It starts with a familiar voice, reassuring and full of the characteristic swagger that Iknow from much time spent with his previous records: “Come on down from that cloud and cast your fears aside…” It’s a voice that feels calmly authoritative, a quality more welcome than ever in these dark times, as it opens Deerhunter’s eighth LP. Having missed out on them for a long time, last year I finally connected with their album before last, ‘Monomania‘, a fractious, chaotic and brilliant record. That LP was full of messy garage showpieces mixed with elegant lounge-pop; 6 years down the line, it’s clear that the latter has won out in terms of the current Deerhunter sound. “Disappeared” is a far more measured record, profiting from an easy melodic charm, but it’s also able to move into unusual places without really breaking its stride: you often don’t really notice the difference until you stop to think about where you’ve ended up. Lyrically it eschews the personal, instead feeling like a guide through the horrors of the modern age; Bradford Cox’s discomforting vignettes are like parables, oblique sketches of a world that’s rapidly spinning beyond the control of its inhabitants. But little of this seems to faze the band: however unnerving these depictions are, they never lose their composure in the face of it all.
It begins on extremely solid ground. “Death In Midsummer” opens with a metronomic harpsichord riff and Cox’s assured vocal, before the song kicks in, feeding off of the slippery processed drums to produce a sickly momentum of its own. Cox is singing about the end of an age, likely our own, a time of unclear value where the only thing that’s certain is that it’s “fading“. Further doom is offered throughout the first side, including political violence (“No One’s Sleeping”) and environmental breakdown (“Element’), but the album never gets too despondent; Cox generally positions himself on the sidelines as an impartial observer and his commentary tends to be detached and interested, rather than angry. Musically, “Disappear” sounds lush and dramatic, with the recurring harpsichord also adding a baroque flourish here and there. It’s occasionally nervous too, especially on the gorgeous “What Happens To People?” (“they quit holding on” comes the laconic answer), with its jittery piano riff and expansive, windswept chorus. Elsewhere,”Plains” offers clipped, summery guitars tempered by blasting choruses, producing one of the most obviously accessible songs Deerhunter have ever recorded (to my knowledge). For a band watching the world go down in flames, it sometimes seems a lot more cheerful in here than you’d imagine was very likely.
Most of the genuinely odd material comes through the second half. “Détournement” sees Cox electronically modulate his vocals to create an unnerving, alien-like effect as he greets various nations with a mock friendly, half menacing patter (“Good morning to Japan and the eastern sunrise over these majestic cliffs, and the vultures circling”); all the while a disjointed, piano-based track grinds on in the background, sometimes interrupted by slightly nauseous waves of guitar. Lockett Pundt, usually a reliably tuneful foil for Cox, instead weighs in here with the distinctly creepy “Tarnung”, where his voice drifts in a ghostly fashion across a plain of marimbas and sax, with the whole thing coming off like Steve Reich straying onto the second side of “Heroes”. Closer “Nocturne” is more familiar but still unsettles, with Cox’s voice cutting out randomly throughout, straining to be understood at times as it fights against the silences. By the end, the song has evolved into a lengthy coda, all sparkling synths cascading over the gloomy, chiming piano, which is eventually left alone to come to a stuttering halt. It’s perhaps the album at its most characteristic, distinctly moody but with a grandeur that’s intoxicating.
It’s an appropriate end for a record that sounds both restrained and opulent, with a vision at its core grounded in pessimism, but which somehow rarely feels overtly depressing. As such, it’s very much an album for our times, where the need to step back from the horror is often difficult to act upon, but also all too necessary. Importantly though, it would be a great record whenever it had been released. While many seem to be of the opinion that “‘Halcyon Digest” was the band’s highpoint, for a latecomer like me, “Why Haven’t We Already Disappeared?” offers further evidence that Deerhunter were only just getting into their stride back then. They remain a band who are still both refining and redefining their sound, hitting on new angles and mining further glories. This record reflects that continuing evolution, which is very much a part of what makes it amongst their best.
I’ve kinda given up on writing about new music at the moment: it seems to me like the more new records I buy, the harder it is for me to get into them. It takes weeks for something to click with me at the best of times, and recently I’ve been throwing money at records and CDs with increasing frequency and decreasing enjoyment. This is a by-product of personal anxiety (buying records gives me a shot of good cheer for a moment or two, before the reality sinks in that I haven’t really changed anything), but ironically not one conducive to actually enjoying the bloody things. But there are bands that I cling to like comfort blankets, their sound and worldview reassuringly familiar, and LCD Soundsystem is one of them.
