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Hold music

Sorry to keep you waiting ....

Well, it’s been a while! Over fifteen months in fact since I last posted an article here, and for that I apologise.

Those who know me well will be aware that I’ve been otherwise occupied creatively during that time, and for those who don’t, I’ve been busy writing my first novel, which I started just over a year ago.

As I have discovered only too well during that time, writing a novel is a time-consuming enterprise that doesn’t allow much time for other creative projects, particularly when you’re trying to squeeze it into the few spare moments not occupied by the day job, or life in general.

So blogging about music has had to reluctantly take a back seat, and will have to remain seated in the shadows for the foreseeable future, while I get to grips with finishing the novel in earnest in my spare time.

That doesn’t mean to say that I’ve lost my interest or passion for the subject, or the artists and bands I love to listen to. Quite the opposite in fact, and the 3-month sabbatical I took last Summer to start the novel featured a backing track provided by The National, Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom, Phosphorescent and John Grant, to name a few.

If you imagine this article as my blog’s virtual ‘Hold Music’ while you wait for further musings to appear in due course, it would have to feature the following great albums and live performances I have enjoyed during the break in transmission:

Great albums I loved listening to in 2010

  • High Violet – The National
  • Boxer – The National
  • Alligator – The National
  • I Speak Because I Can – Laura Marling
  • Queen of Denmark – John Grant
  • The Courage of Others – Midlake
  • Teen Dream – Beach House
  • And Then We Saw Land – Tunng
  • Becoming A Jackal – Villagers
  • The ArchAndroid (Suites I and II) – Janelle Monae
  • Here’s To Taking It Easy – Phosphorescent

Best gig attended in 2010

Midlake (supported by Jason Lytle and John Grant) Oxford O2 Academy

Favourite albums I’ve listened to in 2011 so far

Check them out, and enjoy.

Normal service will be resumed in due course. Thanks for your patience!

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Top 50 albums of 2009

In last month’s Q magazine, I read with some surprise and not a little disappointment, their (rather early) list of the top 50 albums of 2009. Although these lists are by their very nature incredibly subjective, I found myself taking issue with the vast majority of their choices. Lily Allen at number 7? Kasabian at number 1? The Decemberists skulking around just outside the 50? All quite laughable.

But at least it prompted me to start thinking about my own choices, and encouraged me to compile my list. At the outset, I will explain that it contains several albums that were not released this year – in fact, in at least one case, not even this century. However, they are all albums that are new to me this year, that I had not previously heard until 2009. In the interests of fairness I did try to keep the older ones out of the top 20, and in fact only one managed to sneak in.

I will present the list in full, without comment, and maybe revisit that decision and add a brief note to each one when I have more time.

I’d be more than happy to receive your thoughts on my choices, and your suggestions of glaring omissions.

In the interests of suspense, I will present them in ascending order of merit, from 50 to 1.

50)  Staff Benda Bililli – Tres, Tres Fort

A group of paraplegic street musicians who live in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo in Kenya, including a 17 year-old performing incredible guitar-like solos on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can. What’s not to love?

49)  Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

My introduction to the wonders of Wilco – the American Radiohead, according to some.

48)  Vetiver – Tight Knit

One of many new bands I discovered this year, and a pleasant record, but probably not their best. Enjoyed their set in the Big Top at the End of The Road Festival in September.

47)  The Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin

If more of the songs were as good as the title track, this could have been a top 20 contender. An odd mix of lo-fi nu-folk (a la Fleet Foxes) and growly mad stomping blues (like Tom Waits let loose in a potting shed).

46)  The Broken Family Band – Welcome Home, Loser

One of three of theirs in the 50, and full of very fine songs with the trademark BFB witty lyrics and a fab cover photo and title to boot.

45)  Florence and The Machine – Lungs

I resisted this until late November, as all the hype surrounding Florence, La Roux, Little Boots et al and their electro-pop revolution had made we want to give them all a wide berth. However, Florence doesn’t really fit that mould, is clearly the pick of the bunch and this is quite a fabulous album. Great pair of lungs too.

44)  Taylor Swift – Fearless

Stands out from the rest in this list as rather poppy and young, but Ms Swift does write a fine tune and lyric. Although this was purchased for Mrs Cook’s birthday the sheer catchy-ness of these songs has infected me too.

43)  Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

Undoubtedly the best album title in the list, and packed with some fantastic songs. As ever with Yo La Tengo, they manage to sound like at least five different bands over the course of the same record. Never a dull moment.

42)  Cat Power – The Greatest

Spurred on by her great version of ‘Amazing Grace’ on the ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation, I got this for a half price itunes bargain and was not in the least disappointed. Great voice, great piano, and a number of fine songs.

41)  Great Lake Swimmers – Great Lake Swimmers

Haven’t had time to listen to this one as much as the other two in the list by this fine Canadian band, but their debut showed signs of the huge promise that has been fulfilled on the subsequent records. Folky acoustic songs of the highest order.

40)  Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara

This one had me from the opening seconds of the opening song ‘Your Rocky Spine’, discovered on Spotify on my birthday using my new laptop speakers. Was enthralled by this album for most of that afternoon. Sounded even better with the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies that inspired it on our trip in June.

39)  Woodpigeon – Songbook

Another Canadian band, and one of my first Spotify discoveries. ‘Death by Ninja (a Love Story)’, ‘A Sad Country Ballad For A Tired Superhero’ and ‘A Hymn For 2 Walks In Different Cities’ are all quite brilliant songs, in very different ways. Fast becoming a favourite band of mine.

38)  The Broken Family Band – Please And Thank You

Their most recent, and sadly their last album as they split up in October. The usual reliably great tunes, combined with the occasional barbed lyric, this would have been higher but for the fact I haven’t listened to it as much as my favourite of theirs, ‘Balls’, that appears further up the list.

