Thank you, Laura, for the kick in the pants. I doff my virtual cap to you…
Dear reader (with the rather lengthy silence on the blog I can only assume one reader at this point), I’ve finally compiled my top albums of 2012. Fortunately, I didn’t attempt to listen to and then write about them in three days like I did last year. Unfortunately, other commitments and general mental malaise meant it took me six months to do it instead. Feeling a bit stressed about the time lag, I did toy with the idea of making each entry a haiku. Having read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, I’ve realized time doesn’t exist at all and I should hardly worry about when I post.
In the end, I opted for the type of list I usually create, which encompasses a mixture of albums I listened to the most, albums I found to be the most musically innovative, and albums I find to be doing the most interesting things within the pop music format. In looking through them, several thematic threads emerge: the anxieties of socioeconomic collapse and recession in the present and future, the loss of modern dreams, memory and repetition, breakdown and recovery, and the significance of place and time. As usual, there’s a fair amount of overlap between my list and Laura’s.
24. Meursault Something for the Weakened
This third album from Meursault is restless, yet comforting; it feels like the slow expansion of rebirth. As Neil Pennycook softly repeats “We will not be weakened anymore” in the opening track “Thumb,” there’s a sweetness to the weariness, a nurturing side to bitterness. Throughout the album his vocals are shot through with ragged emotion, heaving like creaking bellows. The music moves between lo-fi, spare folk and swelling, cathartic rock energy, and the lyrics explore the twisted tensions of equal and opposite actions and the little limping lifts out of bleakness. The last song, “Untitled,” has Pennycook sprawling out of his shell, overwhelmed, but searching.
23. VCMG SSSS
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I heard Vince Clarke and Martin Gore had reunited to make music. In my mind, I figured it would be perhaps some sort of amalgamation of bright and dark synthpop. Instead, I got a brilliant house record. In some ways, this album reminds me of the German house of Booka Shade and Tiefschwarz, filled with Geiger counter beats, hefty bass sounds, and precise repetitions with flashes of pop sensibility. The record is full of fizzing bands of static, and there are a few breathless dropouts, razing sound just to build that much higher.
22. Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra Theatre of Evil
Amanda Palmer has generated more than a little, often irrational, hoopla and retribution over the making and touring of this album, a reaction that should, at some point, be more fully examined in a full-length academic article. Channeling New Wave with extensive bouts of baroque piano, Theatre of Evil is full of messy, earnest emotions as much as it is the reinstating of Palmer’s brash, theatrical persona-as-armor. Her vocals swing wildly between powerful Siouxsie wails and vowels, tight lashes of snarling vitriol, carefully enunciated aural paper-cuts, and sob-ridden, soul-shaking gulps. On the fragile, yet grandiose ballad “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen),” Palmer effectively evokes the leaden-limb, head-swimming state of a bewildered party-goer struggling through the neverending morning after, whilst making a comment on the infinite mediation and neediness of digitized lives. She ends the song with an arms-stretched, head-thrown-back plea of “I don’t want to die,” perhaps indicting what is perceived as her own attention-seeking exhibitionism. There are several killing and wounding metaphors in this record, but the implications of their violence and vulnerability are tempered with the joyful liberation and ruminating melancholy of letting go and giving in.
Read Laura’s review here.
21. David Byrne and St. Vincent Love This Giant
A highly anticipated odd couple, David Byrne and St. Vincent aka Annie Clark, delivered what amounts to a classy, but surreal night out on the town. You feel as though you should be dressed in your smartest finery, but something is just a bit off and you may end the evening by having a food fight with Hugo Ball. Throughout the record, Byrne and Clark utilize a Simon Bookish-like wonky, skewed use of brass; it’s like they’ve assembled a disjointed funkbot out of the shattered geometric pieces of a symphony, bidding you to do some herky-jerky moves in a grand ballroom. The lyrics themselves are all over the place, taking detours down multiple culs-de-sac, but as with many of Byrne’s musical projects, the sound of the words takes precedence over literal/figurative meanings. The trading off of vocal duties between Clark and Byrne produces a fruitful balance of eccentricities. On tracks like the soulful “Ice Age,” Clark reminds me of LoneLady, and she applies a sweet sang-froid to “The Forest Awakes,” which parps and burbles with bassy brass in a chunky baby elephant strut. Byrne provides his customary awkward, asymmetrical take on organic rhythms (“Dinner for Two,” “I Am an Ape,” “I Should Watch TV”), flinging his voice around in the manner of someone attempting to trap flies with a parallelogram. Ultimately, Love This Giant applies some sharpish pomp and circumstance to the groove, adding slink to the spat.
