Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Stylus Decade pt.II: My Blurbs

Since the initial purpose of this blog was just to put everything I write for other sources in one place for my mum and dad to see (Hi dad!), I may as well put all my Stylus Decade blurbs here too. If your interest is more in music than in me -- say if you're not a member of my immediate family -- I highly recommend skipping back to the main Stylus Decade page and reading the masses of great album and single overviews there.

Here's what I did:

Album No.96
The Twilight Sad
Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters (2007, Fat Cat)

...but zero springs, and just one depressing summer; that's how sullen Scots tally up the years. James Graham's memories feature cold days and hard rain, and Andy MacFarlane's guitars howl like freezing winds, but the key track on The Twilight Sad's debut album, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, is about that summer as remembered by the teenage Graham: a summer of school holiday boredom growing into intense feelings of isolation. Graham starts by innocently announcing his age, before exploding into a fury against his "strong father figure" and "loving mother". The rage is unreasonable, probably, but the savage, sarcastic delivery leaves no doubt that it's real, too.

So that's the summer jam. But it's not just Graham who knows how to exploit the simple power of placid/passionate shifts. MacFarlane's Mogwai-sized guitar storms and soft, glistening lulls provide a sense of size, kept in check by the recurring appearance of a warm, wheezing accordion. Those dynamic moves within each song are also part of a larger pattern, cohering nine ordered tracks into one intense, epic and elegant journey. By the end, Graham's vulnerable kid has become a persecutor, but he hasn't turned nasty, he's just grown up.

Single No.84
Antony & The Jonsons
"Hope There's Someone" (Secretly Canadian, 2005)

Antony Hegarty's voice is hard to deal with in a communal setting: his frail, androgynous wail is unsettling, his vulnerability is total; it begs to be mocked. But in solitude, with attention, it's uniquely moving. Antony takes 30 seconds into his breakthrough album to convince doubters of its power—that chilling falsetto, rising into the chorus, sounds like he's bravely holding onto the tune while he weeps. The anxiety of "Hope There's Someone" is unresolvable for decades to come; but listening to it alone, it feels pressing.

Single No.69
The Avalanches
"Since I Left You" (Modular, 2000)

What happened to the bright new dawn of collage pop? You'd be forgiven for hearing this record eight years ago and predicting that this decade would be full of songs just like it: cheaper, faster computers, better software, and Napster surely meant that millions of kids would be able to knock up a seamless montage of an afternoon. It didn't quite happen like that, but don't blame the lawyers: there's plenty of unauthorised mash-ups and remixes around. Perhaps we just didn't realise how outrageously skillful The Avalanches were. A decade in, nothing's come close to matching "Since I Left You"'s distillation of pure joy from a hundred different songs.

Single No.50
The Walkmen
"The Rat" (Record Collection, 2004)

All it takes is a well-intentioned request for The Walkmen to lose their rag: one long suffocating chord, furious, frantic drumming, and Hamilton Leithauser throwing accusations out like he dare not breathe in, throat tightened, anger but no air escaping. Leithauser's straining vocal and the momentum of the drums combine for a nervous energy that's thrilling to hear unleashed, like an articulate and timely rant that finally closes an argument. Like that, except that this is not final: even after a moment of reflection Leithauser returns to her door, and now he's pounding with both fists.

Single No.29
Gnarls Barkley
"Crazy" (Downtown, 2005)

Of all the crushing realisations to dawn on a child, that the pop charts aren't always right is one that occasionally receives a challenge in adulthood. Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" was No.1 in the UK for nine weeks before being deleted by the band. They had no fanbase, they're not sexy, they weren't famous, it wasn't a gimmick, it wasn't in an advert or a movie. Sometimes the song wins, or rarer still, the performance. Dangermouse's ghoulishly detached backing chorus and dramatic string sweeps wouldn't sound half as good without Cee-Lo's masterful one-take vocal, a lesson to any singer still holding on to the handrail.

Single No.2
"Hey Ya!" (LaFace, 2003)

Mark was a trance DJ. He didn't talk to me about music because he knew I wasn't into trance. Annie was a huge Westlife fan. She didn't talk to me about music because she knew I wasn't into Westlife. Jack didn't talk to me about music because he was eight years old. In the space of a week each one of them started excited conversations with me about one song. "It's wicked," Mark told me; "It's amazing!" Annie told me; "I love it!" Jack told me; "I know!" I said. Then the video came out. Next time I saw them, we talked about it again. You can guess how it went because you had the same conversations. "Hey Ya!" acted like a decade-best song from day one: it opened eyes, it energised people, and there was almost no dissension. "It's not hip-hop," a few whined; "but listen to what it is," everyone replied. So, we could talk about its exuberance, its charisma, its bravery, its dichotomous structure, its odd time signature, its veiled ambiguity; but I know y'all don't want to hear me, you just want to dance.

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