Category Archives: Now playing

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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Now playing: The Crane Wife by The Decemberists

Current favourite albums: 3 of 3

In third place this month, due to the strength of competition, it’s:

The Crane Wife: Nothing conventional here

The Crane Wife: a veritable plethora of lyrical wizardry

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

My route to this album is a similar story to that of the Great Lake Swimmers. Initially I’d read a great deal of hype and excited press talk about the impending release of The Decemberists‘ new release ‘The Hazards Of Love‘, and whilst waiting for that to become available I decided to investigate their back catalogue.

On paper, this lot are pretty much my dream band.

Interesting name – check. Acoustic folk-rock music – check. Hailing from Portland, Oregon and thus very much American – check. Singer with distinctive, earnest vocal style – check. Wordy, literate lyrics like you’ve never known – check. You get the idea …..

Their most successful album before this one was called ‘Picaresque’. How many bands around these days can boast a leader like Colin Meloy, who actually knows what that word means (“telling the adventures of a usually likeable rogue in separate, loosely connected episodes” according to my dictionary) let alone can craft a record that includes a barrow boy, a bagman and a song about two mariners who find themselves inside the same whale, enabling one to enact a revenge on the other. Never mind one that sounds utterly brilliant into the bargain.

So, how do you follow that? Well, it would seem, by cramming your next album with an even more eclectic cast of characters and intriguing tales, including two tracks based around a Japanese folk tale involving a crane, an arrow, a beautiful woman and some clandestine weaving. Other stories include a pair of star-crossed lovers whose ending is predictably bloody and tragic in ‘O Valencia!’ and a sinister lullaby ‘Shankhill Butchers’ which warns that the horrific protagonists of the title are “sharpening their cleavers and their knives and taking their whisky by the pint” advising that they “want to catch you awake”.

Even in the midst of this horrible tale, accompanied by chains shaking in the background, Meloy has the poise to write the following lines: “They used to be just like me and you/They used to be sweet little boys/But something went horribly askew/Now killing is their only source of joy”.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a words man, but that “something went horribly askew” just makes me grin from ear to ear. I’m possibly just responding to a kindred spirit – after all I did once shout “Referee, that’s outrageous!” at a football match whilst surrounded by thugs hurling expletives left right and centre. It’s not just the clever use of words though – this song is a good example of the way he matches the lyrics to the tune to create a macabre masterpiece that you can’t help singing along to. Apparently someone has calculated that there are about 100 murders in The Decemberists’ songs so far, yet the tunes are often so beautiful and singable that you often don’t realise the horrors concealed within.

Only Colin Meloy could include the line “By land, by sea, by dirigible” in the jaunty ‘Sons and Daughters’ or create a beautiful, passionate duet in ‘Yankee Bayonet ( I will be home then)’ that turns out to be between a woman and her lover who died during the Civil War. It’s not your (very) average Kaiser Chiefs compendium of semi-literate urban brawling.

Suffice to say this is a fantastic album, and rather than attempt a full review I’ll let you see what Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and the rest (via Metacritic) loved about it.

It’s a grower, as is the new album, and the combination of an exciting vision, great musicianship and those erudite and beautifully crafted lyrics seal the deal to make The Decemberists my favourite band in reality too, despite Mr Meloy’s arrogant parpings on Twitter.

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Now playing: It’s Blitz! by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Current favourite albums: 2 of 3

Narrowly beaten into second place this month is:

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

Now you can make an omelette ....

It's Blitz! Eggsellent, eggstatic, eggscetera

This is not a new discovery by any means – I’ve got both previous albums by one of New York’s finest bands, but it is something of a revelation.

Previously renowned for their powerful punky guitar riffs and singer Karen O’s frenetic yelping on debut ‘Fever to Tell’, and more of the same with acoustic guitars on ‘Show Your Bones’, this record represents an interesting and very successful change of direction.