James Murphy has always been a master of tying real and heartfelt emotions up with an self-conscious wink, and ‘This Is Happening” is perhaps the high water mark of his schtick. It’s the moment where the state of his disordered world is revealed most clearly, and yet also with an endearing and surprising sense of fun amidst the despair. Musically, it isn’t a quantum leap forward from previous releases, but it does move things on from their celebrated second LP, ‘Sound Of Silver“, sidelining some of the band’s post punk leanings and pulling “Remain In Light” era Talking Heads further into the mix, alongside Murphy’s longstanding disco and David Bowie obsessions. It’s a record that shimmers like the glitterball it could so easily play out under, but it still rewards close listening, with plenty of smart answers to difficult questions.
It’s opening is deceptively modest. “Dance Yourself Clean” initially finds Murphy calmly mumbling a lyric about the difficulties of friendship over a minimal one note synth accompaniment, before a slo-mo explosion of synth colour runs into the established LCD disco shuffle. Murphy’s vocal, ecstatic by this point, combines the joy of the dancefloor with fears that hedonism doesn’t actually solve very much (“Wait until the weekend / And we can make our bad dreams come true”). It’s ambitious, ambiguous, intelligent and also just plain dumb fun, and the album gets better and better from there.
David Bowie is, as ever, a touchstone: “Drunk Girls” recasts ‘White Light/White Heat’ through the prism of the ‘Berlin’ era, while ‘All I Want’ feels like a disconcerting rewrite of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, detailing what happens later on when the fun stops, and featuring some wailing guitar frippery and Enoesque harmonies. Lyrically, Murphy deals with relationships in a more earnest way than on previous records: “I Can Change” initially seems to celebrate love, but then takes a dark, desperate turn, emphasised by its claustrophobic early 80s sound. But while many old styles are re-engineered in forceful new combinations, most often it’s the jittery, forcefully ironic worldview of the lyrics that clearly make this an LCD Soundsystem record, and a great one at that. “Pow Pow” in particular, sees Murphy spit out a lengthy scenester meditation that could easily have sounded pompous in less skilful hands, but the distracted, matter of fact delivery and hilarious call and response sections mean that it comes off as something much more self effacing and entertaining. The twinkling synths which dominate much of the album meet Talking Heads style percussion and harmonies here, and indeed there’s a whiff of David Byrne about much of the proceedings. But LCD still retain their individual charm: they pass this stuff off as their own quite easily and, though I may be able to spot the joins, I can’t argue with the results.
“You Wanted A Hit” is perhaps the most commercial track, a gorgeous mid-eighties groove underpinning Murphy’s relentless mockery of record company executives, with each successive objection from on high airily dismissed, each attempt to impose a formula met with the band’s intuition as to what makes a record great: “But honestly you must hush / No, honestly, you know too much, So leave us, leave us on our own”. The irony is that, in the end, whilst they never did make genuine “hits” (even back when it was a realistic prospect), Murphy did manage to have the last laugh, as “This Is Happening” became their first top 10 LP on both sides of the Atlantic, something he responded to by promptly breaking up the band to stop them from getting too big (they were later to return with the jagged, US chart topping, “American Dream” LP in 2017). In the end, “Happening” feels like it’s all hits and all artistry at once: the tunes never stop flowing, the beats are always infectious, the one liners both witty and relatable. But nothing is forced, it plays into no one else’s agenda and it always feels like the record they wanted to make. Back in the early 2000s, LCD Soundsystem imagined a melting pot of different genres and lyrical styles; post punk and disco; earnest and ironic; joyous and broken. Managing to sound at once complex and effortless, “This Is Happening” is the pinnacle of that approach, a remarkable achievement that still blazes a trail almost a decade on.
The first time I heard “She’s in a State” was one of those rare moments where you absent-mindedly put on a song by an unknown band, not really expecting much, only to find yourself pulled to attention, breathlessly asking yourself, “what is that?!?” A little investigation reveals them to be an Anglo-Australian post-punk quartet with an excellent LP, “Self Architect” already under their belts, but this is a step up from anything on there. It sounds timeless, one of those songs that feels like it’s part of your DNA, even though you know for certain that you’ve never heard it before. I can’t stop listening to the damn thing.
The pounding rhythm and ringing, ominous guitars of the verse are most obviously reminiscent of “Sister” era Sonic Youth, though contemporaries Drahla also spring to mind. Hannah Gledhill’s semi-spoken word vocals are sometimes hard to understand, but the lyrics that do emerge give a sense of questing and frustration, the repeated refrain, ‘she’s in a state of permanent bliss’ contradicted by a sombre wail in the background.