37)  Band Of Horses – Cease To Begin

So much fuss is made of the Fleet Foxes, but I actually much prefer their Sub Pop label-mates BOH: there is more to the music, the instrumentation is better and the songs are a bit more interesting than the Foxes pastoral by numbers. For me, not as immediately satisfying as their debut, which appears higher up, but definitely worth a listen or several.

36)  John Martyn – Solid Air (Remastered)

Sadly I’d never heard any of John Martyn’s music until after he died earlier this year – this remastered version of one of his most popular records was a great starting point. ‘May You Never’, ‘Over The Hill’ and ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ are all stand-out tracks and I love his distinctive guitar playing style.

35)  The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain

Checked this out after a very good set they played at the End Of The Road Festival: intriguing acoustic rock – a bit of a grower.

34)  Cage The Elephant – Cage The Elephant

Brash, noisy, full of energy and highly enjoyable.

33)  Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

Love the cover, love the title, love his voice, adore ‘Rococo Zephyr’ and this would have been higher except one or two tracks are a bit too weird for my taste.

32)  Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Think I need to give this more time, especially as many people have raved about it, but it is a step up from her debut and contains some great moments.

31)  She Keeps Bees – Nests

Another itunes bargain following a sterling closing set at the EOTR Festival, this is well worth checking out. A band to watch out for.

30)  The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

My ultimate discovery of the past year, as regular readers will know, Portland, Oregon’s finest are very much my favourite band these days. This was the first album of theirs I heard and there are a number of outstanding tracks here, such as ‘Crane Wife 3’, ‘The Shankhill Butchers’, ‘O Valencia’ and ‘Yankee Bayonet’. A good starting point for new listeners, but not my favourite, as will become apparent.

29)  The Duke & The King – Nothing Gold Can Stay

Would have been much further up the top 30 if every track had been as good as ‘If You Ever Get Famous’, one of my favourite songs of the year. Sadly, only one or two other tracks come close to matching it, although I suspect this record’s a grower and I need to give it more time. They were fantastic live at the End Of The Road Festival in September when they added a lot more punch and panache to these stripped-down songs.

28)  Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band – Outer South

Any record featuring Conor Oberst’s distinctive vocals and trademark lyrical dexterity is always going to get in my top 30. This year he manages it twice with two different, new bands. Haven’t given this one as much of a listen as The Monsters Of Folk, but a good set of songs as ever.

27)  Regina Spektor – Far

As with so many of the albums in this list, this one started as a speculative Spotify selection, and over the course of several listens to this captivating set of songs and Spektor’s quirkily endearing vocals, I grew too fond of it to only have access to it via my computer. Well worth a listen if you’ve never heard of her before, and not only for her dolphin impression on ‘Folding Chair’ and beat box ending on ‘Eet’.

26)  The Broken family Band – Balls

I discovered this album in the middle of the Summer and just couldn’t stop listening to it. Some of the most acerbic and barbed but hilarious lyrics I’ve ever heard are matched to some of the most beautiful, perky and downright hummable tunes. ‘It’s All Over’ and ‘Alone in the Make-Out Room’ are absolute solid-gold standouts but there really isn’t a bad track here. If you’ve never heard this record, Spotify it immediately!

25)  First Aid Kit – Drunken Trees

OK, so strictly speaking this is an EP, but with 8 tracks and 3 bonus videos on the download version, I think it merits inclusion. One of the acts I’m sad to have missed at The End Of The Road Festival, these Swedish sisters have a great way with harmony, are talented instrumentalists and write their own interesting songs. Having said that, the best track here is their stunning cover of Fleet Foxes’ ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’.

24)  Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Many high profile musicians claim Grizzly Bear as their favourite band, which always makes me a bit skeptical. Having tried and failed to get my ears around their previous album ‘Yellow House’ on Spotify I held out for a while on this, their latest, despite reading many rave reviews. When my resistance was eventually worn down by a very good track included on one of the free CDs from ‘The Word’ magazine and a Spotify test drive I started to see what the fuss was all about. A bit like ‘Bitte Orca’ by Dirty Projectors higher up this list, this is a record that challenges the listener and broadens your musical perspective as a reward.

23)  Band Of Horses – Everything All The Time

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m indebted to one of my brother’s friends for recommending Band Of Horses, and they turned out to be one of my favourite discoveries of the year. This is their first album, and my favourite of the two so far. Lots of great songs to choose from here, but the guitar riffs in ‘Weed Party’ are sufficient on their own to make me want to learn how to play that elusive instrument despite my complete lack of musical skill.

22)  The Decemberists – Picaresque

Of all the albums in this list you’re unlikely to find one with a better or more flamboyant opening track than Picaresque’s ‘The Infanta’. From the initial rumbling jungle sounds, to the tenor warbling at the grand finale this song is a master-class in showing-off.

21)  The Airborne Toxic Event – The Airborne Toxic Event

20)  Joyce, Nana Vasoncelos & Mauricio Maestro – Visions Of Dawn

19)  Monsters Of Folk – Monsters Of Folk

18)  Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

17)  Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels

16)  Woodpigeon – Treasury Library Canada

15)  Muse – The Resistance

14)  Slow Club – Yeah So

13)  Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

12)  Wilco – Wilco The Album

11)  The Leisure Society – Sleeper

10)  Emmy The Great – First Love

9)  Joe Gideon & The Shark – Harum Scarum

8)  Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

7)  Loney Dear – Dear John

6)  Various Artists – Dark Was The Night

5)  Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

4)  The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy

3)  Loney Dear – Loney, Noir

2)  Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

1)  The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love

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End of The Road: the verdict

The Garden Stage

The Leisure Society on The Garden Stage

Well, it has been over a week since I got back from the End of The Road Festival, and the delay in writing is down to a busy schedule and wondering how on earth I could do justice to such an amazing weekend in a blog post (or few). I had such an incredible time I could probably waffle on for weeks, but instead I’ll try and capture my thoughts as efficiently as possible.

