Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top 40 of 2013 - #5 to #1

Another great year of music comes to a close.  There are many exciting releases on the near horizon to begin 2014, so much to look forward to.  But it’s not nice to take stock and remember what made this past year so tolerable.  I've said plenty (too much) here, so now I would love to hear what kinds of music got everyone else going this past year.  Please feel free to share your picks and stories. 


Kitchens of Distinction
(3 Loop)

Well, this is awkward.  One of my favorite bands from twenty plus years ago has reformed and they have left me speechless!  I now realize that I never tried to write about them back when they existed from the late 80s till about 1996.  They never easily fit with everyone they were lumped in with, even though in my world they were essentially the epitome of what I was looking for.  Patrick Fitzgerald’s lyrics were always poetic, incredibly honest, dramatic, filled with vivid imagery and layers of interpretation, and often times political – plus he was a great bass player, along the lines of New Order’s Peter Hook and especially, Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie.  Julian Swales’ guitar work was always up there with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields as far as pure creativity and the ability to twist his strings into soaring layers of sounds that one would not generally associate with the electric guitar.  And then there’s drummer Dan Goodwin, whose unusual style was just as much of a trademark as Swales’ guitar.  His playing was always big, but also very intuitive.  It often felt as though his tempos would adjust as the intensity of their frequent song ending floods of sound would increase.  So, now, they’re back.  They’re not touring, which may be good for me, since when I saw them perform in the fall of 1992, they melted the plugs inside my ears.  The album seems to be named Folly on a lark, because none of them seem to fully realize how this has happened.  Whatever the case, this album is so damn good and so damn them, but it’s not exactly as they were.  This sounds like a fairly natural progression from their 1994 fourth album Cowboys and Aliens, as they began to slow down their gusto a bit and write a wider variety of song styles.  This album is complex.  These songs don’t have the huge hooks of some of their past songs, but they reveal themselves with repeated listens and it’s very exciting to have them back.  “Oak Tree” opens the collection with a finger picked acoustic guitar, as Fitzgerald tells us the story of two lovers growing from the first blossoms of their relationship through sickness and until death, as they music builds a backdrop that feels increasingly menacing as it progresses.  They aren’t fooling around.  Meanwhile, the drama of Swales’ guitar layers that rival a huge orchestral arrangement, act as a perfect soundtrack for Fitzgerald’s rumbling mid range bass lines and his British Romanticist poetry.  Piano opens up the tragic story that is “Photographing Rain,” which details the hanging of two gay Iranian men via a crane.  The darkness continues on “Wolves/Crows” whose rolling chain gang style beat rumbles underneath Swales’ chaotic guitar squall, as Fitzgerald sing/speaks his unleashing of bitterness and inner poison on an unsuspecting tree (“poor tree, its sap thick with my dull life’s sicknesses”).    It’s a fitting and powerful metaphor for humanity’s raping of nature, but personally it also feels like a cautionary tale to not allow anger and hatred and frustration to poison one’s own soul.  On a lighter note, the first single, “Japan to Jupiter,” finds Fitzgerald lost in nostalgia as he regales us with tales from discovering music and clubs and the promise of youth and a limitless future to a fantastic soundtrack.  The other immediately catchy song, “I Wish It Would Snow,” is a simple tale of wanting to stay at home all day and not face the daily grind – something we have all wished for since childhood all the way into the high pressure of the work life.  This beauty opens with a chiming, catchy guitar line and a lackadaisical bass crawl and a sweeping chorus that climaxes with a perfectly placed tambourine shake.  This is exactly the kind of song that has been missing for too long.  Welcome back guys.


Veronica Falls
Waiting for Something to Happen
Five Covers Volume 2 EP
“Teenage” 7”
“Waiting for Something to Happen” 7”
“Broken Toy” 7”
(Bella Union/Slumberland)

