“One musical instrument appears in nearly every programme: the concert hall. True, a hall makes no sound of its own. But it acts as an extension to every instrument by reverberating sounds, selectively enhancing or absorbing various frequencies as it does so. Take the hall away and the sounds of instruments are reduced to a shadow of our expectations.”—Robert Jourdain from Music, The Brain, and Ecstacy
“If somebody asks you what’s the smartest species or who’s the smartest person, it’s the equivalent of asking, what’s the best tool, a hammer or a screwdriver? Well, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?”—Brian Hare - http://brianhare.net/
There seems to be more brass than usual. This, in the year I started to learn the cornet. This is clearly a) the cause b) an effect c) sheer coincidence d) some unquantifiable combination of the above.
The list veers heavily to the folkier end of the spectrum.
Despite listening a lot of radio (3-4 hours a day for parts of the year) it only introduced me to a couple of tracks on the list. (Thesetwo.) (And, to be fair, they did play a couple of others I’d already been aware of.)
There was also a bunch of tracks that didn’t make it into the twelve, (some of which I’d begun writing up before I actually thought to count how many songs I’d picked) which I’ll throw in here:
One thing comes after another. I’ve tried to sequence this list with some sense of flow (albeit not as tightly/forced as last year) because music is never static - how each moment flows to the next is usually more important than what happening in any given moment.
Kaki King is an extraordinarily accomplished technical guitarist, watching her play, it’s a joy to see the dazzling layered tones coming from one guitar. The Fire Eater (from Glow but I went for the unnacompanied version) flows through several distinct regions, moving through different aspects of her style, from sparse tension building to rhythmic release and a gentler harmonic comedown.
But her playing never becomes tiresome, ego-driven showing off (as can be the risk). Despite the complexity there’s always a thread of beautiful simplicity to follow: no section is incomprehensibly dense, no transition feels bolted on or jarring, the playing never overwhelms the track. Beautiful.
2/12: The Morris Man Cometh from The North Sea Scrolls
Ok, I promise to stop complaining about my own one-track rule after this, but context is important. It’s why I prefer albums to singles. It’s why I still buy hard copies. It’s why I’m writing these.
North Sea Scrolls has done a lot to create context for itself: a concept album with spoken word introductions/narrations, an accompanying time-line, paintings, and live shows where they dress appropriately and use a projector to inject extra context into proceedings. Weaving a surreal, sprawling, interconnected, alternate history of our green and pleasant land. Context.
Fortunately, a heavy folk song about brutal morris dancers is gonna be awesome whatever the context.
My favourite part of the Matrix series is the haunted/glitching house segment of the Animatrix. It managed to be quiet and beautiful while remaining completely faithful to the rules of a world more obviously tuned for hectic thrills.
The Walkers Lament pulls off a similar trick, embedding a moment of stillness and beauty into a zombie apocalypse. A post apocalyptic folk ballad capturing the deep sadness of having to shoot your loved ones before they eat your brains.
It also manages the rather magical feat of not sounding like a new song. There’s something about the way the structure is stripped to the most resonant elements, where easy rhymes and certain lines invite a singalong on the first listen, that feels like it’s been passed through the refining process of an oral tradition.
Of course, even if the song had been around for years, I’m pretty sure Tara Bratton’s gorgeous performance would still count as a definitive version. A beautifully clear voice that pours a lot of heart into what could have been very alien subject matter.
I can’t help but think Call Me The Breeze is the wrong choice of single from Sugaring Season. Oh, it’s a lovely tune and I can see why it might be considered an easy entry point (especially in a market where Laura Marlin has been successful), but: Beth Orton is one of my absolute favourite singers and, from an album that acts as an broad yet subtle showcase for her voice, it’s a track which does little to accent the idiosyncrasies that make me love her voice so much.
Dawn Chorus has a relatively sparse backing of delicate guitar, warm double bass and shuffling brushed drums, where the vocal takes centre stage, vocals which are unmistakably Beth Orton, crescendoing in a rush of syllables that, through rhythm and repetition, shake off semantic shackles into a bubbling cascade of the human body as musical instrument: a sonic sculpture poured from a mould of lungs and vocal chords and tongue and teeth and a lifetime of singing, from cradle to studio. Lovely.
