Monthly Archives: May 2013

Albums from May, part 2; Daft Punk

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
If I’m honest, I don’t think Daft Punk are all that, and I never really did. I’ve liked all their singles enough, and bought all their studio albums pretty much as and when they came out, and can clearly see the influence they’ve wielded over the combined sphere of dance and pop music around the world (do you see what I did there?), and last year I even tracked down the CD single of “Music Sounds Better With You” because I suddenly felt like I needed it, and you can’t download the track individually anywhere.

But they’ve never really grabbed or excited me or shaken my world; Discovery isn’t the totemic monument to electronic dance music in my musical history that it seems to be for so many other web-era music fans, stans, writers, and geeks, it’s just a decent album with a handful of amazing singles on it. I can’t remember the last time I listened to Homework all the way through. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever done it in one sitting. Or standing. Or driving. Or dancing.

Maybe that’s the problem; I’m not, for various reasons, much of an actual dancer and nightclub goer, despite loving a lot of dance music, and I’ve pretty much always found Daft Punk, especially Homework (and perhaps Human After All, too, although who ever actually listened to that enough to tell) to be far too functional and elongated and plain, the hooks sparse, the beats strung out for mixing into what precedes and what follows. “Da Funk” is great, but goes on about twice as long as it needs to. Likewise “Around The World”. They know this; not for no reason is the last track on Discovery called “Too Long”. It lasts precisely 10 minutes.

Daft Punk are also responsible for the phenomenon of side-chaining that’s swept everything up in its wake for a decade, and made stuff like Flying Lotus almost literally unlistenable to me. It was their pumping kick drum, sucking everything else out of its way like a giant, dancing vacuum cleaner, that helped to accelerate the loudness wars in the 00s into unbearable territory. And they’re probably to blame for will.i.am, too.

So I was actually really quite pleased by the idea that they were going to make an organic disco record, with orchestras and session musicians and an old-fashioned mix and ‘quiet’ master, rather than pile up the samples and synths and loops and side-chained compressors again. Those sounded, to me, like the ingredients for a Daft Punk album I might actually want to listen to properly rather than just cull the singles from and ignore the rest.

And that’s pretty much the case, I guess. I wasn’t all that impressed by “Get Lucky” to start with (though I’ve grown to really like it), and I could do without Paul Williams (especially) and Todd Edwards, and the ‘sad robot’ vocoders are maybe done a little too much on the likes of “The Game Of Love”, but the live-drums+synthesizers of the second half of “Giorgio By Moroder” (almost as good as the John Stanier breakdowns from the second Field album), the intricate, pulsing, slippery groove of “Motherboard”, and a whole host of other stuff (the preposterous melodrama of “Contact”; the weird juxtaposition of “Doin’ It Right”) is worth the price of admission and then some.

As for the mastering; it’s not ‘quiet’ per se, it’s just really good, and sophisticated, and dynamic, and open, and lush sounding. It won’t sound weird and out-of-place next to anything else from 2013 on a playlist; it’ll just (probably) sound a lot better. As ever when a ‘big’, beautiful sounding record lands, I hope it will reconfigure the way that other people produce and release their own records; Random Access Memories throws the disgusting sonic mush of the latest Phoenix album into startling, horrific perspective. It sounds almost as good as the House Of Blondes album.

So yeah, cut it down to 45/50 minutes, shearing out some of the overtly cheesy, yacht-rock nonsense, and this is a gorgeous, glorious piece of nu-Balearic liquidity, grooves and licks and sunshine and melancholy and subtlety and some ridiculous solos. Which is pretty much exactly what you’d want from a new Daft Punk album, right? I don’t understand why some people’s knickers are in such a twist.

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Albums from May, part 1

There seem to have been almost as many albums released in May that are worth giving a damn about as there were in the whole of the previous four months of 2013. They’re probably strategically launched in May so that people will know the words come festival season.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
In which The National begin their circumnavigation of what one might cynically call ‘MOR’. Which is to say that Matt Berninger is certainly ensconced in his 40s now, and his bandmates can’t be far if at all behind, and parenthood and reasoned perspectives make for a less angry band than they might once have been. Live they may still hurtle through “Mr November”, but I doubt they’d be able to write it anymore.

