Album reviews 2010

In a pretty random order (don’t ask – no idea), here are the other albums I’ve particularly enjoyed in 2010… Remember I’ve put a playlist up on Spotify covering most of these plus the top ten (although I may yet add a few more things to it).

Everybody Was In The French Resistance… Now!
Before this year I’d never really got Art Brut. “You have to see them live!” I’ve often been told. I’ll manage it one day. However, I have come to see the truth of it, as Eddie Argos’s other band, Everybody Was In The French Resistance… Now! (sic) headlined the first evening of Indietracks. It was several thousand times better than I expected, and on getting back from wherever-the-hell-Indietracks-is-I-dunno I picked up a copy of this record. The project is essentially about songs in response to other songs: here, Jimmy Mack expresses his horror at Martha Reeves’ readiness to cheat on him, the boy from Billie Jean finds out who his real dad was and Avril Lavigne is well and truly warded off. Great fun – maybe not all that many listens in it, but great fun while it lasts.

Allo Darlin’ – Allo Darlin’
To many people, this seems to have been the indie album of the year, and while I see the appeal of the band overall I couldn’t help but feel this album only gets 90% of the way to putting it across. Yes, the songs are utterly charming and joyous (though I’m afraid Heartbeat Chilli defines the point at which my twee tolerance threshold is finally breached) and the whole thing is thoroughly deserving of your attention. But it’s one of those records where somehow it just doesn’t have the oomph of the band’s live shows. That may simply be the absence of Elizabeth dancing away, with the country’s ageing male indie kids swooning over her quietly – she’s a tremendous frontwoman for the band, although of course that’s exactly the sort of thing it’s hard to translate into a recording. A terrific debut, though – I’m really looking forward to hearing their second album.

The National – High Voilet
This record has topped a lot of end of year lists, and a lot of indie snobs have therefore taken great delight in tearing it down. I won’t join the churls on this one, as this was a contender for my top ten (and might have made it if it had been a bit less lauded elsewhere… OK, very slightly churlish I suppose). But it really took me a long time to get into this record: individual tracks on their own do not put across its power, and it took me probably seven or eight listens before I even started to get it properly. Once I did, I found a dark and alarming world unfolding in front of me, and beyond that… quite a lot of charm, actually.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
There’s often a strange phenomenon where an album receives great acclaim largely on the back of its predecessor, which was critically lauded and propelled the band to new prominence, but not quite to superstardom; the latter comes only with the follow-up. So it was that Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips, and whatever the follow up to Ladies and Gentlemen by Spiritualised was called both did well with the critics and in terms of sale. Ditto Neon Bible by Arcade Fire, a rather unengaging record for much of its length (to the point that I very nearly didn’t bother with this album at all), but which was hailed as a classic even though the true classic was its predecessor, Funeral. Many of the fans who encountered the band at that time have been going around saying things like, “I like The Suburbs, but it’s no Neon Bible.” Well, in one sense it certainly isn’t; in truth, it’s a big improvement over its predecessor, with a more immediate production that at least brings the songs to life. I also admire this band’s willingness to try new and inventive things around the promotion of their records – the Google maps mash-up video to We Used to Wait being a case in point. Of course, there’s a snag here: it’s far too bloody long, and while a few songs around the theme of suburban boredom and decay are welcome, a whole album of them gets a shade trying. That said, there’s plenty to enjoy here, and it’s got a lot of listens in it: at its summit, Sprawl II represents probably the greatest achievement of the recent synth-pop revival. If nothing else, with this record Arcade Fire have signalled they can still produce inventive and interesting records – they’re not totally out of the shadow of their debut yet, as the setlist for their successful O2 shows demonstrated, but they’re clearly capable of finding life beyond it.

Betty and the Werewolves – Teatime Favourites
Live, this band are a bit of a punk rock force in a way that the album doesn’t totally put across. I can only presume this is a deliberate choice – it was recorded at One Cat studios by long-time Chris T-T collaborator Jon Clayton, so it’s not as if it was lacking for resources and know-how. So its thin, scratchy sound must be a deliberate throwback to the band’s C86 inspirations, though I have a theory that the rubbish amps used by 80s indie bands masked their true character when playing live – a pretty exact parallel, then! It does create a bit of a barrier, as it took me quite a lot of listens to realise just how good these songs are – lyrically there’s a certain tweeness going on, but there’s some substance behind it that stops things getting tiresome. If you’re willing to put the effort in, this album will pay you back in a way that indie pop albums don’t always manage. And if you get the chance to see them live, take it.