20. Band of Holy Joy The North is Another Land
This latest album from the Band of Holy Joy is a golden, earthy soundscape of autumnal nostalgia and elegiac pastoral, which continues the meditation on “the north” found in earlier albums. Originating from a radio play performed on Resonance FM, The North is Another Land is a record that breathes and sighes, weaving wistful recollections and the reverent grief that accompanies them into the northern, coastal lands of England, Latvia, and Russia. Fittingly, the art on the external packaging of the CD and accompanying postcards features a diagram of lungs, which morph into seaside towns, making the connection between arteries and waterways clear. Johny Brown’s distinctive vocals rise and fall with aspirating accordion and harmonica, emulating a tremulous mortality and gut-wrenching flashes of passion as the acoustic accompaniment swells and contracts behind him. It is an album of returns, sacred repetitions that honour the land they revisit. True to their name, the Band of Holy Joy creates an atmosphere that surpasses mere understanding: the prosaic becomes poetry, disillusionment is transformed into conviction.
19. The Rest Seesaw
Seesaw evokes perpetual movement, a coordinated flow that feels effortless and dreamy. Bentley’s golden-throated vocals ululate with panoramic abandon and punctuate lines with ecstatic sobs that are uplifting rather than mawkish. This latest record from The Rest is anything but static and at rest. Sleep and the act of reclining figure often in the lyrics, but Seesaw is definitely more about the fight against slumber and reverie and the rebound into breathless wakefulness. They seize every dimension through their sound, teetering acrobatically out on limbs. The balancing act of these musical and lyrical dynamics works as a series of cantilevers, crafting seemingly impossible space and suspension throughout the record.
Read the rest of my review here.
18. Laetitia Sadier Silencio
Stereolab’s frontwoman Laetitia Sadier’s second solo album is what you would expect from her stylistically: languid lounge-pop, bossa nova, hints of sophisticated yé-yé, aloof, alienated vocals. Obviously sharing the leftist politics of Stereolab, Sadier’s record is a diagnosis of a diseased global state governed by capitalism and the circulation of its materialities and power, and a command to listen closely and search for truth within silence; the track title “Auscultation to the Nation” sums up both of these themes nicely. In “Fragment pour le future de l’homme,” against a jittery disco beat, Sadier sings “We are lost in the century/No spark in the dustbin now/But our eyelids are empty/We cannot see and cannot be seen.” In a few breezy lines, Sadier indicts the failure of “incendiary” movements like punk and our own blindness. Mirror and reflection metaphors abound in the album (“The Rule of the Game,” “There is a Price to Pay for Freedom [and It Isn’t Security],” “Moi Sans Zach”); the visual is suspect and the aural is more trustworthy. The closing track, “Invitation au silence,” is a prime example of Sadier’s terms for this more valuable, auditory reflection. In this piece, Sadier speaks first in French, and follows each line closely with a whispered English translation, but due to the reverberating acoustics, which sound like those of a cathedral or a grand hall, her lines begin to overlap, obfuscate, and erode each other like two separate ripples merging in a pond until you are not certain of the beginnings and ends of each thought. The track becomes unnerving, especially if you understand both languages and can no longer easily isolate one from the other. By the time, Sadier reaches the lengthy sample of silence, you are relieved and longing for respite from language and demands on your attention. Though the lyrics can be a bit heavy-handed on paper, just as they could arguably be from Stereolab, and McCarthy before them, the deliberate artificiality and lightweight style of the music transforms the words into more profound commentary, challenging our sense of awareness, which is often too easily lulled and placated by surface appearances.
