Thursday, 24 December 2015

Hissyfit 'Albums of the Year' 2015

Joint 21: John Grant: Grey Tickles, Black Pressure/Father John Misty: I Love you, Honeybear

These two albums are inseparable for me.
Is it the concussive confusion between self loathing and self deprecation that binds them so tightly?
I wish that I cared.
Bile fueled bitterness and heartache are obvious bedfellows but there's an unrelenting arch smugness to both Johns' humor that prevents me from truly loving the songs.
Both Johns are full of life.
Both Johns are full of shite.
Both Johns are bloodless.
Both Johns sure can spell 'irony' and boy... are both Johns eager to prove it.
Both Johns are knowing, cutting and cooly cynical.
Both Johns are half heart, half smart and... just too clever by half.
And although both Johns desperately shout 'CHARISMA!' at you they lack any engaging character.
It's all persona and no presence.
Why top 21 then?
Well... there's never a dull moment and the tunes are great.
Taken out of smug situ there are some wonderful songs here.
Both Johns can break your heart but you kind of know that your tears would be met with a knowing cackle and a whacky wink.

                                               20: Emily Barker: The Toerag Sessions

Meanwhile, this is just plain and simply beautiful.
Porcelain perfection.

                                                        19: Boo Hewerdine: Open

Boo says that he found the tapes of these 'lost songs' in a box in his garage.
Demos from 2003 apparently.
And that box was chock full of everything that the afore mentioned two Johns lack:
These spartan snapshots perfectly capture Boo naked, although it seems that he kept his glasses on as the emotional focus of these candids is as pin sharp as ever.
We await fresh material with bated breath but until then, this'll Boo nicely.        

                                                           18: Max Richter: Sleep

I have trouble sleeping, particularly when Di's away.
This helped greatly.
Richter's intensions for the album:
“It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence. I want people to start playing it while they are getting ready for bed, so that they hear it in their sleep.” 
And it does what it says on the tin. Quite beautifully.

                                           17: Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete

Dave Rawlings and soulmate Gillian Welch have long been producing their own inimitable brand of 'Southern Gothic'. Welch takes a back seat here affording Rawlings the opportunity to stretch out and test his mettle. The songs are long and languorous; the fiddles have been replaced by string sections and it's that luxuriant luster that makes the whole affair so appealing.

                                                 16: All Your Favorite Bands: Dawes

They wear their influences unashamedly. If you like Jackson Browne you'll be thrilled at the recognitions. This is no tribute band though; there's an unimpeachable focus and emotional integrity that gives Dawes a little extra. Think The Eagles' easy accessibility tempered with Warren Zevon's bite and wicked homour and you have a sure flavor of these sweetly bitter ditties. It's all drawn together and beautifully produced by David Rawlings.

                                             15: John Moreland: High On Tulsa Heat

Throaty, heavyweight tales of loss and retribution. These gems don't reveal their beauty easily. They are coated with just enough dust and gravel as to ensure their rugged virtue. You have to dig deep, but there's treasure here.

                                                       14: Lord Huron: Strange Tales

Like War on Drugs but better.
This album was a fairly constant companion this year: strange tails for the familiar daily commute. 

                                                       13: Dean Owens: Into the Sea

The first 8 songs pack as emotional a honey punch as any other release this year.
This is immensely likable crumpled romanticism from an immensely likable, crumpled romantic. 

                                                     12: Robert Forster: Songs to Play

2008's 'The Evangelist' was a cathartic and sombre response to the death of Go-Between's co-founder and confidant Grant McLennan in 2006.  
"The romantic plan was to stop when we were around the age of 60 and then come back at 70 and make our masterpiece. That was the plan - it didn't happen".  
7 years later Forster has surrounded himself with young bucks (including his son) and the spring in their step has invigorated Australia's premier pop poet. As elegant and archly dry as ever, the bard's world weary humor is duly tempered by a newfound restless energy, perfectly illustrated when he tells us "I got no patience. I'll stop for petrol and I'll stop for Dylan, but that's the limit when I get moving…" 

                                               11: James McMurtry: Complicated Game

A little bit of Springsteen, Zevon and Browne in the mix.
Expansive yet local, blue collar poetry.
These are unrelentingly bleak yet tender tall tales from America’s underbelly.
'Honey, don't be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun.' 
McMurty should write a script for Paul Thomas Anderson to direct. 

                                                   10: Guy Garvey: Courting The Squall

I like this man greatly.  He holds an admirably reliable Northern work ethic and sensibility.
Garvey seems bereft of vanity; there's poetry in his observations on the mundanities of life:
"In the hills it's an overcoat colder ... "
This is unashamedly emotional music to cry into your stout too until the next Blue Nile album comes around...  And alongside the affable bear hugs there's enough invention to keep your attention.