Lightspeed Champion – Life Is Sweet! Nice To Meet You
I was vaguely aware of Lightspeed Champion’s existence for a while, but he got my attention properly as one of the guest vocalists at the Triffids’ show at the Barbican: while his voice is very different to that of the late David McComb, he has a certain clarity of tone that really served the songs, and he very obviously had great affection for the material he was putting across. This, his second solo outing, doesn’t exactly sound like the Triffids, but there’s a certain sense of drama in the songs that perhaps echoes McComb a little. Add to that a lot of the other things I like in a record – principally tunes and charm – and he’s got a little winner here. What I particularly like however is the promise it holds for future releases: I hope and expect future Lightspeed Champion records will yield something even more impressive.

Chief – Modern Rituals
This band’s foray to the UK was probably made possibly by the success of Fleet Foxes: not to say they sound similar, as Chief’s schtick is somewhat more straightforwardly West Coast rock at heart, but the layered harmonies certainly recall the Foxes somewhat. While lead single Breaking Walls is probably the strongest track on the album, there are enough that are not too far behind to justify your attention, and bar the somewhat hackneyed Irish Song it coheres extremely well.

The Just Joans – Your Pain Is A Joke Next To Mine / Seasonal Greet
It’s hard to tell whether the unremitting misery and self-pity at the heart of these songs is inspired by one spectacularly bad break-up or a whole succession. Aside from the heartache, there is a constant sense in the Just Joans’ songs of not being at ease with your own lifestyle, past and present: not wanting to go home to see old pals, not wanting to go through the empty ritual of pulling on a Saturday night for the sake of it, not wanting to have to be mature about anything. If there’s nothing in these songs that you empathise with, I envy you. However, not only are they devastatingly acute, they’re also often very funny: Stuart Had A Dirty Book is essentially one big knob gag, while musically the style veers off into pure big top themes at time (Wee Helen Got Married springs to mind, but it’s not alone). Seasonal Greet is a four-track Christmas EP, while Your Pain… straddles that odd mini-album / EP divide. Both came in utterly delightful hand-made packages of 3” CDs from WeePop! Records – if you missed them, get yourself the downloads. Oh yeah: they’re a Scottish indie band, if you were wondering.

Standard Fare – The Noyelle Beat
Wow, this is one heck of a ride. A frank and presumably deeply personal tale of a difficult but ultimately triumphant relationship, it’s one of those albums that just couldn’t have been made by any other band. Quite where Standard Fare go next is a bit hard to predict, but it should be somewhere interesting – they’re a great prospect live, and could well go on to reasonably big things. Keep an eye on them, and if you’ve not heard this record, you wanna do something about that.

The Piney Gir Country Roadshow – Jesus Wept
Piney albums seem to come in pairs: 2004’s Peakahokahoo, an electro-pop debut, was followed up by an album with the Country Roadshow (Hold Yer Horses, from 2006) that brilliantly re-worked some of the same material into country form. A few quiet years later, Piney returned in 2009 with The Yearling, a richly-produced album straddling electro, pop, indie and country stylings that didn’t quite stack up to me (one of those albums where slightly more straightforward live renditions of the songs seemed to make much more sense). This record, with a Country Roadshow of largely different members, turned up with surprising swiftness, and while it doesn’t revisit any material from The Yearling it does reprise I Don’t Know Why I Feel Like Crying But I Do from Hold Yer Horses in a faster, more robust form. It may not be quite as overtly country or ballad-y as its 2006 predecessor, but it still works incredibly well: it’s a no-nonsense sort of record and all the better for it.