In a sentence:
“Had an amazing time at the End of The Road: 3 days, 24 bands, gorgeous setting, fab weather, great food, lots of laughs and very good company. I’ve found my festival!” [as I posted to Facebook immediately on my return]

In a paragraph:

A really welcoming, well organised festival that is clearly run and staffed by people who love music, and very good music at that.  The setting is unique and wonderful and the line-up was really excellent – that 24 band tally could have easily been 30 if it weren’t for scheduling clashes and not being able to be in two places at once. Got to see some bands I love play live for the first time, and discovered many more great bands and artists. Great weather helped, but the atmosphere was lovely and friendly, all facilities and refreshments were far better than expected and it all added up to a wonderful experience I’ll never forget. A cracking choice for my festival debut!

The top ten

So, who were the best? In order to build suspense slightly, I’ll cover my top ten favourites from the weekend in reverse order:

10.  Fleet Foxes (Garden Stage, Saturday 9.30-11.00pm)

They were good, but not as good as expected. Headlining on Saturday night was always going to be difficult for a band with only one album’s worth of material. Long gaps between songs, constant needless retuning of guitars and one awful cover version (‘Go your own way’ by Fleetwood Mac? Why cover a band/song that’s far worse than your own material?) used up the time, but detracted from the spectacle. As did the moronic wailing of a drunken idiot in our vicinity trying to ‘sing’ along. Why would someone do that when listening to a band famed for their wonderful harmonising? Because he was an absolute ………  However, it’s hard to think of a better band to listen to in this setting – surrounded by a forest under a clear star-filled sky. Best songs: Tiger Mountain Peasant Song, White Winter Hymnal.

9. Neko Case (Garden Stage, Sunday 7.45 -8.45pm)

One of many very nice surprises over the weekend, Miss Case and her band delivered a very lively, varied set with great energy and enthusiasm. Good songs, great co-singer and amusing banter made for a very pleasant warm-up for The Hold Steady immediately afterwards. Best songs: Some People Gotta Lot of Nerve, Middle Cyclone, Don’t Forget Me.

The Acorn: two drummers, fine tunes

The Acorn: two drummers, fine tunes

8. The Acorn (Garden Stage, Saturday 4.45 -5.45pm)

Another pleasant surprise. We’d decided to stay in the Garden Stage area after The Broken Family Band because it was such a gorgeous sunny afternoon. Had never heard of The Acorn before, but the programme write-up sounded promising, and so it proved. Folk rock with a world music tinge, two drummers and a very smiley and amiable lead singer combined with some chilled out, dreamy songs matched the weather and the mid-afternoon mood perfectly. Best songs: Crooked Legs, Hold Your Breath.

7.  Darren Hayman (Garden Stage, Saturday 1.00 – 1.45pm)

Biggest and best surprise of the weekend. Neither I nor my mate Jon had heard of Darren Hayman, but we were in such a great mood after the wonderful opening set from the Leisure Society that we stayed put on our comfortable chairs and gave him a chance. Very glad we did. Turns out he used to be the singer in Hefner, a semi-popular indie band of the mid to late 90’s and he is still in possession of an ear for a good tune and some of the funniest lyrics I’ve ever heard. He clearly loves this festival, and his enthusiasm, great humour and sunny disposition create a really convivial atmosphere in marked contrast to his arch songs of suburban tedium. Best songs: Pram Town, Rachel and Amy.

6.  Dirty Projectors (Garden Stage, Friday 7.45 – 8.45pm)

Immediately preceded by a great Festival moment – sitting down to give our legs a much needed rest, a couple of parrots flew just over our heads as the sun started setting. That moment of tranquility was soon shattered by the experiments in noise being conducted by Dirty Projectors. Three girls, three guys, some occasional screeching vocals, and frenetic guitar sequences produced a barrage of sound that was sometimes challenging but also very fresh and interesting. Their boundless energy and contagious enthusiasm combined with some impressive songs to create a very memorable set which would have been worthy of the headline slot they just missed out on. Best songs: No Intention, Two Doves, Stillness Is The Move, Remade Horizon, Knotty Pine.

The Broken Family Band: It's All Over - literally

The Broken Family Band: It's All Over - literally

5.  The Broken Family Band (Garden Stage, Saturday 3.30 -4.15pm)

In the three months between seeing the ads for the festival line-up and actually attending, I’d discovered the many delights of The Broken Family Band’s back catalogue and was greatly looking forward to seeing them. Even more so as they’d announced a couple of weeks before the End of The Road that they are splitting up in October, so this would possibly be my first and last chance to see them. They didn’t disappoint exactly, and produced a very enjoyable set, but because they didn’t include many of my favourite songs I was left a little underwhelmed, probably hampered by sky-high expectations. There were still some great moments, including great versions of ‘It’s All Over’ and ‘John Belushi’, but the understated set was perhaps  best summed up by the singer’s intro to their last song: “It’s not one of our best songs, but it’s in A”.

