More albums from last year: “Emily Alone” by Florist

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Florist’s career to date has been one of reduction and refinement, taking their gentle, country inflected minimalism and paring it back ever further with each successive release. The busy percussion of their early records gave way to a calmer, more folk based sound on their last LP If Blue Could Be Happiness; now on Emily Alone, they’ve stripped that down to a largely solitary guitar, and the result is this series of sparse, beautifully sombre folk confessionals. With the arrangements as light as they are, much of the atmosphere grows out the hypnotic, circular frameworks which underpin the songs. But it’s in Emily Sprague’s lost, searching vocals that the mood of this album is truly captured.

What stands out about Emily Alone is the isolation that it depicts. So much of it feels like a quest for meaning, but this is rarely sought in the company of others. Instead, Sprague either turns inwards, searching for an elusive self knowledge, or looks to the natural world for guidance. Opener “As Alone” sets the mood, where a cyclic guitar figure provides the only backing to her controlled, mournful voice as she strives to make sense of the departure of a loved one. Here, comfort comes from an array of snapshots, which switch between ideas about the natural order and flashes of physical connection, though as she points out earlier in the song, the latter are “just memories now”. “I Also Have Eyes” feels more urgent and disturbed, with Sprague’s jittery strum augmented by a haunting, almost dissonant organ. Here, she seems so disconnected from day to day living that an encounter with another person becomes an utterly alien experience, to the point where she questions whether it even happened at all. But her calm injunction to ‘go inside your mind, find the void and stare it down” returns her to composure and, throughout the album, inner space feels like the more important territory to control, with human relations taking a distant second place.

That isn’t to say that it’s entirely solitary; there are intimate moments from time to time, such as on M“, where Sprague takes some joy from a lover’s proximity over the calm, muted piano chords. But even then, one doesn’t sense that she’s losing herself in romance; when she states, ‘the world’s hanging over me / the glow keeps me company”,  it sounds more like she’s taking a brief respite from the darkness than anything more positive. Her kinship with nature seems more substantial, but has its ambiguities too. The warm, unusually bright “Celebration” embraces the void of extinction in “Earth, fire, water, wind”, welcoming it as a fitting end to Sprague’s sleep early, wake early” solitude. But she finds it harder to take comfort on “Ocean’s Arms”, where the power of the waves leaves her sometimes happy, sometimes devastated, as she contemplates herself in the face of them. In truth, for all her obsession with the natural world and its cycles and endings, it never actually feels like she finds an understanding of her place within it all. But one also never senses that this invalidates the idea; as she sings on “Shadow Bloom”, “Do you really want to know the thing you spend your life trying to find?”

The thing that Emily Alone recalls to me most is the isolation of long term illness; an existence where your life becomes so far removed from the ordinary pace of the world that one is forced to reevaluate your position to it. That kind of separation is obviously felt in Sprague’s words, but her music’s stillness and lack of clutter is also in the same spirit, as are the unnerving minor chords and odd elements that seem to drift in from the background without warning. The album represents a world where the removal of extras makes you notice what was always there to begin with; this can initially feel calm and relaxing, but eventually becomes dominant, demanding and ultimately quite scary. In terms of atmosphere, the only thing it reminds me of is perhaps Grouper’s haunted Ruins LP,  but it’s an imperfect comparison: whereas Ruins is shy in its separation, Emily Alone, despite its discomforts, stands proudly apart. But whether you can relate to it as an accompaniment to the silence and shadows, or view it as a window into a different world entirely, it’s a remarkable album and one that demands to be heard.

Old CD – “i” by The Magnetic Fields

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‘Life really is too short to listen to all 69 of the 69 Love Songs. There’s 69 of them, it’s a fucking hassle.’ Up until recently, this had been my full assessment of the career of The Magnetic Fields, and to the extent that the 69 Love Songs really does have 69 songs on it (fucks sake!), I still feel pretty good about it. But there are other ways into their back catalogue and, though many are fraught with difficulties both similar and otherwise, i really is a much easier and more rewarding listen. A fine record that clocks in at mere 40 odd minutes, it seems too good to be true. In reality, that’s only the beginning.

I imagine that i displays a lot of the things that people hold against Stephen Merritt. It is self-consciously clever in a way that wears its learning quite literally on its sleeve (in the way that every song title starts with the letter ‘i’ and they’re all arranged in alphabetical order). Fundamental to that is how much he enjoys subverting both musical and lyrical conventions, moving from pseudo-classical to playful acoustic strums to creeping lounge jazz without signposts, poking gentle fun at the styles through the mannered arrangements and his tongue in cheek vocals.

