Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Best of 2008: #1 Portishead - Third

Portishead - Third (*****)
album re-review for the skinny

Let's admit it: Third is a flawed album. A handful of songs, including the mesmerising opener Silence, end too quickly, and Hunter is ambitious but lifeless. But then again, flawless music doesn't necessarily mean great music, and criticism of some parts doesn't preclude appreciation of others. Third arrived 11 years after Portishead's second, self-titled, but it borrowed just as much from two other brilliant 1997 releases: Bjork's Homogenic, whose Hunter shared a song title as well as similar foreboding, jittery atmospherics; and OK Computer. Radiohead's version of pre-millenium tension is extrapolated and realised by Portishead's Third as paralyzing post-millenial fear. Plastic's enclosing and vanishing chopper; We Carry On's militaristic technological threat; the bare, unrelenting violence imagined by Machine Gun; the ghoulish guitar slashing of Smalls; and the deep bass alarms that close out Threads; combine to form some of the most affecting passages of the decade.

Parts of Third may underwhelm, but that's OK, because it's not adherence to preconceived standards that make us really love music, it's the unexpected moments of glorious invention that gives us the little squirt of dopamine and the reflexive smile. In this case, imagine instead a wall of monitors lighting up in terror to alert HQ to the bursting of a reservoir wall: Third doesn't cause smiles, it creates gapes.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Best of 2008: #2 Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing

Wale - The Mixtape About Nothing (*****)
album review for the skinny

Lil Wayne might be the reigning king of the mixtape, but Washington DC rapper Wale (pronounced Wah-lay) must be next in line for the throne. His Seinfeld-themed Mixtape About Nothing has changed the game, raising the bar of what can be expected from a mixtape. The previously understood definition saw the mixtape as a low cost buzz builder, an excuse to freestyle in-between the real work, while the studio album was the fully committed artistic document. How can that still stand when Wale's free Mixtape About Nothing is as good as or better than almost every full cost hip-hop album in years? Wale is eminently likeable because he doesn't take himself too seriously despite the obvious intelligence behind his lines: in The Kramer, Wale's brilliant deconstruction of how the N-word is used is followed later, in The Chicago Falcon Remix, by the throwaway "I hate rap like Kramer hates blacks". But there are so many great rhymes here, and Wale's flow on top of the go-go funk-flavoured beats is astounding. Don't wait around for Wale's debut studio album, this is his arrival right here.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Best of 2008: #3 Shearwater - Rook

Shearwater - Rook (*****)

Keen bird-spotter Jonathan Meiburg is more interesting than the anorak and binoculars stereotype suggests: he’s been a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist in Okkervil River since 1999, and is now concentrating full-time on ornithologically named side-project Shearwater, whose new record Rook was one of the most beguiling of the year. The sparse atmospherics led to many comparisons with latter-day Talk Talk, but Shearwater retain far more energy than Mark Hollis’ sleepy troupe. With his distinctively sharp crooning vocals and a real ear for creating space with careful production, Meiburg’s band crafted a sumptuous melodrama that wavered between moments of despondency and beacons of hope.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Best of 2008: #4 Hercules and Love Affair

Maybe I'm just a retroist but I've been extremely suspicious of modern disco in that I prejudge it all to be a pale shadow of 70s NYC disco - much like, until I listened to Erykah Badu and D'Angelo, I casually dismissed nu-soul* as irrelevant when there's still so much undiscovered 60s and 70s soul to investigate (which is a confusion between a genre's popular peak and its actual potential). But Hercules and Love Affair sounds so good, it'd be impossible for a disco fan to ignore, whatever disco's modern standing. Don't gimme none of that "Blind" bumming, cos "Hercules' Theme" is where it's at: a ridiculously smooth horns & strings led groove that amazingly starts boiling over towards the end. I could easily fit that into a set right between Eddie Kendricks and Double Exposure and no-one would notice the 2008 song (like I used to do with "New Me" and "Music Will Not Last" from Jamie Lidell's Multiply. Maybe it was just that no-one was listening). OK so "Blind" is pretty great too. But I also love the way Hercules & Love Affair works as an album - not a collection of great 12" - by subtly varying in style between each song to keep things interesting. There's no filler, no B-sides, no beat bars solely for mixing purposes: it's an album for headphones, for striding, and for dancing.