4.  The Leisure Society (Garden Stage, Saturday 12.00 – 12.30pm)

I knew very little indeed about this Brighton-based band before they opened Saturday on the Garden Stage, but they provided probably the nicest surprise of the weekend. They were only on stage for half an hour but made a very big impression, their intelligent, beautifully played indie-pop songs providing the perfect backdrop to a sunny Saturday lunchtime. In particular their female flute player and the two guys on violin and cello who’d travelled overnight from France to get here really shone. Another highlight was the very witty banter from the singer/keyboardist, which greatly amused us but seemed to pass over the heads of most of the assembled throng. The songs were more than enough on their own though, and ensured that I downloaded their debut album ‘The Sleeper’ on my return home. It’s since become a firm favourite and I’d love to see them play live again soon now I’m familiar with the songs. Best songs: Matter of Time, A Fighting Chance, The Last of The Melting Snow, Save It For Someone Who Cares.

3.  The Duke & The King (Big Top, Friday 6.00 – 6.45pm)

Friday’s highlight was a fantastic performance from The Duke & The King which really lifted the festival to another level. I’d been enjoying their first album recently and was looking forward to seeing them here, but wasn’t prepared for how good they’d be live.  Simon Felice (from the band the Felice Brothers) made an early bid for front man of the festival with a mesmirising display – shy he ain’t! In fact all four band members gave energetic performances full of soul that transformed many of their songs into really moving, uplifting experiences. They all enjoyed their moment in the limelight too: the female violinist and the bassist taking centre stage for a fantastic rendition of ‘Suzanne’, and the drummer pretty much stealing the show with his spine-tingling vocal contributions. Best songs: If You Ever Get Famous, Suzanne, Union Street.

2.  The Hold Steady (Garden Stage, Sunday 9.30 – 11.00pm)

They’ve been one of my favourite bands for a couple of years now, and this was the first time I was going to see them live. Given the fact that they were virtually closing the festival, in Sunday’s headline slot, I was a bit worried that my expectations would be too great and I’d be disappointed. Not so.

By the time they came on stage I was very excited, and it was just great to be able to hear so many songs I like given a new lease of life by a band on the top of their form. Well, eventually. It took a little while for them to get into their stride and the sound engineers took about 5 songs to get Craig Finn’s microphone right, which is a bit of a disadvantage when you miss all the lyrical nuances because the singer’s not properly in the mix.  They got better and better as the set went on, the whole band growing in confidence and enthusiasm. Franz Nicolay on keyboard was coolness personified – playing incredibly whilst appearing to be making no effort whatsoever, and as Craig Finn careered round the stage, yelling and jumping up and down he carried off a perfect impression of a man who loves his job. A great end to a fantastic weekend.  Best songs: Stuck Between Stations, Chips Ahoy!, Massive Nights, Your Little Hoodrat Friend.

1.  Joe Gideon & The Shark (Big Top, Sunday 3.00 – 3.45pm)

And the best performance of the weekend? An absolute belter, quite out of the blue, from this London-based brother and sister duo who have more than a whiff of The White Stripes about them. Except they have better songs. I’d checked them out on Spotify a week before the festival and was impressed enough to suggest to Jon that we should make sure we saw them. So glad I did! After a slightly unsure start, playing two of their weakest songs, Jon showed signs of wanting to do a runner, as we had on a couple of occasions already on Sunday. Thankfully we stayed put and were rewarded as from somewhere, something quite magical started to happen.  The Shark, on drums and sampler keyboards, started playing out of her skin and was mesmirising to watch. Her confidence seemed to rub off on her sibling, who discovered an unforeseen swagger and started wielding his guitar like a weapon.

A four song sequence at the end of the set was worth the admission price for the weekend alone: After the amusing and raucous ‘Hide And Seek’, came the wonderful ‘Kathy Ray’ gently unfolding the tale of a backing singer reliving past glories. By this stage there was a real emotional bond between band and audience and the next song took everything to another level. ‘Anything You Love That Much … You Will See Again’ is a really beautiful, moving yet uplifting song that just came to life in the Big Top here in a way you couldn’t replicate on record. Hit by wave after wave of raw emotion, I suddenly understood why bands play live. It was a spine-tingling, jaw-dropping moment, and the best song of the festival for me. I couldn’t believe they didn’t finish there, with the entire tent in their palms. As it was, the bold move of playing ‘Civilisation’ as their closing song paid off and left me buzzing and breathless. What a show!

Best of the rest

Suspense is not as important with these, so I’ll keep to numerical order:

11.  She Keeps Bees (The Local, Sunday)

An American boy/girl duo sounding a bit like Mazzy Star and The White Stripes – deserved a better stage and time slot than very last band on in the claustrophobic Local marquee.

12. Explosions in the Sky (Garden Stage, Friday)

Huge sweeping instrumental tracks with orchestral scope produced by three guitarists and a drummer. Headlined on Friday and were best enjoyed with your eyes closed so you couldn’t see their onstage gurning and hystrionics.

13.  Vetiver (Big Top, Friday)

Would have been great on the Garden Stage on Saturday instead of Alela Diane, but performed well enough in the Big Top without wowing anyone. Felt they were playing within themselves and could have been even better if they’d been a bit less laid back. One or two really good songs though. The only set I actually had a lie down for … it seemed oddly appropriate.

14.  Stars of Sunday League (Tipi Tent, Sunday)

Missed the start of this short but sweet set, and caught most of it from the back of the tiny Tipi Tent, but was worth the squeeze. Well written,  beautifully sung indie folk songs from a young bearded gentleman with a lovely Dundee accent and a young lady on a violin. One to watch out for.

15.  Bob Log III (Garden Stage, Sunday)

A man alone on the centre of the huge Garden Stage, dressed in a tight-fitting gold lame suit with flared trousers, and a motorcycle helmet with a microphone inside it, shrieking along to his incredibly fast slide guitar antics. Produced the best ending to any set, walking down into the audience playing guitar and then walking back up, across the stage and off, still playing with his back to the audience. In his own little world, and maybe it’s for the best.

