Songs Of 2009 (Part One)

Or rather, great songs from good albums that came out this year. Or great songs that weren’t on an album at all. Or great songs that were on albums that I never got round to listening to.

Oh, just great songs, alright?

(Some of my favorite songs are actually on favorite albums, so see here for them.)

Old Stalwarts

Bill Callahan – Jim Cain

“I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again”

Bill wraps up his career, and love-life, in one line. Like so many of his songs, he uses few words to describe a complex and difficult world. And like so many of his songs, utterly startling, with a scalpel-sharp clarity of thought that separates him from the rest of the singer-songwriter crowd by more than a few miles. As close to an explanation of his breakup with Joanna Newsom that you’ll ever get.

MP3: Jim Cain by Bill Callahan

Buy “Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle” (CD/MP3)

The Kingsbury Manx – Galloping Ghosts

“Look out across a silver landscape of galloping ghosts on our heels\Racing and chasing the nightmare’s almost over now”

It must be tough to keep writing music 10 years after your first album. Where do the ideas keep coming from? Can you still recreate that magic? Kingsbury Manx did it, wonderfully, with this song from the nearly-great “Ascenseur Ouvert!” album. It’s a song you can hardly hear anyone else making; that gentle warmth, that softness, the guitar solo just breaking through – Neil Young meets Willie Nelson and covering an old Pink Floyd song. But, in truth, it’s just the Manx, and if this song doesn’t melt your heart, you are surely not human. Song meaning? Possibly the inevitability of ones mortality, the loss of friendship, finding hope on the darkest days, who knows?

MP3: Galloping Ghosts by The Kingsbury Manx

Buy “Ascenseur Ouvert!” (CD/MP3)

Jason Lytle – Rollin’ Home Alone

“But I bought you something nice\I got you something warm\For when the weather turns\When will I ever learn?”

Again, just like the Manx, how can Jason do it? That melancholy magic that seeps from every bar, every note, every little inflection of his voice, there is no-one else who can make this kind of tale of misplaced affection so utterly transfixing.

MP3: Rollin’ Home Alone by Jason Lytle

Buy “Yours Truly, The Commuter” (CD/MP3)

Unexpected treats

Frightened Rabbit – Swim Until You Can’t See Land

“Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?”

This one got me from nowhere. An email from a publicist pointing me in the direction of the new video by a Scottish band; one quick listen later and I was utterly smitten. 42 plays later and I’m still smitten. I actually have to stop myself from listening to it now, in case I overdo it.

MP3: Swim Until You Can’t See Land by Frightened Rabbit

Buy “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” (Vinyl!)

Here We Go Magic – Tunnelvision

A heady, spaced-out thing, made by Luke Temple in a bedroom. Wonderful.

MP3: Tunnelvision by Here We Go Magic

Buy “Here We Go Magic” (CD/MP3)

Anthony and Bryce Dessner – I Was Young When I Left Home

I’ve never been an enormous fan of Anthony (of “And The Johnsons” fame). Maybe it was all the hype around him; hype which turned me off him before I’d even heard any of his songs. So this was a lovely treat; his high, frail voice dancing above tender fingerstyle guitar courtesy of The National’s Bryce Dessner. Also wonderful, but I’m not posting the MP3, because I’ve been slapped by the RIAA before for posting stuff from “Dark Is The Night”.

MP3: Nope, sorry. But you can buy the album here.

I’ll be doing Part Two tomorrow. See you then, hopefully.

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Albums Of The Decade (Part One)

No White Stripes, no Radiohead, no Flaming Lips, no The Streets or Burial or many other great bands. All those bands, and many others, made records with some great songs on (damn, Flaming Lips made the best song of the decade). These are all albums that I still play, still love, and still listen to all the way through. Now, I haven’t gone crazy in the descriptions because I know I’ll get to all of these artists as part of my Pitchfork 500 stint, so it’s 100 words or less. Long-time readers will know this is very, very hard for me to do!

Oh, and there’s hardly anything from 2009. I need time and distance for this, you know.

Dongs Of Sevotion

Smog – Dongs Of Sevotion (2000)

Your one-stop shop for mordant observations on the misery of humanity, shot through with enough wit (“Dress Sexy At My Funeral”) to keep you coming back, again and again and again. I listened to this for much of 2000, and adore it still.

MP3: Dress Sexy At My Funeral by Smog

Buy “Dongs of Sevotion” (CD)

Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven!

Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)

That slow, dreadful build up, that paroxym of noise. They’d never reached peaks like this before, and they, and Post-Rock, never did again.

MP3: Antennas To Heaven… by Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Buy “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” (CD/MP3)

The Kingsbury Manx – The Kingsbury Manx (2000)

The sound of autumn, distilled into some wonderful songs. Soundtrack to many happy moments, staring wistfully at the rain through the window of a warm room. If doing that makes you happy, this record will make you happy.

MP3: Pageant Square by Kingsbury Manx

Buy “The Kingsbury Manx” (CD)

Great Cover, This

Lambchop – Nixon/Is A Woman (2000/2002)

Two albums? Yes. One is a lush, rich record, with big statement songs. The next album is stripped down, often with just and acoustic and minimal accompaniment. Both are wonderful and there’s nothing to choose between them.

Great Lyric: “This learning not to demonstrate your asinine and callous traits\It’ll take some practice”. I love that line.

MP3: Grumpus by Lambchop

Buy “Nixon” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Is a Woman” (CD)

Another Great Cover

Scary Man!  Scary Beard!

Bonnie Prince Billy – Ease Down the Road/Master and Everyone (2001/2003)

Two albums? Yes. One is a lush, rich record, with big statement songs. The next album is stripped down, often with just and acoustic and minimal accompaniment. Both are wonderful and there’s nothing to choose between them.

MP3: Wolf Among Wolves by Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Buy “Ease Down the Road” (CD)

Buy “Master and Everyone” (CD)

This Cover Scares Me More Than Bonnie Prince Billy

Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance (2001)

A few months ago I realised I’d not copied this onto my new iPhone (which is constantly full). When I got home the first thing I did was put on “All Downhill From Here”. For a bitter, twisted, hateful song about how much Jim hates people, and the world, it sure is an uplifting song. The best produced album of the decade.

MP3: All Downhill From Here by Jim O’Rourke

Albums Of The Decade (Part Two)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Three)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Four)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Five)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Six)

Buy “Insignificance” (CD)

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Review – Ascenseur Ouvert! by The Kingsbury Manx

Some bands are special to you. They can be huge megastars that you discovered early, and you’ve seen them grow to stardom, from tiny little clubs to huge arenas. There are the small bands who only release an album or two before disappearing. There are the indie favourites who never quite break into the mainstream, but are influential and critically acclaimed. Then there are the bands who give a small bunch of fans a nice warm feeling inside, and pretty much carry on their day jobs, raise families, and still release the occasional record.

And it’s this last set of bands for whom the Internet could well be the saviour. To release a record in the good old days, you had to turn up to a studio, for weeks at a time, do promotional tours, play venues that you could only make money on if you sold out 1. Getting a CD into the store was an expensive business. Now, you can record much of your record in a cheap home setup, proper recording studio rates have plummeted, and who needs to go on a huge, expensive promo tour when you’ve got a bunch of fans on the Internet happy to sell the record for you?

Of course, it’s not that simple. You can’t make a living like this, but as a pro-am hobby it takes some beating. But what it does do is let bands like this continue, in proper, real form, releasing records, and making people happy. Which leads me onto the Kingsbury Manx. They are one of those special bands that not many people have heard of, and probably haven’t influenced many people, and critics by and large ignore them (though Pitchfork gave them a very nice review recently). And as you might realise by now, they are very special to me.

Manx on a sofa

Manx on a sofa

“Ascenseur Ouvert!” is Kingsbury Manx’s fifth album. Over the last nine years, they’ve been making music that seems simple to the ear, but has hidden depths that reward the curious listener. With opaque, softly sung lyrics, their songs are a pleasure to listen to – not quite easy listening (with the blandness that entails), but their warm, unfussy sound rests easy on the ear, and draws you in. Often, each instrument – the guitar, bass, keyboard – plays a simple tune, but when mixed together with Clarque Blomqvist’s restless drumming, becomes a complex, interwoven tapestry of sound.

See? Not easy to describe, you know. It’s a great trick, being as deft as this, which surprisingly few bands manage as well as the Manx do. And they’ve managed it with four great albums so far. Does this one live up to its predecessors2?

Opening with “Walk On Water”, you know straight away that the band haven’t decided to take a disco-funk-punk direction. The usual Manx themes are there; the lovely warm sound, the opaque lyrics (“A dirty hand wipes dusty cobwebs from my eye”), mixing together to form a gentle lead-in to the more lively “Over The Ouevre”. That features a keyboard sound so cheesy that you suspect it escaped from a mid-80’s made-for-TV movie about a toy duck that goes on a magical adventure. But somehow, they manage to make it sound good.