But the chorus is where it really takes off, as the gorgeous, jangling hook adds an unexpected shot of melody, hinting at something a little more hopeful but just barbed enough to carry the underlying menace of the song. There’s melancholy here, but something resembling happiness as well, as Gledhill’s vocal sets this blissful state within the need to take something good from a difficult world, conceding that ‘you don’t get long for this life”. Her instruction to “close your eyes‘ feels like an invitation to give yourself up to the overwhelming, nervous beauty of the thing, but that’s already a given by this point.
The third verse dissolves into a focused rage of shouting and clatter before the song regains its composure for one last chorus, more clearly showing off the twin poles of anger and hope that power it. Every time it reaches the end, the temptation to press the button and bring it back to the start again is impossible to resist; I just can’t stop listening to it. “She’s in a State’ is my favourite single in an age and, judging by a quick look through their back catalogue, I think I’m going to be listening to H.Grimace for a good while yet. But the rest can wait for now, I need to listen to this again. And again.
Sadly, it has to be said that 2019 has not gotten off to a flying start for me in terms of brilliant new releases; there are a couple of things I’ve enjoyed, but I haven’t yet listened to them enough to venture a fully formed opinion. So instead I’ve decided to go back to Shy Boys second album from last summer, which I got for Christmas and have been playing ever since.
Shy Boys’ stock in trade is a combination of nostalgic power pop and gentle psychedelia, creating a sound that’s both melodic and endearingly delicate. Much of their appeal comes from their use of sophisticated harmonies; here, there are genuine comparisons to The Beach Boys to be made, with the bands’ central trio, brothers Collin and Kyle Rauch and Konor Erving, all chipping in on the multilayered arrangements. This gives many of the songs an added dimension; the sudden rush of their voices as they move into the chorus of “Take The Doggie” makes it a standout moment, and the same can be said of the angelic opening to “Evil Sin’. You can hear the family connection in the vocal blend, but more importantly, there’s a strong feeling of likeminded friends relishing the joy of making music that comes through. Shy Boys lack the assuredness of the Wilson family, and there are occasional wobbles and the odd bum note along the way, but this just adds an unfussy, naive charm to the material and one warms to them all the more for it.
While the lyrics can often be dark, they tend to be tempered with sweetness throughout. There’s a kindly manner on display which comes over at times as quirky (for instance, catchy single “Take The Doggie” details a plan to abduct a pet from their cruel owner), but also often reveals the bruises sustained from living in an unfair world. On “Evil Sin”, Collin Rauch sounds like a small boy learning hard lessons for the first time as he sings a tale of betrayal over money, with his childlike delivery given emphasis by the delicate, harpsichord led whimsy of the music. This sense of boyishness also shows itself in other ways; opener “Miracle Gro” is a mischievous accapella ode to growing dope in the back garden, with its ‘pass the mic’ lead vocal adding to the sense of fun and friendship, alongside the lyrical forbidden pleasures. Elsewhere, we get a sense of Raush as a nice guy struggling to deal with the worst of adult life, though his easy good nature seems to help him get by. “Basement” sees him having to move back into his childhood home, the strain showing through the deceptive tunefulness as he sings “If you wanna know the truth of it, it’s looking grim…Got a wife and a dog and I’m living in my mom’s basement” over the jaunty acoustic backing. The title track is similarly reflective as he deals with relationship breakdown, the hypnotic riff and spare, downbeat tone providing a soothing framework as he nurses his wounds thoughtfully and without bitterness – “It’s been a long time coming, this house was falling down / It can be the end, we’ll split apart and still be friends”
Closer “Champion” provides a more upbeat take on the nostalgic 70s sound that characterises much of the LP, coming on like a rousing TV theme of the era played by bashful teens. The lyrics are as illustrative of their eternal adolescence as anything else here, as Rauch sings “I remember when we were going after school / You took a picture to recall when we grow up / We never would”. But the song is an ode to his ageing mother, again looking squarely at sober truths with a cheerful disposition as Collin offers her support in her elderly years: “It is not enough to make up for wasted time / The shelves collecting dust, the stairs are hard to climb / I’ll be right by your side”. It’s a touching end to the album, again managing to find some positivity in the darkness. Overall, “Bell House” is a fine, emotionally literate record which makes it clear that life is not always a comfortable experience, but also that the warmth of shared endeavour can sometimes help to soften the blows.
Having gone back to some very old releases in my first post of the year, it seems more appropriate to cover something brand new with this one, the debut single by a highly promising band. “Type Quickly” opens with a wistful acoustic guitar figure, before moving onto a lyric depicting the end of a relationship that seems to have had the potential to be more than it was. It’s the yearning in the joint female/male vocals that give the song its peculiar lift, soaring over pounding drums and a downbeat, descending riff which resolves from time to time into a bridge that feels reminiscent of The Lemonheads’ gentler material. Over the course of three minutes, the song manages to build tension within its fairly basic structure; the bridge acts as a reassuring break between the drama of the verses, as it gradually moves towards an urgent, discomforting climax.
