Why wouldn’t this be on my favourites? I’ve never been involved with a musical release before and to be able to drop a small spotlight (let’s call it a pen torch shall we?) onto people I admire and who I think deserve it was very satisfying. As a listener I’m still returning to this release too, the sequencing hangs it together in a way I often find lacking from compilations, the songs relate, there’s a shared mood while sufficient diversity to prevent my spirit sagging across two crammed discs or slabs of vinyl. Running the gamut from chamber-pop to dirty punk reminders that the late Eighties were a washing machine spin loaded with imaginative guitar sounds – it’s amazing how much was going on right before guitars gave up centre stage to hip hop; the mirror cracked in too many directions perhaps? Certainly to find this kind of diversity in a relatively sparsely populated state is impressive – it shows how this compact area managed to give musicians the freedom to foul up in public, a chance to collaborate, find places to play, practice, get better, put things out in small editions, escape the scouring brutality of mass judgement/mass media/mass marketing…It was still possible to fly under the radar given barely only a smattering of what Seattle was about ever made it to the wider world at the behest of major label hook-ups and revisionist history. This feels more real to me, messier, dirtier, more beautiful, more full of life. Friendly.
Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels 2”
El-P is one of the finest producers hip hop has ever produced. Def Jux was, for a time (pretty well its first three years), untouchable with every release from Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Mr Lif, the label head himself hitting some new peak of imagination and talent – then, OK, it went off the boil, became more sporadic in its genius. Fine, whatever, El-P’s own work remained exemplary in terms of wordplay, production, ability to range across emotions – I guess I could criticise that he has only one vocal tone but who cares, it’s a good voice and the words matched to it are spot on. Killer Mike I didn’t know much about until I started seeing his name associated with El-P and then heard they’d started this collaboration – low expectations, never that bothered by team-ups…Then I heard this. In a year where my hip hop desires grew no more interesting than checking mixtapes on DatPiff, this one album blew my head off. It helps that I think Zack De La Rocha is one of the finest MCs ever to grace a mic and is the only man worthy of picking up Chuck D’s voice of consciousness crown – it helps that he smashes his appearance here. Gangsta Boo meanwhile had stuck in my head all the way back to 1999 or so when she crashed a highlight on Outkast’s Stankonia album (an album definitely making the favourites list for that year) and here she does something remarkable – the first time in a decade and a half I’ve heard a sex rap that restores humour and makes it sound like someone having fun. The dexterity of topical jumps on this album, the quotable chorus lines, the production moves that don’t stagger too far from El-P’s stomping ground but show he’s always thinking of new ways to make it happen, the sense of two guys actually collaborating and reacting to one another rather than just dialling in eight bars or having some producer snatch something off a stored dat – Gods, it feels so good to see rappers truly working together rather than just appearing as product placement on one another’s work. Finest rap record of the year, a best of decade contender, El-P and Killer Mike showing age doesn’t impact hunger if you’ve got the guts to go for it.
Current 93 “I Am the Last of All the Field That Fell”
February, took girlfriend to Union Chapel to see Current 93. She survived the support acts, no problem at all…Then Current 93 commenced an awesome instrumental build, performers entering, adding themselves to the sound, onwards and upwards, on bounds David Tibet – barefoot, tweed suit, matching hat, striking resemblance to Jasper Carrott – he opens his mouth and sings…And girl turns to me with look of abject horror. She’d had no idea what she was in for. She fell asleep a bit later and the news that there’d be an encore set her scurrying to the bathroom – I found her thirty minutes later in the bar necking a bottle of wine. And I laughed myself silly I admit. It’s fair to say Current 93 are an acquired taste and I have most certainly acquired it. I enjoy artists who twist and turn across years, grow and change. Tibet’s lyrical skills are beyond that of near anyone, the writing skills that go into warping language and concept in the way he does – try to follow the plots and storylines that result in lines about “the ghost of Gary Glitter,” you could get lost for days in his words. I purchased a copy of his book of lyrics too incidentally which added immeasurably to my admiration of him as an artist. The music on this particular album feels a lot more like a fully engaged band rather than a musical muse or vibe being created by a consortium of friends (not a criticism at all, there’s always something going on with Current 93.) His willingness to cede the microphone to a guest, his vocals mirrored by a female voice, the addition of guitar work straight out of Seventies’ space rock, the piano led core to many of the pieces…There’s something akin to jazz at work here and it results in a looser and more conversational release, a different way of getting lost in sound.