17. Darren Hayman and The Long Parliament The Violence
Ex-Hefner frontman Darren Hayman is hugely prolific, so it’s often difficult to keep on top of all of his musical projects. This particular project—a concept album about the English Civil War and “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins’s witch trials—caught my attention for its ambition and willful stance in leftfield. The events surrounding the demise of Charles I and the rise of the Parliamentarians may not seem like a particularly likely theme for a twenty-track opus, but then again, Hayman has plenty of experience with crafting narrative albums resolutely grounded in a specific place and time, including the first two in this Essex trilogy, Pram Town and Essex Arms. With their ragtag chamber pop mixed with melancholy folk, Hayman and the Long Parliament players (formerly named the Secondary Modern) tell the stories of the accused “witches,” including Elizabeth Clarke and Rebecca West, with the shambolic, somewhat archaic beauty of a broadside ballad. Other tracks take up additional figures of the period, such as the playwright Arthur Wilson and Charles’s queen Henrietta Maria, along with unnamed victims; Hayman even references Caryl Churchill’s feminist play Vinegar Tom. The mournful, humble delivery of Hayman’s vocals increases the pathos inherent in the lyrics, evoking the cold filth and bloody misery of the range of humanity affected by these historical events. Throughout the album there is an atmosphere of resigned passivity to injustice, exemplifying the exhaustion of perpetual fear with perfect pitch.
16. The Melting Ice Caps Permissible Permutations
Permissible Permutations is an achingly exquisite love letter to the self-pronounced undeserving, to those who are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Moving gracefully between intricate details and big pictures, it’s about the allure of self-constructed realities and self-fulfilling prophecies. I can’t help wondering if the album can be read as a group of possible permutations, a narrative to be arranged as you choose and read against the rigidity of expectations and cause and effect. There’s no rule saying you have to view this record as a move from love to loss. Conversely, there’s no guarantee that the golden afternoons and rainy trysts aren’t the past perfect moments of the previous Indian summer. All we have is an assemblage of moments. Points to be connected, vectors to move through rhythmically, arhythmically, or even algorithmically. And hanging on when it counts.
Read the rest of my review here.
15. The Monochrome Set “Platinum Coils”
“Platinum Coils” is a truly welcome return. Despite the fact that the record is replete with consciousness lapping at the edges of trauma, it is equally funny and witty, conveying the lucidity and profundity to be found in mental interruptions, half-sleep, and near-death experiences. In a way, this album is about taking stock. Gratitude for Bid’s recovery, check. Breadth of The Monochrome Set’s career, check. Refreshing musical hybridity, check. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest antics, check. Language acumen akin to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, check. Clever clever band, check.
14. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny Yours Truly Cellophane Nose
Beth Jeans Houghton’s debut album is a tearaway romp through some truly hallucinatory territory, her exceptional, near-operatic vocals and surreal lyrics playing giddy tricks on your mind. The sweet breathiness and triumphant austerity of Houghton’s voice carries you through mystical mountainous landscapes and opulent, fruit-laden forests that are haunted by Boschian demons and devils. The pageantry of jubilant brass interchanges with folkier banjo to create an intermingling of grandness and playful mischief. The language for her lyrics is also wonderfully strange in its archaic style and visceral adjectives. For example, the track “Humble Digs” contains this verse: “Titans rising, and all once vitals now implodes/Above your mantel, your equine ornaments erode/Relieve this moment, say that gestures don’t afford/The lacquered tip of cupid’s sword.” Mythological morbidity, enchantments, and sinister doings lurk through these tracks, creating a world in which things are not what they seem. Houghton comes across like a fierce fairy queen riding a nightmare alongside the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. All you can do is try to keep up with her.
Read Laura’s review here.