In some ways, this seems to have been released a few months late, as the overriding feeling is an autumnal one, but in truth you could listen to this in any month of the year and it would still sound like a classic. I can find out very little about this band as, other than this, the only other things they’ve put out are a few demos on their Bandcamp page. But judging by “Type Quickly” and what little else I’ve heard from them, Big Fan are going to be well worth watching out for over the coming months and years. You might even say that I’m a (ahem) big fan of theirs.
“Type Quickly” by Big Fan is released on the split EP with Head Spell on the 25th of January and is available to buy as a single now.
Every year, piles of new records accumulate in my room, and these are generally the barometer of my musical year. They’re the records that I wait for, get excited about, revel in, am occasionally disappointed by; they’re a large part of the event. But of course they aren’t the only ones. Over time, other LPs emerge from the woodwork, perhaps ones I’m already familiar with but have fallen out of favour, or maybe something I played once, wrote off and forgot about, only for it to be rediscovered years later on after I listened to it anew with fresh ears. And, especially with the advent of cheap second-hand CDs and easy availability on Spotify, often there are records that I’ve ignored for a long time, or have simply never heard of, that come into my life years after release and take over it for a few weeks or months. These are records, sometimes exalted, sometimes ignored and overlooked on release, that I become absorbed by, wondering how it is that I’ve never heard them before, how I’d lived without them for such a long time. It’s these records that I’m going to concentrate on mainly, with the odd one that’s been hanging about the house unloved for years as well. These are my favourite five past discoveries of 2018: they will raise your heart rate and you may need medical assistance.
The Replacements – ‘All Shook Down’
Though they cast a long shadow across the music world, I’d somehow managed to get as far as last year without ever hearing anything by The Replacements. Which is a shame because, despite feeling very much of its time, their mix of often blatantly commercial rock with a sharp punk edge still retains its power to thrill and move in equal measure. ‘Let It Be’ is my favourite Replacements record, but much has been written about that already and I have nothing more to add really. But ‘All Shook Down” is a more misunderstood LP, one that was either dismissed at the time as a sell out, or assumed to be much more of a downer than it actually was.
The latter is certainly a myth; aside from the washed out, gorgeously bleak title track and the calming presence of ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘All Shook Down’ doesn’t stray all that far from the joyous feel of those early garage punk days. There’s definitely a radio rock sheen on tracks like the infectious “When It Began”, where the smooth harmonies only confirm the impression of an album more in debt to the likes of Tom Petty than their indie rock scenester contemporaries. But they still rock out to fine effect on “Bent Out Of Shape” and “My Little Problem’, and their slacker appeal hasn’t really faded much, just matured a little along the way. You can hear it, seasoned with regret, on the otherwise upbeat ’Nobody”, and the beautiful, piano led closer “The Last”, where it never feels much like Paul Westerburg took on a great many responsibilities over the years, more that he got burned trying to avoid them. But as ever with The Replacements, it’s the keen melodic rush of the songs that makes “All Shook Down” a compulsive listen, lacking some of the bite of their early material maybe, but adding enough pathos down the line to more than compensate.
Deerhunter – ‘Monomania”
This is a CD that I’ve actually owned since its release back in 2013. I bought it having enjoyed the singles on the radio, but somehow ‘Monomania’ was just too much for me back then, Bradford Cox’s distorted vocals too abrasive for my taste and the ramshackle nature of much of the first side seemed to me tedious rather than endearing. But tastes change over time and, when I returned to it last year, I found a different record to the one I’d dismissed five years previously. Sure, the early part of the album often sounds like it’s dropping to bits, but that’s very much part of its charm, especially on the lurching slow-mo punk of “Leather Jacket II”, a kind of aural equivalent of seasickness, where the seesaw guitar hook and Cox’s sloppy, sporadic vocal just about manage to hold the whole thing together. Indeed, a fair chunk of the LP feels like a pastiche of this kind of primitive garage rock, a rejection of Deerhunter’s usual clean guitar lines and swirling mischief, with Cox’s vocal permanently set on sneer and the guitars scratching around in a rudimentary way when they aren’t launching into bludgeoningly heavy powerchords.
But this is only half of the story, and much of the rest feels a lot more in tune with the classic DH sound, such as Lockett Pundt’s chiming shoegazer, “The Missing”, and the single ‘Back To The Middle’, a strutting, rhythmic tour de force with a sharp tongued lyric of betrayal. By the time that the warm, freewheeling closer “Punk” swings into view, it feels like Cox has broken his pattern in the best way possible, creating an album that alternates between twisted rock n roll and edgy, swaggering pop music, commercial enough to find favour in new places whilst needling enough to piss off plenty of the people who liked him in the first place. It’s always nice to hear a record with the confidence to bite the hand that feeds and ‘Monomania’ certainly has that in abundance. But it’s also a very fine album and one of Cox’s best.