Much has been made in the media of how the band have ‘thrown away their guitars’ and gone crazy for synthesisers, following the electro-pop route of acts such as Empire Of The Sun, Lady GaGa and Little Boots, but that’s just lazy journalism and an attempt to lump them on a popular bandwagon. In fact, as the Pitchfork reviewer astutely notes, on this album: “the synths are doing rock things rather than dance things”.

For example, on energetic opener ‘Zero’, there’s a heavy synth bassline pumping throughout, reminiscent of ‘Halfway Home’ by TV On The Radio, one of a few signature moves that denote the presence of that band’s Dave Sitek as producer here.

If you applied an old school method of evaluation to this album, namely, ‘how many obvious hit singles does it contain?’ then it would be an outright winner. I reckon there are 6, possibly 7 surefire crowdpleasers, namely:

  • Zero
  • Heads will roll
  • Hysteric
  • Runaway
  • Softshock
  • Little Shadow
  • Dragon Queen

The first three are all very radio friendly pop rock tunes, but heavily infused with a strong indie spirit. There’s no traditional chorus/verse/chorus pattern at work here: instead there’s all manner of miniature grooves and lengthy doodlings that give the songs their own distinctive shape.

Similarly Karen O’s voice is a versatile weapon and she uses it to create a variety of moods. On ‘Zero’, she’s sly, indomitable and downright scary, on ‘Heads will roll’ she’s commanding and powerful: “Off, off, off with your head/Dance dance dance til you’re dead”. On ‘Runaway’ she’s cold and slightly unhinged. On ‘Hysteric’ she’s warm and confident, taking centre stage to muse wistfully about the transforming power of love: “Flow sweetly, hang heavy/You suddenly complete me, you suddenly complete me”.

The latter is the album’s standout track, and rightfully destined to be on many a ‘best of 2009’ songs list and compilation album. It’s a gorgeous, simple love song with a lot of extra elements to prevent it becoming cliched, such as the “oh oh oh oh oh oh oh …. hysteric” straight after the chorus, the slightly odd lyrics about “heels turned black” and “the cinders (that) light the path”, and the quirky but perfect whistled chorus in the last thirty seconds.

With only a couple of ‘filler’ tracks (‘Dull life’ and ‘Shame And Fortune’) and a cracking low-fi ballad (‘Little Shadow’) to end with, this album’s a definite grower that reveals new delights on every play and more than justifies the decision to introduce synths into the mix. If you’re not sure, check out the acoustic versions of ‘Softshock’, ‘Skeletons’, ‘Hysteric’ and ‘Little Shadow’ on Spotify – they’re good, but not a patch on the originals.

‘It’s Blitz!’ is destined to introduce and endear Yeah Yeah Yeahs to a much wider audience, and deservedly so.

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Now playing: Ongiara by Great Lake Swimmers

Current favourite albums: 1 of 3

Thanks to Spotify I’ve been listening to a lot of music recently, and have discovered some great albums and artists I hadn’t heard before. As a result, I’ve picked three albums out for special attention this month, with a longer than usual list of other notable mentions. Don’t worry, I’m going to spread them out over three articles so you won’t have a marathon to negotiate.

First up and top billing this month goes to:

Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara

Great Lake Swimmers - Ongiara

Ongiara: even the sleeve art is beautiful

Until a week or so ago, I’d never heard of Great Lake Swimmers.

I read a review of their latest album ‘Lost Channels’ which prompted me to add them to my list of new discoveries to check out. As a result, I came across their previous release from 2007, which I fell in love with on first listen, and have been playing regularly ever since.

These days I find myself increasingly drawn to acoustic, folky music. Some might put it down to my age, but I just appreciate the simplicity of the sound and find its melodic qualities incredibly soothing and relaxing. Most of my favourite bands producing this music seems to originate from North America. And many of them are in some way quirky. Great Lake Swimmers are no exception, and as their name hints, they hail from Canada, and Ontario specifically.