                                          9: Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free

It didn't quite reach the heights of 'Southeastern' for me but it was still a stellar collection fueled by failing, blue collar malaise and muscular sensitivity. It also contained my 'ear worm of the year':
"You thought God was an architect, now you know. He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow..."
I found myself chanting this in supermarket queues much to the local's disquiet...

                                                       8: Calexico: Edge Of The Sun

I saw Calexico touring this album at the beginning of the year. One of the year’s finest gigs. They were brilliant but support band The Barr Brothers were even better. The Barrs didn’t release an album this year but did put out some outtakes from ‘Silent Operator’. One of those (‘Alta Falls’) is my ‘Song of the Year'. 
I digress...
For some reason 'Edge of the Sun' reminds me of a night out in Aarhus a couple of years ago. The evening was winding down after a fine night of live music and chat. We were at Jimmy's CANblau restaurant and had had some late night tapas, bellies full and happy. Our host (the charming Folmer Jepsen) recommended a night cap. We all expected brandy or a single malt but were given no choice; Our host returned from the kitchens bearing a tray laden with liter glasses of gin & tonic, strong, lime laced and fizzy. Their sour, icy effervescence kick started what we all assumed was the dying of the day and instead of sloping off into the night we hit the town again reenergized. There's a similar unexpected and intoxicating energy here. After the relative introspection and dusty late night charms of 'Algiers' came this exuberant outing. The smoldering delicacy anticipated is still there in occasional moments of calm but this is mostly a big band, bold, blazing and unfettered. The Morriconesque instrumentals are back alongside Mariachi Horns and some barking guest appearances. I imagine that Joey Burns's and John Convertino are more tequila than G&T but it seems like they've had a few with Folmer (I wouldn't be surprised) and are dancing on the tables.

7: Villagers: Darling Arithmetic 

"Remember kissing on the cobblestone
In the heat of the night
And all the pretty young homophobes
Looking out for a fight".

A brave and gentle release.
Conor O'Brien delicately exposes himself and it’s a true and honest revelation.
That takes courage...

                                                 6: Andrew Combs: All These Dream

There’s a lightness of touch to the easy listening Americana that is deceptive; a slow burning
gravity permeates these wonderful songs.
Glen Campbell, Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson would be proud to call themselves an influence.

                                                         5: Unthanks: Mount the Air

The Unthanks were responsible for one on this year's best nights out for me. Perfect preparation: a few pints of stout with a pickled Egg before a spellbinding performance at Islington's Union Chapel.
There is a dark, almost unholy beauty to these ethereal songs; the previous brass band traditionalism is artfully tempered by jazz chops and (yup) occasional prog rock noodlings. It’s all skillfully rendered and hauntingly realized by a fleshed out ensemble.

And yet through it all Rachel and Becky remain very much at the heart of things. The sisters' ambition is lofty yet very much of this earth. They mount the air but with clogs firmly on the ground. Theirs is a sober sense of place and propriety tempered by a righteous recognition and graceful acceptance of their lot.  I've heard their music described as 'songs about dead people'. which is harsh but fair.  They hold a genuine affection for their North Eastern origins but the Geordie Toon observations are rendered oddly universal by these tender homilies. Mindful of fast fading faith, the sisters' beloved roots are starkly captured in aspic with empathy and care, ensuring an authentic rawness that grounds them, bleak as buggery, starless and bible black for sure. Hymnal yet haunting, the heartstrings are tugged and surely cat gut, but with Rachel and Becky’s sublime yet homely voices you know that there’ll always be fishy on the dishy and surely some tender coming…

                                           4: The Lone Bellow: Then Came The Morning

Zach Williams, Kanene Donehey and Brian Elmquist make a glorious and genuinely joyful sound.
It’s all about hush, lush crescendo and clatter with these guys, and nobody currently does that tremulous holler and thump better.
I have seen them live a few times already alongside Di; a woman so fixated by them that she dutifully brought 18 tickets to one concert next year.
Beyond the call of duty?
It was a late night purchase.
Then came the morning...