Beat Happening – “You Turn Me On”
Beat Happening were a band I’d dismissed in the past as tediously amateurish and led by someone who couldn’t sing: in short, I hadn’t got a lot of time for them. But their final LP, “You Turn Me On”, takes a different route from their other records, one that also allowed me to find a way into their more rudimentary earlier efforts, the ones that I’d previously disdained. At the heart of their sound is repetition, so it seems appropriate that this is an album which takes that approach to its most extreme limits. The two poles that hold it together are Calvin’s seven minute opener “Tiger Trap” and Heather’s nine minute centrepiece, the truly spellbinding “Godsend”, both of which are based around droning guitar patterns played ad infinitum. The result is a kind of trance-like beauty, where either could easily go on for twice as long and still wouldn’t wear out their welcome.
Elsewhere, the grinding shock rock of Calvin’s “Pinebox Derby” shows that they were still capable of being brilliantly primal, while Heather’s “Noise” and “Sleepyhead” provide welcome injections of light and melody onto a frequently sharp edged record. Working with a “name” producer for the first time (Stuart Moxham of Young Marble Giants) certainly helped them come out of their no fuss comfort zone, though since I first heard this, I’ve explored past releases and come to the conclusion that many of the building blocks for this album were there right back at the beginning, just waiting to be brought to their fullest realisation (2015’s ’Look Around’ compilation charts this development across the years to fine effect). Overall, “You Turn Me On” is the brilliant culmination of Beat Happening’s belief that all you ever really need to create great rock and roll is the simplest of ideas and the aching desire to bring it into being. And I got used to Calvin’s voice in the end, it’s not so bad really.
LCD Soundsystem – s/t , 2CD edition
This is a band that I had only a vague awareness of before last year, one I’d read about a lot but never felt the need to get around to. They were clever apparently, which is all to the good, but no one’s as clever as they think they are. They made a fusion of rock and dance music, which made me nervous straight away, as things with crossover appeal tend to fall badly between stools in my experience; I still wake up in a cold sweat after having nightmares about Baggy and Madchester. So when I finally picked this up for a pound (my curiosity having been provoked by reading “Meet Me In The Bathroom”, Lizzy Goodman’s excellent summery of the 00s New York scene), I didn’t really expect all that much. Really I just wanted something with ‘Losing My Edge’ on it, having investigated and found it to be as biting and funny as everybody said it was. But I wasn’t especially prepared to listen to the record solidly for the next couple of months and then buy everything else they’d ever released over the course of the following year. I did though, because LCD Soundsystem’s debut is ace.
It goes without saying that you should get the 2CD version. You won’t find it new these days, but you will get it cheap and it’s worth every one of the 100 pennies I invested in it. The main album is fine on its own, swinging between shouty club hits like the Kraftwerk sampling ’Disco Infiltrator’ and even shoutier rockers like the fierce, exhilarating “Movement”. It even manages to squeeze in a fine ‘White Album’ era Beatles pastiche, “I’m Never So Tired As When I’m Waking Up, and not make it sound like it’s dropped in from a completely different LP: James Murphy’s eclecticism offers the listener a good grounding in expecting the unexpected. But it’s the second disc that really makes this unmissable. ‘Losing My Edge’ is one of the songs of the century, offering just the right mix of ridicule and pathos to construct a kind of hipster Alan Partridge moment, whilst “Beat Connection’ and ‘Yeah’ manage to critique club culture at the same time as fuelling it with floor-filling masterpieces. In time, their sound would deepen and darken, but this is the original blast of noise from one of the most influential bands of the current century, with all their bases covered and everywhere still to go.
Dear Nora – “Mountain Rock”
I’ve already covered my Dear Nora obsession on the blog last year but it seemed worth returning to this album as well, as it’s their best known and most intriguing work, if perhaps not actually their best (though it is up against stiff competition there). ‘Mountain Rock” is an album of brief, haunting vignettes, shifting frequently between gentle folk ballads, scraps of lo-fi pop and odd avant garde interludes. The ground constantly shifts under the listeners’ feet, so that the tracks come across less as one song after another, more as puzzle pieces that form a cohesive yet disorienting whole. Still, some of them more than stand out, not least gorgeous opener “The Lonesome Border Part 1”, where Katie Davidson seeks to square the “impossible, immovable” contradiction between constant personal change and the need for stability over a elegant solo guitar figure. Elsewhere, the warm, disarming “Oxygen and the Mellow Stuff” and the bucolic charm of “Make It Real” offer further highlights, but this really is an album that doesn’t lend itself to singles and needs to be heard in one sitting (don’t worry, it isn’t very long).