But while such an endlessly self-referential routine could quickly become very annoying, it works, I think, for two reasons. One is that Merritt has a genuine love for everything that he pastiches here, which makes for great songs rather than pointless exercises; the flashy trills and daft fairytale references of “In An Operetta” gain their charm by coming from a clear place of affection, while the sleazy nightclub crawl of “Is This What They Used To Call Love?” stalks out a darker, Scott Walker-style territory rather than some kind of club singer cliché. But I think the main reason that he pulls it off is that Merritt doesn’t want to make this hard intellectual work anyway; he wants you to have fun. And we do.

Love is a frequent subject, treated in a throwaway style which only seems to raise its impact. On the glorious “If There’s Such A Thing As Love”, Merritt questions love’s reality, but uses that to express the fun of it in a wonderfully uninhibited way, writ even larger by the song’s jaunty, none-too-serious air. Elsewhere, the bouncing semi-disco of “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend’ seems at first to be fuelled by betrayal, but then Merritt hedges his bets, singing “Love or not, I’ve always got ten guys on who I can depend”. This contradictory nature runs through much of i, with the whole concept feeling like a hall of mirrors, where you’re not sure how seriously to take anything at all. “I Wish I Had An Evil Twin” takes this a step further, a beautifully abstract piece of chamber pop which sketches out all the bad urges he’d like to deflect onto an alter ego,  after which he claims that “I’d get no blame and feel no shame, cos evil’s not my cup of tea”.

But in many ways, all this feels like a set up for the album’s magnificent closer; “It’s Only Time” is a love song of such sublime earnestness and beauty that it could well be that the previous 35 minutes was simply a cunning exercise to set it into context. Though Merritt continues with his theatrical delivery, “It’s Only Time” replaces the knowing comedy with an aching romanticism, all the more poignant for the clever games that precede it. The close of the song is desperately beautiful, as Merritt repeatedly asks “Marry me” over the chiming piano motif, each note dropping like a grain of sand into the eternal hourglass. It’s somehow redolent of snowfall and endings, but with the genuine promise of a heaven still to come.

i may for the most part be a bit affected and silly, but its execution is never dumb. Every note and word is carefully considered, every joke and over-emphasis contributes to a greater emotional experience, and every song is a balance of forces that ultimately makes the whole into more than the sum of its parts. I wish I could be bothered to listen to more Magnetic Fields, but having found one record so very good, I don’t really need another one. It feels like there’s enough here to last me a lifetime.

Albums from last year – “Bad Wiring” by Jeffrey Lewis and The Voltage

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For all his achievements in and outside music, Jeffrey Lewis is probably best known as the master of smart lo-fi, so it’s interesting that his first set of new songs since 2015 finds him branching out a little. There’s still plenty of his trademark folk-punk here, but there’s psych pop and oddly bug-eyed new wave too, and there’s also a more varied and refined production, which makes this feel like a step beyond the likes of 2009’s polished but predictable ‘Em Are Eye. On the other hand, aside from the oddly grainy “In Certain Orders”, Lewis’s motormouth delivery and witty, nervous lyrics tend to ensure that Bad Wiring sounds just like, well, a Jeffrey Lewis album; it isn’t really so full of surprises as all that.

However, regarding the lyrics, the accent is much more on the bleak than usual, and if I’m honest I’m not always entirely on board with it. At his best, Lewis’s musings on the emptiness of existence have been moderated by his keen sense of humour and melody, but one senses that on Bad Wiring, he’s sometimes barely managing to hold back the tide of misery at all. This doesn’t especially make for bad writing, but he does on occasion feel oddly subdued; “Til Question Marks Are Told” finds Lewis’s grey pessimism submerged in an acoustic wash that can sound gorgeously wistful if you’re in the right mood for it, whilst at other times just feels entirely cheerless. Elsewhere, the heartbreaking “Where Is The Machine?” manages to find a more human angle, with Lewis daydreaming of grandiose machines that might just be able to fight thefew lousy feelings” he’s struggling to deal with, as reassuring voices in the background attempt to shore him up. But his drift into grim abstractions and funereal accompaniments make some of these songs a difficult listen, prodding at long open wounds in a way that feels distinctly self indulgent.

There is some cheer to be found on Bad Wiring though, especially on ebullient opener “Exactly What Nobody Wanted” and the wonderful single “LPs”, with its wheezing, cheap organ and fun call and response. Both of these focus on the joys of outsider culture and his sheer enthusiasm for, respectively, art that no one else likes and records that no one else wants, make it clear that this is where Lewis’s heart still lies. And as well as that, there’s also the (increasingly obligatory) song about an animal (on this occasion “Dogs Of My Neighbourhood”), which, as ever, goes over far more enjoyably than it really ought to. But, often on more ostensibly upbeat efforts like “My Girlfriend Doesn’t Worry” and “Except For The Fact That It Isn’t”, his grim jokes don’t really land in the same way that they used to, with the usual rays of hope reduced to an increasingly faint glow. Their “it’s fine, i’m just struggling under the oppressive weight of existence” type lyrical tropes are long time go-to’s in Lewis’s songwriting, but one gets the sense that his depression and extreme anxiety are no longer things he can find much humour in, and the difference from previous records is palpable. 