13. Go-Kart Mozart On the Hot Dog Streets
After seven years, it’s the return of Lawrence. The album sleeve and liner notes read like the lists of a meticulous culture vulture, the classified advert of the lonely nerd, and the rantings of the misunderstood. And Lawrence quite happily supplies what he thinks people are missing about his art, including mini-manifestoes and advertisements for non-existent record labels and releases. The album title along with the cover art signal the trashy, synthetic aesthetic, and many of the tracks on the record could be considered bubblegum. If you read the history of bubblegum music (and you should), it becomes apparent that the saccharine disposable pop tune that sounded childish and could be easily consumed by children was working two sides of the same consumption at once: food and sex. This style, then, becomes a perfect fit for Lawrence, who often walks a bizarre line between self-deluded naivety and knowing sexual predator. It’s both “Dundee cake for tea” (“Lawrence Takes Over”) and “I put my finger inside you” (“I Talk with Robot Voice”). When he isn’t playing at being a “novelty band,” he makes pastiches of 8-bit arcade music that are reminiscent of Helen Love, while absorbing the stilted delivery and synth lines of Karel Fialka, and he processes nostalgic 60s and 70s music through an ironic filter, an area of his repertoire where the influence of the mighty Sudden Sway seems most prominent. The parodic style and the genres Lawrence chooses to parody dovetail nicely with his perceptions of that which he satirizes. Lawrence deftly skewers and roasts English national identity, nostalgia, domestic life, sex, relationships, and mass tastes and attitudes, claiming them to be vacuous and backwards. He views himself as the maverick messiah rising above this, even as he raids the past for feats of intertextuality, and then helpfully exposes these borrowings via the list of self-sanctioned texts he read and listened to during the making of the album. On the Hot Dog Streets may be a record of contempt, as Lawrence claims, but it is also a fascinating display of conviction and ambition wrapped in a thousand contradictions. He concludes his manifesto: “It is easy to feel like we are living after the end of the world & and all the cool things have already happened to other people. I am here to say no – here is someone who it is happening to right now & that someone is me.” It is clearly a Lawrence world, and we are all just living in it.
12. Future of the Left The Plot Against Common Sense
The phrase “in principle, if not reality” appears twice in this latest record from the Welsh four-piece—in “Cosmo’s Ladder” and then again in “Rubber Animals”—implying a sort of equivocation, or sense of making do. If something cannot be achieved in practice, then surely it can obtain in theory, and then it hasn’t really failed. The Plot Against Common Sense circles around this disconnect between fundamental “truths” and their genuine manifestations, what should be and what actually is, questioning which fictions and assumptions hold our “civilization” together. If you want an articulate, angry expression of “broken Britain,” this is it. The record begins with “Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman,” which declares dumb to be the new black, and ends with the demented jack-hammering “sha la la la la”s of “Notes on Achieving Orbit.” In between, the band spits the bastardized, superficial language of the mediatized back at you. They eviscerate and interrogate class war, failed “regeneration,” regional disparity, populist magazines, racist footballers, uninformed military intervention, political apathy, globalization, patronizing mass culture, bourgeois complacency, Western values, body abjection, democracy, and consumerism. Their music continues to be a lean, sinewy beast that uses stark minimalism to communicate hunger and remain light on its feet, easily navigating the dense lyrical content. To be honest, I’m just so grateful that someone is still screaming until the war is over.
Read Laura’s review here.
11. Field Music Plumb
With an album title that references the leftist book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and an album cover that reworks Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station into a modernist British town, Field Music have made an album that dissects current suburban complacency and consumerism whilst obliquely elegizing a future dream of equality that died prematurely. This record is even more interesting because these sentiments are heavily clothed in a proggy funk that veers between XTC, the Beatles, and Dirty Projectors; on first glance, Field Music is a band with urbane lyrics of quintessential English life, but upon digging deeper, you discover the socioeconomic reality behind the unsettled malaise. The falsetto vocals start to cast a more semi-hysterical, tensile shape against the ever-shifting tilts of the brilliantly crafted music. “Choosing Sides,” which begins with a synthetic piece of classical music that could have been ripped from an educational 7” for 1970s children, includes the resigned lyrics: “I want a different idea of what better can be/Which doesn’t involve treating somebody else like shit/I’m so complicit.” The sentiment crops up again in “Just Like Everyone Else”: “I’m just like everyone else/I’m just like/As weak as everyone else/The distance removes me.” The shambolic, infectious single “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing,” continues to probe angst about an impotent life under financial games beyond the majority’s control: “Blind page, blank cheque obfuscation/Played so dumb I can’t bear to look/But I’m wasting time/What good can I do?” Ironically, the “new” thing turns out to be a repetitive, compulsive thought instead, same old, same old. The fractured, arrhythmic “Who’ll Pay the Bills” asks the trillion pound question about the welfare state: “Who’ll pay the bills when/We give ourselves a break?” The preoccupation with inequality neatly rolls through the record, riding the wave of fluid, inventive melody. With this theme in mind, there’s a doubleness to “A New Town,” which is on the surface a song about escaping the place you’re in, but which could also be read in light of the planned communities that dot Britain, reminders of failed utopia. For Plumb, the Brewis brothers take the loaded, but ostensibly empty term “new” to truly new places.