16.  Alela Diane (Garden Stage, Saturday)

The ‘future star of Americana’ according to critics. ‘Sweet but dull’ according to me. Maybe it was because I was flagging after so many hours standing up and feeling hungry, but this set of pleasant-ish folk songs kind of floated over me without leaving any real impression. I can’t remember how any of them went, but I do recall with fondness the over-enthusiastic bassist called on for one or two songs towards the end and behaving like a hyper-active bearded toddler.

17.  Loney, Dear (Garden Stage, Friday)

First act we saw: Swedish bloke, bit mad, gibbering on with frankly baffling banter in between a couple of rather good electronic pop songs. Not very polished, but reasonably pleasant.

18.  Charlie Parr (Big Top, Friday)

Kind of a cross between Badly Drawn Boy and Giant Haystacks, he played the blues a lot, lot better than he looked. Came alive whilst playing his guitar, but lacking in stage presence. Bumped into him a couple of times that evening and he seemed quite a surly fellow with little patience for fellow artists. Looked a bit too much like an axe murderer to discuss those foibles with him though.

19.  Beth Jeans Houghton (The Local, Friday)

Could have, and should have been really rather brilliant. She’s quirky with a cute Northern accent and a set of self-written whimsical songs but her late night set in the Local was a right shambles. She took ages setting up and the sound engineers let her down badly: a catalogue of technical errors undermining a collection of interesting and sometimes beautiful songs. That, and the fact she was wearing a peacock on her head atop a huge blonde frizzy wig that kept getting in her way. When we saw her briefly again on Saturday in the Big Top she’d ditched the peacock but was wearing hotpants and looking frankly ridiculous. She doesn’t need such gimicks, the songs are enough. If she ditches the fancy dress, she might be huge one day.

20.  Herman Dune (Big Top, Friday)

Quite confused to discover later that these guys were French – seemed like a straightforward American alt-country band to me, even down to the accents. Fairly impressive, especially the drummer, though we didn’t stay too long so we could catch the above-mentioned Miss Beth Jeans Peacock. Stayed longer than Charlie Parr though, who stood in front of me for one song, grunted, and walked straight out.

The dregs

21.  The Low Anthem  (Garden Stage, Saturday)

A huge disappointment. Thought they’d be great having heard their latest album but it was a case of wrong band, wrong stage, wrong songs. Started off with three really quiet ones that bored us into submission and sent us in the direction of lunch.

T-Model Ford: What song is this again?

T-Model Ford: What song is this again?

22.  T-Model Ford  (Big Top, Sunday)

Lovely old poppet, 80 plus years old. He can’t remember how old he is. Or the lyrics to any of his songs apparently. Helped onstage by his drummer/roadie/nurse, he looked at home playing his blues guitar, grinned happily throughout, but seemed to be playing exactly the same song eight times over. We left out of a mixture of boredom and embarrassment.

23.  Treecreeper  (Tipi Tent, Sunday)

Only decided to watch this lot because we had found a space in the Tipi Tent and didn’t feel like moving. That soon changed when this very poor pub band started playing. Worthy, hard-working but very dull. I lasted a song and a half.

24.  Brakes  (Big Top, Sunday)

But compared with this bunch of reprobates, Treecreeper were U2 or Coldplay (worthy, hard-working, very dull..!). Brakes were highly praised in the programme and had appeared here every year so we were quite expectant. Oh dear. Obnoxious bald singer suffering from short man syndrome did a couple of similarly short, shouty horrible songs, and we were almost running out of the Big Top to escape. Absolute rubbish and the only totally unlistenable band of the weekend.

The ones that got away

These are the ones that I wanted to see but missed, either due to scheduling clashes, or other unforeseen circumstances:

Mumford & Sons (Garden Stage, Friday)

We arrived too late to see them kick off the festival, which was a shame.

Shearwater (Garden Stage, Friday)

We had to miss them in order to get some food – having since checked out their most recent album on Spotify, I regret that decision.

First Aid Kit (Tipi Tent, Saturday)

We tried and failed to get to in the Tipi Tent to see these Swedish sibling songstresses which was a disappointment at the time, but even more so having checked out their most recent album and their fantastic version of Tiger Mountain Peasant Song by the Fleet Foxes. Should have barged our way in!

Efterklang (Big Top, Saturday)

Clashed with the Fleet Foxes. Jury’s out on whether we made the right decision, pending a Spotify investigation.

Blitzen Trapper (Tipi Tent, Saturday)

Clashed with tea time on Saturday – very good write up in the programme but will have to investigate further.

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GBA, GAB!

Happy 4th July! God Bless America (GBA).

God Bless America!

God Bless America!

It’s Independence Day, so to celebrate and mark the occasion, today’s focus is on Great American Bands (GAB).

I’ve said before that the vast majority of my favourite bands hail from the North American Continent, and leaving the Canadian contingent aside just for today, here’s my ten of the best from the US of A.

The Decemberists

The Decemberists

The Decemberists

No surprise there if you’ve read the previous post. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, a simply brilliant band who make intelligent, beautiful music.

Finest Hour: The Hazards of Love, though Picaresque and The Crane Wife run it close

The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady

Feted by many as ‘The World’s Greatest Bar Band’ and often compared to Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, this bunch originally formed in Minneapolis but are currently based in New York. I would love to see them live more than just about any other band.

Finest hour: Boys and Girls in America, but last year’s Stay Positive is also excellent.

Wilco

Wilco

Wilco

I was a bit late discovering Wilco, often described as ‘The American Radiohead’ but I’m very glad that I caught up. Am enjoying working my way through their back catalogue, and very impressed by their latest album which I’ve listened to for the past two days on Spotify and will be buying soon. As well as sounding great, the cover features a photograph of a camel in a party hat. You just don’t see that often enough.