Badly Drawn Boy – It’s What I’m Thinking (Part One – Photographing Snowflakes)
Well… My admiration of Badly Drawn Boy stretches back as far as my fondness for I Am Kloot and Elbow… but unfortunately it stopped in around 2007. I felt the criticisms aimed at his LA albums were a bit unfair – OK, they didn’t hit the highs of Bewilderbeast, but they tried some new things and had plenty of decent songs on them. But it somehow started to unravel with 2004’s One Plus One Is One, a return to Gough’s roots, produced by Andy Votel, that totally failed to live up to its promise. Somehow, it seemed lifeless and uninspiring, even though it had plenty of nice moments on it. Gough proclaimed it a work of genius and fiercely defended it from the critical mauling it got… yet a few years later, all the material from it had vanished from his live set. The more punchy Born In The UK had a lot going for it musically, but its lyrics were too often incredibly clunky. What finally did it for me, however, was Badders’ dip in live form: some of the best gigs I’ve ever been to were by Badly Drawn Boy, but the lumpen, going-through-the-motions set I saw him put on in support of Born In The UK was a huge disappointment, coming from a man who had hit the heights of entertainment in live music. So I approached listening to this album with as much trepidation as Damon seems to have approached recording it, not even chancing cash on it until it had appeared on Spotify… And what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. The lyrical clunkiness is still there in places, but Damon has finally managed to wrap a musical landscape around it that more than makes up for it: this is easily his most charming and engaging record since Bewilderbeast, with all sorts of lovely sounds going on throughout. The delicate, understated songs beneath it all could hardly be further away from Born In The UK or Have You Fed The Fish? The choice of Too Many Miracles as lead single still baffles me though, as it’s the closest thing to the old clunky bombast that the album has to offer, and made me deeply suspicious of the whole thing – wrongly, it turned out, as the song works so much better in the context of the album. A quiet triumph then, which is probably just what Badders needed. I still haven’t dared see him live again though.

Anais Mitchell – Hadestown
What an interesting record. It might sound like the most disastrous conceit, but the central concept here is handled brilliantly: the story of Orpheus is told though the rich tradition of American musical idioms, with Mitchell enlisting a cast of guest vocalists and spinning the tale to include many resonances with modern life and politics. I still need to listen to this more – it’s not something that can easily be dipped into, but instead demands attention from start to finish. The live show comes to the UK in January, and I really hope I get to see it.

Davey MacManus with The Crimea – Listen to the Seashells, They Know Everything
This was the very first new album I got hold of in 2010, as Davey kindly gave a link to the MP3s in a comment on my Top 100 albums of the decade (where I put The Crimea’s debut at number 10 – what a cracking record). I didn’t quite see when Listen To The Seashells got its official release, as it didn’t seem to make much of an impact – very unjustly, it must be said. In places the album resurrects the pop tunes of the band’s debut, but there’s something more intimate and complicated going on behind them here, as the album taken as a whole paints a rich picture. I’m always struck by how well-produced Crimea records sound, without it smothering the songs or sounding forced – the same applies here. A beguiling record that, like so many albums mentioned here, deserved more exposure than it got.

The Loves … Love You
And finally, an album that technically doesn’t come out until 2011, but is already available from gigs and the Fortuna Pop website (if you’re brave enough to risk their mail order, which has gone wrong to some extent every time I’ve tried it). The Loves are a bit under-valued if you ask me: sure, they offer a pastiche of sixties pop, but they make a bloody good job of it – much better than many of the pastiches of eighties pop we’ve had to put up with this year – and have more decent tunes than many bands ever manage. They’ll be splitting up (“retiring”) after their last gig on February 13th 2011 (it was meant to be on Valentine’s Day… but that’s a Monday), and this is therefore their fourth album and last. It’s certainly got one of their very best songs on it, the superb single December Boy, but overall at ten tracks and 28 minutes it perhaps makes a bit too much of a virtue of brevity. With December Boy and Bubblegum having come out as a double A-side, I Lost My Doll To Rock’n’Roll on the Indietracks compilation and That Boy Is Mine, co-written with The School’s Liz Hunt, already trailed in the live sets of both bands, there’s not that much in it that actually feels very new. It’s… The End of The World is a highlight, and if you’ve not heard any of the songs before you’ll certainly enjoy it. Including Christmas single (yes, really) Motherfuckers wouldn’t have hurt though. It may not be their very best album, but there’s still enough reasons on here why we’ll miss The Loves when they’re gone, even those of us who don’t realise it yet.

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