10. Saint Etienne Words and Music
It’s been six years since Saint Etienne’s last album, the soundtrack to their film What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, which documented the Lea Valley before its regeneration into the site for the 2012 Olympics. Thankfully, they’ve returned with more of their stylish restorative nostalgia; this time, less about the (sub)urban modernist infrastructure intersecting with culture in London and its environs, and more about the effect of time on memory and the affective experience of being a music fan. The record plots a dreamy map through the pop music imaginary, which is ingeniously reflected in the album cover that diagrams a space of auditory pleasure, including mythical soundscapes from the Beatles to Prefab Sprout to Prince to The Smiths to John Cooper Clarke to The Cure (it’s also worth noting the insertion of childhood memories, such as Sesame Street and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which align the wonderment of childish, fantastic spaces with those of post-childhood music consumption). Songs like “I’ve Got Your Music,” “Over the Border,” “Tonight,” “DJ,” and the brief “Record Doctor” effortlessly express the comfort and out-of-body exhilaration felt by music obsessives, whose record collections, “scenes,” and music magazines provide a safe haven and the balm of identity and community. With its focus on the youthful, ephemeral rush of creating and living in private and collective aural worlds, words and music become more than the sum of their parts, conflating romance and physical attraction with the excitement and sensuality of musical discovery. Many of the songs also convey the bittersweet, achy side of music fan mnemonia, the almost pathological haunting by sounds. Connected to this ghostly side of Saint Etienne’s material, is their characteristic impulse to long for the future of the post-war past that never arrived. It crops up quite prominently in “When I Was Seventeen” with their robotic intonation about Brutalist architecture: “The future’s clean and modern.”
9. Carter Tutti Void Transverse
Essentially a recording of a live improvisation, this collaboration between Throbbing Gristle’s Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti and Factory Floor’s Nik Colk Void truly feels alive. Consisting of only four tracks, it is composed of tense vectors, incremental verges that give you the sense of travelling by gradually, almost imperceptibly, altering the underlying rhythms. It is a challenging journey through what seems to be a perilous soundscape; though abstractly electronic, it conjures a strangely “natural” setting. The opening track V1 is a jungle of robotic beasts snorting, roaring, buzzing, squawking, huffing, growling, into the night. V3 takes a swampier turn with laboured vocoder breaths coming through a pressing miasma and spinning whizzes emanating from the dark maw of low, sub-bass tones that sound like they’re slowly masticating your head. The final track comes at you with the intensity of a swarm, ultimately ending in scattered sounds like ants on the move. The album artwork is appropriate as it moves and swims before your eyes; Carter Tutti Void’s music is perpetually on the move in those same illusory dimensions.
8. Richard Hawley Standing at the Sky’s Edge
I’ve come to expect a certain feel from Richard Hawley: nostalgic, 50s-influenced, crooning. I don’t think I was quite prepared for Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which takes him into psychedelic territory. His sound is more expansive and rock-driven, especially on “Don’t Stare at the Sun,” “She Brings the Light,” “Leave Your Body Behind You,” and the title track. There is something rather primal and land-based to these tracks; they seem to grow right out of the soil around Sheffield even as they explode into constellations of otherworldly transcendence and squalling feedback. With a predilection for making records that are locally referential (see Cole’s Corner, Truelove’s Gutter, and Lady’s Bridge), this grounding in yet another spot of Sheffield geography is perhaps unsurprising. Hawley’s voice, which is already such a rich instrument, weaves a resonant, hypnotic spell, and his guitar solos are blistery, grimy, and raw, adding some edge to the shimmery dawn of reverb and Eastern influences. Despite all of the heliocentricity of the references, this is mostly a dark, lawless record that strays into murder ballad territory. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a fairly large move for Hawley, and brings him into some interesting postindustrial/pastoral intersections, which perhaps suggests that the two are not necessarily binary opposites, and that Hawley is the master of documenting the present in the past.
Read Laura’s review here.