Finest hour: Wilco [the album], their latest, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Sky Blue Sky are also very good.

Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes

Sadly no more, but singer songwriter Conor Oberst has moved on to join forces with his new Mystic Valley Band. His vocal stylings are musical Marmite, but he sure has a way with words and writes fine tunes to match.

Finest hour: Either I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning or Cassadaga – the first made a big impression on me, but the second possibly has the better songs.

Midlake

Midlake

Midlake

From Denton, Texas, this band are nowhere near as well-known or popular as their music deserves. They’ve only made two albums in almost ten years together, but the most recent of which, recorded in 2006 is a rare gem: one of those albums you play again and again and never get tired of. For me, its mellow sounds will forever be associated with happy memories of driving through the Rocky Mountain National Park in Sept 2007.

New album should be released later this year.

Finest hour: The Trials of Van Occupanther – classic album, genius cover.

Interpol

Interpol

Interpol

I first saw these New York rockers on TV, playing Glastonbury in 2005, and they really blew me away. Sometimes overshadowed by fellow NYC band The Strokes, I reckon this lot deserve much wider acclaim. I harbour a fond dream of seeing them play live in New York one day – they’ve never been touring whenever I’ve been there.

Finest hour: Antics will always be my favourite album, but Our Love To Admire is also well worth a listen.

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon

Finally this year, people in the USA have realised what a great band these guys are. I remember excitedly showing their first album to some American friends in 2005 and asking them what they thought – they’d never heard of the band and I was really surprised. It soon became apparent that they were much better known in the UK, something they celebrated in the song ‘Fans’ on their third album ‘Because of The Times’. Thanks to the huge success of their fourth, Only By The Night, America has now caught up.

Finest hour: Youth and Young Manhood – the first and the best. Only By The Night has some great songs, but has suffered from radio overkill.

Spoon

Spoon

Spoon

Another Texan band, and another group who deserve much more acclaim and success. Six albums in, and they’re not anywhere near as well known as many of the others listed here, particularly outside the States.

Finest hour: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, album number six, released in 2007 and well worth checking out if you’ve yet to discover them.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Back to New York, and the only band in my top ten to feature a female singer. But what a singer. Karen O is quite a force of nature, particularly live, and clearly born to lead a band. Have reaped rave reviews for their latest album, and rightly so, it’s a real humdinger and one of the best this year so far.

Finest hour: It’s Blitz! But also worth checking out Fever To Tell.

Vampire Weekend

vampire weekend

Vampire Weekend

The youngest and newest band on the list, they also hail from New York, having formed whilst at Columbia University. OK, so they’ve only made one album so far, their self-titled debut in 2007, but what an album. Mixing intelligent indie rock with African musical styles, it’s a happy, upbeat celebration and was one of my favourite albums of last year.

Finest hour: Vampire Weekend

Well, that’s my ten. I’m sure you’ll have your own opinions, and be flabbergasted that I missed out whoever. Feel free to let me know via the comments facility. And if you discover just one of these great bands for the first time after reading this, I’ll be delighted.

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The Hazards of Life

It seems to be a bit of a theme that recent posts start with an apology for absence, but at least this time there’s a decent excuse. After spending most of June on a fantastic holiday in Canada I managed to fall off a mountain bike on a particularly tricky and apparently notorious stretch of the Spray River Trail in Banff on the last day, breaking my left elbow and badly spraining my forearm and wrist.

Consequently blogging’s been on the back burner since arriving home, as one-handed typing doesn’t really lend itself to anything other than the absolutely necessary. Such as work!

The accident didn’t spoil an amazing holiday though, and the various great experiences and gorgeous scenery we enjoyed were enhanced by a varied and uniformly excellent soundtrack, thanks in part to the fact that Jo and Gary (sister and brother-in-law) our travelling companions have a very similar taste in music to mine.

There were many music-related highlights of the trip, particularly the day we drove along the Icefield Parkway from Jasper to Banff to an exclusively Canadian soundtrack, including Joni Mitchell, Great Lake Swimmers and Arcade Fire. However, one particular album emerged as a firm favourite from the holiday, and I was delighted that Gary in particular shared my enthusiasm for it.

Beware: Hazards ahead

Beware: Hazards ahead

‘The Hazards of Love’ by The Decemberists. And herein hangs many a tale.

Although I’d had a couple of sneak previews of it on Spotify, I’d been deliberately saving this new album for the holiday when I could give it the time, attention and repeated plays it undoubtedly deserved. Regular readers will know that it was thanks to reading rave reviews of this album and interviews with the band before its release that led me to research and discover the delights of their back catalogue, to the extent that they have now surpassed all other bands in my affections.

Acquiring this greatly acclaimed masterpiece, “The best record ever made” according to one of the writers for The Word magazine, was clearly a priority and I wasted no time when that very publication advertised a free copy of the CD in exchange for placing a subscription. I did so on my birthday in April, and eagerly awaited my copy of the May issue. Which arrived with no CD.

After ringing the magazine I discovered the CD would be sent separately within 28 days. Cue 28 days of very impatient huffing and puffing when it never materialised. What made it worse was that thanks to the generosity of friends and family for my birthday I’d purchased about 15 other albums with my many vouchers, none of which I wanted as much as this one. I could have bought it so many times over, but decided to wait for the free copy.

Except, my patience finally evaporated the day before we went on holiday and I downloaded the album from itunes instead. I couldn’t wait any longer, and I listened to it all the way through for the first time on the flight to Vancouver the next day. It was awesome, and I listened to it all again straight afterwards. It’s 17 tracks and well over an hour long. And well worth the wait.

