Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What I listened to in 2010

This is what Last FM says I listened to most last year, and I'm not about to argue.

1. Laura Viers — July Flame.

All this endless beauty:

2. Arcade Fire — The Suburbs

My second favourite album of 2010? OK, I take it back, I will argue with LastFM: the album had at least four great songs, but the number of times I fell asleep on the train only to find it still playing when I woke up suggests it was on bloated side.

Anyway, here's one the great songs:

3. John Grant — Queen of Denmark

Very obviously the best music that Midlake made in 2010.

4. Sun Kil Moon — April

Screw you, Last FM: this was my album of the year. Favourite non-Chester memory of 2010: walking across my local golf course at night, accompanied only by April, falling snow and foxes appearing like ghosts in the distance.

5. Sun Kil Moon — Admiral Fell Promises

More of the same, which obviously made it one of the albums of the year.

6. The xx

Very much the year before last. Which didn't stop me listening to it practically incessantly.

7. Bonobo — Black Sands

On our first day in Spain, this album played on a non-stop loop as we decanted our minds by the pool.

8. Biosphere — Wireless

You know how music's often too musical? This works as a refreshing ear-sorbet:

9. Tame Impala — Innerspeaker

Because it was delicious to imagine an alternative history of the Beatles where George went all West Coast.

10 Laura Marling — I Speak Because I Can

It grew on me.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Decade in Music #13: The Ting Tings, "That's Not My Name"

Sometimes when you're cooking, whether it's crushing the cashews, slicing the garlic or just chopping the chicken, one simply has to funk it out; otherwise, what would be the point? Mere sustenance can achieved by the inhalation of Pringles. I make it my life's mission to introduce dance-cooking to the masses.

Happily, our current kitchen in Hanwell is large enough to permit a certain amount of righteous shaking of the tail-feathers.

The song that got our kitchen rocking most in 2009 had to be the Ting Tings' "That's Not My Name". Now, I'm not a girl and no-one ever calls me darling, much to my chagrin. So you might say there's something faintly ridiculous about me shaking my rump and singing along to an anthem of female empowerment.

Yeah, you might say it, and with good cause. But I would say TUSH! and FIE! I ignore you and say, get outta my kitchen, dude's gotta strut. This is a classic:

[Lee was not harmed in the making of this post.]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Decade in Music #12: Kylie Minogue, "Slow (Chemical Brothers remix)

While it's true that I was dying with excitement to get to Australia, one thing that I could really do without, in fact, the one thing that gave me significant pause if not the outright heebie-jeebies, was Australia's reputation as the Mecca for all the world's most brutish and downright evil arachnids. If you're a young and up-and-coming spider who wants to make it as a really first-class terrorist, you know you have to go to Australia and earn your stripes. The stories are legion: the redbacks that apparently like nothing more than hiding in toilets to get first dibs on a tourist's arse; the huntsman, a spider the size of a small but malevolent dog, that likes to hide in a car's sun visor so that it can fall into laps, the better to cause maximal cardiac arrest; the white-tail, a spider with a bite that, according to popular lore, causes one's skin to go black and die; Atrax robustus, the Sydney funnel-web, infamous for falling into swimming pools and not dying or climbing into babies' cribs and into urban myth.

But my years in Oz were notable for a complete lack of encounters with our eight-legged f(r)iends. This I achieved by the simple expedient of living half way up a tower block. Job done. The only spiders I saw were the stupendously large and comically evil golden orb weavers, slinging giant webs across the cliff tops of Clovelly. If you're so inclined, you can see a picture of such a spider — eating a bird. Yes: a bird.

But my first encounter with a live huntsman is fixed in my memory. I was staying in a friend of a friend's flat, moving between Clovelly and Balmain by way of Newtown. Unlike the bracing airs of the Clovelly and Balmain, Newtown has the air of a reclaimed swamp: there's something oppressive and more than a little fetid about it. Anyway, I would use their office to listen to music on their giant PC while they were at work. One day, I was strewn across their giant leather seat, I came face to face with a huntsman on the wall. How it stayed attached to the wall was a feat of natural engineering that baffles me still; surely it weighed as much as a small grapefruit. I sat riveted for 20 minutes, willing the spider to move and break my trance. It did not move. I managed to back out of the room in a cold sweat, then ran round the house trying in vain to get my sang-froid back. When, in order that I might get a better look at my adversary, I willed myself to poke my head round the corner, it had completely vanished. I wonder if you've ever read Julio Cortazar's wonderful short story, "House Taken Over"? It's about a couple who gradually are confined to one half of their house, then a single room, by undescribed assailants or invaders. Eventually they are forced to leave:

Before we left, I felt terrible; I locked the front door up tight and tossed the key down the sewer. It wouldn't do to have some poor devil decide to go in and rob the house, at that hour and with the house taken over.
That was pretty much how I felt about that room, and then that house. In practically no time, I was safely installed in a Potts Point antiseptic tower block with nothing more horrifying to worry about than the odd roach and the unceasing and implacable mosquito.