7. Chromatics Kill For Love
At seventeen tracks, with half of them clocking in at over five minutes, Chromatics’ second album is a rather epic journey through the insomniac night of urban imagination and alienated connectivity. The doubleness of the album title and its accompanying titular track is a beautiful duality of extreme longing, and quiet, desperate acts of violence. Ruth Radelet’s vocals are coolly detached and haunting, wafting over an understated electronic backdrop of digital melancholy. There are some Kraftwerkian/OMD synths, Cure/Banshees gothy guitarwork, and trippy down-tempo rhythms, forging an atmosphere of lonely automation, a deeply sad void, and the dragging ennui and inertia of waiting; the band brings the cold war down into the personal sphere. Though there’s often a perceived threat from the outside—via the several invocations of “they” throughout the album—there’s also a feeling of internal paranoia, anxiety, and isolation: the mourning of a sensate android at 3:00AM. At the same time, there’s a way in which the Chromatics live up to their name: you can hear the science of colour in their sonic palette, the shifting, restless energies exploding with timed precision, fireworks of neon tracing through the black sky. In tracks like “The Page,” it seems memory is trying to hold on and exert control over the narrative, but resorts to destruction through self-immolation. Appropriately, and perhaps bravely, their album is opened with a cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” which famously states: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” In a way, the entire record is one slow burn on its way to the black.
Read Laura’s review here.
6. Killing Joke MMXII
Of all bands, I knew I could count on Killing Joke to create the most appropriate soundtrack to the end of the world. Even if the actual end of the world didn’t come to pass in 2012, Killing Joke made a record that captures the vertigo and frustration of carrying on in 2012; a heavy atmosphere for cyborgian conundrums and the death throes of capitalism, even as it continues to reanimate, a zombie stumbling anew from developing countries and the ruling one percent alike. Taking in the mysticism of a variety of faith systems, including the Aztecs, Christianity, and science, Killing Joke makes epic, holy noise that is also, on some level, a meditative experience and a call to individual revolution and liberation. On the opening track, “Pole Shift,” the band compares the belief that the Earth’s magnetic poles would swap at the end of the Mayan calendar with the sociopolitical climate of increasingly unsettled extremism appearing on a global scale: “A polarization of values happening/Opposing camps define themselves and pull apart.” Throughout the record, banks of electric guitar riffs roll across like thunderclouds and the rhythm section brings an acidic downpour of Biblical proportions. Jaz Coleman, like Mike Patton, is brilliantly equipped to shift vocal gears dramatically on a dime to provide affective dynamic; for example, in “Primobile,” he begins in a sorrowful, vacant register that belongs in “Love Like Blood,” but eventually pitches up into gutteral bellows of possessed rage. Although Killing Joke verge on Julian Cope-like eccentricity, MMXII is an unrelenting, uncompromising attempt to overturn a world that is already clearly upside down.
5. Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan The North Sea Scrolls
Luke Haines has a history of making concept albums and taking them to extremities that seem absurd. The North Sea Scrolls, a record created with The Fatima Mansions alum Cathal Coughlan, is another such Dadaist foray. The premise—Haines’s albums almost always have an elaborate premise—is the discovery and reading of the North Sea Scrolls, arcane documents that are testament to an alternative British Empire, where Arthur Scargill declares himself Witchfinder General, Joe Meek is Minister of Culture under Lord Protector Oswald Mosley, Francis de Groot becomes the leader of an Australian IRA, American folk singer Tim Hardin leads a nationalist militia that loses its way in Penzance, and Chris Evans becomes leader of the New Golden Dawn, only to be later executed and canonized. Of course, in this version, Britain remains a colonial power amidst a different set of ensuing conflicts, and despite being set in the twentieth century, the record stylistically references the preceding century instead. The album is set up as an alternation between narrations by Andrew Mueller and musical numbers shared by Coughlan and Haines, the narrations supposedly giving you a better idea of what the hell is going on the songs. In reality, the scroll narrations work more like apocryphal fragments in a musical story built on non- sequiturs. For example, the first scroll discusses Ian Ball, who is not the Gomez vocalist, but instead an escaped Broadmoor prisoner who makes a pact with the devil in a decidedly Home Counties version of deep south American blues traditions. This is followed by a woozy chamber pop tune with vocals from Haines in which he relates a delusional story of a prisoner who