Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Hissy Fit: Albums of the Year: Addendum

Never make lists in haste.
You'll miss the bleeding obvious:
The butter
The milk
The porridge
Somehow my Top 10 of the year omitted these 3 gems.
Haven't got time to wax lyrical.
Just let me tip my hat.
So, that's 14 in my Top 10.
Is that ok?

Cherry Ghost: Herd Runners:  Sweet soulful pop

Beck: Morning Phase: Mournful yet uplifting

David Bridie: Wake: Emotionally and intellectually stimulating.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Hissyfit 'Albums of 2014': My Top 5

5: Passengers: Whispers

'I've a big old heart
This I know for sure
But I don't know what my love is for
I should know by now...'

This might raise a few eyebrows.
I'm not usually swayed by 'likability' but I found this guy irresistible. Mike Rosenberg wears that big old heart on his sleeve and sings out load and clear. These messages don't need decoding, Mike's got the sensibilities of a trembling 5th former - he wouldn't have fared well at my boarding school - but sometimes there's a guilty pleasure in the recognition of the bleeding obvious. There's certainly a calming comfort and reassurance in his predictability. He delivers exactly what you want of him and sometimes that's the perfect pop fix.
Whilst Ed Sheehan seems like a perfectly nice bloke his music makes my teeth ache.
Rosenberg sweetness is addictive.
In fact, let's call him 'The Haribo of Heartache'.

4: First Aid Kit: Stay Gold

"I could move to a small town and become a waitress
Say my name was Stacy and figure things out"

Not just because Miracle Mile mainstay Melvin Duffy colors it so beautifully with his keening pedal steel, but also because the Söderberg sisters have gone for a widescreen production that could have spelt disaster but simply spells the word 'wonderful'. 
For an album that's so sonically assured there's a slight dissonance in the song content. These are tales of regret, transience and uncertainty and yet the assured production and performance creates a strange alchemy that renders the rusty regrets golden.

"What if to love and be loved is not enough? 
What if I fall and can't bear to get up? 
Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold".

3: John Fullbright: Songs

I loved Fullbright's debut 'From the Ground Up' and 'Songs' was no disappointment. Di and I saw Fullbright perform this album in concert recently and he managed to breath some life into the King's Hall; the second most lifeless venue in London after The Barbican. (I'm with you on that Paul Woodgate!)
On 'Songs' he's ditched the acoustic turned to the piano for much of this hushed set. Don't be misled by the opening salvo 'Happy'. 

“Tonight I’d rather think of you, try to close my eyes
And I’ll just wonder what’s so bad about happy.” 

For from what follows it seems that the boy's had his heart broken and the aching is stripped bare, unrelenting and quite delicious.
He's lost and lonely and these songs offer no solutions; all John can do is illuminate the heartache:

“As for lonely, I could show you how to live a life alone
All it takes is getting used to getting lost.”

He articulates the pain with an off kilter singular sensibility and tenderness that reminds me of a young Jimmy Webb:

“In my heart stands a scarecrow,
If he’s hurt, he doesn’t say so
When he chases everything he loves away
But at night when it’s colder
there’s a bluebird on his shoulder
And he whispers that he’ll hold her one bright day.”

= 2: Rosanne Cash : The River and the Thread

Yup, I bottled it; a joint second place for these two queens of country. 

"The things you push away when you’re young often become the very things you embrace when you’re older"

In her first set of original material since 2006's 'Black Cadillac' Cash's reconnection with America's deep south is key. After spending much of her youth distancing herself from her parents' overpowering influence she was bound to be drawn back to their roots. And the title 'The River and the Thread' suggests the flow of this tardy rights of passage; a confluence of influence and lineage, a returning to the source, so to speak.
It's a musical road trip of sorts, taken down the rivers and back roads of the Deep South with her longtime collaborator and husband John Leventhal, who took the cover shot of Rosanne on the Tallahatchie Bridge, made famous by that Bobbie Gentry song.
Cash remembers the genesis of the record:

"One day about a year ago, John and I started in Memphis and we drove to Oxford, Mississippi and went to Faulkner’s house. Then we went to Robert Johnson’s grave in Greenwood, Mississippi — what they think is his actual grave now, there’s some dispute — and then on to Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was killed. Around the corner, literally, is the Tallahatchie Bridge. I was standing on the bridge, looking at the Tallahatchie River. John took that snapshot from behind, and said, "That's an album cover." It's this vortex of profound musical inspiration and revolution. The civil rights era began because of Emmett’s murder, right there, right around the corner from the Tallahatchie Bridge. It's mind-boggling."

The twosome visit each musical styling with confidence and élan; never outstaying their welcome.
The focus, playing and singing are pitch perfect.

= 2: Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

'Pitch perfect' isn't a phrase that would rest easily with Lucinda Williams's lazy Louisiana drawl. You wonder if Williams has ever hit a pure note in her life but it's a wonderful wail. And you sense that Williams is having a wail of time trying to find the road to recovery. Where Rosanne is surely partial to sipping a Mint Julep or two you can bet that Lucinda is necking her bourbon straight from the bottle. But there's a persuasive poetry in detail and delivery that renders her surly slur both sensual and essential. You'd think as a double album (104 generous minutes) she might be in danger of outstaying her welcome, but every song is perfectly judged, even a 10 minute visitation of JJ Cale's 'Magnolia. It's also a guitarist's heaven with a masterclass from the finessed frets of Tony Joe White and Bill Frisell who bring subtlety and focus to the dense, swampy undertones.
Rosanne Cash sings "I'd like to have the ocean, but I'd settle for the rain" as if she's content with having the choice. You kind of know that troubled waters and grey skies are imperative as the natural backdrop to Lucinda's malaise.

World weary, weather beaten and a little wobbly she might be, but Williams remains spirited, vibrant and as vital as ever, buoyant amongst the flotsam and jetsam; proud and provocative, resilient and magnificently defiant, even in the face of the stormiest weather.

1: Joe Henry 'Invisible Hour'

No contest, although this was a slow burner. Because it's an album that demands your attention this took a while to insinuate itself. But once it lodged within it stayed long. I enthused about this in an earlier blog so won't bang on too much. This is popular music of the highest order; beautifully produced, artfully rendered, with songs that are lyrically dense, occasionally bordering on the impenetrable (we are dealing with with the mysteries of the heart) yet pitched by a voice that you totally engage with.
It's a 'relationship' album, concerned with the vagaries and minutaie of Joe's own marriage and “the redemptive power of love in the face of fear upon which this house is built.” It's a brave album because it mutters the unutterable, detailing the fallout when two hearts collide and blood is shed. We know that blood doesn't mix, even if it "tastes like honey". What pulls us together can push us apart. It's the fine detailing of these raw and often unquantifiable dynamics that makes this such an enthralling and challenging piece. There are no easy answers, no hearts and flowers, no lipstick sunsets. 'Invisible Hour' is about seeing the unseeable and recognizing its worth. In attempting to map such secret fault lines it casts a keen but troubled eye on the taboos and mysteries of life and love; the transience of passions; the way that time inexorably casts shadows on the heart whilst somehow unlocking and exposing every chamber. Offering more questions than answers its poetry is oblique and mysterious, often willfully unfocussed. Henry sings “I want nothing more than for you to hear me now,” in 'Plainspeak' and yet the meaning is far from clear. It's woozy ciphers are like sirens beckoning us into a dreamlike state and we can but be entranced; the aural equivalent of deliberately un-focussing your eyes to find the hidden image in a stereogram.

It's an album that you must engage with.
In fact it's an album that you don't really listen to.
You absorb it.
It's music stripped bare.
It's love stripped bare.
It gets to the heart of the matter and distinguishes it as flesh and blood... a bit of a pulpy mess.