Dear Nora returned this year, as a direct result of “Mountain Rock” breaking through with a new generation of fans and critics after its re-release two years ago. But one of the interesting things about it is not that it’s been influential, but in fact how it seems to have stood alone; it is a record completely out of time, a product of influences certainly, most notably Bob Dylan, but one that has such a unusual take on them that it’s hard to imitate it in a way that keeps the same impact. In particular, blasts of noise like ‘West Nile!!” have an unnerving power to disrupt, giving “Mountain Rock” an uncomfortable, jarring edge and, alongside the constantly changing backdrop, there’s a sense that anything might happen round the next corner. The new LP ‘Skulls Example” didn’t really hit the same heights, but that was always going to be a challenge when following up a body of work so consistently excellent. The truth is that Dear Nora have already done more than enough to cement their place as one of the great American bands, and “Mountain Rock” is a prime example of why that’s the case.
It often seems that great albums are supposed to be things that belong to an earlier era, as the over familiar titles in “50 Greatest Albums” lists seem to suggest. This prompts the question of whether the people who compile them don’t ever just get bored of listening to the same old shit over and over again. And there’s really no need. There were plenty of great records released in 2018 which were as emotionally engaging, intelligent, fun and above all as immensely enjoyable as music has ever been, whether you compare them to those released last year, or some fabled time in the dim and distant past (which wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, if i’m completely honest). Anyway, I’ve picked my ten favourites from 2018. I’d like to hope you’ll enjoy at least some of them, but I offer no guarantees; it’s fair to say that my tastes are not as broad as they once were and I could certainly do with having a wider musical palette (which doesn’t mean I’m about to get one, but it’s a nice aspiration to have). Remember though: if you don’t like the Fred Thomas one, you are objectively wrong.
Anyway, ten great records! Starting with…
Bas Jan – Yes I Jan
Serafina Steer’s first LP with Bas Jan managed to find poetry in both the mundane and the romantic. Whether it’s struggling to make ends meet between jobs, a quick but enjoyable fumble in the back of the recording studio or buying an unexpectedly large gherkin on a day trip, everything here seems to transcend the ordinariness of its situation, helped by Serafina’s clipped, mannered tones and deft lyrical touch. Changing course again after her last, harp based, solo lp “The Moths Are Real”, “Yes I Jan” takes the violin driven post punk of early Raincoats and give it a modern slant. There’s inventive synth use and plenty of stylistic flexibility here, making each track far more likely to be an interesting left turn than a predictable wander through the late seventies. Last year’s terrific “No Sign’ single still stands out, but the warm, infectious “Wilderness” and the emotive synth pop of “Sat Nav” provide the easiest way in and show an unexpected fondness for car travel. Yes they jan!
Frankie Cosmos’s third studio LP hit upon a balance between the lo-fi strums on which Greta Kline cut her teeth, and the snappier, slightly synthetic guitar pop of 2016’s “Next Thing”. It cohered wonderfully well as an album, with heartbreaking acoustic confessionals like “This Stuff” sitting easily alongside killer singles such as “Jesse”. Kline’s vocals were as innocent and delicate as ever, but thematically her lyrics were a little more adult than last time around, as she comes across as something of a siren on opener “Caramelise” (“I’m kinda pretty, that’s why you want it so bad”), and elsewhere, more predictably, as a confused, bewildered lover (“I wasn’t built for this world, I had sex once now I’m dead!” she memorably states on “Cafeteria’). But the central planks of “Vessel” are, as ever, crippling neurosis and aching romance and it was these that made it such a relatable and compulsive listen. As examples of the latter, “Duet’ and “My Phone” could melt hearts at thirty paces, but it was Kline’s desperate desire to become “part of the scenery” on “Jesse” that hit home. “Vessel” provided wallflowers everywhere with a sympathetic friend they could identify with and, if there’s any justice, it ought to win over a few more cheerful souls as well.
I never really rated the first Goon Sax record and took my prejudices against it into their second, only to have them fall away within the time it took to play two brilliant singles. After that I was hooked and remain so now. “We’re Not Talking” is a major leap forward from their debut, musically dense and sophisticated in contrast to its bare bones predecessor. James Harrison’s “She Knows”, with its wailing guitar and ominous, rumbling groove, is his best song yet and his tracks provided a strong foil for Louis Forster’s this time around, with his nervy vocals and ingenuous, slightly panicked lyrics having made bold strides over the last couple of years. Forster himself was on great form, especially on vulnerable ballad “We Can’t Win” and the impassioned “Get Out” , but it was drummer Riley Jones who stole the show, with the glorious, unsettling “Strange Light”, and her addition to the writing credits has clearly had a major role in the band’s all round improvement. The Goon Sax are shaping up to be the big DiY pop heroes of the next decade and “We’re Not Talking” feels like the launchpad for a glorious career.