From then on, there’s nothing dramatically different; songs pass by very pleasurably, with some catching your attention quicker than others. “These Three Things” stands out, with what sounds like a breakdown in a relationship, harking back to their second album “Let You Down”. Again, beautifully opaque lyrics (“3 is the number I pillage and plunder\A 40-day slumber that you won’t stop talking about”) gently sung over a deceptively simple backing draw you in, delving deeper into the sound of a band who know exactly what they are doing. Get that rhyme of “plunder” and “slumber”; it’s a great rhyme but because it’s made at an unexpected time, it simultaneously welcomes you in and makes you feel slighly uncomfortable. Plus, the sudden breakthrough of a fuzzed-out guitar shocks you into paying more attention than you might have been.

Later on there’s “Galloping Ghosts” which, as you should expect by now, drifts past you the first few times until suddenly part of your brain goes “Hey, hold on, this is brilliant!” and it takes up earworm residence. And what a lovely video:

As ever, some songs tend to drift by, but that’s not a bad thing. Because, as ever, The Kingsbury Manx play beautifully, and it’s a pleasure to listen to this without any song yelling for your attention. As it slowly unravels, you find more and more to hear. In this day of sudden cheap thrills, you begin to realise that not only might this modern world of Interwebs and and Spotify help a band like this find a fresh audience, it also helps remind you that there’s more to music than just listening to a track here or there, and that some bands really are special. I’ve no idea whether the Internet really will help Kingsbury Manx make more records, but I really hope it does.

Order the album direct from Odessa Records, who will also ship internationally for a few dollars more (as they did for me, very efficiently. It’s just taken me ages to write this). An MP3 download is available here, but then you don’t get the lovely artwork.

Oh, and watch the video for “Well, Whatever” here. No embedding, sadly.

Go and buy the album, already.

MP3: These Three Things by The Kingsbury Manx

MP3: Galloping Ghosts by The Kingsbury Manx

Buy “Aztec Discipline” here (CD)

1 All the mid-sized venues in London are like this; if your favourite band hasn’t sold out the Shepherds Bush Empire then they will be in trouble with their label.

2 Frankly, I really hope so, after being bummed out by stalwarts such as M Ward and Bonnie “Prince” Billy so far this year.

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New Music – The Kingsbury Manx

Many of you may never have heard of The Kingsbury Manx. I hadn’t, until NME reviewed their first album back in 2000 and said that, whilst they didn’t know much about them, the album was great. One very quick listen later and I’d ordered it from Amazon, and even now, “The Kingsbury Manx” gets played in L&L Mansions every month or so. They are one of those bands that have an absolutely effortless sound, as though they just need to pick up their instruments and the sound flows out. Yes, that sounds like bollocks, but you listen to them and try and explain it better. Ok, so there’s a definite early Pink Floyd psychedelia to their sound1, along with a mellow gentleness and, in their later records, a playful jauntiness. From “The Kingsbury Manx” to their most recent release, “The Fast Rise And Fall Of The South”, their sound loses some of its opacity, replaced by warmth and openness.

Anyhow, they’ve got a new album out next month called “Ascenseur Ouvert!”, on the Odessa Records label, and you can listen to two tracks from their Myspace page here. Whilst I dug around for about five minutes for some MP3’s, I couldn’t find anything off the new album, so I shall cease and desist until something does come along. But here’s some YouTube footage thanks to The Delete Bin. I love Technorati, it does have its moments (oh, and if you love it too, do me a favour and fave me. Go on, just for a giggle).

Oh, and here’s an MP3 of one of the best tracks from what I’d personally say was their best album, 2003’s “Aztec Discipline”. Called “Grape To Grain”, I have no idea what it’s on about.

You can pre-order the album from here.

Stunning album art too, as always, from the marvellous Fatheart Galleries (no, I don’t think I’ve got that right either. Any ideas?).

Isn't This Lovely?

Isn't This Lovely?

Oh, and one little thing – if any of the band read this, you’re great, but your website doesn’t work very well with either Firefox 3 or IE 7. Sorry.

1 Which the band acknowledge as coincidental; they only heard early Pink Floyd after they’d recorded “The Kingsbury Manx”.

Grape To Grain by The Kingsbury Manx