2011 albums (2) – reviews

Slam Dunk – The Shivers
A squally, punky and rather fun album from a Canadian band featuring some of Immaculate Machine’s touring line-up from their final round-the-world jaunt in 2009. I picked this up as a free download at the start of the year and it kept my ears enjoyably busy in an otherwise quiet period for new releases.

British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
I’m starting to think there might be a useful ‘four-album’ rule that applies to certain bands, and that British Sea Power are one of those ‘four album’ bands: basically, by the time they get to their fourth album they’ve done all they’re going to do and unless you’re a massive fan of that band’s particular thing, you don’t need it in your life. The Futureheads are another and Elbow, arguably, are a third – the difference being that they had perhaps been under-recognised by album 3 so it was the fourth that really took off for them and catapulted them into arena shows. But that’s by the by. Valhalla Dancehall was the first album I bought in 2011, and the first that disappointed me – there’s nothing on it that’s not been done better on previous BSP albums, and it’s overly prone to long and slightly aimless songs. The one thing I’m uncertain about regarding my ‘four album’ theory is whether these bands remain viable beyond that point – BSP have been going for well over a decade now, and didn’t seem to make any commercial leaps with this record; one wonders if it will be their swansong.

Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
This was a contender for my top ten. It sees Sam Beam on excellent-as-ever lyrical form, presenting his reliably memorable melodies in rich and interesting arrangements, making full use of studio trickery when it benefits the song, but never gratuitously. The work that made Iron and Wine’s name primarily came out on a succession of EPs, which tended to put the emphasis on one or two stand-out songs at a time, so it might be tempting to conclude that this collection of songs doesn’t contain his best work. I’d disagree: this arguably lacks stand-out tracks precisely because it is a consistently excellent record throughout, and Beam’s greatest single achievement to date.

The Go! Team – Rolling Blackouts
This is a fun record, and I enjoyed seeing the band belt it out live at Glastonbury and at a headline show in London in November. Perhaps what the Go! Team do with their samples is no more interesting than the samples themselves, but the end product is an enjoyable, danceable and punchy record, so you won’t find me complaining. Arguably another ‘four album’ band though (is this album 3 or 4? Not got the others, and not sure I especially need them now I have this one…) so it remains to be seen what the future holds for them.

Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo
I never got round to picking up Gruff’s previous solo outing Candylion, so I may have a skewed view of this record: I know Dan Paton for one feels it’s not as inventive or interesting as its predecessor. Nonetheless on its own merits I enjoyed it as, if nothing else, a frequently rather sweet and lovely album – with the bonus of a typically wonky-sounding collaboration with Andy Votel on lead single Shark Ridden Waters (a panellist on Lamacq’s roundtable slot suggested it sounded like Badly-Drawn Boy, but nobody made the connection… pathetic!). I’m glad to see it took Gruff to decent-sized venues as a solo artist, and also enjoyed its mini sequel, the Atheist Christmas EP, which I also recommend.

Destroyer – Kaputt
How and why Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer, came to play a single show in London this summer remains a bit of a puzzle to me. He reputedly has a crippling fear of flying which has prevented him ever visiting Europe with the New Pornographers, to whom he contributes about a quarter of their songs, yet he mysteriously popped up for one show in the UK, with his full band – not even as a prelude to a festival appearance as far as I could tell. Still, he was promoting an intriguing record: he never makes the same album twice, and for this album has taken his rambling, jazzy, stream-of-consciousness songs into 80s territory, bordering on New Romantic country and complete with abundant saxophone solos. The overall effect takes a bit of getting used to, but is seductive and listenable.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs
A bold and innovative record, I’m sure, but not one I’ve been inclined to listen to very much. Their surprise set at Glastonbury basically consisted of this record plus some cuts from In Rainbows, and made me resolve to revisit this album… but I still haven’t got round to it.

Frankie and the Heartstrings – Hunger
On one level this record is significant to me as only the second album released in the thirteen years since their split by a ‘post-Kenickie’ band, if Pete Gofton’s presence among the Heartstrings qualifies them as such (the first being his own These Acid Stars under the J Xaverre moniker… though I think he put out his EPs and singles as a compilation album too, so it depends what you count). It’s an enjoyable and immediate record of blokey pop/rock… but after about half a dozen listens I felt I’d exhausted all it has to offer and I haven’t gone back to it. Much more exciting, to me, is the prospect of the Cornshed Sisters album on Memphis Industries next year… and if only Rosita had managed to put out a full-length effort; it would by now undoubtedly have achieved that lusted-for Obscure Indie Classic In the Minds Of About 200 People status. All of this with apologies to Frankie and the Heartstrings for using their record as an excuse to bang on about Kenickie.