That’s not to say that Bad Wiring isn’t a good album because, despite its flaws, it really is. Jeffrey Lewis is still a great songwriter and, more than anything, one gets a fuller understanding of his craft at work: by shedding the sweeteners from his usual themes, he leaves his worldview exposed in all its bleak hopelessness, and the results are actually a bit of a shock. Sometimes it feels bracing, and certainly if you can relax into the discomfort and fear behind much of this record, there’s a great deal to relate to on it. But the sheer crushing misery of parts of Bad Wiring can really grind you down if you’re not in the right frame of mind and I have to say that, beyond notions of whether it’s any good or not, it also just worries me a little. If Jeffrey Lewis can no longer laugh in the face of his despair, what hope is there for the rest of us?

 

Favourite Albums of 2019

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If we’re being honest, I’ve left this late. It’s been half done for a week, but illness has intervened, and so I’m pissing about on New Year’s Eve, trying to finish off half arsed reviews that I’d decided were fine a week ago, but that I can now see are glaringly, achingly…not. No matter: I appear to have cobbled something together now, and I suppose that people’s failures are at least as interesting as their successes, if only for those who wish to gloat (please, feel free).

Anyway, convention dictates that I should get these out before the end of the year, so here they are: The Only Memories Favourite Albums of 2019. Just remember: it isn’t my fault. Circumstance has dictated. God dammit!

 

 

Deerhunter –  Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?

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“Call it what you want dear, I call it fear, and I am an expert, laying out brick by brick”… Deerhunter’s eighth LP delved into the horror of the modern world with something of a detached approach, but also an unmistakable whiff of grim satisfaction. Disappear runs largely on disarmingly cheerful power pop, which jars more than a little alongside Bradford Cox’s themes of political violence, the climate crisis and other, more vague forms of futuristic disorder. However, as the LP wears on, the disjointed futurescape of “Detournment” and the insidious, unnerving “Tarnung” make for an increasingly uncomfortable musical experience too, and Cate Le Bon’s semi-baroque production adds what it can to the grotesquerie of the proceedings, on a record where the mood is always a little suspect. Lyrically, Disappear is not a lecture, with Cox making impressionistic observations rather than judgements, and as the gorgeously melancholy piano riff of “Nocturne” drifts off into the distance, one can’t help but feel all the more uncertain about his subjects for the album that precedes it. But what is clear is that Deerhunter remain one of the great bands of the modern era and Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? shows that they’re still perfectly capable of finding strange new angles from which to attack it. 

 

Hannah Cohen – Welcome Home

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It feels a bit wrong listening to this in the middle of winter, with the sound of it so bound up in summery R&B and Cohen’s spring-fresh and folksy classical guitar. But it still pushes all the right buttons even now, bound together by her beautiful, sweetened vocals, the passionate yearning and bitter reminiscences of the songs themselves, and the strong 80s feel of Sam Owens’ production. The melancholy “All I Wanted” is amongst the best songs here, hitting the perfect balance between seduction and resigned desperation, while “Holding On” combines its confessional lyric with a sultry, slightly brooding dance of funk guitar and synth that seems to give away even more. But all across the album, Cohen’s mixture of candour and sun drenched elegance rarely hits a false note, on a record that takes an unlikely combination of retro sounds and works them into something that fits together perfectly.

 

Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs

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Jessica Pratt’s third LP is a step up production wise from its austere predecessors, but somehow it manages to make Pratt’s gentle, meditative folks songs sound more minimal than ever. Much of the usual fingerpicked guitar style is gone, replaced by single strokes of the strings, and augmented by dashes of piano and organ that give it a sombre, church like ambience. Her voice has changed too, becoming ever more strange and childlike, reinforcing the distance of Quiet Signs from more or less anything else released this year, or indeed anything else at all. Songs like the chiming “Poly Blue” and the delicate “This Time Around” are tuneful enough to attract casual listeners, but it’s the scope of the album as a whole that’s most impressive here, a complete work that proudly wears its individuality like a crown.