This isn’t necessarily a problem though, because rather than settle for obvious denominators, easy key changes and platitudinous melodies, The National have evolved in subtle, sophisticated ways. In 2013, their songs shimmer and meander more than they clatter and groan. I can accept this happily; they’ve already clattered and groaned. And with a larger audience now than at any time in their past, it’s a relief to feel that they’re not pandering to expanded (and therefore limited) expectations.

If The National have a problem, and all bands have at least one problem, it’s that they’re too too musical, too clever, that they have too many good ideas. Trouble Will Find Me is a gorgeous record, but it’s so stuffed to the gills with that gorgeousness that it might actually suffer a little from it. They’ve been edging towards over-arranging records for a little while, but here they may just tip the balance. They never single-track a vocal when they can double-track it; never settle for one beatific, anti-gravity guitar line when they can have two, and an organ track, and a piano, and a violin or three, and a whiff of gentle feedback coursing through the song, and a bassline. And that’s not to mention the drums.

All of these elements are sophisticated, beautiful, worth arranging, worth hearing. It would be a crying shame to isolate, eliminate, and waste any one of them. But at the same time, it’s almost a crying shame to use them all; they end up competing for harmonic space and attention, overlapping each other’s frequencies, obscuring themselves. And like a multitude of beautiful colours swirled together on a canvas, there’s a danger that, without absolute, consummate skill, you’ll end up with a dull brown.

Which isn’t to say that The National have made a dull, brown record; but some people, from some angles, will accuse them of having done so. I just wish that The National’s evident sophistication had been applied to what to leave out as much as what to leave in. Perhaps a hand like Jim O’Rourke’s at the tiller during mixing would have steered them into marginally more minimal waters. I’m thinking explicitly of what he did for Wilco with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, allegedly removing a host of subtle, experimental elements from each song with great care and making the entire record feel ten times more subtle and experimental as a result.

All this said, I still like Trouble Will Find Me an awful lot, and, despite my reservations, which still exist, The National have become (largely thanks to my wife) a definite favourite. If there isn’t a tune as direct as “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” here, that’s OK, because there are several as indirect as “England”.

Primal Scream – More Light
I have been a fan of Primal Scream for the best part of 20 years. For most of the last ten years of that period, I have had absolutely zero faith in their ability to make a decent record. In their 30-odd-year career (and much of it has been very, very odd indeed) they’ve only actually made three albums that I really like; Screamadelica, Vanishing Point, and XTRMNTR. There are, granted, good songs scattered across their other records, and a couple of those records aren’t absolute disasters (Evil Heat is OK, just about), but those are the only three I’d defend.

So I genuinely thought Bobby Gillespie and co (which now seams to be just him and Andrew Innes, plus whoever wanders through the studio, now that Mani is back in The Stone Roses and Throb is long gone; even Duffy seems to be only an occasional sideman these days) were past the point of ever making another good record again. Really, really far past that point.

Which makes it a surprise that More Light is at all worth a damn, especially when Bobby is opining state-of-the-nation lyrics about teenage rebellion and “favelas up and down the M1”, as he does here from time to time.

The secret seems to be, unsurprisingly, working with a strong producer who has a vision. David Holmes takes the reigns here, having worked on XTRMNTR way back when (Bobby guested on Holmes’ own Bow Down To The Exit Sign a decade and a half ago); the intervening years have seen Holmes establish himself as a film soundtrack man first and foremost, and it seems as if Holmes has guided Primal Scream into doing what they might do best; soundtracking an imaginary film.