You can read reviews here and here, and if you’re not familiar with The Decemberists it’s probably not the best place to start, but it is lyrically, musically and conceptually a stunning piece of work. It’s a post-modern concept album, telling the tale of a maiden ‘romanced’ by a shape-shifting beast in an enchanted forest and a rake, an ‘irascible blackguard’ who unburdens himself of parental responsibility by murdering his offspring.

Nice.

Oh, and there’s also a pretty scary sounding Queen in there somewhere, who holds the key to the mysterious provenance of the shape-shifting fawn/human.

Steps it ain’t.

On a first listen it might seem a bit much, and be rather overpowering, but repeated listens reveal more and more layers, you start to notice repeated musical themes and motifs and the story becomes clearer. Many of the songs are outstanding on their own, but when you hear them in order and in context they are somehow even more impressive. It’s a grower!

There’s something special about sharing your excitement about music you’ve discovered, and the first time we listened to this album in our fabulous suite at L’Hermitage hotel in Vancouver it was brilliant watching and hearing Gary’s reactions – his overwhelming positivity added even more to my enjoyment. We had a couple of repeat performances during the holiday, most notably on the last day after we’d got back from the hospital and I was struggling with the pain. Laughter is often the best medicine, but this time it was music.

And today, finally and almost miraculously, my free copy of ‘The Hazards of Love’ arrived in the post. It had taken another phone call, and the rectification of a shocking administrative error, but at last, the spoils.

And so ends a tale of acquisition almost as lengthy, rambling and unexpected as that depicted by the album itself.

Bet you wish I’d broken my right elbow too!

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The Sound of the Summer

Soundtrack to a lazy Summer's day

Soundtrack to a lazy Summer's day

Yes, I know it’s been ages since I lasted posted an article here, and for that I apologise.

After three months, and just over 2,000 hits (thanks for your attention and your patience) I have been discovering that this blogging lark takes lots of time, real discipline and dedication.

Especially when the weather’s as nice as it has been recently. There’s something about a hot sunny day that distracts even the hardened blogger away from the laptop and into the garden, park or great outdoors.

But once out there, those of us who value our musical taste have to be on our guard. There are many great things about a decent Summer’s day: sunshine, blue skies, smiling faces, the warmth of the sun on your skin, a BBQ, a cold drink… to name but a few. However, there is one black cloud on the metaphorical horizon – other people’s music.

It’s as inevitable, inescapable, infuriating and depressing as that other scourge of our Summer, Big Brother. Venture outdoors during the Summer months and your ears will be assaulted by all manner of hideous nonsense masquerading under the name of music.

Assuming, on the optimistic side, that headphones will be too hot and uncomfortable in the intense heat of a prolonged sunny spell, the only option is to fight back against the dross with something obscure, spectacular and achingly cool.

Luckily, I have the very thing.

‘Visions of Dawn’ by Joyce, Nana Vasoncelos and Mauricio Maestro, an album of Brazilian folk/soul, recorded in Paris in 1976, but never previously released. Just the job!

I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves why it’s such a gem and a perfect backdrop to a lazy afternoon enjoying a BBQ, picnic or just lying in the sun.

And I think you can guarantee that it will trump all your neighbours’ poor diets of formulaic pop, ’80’s soft-rock power ballads and done-to-death reggae standards.

For best results, serve with a large pitcher of Sangria or a round of Capirinhas, and follow with a generous helping of ‘When It Falls’ by Zero 7.

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Song of the week: Rococo Zephyr

I’m not committing myself to doing this every week, but it might work as an occasional series. Sometimes you just get really taken by a particular song and keep listening to it, then find yourself humming or singing snatches of it around the house, or at work (which can be embarrassing).

So, to kick this off, the inaugural winner is:

Rococo Zephyr by Bill Callahan

Great song, great album cover

Great song, great album cover

You know how it is, you’re minding your own business, listening to a new album, when suddenly, out of nowhere a song just grabs you by the scruff of the neck and growls “What do you think about that then?”. OK, just me then.

Well, this happened a couple of songs in to the curiously titled ‘Sometimes I wish we were an eagle’ by Bill Callahan. I’m not sure if it was the lilting orchestral backing, the effects of that voice (a deep baritone that sounds like a weird fusion of Nick Cave and Nick Drake) or the gorgeous dreamy lyrics that had me hooked.

It was probably a combination of all the above. I just remember listening with a grin on my face that got broader as the song progressed. I loved a few of the lyrical touches: “She watched the water ripple, ripple ripple light/Light watched the water ripple ripple ripple she” and the way he delivers the lines: “I did some kind of dance/Jaunty as a bee” just had me beaming. The very fact that he describes the zephyr (slight gentle breeze) as rococo (florid and elaborate) is worthy of some kind of award in itself.

I’m not entirely sure I understand everything that’s going on in the song, but it does evoke a very idyllic pastoral scene and by means of a lovely gentle tune.

I managed to find a video of him performing it in a record store in Ohio, but I prefer the album version for the additional backing instrumentation and the haunting female echo of “rococo” . I was also a bit disappointed that he looked fairly normal (though uncannily similar to Nick Drake) – I’d been expecting him to look like Yoffy from Fingerbobs, but you can’t have everything.

A fantastic song that would be the perfect soundtrack to a riverside picnic, just in time for Summer. And a serious contender for my favourite song of the year.

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Spotify update

It's fabulous. And free!

It's fabulous. And free!

In the past week several people have informed me that they have downloaded and are using Spotify as a result of reading this blog, which is really pleasing. At least one brave soul had also been listening to some of my recent recommendations – thanks Jim! As a result, I thought it was about time to write another article updating you with the latest developments surrounding the Swedish streaming sensation.

