, which is a damn fine proportion. If the rest of the album is as good as this, we might be in for something I hadn’t expected – an unmissable SWANS record. Have a listen below.

Swans – ‘Eden Prison’ by theQuietus

The other point that has to be mentioned is that one of the songs is called “You Fucking People Make Me Sick”. What more can you ask for, eh? The record is out on September 23rd, with a bunch of live shows coming up this year. I’ll be at the London show. With earplugs. At least I won’t be bothered by irritating shitbags talking. I mean, look at the photo above. Would you talk during their songs?

Buy “Children of God/World of Skin” (CD/MP3) (the best Swans record of the earlier, thoroughly unpleasant yet strangely cathartic years)

Buy “Various Failures 1988-1992” (CD) (Pretty decent compilation of the later, folkier years)

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!

Swans Are Not Dead

Reunion fever seems to have taken over pretty much every vaguely important band of the last 20 years. Some, like Jesus Lizard, I’m not really too fussed about, but others, like Pavement, I’m well stoked about (to use the current terminology).

And on Thursday, in the Grauniad, came news that Swans were reforming. Or sort of reforming. For those of you who have never heard them, Swans made possibly the loudest, most brutal, most angry music ever. Not the loudness of AC/DC, that made you want to party. Not brutal like Einsturzende Neubaten, the brutality of machines and modernity. Not angry like Nine Inch Nails and other teenage-angst bands (or, *shudder*, Emo).

He's A Cheery Chappy

No, Swans were loud like a supernova. Brutal like death row. Angry like the vengeance of God himself. Sure, they toned down the noise and the brutality and the anger after “Children Of God”, but it was still there, always lurking, always ready to drag you down to the depths of the human soul.

And now they are reforming! Yay! LOL!!!! 😉

At the moment, it’s not entirely clear what countries they will tour, and what the live shows will actually be like, but I’m looking forward to the pummelling. It’ll hopefully be like a nasty version of the My Bloody Valentine reunion shows, bleeding eardrums and all.

In the meantime, to welcome non-believers to the wonderful and exciting world of Swans, is their song “New Mind”. With lines taken solely from real-life preacher’s speeches, this track glistens with pure anger and hatred. I love it.

MP3: New Mind by Swans

Footnote: I will one day write a much longer piece on Swans when I get to them on the Pitchfork 500 jaunt. And yes, I am still doing them, they’ve just come to a bit of a grinding halt whilst doing Albums of the Decade and all that stuff. Maybe that should have been another New Years Resolution.

EEEEEEEEEE – Live Review – The Twilight Sad, ICA, London


The Twilight Sad are LOUD. About 25 years ago, Swans played the ICA in London, a gig which has gone down in London gig folkore as the loudest ever. Apparently, people were being sick and in all sorts of trouble. Having seen Swans the following year, when apparently they’d calmed down, and not being able to hear at all after, I know what loud is. And Twilight Sad are loud.

Not quite that loud though. But loud enough to make my ears go EEEEEEEEEEEE. They’re doing it now. Getting to sleep tonight’s going to be fun.

This being a showcase of a couple of record labels – One Little Indian and Fat Cat – we were meant to be treated to three bands tonight. Sadly, Kill It Kid were unable to play thanks to “a case of th’ no’wells”. Shame, as Martyn has been singing their praises and since he’s a man who knows his stuff, I was rather looking forward to seeing them. Ah well, next time. EEEEEEEE.

So it was up to We Were Promised Jetpacks to be the only support act. And they did what every good support act should do – be good, but not so good as to upstage the main act. Noisy and bouncy, like a really good C86 band. Christ, first Swans, now C86, I’m really showing my age here.

I don’t know much about The Twilight Sad. I know they are from the edge of Glasgow, that singer James Graham obviously hasn’t got over his teenage years, and that they have a great line in song titles, but I’d no idea what they look like. What do they look like? A bunch of Glaswegian lads, pretty much. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to meet James in a dark alley, with his shaven head and air of coiled intensity. EEEEEEEEE.

Mine's A Guinness

Mine's A Guinness

Saying that, a few songs in, he looked at the crowd and said “We’re amazed you’re all here. We thought no-one cared about us”. We do, of course, because you’re a damned fine band.

What a noise they make. It’s glorious. A wall of sheer fury comes from Andy McFarlane’s guitar (a white Fender Jaguar with a Tortoiseshell pickguard, I’ll have you know – the guitar of all the best alt-rockers). Much of the time you can’t hear the lyrics, especially on the tracks from the new album, but when they fall back to stuff from “Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters”, James’s voice shines through. EEEEEEEEE.

“That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy” was absolutely fantastic, with just enough noise to make it special without drowning out the shining glory of the song. Or rather, it’s called “Hit Single”. Ah, irony. In fact, I’m not even going to bother listing the new songs. Just look at the set list:

Set List.  These Aren't The Proper Names.

Set List. These Aren't The Proper Names.

See? “Mooth”?

The new tracks, as ever when you hear new songs live for the first time, weren’t quite as convincing as the older ones, but they’re definitely expanding their repertoire, rather than making “Fifteen Autumns and Sixteen Winters”. Looking forward to hearing what it sounds like on record rather than through a big bunch of speakers. EEEEEEEEE.

Early in the first song, “Doonstairs”, in the middle of a frenzy of feedback, Andy kneeled down and changed a setting on one of his many guitar pedals. Just a little bit, you know, to get the wall of sound just so. Attention to detail is where it’s at, you know. Not just any noise for these boys.

Pride of place, of course, went to “Cold Days From The Birdhouse”, first half sung pretty much unaccompanied, second halves’ “Where Are Your Manners?” drowned beneath that squall of sound. The night ended with a wall of feedback, detuned guitars and basses, with James standing in the centre of it all, eyes squeezed shut. He seemed happy. We certainly were.

You have to admire their ability to create a definitive sound – part Mogwai, part Arab Strap, part Proclaimers-after-doing-acid-and-primal-scream-therapy-and-no-sleep-for-9-days. There’s more than a bit of Mew and Joy Division in there too. But it sounds all them. I love bands that just seem to fall together, and sound like they couldn’t do anything else even if they tried. EEEEEEEE.

And one last point – I love it when a band makes an effort with their record covers. Just check out the cover of “Here, It Never Snowed. Afterwards, It Did”:

The Importance Of Having An Image In The MP3 World

The Importance Of Having An Image In The MP3 World

Brilliant, isn’t it? The whole website follows the same design. See, you don’t get that with an MP3 download.

Anyway, it’s late, my ears are ringing, and I need sleep. Enjoy these tracks from The Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks from the Fat Cat sampler. I suggest you go and see both bands when you get a chance. Take earplugs. EEEEEEEEEE.

MP3: That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy by The Twilight Sad

MP3: Here, It Never Snowed. Afterwards, It Did (Live) by The Twilight Sad

MP3: Tiny Little Voices by We Were Promised Jetpacks

Buy “Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters” (CD/MP3)

Buy We Were Promised Jetpacks “These Four Walls” (CD/MP3)

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