Bobby’s said that Holmes sequenced the album with this in mind; the propulsive, elongated “2013”, with it’s insistent 70s Bowie saxophone and kraut-ish pulse and Kevin Shields guitar, is a scene-setting title sequence, whilst the “Movin’ On Up” progeny “It’s Alright, It’s OK” is the joyous track over the closing credits. In between we get, to be fair, a handful of semi-turgid future rockers loaded with Bobby’s polemic (to be fairer, at least he cares, when many others don’t seem to), interspersed with awesome, unexpected diversions like “River Of Pain” (check out the orchestral eruption 2/3s through) and “Turn Each Other Inside Out” (those gorgeous twin guitars), and “Relativity”. And even the semi-turgid future rockers are a massive step above the awful modernist-country-blues of Riot City Blues; “Culturecide” (no one but Bobby could neologise such a word) and “Hit Void” are far more memorable and more fun than anything from Beautiful Future.

More Light isn’t an epochal impact like Screamadelica or XTRMNTR; I doubt it will change the way we feel about dance music or usher in waves of discopunk. But it also isn’t an embarrassment. Which, for Primal Scream in 2013, is an achievement.

Words on Daft Punk and Vampire Weekend to follow. And maybe some others.

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Yankee+Hotel+Foxtrot+wilcoI remember a conversation with a drama teacher called Chris in late 1996 about how Being There was meant to be the album of the year, which was about the first time I really registered Wilco’s existence. I’d glanced at reviews of Being There in Vox or Mojo or wherever, but I considered them to be magazines for people in their 30s (like my drama teacher) rather than teenagers like me, who were after Björk and Orbital and Aphex Twin and other mind-blowing, envelope-pushing future music. “alt.country”? wtf? Who cared?

Fast forward six years, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot arrived to a new kind of hype that I wasn’t just reading but actively partaking in – the online kind, of leaks and streams and P2P and webzines. I was just starting to write for Stylus, and feeling a need, a compulsion really, to keep up with what all my American colleagues and contemporaries were getting excited about.

I read the mythology behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s creation with scepticism; record label refuses to release dangerously experimental, modernist LP by formerly classicist Americana songwriter who’s roped-in avant-garde Chicago experimental music luminary to oversee proceedings and add even more creative sonic fairy dust. Major record label subsidiary panics over how to market such a wilful album, and drops them, only for fans to protest and another subsidiary of the same major label, this one specialising in dangerously experimental, modernist music and, sometimes, jazz, to step in and release it after another six months of fevered whispers and illicit streams. The narrative seemed a little too convenient as a hype tool.

Even so, I was intrigued, and having bought, battled with, and almost really enjoyed Eureeka by Jim O’Rourke (the aforementioned experimental luminary) a couple of years previously, I took the plunge. The conversation with Chris the drama teacher didn’t cross my mind.

Actually listening to YHF started out like the wilfully experimental experience it was meant to be, the whirrs, buzzes, cracked percussion flurries, and deliberately obtuse lyrical vignettes of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” slowly unfurling over nearly seven minutes, clouds of static and weird, broken fragments of other songs floating through the coda. Four minutes in a rolling piano melody, which has been trying to establish itself for the entire duration so far, finally catches hold of itself, falls in step with the rhythm, and unravels beatifically, a song finally coalescing from disparate musical elements and revealing itself to be beautiful in the process. And then it dissolves in those clouds of static.

But after that, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot treads more prosaic ground. Or at least, it seems to; there are moments of strange, vatic emptiness between and even during songs, more clouds of static and radio interference that overwhelm the songs beneath them, but for the most part this record is the sound of a band playing melody-driven, country-tinged songs together, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums the main instruments even if other textures – organs, keyboards, unidentifiable analogue hums and blips – add space and colour. These decorations are just that; embellishments and garnish, rather than truly experimental foundations that the songs are built from. Apart from “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, that is.

Not that this is a problem, particularly, because the songs – even goofy numbers like “Heavy Metal Drummer” – are of pretty fantastic quality, especially the ruminative “Jesus, etc” and “Poor Places”. Why Reprise had a panic attack about releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot I cannot fathom; it’s no more experimental than The White Album, and songs like “Kamera” and “Pot Kettle Black” seem like pretty straightforward, radio-friendly alternative country to me, not a million miles away from the likes of REM.

