Category Archives: Reviews

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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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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Angel of Barnsley

Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby: Voice of T'Angel

If you were to be marooned on a desert island for an indefinite period, and you could only listen to one female singer-songwriter, who would you choose?

For me, the choice is easy, despite the fact that I like many artists who fall into that category.

It has to be Kate Rusby, the Angel of Barnsley.

The first time I heard her voice, on ‘The Good Man’, track one of her 2003 album “Underneath the Stars” I was struck by two things: the startling purity of her tone, and the unvarnished Barnsley accent which made the word ‘much’ sound like ‘mooooooooooooch’. I found both aspects utterly delighful and have been hoooooooooked ever since.

I saw Kate in concert last night as part of the Oxford Folk Festival, and she put on a truly memorable performance which delighted the large sell-out crowd. Backed by her regular bass player Andy Seward, and joined by Donald Grant and his Red Skies string ensemble, she mesmerised the audience for the best part of 90 minutes.

If I could have sent Kate my ‘Desert Island Set-list’ then what she chose to play last night was pretty much a carbon copy. Apart from the opening song (whose title I didn’t catch thanks to the very rude couple sat behind us and talked incessantly through the first four songs), and a stunning version of the traditional song ‘I am stretched on your grave’ that closed the first half, she played most of my favourite tracks from her last five albums.

These included:

  • ‘I courted a sailor’ and ‘Who will sing me lullabies’ from “Little Lights
  • ‘Sir Eglamore’ and ‘The Drowned Lovers’ from “10
  • ‘Let me be’ and ‘Underneath the Stars’ from “Underneath the Stars
  • ‘You belong to me’, ‘The Lark’ and ‘Take my Hand’ from “The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly
  • ‘Bitter Boy’ and ‘Planets’ from “Awkward Annie

If you’re not familiar with Kate’s music or these songs, I would simply urge you to seek them out at your earliest convenience. If you are, I hope you’d agree that this represents a high calibre selection from her considerable back catalogue. As it does on rare but very special occasions, the sound, setting and musicianship all blended beautifully to lift this collection of gorgeous songs to a higher level. I could write all night and still never adequately express how it made me feel – I just sat there with a massive grin on my face, hairs on the back of my neck bristling, and shivers running up and down my spine. And that was nothing to do with a draught in the Town Hall auditorium.

The other attribute of a Kate Rusby gig that shouldn’t be underestimated is the high quality banter between the songs. The band clearly have a lot of fun whilst touring, and whilst I wouldn’t quite go along with the Guardian reviewer who described Ms Rusby as a stand-up comedian, she is often quite amusing and has an endearing charm and infectious laugh.

She is also a very accomplished songwriter, and I hadn’t realised until last night just how many of the songs she performs are her own compositions. The fact that they blend so seamlessly with the traditional songs on her albums is a testament to her considerable talent of creating simple but beautiful folk songs for a modern audience.

Despite being four months pregnant, Kate is still touring for the foreseeable future – catch her while you can!

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