There’s something so comforting to me about the Veronica Falls sound.  Their dry, tightly strummed guitar interplay, the ceaselessly rolling and relentless drums remind me of those great New Zealand and Aussie bands of the late 80s and into the 90s like the Bats and the Cannanes, who could write the same song over and over again, but it was such a damn good song and so well done, that it never really dawned on me.  What the Veronica Falls have that those bands didn’t (or don’t) have is vocal harmonies to die for.  These songs are so well sung and so perfectly put together that the melodies dance in your thoughts for days after each listen.  Their self-titled debut album from 2011 (my #9 pick seen here) was an invitation into their dark world of disappointment and death that somehow felt so welcome and comforting.  That album’s “Bad Feeling” (“I’ve got a bad feeling and it’s not going away”) is my daily anthem as I head into work each day, because, unfortunately, it is so fitting.  If you liked that fantastic debut, you will love this album as well.  Nothing has changed in their sound, except that have tightened some of their loose ends and found a clearer bolder production for this recording (thanks Rory Atwell!).  The result is that the rhythm section of drummer Patrick Doyle and bassist Marion Herbain are now a force to be reckoned with and lead singer,  Roxanne Clifford’s vocals, are more out front and even easier to enjoy, especially when fellow guitarist James Hoare comes in with his deep baritone.  It is stunning to think that they can just keep cranking out such beauties and there is never a dud.  Though they haven’t supplanted “Bad Feeling” with a new dread inducing work anthem, they have offered up something awfully close with “Bury Me.”  It’s not so much a suicide song, but one that identifies those feelings of reaching the point of wanting to give up and let go.  It’s been a source of understanding during a difficult year filled with health uncertainties, discouragement and feeling “adrift.”  There’s nothing more powerful than the comfort of being understood.  Similarly, “Broken Toy” strikes a chord in those us who have never felt at ease with oneself and/or have struggled or helped someone struggle closely with really challenging times.  It’s that understanding and their warm music that makes such bleak subjects so healing.  It doesn’t end with these, because these thirteen songs, starting with the sublime momentum building “Tell Me” through to the set closing goodbye note “Last Conversation,” are new classics that have me delightfully singing along with their hard lessons and rainy day misery.  The amazing 2012 pre-LP single “My Heart Beats” still hasn’t outlasted its welcome with its three minutes of tumbling perfection.  “Teenage,” likewise, gives us a tale of the breezy exuberance of young love from the fuzzy Vaseline adjusted perspective of adulthood.  Each song is an exquisite few minutes of longingly resonant music and heartfelt words sung to us in the most elegant possible harmonies.  Here’s hoping they please keep this up for as long as I continue to struggle through a never ending adolescence.

If you were lucky enough to score one of their limited edition covers EPs from a tour stop or through pre-ordering their album, then you’re in on the treat.  I missed out on the first Five Covers EP and it has become the stuff of legend.  This volume 2 is pretty good with a couple of punk rock covers (Homeblitz and the Rats), some Bob Dylan (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”) and the amazing and fitting “Bury Me Happy” originally by the Moles and The La’s truly “Timeless Melody,” whose Lee Mavers’ would most assuredly approve (or not, since he seemed an angry man) of their lo-fi approach.  These songs were all recorded in live to tape in a flat in one take, with the vocals done in the bathroom.  There is an unlisted cover of Ween’s “What Deaner Was Talking About,” which is also surprisingly heartfelt considering the source.  A nice treat if you can find it.

The “Teenage” 7” arrived around the same time as the LP, but had been previewed late in 2012 and it is a perfect teaser for the album and one of the finest songs of the year with its gorgeous harmonies and agonizingly pitch perfect capture of lost adolescence and the reassuring conclusion that “everything’s alright.”  The b-side is a simple two minutes of acoustic based balladry with a zinger aimed at narcissism.  This is a song that, much like all of their others, is no throwaway b-side.  Its melody stays with you.  I find myself singing its chorus quite often out of the blue.  Or is it a reminder to not be so selfish.  “Is it true / nothing better to do / than talk about you?”

Meanwhile, the “Waiting for Something to Happen” 7” highlights the title track’s call to action.  It’s hard to deny such a compelling question: “What’s your excuse baby - standing in the middle waiting for something to happen?”  I like it when bands record and release songs as they go.  This B-side, “Perpetual Motion” was recorded during their US tour and finds them using some backwards loops to adorn a super short experiment.  It took me a while to have this one grow on me, but James Hoare’s bass back up vocal that sets the stage for the brief chorus is magical.

Finally, the “Broken Toy” is completely non-essential.  Yes, the A-side is excellent, so for those of you only looking for this song, it’s a place to go.  The B-side, however, is simply a demo for the great album track “If You Still Want Me,” which is okay, but nearly as impactful or very much different than the LP version.

They have a new single out digitally now, but I will address this closer once the vinyl is distributed in early 2014.