The most remarkable, and possibly experimental, thing about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the way it’s mixed. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett had allegedly recorded masses of additional instrumental layers and experimental detours, which Jim O’Rourke stripped back to expose the heart of the band and the record. In the face of early-00s rock maximalism and pop bombast, it’s the delicate, organic, richly textured subtlety of YHF that feels most radical. With hindsight, it was this record, and the similarly sonically rich and not-country-anymore Is A Woman by Lambchop, which subliminally kick-started my decade-and-then-some long fascination with how records sound, and investigation into why they don’t all sound as good as this.

Until the last couple of weeks, when I’ve been thinking of writing about it for this project, I’d not listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in a long, long time. In fact, after an initial flush of going through their back catalogue and then a brief, rewarding affair with YHF’s similarly gently experimental follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, I’d drifted far away from where Wilco headed after this record. The fabulous bookends of 2011’s The Whole Love, “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning” won me back to some degree by exploring similar territory to YHF and the more experimental moments of AGIB, so I have to conclude that I like Wilco best, by far, when they’re playing at being wilfully experimental, even if they don’t ever really get close to dangerous. I saw Chris, my old drama teacher, outside one of my favourite record shops the other month. I don’t think he saw me.

Lift To Experience – The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads (2001)

liftjerusalemI was in Rise Records in Bristol the other day, and they have a £1 rack. Most of the stuff in there – all in presumably over-ordered multiple copies – was stuff I’d never heard of, but they also had a dozen copies of this. It’s a double CD, and it’s fabulous. I almost bought copies of it to hand out to strangers, but we had a Swans gig to go to. Come to think of it, Swans fans might like this record.

I met Josh T Pearson before ever hearing his music; in 2007 he supported 65daysofstatic, who I interviewed, and who insisted that I should meet him, so I did. He was genial and erudite, with a fabulous beard, and we talked a little about music, but mostly about the internet and the way people interact online. Inspired, I went out and bought The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads at the first opportunity; I’d heard of it beforehand, was vaguely aware of its legendary status, but didn’t know much about what it would sound like. My Bloody Valentine were mentioned, vaguely, and postrock, and a handful of other things which I liked well enough but not massively.

So what does it sound like? Like Kitchens of Distinction in a desert, possibly; that huge, “no one played keyboards” wash of guitars and star-scraping, epic melancholy and anxiety at the modern world transplanted from urban London to the middle of nowhere, the howls of marginalized sexuality replaced with howls of pained agnosticism or collapsing faith, or something in between the two.

It opens with thrashing chords and crashing drums and a bizarre, spoken-word vocal about how “the USA’s at the centre of Jerusalem”, delivered in an almost disinterested, detached mumble. Eventually, after a moment or two, the guitars start to spiral upwards like twisters, and Josh T Pearson ceases the mumbling and opens his vocal chords. Which are fulsome…

The song titles are designed to be read together, and form a strange, bible-esque stanza: “Just as was told / down came the angels / falling from cloud 9 / with crippled wings / waiting to hit / the ground so soft / these are the days / when we shall touch / down with the prophets / to guard and to guide you / into the storm”. It’s clearly deliberate, and though the record is long (11 tracks lasting 93 minutes over two discs), it feels designed to flow together; individual songs don’t clearly separate from each other, but rather segue through clouds of distortion and shimmering half-melodies.

“Ladies and gentlemen we are playing with one guitar” announces the sleeve; it’s mixed by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins, and shares a certain otherworldliness with that band. The cover and inner sleeve are some kind of late 90s / early 00s cheap design software abomination, but it doesn’t really matter, because the music is so rich and spacious and intense. Sometimes it collapses into near-silence for long periods; at others points it rages and squalls like elemental forces ravaging huge topographies. It’s not about melodies or hooks; it’s about seismic shifts that sweep you up and carry you away. Pearson’s lyrics tell strange, lucid-dream stories about a mystical America, painting impressions of railroads and desert towns and people struggling with religion and emotion and reality, embarking upon epic, poetic, biblical allegories and picaresque fantasy.