One difficulty in selecting individual songs is losing a sense of context. In the case of Dorcus, that loss is especially severe because its position on this list has a lot to do with how I first heard it.
It was a month of strange gigs, one of which was a night of electronic musicians, mostly sitting and poking at electronic musical instruments. Heck, one laptop musician may well have pressed play and sat checking Facebook for all I know. Kemper Norton alleviated this somewhat by having several instruments, walking around the stage to play/trigger different segments of the music.
But Dorcus*, played on the harmonium and with sung lyrics, stood adrift on the night as something magical. Now, I’m not the sort of preposterous snob who goes on about “real instruments” - any tool for making music is a “real” instrument – but I have to confess, the human voice is something that has a fundamental resonance. A human anchor in a sea of ethereal, electronic sound.
It has a similar effect thanks to it’s position on Carn, the rest of the ep provides context with Kemper Norton’s woozy, “slurtonic” atmosphere. But I’m picking individual tracks: I can’t just site the rest of the ep. Fortunately, it’s bloody good in its own right.
It builds on a drone with washes of static and slurtronic ambience in a way that hardly draws attention to itself, but provides an open space for the warmth and beauty inherent in the human voice. The immediacy and character that can be heard in singing is hard to beat, and this song showcases that in a gently poignant way.
*Given that I went to the gig a while before the ep came out it’s possible I’ve gotten muddled up with a different track. Nonetheless, the effect is equivalent and Dorcus is a sublime track either way.
“Weird/strange/odd/not-normal” is only an insult from someone scared of new things.
At the very least it should be neutral, but personally I love that feeling of acclimatising my brain to the unfamiliar. Which I mention because I’m struggling to find a more precise description for Quetev Meriri than beautifully strange. A conclusion doubtless accentuated by the fact I don’t speak Hebrew, but also an inherent part of the disorienting collage of sounds coming from their music.
There’s a lot of gorgeous brain melting stuff on BeEle HaYamin, but Illuminations ג has the added bonus of cramming a lot of brain twisting stuff into a rather short span of time. I’m a big fan of density, and cramming animal noises, discord, off kilter timing, springy noises and a piano pushed into music box territory, into less than two minutes is welcome blast of dense strangeness.
There are two main kinds of Christmas song: one is tinsel and stockings, excitement and bright colours; the other is curled in front of a fire on a cold night, a full belly and a glass of mulled wine. Madam’s interpretation of the Coventry Carol is certainly the later, although I think someone’s spiked the wine.
It’s a 16th century carol and one of my favourites. It has a beautiful, tragic melody and, usually sung as a choir, uses some harmonies that are somewhat strange to modern ears. It also focusses on the death of countless children which is a minor story beat in most tellings of the Nativity.
On top of a gorgeously fragile vocal and ominous cello line, Madam accentuate the strangeness and the darkness with various studio techniques. I particularly like the heavily panned reverse reverb on the drum.
It may not be the most joyous of festive tunes, but it is an marvellously sinister version of an incredible carol.
Diversions Vol. 2 is a warm, effortlessly moving album combining the folk tradition and charm of the Unthanks with the rich, expansive sound of Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. If I had to pick one song, and I do (it’s the rules), it would have to be the utterly magnificent King Of Rome.
Musically stunning and emotionally moving, it’s a truly wonderful song about a somewhat unlikely subject: pigeon fancying.* If you’d told me 2012 would find me welling up in the street as the radio plays a song about a pigeon being blown off course I, well, I might have believed you, but it’s still kinda surprising.
It’s a superbly constructed piece of storytelling, establishing the pigeon as a source of everyday hope and joy, before throwing all his dreams into peril. The warm, intimate vocals of the Unthanks carry every beat of the story, illuminating every moment of yearning, defeat and victory. There’s a deeply personal concern for Charlie: even “I told you so” is sung with love.
And Charlie’s response catches in my throat every time.
Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band paint the picture with a subtle brush, holding back when a light swell carries the mood and pushing to the forefront when emotional release is needed. The instrumental section towards the end builds layer upon layer, lifting up on shining wings through radiant sunset clouds, always finding home.
