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.

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