Beset by disaster at every turn, including a serious accident just before it was originally set to be released back in 2017, Melody Prochet’s second LP somehow managed to turn out remarkably well in the end. “Bon Voyage” wore its adventurous nature on its sleeve, with songs that stuttered, broke down, collapsed into entirely different rhythms at random moments and generally poked at the idea of what a pop song was meant to be. But for all that, these were certainly still pop songs and this was a hugely listenable record, taking in elegant psychedelia, bouncing dub crossovers and shimmering disco in such a way as to keep the listener entertained even as they were constantly being jolted at every musical twist and turn. “Breathe In, Breathe Out’ and “Cross Your Heart” were both terrific radio hits and the sinuous “Desert Horse” was the ultimate grower. But in a way, it was Melody’s story through a dark period of her life that was the main focus of the album, running through the lyrics like a vein through rock. However, she still manages to provide some uplift in the end, as she declares on “Quand les larmes…” that she’s “found somewhere to hide, someone to be held by”, and what more can any of us really aspire to? Ultimately, “Bon Voyage’ was a brilliant, daring record from a musical force to be truly reckoned with. One can only hope she has a better time of it for the next one.
Given that it’s over four years since they last released a record, I’d wondered whether The Middle Ones would ever return, but in the end, they came back at just the right time with an album to remind people of everything that makes them so special. “Funny” stripped away some of the more obviously folky leanings of earlier records, with the music largely consisting of just guitar and occasional percussion. Some bands might find their material exposed by this minimal approach, but the spellbinding interplay of Anna and Grace’s voices was always going to be more than capable of carrying an album in this way. There’s a certain drill to Middle Ones records that I’ve become used to but never tire of. I particularly love how the lines of vocal melody weave and intertwine in such a way that it seems the whole fragile construction must tumble at some point, but still somehow they roll on, their voices supporting each other in the frail but sturdy manner that seems to characterise their approach to life in general. Their generosity and easy good nature still cuts through in the lyrics throughout; whether they’re describing something as awkward and complex as maintaining a long distance relationship (“The Place”), or as simple as taking a swim in the sea (“Cromer”), their emotional commitment and exultation in love and friendship are, as ever, placed front and centre. It’s a miserable, shitty world out there, but there are still some people standing up for kindness, and “There You Made Me Funny’ is a record that makes the daily horrors seem that little bit more bearable for its existence.
The second LP from The Ophelias seems cuddly enough at first listen, but the further you go in, the more it begins to scrape and jar a little. Warm acoustic guitars and gently processed rhythm tracks provide much of the backbone for an intriguing, magical record, but frequent dischords and unsettling time signatures mean that it’s not always an easy one to relax into. Spencer Peppet’s vocals have a dry, detached feel to them which adds an odd sense of distance to many of the songs, and this is of a piece with the more oblique parts of her lyrics, which tend to be rooted around loneliness and difficult relationships. Jane Siberry is a touchstone for some elements of the band’s quirky musical style, especially the gorgeous harmonies that swoop and glide through “Fog” and “Lover’s Creep”, and also the awkward song structures on more difficult tracks like “O Command”. But “Almost” feels a lot like a band settling into a sound very much of their own, and I struggle to think of anyone making records that sound a lot like this; certainly, there are very few people making anything remotely as good. Single “General Electric” stands out, seducing with its easy, rolling groove whilst smuggling in a tale of a nervy, masochistic relationship, but “Almost” is an album that absorbs you from start to finish, the work of four talented women who are at the very top of their game.
The final part of a remarkable, career defining trilogy, ‘Aftering’ finds Fred Thomas in a reflective mood, revisiting childhood pain, examining the mixed emotions that surround his lack of commercial success and focusing on wider ideas of fear and pessimism. Musically, it ranged from sparkling two minute pop songs to grinding nine minute dirges, though somehow it managed to square the circle and keep the album feeling like one complete thought, rather than a series of disconnected snapshots. But what comes back to me when I think of “Aftering” is a series of truly remarkable moments where the songs that they’re part of turn from so many highly enjoyable tracks into something more like one masterpiece after another. The swoonsome sweep of the strings in “What The Sermon Said”, that marks the transformation of the song from a cold, desolate winterscape into a darkly comic retelling of childhood reminiscences; the little stutter of studio chatter before the second chorus of “Hopeless Ocean Drinker”, where the music suddenly kicks back in and the already fierce intensity manages to find an even higher gear; the juddering, scraping guitars just before the coda on “Good Times Are Gone Again”, which seem to herald nothing so much as some kind of joyous apocalypse. Any one of these songs could be a standout track that puts everything else into the shade, but ’Aftering’ had them all and lots more just as stunning. A record so unbelievably good that I’m a little embarrassed for anyone who’s heard this and hasn’t bought it already; like, what is wrong with these people?!?