Therapy? “Troublegum” (3xCD Reissue)
No debate, this has always been one of my favourite albums – there’s not a weak track on it, it hammers through the first three songs in easily chant-able, easily quotable line-after-line, then hits a fresh high with the relatively mellow Stop it You’re Killing Me then chart ‘hits’ Nowhere and Die Laughing. It says a lot about the band’s confidence that they could afford to stick their best shots at success in the run up to the album’s mid-point – it’s because they were oozing quality at this moment in time; like the Sex Pistols’ one album, inspiration is unstoppable. Pop tones deployed over punk guitars and metal heaviness, the sudden breaks to daylight relief from the sheer force of the songs – few remnants of alternative rock was this pristine, sharp and well-honed. Naturally I wondered whether it was worth buying the reissue just to hear a polished up 2014 take on an album I already own but that’s a further point in favour of this release, a full two discs of extras that, for once, serve to deepen awareness of how ‘on it’ this band were at that point in time. Ten remixes (or alternative mixes) of varying interest – but working with this kinda quality it’s hard to miss; thirteen non-album songs none of which move far from the album’s chosen template but that’s no shame if one wants high-adrenalin speed and thrash; four demo versions each of which has noteworthy tweaks compared to the final editions; six live tracks – it’s a generous blitz of worthy material, none of this tacked on live album, tacked on radio session approach. It’s an indication of how ‘giving’ this release is that four of the live/demo tracks are of non-album songs just to deepen awareness of those extras – nice touch. Hard to take issue when a near perfect album is backed up with thirty-four worthwhile cherry-picked bonus tracks and all for a very reasonable price. Therapy? Are still out there, rolling on, still fun, still listenable – this was a pleasure. And it includes Potato Junkie’s immortal chorus line “James Joyce is fucking my sister,” sheer poetry!
The Weeknd “Kissland”
I shouldn’t like this guy, the misogynistic side of hip hop is just so tedious, listening to powerless youngsters prattle on about their talent for sexual exploitation when every resulting song makes very clear they’re copping notes from online videos and are unlikely to have touched a real woman, let alone a conquest of quality and equality worth bragging about…But then the Weeknd makes the ludicrousness of it all so visible. It’s rare to find a lyricist who manages to write with such duplicity, his every triumph his matched by visible self-loathing, self-disgust, shame, embarrassment – he makes hip hop’s fixation on purchasing female flesh look as pathetic as it should. And in amidst it, such a sound! His keening voice matches these sombre tales perfectly, he finds lines that linger in the mind less because of the wording and more the way he expresses them. The production is what first lured me in, a taste for hauntology (think, The Caretaker, Ghost Box), for eerie synths and echoing voices, for deployment of dark spaces amid the music – it’s all here, in many ways there’s little marking these songs as pop music. There’s plenty of intelligence on display here, the way the opening track breaks two and a half minutes in to suddenly reveal that what, to many artists, would be an entire song, was merely an intro. Hymns apparently spoken to strippers and escorts blur into confessional statements about his own status as an artist, as a man in a certain milieu, his own inability to step away from it all despite his supposed power and wealth. It’s a beautifully revealing album, a twist on the tedious R Kelly level skill but no heart or soul approach. Heck, it raises the point that how can any man this dependent on women (buying them, speaking of them, boasting about prowess with them), so sensitive to them that he has to carry this much discomfort and need to take out anger on them, be anything other than an injured child with a mummy complex? Great to hear it played out artfully rather than through the usual grossness.
The Space Lady “The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits”
Serendipity. Once a month, once every couple of months I stroll along with a clutch of CDs, DVDs, vinyl and hand them over at Record & Video Exchange at Notting Hill Gate – always for exchange, never cash. Sad as this may seem but on a day where I can’t get my spirit up, where a touch of blue is draped across my thoughts, I find standing in this store therapeutic, flipping through the cards listing what they’ve got in, calculating potential purchases against my pocket of R&VE vouchers, measuring the potential interest of a rare Earth live recording against that of a five track Skullflower EP and so forth. I made it there hungover once and ended up dehydrating in the store – I had to hand everything to the staff to look after and ramble down the street to get water before I could return and resume. Anyways, where was I? Oh yes…I’m in the store browsing, final purchase to be made, I find this bizarre black and white slipcase featuring a woman in a Viking helmet playing a keyboard on an unknown street – what the heck, worth a shot, cheap too. I’m going to her website today to purchase a copy direct (http://www.thespacelady.net/) to make sure the money goes direct to her. It’s a brisk release, two discs, 30-40 minutes on each, consisting of reinterpretations of well-known pop and rock songs mostly from the Sixties and Seventies – just her voice and a heavy synthesiser tone. Beautiful. She brings out the mystical vibe, the sorrow, the poignancy of songs like Major Tom or Ghost Riders in the Sky in ways I’d never recognised. Her voice is used effectively, matches the inventiveness of the playing, the shift from artificial vibes to classical performance back to revealing the electronic aspects of the instrument. Reading the inlay and hearing that these songs came about because working as a street musician is how this individual chose to live and feed herself and family adds a personal touch that I find appeals far more than supporting some perky millionaire with a machine feeding them material.