 

Jeanines – s/t

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Alicia Jeanine sounds like she could be singing these songs from the kitchen sink, but she’s also a dreamer and it’s the combination of those things that appeals most on Jeanines’ debut LP. Wringing stories from the mundane, she wraps them around these rudimentary but perfectly judged songs with ease, turning a set of typically fine Slumberland jangle into something a little bit special. While the scratchy guitars, pounding drums and strikingly catchy melodies are all an important part of Jeanines’ make up, it’s the guileless charm of Alicia’s voice that’s placed front and centre here, and deservedly so. There are so many highlights, but to name a few: the melancholy energy of “You Were Mine” is beautifully poised between romance and heartbreak, the breezy, ringing closer “Wake Up” is a rallying cry in the face of encroaching age, and the wonderfully lively cover of The Siddley’s C86 obscurity “Falling Off Of My Feet Again” hits a sweet spot between joy, bitterness and solid comic misery. To my mind, in these 16 songs, Jeanines delivered the best indiepop record released all year, one that was yearning, tuneful and, most importantly, fun.

 

Lana del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

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Lana’s sixth LP felt more direct and personal than some of her earlier efforts, with the seventies FM rock setting providing a natural arena for her tales of flawed romance and faded glamour. But there was still plenty of melodrama on display, from her expertly overwrought tribute to rock heritage on “The Greatest”, to the epic image of her running about in her nightie, smearing blood all over the walls on “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have”, the last of the stark, fragile trio of piano ballads that close out the album. Never short of splendid, self referential one liners (“Hello, it’s the most famous woman you know on the iPad”), she combines them with a lush musical approach that accentuates but never overstates the waves of emotion that relentlessly roll in. By turns soothing, sultry, overblown, understated, desperately funny and deeply, deadly serious, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” was one of the most human records released all year, a treatise on love, fame and happiness that feels all the more honest for its theatrical leanings.

 

Mattiel – Satis Factor

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It’s a bold move to put your worst song first up on an album, but, once the grinding dirge of ’Til The Moment Of Death’ was passed over, “Satis Factory” was a cracker from start to finish. From the skipping country of “Blisters’ to the thrillingly fierce blues rock of ‘Berlin Weekend”, there’s a strong retro feel to this LP throughout. But Mattiel’s powerful, Nancy Sinatra style holler cut through everything with an ultra-sharp blade, and her themes of self assertion, seizing the moment and questioning power were reassuringly timeless. And in “Keep The Change”, she created one of the most memorable songs of the year, a breathless rush to follow her dreams that manages to feel at once energetically questing, and yet somehow wistful for the road not yet travelled. My favourite record of the summer, and an album that keeps on giving still.

 

Repulsive Woman – Relief

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Millie Lovelock’s solo debut was a strange and beautiful affair. Though undeniably gloomy and withdrawn in its outlook, it still felt oddly uplifting, as Lovelock runs through all the ways she holds herself in, but paradoxically gives much of herself up to be understood in the telling. Her voice, tremulous and sweet but with a desperate edge, is the perfect vehicle for these tales of reserve, candour and the fraying no man’s land that lurks in between. But the atmosphere of the whole is also central here, the grinding rhythms and sudden bursts of melancholy forming a relentless, hypnotic sweep that runs through the whole album, keeping the listener hooked. There are moments on Relief that are almost indelible in the memory; the glacial, heartbreaking violin solo on “Rough Around The Edges” for instance, or the dam break of  “Overripe”, where Lovelock emerges from behind her emotional reserve to finally make a connection. It’s a tough listen, but a soothing one too for anybody who ever wanted to cry out and thought better of it.

 

Rosie Tucker – Never Not

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It’s a welcome symptom of women’s current dominance in indie rock that this year’s Great American Record didn’t come from some hairy dude in a lumberjack shirt, but instead this sweet voiced Californian with a fine line in smart wordplay. Rosie Tucker’s 2nd album was a dream from start to finish, alternating between fierce, shimmering guitar rock and a more genial, skipping pop music. There are moments of good cheer, most notably the woozy fun times of “Gay Bar”, but on the whole, Never Not is an album of rocky emotional territory, where romance begets regret and repressed emotion comes tumbling out hard. The growling, sightly unhinged “Habit” finds Tucker at fever pitch, but it’s perhaps “Lauren”, her remarkable anthem to friendship, that best emphasises the good natured emotional honesty that is such an important part of her appeal. And I guarantee that no other artist this year sang the word ‘motherfucker’ in such a wonderful, down-home manner. Do you need more?

 

Shana Cleveland – Night Of The Worm Moon

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I’ve only ever liked the odd song by Shana Cleveland’s dayjob band, La Luz, so Night Of The Worm Moon was both enchanting and completely unexpected. A kind of American Gothic folk, it takes its lead more from Night Of The Hunter than any more obvious musical reference points, with an atmosphere pitched somewhere between a stoned daydream and a terrifyingly real nightmare. Cleveland weaves eerie, magical dreamscapes around her intricate guitar playing, most often supported by a growling double bass and a wash of synths, while the lyrics are mainly interested in other realms, restless spirits and portents of doom and disaster. The title track, with its matter of fact, first person portrayal of a spectral attack, is perhaps the most intense and jaw dropping thing on the album, but this is a record that has kept me rapt from start to finish many times this year. Quite literally spellbinding.