The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads isn’t an easy record to partake in; it doesn’t suit casual listening, commuting, cars, or being chopped-up into little bits and scattered across playlists, and as such it doesn’t come off the shelves and into the CD player all that often. But when it does… what a ride it is. It took Pearson a decade to follow up, with an album of strangulated, acoustic songs of love and lust gone bad. Singular.

Mexican style churro pancakes with burnt butter syrup

I first had churros at Alexandra Palace, of all places, while waiting for an Embrace gig. Crispy, sweet, subtly smokey, with a butterscotch-y filling, these awesome, ridged, tubular donuts are amazing, but not the kind of thing you see often in Devon, sadly. Wiki tells me they’re popular in Portugal, Spain, Brazil, France, and often dunked in hot chocolate.

I’ve become a dab-hand at pancakes over the last few years, and specialise in a fluffy, drop-scone derived type that I’ve refined and adjusted to get to the point where I’d call them my speciality. We have them often – probably once a month if not more – for breakfast, and they’re Emma’s favourite thing, especially with maple syrup. I tried traditional British thin pancakes again for Shrove Tuesday this year, and we both felt a bit underwhelmed and disappointed that I hadn’t just made the usual fluffy pancakes.

The other day Emma saw a recipe for ‘Mexican style churro pancakes’, which were flavoured with cinnamon and served with a burnt butter and maple syrup. I have no idea if these are in any way authentically Mexican or not. Frankly, who cares? Cinnamon is another of Emma’s favourite things, so I don’t know why we’d never thought of putting it in pancakes before; we’ve put everything else in them! The recipe for the pancakes themselves was American and pretty foul; it had all sorts of artificial and unnecessary crap in it, put was flavoured with a teaspoon of ground cinnamon powder. The picture was of fluffy pancakes, so I thought I’d just make my usual ones and add the cinnamon.

So I did. And they were amazing; coupled with the burnt mutter and maple syrup, they were fluffy and light, like my usual pancakes, but had that mysterious, subtle smokeyness that’s the defining flavour of churros; it must be the cinnamon and burnt butter.

Here’s how I did it.

Pancake ingredients:

• 125g plain flower
• Heaped teaspoon baking powder
• Pinch sea salt
• 1 heaped teaspoon of caster sugar
• 1 heaped teaspoon of cinnamon powder
• 1 large egg
• 140ml milk
• 25g butter, melted
• A knob of butter for the frying pan

Syrup ingredients:

• 1 part butter (1 part = about a dessertspoon)
• 1 part maple syrup
• 1 part golden syrup (the recipe Emma saw was 2 parts maple syrup, but this makes it more economical!)
• A big pinch of cinnamon powder

To make the pancakes, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and cinnamon to aerate them. Add the egg and milk, and whisk together into a batter. Add the melted butter, still whisking thoroughly, so it emulsifies into a smoother consistency batter. Then drop dessertspoonfuls of the mixture into a medium-heat frying pan; I tend to do about four at a time. After a minute or two they’ll go matte on top, which means it’s time to turn them over. Cook them about the same amount of time on the other side; they should have fluffed-up nicely, and be light golden brown.

To make the syrup, melt the butter in a small pan, and let it bubble until it just starts to go brown; if it goes completely brown it will burn and go very bitter, which you do not want. Take it off the heat, and add the maple syrup and golden syrup, and stir it all together before adding a big pinch (or a few shakes) of cinnamon powder. Pour a teaspoon or three of the syrup over a stack of the pancakes, and you’re done. Perfect breakfast.

Records from 2013 that are at least worth listening to and probably buying and getting really into because they’re pretty good or maybe even awesome

A quick post, because we’re 1/3 of the way through 2013 and I’ve not really written anything about new music yet this year, due to all the noughties stuff I’ve been doing.

My Bloody Valentine – MBV
This is, surprisingly, amazingly good. It sounds absolutely delicious; a warm, enveloping experience, both comforting and exhilarating.