actually believes he goes on tour with Gomez and writes his resignation letter by the song’s end. The second scroll discusses Minister of Culture Joe Meek’s obsession with punishing the pretentious John Lennon, here only referred to as Mr. Cynthia. The accompanying musical track features Coughlan singing an overwrought ballad that opens with these lines: “Gin home-made, cats un-spayed, life decaying/Silvern house, police box at the gates/Friends allowed to stay by the Lord Protector’s graves/But they must be out by eight.” One of the best threads, if you can call it that, features Tony Allen a bit-part-actor-cum-wardrobe-master, who in this other Britain “is the hidden hand behind the paintings of Francis Bacon, the secret lover of Sid James, a patient of R.D. Laing, an assiduous curator of northern soul, and the probable catalyst for the least tedious stretches of the career of Fleetwood Mac.” This double life clearly leads to a song called “I’m Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I’m The Actor Tony Allen.” In a sense, nearly all of the characters in The North Sea Scrolls are moonlighting. There is always just enough detail—accurate and fabricated—to entice you to make connections that are more than likely non-existent. While this concept album may be commenting on how we read history and its artifacts, and how we construct national identity and canonize particular cultural producers and traditions over others, it could actually be one big red herring. Or Tony Allen dressed as a red herring.
4. of Montreal Paralytic Stalks
Paralytic Stalks is a sadistic and masochistic experience shot through with a brutally honest self-awareness. Kevin Barnes continues to fascinate, and I continue to empathize with him. As someone who lives with repeated mental hijackings by chemical imbalance, I can identify with much of Barnes’s exceedingly evocative lyrics and depending on my mood, this album can actually be a comfort in its blinding evisceration; it can become the welcome white noise I need to cleanse my fevered brain and drown out my own malevolent thoughts. With this record, Barnes seems to have reached a point at which he has had to resort to the non-verbal in order to articulate the unspeakable. Through a fluid musical exploration, he voices the vitriolic frustration with his helplessness and his exhausting struggle to free himself of the thoughts which prey upon him. Paralytic Stalks is an exceptional piece of noise therapy that expresses what it feels like to try to defend yourself whilst hunted down and cornered by your own claustrophobic anxieties and suffering through a suffocation of your own mind’s making. It is the sound of holding yourself hostage.
Read the rest of my review here.
3. The Pre New Music for People Who Hate Themselves
In many ways, Music for People Who Hate Themselves uses reaction as both a response to past events and re-action as in action repeated. Incidentally, the entry for “reaction” in my Oxford thesaurus provides this example of usage: “a reaction against modernism is inevitable”; the Pre New appears to be the inevitable reaction against the postmodern reaction. It feels like they are reaching back to a time before the 90s buzzword “new.” The Pre New sits on the brittle chest of the whole hauntology music genre and pummels it with incendiary fervour. There are specters on Music for People Who Hate Themselves: lost friends, lost futures. Nevertheless, there are also vibrant comments firmly grounded in the present, moving forward on an alternative trajectory. This album is a response to personal and collective pasts through an energetic repetition and refashioning. This band is an industrial project for the cyberspace age. Since unfortunately so few bands seem to have picked up the Earl Brutus torch, the Pre New had to step in. They are their own reaction.
Read the rest of my review here.
2. Scott Walker Bish Bosch
Seen by many as the final part in a trilogy that includes Tilt and The Drift, this latest album from Scott Walker is my worst anxiety dream. It’s also a fractured work of magnificent sound art. With lyrics like “nothing clears a room like removing a brain,” “I want to forget you just the way you are,” “what’s an organ between friends,” and “plucking feathers from a swansong,” you wander through a surreal soundscape of synth scribbles, uneasy silences, and sudden trumpet blasts, the only guiding force being Walker’s distinctive quaver. As much as I find it to be an aural version of waterboarding, I also feel like it could be some sort of free association therapy for twenty-first century breakdown. The scene is in constant flux, incorporating Biblical plagues, knife blades, ancient Roman emperors, 1930s flagpole sitters, deep space, Nazi war criminals, and Swiss districts. Though Bish Bosch seems messy and chaotic, Walker has made an intensely calculated, intellectual record, a compendium of interrelated facts and mythologies that take time to trace and unravel. At times scatological and eschatological, Bish Bosch is a hermeneutic exercise that expects an unfashionable response in these digitally immediate times—patience and attention.