At the end of April there was an interesting interview on the Guardian’s Digital Content Blog with Paul Brown, Spotify’s new UK managing director. Worth a read, but some of the main points he touched on were:

  • There are now more than a million registered users in the UK
  • A “decent proportion” are paying for the service (either £0.99 per day or £9.99 per month)
  • They have launched a partnership with 7 Digital to sell downloads which is likely to expand
  • They are looking to extend the range of quality content available, including things like Peel sessions that were locked up by radio contracts
  • They are looking seriously at portability and specifically, paid services available on the iphone.

Spotify and I

From a personal viewpoint, using Spotify for the past two months has transformed my relationship with music, in terms of how I listen and what I listen to.

For a start, it’s proving to be a solid gold ‘try before you buy’ tool and more effective than any other I have used. For the record I have actually bought more albums than usual during that period (although that’s partly due to birthday vouchers etc) so listening to streamed music for free has not stopped me buying music, it has just helped me make even better choices.

I roadtested and later purchased the following excellent albums:

  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
  • The Decemberists – The Crane Wife, Picaresque
  • Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara, Lost Channels
  • Vetiver – Tight Knit
  • Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
  • Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Being There
  • Staff Benda Bilili – Tres Tres Fort
  • Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

On the other hand, I chose not to buy a few others after giving them a Spotify spin (U2 and Doves take the walk of shame – although I did download “Kingdom of Rust”).

It is also a fantastic way to discover bands you’ve not heard before. Before Spotify I was not really aware of The Decemberists, Great Lake Swimmers, My Morning Jacket or Wilco and had never even heard of Cara Dillon or Staff Benda Bilili. The first couple have fast become two of my very favourite bands and I’m gradually working my way through their impressive back catalogues.

Spotify is also a fast and efficient record identifier. Last week Nic mentioned a couple of times that she’d heard a song on the radio she really liked and wanted to download it from itunes. Only problem was she had no idea of the artist, only a rough idea of the title. Thankfully that was enough, and within about 20 seconds I’d discovered the song in question. In the days before Spotify it would have taken a great deal longer to track it down and may have been quite a frustrating process.

If you’re a new user you might be too spoilt for choice to decide what to listen to, faced with such a huge array of great music. If that’s the case, help is at hand. There are a number of web sites where people are sharing the playlists they have compiled, and two of the best are Spotify Playlists and ShareMyPlaylists. Once you’ve got the hang of it of course, you can join in the fun by sharing your own selections.

I haven’t got that far yet, as I’m still wading my way through all the albums I have identified from reviews in Q and The Word magazines.

What price freedom?

I’m beginning to wonder what we ever did without Spotify to be honest, and I can’t believe that (at least for now) it’s still free. The adverts have become slightly more irritating but an occasional 15 seconds of Iggy Pop shouting on behalf of an insurance company is a small price to pay for so much great music.

However, as the company explores more revenue streams and looks to develop its business model they will undoubtedly try to tempt more of us to pay for the privilege. Back in March if you’d asked me if I’d pay £9.99 per month for the premium service I would have resolutely said “Never!”. But if that price were to cover an ad-free service and unlimited downloads as is the current rumour, I’d have to give the proposition some serious thought.

And so would Apple!

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Awkward Family Photos

I know this has nothing to do with music, but I make no apologies for drawing your attention to this wonderful blog which has had me in stitches for ages this evening when I should have been writing here.

Awkward Family Photos is such a brilliantly simple idea, but so hilarious.

There are so many great pictures up there, but my favourites have to be the two in the ‘Awkward Family Holiday Cards’ Archive. I’m sorry if it’s cruel but there’s something so endearingly hilarious about ’30/80′ (those eyes, that sweater!) and as for ‘Tis the Season’, I don’t know where to begin. Is he serious with that sweater – you just know that her matching one says ‘World’s Best Mom’. Oh Munchkin, with these his ‘n hers festive tops you are spoiling us!

It also reminded me of a fantastic photo of my family at Christmas, possibly 1978, when everyone dutifully posed for the camera apart from my Grandad and Uncle who carried on watching the telly regardless. If my dad or brother can oblige with a copy I’ll happily include it here for your delectation and delight. Worth it for the fashion infractions, hideous carpet and sofa alone.

In the meantime, enjoy the horrors of countless American family albums ….

….. and then come back here to read more about Spotify!

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Wired for sound

The Wire: listen carefully!

The Wire: listen carefully!

Thanks to Spotify, the other day I discovered quite by accident, the version of Tom Waits‘s song ‘Way Down In The Hole’ by The Blind Boys of Alabama.

I’d only ever heard it before as the theme song from The Wire, and as I’ve only watched season one on DVD so far I’d never seen the credits for long enough to find out the identity of the artists.

It’s a fantastic song and it suits the opening credits of the show so well, it’s hard to think of one existing without the other. As a big Tom Waits fan I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard his version of the song before and wrongly assumed it had been composed for the TV show.

Anyway, it got me to thinking that it’s probably my favourite TV show theme song ever. I’m specifying song rather than theme tune, as that accolade would have to go to the hot slab of funk that precedes each episode of Starsky and Hutch.

I’d also like to suggest that children’s TV programme themes are a different category too, but if we’re going there I’m voting for Banana Splits as the theme tune, and ‘White Horses’ (theme song to obscure ancient TV show about horses featuring a pretty girl who was my first crush, when I was five!) a version of which I tracked down last year and actually have on my ipod for nostalgia purposes.

Go on then, I’ve set my stall out, now shoot me down in flames with your own favourites.

For me it’s fitting that The Wire, the series most critics consider to be the best TV drama ever made, should also have the best theme song.

But you may beg to differ……….

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