Ellis Jones’s witty lyricism and melodic brilliance were still a mainstay on Trust Fund’s swansong, but it turned out to be their most eclectic record yet, taking in glam pop, electronica, acoustic folk and hard riffing along the way. But for all this experimentation, it still most often reverted to their now familiar power pop jangle, though this time the lines were cleaner and the choruses more designed for communal singalong chants, rather than my usual tuneless bedroom shouting; ironically, this might have been the album to break them commercially if they hadn’t been so keen to wander off altogether. The lyrical themes of disappointed romance and warm friendship were still there, but there was also an increased peevishness that crept in, giving a sense that being a neurotic misfit and underground pop star was not a life that interested Jones too much anymore. But as ever with Trust Fund, ”Backline” was a powerful, emotive and occasionally very funny record, where the highlights were far higher than almost anything else this year. “Blue X” provided the perfect mix of energy and ennui to kickstart the album, but it’s “Abundant” that still sticks with me now; the images of departure from a failed relationship feeling all too appropriate from a now silent group who struck a resounding chord in me for so long. “Bringing The Backline” was monumental effort and a fitting memorial to one of the best bands of the decade.
“We all know what’s right” sings Meg Remy on “Poem”, and it’s a moment that captures the mood of her 6th LP as U.S. Girls. Lyrically, it’s an album as moral as it is political, taking in subjects like rape revenge, environmental damage and presidential neglect across just the first three songs. Remy never fails to stand up for what she believes, singing sometimes with a righteous fervour which is as infectious as the songs themselves, but is unafraid to use subtlety to get her message across as well. Musically, it moves on from the icy, monochromatic sound of her last LP, “Half Free”, taking inspiration from disco, funk, Madonna and blues rock on a record that manages to move seamlessly across styles and genres without ever missing a beat. “Rosebud” was one of the great singles of this and many a year, it’s elegant strings and blissed out summer sound as ever disguising a darker message, while “Rage of Plastics” seemed like a bastard cousin of ‘Black Velvet’ by Alanna Myles, and in a surprisingly good way too. But, again, it was the calm, damning synth pop of “Poem” that best expressed the take home message of the album – “how did we end up this way?”, a question which has bothered me ever more as this year has gone on.
Vital Idles are a band who’s only previous single ,“My Sentiments”, made a big impression when it was released two years ago, and while “Left Hand’ doesn’t quite pick up where that particularly vicious record left off, it offers plenty more to enjoy from Jessica Higgins and her scabrous post-punk outfit. Higgins’s wordy, garrulous delivery is the first thing that stands out, and her sharp semi-ranting monologues are the source of much of the band’s appeal. But looking further, their musical austerity, reminiscent of early Fall, offers plenty of less complicated thrills, stripping things down to a guitar/bass/drums line up which creates a raw but highly effective sound, capable of both ringing in your ears on tracks like fierce opener “A Premise”, or meandering serenely through more restrained numbers like the epic “Cave Raised”. In a year where their semi-namesakes Idles’s borish, tedious sloganeering was heralded as the saviour of guitar music, it was good to find a band operating on a different level, who showed that within such basic limits you could still make an intelligent and memorable album that didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. “Left Hand” may not always be especially original, but it is highly engaging and often pretty fucking great.
Aside from that, there were a few other records that I enjoyed a lot this year which were just bubbling under, either because I didn’t come back to them as much as the others, or I discovered them late and felt like I hadn’t had time to get the measure of them properly (and also, if I’m honest, I really didn’t have time to write about any more stuff anyway, we’d have been here til god knows when). So, honourable mentions go to “Ecstatic Arrow” by Virginia Wing, “Silver Dollar Moment” by The Orielles, “Grid Of Points” by Grouper, “Future Me Hates Me” by The Beths, “Trunks” by Seazoo, “Bell House” by Shy Boys and “Pig City” by Tigercats, all of which are very good and well worth a listen too.
And that’s it. There’s a final retrospective piece I’m going to do after the new year, which will be about a few old records that I’ve discovered in 2018, and then we’ll be back to new releases again, as Deerhunter and Tullycraft have albums out in early 2019 that I’m really looking forward to and which I may or may not write something about. I hope everyone who read this year found something that they enjoyed and, just in general, thanks for taking the time, it’s been fun.