I’ve avoided ordering this list in any sort of ranking, but if I had this probably would have been number one. Every element is exceptional and they work together in beautiful harmony.
*Despite picking a song about pigeon fancying played by a brass band, I am, in fact, a southerner. I know.
There are few things as satisfying as musicians who know their instruments and each other well enough to let the music go wherever it wants without fear. That golden point where each musician is worthy of centre stage, but never slips into the realm of overbearing ego likely to trample the emergent beauty of a heartfelt collaboration.
Lepistö and Lehti push their instruments far and wide (honestly, I discovered a bunch of different sounds I didn’t know an accordion could make) completely backing each other up at every turn, making the sound of accordion and double bass a phenomenally rich and diverse combination.
Kaksi (fittingly enough, the Finnish for “Two”) spends the first half with a pulsing accordion sound providing a space for bowed double bass to roam and play, before switching roles for the accordion to take centre stage. It’s a deceptively simple structure where each musician has his chance to shine, but each trusting their partner enough to know when to step back. The pulsing builds to a transition point (and again at the end of the track) of a tight, fluid interplay where the both complement each other stunningly.
It’s bad enough having a bloated proportion of Etonites in government, without business, finance and culture improbably dominated by private schools. It’s bad enough the top universities were overloaded with privilege before fees, without setting a price disparity that forces a financial taint into the heart of education. It’s bad enough that elites naturally favour their own kind without a government entrenching those divisions.
These are hardly new issues, yet they remain perennially, depressingly, relevant. Ideal subject matter for a politically charged song.
As valuable as it is as social commentary, as much as I agree with the scorn poured upon a system that extols platitudes of fairness while clawing against any changes happening despite it: I actually love this song for the mounting tension that explodes into woozy vaudevillian lunacy and the wonderful fat bottomed “a” when Simon Indelicate sings the word class.
The Smiths are a deeply important band to me, having influenced me at a deeply formative stage, so hearing a cover version always fills me with trepidation: will this live up to the music I love? Maggie8 go a step further and write a song that takes This Charming Man as a starting point and builds something new from it.
It’s difficult trying to top Maggie8’s description of themselves: Hindi Indie Superstars. This Charming Lady directly references the Smiths and their music shows hints of dozens of other bands, but I’ll avoid playing the spot-the-influence game: partly because it’s far too reductive an approach for my tastes and partly because my knowledge of Indian music really isn’t up to the task.
But This Charming Lady is very much its own song; the trail of influences leads to a new destination. Music tends to feel derivative from too few influences rather than too many, originality emerges from a rich selection of creative fuel, and Maggie8 certainly have their own distinctive voice.
And what a voice it is. The familiar riffs and phrases dance through a gorgeous tapestry of surprisingly complimentary sounds that diverges wildly from the Smiths. They took a song I love and added so much of themselves to it. I love that too.
Creating music has, inevitably, affected the way I listen to music. People frequently mention the hyper-analytical aspect (often as a complaint, which baffles me) but it also drives my tastes, drawing me to people who are already working with ideas I want to work with. Music I love to listen to inspires what I want to play which influences what I want to listen to which itself inspires what I want to play which [loop forever].
Yair Yona is a superb example of this: I was drawn to his music largely because he has key influences I share and a style of fingerpicking combined with atmospherics and arrangements that appeal to me as a player (which I was drawn to because of music I listen to), and listening to his music has subsequently pushed my tastes and my playing style.
His playing style is one that wrings a lot of sound out of a guitar, building beautiful complex structures from six strings. What I love about Yair Yona in particular is the range of ideas and influences he stuffs into those structures. Listening to the range of rhythmic and melodic ideas he brings to his playing (even without considering the gorgeous arrangements) it’s clear he’s a man of broad and excellent taste. (A supposition confirmed by reading his blog.)
Poetry Nights In Valhalla creates a rich web of 12-string guitar fit for Asgardian verse, intertwining with lyrical brass and clarinet, chiming bells for the cheerful dead, erupting into a drunken Norse festival. The sheer richness of the sound is gorgeous and when the bass guitar makes it’s presence felt the whole track goes properly fuckin’ bananas. One of my favourite guitarists at the moment.