What's this got to do with Kylie Minogue? Honestly, not a great deal. But the track I was listening to, and greatly enjoying, at the moment of this momentous encounter with a mobile nightmare unit, was the fantastic Chemical Brothers remix of Kylie Minogue's "Slow". And that's enough to get it into my list. Enjoy (but don't think of a giant huntsman while so doing):

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Decade in Music #11: Elbow "Grounds For Divorce"

My band of the decade has to be Elbow. I’m a hopeless fanboy when it comes to Radiohead but, like any obsession that sometimes translates into a state of anxiety ("but why don’t you like them? What do you mean "Pyramid Song isn't the greatest single recording of the last ten years?" etc), I'm often driving to exasperation. But Bury's finest and loveliest have been nothing but an amber-scented bath of delight.

I was there when they held the Camden Falcon hypnotised in 2000. I chatted to Guy when they came in to be interviewed for MP3tv.com. I was there, obsessively checking and rechecking the Sydney branch of HMV for a copy of Cast of Thousands, many months after its UK release. I've recounted here my bizarre dream of meeting Guy at a garden party (I know, I know: tell a dream, lose a reader). I've regularly eased into the soothing bath of Garvey's Finest Hour. But now, when I think of the Elbow, the following story immediately comes to mind.

It’s 2006, and a boutique music festival called the Playground Weekender has just been launched in the splendid surroundings of the Hawkesbury River, an hour or so outside of Sydney. Splendid? Ridiculously lush would be more accurate. Siuated on a sheltered bend in the river and overhung on one side by mossy cliffs that afforded the site's only shade, it was a long way from the concrete nightmare that’s The Big Day Out, not least because of the gigantic kangaroos that would nose around the tents.

The festival had been set up by a couple of English chancers, and they in turn promoted it mostly around the hostels of Kings Cross. The upshot of this unintentionally niche marketing campaign was two-fold. Firstly, backpackers, largely British, were over-represented. (Ivan Millat would have had a field day). And since the good burghers of Sydney had failed to show any enthusiasm for this upstart affair, the festival was nowhere near its capacity. Which was perfect: you could set out your picnic blanket in the sun, get a cheap jug of mojitos and listen to Tom Middleton play a totally zonked set of mid-afternoon psychedelic classics.

So we had this spectacular site and its bands more or less to ourselves. It was a great line-up too. Laurent Garnier, Tom Middleton, The Avalanches on DJing duties. The White Lies, The Presets, !!! playing live. The incongruous highlight, since they barely fit the electro-rock template, was Elbow. Now, I’m not saying Guy seemed chemically altered. He was just looking very very happy. So happy, in fact, that during some blissed-out mid-section, he wandered down to the front row and kissed a bunch of girls. Including Shana. On the lips, mind. The full works, if you please. Whenever she now recounts this story, Shana gets a kind of misty, faraway look, like she’s auditioning for Cate Blanchett's role in Lord of the Rings.

Elbow played one new song that night, and I didn’t think a great deal of it. Lots of clanging, Guy enthusiastically hitting things, and then some big dumb blues riff. Boring. The song later turned out to be "Grounds for Divorce", and I could barely have been more wrong if I'd tried.

Here’s a quite wonderful version of "Grounds for Divorce" recorded with the BBC Orchestra.

Here’s our Flickrset from the Playground Weekender. Interesting note: seems I once had a tan.

The Music of The Decade #10: Portal's GLaDOS

Warning: this song is from a computer game. Don't say you weren't told....

This exceptionally lovely song came from the very end of Portal, one of the games of the decade. Throughout the game, GLaDOS has revealed herself to be one neurotic, untrustworthy, cynical and deeply psychopathic computer. It was a shame that you had to be concentrating elsewhere during the final confrontation, because more than anything you just want to listen to her wheedle, rant and fulminate. “Well you found me. Congratulations. Was it worth it? Because the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart”:

Come the game’s ending, we got two things. A: the cake. Rumours of its nonexistence were circulating but there it was, with a little candle and everything; B: this rather beautiful song, the melody to which was subtly prefigured in a tinny bossanova style on the little transistor found in the fugitive’s cell. Some game endings are so crappy–that means you Bioshock—that you feel hollowed out by the wasted hours. But this was unexpectedly touching, a sweet touch in a game full of them. I mean, just listen to this compilation of the gun turret’s voices:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Music of the Decade #9: LCD Soundsystem, "Someone Great"

Well yeah, of course, everyone loved "Losing My Edge" It's still ludicrously fresh and hilarious and just a bit painful. While I would like to be able say that this ode to hipsterism and its discontents was awfully close to home, that would be an almighty fib: when this song came out the last thing I was doing was hanging out with the Sydney-side cool kids. In fact, mostly I was just hanging out with Cordy, one of my very favourite girls in the world, taking in the sun and harbour air.

