Catchup Verify

After many months of being too busy, tired or otherwise unavailable to write my usual well-thought out, pertinent and damn witty posts, I have a huge backlog of albums, songs, and random oddities to pontificate about. I realised the other day that some of my favourite records of the year have been totally unposted about, such as Low. I’ve been to great gigs, like M Ward, which have likewise been unposted. And some great tracks have popped out over the months, which I’ve totally missed.

The first of these being The National’s “Exile Vilify”, which debuted in the game Portal 2, of all places. Now you’ll not get any snooty anti-videogame tirade from me, no sirree. I’ve been playing the sodding things for a good thirty years, and some games, like System Shock series, have a deep and unshakable place in my heart, as pieces of art as emotionally powerful as anything Hollywood, Nashville or Manchester has to offer. Quite frankly, I’m just amazed that games are now such a part of the mainstream that the likes of The National are releasing records on games. Yes, of course bands have been videogame music for some time, what with Gran Turismo and the GTA series being almost as well defined by their musical content as the actual gameplay. But an esoteric wonder like Portal 2, featuring The National? We live in wonderful times, my friends, wonderful times.

Now, to have Mastodon doing the music for Skyrim1. That would rock.

1 Which leads me briefly onto this:

I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing this man’s games but have never known what he looks or sounds like. Which, I guess is where one area that games massively differ from music and film; you really don’t care what the people making the games are like.

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

Squalor Victoria and Albert

The National are the American Elbow (or, for the Americans amongst you, Elbow are the English The National1). Purveyors of heartfelt, grandiose music, with a touch of prog in amongst the melancholy. And then there’s the history of both bands; both struggled for years before slowly, painstakingly building a loyal and suprisingly large fan base; both bands elevate themselves above the fray by releasing increasingly confident, ambitious albums whilst never turning away from what made them special in the first place.

The National’s core sound – guitars just on the edge of distortion, military drums, Matt Berninger’s charismatic baritone vocals – suits the Albert Hall, which normally struggles with rock bands. Although opener “Mistaken for Strangers” sounded a bit claggy, things soon righted themselves. With a healthy mix of mostly rapturously received new songs, and even more rapturously received older numbers, the band deftly worked their way through an enviably strong set.

This was one of those gigs where you could see the band playing their new material with an attitude of utter confidence. Mostly bands plying their great fabby shiny new release do so with a slight air of embarrassment; not this lot. “Afraid Of Everyone” was tumultuous, “Conversation 16” left everyone wondering if he really is singing “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains”2, and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, reeled out as an encore, was a touch rough around the edges, but judging from the audience reaction is fast becoming a fan favourite before the record has even been released.

Older songs – hailing from Alligator and Boxer – remind us just what a band we’re dealing with here. “Slow Show” was marvellous; a slow burning wonder. “Squalor Victoria” is all drums and thunder. “Mr November” sees Matt Berninger go for an extended walkabout through the crowd like a more lovable, and somewhat more drunken Bono. And “Apartment Story” was a delicate, touching paean to a generation that wouldn’t, or didn’t understand how to, protest against the Bush administration: “Stay inside ’til somebody finds us\Do whatever the TV tells us\Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz”.

But the standout track tonight was “Blood Buzz Ohio”, one of their best songs, old or new. I’ve no idea what it’s about, but the lovely rhythm of the chorus – “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe\I never thought about love when I thought about home” – carries you along, no matter what the meaning of the song is. The backing from the two-man horn section is just perfect too. Stupid grin on face time.

This is one of the magical things about The National. When the songs make sense, they drill into your brain and refuse to leave thanks to their marvellous lyricism (“Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults”) and the stunning musicality of the Dessner brothers, and in particular the astonishing drumming of Bryan Devendorf. He even got his own moment in the spotlight at the start of “Squalor Victoria”, where he looked like drumming like that is the easiest thing on earth. And even when they don’t quite make sense, the music pulls you along, capturing you until you’ve unlocked the secrets of what on earth he’s on about.

Like Elbow, The National aren’t so much a feel good band, as a feel good about feeling bad band. Last year, Elbow played their largest London show yet; this was The National’s largest show in London. It seems like the world might finally be waking up to what a special group this is, in the way that it did to Elbow in 2008; whether “High Violet” will be the breakthrough record it could so easily be, only time will tell. They’d certainly deserve it.