Mogwai “Rave Tapes”
Finally! Hey, nice to see you, pull up a chair – crack a beer, come on in, how’ve you been? It’s been a while! God it is nice to encounter a Mogwai album that doesn’t make me shrug and remember how awe-inspiring I found them when first faced with the brilliant string of Young Team, 4 Satin EP, Ten Rapid, EP+, Come on Die Young…Then again, they’ve never entirely gone away, there have always been inspirational moments – the My Father My King EP, the Government Commissions compilation, the Night Moves live CD/DVD, the Les Revenants soundtrack…It’s just, around that, there’s been so much lacking. Songs going nowhere, the stereotypical moves of post-rock (surge and relax, circle down the plug hole to conclusion), the major albums have seemed so polite, like counting off time for another Mogwai album rather than having much to really express. Rave Tapes isn’t a revolution – it doesn’t have to be, it just sounds simultaneously relaxed and rejuvenated, fresh horses, some grit back in the gears.
Mesektet “Towards a Bleak Sun”
Egyptian tomb imagery, similarly themed track titles, murmuring echoes and wordless incantations – yep, dark ambient is definitely in the house and the house has moved to the Nile. Having been down the Nile and having seen the sites (I recommend it if you’re going to do only one big trip in your life go see – I went soon after the revolution, this is a poor nation where the everyday people could use the cash in a way it’s hard to imagine when sat in London, you’re perfectly safe too – just go with a reputable tour group because you’ll benefit from the added local knowledge and guidance) I can say that such experience doesn’t add anymore to the album, Mesektet is simply a very controlled and well-executed set of drone pieces, perfect in and of themselves. Naturally if you want to muse on empty tombs and hot sand edging around temple ruins it doesn’t hurt. It’s a warm sound, fills a room, erases the random distracting noises of the everyday in favour of this blanket of fluctuating and developing tones – a comforting sound.
Scott Walker & Sunn O))) “Soused”
Tight records are the way to go – having a seventy minute CD doesn’t mean one should fill it whatever pressure there is now to cram on more tracks as if that means value. It doesn’t, an album should hit in that 40-50 minute range because that’s a length a human attention span can digest and a musician can make cohesive and coherent without becoming repetitious. It’s very rare something longer can sustain a peak – it seems as the CD format becomes less significant, as vinyl makes a slight return, the inclination in recent years has been to pull back toward vinyl-length releases that hit that sweet spot and don’t out stay their welcome. In rock’s outer realms, I’ve got less problem with stretching sound out to the nth degree – but here these guys keep it on a leash with the result that it whipped by and I had to rewind, repeat once – twice – three times at least…And stayed hooked. Sunn O))) are generous collaborators willing to merge into other’s conceptions – not something every musician can do. Here Scott Walker’s team rule the roost and that’s absolutely fine given the result is this oppressively smoky darkness. There’s not much light here but, when used, it’s shattering – ornate vocals and soaring anthemic guitars cut off too soon to head toward prog. The tracks stand more as accompaniments to Walker’s lyrics than instrumental pieces on their own, they feel like a backdrop to his musing which I admit I’ve still not really got my head around…But that’s OK, an interesting journey amid cracks of friction that kept me hooked.
Sam Kazakgascar “Greetings from Beautiful…”
A total pitch – go to latherrecords.com and risk a few dollars on this. I’d been in touch with the gentleman Jed Brewer and he’d sounded proud – then I heard it and had to drop everything and write back to tell him how right he was. Production handled by Tony Cale? Goddamn they kept that quiet… When musicians talk of giving something an ‘eastern’ feel it’s often some faux orientalism that never amounts to more than a single song diversion – this lot have immersed themselves in a particular style, without falling into any kind of cliché, taking the time and developing the skills needed to take sound on a journey. There’s a concept in here somewhere regarding Sam, the post-apocalypse Mad Max figure but with a lot more humour and smiles.