Underground Lovers

When I first heard the Underground Lovers’ “Promenade” off of their landmark 1992 sophomore album Leaves Me Blind, I instantly fell in love.  They somehow captured the energy and vibe and, mildly, the sound that New Order perfected on side one of their 1986 Brotherhood, and then took it to a whole other level with a Wedding Present style jam session at the end that just keeps getting louder and louder as it builds and builds and doesn’t let go until the listener has been pummeled by the onslaught.  It left me breathless and exhilarated and I was hooked.  I’ve found myself searching high and low for their albums ever since – sometimes putting together incredibly expensive mail orders direct from Australia via international money order and a sinking feeling that nothing would ever arrive, but those CDs always did and never failed to impress.  Still the remoteness and difficulty of finding their music locally has always made me dream of the brief period in 1994 when their one US distributed release Dream It Down CD (which was sandwiched by a bunch of Leaves Me Blind songs) was available everywhere and usually for super cheap!   But it had been a long time since their last album, 1999’s well titled dark and epic Cold Feeling, which saw them pretty much embracing an all electronic album (albeit in a way that 17 Seconds era Cure might have made had they gone a similar direction), and with all of their side projects like Glenn Bennie’s consistently solid GB3 project and with vocalist Vincent Giarrusso making a movie (2000’s Mallboy), I assumed the band was done.  So, not only are they back, but back with the original line-up fully intact for their seventh long-player!  This is monumental.  It’s as if no time has passed.  This is as excellent, fresh and vital as they ever were.  Many of these songs could fit easily into different eras of the band, but none of it sounds like they’re retreating to past glories and it’s simply so welcoming to hear their somehow wholly unique guitar jangle – something that I might possibly be able to describe if I were a musician, but somehow their guitar phrasing is unlike anyone else’s.   It’s also good to hear Phillipa Nihill’s vocals back into the mix for the first time since 1996’s straight forward Rushall Station, so it is perfect that she takes the lead vocal on the soft and meditative opener “Spaces.”  In fact, Nihill sings up front in three of the quieter moments.  The nicely atmospheric love song “Dream to Me,” hints at Leaves Me Blind’s wonderfully bouncy “Holiday,” while the penultimate “In Silhouette’s” mostly guitar and voice balladry finds her cutting straight past the high of a new love and realizing that she’s “gonna tear your heart out” in the end, while reminding just a little of one of my old favorites “Ways t’Burn.”  There are also some seriously loud moments here as well.  “Can for Now” opens with that bare signature guitar riff before cruising into a nice shuffle beat and a song that builds momentum and noise as it progresses (along with the handclaps and woops and hollers), while the early single “Au Pair” begins with a classy bass plucking before exploding into a straight ahead rocker.  The propulsive closing epic “The Lie That Sets You Free” with it’s backwards effected vocals comes off a little bit like a lost gem from the self titled Stone Roses album.  It’s always been the Underground Lovers’ ability to blend their “live” instruments with dance beats and technology so seamlessly that is their true signature.  The room shaking beat of “Signs of Weakness” rattles its way into one’s consciousness as its keyboard atmospherics merge with a Peter Hook-esque bass line for a trance inducing finale.  Elsewhere, we find them paying tribute to the Aussie legends The Go-Betweens on “Riding” by stealing their “Cattle and Cane” riff and referencing them at a party (“We were at a party / Rob and Grant were there / Lindy in an afro / we was dancing on the stairs”) from the old days at the “Cattle and Cane Disco.”   However, it’s while listening to “St. Germain,” that it all finally sunk in that this remarkable band is back!  This song would’ve been a favorite of mine and fit seamlessly onto almost any of their albums, and yet, here it is, over 20 years after I first fell for them, a trademark single.  This is all without mentioning my favorite song on the album, the stunning and sweeping “Haunted (Acedia),” which may simply be one of their best songs period - right up there with the bitter “Beautiful World” from 1994’s Dream It Down.  What an amazing return!  Now, if only to get them back over to the states for a tour!


The History of Apple Pie
Out of View
“Don’t You Wanna Be Mine?” 7”
(Marshall Teller)

Sometimes I find myself starting to get wrapped up in some kind of phony critic mind set when it comes to music.  I start thinking about music that I hear with the bent ear of why something might be important in some sort of fantastical big picture, or why something might be more important than another.  It’s all pretty ridiculous.  I am a music fan and the only reason I write these silly little pieces is because I am so excited about the things I like that I want to share them with whomever may be willing to listen.  It’s true that the lyrics to the debut album from this UK quintet are not overly profound, nor is their sound extremely original, but by damn, I love this album!  It doesn’t hurt that their influences seem to be drawn from my favorite era of music – the UK/US indie scene from the late 80s to the early 90s, or more specifically the less than flatteringly coined “shoegaze” scene, nor does it hurt that they’re so freaking good at it.  This is an aggressively uplifting album.  From the opening “Tug,” which feels ready to fly off the rails at any moment – barely kept grounded by a massive low end, to the stomping beat and squalling skyward approach of the closing “Before You Reach the End,” this album is pure joy to listen to.  In many ways, it reminds me of the fresh and energetic shock to the system I received from Popsicle’s Lacquer oh so many years ago (see story here).  The twin guitar assault between Jerome Watson and Aslam Ghauri here is gritty, intuitive and unhinged – not schooled and calculated (just check out the fills during the verses of the stumbling forward momentum of the standout “Glitch”).  Jerome Watson’s solos throughout sound like he’s strumming his effected guitar with as much force and speed as possible to see who can squeeze out the most sparks and break the most strings.  Meanwhile the sweet vocals of Stephanie Min provide the dreamy elegance to counteract the stratospheric aim of the music.  The highlight songs, however, are the ones that showcase the vocal interplay between Min and bassist Kelly Lee Owens – reminding strongly of the much missed Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson from Lush.  The poptastic “See You” can only smack a huge smile across my face as those two trade ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and ‘la la las’ atop a Watson’s aggressive string shredding strums.  Each song melts into the next rarely providing a breath, as the closing feedback of “See You” immediately kicks starts the buzzing and bouncing “Mallory,” which is yet another candy coated piece of pure gold.  Perhaps the sweetest moment is for the simple comforting love song that is “You’re So Cool,” or for me, a kind comforting reminder that life is not all bad.  There indeed are occasional quiet moments of love and contentment and they should be treated with respect and given the same weight as those dark times and struggles that seem to dominate memories.  Of course, the very next song on the album, the huge and majestic “I Want More,” explores the struggle to keep it all together and to keep dreams alive.  During this year of personal struggle, this album has never failed to put a smile on my face and fill me with at least a touch of energy.  What more can someone ask from music?