*why 'nu-soul'? what's wrong with 'new soul' which is a precise description of what it is? Does the more stylized 'nu' make it more glamorous or exciting or something?

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Best of 2008: #5 Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend

Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend (****)
album review for the skinny

Falkirk resident Adam Stafford seems to be reaching the end of his tether, as he complains, "New fans can't be swayed, promoters will not speak to me unless my profile's raised" on Rescue Weekend's title track. But that song will surely date quicker than a numbered group of revolving singletons, because Y'All Is Fantasy Island's second album confirms Stafford as one of Scotland's best young songwriters. His acoustic-led pleadings focus on murder, social depravity and failed relationships, continuing the fine tradition of Scottish miserablism so ably furthered by his hometown's favourite musical sons Arab Strap. On this evidence Falkirk's favoured-status will eventually change hands to Stafford, whose keen melodic sense brings life to every one of Rescue Weekend's ten songs. Even when he whimpers, "If I wrote my words in blood no-one would notice," the melodrama is tempered by empathy; if new fans still can't be swayed by the languid lilt of lost love lament Flowers and Flesh, the tumbling drums which add unexpected muscle to High Hopes...' gorgeous finger-picking motif, or the wailing horn solos that pierce through two further tracks, then there really would be reason to be miserable. The man Stafford has no reason to bleed yet.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Best of 2008: #6 Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One: Fourth World War

I kinda feel like this is Erykah Badu's answer to / apology for / explanation of Common's Electric Circus, which she featured on in 2002 (with her then boyfriend, of course), and is one of the most derided albums of recent years. But I actually enjoyed it. It was hugely indulgent and ambitious and experimented with all sorts of non-hip-hop sounds and styles and that seemed to make it RONG - because, as Kanye has just shown again, hip-hop fans can be as conservative in their music tastes as anyone else. Neither Electric Circus or New Amerykah are purebred anything: the first track on New Amerykah ("American Promise") is pure Funkadelic, but after that it runs a groovy gamut, often sacrificing any hints of 'a tune' in favour of Zappaesque (We're Only In It For The Money) stream-of-consciousness diversions. "Master Teacher" and "The Hump" both take such sudden left-turns you have to double-take your MP3 player when it says the song hasn't changed. So here we are again, able - if we so choose - to criticise Badu for having 'lost the plot' here, just as Common apparently did, when in fact we can suppose that there never was a plot to begin with and both artists were just following their instincts all along. For some reason, Badu gets away with her ambitious sprawl, while Common is held more tightly to his fans' expectations. Either it's double standards, or it's time for the critics to play their trump card: this album is just better than Common's. It just is. Well, that's the end of the argument then.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Best of 2008: #7 Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight

feature for the skinny

This time last year Frightened Rabbit were playing in city centre bars around Scotland and not selling them out. Tonight, every ticket has gone, and we're in one of the biggest venues in the country. Sure, they're playing Edinburgh's Corn Exchange as support for Seattle indie darlings Death Cab For Cutie, but the suspicion that the Rabbit are a strong draw for much of this crowd is confirmed by the almost capacity attendance during their brief support slot. Frontman Scott Hutchison twice bigs up Death Cab for the crowd, seemingly because he can't quite believe that so many people would be there for his own group. The truth is Frightened Rabbit have taken a huge leap forward in 2008, thanks to a fantastic second album in The Midnight Organ Fight and a relentless touring schedule, and they've become a hot ticket. The Skinny first featured them in September 2007, but we were more focussed on FatCat mates The Twilight Sad last year; 2008 has been, in Swing Out Sister terms, their breakout year. So let's go back to the beginning lads: talk us through a life less ordinary in The Year Of Frightened Rabbit.