 

Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

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Natalie Merring’s fourth LP as Weyes Blood continued the turn towards 70s soft rock that had begun on 2016’s Front Row View To Earth, but with the melodrama turned up to maximum volume; the orchestrations were more lush, the choruses more anthemic, the despair more crushing than ever. The quality of the arrangements in particular felt entirely new for her, moving away from her Laurel Canyon folk sound into something altogether more lush and imperious. “Movies”, by turns a synthetic watery grave and a soaring tribute to the power of the imagination, stood out as remarkable, but the romantic, nervous singalong of “Everyday” was more representative, channeling Abba at the height of their dominance to make one of the year’s best singles. Elsewhere, the mythic folk rock of “Wild Time” was another highpoint, and the way that its glorious, winding coda gradually drew the song towards a emotional reckoning both echoed the gloss and ambition of the seventies, but also emphasised a remarkable talent who’s mastery of  songwriting and studio is now reaching a genuine pinnacle. A truly astonishing record by one of the best artists we have today.

Great LPs of 2019: “Quiet Signs” by Jessica Pratt

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The first time I heard Jessica Pratt on the radio, I was convinced that I was listening to some deeply odd relic from the 1950s. Maybe it’s out of step with any period altogether, but there is something about Quiet Signs which feels completely divorced from the rest of the musical world right now. Part of it is in Pratt’s voice, which has evolved over three LPs into a distinctly acquired taste, a kind of soothing, babyish coo, but it’s also a function of its setting in song. You could describe these accompaniments as gently strummed guitars, or late night lounge jazz piano, but that would miss something important. There’s a space in the music: not just quietness, but an ambience that surrounds everything, a richly dense murmur that hovers over the whole record. It’s hard to pin down where it comes from, but there’s a definite presence here.

Picking through individual tracks almost seems beside the point, but it should be said that there are some gorgeous songs on Quiet Signs. The prelude, “Opening Night”, is a slow deliberate piano instrumental, and while its sparse arrangement and haunting background voice give a hint of what to come, it’s perhaps a little misleading: the album that follows is a much less forbidding place than you might expect. ‘Poly Blue’ is an immediate stand out, a shining ode to Pratt’s lovelorn boy, driven forward by her classical guitar, which chimes throughout the record with an otherworldly ring. “This Time Around” is gentler and even more minimal, with silence hanging in the air between the single strokes of the strings, her dancing vocal holding what little there is together. The lyric, where faith is questioned with a desperate, weary sigh, emphasises the sense of something religious in these pieces, their stillness evoking a sombre, church-like atmosphere.

Lyrically, love and belief are frequent themes,  but the treacly nature of Pratt’s voice can make it hard to know exactly what she’s addressing. “As The World Turns” is almost entirely incomprehensible to the human ear, though close inspection of the lyric sheet finds a dark sense of foreboding, eloquently expressed but difficult to penetrate. On “Here My Love’”, she endeavours to “try to keep my worries safe from where they’ll do you harm”, and generally there’s something touchingly nurturing about Pratt’s view of romance, nervously devoted, concerned and protective. And despite their lack of clarity, there’s enough soft power in Pratt’s vocals to make them the deserved focal point of the record. The way her voice swoops around on “Here My Love” speaks as loudly as her well articulated hopes and worries, and the gently bobbing harmonies on “Crossing” add as much to its sense of baroque iciness as the Bach-like arpeggios of the guitar.

 

 

Whilst on the surface, not so much seems to have changed across her three LPs, Quiet Signs does feel like something of a break from the past. The frequent but underplayed use of piano, flute and organ make for a more evocative experience than before, and where on previous records, the atmosphere generally grew out of the austerity of the songs, this feels like something that’s been constructed to conjure a specific mood across the entire album: dark rooms and candlelight, romance and regret, belief and doubt. While I’m hesitant to say that it’s Jessica Pratt’s best record, it’s certainly feels like her most realised and complete work. Quiet Signs is wrought from so little, but it sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard.

 

The Year In Song(s)

 

 

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The second annual Only Memories retrospective has been a sordid and shabby affair. Threats have been made. Money has changed hands. The bribery has been off the scale to be honest, certainly compared to last year, where the only rewards to be had were a single crumpled tenner from the pocket of Frankie Cosmos (who offered more in pity than anything else). I blame Lana’s inclusion, the mansion and the Porche really weren’t necessary but they have been much appreciated. What’s more, they secured her a much coveted spot in the top 25 songs that literally 12 people on the internet are waiting for, fingernails bitten, sedatives at the ready to cope with the unbearable excitement, finally presented here in no particular order. See if you can guess who didn’t have to pay…

 

Deerhunter – What Happens To People?