The band also released a 7” single for a new song late this year, “Don’t You Wanna Be Mine?”  It’s a solid song with some nice organ pumping before the usual flood of guitars carries the song to a thrilling close.  The B-side, however, is just a remix of the A, which is a disappointment.  Word has it that they’re working on the second album already, which is fitting of their clear enthusiasm.  Can’t wait!


Lanterns on the Lake
Until the Colours Run
(Bella Union)

Lanterns on the Lake’s debut, Gracious Tide, Take Me Home (my 2011 #3 pick), was a misty melancholic epic.  The entire album evoked images of dreary grey skies and the cold dampness of coastal harbors.  Having grown up in such an environment, it recalled the comforts of home and the longing of escape and the need for warmth and brightness.  Much like their three early self-released EPs, Gracious Tide wormed its way into my heart and found itself to be one of my favorites of the last several years.  I listen to it over and over when the mood strikes and lose myself in its beautiful landscape.  Having said this, their follow-up has a lot to live up to.  Word has it that the recording of Until the Colours Run was not such an easy process either.  The band lost two founding members as well as struggling through a financial crisis.  Apparently, there was doubt that they would continue.  Well, I for one am thanking them personally for sticking it out, because this second album is an astonishing triumph.    The pre-LP single “Another Tale from Another English Town” immediately threw down then gauntlet that they are truly a force to be reckoned with, as its one of the best songs to come out this year.  They don’t lose their cinematic windswept beauty, they enhance it with more of a focused energy, a little added edge to the layers of instrumentation and to the lyrics, as singer Hazel Wilde sings of frustration with the direction of society, perhaps stemming from the band’s own struggles or simply witnessing the drastic cutbacks to important programs governments are making in the name of austerity: “it’s getting hard to breathe round here, to think round here / and we’ve been sold a thousand lies this year / we just wanted the  quiet life, the quiet life / but they won’t stop till they see us in the ground, till they see us in the ground.”  It’s this soft-spoken protest plainly sung inside the sweeping dynamics of the music that drives the message home that much harder.  It’s difficult not to feel the sadness and anger building inside.  Additionally, the album’s opener “Elodie” seethes on to the scene with buzzing feedback before exploding into a breathtaking dramatic wall of urgent beautiful noise.  Each verse is a quiet piano led interlude with Wilde’s plaintive vocals – though there is a restless percussive that flutters around her voice, as if the band is itching to get back to that noise.  Then the song shifts tempos about two thirds of the way in and they crank out a striking guitar solo, before things simmer down to a hush as the song concludes.  “The Buffalo Days” keeps this more direct direction upfront, as the violins build tension that only partially gets relieved in the crashing cymbals of the chorus, and then the entire song pushes itself into a massive climax that rivals some of the most dramatic moments of the much missed Delgados.  On that line of thought, “The Ghost That Sleeps in Me,” also hints at the power and variety of that band, as Wilde almost sounds like Emma Pollock as she whispers atop slow piano stammers, cellos and crackling static, but then the song shifts into a symphonic epic held together by deep pounding drums.  Meanwhile, the heart wrenching piano ballad, “Green & Gold” sticks to its simple direct unadorned approach and teaches us the “fear is just a fleeting thing,” while “love is not a fleeting thing” – reminding us that we can overcome our fears easier than we can overcome heartbreak.  When I first heard Lanterns of the Lake, after mail ordering their 2008 debut Starlight EP, I immediately liked them, but I never saw this kind of grandeur coming from those days of humble CDr’s and handwritten sleeves.  This is purely a magnificent album that grows and reveals its power and subtleties with each listen.  I urge you, if you haven’t heard them previously, to give them a chance to astound you.

see the rest of the best here:

1 comment:

  1. I love your writing Chris! You can read the excitement of something you live dearly... Good stuff!