The Lovely Eggs – Cob Dominos
The Lovely Eggs have released a really excellent album… spread over two CDs, unfortunately. They walk a tightrope between eccentric and thrashy pop brilliance and twee ramblings that are lovely but don’t really require a second listen. At their best they’re brilliant however, and their single Don’t Look At Me (I Don’t Like It) is the best thing Holly’s done since Angelica’s Why Did You Let My Kitten Die? The best bits of this and their debut If You Were Fruit add up to a great playlist… but probably no two people will agree on which bits are the best of each. As it should be, probably.

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys
Very much a sequel to The Seldom-Seen Kid, Elbow’s fifth album had the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor: it’s an endearing, emotional and at times uplifting record, but for my money the production is just too damn polite and restrained. With both records, hearing the songs belted out at high volume with some real oomph behind them improved the experience considerably, and by comparison Build A Rocket Boys verges on the insipid. There are however two items of Elbow merchandise that would redeem it if I’d managed to get hold of either of them: the first would be a DVD of their wonderful shows at the O2 Arena, which I had rather expected to see but which has yet to emerge; and the second is the ale they created with Manchester brewery Robinson’s, called Build A Rocket Boys, which I’d be curious to try. Sadly I’ve not been in the right pub at the right time. The Seldom-Seen Beer, anyone?

The Singing Adams – Everybody Friends Now
There’s an unsurprising continuity between this record and the later Broken Family Band albums, by which time the group had shorn themselves of most of the country stylings and developed a distinctive indie-rock sound of their own. Steve Adams has assembled a different band for this project, and it’s certainly not a replica of the BFB sound, but his songwriting is instantly recognisable with its biting tone and at times amusingly bizarre imagery. Also like most BFB albums, it’s split roughly 50-50 between good songs and great ones; the former are worth listening to, and the latter demand it.

Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
Ron Sexsmith’s latest album was accompanied by a documentary film, rather blandly titled Love Shines, about its recording and also offering a retrospective on Sexsmith’s career to date. While Dan thought it was sweet, I must say I found it rather depressing: it showed a man seemingly struggling with some slight but real and undiagnosed (one presumes – it wasn’t mentioned) depressive illness, and unable to articulate himself or run his life successfully other than through his songs; it was a sad episode of ‘reader meets author’, made worse by Sexsmith’s feeling that he had never ‘broken through’ or got the recognition he deserved. In fact he tours the world and plays decent-sized venues (I’ve just paid over 30 quid to see him next year, making him among my most expensive gig tickets) – Steve Earle remarks in a talking-head slot in the film that he’s lucky anyone knows who the fuck he is, and draws a contrast with Townes van Zandt. And apparently Sexsmith struggles to make ends meet, which surely suggests he’s made some poor financial deals rather than that he’s not selling enough to get by. Still, what about the album? Well, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a Ron Sexsmith album produced by Bob Rock: the familiar well-crafted tunes, beefed up with plenty of big-sounding instrumentation. In fact, the production helps bolster the songs and disguise their slight weakness, lyrically, compared to other Sexsmith albums like Retriever. But the insight offered into its making by the accompanying film was pretty dispiriting.

Those Dancing Days – Daydreams and Nightmares
I’ve repeatedly had Those Dancing Days mentioned to me as my type of band by people who know my taste. Indeed, I bought their first album on the strength of a review that described them as making exactly the sort of thin I like: girl harmony vocals, pop songs, catchy hooks, handclaps and so on. And they were indeed my kind of band: just not a very good version of it. The songs on the first album were mostly weak, and the playing basic and uninteresting. The second album is a step up: more driving, with more energy and more memorable hooks. But even then, all the songs sound melodically very similar. That said, I enjoyed their set at Glastonbury, where they played just as the sun came out after a wet and grey 24 hours, and caught the moment perfectly. They announced their hiatus shortly afterwards: still incredibly young, I would expect their lead singer to have a successful solo career if she can find a good songwriting partner – I’ve been told she’s capable of being a bit of a diva, but she’s undoubtedly a charismatic frontwoman with a good voice who elevated Those Dancing Days somewhat beyond their material.