[At some point I realised half the text messages I send are general alerts/confirmations where the content is irrelevent. With that in mind, the following was inflicted on Vish over several months.]
I was on a quiet walk, sometime late last night, when a bald man handed me the corpse of a brown bear. Inside its putrid, maggot infested lungs rested a sapphire spider that glistened in the pale moonlight.
It tasted like sherbet.
Inside me, the spider started to move, its jittering radiating a peculiar sensation throughout my body. The twitching wave reached my skin and didn’t stop, generating a halo buzzing around my entire body.
I stared at my hand, looking for evidence of the field I knew was there. Maybe the fingerprints were a bit off? As I stared my hands began to shake. I stared harder. Not just my hand, but the bear, the bald man and the world were shaking. Harder and harder and…
I awoke in the bald man’s house, he stopped fixing his quiff in the mirror and turned around, “ah, you’re awake.” Something was different, something had changed.
“The spider is an ancient symbol of compromise, through the years a select few have embraced its potency to supernaturally improve their lives. Although, only a bit. Let’s not get greedy.”
“Supernatural?” I was as intrigued as a ferret with a fashion magazine, “do you mean magic powers like Captain Socksmuggler or Protein Girl or some shit? Do I get a costume?”
“Just the mask. Compromise, see?” He jumped off the wardrobe and rolled over to the bathroom. I watched him climb into the toilet, “you’ll understands soon,” he said, and flushed the chain.
With nothing better to do, I searched the house.
I found: 3 keys, some fruit, a round hole, a pierced lemming, a square peg, a one armed bandit, archer fetish porn, a bin full of floppy disks, a petrol engined wheelbarrow, clockwork fish, a headless doll, used motor oil, a Japanese padlock, used beer, a doll-less head, a cowardly lion, imaginary peacock feathers, motorbike cutlery, a large purple lamppost, a time machine, broken boot lace, the meaning of life,a mouldy sofa, frozen pigs ears, two left shoes, one right sock, snot green fairy lights, the scent of coffee, the holy grail, a puncture repair kit, three platinum toe nails and a partridge in a pair tree.
Fortunately, the second key opened the front door, so rather than jumping out of the cat flap and risking the three storey fall, I skipped cautiously into the misty street.
The golden glow of surrounding vapour illuminated by rosy fingered dawn sang with the chorus of early birds satisfied and beaming after a feast of worms plucked from cracked paving slabs.
Tweeting, a lesser striped grunge martin leapt from a telephone wire, flapping like fuck. Unable to get a feathered grip on the moist morning air and bird belly heaving with wriggly breakfast the beaky lardbucket fell from the air, barely missing my head and bouncing off the ground like an avian basketball.
“Ah ha,” he chirped, “I wonder if you can help me. My car has been stolen by the Mayor Of Despair and I have an appointment with my refuse collector.” He looked at me pleadingly. Or, at least, I think he did. Birds don’t have very expressive faces.
“I can’t take you there I’m afraid, but I can take you back in time to yesterday. Then you’ll be able to walk to your appointment without turning up late.”
“That’d be great. Could you drop me off in time for pointless; I want to impress Ryan the Fuzzy Duck when I know all the best answers.”
We arrived before we left and set off in separate directions.
I strolled down to the Moon casino where I knew I could while away a few hours playing Reverse Leather Blackjack without having to worry about bumping into myself.
I had to sneak in the back door when I realised the bouncer was a neighbour whose neck I had borrowed and never returned. It was many years ago but I guessed he would still remember.
Inside, my luck was strong and I held my nerve, winning the other payer’s respect. And all their money.
Feeling flush, I hired an entourage of woodland animals and went looking for a party. Or trouble. Or a party.
Drinking in the street, stealing garden gnomes, pushing over small children, jumping in puddles: we were young and wild and nothing could stop us.
A grey cat stood in our path, made a small noise and ran left and right: a black furball streaking in the opposite direction to a white one.
We follow the alabaster kitty but it was a trap and we got trapped in the trap. The night descends, the trees turn to nets and we are ankle deep in custard. (Trapped.)