'I take all this to be holy

If futile, uncertain and dire

Our union of fracture, our dread everlasting

This beautiful, desperate desire'

Celebrating both fragility and strength, 'Invisible Hour' looks love unflinchingly in the eye, recognizes its disappointments and imperfections, acknowledges the desperation of desire; totes the victories and defeats, runs its finger along the scars caused by those daily collisions and wears them proudly.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Hissyfit: 'Albums of 2014': Numbers Ten to Six

It's been a ho-hum kind of a year all round.
A little unrest goes a long way in our house.
We like things calm and settled.
The smallest troubles can cause unease so... when the wheels do come off big time we struggle.
Central to our unrest was the decline in Di's Dad's health.
Harry finally passed away in October.
If there's such a thing as 'a good death' his was one.
He was laughing with Dot, the love of his adult life (hip to hip for 64 years) and when she left the room (to answer the phone) Harry let go and left too.
No fussing.
Typical Harry Holmes.

Music is a balm and was never more so than in 2014.
Di likes to dance; I love a dirge.
Accordingly, I moved towards the sombre rather than the samba...
And those who know me know that I like a sad song.
Don't say you weren't warned.
Here's 10 - 6 of my favorite albums of 2014.
I'm not saying that they're the best.
Or even the best I heard.
They were just the one's that were there when I needed them...

10: The Delines: Colfax

Heaven? In the parlance of country music, if hell is other folk, then heaven is surely other folk's hell. In that land of endless opportunity, schadenfreude is a divine diversion from the minutiae of disappointment; relief from the mundanities of ordinary lives lived regretfully. Let's wallow in the misery of others and let's call it 'Americana'. This genre hosts a very American brand of unrelenting misery. There's no whistling kettle to call you home, no warm bath where the hot water tap is balmy hope incarnate. Here the dilapidated Diner's coffee is cold and bitter, the motel's plastic shower curtain remains ripped and stained, the trickling water, hard and lukewarm.

The Delines is a side project from Willy Vlautin. His prime persona will always be that of the lead singer with Richmond Fontaine, rampant reviewers of all things Americana, but Willy's so full of creative juice that there's little fear of him spreading his grits too thin. He's fast establishing himself as one of America's finest authors; his literary eye resting on the underbelly (or arse end) of blue collar America, with a particularly harsh focus on masculinity and what makes men cry. He's mentioned in the same breath as Raymond Carver and Sam Shepherd and it's no faint praise. Vlautin casts a similarly relentless gaze on the folks of 'Colfax'.

Apparently there's a Colfax Avenue in Denver, frequented by delinquents and broken spirits. This inspired the sense of place, if not the location for these sorry tales. Except here Willy brilliantly twists his viewpoint from tawdry testosterone to the one of a doleful female protagonist, as voiced by the beautifully mournful tones of Amy Boone from The Damnations. Where Springsteen offered 'magic in the night' as relief and 'wheels for wings' as speedy escape and redemption, there are some tramps too tired to run; or who simply can't afford the gas. Enter Amy Boone.

There's much weeping in these plangent laments. Although occasionally buoyed by the inevitable flashes of false hope, it's a sad illumination; the lights of home are nowt but futile fog, the lights on the horizon are the toxic glow of the local oil rigs. It's a dirty world of small towns, populated (or polluted) by hard drinkers and harsh truths. Sad souls bend or break; nothing is savored; food is fast, bottles are opened and emptied, cards are dealt and the game is seldom won; the only hope on offer comes from the jukebox in the corner of the smoky barroom. Although Boone plays many parts in this song cycle, she details the slow fade of her 'everywoman' with such candor and grace that you can't help but weep for her; she's probably too tired for tears. Witness her fading beauty in the the early morning half light as she prepares for another soul sapping shift. At the day's pay off you can sense her embarrassment at revealing her stretch marks and tired thighs to yet another one night stand. Hers is the flip side to the the sepia wide screened romances of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell. Way back then, fresh dawns and soft sunsets backlit the wholesome heartache of 'Galveston' and 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix'.  But there's no 'Witchita Lineman' to connect Amy to distant love here. Where are the sweet whisperings? 'And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time'. There's no such nobility here, no beatific oaths and commitments in these sad tales. Each day is simply a struggle towards sunset. The abiding mood is one of regret and ennui in a world where the day's sole purpose is to foreshadow the next day's duties; as prophetic as the dots that join each pathetic dawning to the next. There are moments of spirited resistance to her circumstance and the company she keeps, “I ain’t riding through the night in broken down cars with skinny friends with dying eyes, in the violence of a losing streak,” and sure, there's dignity and grace in that struggle, but you kind of know that if our heroine succeeds in escaping the bad company she is destined to end up lonesome.
There are moments of defiance but ultimately the tone is one of resignation, acceptance and, inexorably, defeat.
The band plays loose and Boone summons up the ghost of Bobby Gentry.
All's not well, the heart aches, swells and breaks.
And it's a beautiful sound.
And in Colfax heaven is other folk's hell.
Go figure...