1. Parenthetical Girls Privilege (Parts I-V)
This is a bit of a cheat since this isn’t an album so much as a collection of EPs released from 2010 to 2012, culminating in a five-part boxset of 12” vinyl: Part I: On Death and Endearments; Part II: The Past, Imperfect; Part III: Mend & Make Do; Part IV: Sympathy for Spastics; and Part V: Portrait of a Reputation. I made the decision to include this “album” in my top spot before I knew that this year Parenthetical Girls were releasing an actual Privilege album, which contains a heavily excised selection of the twenty-one songs on the EPs. No matter. I believe the excess in this case is a necessary part of the concept, and as I don’t regard any of the tracks as filler, I could not bear an abridgement. As you can see from this entry alone, abridgement isn’t really my modus operandi.
Each vinyl sleeve is hand-numbered in the blood of one band member per EP, reminding me of the tongue-in-cheek blood-shilling by Gang of Four for their limited edition Content can, adding a morbid touch to what is an epic musical exploration of martyrdom and marriage, deflowering and death. Despite the fact vocalist/lyricist Zack Pennington includes the statement, “Evelyn McHale may have famously leapt to her death in 1947, but that has very little to do with anything,” in his “10 Clues To Unlocking Privilege,” which is itself a self-aware literary set of discussion points about the EPs, I would say Privilege is parenthetically about her. Taking the serenity and sexuality of her suicide as their jumping off point (pun well-intended), Parenthetical Girls appear to spend most of their opus riffing on her suicide note: “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me.
My fiancé asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.” The first track of the first EP is named after her, and is a Cinemascopic 50s-style croony number, which sets the tone of mid-twentieth-century domestic hell and the bright dullness and sexual politics of being a housewife, especially one of “class.” You can feel the strange pressure of life inside the bell jar as Pennington’s narrator is often the only character allowed to speak to the implied second-person and/or on behalf of his female second half, dictating someone else’s existence. This voice is further problematized by the emerging sense that he is on the lesser side of the social class differential. In lending her vocals to “Mend & Make Do (Found Drama II)” and “Curtains,” Rachael Jensen provides a brief glimpse of the other side of the story, her composed poise contrasting with the theatrical, often hysterical, delivery by Pennington.
The inventive interplay of Zac Pennington’s poetry and Jherek Bischoff’s equally virtuosic compositions, along with Pennington’s idiosyncratic fluttery, trembling vocals that embody a high drama similar to Billy Mackenzie, mark the series as affected rather than affective, but no less striking. The musical style ranges across genres, dipping between chamber pop, 50s pastiche, dramatic organ, and shadowy synthpop, arranging an arc that matches the arch storytelling of the lyrics fleshy pound for fleshy pound. Pennington’s ear for language is as finely tuned as Bischoff’s is for music. Here is but one example from “Evelyn McHale”:
Sure, we were cynics from the start
Spell-bound, still Safe as Houses—
now pander we down for your hearts
We never meant you any harm
Still, though we thought not to be caught,
How the thought made me hard
Sure, we look loathsome from afar
Hateful & hollow/smug & smart
Well don’t we look the part?
Sweetheart, remembered for your art
Train those charms toward the charts
& and we’ll be stars just the way that we are
Throughout Privilege Pennington’s rhyme and rhythm are internally and externally brilliant, and he adds enough intertextuality, double entendre, and erotic terror to rival the Mozfather himself. And Bischoff is as cleverly intertextual as his musical partner; taking the above example of “Evelyn McHale,” you’ll find that he’s smuggled in melodic lines from “Chapel of Love.” The EPs form a musical novella of suffering and release, and the violence and farcical performance of both. At the same time, there’s an elegance to these characters’ self-absorption and self-mythologizing, reminiscent of the pretensions of Bright Young Things. In many ways, the verbose narrator is putting on entitlements that aren’t his, an outsider pretender to contend with Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Though Pennington may (ironically) claim her as a non-sequitur, Evelyn McHale’s aesthetic death haunts the project. All that she escaped by gracefully plummeting from the Empire State Building comes tumbling through the Privilege suite.