                                                  3: Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night

I've been listening to a lot of Sinatra this year; possibly a reaction to my Dad's passing. Terry liked a bit of Frank. I have to admit that this album snuck up on me. Like most folk I was a little non-plussed by the idea of one of the great songwriters wrestling with the well worn classics rather than creating more of his own. It was the enthusiasms of Tony Garnier at this year's Aarhus Festival that refocused me. Tony was the bassist and musical director on this album and he swore blind by the affair, revelling in the knowledge that there was another full album's worth of 'similar but better' performances in the can. Tony told that the toughest initial challenge was to try and capture (if not recreate) the spirit of the original, sophisticated string, brass and woodwind arrangements, using a very different, stripped down line up: just drums, pedal steel and acoustic guitar. But it's those very limitations that help refine and define this recording. The stripped down sound is stunning, the resulting ambience woozily compelling. It's obvious that Dylan regards these prime cuts - taken from the Great American Songbook - with great affection. His famous resistance to rehearsal renders these as intensely instinctive performances. There's a touching vulnerability to Bob's croaking croon. The lack of orchestration offers up much spartan space for the 73 year old to inhabit. He's been concerned with mortality and the passing light since 1997's 'Out of Time' and you can almost hear his bones creaking as he throws himself into these songs with... well, what's the opposite of 'gay abandon'? 'Gray intent'? This is no 'easy listening'. There's a sweet bitterness to the interpretations, much of it gut wrenchingly moving. Sure, some of Dylan's 'one take' vocals could have been improved upon, but 'perfection' was surely never the intention. And it's all about 'intent'. Dylan doesn't so much inhabit the songs as haunt them. The overall effect is ghostly, ethereal and sonically exquisite. Although Tony did good with the sweet vibes Bob did the bitter better.
The journey's all but done.
Dylan knows that he's nearly out of time.
And yet... he's still there, still standing, spirited, undaunted; squinting at the past, hopeful of its benediction; counting his blessings whilst staring down the grim reaper and praying for one more day, one more night and, perhaps, one more for the road.

                                                   2: Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell

"Spirit of my silence I can hear you
But I'm afraid to be near you"

Stevens squints at his demons. The bleak and brave beauty reminds me a little of the Villagers' album but here there’s a visceral edge that keeps you on the edge of your seat: There's a jaw dropping honesty in Sufjan's toting of domestic travails. Home spun for sure, but far from cozy:

"There's blood on that blade
F*** me, I'm falling apart
My assassin, like Casper the ghost
There's no shade in the shadow of the cross"

The pain is palpable: Stevens has reigned in his musical invention for a song suite (no less) that recognizes family loss but celebrates life with authenticity and intention. Gone is the twitchy sonic experimentation; the template is deceptively simple: folk: organic, stark and fragile, yet its sparsity is touching; an embrace that’s all enveloping and heartbreakingly tender.

                                                   1: Milk Carton Kids: Monterey

Till all the dreams we left in our wake
Come back to me as the joy we forsake
Tell me whatever is burning the fires we made

Here's yet more mournful melancholy but here with occasional moments of bluegrass relief. These kids have found a winning formula and they're sticking with it. There's nothing original here; plaintive voices float delicately upon a bed of beauteous acoustic guitars; The Everley Brothers meeting a young Paul Simon and getting on famously.
Lyrically the album doesn't really deal with specifics, it's more notional than that. There's no hollering or hankering for heaven, just a rueful recognition and acceptance of all things earthly.
It's mainly about the oxygen of life; detailing desire and what fuels that fire:

"I long to hear the melodies
that one time played inside my mind
and to love another helplessly
so breathing feels like putting out a fire"

It squints at the confusions of desire's loss:

"I've tried to think what happened to the fire
It's burning out made me into a liar"

Oftentimes it simply - and heartbreakingly - reviews the year's cycle, toting the injuries of self denial, noting our base nature ("the heart that beats nocturnal") and questioning the very air that we breathe:

"Asheville Skies"

Good God, is it November?
The leaves burn auburn red
The Asheville skies and timber
Are holding on to it

But I cannot remember
That fleeting hopeful song
That rose of our September
My word, what have we done?

I'd love nothing more than to cover my face
Forget who I am and get out of this place
Pretend to be somebody other than me
And go on living that way

Till all the dreams that I had in mind
Come back to me by next year this time
Tell me whatever became of what I left behind

Could hope have sprung eternal on darkened, dreary roads?
The heart that beats nocturnal knows not where it goes
We listen for the signal to raise the dirt again
Our livelihood is equal to the air that breathes us in

I'd welcome you home just to turn you away
Shuffle the cards by the light of the day
Pretend that the worst of it got left behind
And go on living that way

Till all the dreams we left in our wake
Come back to me as the joy we forsake
Tell me whatever is burning the fires we made

1 comment:

  1. Lots to check out here Trevor - given the lack of new music on my radar that's not a surprise. I do love the Dylan album although. I put this list together for a group I'm in on Facebook. 1. The Drays – Look Away Down Collins Avenue 2. Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night 3. Wire - Wire 4. Richard Thompson – Still 5. Jones – Happy Blue 6. David Corley – Available Light 7. The Fall – Sub Lingual Tablet 8. Low - Ones and Sixes 9. Cathal Smyth - A Comfortable Man (The group is Rollercoaster Records in Kilkenny and I think you'd find it an amenable space. ( shop owner also puts on lots of gigs and is involved in the Kilkenny Roots Festival. I'm making a comeback of sorts myself and playing London in a few weeks, if you're looking for something to do on Tuesday 26th.