Old lady, cover your branches, winter is coming, beware”… Deerhunter managed to make the coming apocalypse sound both inevitable and almost seductive this year, and nowhere more so than on “What Happens To People?” A nervous, haunting piano figure runs through the verses, as Bradford Cox finds ever more laconic ways of answering the title phrase, while the chorus steps back into a kind of rarified, prog like bliss. Glacial, ominous and beautiful.

 

Jessica Pratt – Poly Blue

Discovering Jessica Pratt for the first time this year was a revelation, like hearing something astonishing beamed out of an alternate version of the 1950s. “Poly Blue” is the best of the “Quiet Signs” LP: delicate and melodic, its perfection grows out of its simplicity, but also the fact that it sounds completely unlike anything else around.

 

Weyes Blood – Everyday

Grandiose in the very best way, “Everyday” was the highpoint of this year’s all conquering “Titanic Rising’ LP. A tale of romantic vulnerability, its power comes from its sheer emotional clout, channelling the melodrama of Abba’s classic hits with its lush harmonies and pounding piano. The world is finally catching up with the talent of Natalie Merring and “Everyday” shows exactly why.

 

H Grimace – She’s In A State

H Grimace released just one song this year but they made it count, with this austere, brittle yet subtly tuneful post punk masterpiece. They wear their seriousness on their sleeves but “She’s In A State’ never feels pompous. Instead, this is a perfect balance of art and pop, a bruised, ecstatic triumph from one of our best young bands.

 

Big Fan – Type Quickly

Gorgeous country pop reminiscent of Evan Dando at his most wistful, this tale of a friendship ruined by becoming something more was my favourite debut of the year. Warm and autumnal yet with a deep sorrow just beneath the surface, it’s a song I can never play just once.

 

Repulsive Woman – Rough Around The Edges

There’s something about the restraint in “Rough Around The Edges” that reveals so much, its sombre beauty so heavily bound up in what it holds back. Millie Lovelock’s solo project came of age in spellbinding fashion this year, and this song about the masks we wear and what they reveal was the most breathtaking moment of all.

 

Shana Cleveland – Night Of The Worm Moon

It’s the space in “Night Of The Worm Moon” which is its most powerful instrument. There’s so much going on here, but on close examination it seems to dissolve into the ether, leaving little more than a simple circular riff, that growling double bass, Cleveland’s matter of fact vocal and a tale worthy of MR James at his most brutal. Hauntingly, terrifyingly brilliant.

 

Hannah Cohen – Holding On

Hannah Cohen’s unlikely mix of folk and R&B created a beguiling summer sound that was easy to get lost in this year. “Holding On” was the most beautiful pop moment on her Welcome Home LP, with Cohen allowing herself  to fall in love for real on record, exposing all her romantic dreams and fears over the gentle waves of blissed out exotica.

 

Big Thief – UFOF

A mysterious, winding folk song, the odd twists and turns of the verse resolve into a chorus so pretty that it could almost be pop music, if the whole thing didn’t sound so completely out of step with everything else going on. Adrienne Lenker’s voice sounds more withdrawn and intense than ever, and the result is a stunningly memorable single that I still can’t shake all these months later.

 

Guided By Voices – Angelic Weirdness

Guided By Voices seemed not just unstoppable this year, but positively rampant. Warp and Woof, the second of their three (!) 2019 LPs, was another scattershot mix of heavy riffing and odd, mercurial asides that seemed to float in from other records entirely and leave just as fast. “Angelic Weirdness” was one of the many high points, its uncanny, almost symphonic sound hanging around just long enough to thrill and unsettle in equal measure.

 

Jeffrey Lewis and The Voltage – LPs

Jeffrey Lewis announced his return this year with a touching tribute to “the disease” of record collecting, which makes a lot of typically on-point references for fellow sufferers like myself. The Voltage provide more than enough cheap organ rush to counter Lewis’s frenetic strum and the result is one of his finest songs, something that turns the joy of discovery and the pain of the price gougers into a feel-good anthem, with plenty of sparkling wit too.

 

Jeanines – You Were Mine

Barely scraping over 1 minute 30, not a moment is wasted on one of the best songs from Jeanines excellent debut LP. The bittersweet chord progressions and bouncing jangle underpin a tale of romantic hope tainted with regret, a feeling of trying to capture something that could get away in an instant. Alicia’s everywoman voices sounds captivating, heartbreaking and entirely, desperately in earnest on this absolute gem of a song.