Laura Cantrell – Kitty Wells Dresses
Motherhood led Laura Cantrell to a musically quiet six years after the release of her last album (and her last visit to the UK) in 2005. She returned with this tribute album to Kitty Wells, whose songs might sound quaint now but were pretty racy stuff for 1950s country music; as Laura herself jokes regularly, I Don’t Claim To Be An Angel would these days be called I Used To Be A Slut. It’s fascinating that this was released around the same time as the Jessica Lea Mayfield album, whose up-front songs about romantic and sexual misadventures are arguably the modern descendants of the songs Laura covers here. Musically, it is what you’d expect: a well-played and delightfully-sung set of renditions of the old-time numbers, never less than tasteful and listenable. It also features one Cantrell original, Kitty Well Dresses, somewhat spoiled for me when it was pointed out that melodically it’s basically Chariots of Fire.

Art Brut – Brilliant! Tragic!
It took me a long time to get Art Brut. The headline slot for Eddie Argos’s other band, Everybody Was In The French Resistance… Now! (sic) at last year’s Indietracks finally made his semi-spoken schtick click for me, so when Art Brut had their residence at the Lexington in the spring I somehow managed to get a ticket, and was totally sold. But where does that leave the band on record? Not making much sense, unless you’ve seen them live – which was my problem for many years, when I’d only heard the records. Still, Brilliant! Tragic! Is another very good Art Brut album, once you know why an Art Brut album is worth listening to.

Sons and Daughters – Mirror Mirror
Their album of 2008, This Gift, made me reappraise Sons and Daughters somewhat: far from being goth-y angst, the album was made up of spiky pop songs, produced to good effect by Bernard Butler. While Mirror Mirror is, ahem, a polished record, it’s gone back to the goth-y angst a bit, without the pop sensibilities so much. That said, there’s interesting stuff on here.

Thomas Tantrum – Mad By Moonlight
This is almost certainly the record that disappointed me more than any other this year – though that’s partly because I had high expectations of it. Thomas Tantrum’s debut hung around on my MP3 player much longer than most records: its jagged guitars and semi-shouted vocals made for an enjoyable racket, but there was often more lyrical substance behind it all than might seem to be the case at first blush. For their second album, the band have brought in a smoother sound, with the aggressive guitars toned down, synths added more prominently to the mix and Megan using her impressive voice to sing much more conventionally. Unfortunately all these changes have exposed shortcomings: Megan’s more orthodox singing, though lovely, reveals that the lyrics are often weak, while the guitars are often weedy and uninteresting. Some songs sound tremendous but are slight affairs, like opener Tick Tock (Satie), which is a terrible song but has a gorgeous production job on it; at other times more solid songs have been given unflattering productions, like Cold Gold which might have benefited from having the bass made bigger and nastier, but instead is blighted by those weedy guitars. The album was released with various bonus tracks on different editions: on the one I got, bonus song I Said It proved more interesting than almost anything else on the record (I was told on Twitter it was left off the running order because it didn’t really fit… like Belle and Sebastian’s Stay Loose almost suffering the same fate on Dear Catastrophe Waitress, when the best song doesn’t fit it suggests the bulk of the album isn’t up to snuff). In fact, Thomas Tantrum probably recorded an album’s worth of good material for this record but, like the slow version of Sleep, the GWAIIU remix of Hot Hot Summer and the free download The Last Kiss, most of it didn’t actually appear on the record as released. What did appear was a reasonably listenable record that ultimately lacked the hooks or tunes to make it the summery indie-pop classic many reviews inexplicably hailed it as.

Emmy the Great – Virtue
For someone who has been on the scene for so long, and earned a good deal of respect for her talent, Emmy the Great has released surprisingly few albums. This, her second, steps things up from her lovelorn debut, though is no less gruelling a listen for much of its duration. It feels like quite a literary record: Emmy layers her meaning within curious imagery and allegory, which makes it a rewarding experience to go from start to finish, but a record that can’t readily be dipped into. As a fan of records that work across their length as complete entities, I was rather impressed by this, and it was a contender for my top ten.