When the fuss had died down, we were left with "Someone Great". How to write a wrenching but glowing song about grief without so much as a minor chord? Like this.

The lyrics are wrenchingly uneuphemistic and desperately moving. The only hint of self-pity allowed is when the singer bitterly notes that the weather hasn't had the good grace to be sympathetically gloomy:

The worst is all the lovely weather,
I'm sad, it's not raining.
The coffee isn't even bitter,
Because, what's the difference?

Buy LCD Soundsytem's Sound of Silver [UK/US]

"Someone Great":

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Decade in Music #8: Beth Gibbons & Rustin' Man, Out of Season

The second half of 2002 was spent in the unexpectedly not-at-all unpleasant surroundings of Walthamstow Village. In one memorable day in August, I had moved all my worldly possessions from N16 to a new place in E17 and then, after nothing more stimulating than a brew with new flatchap Will, I went back into town for B's memorable stagdo in Shoreditch. It was a busy day.

When I think of this time, the music I hear, rather incongrously, is the supremely melancholic Out Of Season by Beth Gibbons and Rustin' Man.

It just so happened that Will, who's now head of press at EMI, was friends with Mr Paul Webb (aka Rustin' Man), a member of the cherished Talk Talk, and he (Will) would come home from what sounded like jolly hunting trips in the country, excitedly chattering about a new record which he claimed was going to be "the greatest record ever made". Should it need saying that that's exactly the sort of hype to put me off for life? So when I finally heard the record, I naturally loved "Mysteries" and "Tom the Model" but I largely ignored the rest of the album, thinking it was barely-there and wintry, too sketched, too skeletal.

But Lee! Don't you love music with those qualities? Yes, and that sound you here is me slapping my forehead repeatedly. Out of Season uncannily effectively splits the difference between late Talk Talk, Nick Drake and Portishead. It frontloads the aforementioned songs and keeps its real secrets for those who can get past the big numbers. Hunker down the record and you're rewarded with little gems that make "Tom the Model" seem like a gauche barn-burner: mournful torch songs ("Romance"); the sort of fire-lit folk that Goldfrapp hinted at on their last album ("Drake").

Buy Out of Season [UK/US]


Monday, December 07, 2009

The Decade in Music #7: Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker

Here's Clive James on Sydney Harbour:

"Sydney Harbour remains one of the Earth's truly beautiful places. Apart from the startling Manhattanisation of its business district, the city was more or less as I remembered it, except that for the twenty-one years I lived there I never really appreciated it — one of the big things that can be said in favour of going back, partly offsetting the even bigger things that can be said for remaining an expatriate once you have become one.

The late Kenneth Slessor, in his prose as much as in his poetry, probably came nearest to evoking the sheer pulchritude of Sydney harbour. But finally the place is too multifarious to be captured by the pen. Sydney is like Venice without the architecture, but with more of the sea: the merchant ships sail right into town. In Venice you never see big ships — they are all over at Mestre, the industrial sector. In Sydney big ships loom at the ends of city streets. They are parked all over the place, tied up to the countless wharves in the scores of inlets (‘You could hide a thousand ships of the line in here,' a British admiral observed long ago) or just moored to a buoy in mid-harbour, riding high. At the International Terminal at Circular Quay, the liners in which my generation of the self-exiled left for Europe still tie up: from the Harbour Bridge you can look down at the farewell parties raging on their decks. Most important, the ferries are still on the harbour. Nothing like as frequent as they once were, but still there — the perfect way of getting to and from work." Clive James, Postcard from Sydney

For the first few month of my life in Australia, I worked in North Sydney, which meant catching the ferry to and from Balmain. The job, though I was grateful for it, was awful beyond words; but the daily journey! The details of it are etched in my memory: the waters of the harbour, glittering in the morning light, criss-crossed by boats of all sizes and speeds; that moment when the immensity of the Harbour Bridge came into view and you had to suck in your breath.

This was also the time that I finally heard Ryan Adam's Heartbreaker and fell for it completely. I would sit on the wooden platform at the North Shore ferry point, listening to "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and try to guess which of the distant twinkling lights were going to turn into my ride home.