 

Rosie Tucker – Lauren

“Lauren” was 2019’s great tribute to the power of friendship: simple, touching guitar pop, propelled by charm, wit and a killer chorus. A song that never seems to lose its impact, the sheer spirit of goodwill caught up in these grooves could soundtrack a million reluctant goodbyes and even more tearful reunions. “Quiet kinds of people do the most important shouting” sings Tucker, and it was her sweet but fierce holler that made the case for that this year

 

Mattiel – Keep The Change

An ode to throwing caution aside and taking the consequences, “Keep The Change”s glorious abandon plays out through every second of the song; the nursery rhyme glockenspiel; the relentless two-four beat; the joyous handclaps; and, most of all, Mattiel’s powerful yell cutting through everything. If there was a sound of the summer in 2019, this was it.

 

Lana Del Rey – Love Song

Lana’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” LP was a remarkable achievement and “Love Song” is, for me, the pinnacle. Consisting of not much more than a simple piano, some subtle synths and a gorgeous, dancing melody, the sheer intensity of emotion in the chorus makes me well up every time, despite all those melodramatic Lana touches that still half make me question whether it’s all a big put on. Eight years on from “Video Games”, she seems to have come something approaching full circle here; she’s older now though, maybe slightly less broken and, just possibly, a little happier.

 

Comet Gain – Bad Night At The Mustache

Fittingly enough as I’m writing this bit, I’m also grimly waiting to see if the Tories are going to be returned for a fourth successive term. Comet Gain’s autopsy of the austerity era is brutal and haunting, though not without hope. And in its remembrance of “a tower block full of screaming ghosts”, the furious recitation of a decades worth of savage villains and their dull-witted accomplices, and the general slow burning, rain-flecked fury that runs throughout the song, it reminds me why Comet Gain are such a wonderful band and why some things are worth fighting for.

 

The Leaf Library – Bright Seas

Bright Seas’ is a beautifully melodic highpoint on The Leaf Library’s “The World Is A Bell” album, a moment of easy bliss amongst the more involved experiments and drones.  Full of fresh faced, bustling rhythms and bittersweet strings, it is ostensibly an ode to the ocean and its inhabitants, but the lyrics also play with something else, resignation to a lifetime of being thrown around on the tall black tidal waves of fate. “Bright Seas” proved that The Leaf Library could make simple pop music as affecting and memorable as anybody when they wanted to.

 

Vanishing Twin – Magician’s Success

The Broadcast/Stereolab sound has become a commonplace refuge to add some depth to unimaginative indie acts in recent years, but Vanishing Twin are one of the few bands to take it somewhere new. “Magician’s Success” hangs on the kind of woozy strings that the ‘Lab made their own round about the time of “Cybele’s Reverie”, but they turn it into an anthem of warm summer bliss that can still spread happiness around on a cold winter’s day.

 

Hand Habits – Can’t Calm Down

It’s taken me until just recently to see the merits of Hand Habits’ softer, more conciliatory second album, but the greatness of “Can’t Calm Down” struck me straight away when it was released back in February. The moody verse finds Meg sounding nervous and scared, but the tension magically resolves in a moment as the chorus washes over the listener with warm waves of love.

 

Billie Eilish – Xanny

Warm, woozy and strange as its tranquilized subjects, Eilish’s rejection of party culture expresses an almost god like detachment, as she responds to her fucked up peers with an aloof, dismissive wave of the hand. The effect is a kind of queazy lullaby, with Eilish as queen of all she surveys, watching everyone disintegrate around her as she plans a better life for herself. Given how things have ended up, it’s fair to say she made the right choice.

 

Muna – Number One Fan

Like most Muna songs,“Number One Fan” translates painful emotions into thrilling pop music, with the lyrics contrasting the importance of self belief with the doubts and depression that make it hard to sustain. Naturally, it’s a complete banger, full of slick moves and strong 80s energy, with the staccato bassline and throbbing synth riff burning their way into the brains of impressionable listeners everywhere

 

Patience – No Roses

Roxanne Clifford”s synth pop project is a world away from Veronica Falls, but “No Roses” is as gorgeous a song as she’s ever written. Bouncing analogue synths and swirling patterns of melody form its basis, but it’s Clifford’s wry, slightly detached but always engaged presence on vocals that makes “No Roses” in particular, and Patience in general, so irresistible.

 

Jane Weaver – Slow Motion (Loops Variation)

Jane Weaver’s transition to spacey electronica over her last two records has come with a certain detachment at times, but like much of her best material, “Slow Motion” has a squishy emotional core. A song that functions as a reminder that the world doesn’t have to be a bad place, its power flows from its unlikely optimism, but also the contrast between the vulnerability of Weaver’s vocal, the melancholy edge of its synthetic sweep and the irresistible drive of the machines.