9: Robert Ellis: The Lights From the Chemical Plant

"The lights from the chemical plant burn bright 
in the night like an old kerosene lamp"

Robert Ellis also offers sanguine observations on injury and recovery but although he inhabits a similar kind of environment as Colfax, Ellis's glass seems more half full than empty. And he's more likely to raise that glass rather than throw it at you.
There's a healthy dose of optimism to temper the troubles, perhaps benefit of Robert's ability to escape into his imagination.

"I'm a gunfighter, I'm a bull rider
I'm the captain of some pirate ship at sea
For a couple of hours I've got super powers...
God bless you Walt Disney, you were a father to me
You kept me company when no-one else had the time"

The music is still unmistakably 'Americana' but it's lighter, almost with a pop sheen. And yet the musicality can take a sudden sharp turn up a darker street, where there's always the shiver of strings to temper the twang.
'Steady As the Rising Sun' puts me in mind of a Gram Parsons of young Glen Campbell.

Ellis is not above finding refuge in a bottle of wine and a bag of cocaine and is worldly enough in his recognition of life's other comforts:

“Only lies can comfort you
Only lies will see you through”

It's the inability to catagorise this gently unsettling album that makes it such a joy. The tenderness and tension make for a heady mix. The easy pleasure is in it's lightness, but there's a real frisson of excitement in knowing that those moments are often a prelude to some gorgeous moments of darkness and despair. Misery loves company and Robert Ellis is great company.

In the final song on the set, the breathtaking narrative of 'Tour Song' reminds us of the raw heartache and bitter insecurity that underpins much of country music's sweetest moments. 

“Soon she’ll start to wonder what it is that I provide
And why the hell a husband can’t be by his woman’s side.”

These troubedours... they really do suffer for their art (tis so) and then they have the temerity to expose those wounds for us to pore over; sweet schadenfreude indeed. 
And love's sweet sorrow n'er tasted so bitter, yet the flesh wounds never seemed so recoverable as they do when illuminated by The Lights From the Chemical Plant. 

8: Adam Cohen: We Go Home

On a lighter note...
Who'd have thought that I'd be looking towards the Cohen family for light relief?
He has his father's dark looks and quivering bass timbre, and he too has a way with words and easy melody.
Leonard always was a lady's man and you get the impression that Adam's a chip off the old bloke; using his poetry and prose to impress the chicks as much as the critics.
There's certainly a Lothario's strut evident here:

And yet this album (his 5th) is full of big hearted melodies embellished with tasteful restraint. It's literally a 'home made' album; recorded at his family homes in Montreal and on the Greek island of Hydra. Despite his undeniable lineage there's no sense of entitlement on show. No histrionics, no musical parade and posturing. He seems at ease with what he's been bequeathed. He creates his ditties easily on Dad's nylon string guitar. It's that relaxed modesty that makes these songs so likable. He does reference Pater a lot (“You’ll be hearing his voice, like you’re hearing it now”) but there's enough about Adam and his easy charm to make him the first man here. Although this is an intimate offering there's a life enhancing positivity that just jumps out of the grooves and chirps 'like me!' Adam is your affable best looking friend. The one that always gets served first at the bar. The one that gets all of the beautiful girls, firstly as lovers and then as best friends too. And yet he'd be that one friend who, if push came to shove, would lend you his last condom.