Frankie Machine – Squeeze the Life Back In
The original plan was to release two Frankie Machine albums in 2011, after a seven year gap since 2004’s Re-Unmelt My Heart. Rob evidently hoped nobody would notice when the second one didn’t turn up – not so! Still, it’s another record to look forward to in 2012, as it is due to feature Rob’s most recent songs, including How Great Thou Art as included to rather a lot of acclaim on this year’s Indietracks compilation, and others showcased at Rob’s most recent turn at Totally Acoustic (see http://www.totallyacoustic.com for the podcast). In the meantime, Squeeze the Life Back In is made up of songs from the long wait between records, and mostly showcases the warmer and more upbeat side of Frankie Machine, though still with the trademark acoustic arrangements that always do something interesting, but never more than they need to. Opener The Back Foot’s tales of being caught out when flat-sitting and, ahem, other things is even chucklesome. Yes, that’s right. A Frankie Machine album. Chucklesome. Deal with it.

Veronica Falls – Veronica Falls
It’s a rum old thing, C86. It exerts an enduring influence on the ‘proper’ indie scene in the UK, despite most of the records of the time sounding, to ears that didn’t hear them at the time, pretty uninspiring. Recent reformations like those of the Pooh Sticks and June Brides have proved the theory that these are bands that would have rocked a lot harder if not saddled with shitty, feeble 80s amps. Meanwhile Veronica Falls have done perhaps the most faithful job in recent years of recreating the C86 sound (and the pastel 16mm film looks of mid-80s indie videos, giving the game away only with an anachronistic 16:9 aspect ratio), treading a successful line between the thinness and scratchiness of old and the more full sound that can be achieved relatively easily today. I heard they ended up scrapping their first stab at this album and re-recording it to be more live and raw in sound, and the end result probably vindicates the decision. Whether they’re a band who can go much beyond what they’ve done on their debut remains to be seen – this might be all the Veronica Falls you’ll ever need.

Amy Winehouse – Lioness
Well, what can one say? Over on Roobarb’s, when news broke of Winehouse’s death a thread was started in the obituaries section whose first post read simply, “it’s happened.” What’s perhaps saddest about this release is that in the five years since Back to Black was released, Amy’s personal troubles clearly hit her creativity so comprehensively: while a posthumous off-cuts and outtakes album was an inevitability, it’s surprising how much this sounds like the scrapings of the bottom of a barrel rather than a first issue from a rich archive of unreleased work. Not only has finding the material for this record seemingly been a bit of a scramble, but its content doesn’t take Amy anywhere musically that she hadn’t been before bar the contribution from Nas on one track – a proper third album, on this evidence, would have been more of the same (though probably still good for all that). That said, while this isn’t mind-blowing it’s essentially a collection of decent material that shows Amy Winehouse as a considerable talent and capable of producing music far superior to the likes of Adele even when she was treading water.

Piney Gir – Geronimo!
It’s been three albums in three years for Piney, and this is perhaps her best and most direct. Although she has eschewed the Country Roadshow banner for this record, it’s a distinctly American sounding record, recorded in the US with a mix of country twang and Byrdsian jangle.

Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat – Everything Gets Older
I considered putting this in my top ten, but having only acquired it just before the end of the year I’m unsure to what extent I’ll end up revisiting it. It’s an immediately compelling record then, and rather like how I’d always hoped Arab Strap would sound. Bill Wells’ musical backing is not exactly cinematic, as the whole thing is more small-screen than that; but it’s redolent of gritty TV drama in rain-soaked towns, while Moffat’s narration is all the better for his maturing towards middle age. First loves turning up again and tempting the now-settled protagonist, reflective pints alone in the pub outside the crematorium, married men struggling with domestic life are all expertly painted. It’s not an uplifting listen, but it’s a rewarding one.

Little Dragon – Ritual Union
I caught Little Dragon by chance at Glastonbury, knowing nothing about them other than their name, courtesy of the banner behind them. I can’t remember the performance in detail, only that it was raining and I made a mental note to check them out further. I did so at the end of the year when their album came up for 4 quid on 7digital’s advent calendar. And I was a bit disappointed. The title track is absorbing and memorable, with characterful lead vocals complimenting a polished backing track… but the album never really develops from there, and descends too often into repetitive wibbling in its second half.

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One comment

  1. I’ve heard the other Gruff Rhys albums, and Hotel Shampoo is definitely the best of them for me! It’s lovely.

    I’d recommend sticking with the Bill Wells / Aidan Moffat album – I think it just edged out Bearsuit to be my album of the year.

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