 

Ex-Vöid – Only One

Formed from the ashes of Joanna Gruesome last year, Ex-Vöid’s second single is even better than their debut. “Only One” manages to build on their illustrious past, taking JG’s infectious jangle and infusing it with enough elements of AOR and Big Star that it sounds like it ought to be coming out of an AM radio speaker sometime in the mid-seventies. With more hooks than a cloakroom, “Only One’ made a last gasp dash for single of the year.

 

Jay Som – Superbike

Melina Duterte’s vocal seemed wispier than ever and twice as memorable, on a track pitched somewhere between Cocteau Twins and the kind of lush indie AOR that’s she’s made her own in recent times. With her sweet, yearning voice and the glorious, stuttering shimmer of the riff, “Superbike” felt like a step up in a game that started four years ago in her bedroom and has deservedly taken her to the edge of stardom.

So that’s all for now, I’ll do some albums soon enough as well. All there is left to say now, on the verge of a period of grim semi-dictatorship for the UK, is that in music, there was at least one thing to be thankful for this year, and that I hope that somebody finds something in this list that affects them in the way these songs have impacted me.

 

Great LPs of 2019: “Never Not Never Not Never Not” by Rosie Tucker

rosie tucker

 

I’ve returned to Rosie Tucker’s fine second album a lot since it was released back in March, but I’ve found it difficult to pin down my thoughts about it. Possibly that’s just because I couldn’t be bothered to think about it very hard, but there’s something here that feels enigmatic.  There’s often a striking, ‘American rock’ toughness about Never Not, with its knotty riffs, shimmering guitars and hard, angular edges, but there’s also a fresh melodic joy which shines through, sometimes at unexpected moments. The lyrics also face in two directions: Tucker twists words with ease and delights in using smart images, but at centre she works with powerful raw emotions that hit with a sucker punch. Capable of being fierce and vulnerable, often in the same moment, it’s full of contradictions but it all sounds so simple.

The more tuneful indiepop numbers provides the most obvious thrills, but often there’s more going on than can be seen at first glance. The charming waltz-time skip through “Spinster Cycle” trades off of its gorgeous melody and subtle, powerful dynamics, but it’s the delicate shifts in the words which add an extra level. Playing on the contrast between a hazy romantic and their hard headed lover as they do a late night laundry run, the symbols of flowers, money and dirty clothes are stitched into an elegant pattern, winding its way throughout the song til it reaches its eventual, unhappy conclusion. The sunny but bittersweet “Lauren” is simpler, but better still. A celebration of a departing friend, Tucker generously spells out her qualities over the clipped opening riff before launching into its emotionally charged, touchingly selfish chorus (“But who’s gonna hear this song thru the wall and say ‘don’t change a thing, play it JUST – LIKE – THAT – YEAH!’”) that lands hard every time. A song that frequently leaves me in tears, “Lauren” is probably my favourite of the year, a remarkable anthem to the things we ought to say more often.

 

 

Tucker’s voice is arguably her most powerful instrument. Flexible enough to hit the head-spinning high notes when she’s “talking serious” on “Spinster Cycle”, it has a sweet, folksy tone which charms from the first lines of the album onwards. But elsewhere, tracks like the growling, lopsided “Habit” show it at its most unguarded and aggressive. The catchy refrain tells us that she has ‘a bad habit of holding my tongue’, but this breaks down on the breathtaking semi-spoken sections, as the words she’s never been able to say to her ex finally come pouring out in torrents of cracked emotion. This marriage between sweet and sour also comes out on the wistful “Shadow Of A Doubt”, as the endearingly conversational vocal takes a sharp turn in the chorus, Tucker’s voice quivering with feeling as she vows, “find me an match and I will burn the motherfucker down”. There’s something  about the unexpected turn from cute to fierce that seems typical of the whole album, one which surprises in terms of mood time and again.

 

 

Swaggering closer “Pablo Neruda” finds Tucker reflecting about a long term partner, “I still think you’re cute after all that we’ve been through”It’s a rare piece of good cheer on a record where it feels like we’ve already been through plenty by then. Never Not is much more often caught up in grim struggles of heartbreak and desperation, with the general mood best described on “Habit”, where she spits at her departed lover, “God, it is so hard growing up”. However, despite this it never feels like a boring grind through someone else’s misery. This is in part because of the fine production, which balances a fresh, commercial sound with something harsher, again more capable of cutting deep for the contrast. But mainly it’s because of Tucker’s wonderful vocal performances, the playful dances with words, the aching melodies and, most of all, her effortless relatability, the feeling that she’s expressing something that burns inside many of us, but that few could release with such art and candour.