7: Simone Felice: Strangers

I always liked The Felice Brothers although there was a tendency towards raucous 'Waitsism' that I often found unconvincing.
Simone left the band in 2009 to record as The Duke and the King which was more up my alley. The combination of unflinchingly observed storytelling and church chords was a sucker punch to my glass jaw.
And I love a tremulous voice.
All boxes ticked here on his sophomore solo album. It seems more focussed than his 2012 solo debut. With his literary bent to the fore, Felice's songs alternate between the sorrowful and the uplifting, although the apparent morbidity of closer 'The Gallows' somehow manages both at the same time.
I cannot source that wonder.
This isn't a bad second choice...

6: Adam Holmes: 'Heirs and Graces'

John Wood is celebrated for producing some of Folk music's finest marvels, including the classic early 70s albums of Nick Drake and John Martyn. Wood has been in semi retirement of late, running a B&B in Edinburgh apparently. One listen to Adam Holmes was enough to drag him back into the studio. And his alchemy is everywhere on this wholesome delight.

At 23 Adam Holmes is an old soul; I've met him and his is a well furrowed brow:

'Awkward silence fills a crowded room
You would understand if you were me
And I can't even hold a conversation
With a shadow where a man’s supposed to be'

And yet he unburdens his world weary troubles with a delicacy and compassion that's hard to resist. There's a pre-bile sweetness to the curmudgeon-lite wisdom that sings of the joys of the uninitiated. Perhaps this comes from being steeped in a Celtic musical tradition that celebrates everyday drama with laments of love and loss but won't tolerate self pity. This lightness is enhanced by Adam's admitted love of 70s songwriting troubadours such as James Taylor and Jackson Browne.
So, easy listening?
Indeed, but there's no saccharine here on Adam's excellent debut.
This is sweet soul music for folk who like their folk with just a little twist of bitterness.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Jeremy Searle: Americana Uk: Album of the Year: To the Bone

Jeremy Searle is a much respected music journalist.
He writes for the fine online magazine Americana uk.
I'm proud to reproduce his 'Albums of the Year' list below.

You can read Jeremy's original review of 'To the Bone' here:

Jeremy Searle writes:

AKA everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t I? Yes, it’s time for my Top Ten Albums of 2014 which will be completely subjective, with surprising omissions, astonishing inclusions and, quite frankly, an order that defies belief. In other words, just like all the other lists. Except it’s mine. So, to business.

10. Remedy – Old Crow Medicine Show. OCMS have been around for what seems like forever so sometimes you forget what a breath of fresh air on the bluegrass scene they were when they arrived and this is their best album since their debut.

9. Best Medicine – The Stray Birds. Their eponymous debut was one of the best of last year and the acoustic folk/bluegrass/country/roots trio deliver more of the same this time round. Great harmonies, great playing, great songs.

8. Going Down To The River – Doug Seegers. Seegers is the real deal. Homeless and playing for change, a genuinely heart-warming story leads to this debut album made at the age of 61. When people talk about authenticity, this is what they mean. Seegers has lived it and you can hear it in his voice and his songs. The title track is a classic and the rest of the album is snapping at its heels.

7. lullaby and… THE CEASELESS ROAR – Robert Plant. Wherein rock’s great front man and sonic experimenter, together with his best ever band, the Sensational Space Shifters, returns to the rock/folk/world fusion he’s so good at and also displays his vulnerable side. Majestic, as were the live shows.

6. Diamonds On The Water – Oysterband. Their first album since losing long-time bassist/cellist Ray Cooper, this could have a been a step back or a holding set. But it wasn’t, rather a creative rebirth with some of their best songs and playing. Thirty years down the road the fire still burns.