"This time last year the album had been done for three or four months," Scott tells us before the gig. "I think I knew it would be quite well received, cos I was very pleased with it, I'm not gonna lie, when I finished it I thought it was pretty good." Hold on a sec - so the second album was finished before the first was even released? Scott's brother Grant, the drummer, chips in "We always saw the first album as a kinda demos album, but when we gave FatCat the remixed mastered version they decided to put a full campaign behind it, so that meant pushing the next album back a bit". "This time last year we were pretty much sick of Sing The Greys" Scott says, "We were saying goodbye to that record and just really itching for people to hear the new one."

Early reports were good. "People were coming up and saying 'new album's fantastic by the way', and we'd ask where they'd got it, and they'd say 'Jetpacks'!" Apparently allowing friends (and now labelmates at FatCat) We Were Promised Jetpacks hear early copies wasn't the best idea. "By about March, Jetpacks had given it to pretty much everyone in Glasgow!" But apart from praise from pretty much everyone in Glasgow, the album was also attracting attention from international publications like Spin and Paste, as well as online zines like Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound, and of course The Skinny. The acclaim was almost unanimous - I say almost: "We got one from this guy from the Costa Del Sol Tribune, or something like that. He gave it a really scathing review, it was quite funny. He was saying 'I don't understand what they're trying to do, it's all over the place, they need to be specific and consistent'. One of his favourite things of the year was a book signing by Mick Hucknall, but, we're saying nothing."

So the big day arrives, April 14th, and it's a huge relief. "I was in Edinburgh actually" Scott says. "I went to Avalanche and bought a copy, and they were already playing it when I went in. I was like [clenches fist]!". "I went into FOPP and it was the same" says Grant, "they were playing it in there. We played the album from start to finish at Mono for free the day it came out. It had been such a long time, we'd been waiting for ages, so for Mono to fill up so quickly that they had to stop letting people in... that was quite a big moment. It felt real then."

But because the album hadn't dropped until late spring, most summer festivals had already booked their line-ups, and the Greys-era Rabbit weren't chosen for too many. They did T, and Belladrum, and Connect, and Summer Sundae, and went on a massive tour of the States which even led to an interview with ABC News in New York when a reporter became a fan. “The shows were getting busier, and as we got closer to Washington and New York we found out that those shows had both sold out. We'd never sold shows out well before the night, even here [in Scotland]. So Washington DC was technically our first sell out.” As we talk in Edinburgh, they’ve just come off another US tour, during which they had to swap with the original headliners because crowds were leaving after their support; and tonight is the third leg of a packed European schedule with Death Cab.

One new song that’s received a particularly rapturous live reception is Keep Yourself Warm. "It's now the standard closer for the set because people always want to sing along, and they really sing those lines with gusto" Scott says, referring to the jarring opening lyric. "I'll get my hole" is such a strange line to be sungalong-to because it's male-only, distinctly Scottish, and really, horribly crude. But it's true - men, women, and probably children, of every background at every gig they play, roar along jubilantly. Does Scott think everyone actually understands what it means? "They might interpret it as whole, with a w, as in 'I'll become complete'. But actually no - it's about fucking!"

As is the album title, of course - The Midnight Organ Fight ain’t something a band has when musical differences arise. So it’s nearly 2009. Frightened Rabbit will see in the bells down under, with a gig in Sydney, before taking a well-earned break before yet another US tour. I ask Scott whether he’s had any time to think about the future. “Well touring has become such a habitual thing, there's not much brainwork going in to what we do these days, so yeah I'm starting to think about what to write about. I can't do another break-up album, cos I haven't had one this year! Maybe it'll just be a bit less focussed on me”. What does that leave, politics? “OK, that's track one, ‘Yes, You Can‘!

