Tag Archives: The Decemberists

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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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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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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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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Twitter ye not!

What on earth is the point of Twitter?

what a bunch of absolute tweets

What a bunch of absolute tweets

I joined about a month ago, partly for research purposes for work, but mainly as a tool for spreading the word about this blog.

Despite its massive global popularity, I am really struggling to see the appeal of this social networking phenomenon.

Like most people I guess, I was initially struck by the novelty of being able to ‘follow’ celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Lily Allen, but it turns out that being a cyberstalker isn’t that much fun after all.

Indeed, despite Mr Fry’s status as the world’s biggest Twit, I left the ranks of his followers almost immediately, because he just wouldn’t shut up. I was very soon bored by his incessant bleatings about his current stint filming in Borneo, and bunging up seemingless endless batches of photos of monitor lizards whilst whinging about the mobile coverage. Not jealous, it was just dull and irritating.

The two musicians I decided to follow haven’t fared much better. Lily Allen rivals the Ever Spotted Fry Warbler for sheer volume of bletherings, which whilst sometimes amusing, tend to focus on her devouring vast quantities of food and giving treasure hunt clues to tickets she has hidden for shows on her current US tour. If I were her management or record company I might be a little nervous about what message that sends about the success of her attempt to break the US market!

Colin Meloy, lead singer and chief lyricist of The Decemberists, has been even more of a disappointment. Having recently discovered the band and being intrigued by their love of English folklore, literary lyrics and mesmirising tunes I expected great things from this Renaissance Man. Instead, he just sounds fairly charmless and rather up himself so far.

What Twitter does illustrate very clearly is how much you can learn about a person’s character and personality from just the equivalent of a text message, or at least how quickly you can be encouraged to jump to conclusions and make a snap judgement. Now you don’t get more than 140 characters to make a first impression, never mind a second chance!

What really intrigued me about all this nonsense though was a couple of weeks back when I got an email telling me that Laila K was following me on Twitter. I know nobody of that name, and so was curious about who it could be. A quick visit to my twitter account (nest?) revealed that she is the singer of UK Punk/Hip Hop Band, Sonic Boom Six, from Manchester. My first celebrity cyberstalker!

But why? The egotist in me assumed that she’d recognised me as a major force in the blogosphere and hoped I could use my impressive influence to further her career. I then realised that she was probably doing the same as I had been in trying to advertise the blog. It worked, because I ‘followed’ her back and have since been bombarded with updates about the progress (or lack of) with the release of their latest album and tour. Then last week I was notified that a band called ”The Monotones’ are following me, but they sounded far too dull to warrant further investigation.

I’m hoping that by sticking to my policy of only ‘tweeting’ when I feel the need to boost my blog readership, they will eventually get bored and stop stalking, but for now it is quite amusing to have two bands as the only non-work-related people in my merry little virtual entourage (of only eight!).

Eventually I might get the urge to explore this medium further, maybe track a few artists I’m interested in, and possibly even add a twitter feed to the blog but for now I remain largely unconvinced, and my current feelings about twitter can be summed up in this little video I found.

Tweet!

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Spotify: give it a try?

My article about Spotify has proved very popular. Top post so far by a country mile.

Some of you have even said you’ve downloaded it on my recommendation and been very grateful for the tip off. That makes me very happy.

So, let’s strike while the iron’s hot(ish) and have a poll!


I’d like to add another massive thumbs up for Spotify while I’m here – in the past 24 hours I’ve been able to listen to “It’s Blitz” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and “The Hazards of Love” by The Decemberists just hours after the albums were available as downloads and released in the shops.

Now, that’s what I call service!

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Spotify: the ultimate jukebox?

ipod killer?

The future of music?

I have tasted the future. And it’s not garlic bread.

It’s Spotify.

Those clever Swedes – first they revolutionise furniture with the blessing or curse of ikea (depending on how you like to spend your weekends) and now they’re set to change the way we listen to music. Instead of encouraging us to ‘chuck out our chintz!’, they will soon be ‘incapacitating our ipods.’

Why?

Because a group of Swedish boffins have only gone and invented what could prove to be the ultimate digital jukebox, and unleashed it on a largely unaware but soon to be very grateful British public.

What is it?

Spotify is a digital music streaming program that you download to your computer, and then use to listen to any music you choose on demand via your Internet connection, without the need to store terabytes of MP3 files on your computer. It’s a bit like itunes, but even better in some ways.

For starters, it has a much larger library. They are currently adding around 10,000 tracks per day, and seem to have pretty much every song in existence. And of course, unlike itunes you get to listen to the whole song for free, rather than around 20 seconds worth.

Free?

Oh, yes. Did I mention that it’s free? The beta system is currently available throughout Europe, but for those of us living in the UK, since 10 February we have been able to join for free. For once, it pays to be living here rather than elsewhere in Europe! ‘What’s the catch?’ I hear you cry? Well, to listen for free you have to be prepared to listen to an advert every 10 songs or so. Big woop. They last about 5-10 seconds. And they’re not like the cringeworthy ones you get on local radio that make you want to disembowel yourself with a teaspoon. They are quite inoffensive and you hardly even notice them.If you are completely ad averse you can subscribe to the absolutely ad-free version for £9.99 a month, but that seems a bit of a waste of cash to me.

The only other downside is that you can’t transfer the tracks to your ipod or any other device. On the face of it that may seem a fairly big flaw, but to be honest it isn’t. So long as you’re near your computer and connected to the Internet you can play whatever you want, whenever you want. For no money!

Save money!

In these credit crunch crazy times, here is a great way to listen to new music without paying for it, or at the very least the opportunity to try before you buy. Whilst writing this I have been very happily listening to my first Spotify playlist made up of ‘Picaresque’ by The Decemberists and ‘Songbook’ by Woodpigeon, two albums I intend to purchase (or at least request for my birthday). I searched for the two albums, then literally dragged and dropped the songs into a playlist, hit the shuffle button and I was away (with the fairies, in the case of The Decemberists). I can listen to those albums as often as I like now, and I might even decide not to buy them after all. Although I think I’d find it hard not to have Woodpigeon’s ‘Death by Ninja (A Love Song)’ on my ipod.

It’s easy!

The more technically challenged amongst you might be thinking that there’s a large hurdle between you and this Promised Land of Digital Delights: downloading the software. Don’t worry for a second, it’s a cinch! Go to the website, choose the free option, follow the very easy steps and with a decent Broadband connection you’ll be up and running in about 5 minutes or less.

Be your own DJ

Spotify also allows you to share music with your friends. You can create playlists and send them to anyone else you know who uses it, which gives you plenty of incentive to encourage your mates to join up (apart from those who might inflict dodgy tunes on you of course). A clever twist is that you or they can change any playlist while they’re being played, so you can collaborate with like-minded friends and hold your own virtual festival.

The end for the ipod?

I’ve heard and read it suggested that Spotify could kill off the ipod: tales of people who’ve left their little black (white or garish-coloured) box of tricks untouched for days at a time in favour of the unrivalled variety on offer from the Swedish streaming sensation. I doubt it myself, mainly because there are so many situations where an mp3 player is so more versatile than lugging a laptop around with you. However, if the clever folk at Spotify ever find a way of making this thing mobile and providing truly portable access to their infinite playlist, it could be a whole different story.

In the meantime, I’m like a kid in a sweetshop of sounds, totally mesmerised by the vast array of treasures to be sampled.

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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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