5. The History of New Orleans Rhythm And Blues 1955 – 1962 – Various Artists. Six CDs, over 180 tracks, exemplary packaging and booklet, some of the greatest music ever made and only £22. An object lesson in how to produce a reissue, with hours and hours of listening joy, from Sea Cruise to Lucille, Land of 1000 Dances to Sweet Sixteen. Bliss.

4. The Elizabethan Sessions – Various Artists. Set up by the EFDSS and Folk By The Oak, this collaboration between some of the finest folk artists around was an unalloyed triumph. Despite being created in less than a week, the quality of songs is astonishingly high, the playing likewise and all the potential pitfalls spectacularly avoided.

3. Centenary – Show of Hands, There have been a lot of Great War albums and songs this year but none approached Centenary. Poems read by actors Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter with traditional and original pieces by Show of Hands, it was appropriate, powerful and deeply moving. The best thing they’ve ever done, which is saying something.

2. Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour – Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker. I have proclaimed these two as future stars ever since first hearing them and, good though their previous work has been, this is not only their best yet but an album that takes folk music as a whole forward. Masterful songwriting and that voice from Clarke, great interpretations of traditional pieces, beautifully deft guitar work from Walker, this is as good as folk music gets in 2014.

1. To The Bone – Jones. Trevor Jones of Miracle Mile fame delivers his best solo album yet, which is
saying something. Exquisite heartbreak, devastating insights and words that cut, yes, to the bone, allied to impossibly beautiful melodies and perfectly judged playing and singing.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Toronto Tim Says: My Best of 2014

Tim Patrick is a good friend.
Here are his choice cuts from 2014.
As you can see, he knows his onions...
Why not add your list at the bottom under 'Comments'?
Or, you could email me your list and comments and I'll post separately...
Come on. 
We all like a list.
Mine follows shortly...


Excellent year for new music! There won't be many surprises listed here, since I've already tipped my cards earlier in the year via several 'hissyfit' postings. 
Here they are anyway...


JONES  - "Somewhere North Of Here" (Easy choice. Another timeless classic)


THE WAR ON DRUGS - 'Lost In The Dream' (blown away by this one. Earns a slot in my top 30 LP's of all time)

THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART - 'Days Of Abandon' (mixed reviews by critics, but it's my top "pop" album of the year)

CHERRY GHOST - 'Herd Runners' (sparkling gem from Simon Aldred - highly recommended)

JONES - 'To The Bone' (a grower - Yes, a change can be good, very good...)

JOE HENRY - 'Invisible Hour' (Humdinger... May be Joe's best ever...) 

BEN WATT - 'Hendra' (I miss Tracey's golden pipes, but Ben's voice in fine form & very solid tunes abound)

DAMIEN RICE - 'My Favorite Faded Fantasy' (still a few cheesy lyrics, but a surprisingly strong return to form - Thanks TJ)

TOM HICKOX - 'War, Peace & Democracy' (promising newcomer. "Pretty Pride Of Russia" my 2nd favorite tune this year)

BILL PRITCHARD - 'A Trip To The Coast' (unknown veteran makes a real nice record)

PETER JAMES MILLSON - 'Sweet The Love That Meets Return' (lovely album, full of heart - Thanks Nick)

SILVER SEAS - 'Alaska' (best mate and longtime co-writer of Josh Rouse, produces catchy tunes that sound like... Josh Rouse!)

PEARLFISHERS - 'Open Up Your Coloring Book' (way too sprawling, way too sweet, but I'm a big fan of David Scott so this one makes the list)

FUTURE ISLANDS - 'Singles' (kinda weird stab at retro 80's synth-bands that caught my fancy)

NOTE: Sorry to some old favorites whose latest releases just weren't good enough - Bruce Springsteen, Deacon Blue, James, Stars, Simple Minds, um... U2. 
Also, Mary Chapin Carpenter's latest 'Songs From The Movie' would have made my "Best Of" list, except that it consists of older songs reinvented with orchestral arrangements, so doesn't qualify.