High Violet is out Monday

MP3: Afraid of Everyone by The National

(Track removed as apparently the Web Sheriff has been doing the rounds again. Bad Web Sheriff! Bad!)

1 Speaking of which, on my way to work this morning, feeling avuncular after doing my democratic duty, I saw a lady on the Tube listening to Elbow. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say “Listen to this”, before passing over my pre-release “High Violet”. She’d like it. Mind you, it’s not really the done thing, no matter what all those warm and fuzzy ads tell you.

2 He is, you know.

The National Save The Day

Oh, what a rubbish day I’ve had. Waking up with a stinking cold, running round like an eedjit at work thanks to AD synchronisation issues (don’t ask), Jubilee Line troubles on the way home, couldn’t make it to the Tindersticks gig tonight; a cavalcade of utter rubbishness from start to finish. Didn’t even get the sausage sandwich that I’d been hankering after for breakfast. Bah!

But on the bright side, new The National Song! A new goddamn National Song! The first song released officially from new album High Violet (out on May 11th), it takes off from where Boxer left off. So, that drumming, those baritone vocals, that sense of endless wearying ennui mixed with hope and love that makes them such an addictive mix.

Ok, Make A Video Out Of This One Then, I Dare You

So here it is for you, guys and gals. “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. All is right with the world.

MP3: Bloodbuzz Ohio by The National

(Track removed as apparently the Web Sheriff has been doing the rounds again. Bad Web Sheriff! Bad!)

Thou Shalt Buy This Record

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)

Review – Dark Was The Night – Various Artists

Dark Was The Night is a new charity compilation released by those lovely folks over at 4AD. It features a bunch of newly recorded songs, both new songs and covers, by some of the brightest and greatest bands around at the moment, from Grizzly Bear and The National to Feist and Sufjan Stevens. The charity Red, for AIDS sufferers around the world, is the benefactor, and the album assembled by the Dessner brothers from The National.

Now I’ve got to say that some of the bands on here are top favourites round L&L Mansions, so I was rather keen to give this a spin (can you spin MP3’s?) to see what they’d come up with. And it’s mostly pretty good. A few things I have learned from this album. Some artists can be covered, like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Others, like Nick Drake, just sound like weak interpretations, no matter how skilfully done. Sorry, The Books. That the pairing of Anthony Johnson’s voice and Bryce Dessner’s guitar is a match made in heaven (and I’m not really much of an Anthony fan). That The Decemberists still sound like an American Levellers. That Sufjan Stevens, though a genius, isn’t always perfect. And neither are Arcade Fire, bless them.

That My Morning Jacket have a nice line in 50’s doo-wop. That Dave Sitek, stripped of much of the cleverness of TV On The Radio, can be suprisingly charming, though still bizarrely reminiscent of AR Kane. That Stuart Murdoch sounds like a Scottish Nico. That Cat Power, Buck 65 and Spoon should go and take a long, hard look at themselves for what they have done.

Feist and Grizzly Bear combine on the old Grizzly Bear track “Service Bell”, which is not quite the sum of its respective parts. But Grizzly Bear’s own track “Deep Blue Sea” is one of the highlights, and finds them in pleasant acoustic live mode rather than we’re-going-to-creep-you-out Yellow House mode. And the track is followed up by a new The National song, “So Far Round The Bend”, featuring a string and horn arrangement, from Nico Muhly, who’s also worked with Grizzly Bear on their new album Veckaitimawhatsit (by the way, check that link out – a blog purely devoted to the new Grizzly Bear album). Incestuous? Ah, who cares if the music is great. And this song’s a peach, boding well for whatever The National do next. For yeah, sayeth the Lord, Boxer was top.

And there are loads of other decent tracks on here. I haven’t even started wittering on about Yo La Tengo or David Byrne. Or Iron & Wine. Or how I still don’t get Bon Iver.

Anyway, charity albums have a habit of having a couple of good tracks with lots of filler, or re-released material. Dark Was The Night manages to serve up a whole load of what’s called alternative music these days, and it’s a treat for fans and newcomers alike. You might even find yourself listening to it a whole bunch of times. Well done, folks.