And there, bands still struggling to sell out city centre bars, is your encouragement: in one thousand words, or right there in just three.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Best of 2008: #8 Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (****)
album re-review for the skinny

Music doesn’t exist in isolation from real human life. You might be able to separate the art from the artist to enjoy music made by bad people, but a musician’s background or personality is always capable of influencing a listener’s take. This is where backstories come in, precious narratives for journalists looking to meet word quotas, and for artists wishing to create an image or a legend. Robert Johnson’s crossroads deal with the devil meant something; 50 Cent’s nine bullet wounds meant something; and Justin Vernon’s self-imposed three-month isolation in a cabin in Wisconsin woods means an awful lot when you hear the results on For Emma, Forever Ago. We all feel like getting away for a while when things get tough, to find the peace and space to be honest with ourselves, and to start again. That story really struck a chord with those who heard Vernon’s cry but could not interpret the words. Vernon found his true voice in a falsetto stripped of all pretence and presented as bare as could be. The end product was a love-letter to Emma - whoever she is - stark in its intimacy and honesty, but just mysterious enough to bear public consumption too. Put the pieces together and it‘s simple, but profound: from the hurt and confusion came anger, regret, acceptance, and fresh resolve, three months of reflection distilled into 37 minutes. For Emma, Forever Ago revealed just enough to get us interested, while leaving plenty of space to dream the in-betweens.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Best of 2008: #9 Hot Chip - Made In The Dark

I was never really impressed with "Over and Over" and so had no interest in anything else from The Warning; all the awards and acclaim it received I dismissed as dance dilettantism by indie kids. But Made In The Dark won me over on its own merits. My favourite section is the middle, when "We're Looking For a Lot of Love" provides the first change of pace and then segues into "Touch Too Much", which is musically both upbeat and melancholy, and lyrically introverted. The big loud outro is supposed to be danceable but is actually quite... well, touching... and then there's the very delicate and lovely title track. That sequence showed a subtlety and intelligence which, I suppose, I'd presumed they'd lacked before. I got it wrong. Also, I saw them live at Coachella and they were brilliant. I got it dead wrong.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Best of 2008: #10 Santogold / Diplo - Top Ranking

I already loved Santogold's album when this came out - a 35-track mixtape based on that record, featuring new versions of each track (interpolating Kraftwerk and Panda Bear samples amongst others), but also featuring songs by Aretha Franklin, Devo, Desmond Dekker, The Clash and more to pad it out. This demonstrates the myriad of influences used in the album, how they are all sown together without risking the vibe. But the best bit of this mixtape is towards the end, when Santogold's "Unstoppable" morphs into some menacing dubstep beast before an explosive Mumdance Mix of "Creator" booms in with all the subtlety of a concrete donkey. It's a jaw-dropping moment that the tape never recovers from, a climax I never saw coming.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Pumajaw, Sparrow & The Workshop @ Limbo, Voodoo Rooms, Dec 4

When Sparrow And The Workshop‘s (****) vocalist Jill sings “I’d like to be impossibly obscure” in The Gun, she’s obviously not reckoning with our intentions. Her voice has a strong country twang – being American, it’s not at all put-on – and the rollicking rhythms of the drummer remind me of Sons & Daughters’ driving energy. But there are ballads too, which immediately touch a nerve; in fact every song is immediately striking in some regard, and – almost impossibly – they keep getting stronger. Rip-roaring finale The Devil Song sounds like a steam train crossing the desert: so we call in applause, “woo woo!”, and it’s like we’re announcing an arrival.

Pumajaw (***) have just released their fifth album, Curiosity Box, and appropriately they still seem to be a curiosity around these parts: no-one I talk to beforehand seems to know what to expect. Guitarist John Wills and singer Pinkie MacLure try to weave a new-age atmosphere which only needs clouds of smelly joss-stick smoke to complete the effect. Wills records and loops rhythmic and ambient sequences so he can fingerpick runs on top, and MacLure’s agile vocals tell mystical stories in the tradition of rootsy folk. She has a fantastic voice, and his methodical production method is also impressive, but there’s not much to grab on to for this small crowd of Pumajaw apprentices.