From the outset they have made something of a habit of recording in eccentric places – their debut was created in a grain silo, and Ongiara, their third album was recorded in Aeolian Hall, in London, Ontario which was built in 1884 and originally a town hall, but is now a heritage site and a music and arts venue renowned for its fabulous acoustics.

If you are curious enough to give this album a listen, you’ll hear that the decision paid off: the guitar, banjo and strings all sound fantastic and the instrumentation perfectly complements the melodic vocals of lead singer, guitarist and founder Tony Dekker.

I’m not going to attempt a full review here – there are plenty online if you’re interested ranging from the ecstatic to the downright mean (Pitchfork again!). The point of these ‘now playing’ features is to highlight something I’ve really enjoyed, nudge others to seek it out for themselves and hopefully really appreciate it too.

If you’re a fan of folky, rootsy singer/songwriter type stuff such as Iron & Wine, or possibly even Nick Drake, then this will probably be your bag. I was sold by the end of the first few banjo bars of opener ‘Your Rocky Spine’ and it just got better. The second track ‘Backstage with the Modern Dancers’ is really exquisite – I can’t really describe why: it just is, and one of those songs you happen to stumble upon that you then can’t imagine being without.

My other favourites are ‘Catcher Song’, ‘Changing Colours’ and ‘There is a light’. That’s not to say that the remaining tracks aren’t really good too – it’s just that the first five really stand out. In fact, it’s the kind of album that serenades you slowly rather than grabbing you by the ears and demanding attention, but actually leaves you wanting more. More than once I’ve got to the end and started playing it again from the beginning: that’s not something I do often.

Great Lake Swimmers have sometimes been criticised for producing slight, fragile music and not really rocking out. Tony Dekker’s voice is, according to some, too quiet and not strong enough.

I think that’s just harsh and ungrateful.

You don’t always want to listen to brash, piercing vocals, thrashing guitars and a pounding beat.

It’s very pleasant sometimes, as Dekker sings on ‘There is a light’, to just “Stop, listen and feel” .

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Now playing: Dark Was The Night

Now that's what I call a compliation album!

Now that's what I call a compilation album!

Current favourite album

There’s a subtle hint in the name of my blog that I’m not a fan of a certain chart hit compilation series, now in its early seventies.

In fact, I’m not a huge fan of compilations full stop, but here is an exception I’d like to highlight.

‘Dark Was The Night’ is a 4AD compilation album in support of the Red Hot Organisation, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS.

I discovered the album via an advert in The Word magazine and was immediately interested because the artists listed included several of my favourite recent favourites such as Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Spoon and Conor Oberst. In addition it includes several others that had been on my radar such as The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, The National and Andrew Bird.

So, I duly downloaded and was delighted to see it contained 32 tracks, and although most of the songs tend to the folky end of indie rock that’s exactly my current genre of choice. All of the tracks are exclusive to this album, so it’s not like you’re duplicating songs you have elsewhere.

I was instantly hooked when I started to listen, and overall I’d say the standard was uniformly excellent. The contributions from artists I was familiar with didn’t let me down, and some of the new ones turned out to be very nice surprises.

For me, the absolute standout track is ‘Sleepless’ by The Decemberists, a band who I find fascinating and intend to write more about soon. It’s over eight minutes long, but is hauntingly beautiful and quite unlike anything I’ve heard recently.

Other favourite tracks include:

  • Feeling Good – My Brightest Diamond
  • Lenin – Arcade Fire
  • Big Red Machine – Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) & Aaron Dessner
  • Well-Alright – Spoon
  • Lua – Conor Oberst & Gillian Welch
  • Cello Song – The Books featuring Joses Gonzalez (great cover of Nick Drake’s classic)
  • Happiness – Rice Boy Sleeps
  • Gentle Hour – Yo La Tengo

If you like any of the artists mentioned above, or are curious to find out what they sound like, this is well worth paying just under a tenner for the download.

Other albums I’m enjoying

A few other recent notable mentions include:

What’s new for you?

How about you? What are your current favourites, and latest discoveries?

Let me know by posting a comment below, or via the Facebook group.

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