Something inside me begins to twitch and jitter.
Three hunters stare at us, pointing sequinned rifles in our face. “Time to die.”
“You can’t kill us!” I growled in my best Batman voice, “I’ll turn into a bear and FUCK YOU UP!”
The something crawled through my innards and the world began to curl inside itself: light shifting as rods and cones realigned, strange scents flooding my nostrils and new frequencies lurking in the amused snort from the man shaving his head in the corner.
“Actually,” he chuckled, pausing and gesturing with the razor, “you will turn into a bear AND you will die. Compromise, see?”
“In the last ten years, we’ve discovered two previously unknown species of human. We can film eruptions on the surface of the sun, landings on Mars and even landings on Titan. Is all of this very boring to you? Because all this is happening right now, in this moment. Check the time on your phone, because this is the present time and these things are happening. The most basic mobile phone is in fact a communications devices that shames all of science fiction, all the wrist radios and handheld communicators. Captain Kirk had to tune his fucking communicator and it couldn’t text or take a photo that he could stick a nice Polaroid filter on. Science fiction didn’t see the mobile phone coming. It certainly didn’t see the glowing glass windows many of us carry now, where we make amazing things happen by pointing at it with our fingers like goddamn wizards.
Understand that our present time is the furthest thing from banality. Reality as we know it is exploding with novelty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to understand, before you start the day here, that the invisible thing in the room is the felt presence of living in future time, not in the years behind us.”—
“I’ve got 38 years of experience, so I’m capable of making something interesting out of it all.”—
My usual response to a film with mixed merits is to describe it as “…interesting”, yet, in the case of Nostalgia For The Light, that would be misleading.
Patricio Guzmán accumulated a lot of strong material - beautiful shots of the Atacama desert, mesmerising footage of telescopes tracing the sky and revealing interviews with interesting people - but the whole thing fails to coalesce into a compelling narative. A collection of good riffs that fail to make a great song.
He sets himself a difficult goal, trying to tie together vastly different explorations of the past (mainly astronomy and the political history of Chille), but doesn’t do enough to actually tie them together. All astronomy is seeing into the past, indeed, as one scientist points out, thanks to the speeds of light and consiousness, all our perceptions are of the (very recent) past. On the surface it bears little resemblence to the archeological investigations, but he sets himself the task of unifying it.
The most powerful segments of the film are the women searching the Atacama desert for the bodies of loved ones dissapeared as political prisoners. The whole desert. It’s heartbreaking.
At one point a tearful woman, who’s been searching for years, wishes there was a telescope that could see into the ground to find the bones.
At another point, an enthusiastic scientist shows evidence of calcium, the stuff of bones, in the stars.
Yet, for reasons that escape me, these two clips weren’t edited right next to each other.
The whole pace was so gentle it failed to make the points it was trying to make, it had no urgency, no power. It felt like I was supposed to be inherently interested in what he was trying to do, and that it was enough to produce a drowsy, relaxing film without really trying to make it compelling.
"I’ve got 38 years of experience, so I’m capable of making something interesting out of it all."
A quick recording from a couple of weeks ago of a song from a future release. The studio versions take things in quite a different direction, but I love how this version leaves the song room to breathe.
I based this song on my favourite Ray Bradbury short story. Not actually a science fiction story, but one that plays with a scientific idea in a domestic setting, giving it a clever twist before twisting again for a beautiful ending.
He was an author who was never short of interesting ideas, who could always find the story that went with those ideas.
“There is no natural law or official quota that means you have to do nothing but scroll through a bunch of shit cat macros every day. Tune your digital environment until it brings you all the good stuff.”—Warren Ellis
“For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch sensitive - you merely had to brush the panel with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure of course, but meant you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same programme.”—
Look: if you thought I was going to end on anything other than a bit of shameless self promotion then you’re even madder than you look. But this was always supposed to be a vague list defined solely by things I love: and I really love Visions.
Most of this music was written and recorded in 2010, but it finally came together in 2011 and we were able to hear it all and hold it and release it into the wild. So much went into these songs and I’m really fucking proud of them.
(And wait until you hear what we’ve got coming next year…)