Matthew E White – Big Inner
A soul record, basically. Of the old-fashioned, hot-buttered variety, almost. With a reedy-voiced white guy singing. He’s got a jazz background, and you can tell; it’s subtly sophisticated and the brass is delicious. Amazingly well recorded and mixed.

The Knife – Shaking The Habitual
A big, post-structuralist experiment with cybernetic hooks. Follows Tomorrow, In A Year more than it does Silent Shout, and arguably all the better for it. Again, sonically exquisite. Don’t fear the 19-minute drone.

Brandt Brauer Frick – Miami
Essentially a German jazz trio making electronic / dance music; amazingly proficient and exciting and dynamic and sophisticated, but maybe not in possession of the most obvious tunes (not that it’s difficult). Did I say the other records sounded good? This sounds outstanding.

British Sea Power – Machineries of Joy
I won’t fight BSP’s corner, but I like them well enough, and I enjoy this very much, for what it is; a mature, krauty, relaxed, musical indie rock record. It won’t shake anyone’s world apart, but you don’t always need that.

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Sitting somewhere between Matthew E White and The Knife is this guy, with his pastoral confessional electronic-tinged post-country / blasted folk / whatever. The lyrics, and the melodies therefore too, are complex, rich, idiosyncratic, and affecting. The music is very good too. Sometimes he goes on a little too long, but I forgive him.

Atoms For Peace – Amok
Thom Yorke’s not-a-supergroup, making pretty much a straight post-2003 electronica / laptop / experimental / etcetera record in the vein of Caribou or Four Tet or whoever. Flea’s bass playing is amazing. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito
I’ve paid them no attention since the debut, when I loved “Maps”. No idea why. This is, sadly, a rock record with mainstream pretensions and therefore sounds pretty rubbish, but it’s not as bad as most, and has a nice, loose, vaguely experimental air of freedom, too.

Phoenix – Bankrupt!
This sounds like shit. I have almost no idea if the songs are any good, because I can’t hear them.

Pantha Du Prince & The Bell Laboratory – Elements of Light
Techno bells. Lightweight (geddit?) possibly, but very, very lovely, if not as compelling as Black Noise to me, yet.

Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa
I’ll buy anything Seb Roachford drums on, even if it makes me look like a tokenistic colonialist world-music-tourist dickhead. This is really good. I have no idea about the tradition it’s come from. You know when anyone who’s not a British or American pop/rock/blues/roots whatever appears on Jools Holland, and the sound balance always seems much better? Same here; it’s because they’re proper musicians, not indie chancers. It’s notable that a chunk of her backing band on this are jazzers, not rockers.

What I talk about when I talk about board games

So I’m in a little club that meets up every couple of weeks and plays records for one another – you can read about it here if you don’t already know – and I obviously write about that a lot, because it’s an intrinsic part of the club.

But I also, sort of, belong to another club, that isn’t quite as fascistically run and doesn’t require blogging about as a pre requisite of taking part. Which is weird, that I’d be in two clubs, because I was barely ever in even a single one when I was at school. Or out of school.

But the other guys in this second club keep complaining that I haven’t blogged about it yet, and so therefore I must be ashamed of it, because I blog about everything I do. Which isn’t quite true.

So consider this a blog about my other club. Which we sort of jokingly refer to as Devon Board Game Club. Because once a month, for the last five months, we’ve met up at one another’s houses and played board games. Generally German ones, with little wooden pieces and lots of cards. Not Monopoly. And not Games Workshop stuff.

So far we’ve played Settlers of Catan, which involves gathering resources and trading and building settlements. We’ve played Carcassonne, which involves laying map tiles and building castles and farming. We’ve played something called Agricola where you just farm, but in a more complicated way. We’ve played Small World, which is about rampaging nuns and cave trolls and undead elves or something, which I didn’t quite understand. And we’ve played Discworld, which is about Terry Pratchett. Sort of.

And it’s fun. I’d say something more profound, but there isn’t much to say. I’ve never really got into computer games. I like gathering round a big table with friends and eating pizza and rolling dice and swearing and plotting and laughing. It’s good fun.