"Oh My Sweet Carolina"

Buy Heartbreaker [UK/US]

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Decade in Music #6: Royksopp, "What Else Is There? (Trentemøller remix)

Well of course there are too many contenders for dance remix of the decade. That’s just ridiculous right? I suppose the decent thing here would be to attempt a scholarly post on how MP3 blogs made the discovery of new remixes a thing of almost indecent ease.

I could talk about The Knife’s superb Heartbeats, which is unendingly fantastic for so many reasons: that crypto-atheistic chorus: “To call for hands of above to lean on/Wouldn’t be good enough for me, no”; the enigmatic lyrics of the middle-eight: “And you, you knew the hands of the devil/and you kept us awake with wolves’ teeth”. While the original sounds like something from A-Ha’s junkie brethren and José González’s finger-picked guitar version is silkily beautiful. But no rational argument can be made that Rex the Dog’s remix is not king. Here it is:

Remix of the year though? Not quite. What about something from Stuart Price in his Thin White Duke guise? I lost count of the number of superb makeovers he delivered over the last few years. Unfeasibly massive reworkings of Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Missy Elliott; and this, my personal favourite, Fischerspooner’s “Just Let Go”. Playing that on headphones transformed my otherwise bucolic walk to work across the calm green expanse of the Domain into a harrowing flashback of some deeply wrong night in a Taylor Square club.

Points must also be awarded here for that ticking clock which also made an appearance in his production of Madonna’s “Hung Up” and his remix of Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?”

But the following remix is the only one that made Marshall H hijack my stereo at one in the morning and crank it to maximum volume for the duration. That I didn't get ejected the next morning still seems a minor miracle. Maybe they were grooving too. The track was also played at carnage volume on car journeys across desolate parts of NSW.

It’s the Trentemøller remix of Royksopp’s "What Else Is There?" There's so much going on here. Karin's skipping voice as the breakdown comes; those New Order guitars; that ugly five-note riff that anchors the song. Listen:

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Decade in Music #5: Dominik Eulberg, Kreucht and Fleucht

"[…]I found that getting high often left me feeling apprehensive, hypercritical of myself, and prone to an unwelcome awareness of my life as nothing but a pile of botched and unfinished tasks. Over the course of these pot years I graduated from college, got a master’s degree, wrote a number of novels, paid my bills and my taxes, etc. I was never arrested, never got into any kind of trouble, never broke anything that could not be repaired. Mostly it had been fun, sometimes hugely; sometimes not at all. Marijuana could intensify the sunshine of a perfect summer day, but it could also deepen the gloom of a wintry afternoon; it had bred false camaraderies and drawn my attention to deep flaws and fault lines when what mattered—what matters so often in the course of everyday human life—were the surfaces and the joins." Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs, 2009, p. 34-35

For much the same reasons as Chabon's, I gave up the smoke completely one day in 2006. We’d just returned to Sydney from a trip to California. It was a glorious sunny day and, although I felt some depression about the end of a fabulous holiday exploring Yosemite and Big Sur, everything was more or less just swell. What followed, from a cursory toke, was two or three hours of the most debilitating mental agitation; what I suppose we must call paranoia, even though the word does faint justice– it's more like being forced to look at yourself and everyone you know through a microscope fitted with distorting horror lenses. Enough was enough.

The album we were listening to that day was Dominik Eulberg’s Kreucht and Fleucht, which means, according to this Pitchfork review, something like “creeping and flying”. Before the agitation took hold, I can remember being awed by the glistening polar textures of disc one. It was a fresh reminder of just how miraculous music could strike you in, let's say, the right mood: the apparent perception of new dimensions and details, how freshly scrubbed the sound could seem; the sheer awesomeness of it all. I can dimly remember how the strange chants and mechanical clanking of tracks like “Leuchtturm (Wighnomy's Polarzipper Remix)” took on an oppressive air of creeping Lovecraftian dread: like witnessing some ancient tribe in the dead of the jungle night, in the midst of some unspeakable ritual. Yeah, it was that good.

The Flying disc, which I listened to quite a bit later, is the more trancey, with fantastic tracks like Holden & Thompson "Come To Me (Last Version)" and Chaten and Hopen's "An Area (Hrdvision remix)" building a crescendo of deeply fucked-up techno with vocal samples morphing from the sensual to the incoherent precisely evoking a night out, the streaks and smears of club lights behind the eyelids. But it’s still just possible for me to glimpse, between the seamlessly dovetailed beats and the architectural detailing, something vertiginous and cold and dark.

Buy Kreucht and Fleucht [UK]

Here are a couple of beauties from Disc Two: