St. Vincent

Can we get a Janelle Monáe/St. Vincent collaboration already?

I think it’s high time for these two like-minded performers to make the ultimate funky fembot album

I saw Annie Clark live in concert for the first time the weekend before last. Those of you who have already seen her, whether in her solo St. Vincent guise or with actually-kind-of-weirdly-perfect comrade David Byrne, know that I had a pretty incredible experience seeing her. Maybe kind of a life-changing experience. Maybe enough to make me open a new Word document and start writing a thing for the first time in fucking months. A Really Important Experience, anyway.

St. Vincent was brought to Winnipeg as part of our Jazz Festival programming. Not a huge surprise there – Winnipeg’s Jazz Fest programming is diverse and often surprising in its breadth. Through it, I’ve seen The Hold Steady, Antlers, and – almost exactly two years ago – Janelle Monáe. That show definitely qualified as another Really Important Experience, with more than just superficial parallels to the recent St. Vincent show.

Both performers’ songs, public personae, and stage shows exemplify contrasts and contradictions that make them both more than great songwriters and performers – they are tapping into the 21st century zeitgeist of what it means to be a woman, and they’re doing it without the bullshit – expressing these formative experiences, new manifestos, and (indirectly) skewering people who have tried to stop them, without smoothing over the embarrassing, gross, scary, sad, angry, RAGEY bits.

So what does it mean to be a woman in the 21st century? According to St. V and JMonáe, it means writing about the past without forgetting the present. It means that the disparate components of their music enrich and evolve the whole, rather than undermine it. It’s both ambiguous and specific in its aim and execution. And all of this is a metaphor for their complex human identities. The music is truly an extension of themselves.

Another important, not to say paramount, aspect of both of their performer femininities is their obsession with androids (yes, gynoids if you want to get technical, but the term feels so absurdly clinical) and robots – specifically fembot performing versions of themselves that cultivate the impossible yet imperative distance between performer and audience as well as the uncanny separation between, for example, St. Vincent the performer and Annie Clark the person.

(Oh, if if it’s not already clear, I definitely do not use the word fembot in anything near a pejorative sense. I’m also not referring to The Bionic Woman. I’m just using an accessible portmanteau and teasing out some of the ways the terms ‘female’ and ‘robot’ are linked in the work of St. Vincent and Janelle Monáe.)

Being a woman is complicated, but being a super cool android woman fembot is extra complicated, with heaps of assumptions and false dichotomies piled upon the likes of Cindi Mayweather and St. Vincent (they’re forward-thinking at the expense of backward-glancing; their status as pop artists means they don’t have credibility or depth; their lyrics about experiences and emotions means they’re weak). These cast interesting reflections on their actual experiences as Janelle Monáe and Annie Clark and how they turn those experiences into art and song.

Annie Clark is a uniquely magnetic performer. I say unique very purposefully – her show was absolutely unlike any I’ve seen, and I’ve seen more than a few. I was struck immediately by her cool, distant stage presence. She was absolutely engaged and absolutely separate from her audience for the entirety of the show.

My pal and usual concert companion Larissa told me a few more things that we were likely to see on Sunday based on her experience seeing St. Vincent with David Byrne last summer in London, at the time still touring 2012’s Love This Giant. Her strikingly bleached-white hair? Still in place, although now alternating with black plaited cornrows. An ethereal, minimalist, and otherworldly outfit in monochromatic tones featuring a miniskirt and heeled boots, thereby better to do a faux ballet-booted, tiny-stepped shuffle in all directions across the stage? Also check. Most importantly, though, the surreal choreography alongside synth player, occasional guitarist, and backup singer Toko Yasuda with requisite fixed stare was still very much in place, firing off a whole series of connections and identifications in my brain. It’s a hugely effective visual package.

This visual packaging is obviously very important to St. Vincent and to her team, and it’s what elevated their show from a couple sets of really good, nuanced, and meaningful pop songs to An Event, even for a jaded rock show-goer like me. The visuals underline the tension of the songs, and the songs imbue the visuals with meaning over and above their surface appearance. Her stage show is a huge treat and a perfect example of the power they can have when they work at their best with the message of the songs.

Know who else cares about the visual package? Uh huh, JMonáe. More than caring about it, her stage presence and appearance comprise a big part of her message. Her ever-present tuxedo and sky-high quiff tell us that she’s transcending her earthly constraints. She’s building her own alternate future world, and the more I think about it, the more I think that St. Vincent fits into this world perfectly.

Where JMonáe is warm and inviting in her performance, St. V is cool and distant. JMonáe’s android element is included primarily in the content of her songs and stylizations (as in the sleeves of Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase) and The ArchAndroid) and St. V’s robotic element is introduced mostly in her stage presence and delivery. Above all, the mechanic elements of their performances and songwriting don’t negate the personal, emotional qualities of their music. As they shouldn’t.

St. V’s songs explore the complications of experience and being herself. She’s definitely not speaking to or about any one group in particular, but she ends up complicating femininity by really digging into and interrogating it: emphasizing its pain, its small things, her own engagement and by the same token, her own detachment. JMonáe complicates femininity and black experience through her use of futurist imagery, robotics, idealism, androgyny, and triumph.

St. V cares less about triumphing over a foe, but is eager to embrace the less-than-conventionally feminine aspects of herself, in particular the more masculine and robotic parts equally with her more feminine side. She acknowledges a dichotomy, and then tears it down and plays with it. JMonáe knowingly flies in the face of this false dichotomy and, even though she knows she’ll win, doesn’t let that stop her from pausing and weeping occasionally at the weight she’s inherited and that she takes with her when she flies.

“Marrow” is one of my favourite St. V songs. She needs help, she screams H-E-L-P me, but the music says otherwise. It stomps and menaces and also treads lightly with strings. Only the lyrics are anxious – giving the impression that St. V knows she’s the one to save herself. She builds up tension and then dispels it. “Rattlesnake” is a more recent standout, again with lyrics expressing fear – she’s running from a real or imagined rattlesnake, terrifying either way – but the music betrays no such thing. Its electronic bounce suggests resilience. Its guitar solo tells the fear off for good, no questions asked.

On early song “Sincerely, Jane”, JMonáe expresses despair at the state of her generation, evoking apocalyptic imagery, but she maintains hope that this is a nightmare that we’ll wake up from. More recently, “Q.U.E.E.N.” and its video show that JMonáe and her Wondaland crew have time-traveled to a future ‘living museum’, where they get down to funky music as part of their ‘musical weapons program’. She simultaneously is inseparable from her roots, but transcends them with her future-obsession and inexhaustable self-belief. She questions herself but comes to the conclusion “even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.” Wise, strong words.

All of this is to say I love both St. Vincent and Janelle Monáe (no surprises here) and this android-obsession of theirs thrills me. It’s a totally different side of the cool lady pop singer-songwriter genre, and I think it has so many possibilities for development into further musical and artistic ideas of theirs. I’d love to see this concept picked up by different performers in different ways. And St. V’s recent show really really made me want a concept album by these two. Who’s with me?

Janelle Monáe – Sincerely, Jane

St. Vincent – Marrow

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Though Scarred By the Way That We Are: My Top Albums of 2012

Kick in the Pants

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

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.

Dull Spark – Meursault



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.

Windup Robot – VCMG

22. Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra Theatre of Evil

Amanda Palmer Theatre is 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.

Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen) – Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra

21. David Byrne and St. Vincent Love This Giant

David Byrne 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.

Ice Age – David Byrne and St. Vincent

20. Band of Holy Joy The North is Another Land

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.

On The Ground Where John Wesley Walked – Band of Holy Joy

19. The Rest Seesaw

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.

Young and Innocent – The Rest

18. Laetitia Sadier Silencio

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.

Fragment pour le future de l’homme – Laetitia Sadier

17. Darren Hayman and The Long Parliament The Violence

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.

Impossible Times – Darren Hayman and The Long Parliament

16. The Melting Ice Caps Permissible Permutations

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.

A Week of Warmth – The Melting Ice Caps

15. The Monochrome Set “Platinum Coils”

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.

Read the rest of my review here.

Mein Kapitan – The Monochrome Set

14. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny Yours Truly Cellophane Nose

Beth Jeans Houghton Yours Truly

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.

The Barely Skinny Tree – Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny

13. Go-Kart Mozart On the Hot Dog Streets

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.

Blowin’ in a Secular Breeze – Go-Kart Mozart

12. Future of the Left The Plot Against Common Sense

fotl 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.

Sorry Dad, I Was Late for the Riots – Future of the Left

11. Field Music Plumb

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.

Choosing Sides – Field Music

10. Saint Etienne Words and Music

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.”

Tonight – Saint Etienne

9. Carter Tutti Void Transverse

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.

V1 – Carter Tutti Void

8. Richard Hawley Standing at the Sky’s Edge

Richard Hawley Standing At The Skys 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.

Don’t Stare at the Sun – Richard Hawley

7. Chromatics Kill For Love

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.

Kill For Love – Chromatics

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.

Corporate Elect – Killing Joke

5. Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan The North Sea Scrolls

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.

I’m Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I’m The Actor Tony Allen – Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan

4. of Montreal Paralytic Stalks

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.

Authentic Pyrrhic Remission – of Montreal

3. The Pre New Music for People Who Hate Themselves

the pre new music for people

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.

The Pre New Anthem – The Pre New

2. Scott Walker Bish Bosch

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.

Corps De Blah – Scott Walker

1. Parenthetical Girls Privilege (Parts I-V)

parenthetical girls privilege

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.

Evelyn McHale – Parenthetical Girls

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The Future Will Be Newspapers Set in Futura Bold: My Top 25 Albums of 2011

My senses are drained, my listening faculties are frayed. Remind me not to evaluate twenty-five albums in three days when I do this again for 2012. As Laura already said, it’s been a banner year for gigs which may never be exceeded. And it’s also been a strange year for releases, namely the feeling that we slipped through a wormhole to the 80s. I’m not sure I would have pegged 2011 to be the year we hear new mainstream material from John Foxx, Thomas Dolby, and The Human League. While it’s clear I would have felt much more at home in a northern English town between 1978 and 1984 (preferably wearing a trenchcoat and a quiff), I’m still a little surprised to see how older artists are dominating my list, and if not older artists, newer artists that sound much like the older artists.

Since beginning this new blog in October, I’ve appreciated having a reviewing partner who I can trust to write impassioned and thoughtful reviews, and who pushes me to up my game as a writer. And the fact we composed our top album lists completely independent of each other and ended up with several of the same choices shows that we do indeed sometimes share half a brain.

These are early days for this blog, and it can only go up or down from here. Thank you, and good night.

25. IAMX Volatile Times

IAMX - Volatile Times

I’m still conflicted about this fourth album from Chris Corner’s IAMX, hence, he has fallen from being number two in 2009 to number twenty-five this year. Upon the first several listens, I was disappointed as Volatile Times seemed too fragmented, too overreaching, like a person falling apart and losing his/her way. The beautiful bombast and political fervor of Kingdom of Welcome Addiction seem to have degenerated into less exciting theatrics and less subtle lyrics, including an oddly self-righteous paean to Christopher Hitchens. Judging by his sporadic blog posts from the last year and a half, Corner has been working out of a pretty messy mental space. It feels like he was desperately attempting to rally troops to support his point of view, but these attempts started to veer into self-indulgent railing and heavy-handed preaching. After listening more closely, there were tracks worthy of note, and I realized that perhaps I was too quick to discard the entire album. “Bernadette” proves that he still has a command of haunting circus songs; “Cold Red Light” screeches and thunders in a cathartic rush as Corner alternates between intoning detached vocals and explosive violence; and “Oh Beautiful Town,” which features snippets of conversation from his family, is powerful demonstration of the strength of his voice and his sense of anthemic melody, and continues to prod at the past that “Think of England” hinted at. I hope that Corner will once again be able to take himself less seriously and struggle out of the insular world, seemingly bolstered by sycophantic blog comments, that he’s currently stewing in. I admire the fact he’s clearly a critical thinker as well as a dedicated artist, and I still believe that he has the potential to create truly interesting art with purpose.

Bernadette – IAMX

24. Gruff Rhys Hotel Shampoo

Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo

This third solo album by Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys is his most accessible (for one thing, it’s the first to be an all-English record), but it’s also a sweet, warm blend of acoustic folk, airy psychedelia, sweeping Bacharach-like piano, bleepy electronics, and Latin influences. His vocal style retains the gentle Welsh lilt even when he sings in English, and his shambolic style is heart-flutteringly endearing. This album gives me a feeling of being bathed in an amber glow with nature in soft-focus all around me. It also makes me think of The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Even when he sings of the ending of a relationship in songs like “Honey All Over” and “Vitamin K” he manages to retain a relaxed, harmonious atmosphere, and tunes like “Sensations in the Dark” and “If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)” are puppyish in their bouncy loveliness. A track such as “Conservation Conversation” would seem a little too cartoony and childish by any other artist, but Rhys makes it yet one more pleasant quirk in his canon. He gives me a similar sense of retro comfort that Richard Hawley does; he seems a man out of his time, but one who brings a sense of ease to our own time.

Honey All Over – Gruff Rhys

23. Shirley Lee Winter Autumn Summer Spring

Shirley Lee - Winter Autumn Summer Spring

Erstwhile Spearmint frontman, Shirley Lee released his second solo album this year as an ambitious double-disc set that reverses its way from the season of death into the season of rebirth as he relates a lifetime of seizing the moment. The first track of the winter cycle and the record as a whole, “Maidenhead,” is an appropriately pessimistic beginning in which Lee sings: “You ask me if I believe in a life after this/I don’t even believe in this one.” However, the album ends with the last spring song, “I Can Wait,” which is a more hopeful tune; Lee is fighting fit and willing to see out any of the bad in his life. As you might expect, this album runs the gamut of emotions through apoplectic frustration, deflated regrets, sweet nostalgia, and heady recklessness as Lee courses through his flawed existence. The gentle twee pop and Lee’s hushed vocals push the self-aware lyrics into a captivating musical story. I, myself, can identify with the compulsion to analyze my own mortality and to have acute realizations that I’m in a good memory as it’s happening to me. Shirley Lee manages to take a giant step back from his own narrative and see the forest while describing the trees with poetic detail.

I Can Wait – Shirley Lee

22. Hercules & Love Affair Blue Songs

I loved the first album by DFA act Hercules & Love Affair so much that it made my Top 40 Albums of 2008, and they succeeded in following it up with an equally intriguing record. The opening track “Painted Eyes” cleared away any doubts as that brilliant violin riff kicks in over the bass and flute, living up to “Blind” off their debut. There are many excellent dance tracks, including the glitchy scatting and smooth soul of “My House,” the slinky funk of “Leonora,” the brass–enhanced house beats of “Falling,” and the pumping keyboard line of “Step Up,” which features guest vocals from Kele Okereke. What makes this album of more interest to me are the unexpected lurches away from their genre. There’s the tender acoustic ballad of “Boy Blue” and the muffled crashes of “It’s Alright,” but the most remarkable song is “Blue Song.” With its mellow clarinet cascading in a way reminiscent of “Rhapsody in Blue” against a backdrop of jungle sounds, it’s a track that is both tribal and coolly urbane. The slower songs that move away from the disco and dancefloor shift the spectrum of an otherwise glowing, red-hot band to a sophisticated, inky indigo.

Blue Song – Hercules & Love Affair

21. M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

M83 - Hurry Up

Anthony Gonzalez is having quite a successful year with the double-disc follow up to his John Hughes-inspired, adolescent dream Saturdays = Youth. This time Gonzalez seems to be in thrall to a sparkling childhood of synth magic. It’s brimming with a rushing innocence and dreamy escapism, making it an effervescent antidote to our rather cynical, uncertain times. Whether fizzing through nocturnal urban landscapes or whizzing through twinkling galaxies, Gonzalez’s distinctive yelps elate and delight alongside his expansive synths. After two entire discs, it’s almost too much gushing energy, perhaps akin to staring at the sun or having your heart explode from a particularly high rollercoaster drop, but instead it leaves you wondering just how much joy and brightness one musician can convey without having a brain aneurysm. This album is a New Romantic sundae you want to keep eating until you vomit.

Intro – M83 (featuring Zola Jesus)

20. PJ Harvey Let England Shake

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Nope, she’s not at the top of my list like she is in just about everyone else’s—mainly because I don’t find most of the music to be on par with the anger and bitterness of the lyrics. However, I think she should still be commended for her act of audio arson, sending the bloated, moribund English nationhood down into an incendiary funeral pyre and exploring its bloody, slippery slopes of unending war. If only because she seems to be one of the few musicians to tackle this kind of material at the moment. When I first heard “The Glorious Land” on the radio, I felt like I was going a bit mad. The disorienting music skitters out in all directions while that military trumpet sample comes in to tilt everything off balance. Much of the record keeps that wobbly sensibility as Harvey’s vocals slip through almost as many changes as do the musical styles; for “On Battleship Hill” she delivers a banshee/siren vocal performance, and on “Written on the Forehead” she becomes an airy ghost. This Mercury-Prize-winning record is unsettling because it seems to portray a broken madness of post-traumatic stress rather than stand up in protest; it ultimately becomes a snapshot of defeat instead of the shaking of foundations you might come to expect from Harvey.

The Glorious Land – PJ Harvey

19. Matt Berry Witchazel

When I heard that Matt Berry, of Mighty Boosh, IT Crowd, Snuff Box, etc. fame, had recorded an album, I have to admit that I assumed it would be a generally comedic affair with plenty of plummy, baritone vocals of the “Goddamn these electric sex pants” variety. Granted, I was making this estimation based solely on his rendition of “Eclipse of the Heart” as Dixon Bainbridge. I was ecstatically surprised to find that Berry is more likely to ride a white swan into early Tyrannosaurus Rex via The Incredible String Band with a higher, reedier vocal style and a mercurial backing of harp, woodwinds, guitar, piano, mandolin, organ, and glockenspiel. Witchazel evokes pastoral themes, renaissance fairs, village fetes, and psychedelic freak-outs. The lyrics are suitably surreal (ie: “Your penguin’s in the bath/It was put there by your mum”), and sometimes downright humourous as in the track “Accident at a Harvest Festival,” which features an unfortunate incident involving a gun and cerebral staining of clothes. Overall, Berry proves that some people are just too talented at too many things.

Take My Hand – Matt Berry

18. Artery Civilisation

Artery - Civilisation

Who would have thought there would ever be a new Artery album? Their last studio record, The Second Coming, came out in 1984, and while Jarvis Cocker did boost their profile by adding them to his 2007 Meltdown line-up, I never expected it would result in a brand new album. Those intervening years seem to have made them even angrier. If the gas-mask man and grey landscape on the album cover are anything to go by, this album is a misanthropic affair. Mark Gouldthorpe’s sneering vocals are more tortured than I remember as he sings with contempt about society’s aimlessness and vacuity, sounding like the only person who hears the ticking timebomb of “progress.” Artery’s distinctively propulsive, insistent rhythms and percussion kick through fat bass lines and slicing guitars; sometimes the music builds into portentous atmospheres of dread, sometimes it shakes with a taut rage like a horrorshow gone critical. It’s an album that truly interrogates “civilization,” asking questions that are meant to hold people to account, but which become rhetorical as they fall on deaf ears and blank stares. Artery updates their sense of alienation with the addition of cyberspace on songs like “A Song for All the Lonely People,” and in “Into Oblivion,” Gouldthorpe spits that we’ve built our artificial security out of “anguish in the concrete.” While so many newer and younger bands are in the blissful business of ignoring the pathologies of our uneasy culture, Artery has brought back vitriolic, necessary confrontation.

Is It All for Real? – Artery

17. Frank Turner England Keep My Bones

Frank Turner tends to receive an equal measure of loyal adulation and dismissive backlash. I think both reactions stem from Turner’s unabashed earnestness. Having seen him perform live twice (thankfully, in intimate venues), having interviewed him a few months back, and having met him in person after his Winnipeg show, I can attest to the impassioned genuineness of his projected persona. And he has a backing band of equally decent souls. Though I may like Poetry of the Deed more than this current album, I still find England Keep My Bones to be a powerfully memorable and life-affirming statement about identity and the urge to both escape and maintain roots. It’s a record of exploring heritage, belief in the power of community, and self-memorialization. Songs like “I Still Believe,” “I Am Disappeared,” “If Ever I Stray,” and “Glory Hallelujah” get my heart pumping faster like the waters rushing through the estuaries that figure so prominently in Turner’s conception of his homeland. While Turner may not always be aware of the poetry and consistent imagery in his own work, I think he’s created a truly thematic piece that is emotionally affecting and uplifting in its humanity.

I Am Disappeared – Frank Turner

Read my interview with Frank Turner here.

16. Mogwai Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die

I’m no expert on post-rock, but this seventh album from Mogwai is as playful as its title suggests and as mischievous as the Glaswegian band ever were. Perhaps it’s a more mellowed out record than it could have been, but I feel that the deft arrangement of textures is more than just an atmospheric trigger to emotion as I would find the earlier work to be; this collection of tracks seem melodically more descriptive and direct, like mini-cinematic scores. The motorik rush and whispers of vocals on “Mexican Grand Prix” produce a brilliant spin around a sun-drenched racetrack, and “Letters to the Metro” is suitably mawkish with sighing guitars and teardrops of piano. There are still vestiges of fuzzed-out, heavier rock on tracks like “Rano Pano,” and “You’re Lionel Richie,” which apparently references the “Easy Lionel” viral video of a Glaswegian wandering the streets on ecstasy, is one monstrous crescendo from gentle, dare I say easy, waves to mind-melting intensity. One of my favourite tracks is the cheekily-titled “George Square Thatcher Death Party”; with its defiant guitars and ecstatic drum fills, I can actually imagine the jubilant festivities in the civic centre of Glasgow. This album is a fortifying alternative to the muso-moody seriousness of their contemporaries.

George Square Thatcher Death Party – Mogwai

15. Kate Bush 50 Words for Snow

Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow

A flurry accompanies every release from the reclusive artist, and this latest was no different. Though this album unfolds at a glacial pace, with tracks averaging eight minutes in length, it emulates the slow build of snow in drifting, muffling beauty. For those of us who see far too much prosaic snow on a yearly basis, this record may seem a bit too romantic about it; however, through the minimal piano and Bush’s hushed, lower register, which occasionally leaps into stark high notes, I start to fall into a reverie, believing snowflakes to have life cycles and snowmen to have tragic love lives. Bush departs from the undulating piano balladry on tracks like “Wild Man,” which adds the mysterious chant of Eastern-inflected guitars and a disorienting, otherworldly effect on her vocal during the chorus. The titular track is an almost-tribal tribute to language as Bush seductively coaxes Stephen Fry to recite imagined, and perhaps not-so-imagined, words for snow, including “swans-a-melting,” “spangladasha,” “anklebreaker,” and “anechoic.” Overall, this record is a bewitching interpretation of winter, often expressing the sound silence would make if it had a voice. Having it on vinyl is a treat if only to flip through the accompanying large lyric booklet featuring images designed by Robert Allsop; part-ice-sculpture-part-snow-impression-part-marble-frieze, they are ghostly and strangely alive. This album is a much more challenging sentiment than “December Will Be Magic Again,” but I think that Bush has made more than a fair trade in swapping fairy whimsy for stately soundscaping.

Wild Man – Kate Bush

14. Tom Rosenthal Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop

Tom Rosenthal - Keep a Private Room

After waiting for at least a couple of years, I finally have the opportunity to consider Tom Rosenthal for my top albums of the year. His debut album, which has been released digitally, comes out of a rather prolific songwriting context; I must have dozens of Rosenthal compositions as they were often released for free on his website, and I purchased a homemade four-disc box set that covered his output from 2006 to 2009 (it also included a little book of poetry and a small watercolour). I recognize at least a couple of the tracks on his debut LP from previous incarnations, but overall it’s an exciting array of material. (If you want some further background, visit a previous review I did nearly three years ago). Rosenthal’s topical piano songs are inventive and humourous, twisting cultural references into new narratives of dreamy wonder. His past songs have explored the recent hung parliament in Britain, Jeremy Kyle, Mark Ronson, the Queen, and a dream in which Rosenthal rides a giant bicycle. Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop leans more towards Rosenthal’s storytelling ability, including the story of “Toby Carr’s Difficult Relationship with Tuna”; the mincing “Away With the Fairies,” which tells of a couple who love everyone, except Robert Mugabe; and “The Boy” who takes a hot air balloon ride with a creature through a land where only a single yellow rose grows, eventually ending up on a train trip to the sea. I find the unguarded, woozy sweetness of Patrick Wolf’s “Adder” in several of Rosenthal’s melodies, and I think we need a new poster boy the off-kilter; with this debut, Rosenthal enchants with his charming abandon and unique imagination, throwing his hat of tricks into the ring.

The Boy – Tom Rosenthal

13. The Horrors Skying

The Horrors - Skying

This respectable follow-up to their breakthrough Primary Colours continues to push into expanses of sound, reaching for the skies and coasting on a crystalline slipstream. Faris Badwan’s voice keeps getting richer and moodier as it stretches to meet the epic mandate of the music. While “I Can See Through You” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Boys Keep Swinging,” those ascending chords take the song into a more ethereal place, and songs like “Monica Gems” and “Oceans Burning” are pleasing maelstroms that threaten to collapse in on themselves. When so many bands bury their bass rhythms in the mix, it’s also just wonderful to hear songs with prominent basslines doing interesting things to guide the dizzying melodies. (I’m also fully prepared to admit that I’m hypnotized by Rhys Webb’s bobbing dance that accompanies his bass-playing and looks like he’s trying to put a baby to sleep.) The two juggernauts that really boost this album into stratospheric realms are “Still Life” and “Moving Further Away.” They’re both majestic behemoths when performed live; the former is a glittering post-punk anthem, and the latter pulses with motorik elegance as it pushes out like an exploding universe. Derivative, yes, but I just can’t fault Skying for being the new wave classic that came nearly thirty years too late.

Moving Further Away – The Horrors

12. Zola Jesus Conatus

Nika Roza Danilova’s latest record is a possessed piece of art that seems to scream 4AD with a dark, primal pain. The Latin word conatus means “a striving,” which I can feel in the intensity and struggle throughout this album. Her vocals are so stridently muscular that they ache with a passion of unspeakable emotion; much like Elizabeth Fraser’s ululations, Danilova’s voice doesn’t need to be comprehensible in terms of language in order to convey alienation and self-immolation (in fact, I find several of her lyrics to be difficult to decipher, but nonetheless emotionally affecting). The track “Hikikomori,” named after a Japanese term meaning “acute social withdrawal,” does characterize her ostensibly self-imposed reclusiveness and the turmoil of her inner world. As much as her voice ventures out into bold swathes of throat-catching beauty and the music swells into frosty waves, her voice also retreats into itself as the music sinks back into an undergrowth of static. It’s as though Danilova cannot stop raising her head above the parapet of her own lonely fortress to cry out to the void.

Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake – Zola Jesus

Read Laura’s review of Conatus here.

11. St. Vincent Strange Mercy

Perhaps because I’m an ornery anglophile, or perhaps because I just don’t have enough time in the day to listen to all of the music and actually eat, I haven’t really listened to St. Vincent prior to this year. This preface means that I’m not familiar with Annie Clark’s previous albums, so I’m coming at this latest one from a newcomer’s angle. This record alternates between angelic and menacing as Clark examines her flaws, failings, and yearnings. Her gentle, almost hiccupping, vocals in juxtaposition to crunchy, distorted guitar creates a fascinating tension, as though she’s wading in the purifying sludge of her guitar. “Surgeon” is both weirdly decadent and clinical, oddly evoking “You Only Live Twice” in the opening riff. As Clark pleads to be cut open, you feel like the entire record is about this act of visceral intrusion. She seems to be searching inside her own identity for the truth even when it hurts or disturbs. In “Cheerleader,” she mocks her own acquiescence by rhyming “cheerleader” with “dirt eater,” and repeats her acknowledgement of identity performance in “Champagne Year.” In “Year of the Tiger,” the desperate boredom of a bourgeois existence is summed up in the wonderful line: “My kingdom for a cup of coffee.” In many ways, Strange Mercy is a messy, glorious coming to terms.

Surgeon – St. Vincent

Read Laura’s review of Strange Mercy here.

10. Luke Haines 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s

Luke Haines - 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations

As you find throughout his autobiographies, Luke Haines is a contrary artist who will act on a whim and do as he pleases, often in order to shock and/or irritate people. Why did he make an entire concept album about German terrorists? Because he could. This latest album does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak. Albeit not as arty as his last double album (there’s definitely no Dada imagery on this album cover), 9½ Psychedelic Meditations retains a sense of audacity in its ludicrous quest to narrate the lives of several British wrestlers. I admit the only wrestler from this group that I’ve ever heard of is Haystacks, and that’s only because he makes an appearance on the Manics’ Journal for Plague Lovers. And I concede that I only thought of Catweazle as a wizard on some British television show for children. These gaps in my knowledge aside, I find the album to be a hilarious, absurd endeavour, perhaps much in line with the DIY, kitschy ridiculousness of its subject matter. By combining the pseudo-violence of wrestling with these gentle, psyche-folk ditties and his characteristically sinister vocals, Haines produces a rather brilliant piece of twisted comedy. Though he sings of crushing people’s heads and Kendo Nagasaki composing a “rock opera in the key of existential misery,” he seems to come at the material from a decidedly less misanthropic angle. You’d expect him to revel in the seedier side of the wrestlers’ world, which I understand to have existed, or even to invent diseased back-stories for these characters; instead, he matches the idiosyncratic oddity of wrestling’s beloved place in national consciousness with, dare I say, twee, boyish fandom. Luke Haines may be a caustic lunatic, but give him a wrestling mask and he will tell you a vastly different type of lie.

I Am Catweazle – Luke Haines

9. Trips and Falls People Need to be Told

This second album from Montreal group Trips and Falls is a further development of their mellow, wonky indiepop style. At turns arcane experiment and sighing lullaby, this record marries innovative, ambiguous lyrics to captivating glimpses of secrets and desires. Tossing and turning through dreamy duets in “I’ll Do The Dishes, You Do The Laundry,” “Marginally More Than Mildly Annoying,” “This Is All Going To End Badly,” and “That’s What She Said,” Jacob Romero and Ashleigh Delaye take you through tableaux that reflect the many communicative farces and facets of relationships; in some cases, talking makes less sense than saying nothing at all. The other half of the songs range from empathetic helplessness, resigned resilience, and downright eerie stories of characters giving in to silent temptations.

Good People Are Always So Sure They’re Right – Trips and Falls

Read my review of People Need to be Told here.

8. Jah Wobble and Julie Campbell Psychic Life

Wobble and Campbell hooked me from the first few seconds of album opener “Tightrope”; it was like a taut grid of razor-sharp wires laid over the floor of a discotheque. With the addition of Keith Levene, this record is PiL with enticing rather than repellent vocals; this is not to say that John Lydon’s style is distasteful, but that it is more detached and apt to push you away rather than Campbell’s tuneful beckoning. In songs like the title track and “Ruinlust,” there’s a funky vein of dub pulsing beneath the icy synth skin, creating a dazzling sense of burning up inside a cool metal casing. There’s an electro precision on songs like “Feel” to contrast with the all-out funk of slinky vocals, piano glissandos, and brass punctuation on “Slavetown Pt. 1” and “Slavetown Pt. 2.” I actually really enjoy the slow-burning jam of the latter tracks because it seems like Campbell is itching to break out of her own brain. With Metal Box’s “Memories” knocking about somewhere in its depths, “Psychic Life” drives home the complication of the shadowy, electrified organ that is the brain. Campbell provides the hissing, soulful delivery of lyrics that insist she can’t stay in “territories of myth” even as she mourns lost spaces. The best lyric of the song, and perhaps of the entire album, is “I think of the surplus inside us.” There’s a feeling that Wobble and Campbell have mapped out a geography that has updated the perambulations of Situationists for the digital age; their album answers the question of where you can go when all your landscapes exist in an intangible information network.

Tightrope – Jah Wobble and Julie Campbell

Read Laura’s review of Psychic Life here.

7. Benjamin Shaw There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet

There's Always Hope, There's Always Cabernet album cover

Thank you, Tom Ravenscroft, for introducing me to one of my favourite finds of the year. London-based musician Benjamin Shaw exemplifies the art of falling apart. His debut album is a humming, fizzing cacophony that sways along its own less than merry path. Dissonant sounds, which range from plucked ukulele to violin screeches, from reedy flute to searing static, stand out all over this record like impossible cowlicks; every time one seems to lay down in submission, another one pops up in an unlikely spot, and then the first one springs back. Like a drawn-out sigh of surrender, Shaw plays the unfortunate character with dollops of empathy and black humour. There’s an attractive catharsis in listening to this album with its half-hearted imperfections. I actually started breathing in time to the laboured slide of strings on “Somewhere Over the M6” and felt much calmer. There are some beautifully tender moments such as Shaw watching a sleeping lover in “HULK” as he admits his own superhuman distemper. It’s as though Shaw is kindly, but perhaps drunkenly, offering up spare pieces for you to try; some are severely broken, and others are completely mismatched. But you end up feeling that it’s really the thought that counts.

How to Test the Depth of a Well – Benjamin Shaw

Read my review of There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet here.

6. British Sea Power Valhalla Dancehall

On British Sea Power’s last record they asked if we liked rock music; this time, they’re demanding we answer whether we’re ready for Valhalla. I say fuck Fólkvangr. With their fourth album (not counting their soundtrack to Man of Aran), BSP continue to clatter and thrash their own reckless path through the indie soundscape like the hedonistic head of a ramshackle people’s army. This record contains dynamics that open their jaws and swallow you whole, and a wiry urgency that keeps blossoming into fist-pumping anthems. I feel like BSP are increasingly becoming the band that parties on the edge of disaster, yearning for chaos and hour zero; even on quieter, slower songs, they have a tense core that glows with enough potential energy to go nuclear. As Hamiton sings on “Mongk II,” “You can’t stop dancing ‘til you call an ambulance.” And their lyrics are still so abstrusely them. Who else do you hear singing “sometimes I wish protesting was sexy on a Saturday night”? Valhalla Dancehall is a celestial racket worth falling in battle for. If we all have to die anyway, that guitar solo on “Georgie Ray” will definitely be reward enough.

Observe the Skies – British Sea Power

Read my review of Roy Wilkinson’s book Do It For Your Mum here.

5. Wild Beasts Smother

I’m a massive fan of Limbo Panto, and then unlike the rest of the world, I didn’t enjoy Two Dancers as much; however, with Smother, I’m duly impressed once more. Histrionics have been shed in favour of an elegant minimalism; bongos and plinking guitar lines shower down on an empty space. The band generates musical currents that push, pull, suffuse, and beckon while exploring complex emotional content in the lyrics. On “Lion’s Share,” Hayden Thorpe’s distinctive operatic vocal croons through wonderfully baleful lines like “I love you all the more for every fault/They’re how I’d gotten in/They’re how I cracked the vault.” The synthpop gem of “Bed of Nails” opens with a drumbeat evocative of “Running Up That Hill” before intoxicating with Thorpe’s soulful vocal, seething and cajoling with a sexy breathiness. On one of the most striking tracks, “Reach a Bit Further,” the higher, fluty vocals from Thorpe slip into a tender dialogue of forgiveness with Tom Fleming’s huskier, lower register, giving me goose bumps. This album is about regrets, guilt, furtive desire, and sex tinged with self-consciousness, vulnerability and obsession. In many ways, the music is held back like a deep breath, evoking ambient, spare styles like those of David Sylvian. With this record, Wild Beasts have created the perfect balance between baroque vocal style and clean, classical composition, allowing their idiosyncrasy to melt into delicate, otherworldly simplicity.

Bed of Nails – Wild Beasts

4. Destroyer Kaputt

Destroyer - Kaputt

Like many critics this year, I feel like I shouldn’t like the latest record from Dan Bejar and co. With the gloss of Prefab Sprout, the swarminess of New Wave sax, flute, and trumpet, glimpses of the champagne rock of late Roxy Music, and the frothy easy listening of Spandau Ballet, it should be a nightmarish 80s pastiche as flammable as polyester. Instead, it weaves an undeniable spell as it skims the surface of the decade infamous for surfaces. “Savage Night at the Opera” sounds like a lost New Order track while engaging in a blatant “Enola Gay” riff three minutes into it, and “Chinatown” seems to be a refracted mirage of Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down” with elements of The Style Council’s “Shout to the Top.” The epic final track “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” alone contains an extended atmospheric introduction worthy of a trip to an 80s planetarium, a guitar riff lifted right out of Roddy Frame’s hands, splays of Bernard Sumner chords, kickdrums from Pet Shop Boys, and flashes of Erasure-style hi-NRG. On the same song, Behar sings “I’ve seen it all,” which may be an apt description for how many pieces he stitches together. Though knowing, this album doesn’t feel ironic or mean-spirited; it feels like Bejar decanted his swirling adolescent memories of the 80s into a surreal stream-of-consciousness. His precise, yet fey, vocals deliver lyrics of a beguiling, but nearly nonsensical nature—Bejar himself has admitted he doesn’t know what most of the lyrics are supposed to mean. Occasionally snatches of his lines make sense in light of the album’s musical influences: “your first love’s New Order” (“Blue Eyes”), “we built this city on ruins” (“Poor in Love”), and a litany of British music magazines that seem like a dream (“Kaputt”). Bejar sings “all you got is style” in “Poor in Love,” but somehow he performs alchemy on something that could have been catastrophically tacky, and injects the whole project with substance.

Savage Night at the Opera – Destroyer

3. Momus and John Henriksson Thunderclown

Momus and John Henriksson's Thunderclown Cover

It’s not like I needed further evidence that Momus is an artistic genius whose creativity and intellect are so massive that they intimidate me from getting out of bed in the morning. But he released another album this year, so it couldn’t be helped. With John Henriksson providing the vinyl samples and additional instrumentation, and Momus supplying the lyrics, vocals, and musical tweaking, you end up with an album that twists and squeezes the idea of innocent romance like the filthy, unsanitary sponge it truly is. In creating a character like the titular Thunderclown, Momus creates a clever flipside to the “Weeping Philosopher” Heraclitus; both entities are nomadic outsiders to society because they think too deeply and recognize the foolishness of others. As a painted-up fool, Momus can rain all over the parade of the nostalgic past and deflate the buoyancy contained in the myriad 50s musical samples. It is Henriksson and Momus’s attention to detail and intricate layering of meaning that lifts this project beyond mere ironic pastiche. Time and space become fluid and porous in Thunderclown, bleeding into each other, producing art that confounds as much as it astounds.

The Thunderclown – Momus and John Henriksson

Read my review of Thunderclown here.

2. Magazine No Thyself

This latest album from Magazine is proof Howard Devoto will not go gently into that good night. He’s as vital, hungry, and intense as he ever was as he sinisterly sings and gleefully gurns over lyrics about mortality and the passage of time. On “Do the Meaning” Magazine creates an acerbic, messy riposte to Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand” (complete with a greedy twist on Lewis Carroll as Devoto intends to have “jam today, jam tomorrow”), and on “Other Thematic Material” he sings sexual instructions in eye-watering detail like a Jarvis Cocker gone seedier. Devoto boasts/despairs that he’s “more mortal than ever” on “Holy Dotage,” and you can feel it as the band rises to the occasion and augments his mocking bitterness and tenacity. It feels like Magazine is going for broke with this record; it’s as though the past is snapping at their heels and they have nothing to lose. The ever-shifting musical elements, including angular funk, scratchy post-punk, spacey electro, and esoteric experimentalism, are like restless tectonic plates, colliding, parting, vibrating and grinding with tension, spewing ash, breaking ground. No Thyself is one massive refusal, annihilating anything questioning their supremacy.

Hello Mister Curtis (With Apologies) – Magazine

Read Laura’s review of No Thyself here.

1. The Indelicates David Koresh Superstar

To tell the story of David Koresh, the messianic leader of a Branch Davidian religious sect in Texas who died in an FBI siege on his sect’s ranch, in a musical concept would appear to be a folly. And perhaps in any other band’s hands it would have been. In the clever hands of Simon and Julia Indelicate, this project becomes a carefully crafted dissection of irrational belief that retains a sympathetic sense of humanity even as it picks apart what makes people fundamentalists and cult followers. The lengthy quotations on the back of the liner notes about the possibility of Jesus being a madman and the apocalyptic desire of religion, from C.S. Lewis and Christopher Hitchens, respectively, encapsulate the complex issues at the heart of David Koresh Superstar. Their backdrop is the frontier mentality of America—exemplified by The Lone Star State—and their cast is a who’s who of the London indie scene, including Lily Rae, The Vessel, Keith TOTP, David Barnett, David Shah, Aug Stone, Philip Jeays, and even Jim Bob from Carter USM as a propaganda-spewing Timothy McVeigh, no less. The Indelicates are no stranger to the alternative, quasi-religious musical, as their earlier work Job: The Musical will attest, but this time, they exceed all expectations with a spectacularly researched piece of art. Simon performs the titular role with maniacal fervor and human frailty, and Julia is heartbreakingly vulnerable as Lois Roden, a president of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church who also had an affair with Koresh before he challenged her leadership. The music rises to meet the incredibly high standard of poetry written by Julia and Simon; they are served well by their phenomenal sense of poetic metre as they weave their story into a musical theatre sensibility. “I Don’t Care If It’s True,” which first appeared as bonus material for their sophomore album, Songs for Swinging Lovers, is capable of overwhelming me every time I hear it. Rather than just chilling and ominous, the lyric “I will unmake the world” becomes a justifiable objective for a sad outsider who sees the world in a way that makes perfect sense to him, but not to the majority. They add further nuance to Koresh in “What If You’re Wrong?”; to the eerie beat of the loading click of a gun, Simon sings of his creeping doubts. The album’s climax of “Gethsemane” is a befitting, pulse-racing track for a showdown as refrains from “Ballad of the A.T.F.” and “McVeigh” are slipped in seamlessly behind the song proper. Part of my emotional reaction to this record is also the brilliant execution of a massive collaboration; though it must have been hard work, it seems like it had to be a blast, too. Andrew Lloyd Webber, eat your heart out.

I Don’t Care If It’s True – The Indelicates


You Always Say Such Beautiful Things: My 25 Favourite Albums of 2011

Well, here we are.  An end and a beginning.  2011 is the year that’s seen me begin (sporadically) blogging and while it’s been fun, it also has been and continues to be a learning experience.  Writing about music makes me listen to music differently.  2011 is also the year Larissa and I outdid ourselves in our travelling and gigging.  While the last several months have been personally plagued by sadness resulting from some personal and professional disappointments, I try to remind myself of the incredible three weeks we spent in Europe in July, and the legendary musicians and bands we finally got to check off our ‘to see’ lists in the last twelve months.  Indeed, it’s a pretty noteworthy year that starts with Gang of Four, ends with Prince, and contains shows by the Manics, Pulp, Big Audio Dynamite, Grace Jones, Jonathan Richman, and Lou Reed in between.

The following list contains a bit of everything, as a list by any music lover worth her salt should.  There’s a lot of arty and electronic-tinged pop and dance music, but there’s also a fair amount of lo-fi music that doesn’t smack you upside the head with its production.  Folk, metal, and post-punk are all accounted for and of course, no list of mine would be complete without a significant portion of straight-up (or less straight-up) rock.  Many of these genres intersect, of course.  Some things are weird and have required repeated listenings for them to reveal their greatness to me, and others were impressive on first listen and just got better from there.  As well, I hope you enjoy the songs I’ve chosen to represent these albums.  Happy New Year!


25. Hercules and Love Affair Blue Songs

Antony Hegarty’s immediately recognizable voice is nowhere to be found on Blue Songs, Hercules and Love Affair’s second release.  His participation in their first album is undoubtedly what brought about at least some of the copious attention paid to Hercules and Love Affair when they debuted in 2008.  Triumphantly, Blue Songs is just as lovely without Antony’s mercurial voice gracing it.  Their updated ‘70s disco sound is intact, however, and it’s enhanced with vocals from a handful of collaborators who are just as adept as Antony at countering the horn-punctuated beats of the music with sensual smoothness.  It’s not all party and lightness, though: there’s a deep nocturnal vein that runs through the whole of Blue Songs that makes the album feel like that point in the party when everyone’s stayed the night and has drifted off to sleep just as the sun’s coming up.  In this way the songs shift and move between the navy darkness of night and the shining, refreshing blue of morning.  Dancing can be a restorative, spiritual experience too.

Hercules and Love Affair – Leonora


24. Optional Wallace Optional Wallace

It honestly legitimately excites me how much a specific and current crop of British indie bands channel the indignation and fury that the Manic Street Preachers were known for in their early days.  Groups like The Indelicates, Johnny Boy, and now Optional Wallace are finding that political apathy is just as rampant today as it was twenty years ago, and like their favourite bands of that period they’ve decided to do call us out on it.  This Manchester three-piece have perfected their tight, muscular sound, accentuated with pounding percussion and interplay between the guitar and bass that pulls and tugs anthemic tunes like “The Ladder” into punchy shape.  Like the best post-punk and indie rock of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the music and lyrics crafted by Danny Foster, Neil Meehan, and Matt Anderson are equally angry and give this, their debut full-length, a searing effect that British indie rock hasn’t had in years or, depending on whom you ask, decades.

Optional Wallace – Generation


23. Modeselektor Monkeytown

This album’s all over the place, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.  Offered on Monkeytown’s menu are self-aware, charmingly goofy rap, cutting-edge glitch, dance-y electropop, and sober reflections on paranoia, both lyrical and musical.  Its melodic catchiness is what holds it all together, that and the fact that, start to finish, it feels like a night out at a dance club with its own successive highs and lows.  There’s the calm of being on your way to a big party, and the explosion of guests each doing their own thing, looking for their ideal night out.  Monkeytown becomes reflective at times, too, and its multi-genre approach is signified by a blink-and-you-miss-it shout-out to Prince on “Humanized” with the lyric “Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold.”  Bold stuff indeed, but this experiment pays off in a seriously addicting album that enthrals the whole way through.

Modeselektor – Grillwalker

Read my review of Monkeytown here.


22. Mastodon The Hunter

Mastodon’s particular brand of metal is equally indebted to the sludge rock pioneered by early ‘70s bands like Black Sabbath and to the poppier, melodic side of hard rock.  The Hunter is unquestionably a heavy metal album, but I think its appeal is far wider ranging than for just established metal fans.  Mastodon’s more prog rock side is present and accounted for too, and the sound they’ve come up with here is heavy, nuanced, and above all, infinitely satisfying.  This beast of a production is weird and soaring and bright and heavy and beautiful and face-melting.  So, broadening their musical range and potentially winning a lot more followers with an album that has also universally impressed critics and hasn’t sacrificed their vision or prodigious skills?  Dude.  I’ll take one.

Mastodon – Stargasm


21. Wild Flag Wild Flag

Much has been written of this indie supergroup since they formed halfway through 2009.  While I don’t necessarily want to contribute to the possible oversaturation of media about Wild Flag, I seriously cannot deny the straight-up triumph that is their debut album, released in September.  Carrie Brownstein has grown significantly as a frontperson since her Sleater-Kinney days, and all the better too, because here she more often leads her band than back in S-K, when the singing was often the responsibility of Corin Tucker and her undeniably powerful pipes.  Brownstein’s charm lies in her perfectly imperfect voice and infectious enthusiasm, the latter of which could easily be said about any member of this band.  I didn’t think that the words ‘joyful’ and ‘rock’ could together be exemplified so perfectly, but Brownstein, along with seasoned rockers Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, and Rebecca Cole have let loose with an accomplished and unabashedly fun album that showcases their strengths and skills with aplomb.

Wild Flag – Short Version


20. Frank Turner England Keep My Bones

In my mind at least, Frank Turner’s got the folk-punk, sometimes political, earnest troubadour music market cornered at the moment.  His sense of home and of his own Englishness, especially apparent on his latest full-length, England Keep My Bones, takes him into new and different territory on “Wessex Boy” and “If Ever I Stray” and his newfound preoccupation with being memorialized after his death is evident on “Eulogy” and “Peggy Sang the Blues” and he effectively covers both subjects on the heartfelt “Rivers.”  Turner’s passion is, as ever, the key ingredient to his appeal and is so infectious that it makes me want to get up off the couch and practice my own politics in a bigger way, but I usually settle for singing along to his politics while driving or dancing around my living room.  His anthem to atheism, “Glory Hallelujah”, closes England Keep My Bones on an appropriate note: with one foot resolutely in the realm of tradition and the other devoted to his own irreverent twist on British folk heritage, Turner crafts a defining album that finds balance between two musical traditions and still kicks ass.

Frank Turner – I Still Believe

Read Larissa’s interview with Frank Turner here.


19. The Antlers Burst Apart

The Antlers debuted in 2009 with Hospice, an album that seriously caught me off guard with its brutal emotional honesty, both lyrical and musical.  They’ve continued developing this approach on Burst Apart.  Opener “I Don’t Want Love” acknowledges the urgent need for the physical communion of sex, especially sex that doesn’t involve the tenderness of a loving relationship.  The lyrics “We wake up with pounding heads, bruised down below” don’t express regret as much as they express the physical relief of deep emotional tension.  Peter Silberman’s stories of fraught relationships take a backseat to the impact of his music, subdued and fragile while resonant with the drama that everyday events can be full of.  Indeed, it is the minute, individual moments that make up larger periods of existence and experience, and Burst Apart pays attention to these aspects of life equally and sensitively.

The Antlers – I Don’t Want Love


18. Matt Berry Witchazel

As far as unexpected listening pleasures go, I did not anticipate actor and comedian Matt Berry’s musical ventures to be as delightful as his comedy.  Although this is his third album, Witchazel was the first Berry LP that I’ve listened to, and it is truly like going down a rabbit hole of ‘60s psychedelic pop.  Fifty years spontaneously evaporate upon listening to the opening dark yet lilting reed instruments as they intersect and bend, summoning the pastoral tranquility of classic British folk music.  His voice’s airy, reedy quality fits the combination of instruments perfectly, and its presence is low in the mix, the whole sounding like the last strains of summer, all bright and gold.  Strings, organ, and horns round out the retro sound achieved on Witchazel, but be assured, this is no mere kitschy ‘retro’ album.  No, Berry’s investment in this timeless pop music is genuine, and the result is a beautiful artefact that speaks equally to the value of the past’s best psych-pop and the intriguing directions that contemporary pop and folk can take.

Matt Berry – So Low


17. Cut Copy Zonoscope

While not universally acclaimed like Cut Copy’s 2008 outing, In Ghost Colours, Australians Dan Whitford, Tim Hoey, Mitchell Scott, and Ben Browning continue to explore their interpretation of ‘80s-esque synthpop on Zonoscope to uplifting effect.  Even though they have a song entitled “Strange Nostalgia for the Future”, Cut Copy’s music lovingly plunders the past without sacrificing originality or a distinctive sound of their own.  Drawing on influences like New Order, Kraftwerk, the Human League, and My Bloody Valentine, their affectionate homage to decades past also succeeds on a more intimate, lyrical level, with Whitford singing of utopian futures, departing from the darker lyrical content of his forebears.  Incorporating mentions of memories, dreams, the possibilities of life and the inevitability of death, Zonoscope is larger than life and unquestionably more than the sum of its parts.

Cut Copy – Take Me Over


16. Butcher Boy Helping Hands

I have finally and belatedly realized one of the biggest reasons why I love Butcher Boy: their songs make me feel the way Belle & Sebastian’s songs did in their Jeepster period, back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.  While these two bands certainly have similarities, like their Glaswegian origins, this doesn’t necessarily mean they sound the same.  Rather, Butcher Boy pay homage Belle & Sebastian in their direct yet gentle approach and use of stringed instruments to flesh out their sound.  John Blain Hunt’s signature earnest delivery is, of course, highlighted on Helping Hands, and it continues to befit his tales of tentative romance and new lovers’ stolen kisses.  There’s also a distinct bittersweetness that comes through in wistful string passages and the overarching sense that these short reprieves spent in the company of a loved one are the only times his melancholy lifts.

Butcher Boy – The Day Our Voices Broke


15. Wild Beasts Smother

Wild Beasts are a wonderful anomaly of a band: they’re generally identified as a rock group, but on Smother they move in an electronic-oriented direction that accentuates their differences from other English indie rock bands currently working.  Highly literate and unapologetically unusual with frequent forays into the creepy and freakish, their lyrics on Smother are about moral ambiguity and the music used to accompany those words feels lushly vulnerable as well.  The yearning quality of Hayden Thorpe’s voice is particularly notable on “Plaything” where he narrates the voyeuristic desires of one-half of a sexual pairing – it’s discomfiting and obviously problematic, and that’s the point.  The multiple connotations of the word ‘smother’ is what attracted Wild Beasts to this album title, and its multiplicity is an apt metaphor for their songs: they can certainly be enjoyed for their surface beauty and atmosphere, but the more the listener realizes what their (sometimes difficult to decipher) lyrics are saying, the more Smother can be enjoyed.

Wild Beasts – Reach a Bit Further


14. Katy B On a Mission

So, for those uninitiated listeners, what is the difference between your average Rihanna track and any of the tunes found on this debut from London’s Katie Brien, aka Katy B?  A friend posed this question to me several months ago when I introduced her to the album and of course I, having listened to On a Mission only marginally and also being very slow on my feet, responded that there might not be much difference at all.  That was a lie, only I didn’t realize it then.  Like Robyn did last year, particularly on “Dancing On My Own”, Katy tells stories and vents her frustrations about sexual politics and feeling most alone even when surrounded by dancing club-goers.  This doesn’t feel all that much like a dance album, for all that it contains some of the year’s catchiest beats.  Even when she’s telling off guys that do nothing to impress her (“Easy Please Me”) or reflecting on the status of a shaky relationship (“Broken Record”), Katy never falls into the tired clichés that characterize lesser dance-pop.  She stands head and shoulders above them, especially in heels.

Katy B – Katy on a Mission


13. Battles Gloss Drop

The cover art for Gloss Drop is perfectly indicative of what the album contains.  That is, something mostly indefinable.  Freeform, primitive, organic, somewhat amorphous, and terrifying in its boldness and inability to be definitely identified, that towering pink blob is a signal to expect the unexpected, cliché as that is.  This is rock music, but rock music unlike any you’ve grappled with before.  This is rock music that questions the parameters of any set of things rock music can or should be.  With the option of figuring out exactly what Gloss Drop’s (mostly lyric-less) songs mean stroked out as an impossibility, the listener is left to grapple with sounds, impressions, movements, and feelings to guide interpretation.  Conversely, no interpretation may actually be required at all.  Full of texture and direction and a lot of innovative rhythms and catchy melodies, Gloss Drop’s sound suggests a kind of vivid visual excitement that’s perfectly in keeping with the presence of that pink blob.

Battles – Inchworm


12. Zola Jesus Conatus

I love how the chill of a Wisconsin winter has made its way into Nika Roza Danilova’s work as Zola Jesus.  The physical desolation of Madison translates perfectly into the icy musical desolation presented on Conatus, a world populated by people who struggle to comprehend the depth of each others’ alienation.  A chilling yet enveloping combination of synthpop, piano-driven singer-songwriter, and darker post-punk and goth sensibilities typify her sound, but these components all take a backseat to Danilova’s voice, itself a strong, slightly nasal, and emotion-drenched instrument that in a single phrase can fully transmit the scope of her pain.  By the end of the album, Conatus leaves you with the same feeling that a Wisconsin winter does: it may end up killing you, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Zola Jesus – Vessel

Read my review of Conatus here.


11. British Sea Power Valhalla Dancehall

I am so grateful that British Sea Power exist.  To solely hear them, one might easily think that they’re a fairly straight-ahead, albeit better than most, indie rock group.  Thankfully this isn’t the case at all.  BSP have, over more than a decade now, made a career out of highlighting their idiosyncrasies along with their superior brand of rock music; or rather, they have incorporated their finely honed sense of the ridiculous into their music, making theirs a compelling band to watch and follow whether onstage or off.  Valhalla Dancehall’s lead track, “Who’s In Control,” along with its surprising video, are a case in point.  The song tells of a bookish narrator observing the chaos of a political protest and slyly questioning where the lines are drawn when everyone’s in the overexcited heat of the action.  Its corresponding video depicts this riot but then halfway through turns its gaze on a group of young protesters making the most of their high and partying later at home.  Communities are formed, clothes are shed, sexual connections forged, and everything glows in the bliss of idealized youth.

British Sea Power – Who’s In Control

Read Larissa’s review of Roy Wilkinson’s book Do It For Your Mum here.


10. Wye Oak Civilian

I didn’t think Wye Oak were going to be my thing.  Variously classified as ‘indie rock’, ‘alternative rock’, and ‘alternative folk’, I had already mentally lumped them in with much of Ryan Adams’ more mediocre work for some reason when both my friend Elizabeth-Anne and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle enthusiastically endorsed Wye Oak’s Civilian this year.  I cannot fully express here how glad I am for their recommendation.  “Civilian” is so gorgeously sad, nostalgic, and filled with self-aware longing for a fulfilling romantic relationship that it’s brought tears to my eyes more than once.  After Jenn Wasner delivers the achingly honest line “I’m perfectly able to hold my own hand but I still can’t kiss my own neck” she launches into a heartrending solo that, if her words didn’t fully capture her frustration, blasts the depth of her loneliness out of her body and into the uncaring ether.

Wye Oak – Civilian


9. Isolée Well Spent Youth

Yes, I’m hanging my head in shame: I only discovered the music of Rajko Müller, aka Isolée, this year.  I do, however, like to think I’m making up for it by almost immediately latching on to his most recent release, Well Spent Youth, a fascinating and quirky minimalist house production that’s one of the most addictive things I’ve listened to all year.  Repetitive and unassuming on the surface, Well Spent Youth brims with weirdness and engaging ideas, and becomes less simply repetitive and more layered and twitchy with repeated listens.  For example, “Thirteen Times an Hour” is an eight-minute long song that constantly shifts and morphs into new tiers and tics, revealing something different each time.  Well Spent Youth exemplifies a definition of ‘album’ in which the individual songs grow and build on each other, culminating in a piece that’s made up of tiny fragments and is still resolutely whole.

Isolée – Taktell


8. Thurston Moore Demolished Thoughts

I really do think that even if Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon hadn’t publicly announced their separation this year that this quiet masterpiece of an album would still affect me the way that it does.  Broken relationship or not, it is difficult not to read all sorts of emotional extremes into Moore’s lovely songs and even lovelier treatment of them.  That said, I’m also not about to proclaim I know what Moore’s talking about in his personal, often cryptic lyrics.  Primarily performed on acoustic guitar with flourishes of strings, Demolished Thoughts is equally about heartbreak and joy, about finding the heartbreaking and the joyful in the smallest minutiae of day-to-day life.  Additionally, and as suggested by the title of the song “Benediction”, Demolished Thoughts has a strong spiritual quality to it that elevates the mundane to the reverential.

Thurston Moore – Illuminine


7. Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell Psychic Life

It goes without saying that Jah Wobble’s had a lot of collaborators since his 1980 departure from Public Image Ltd.  His reggae-influenced dub basslines as well as his versatility make his playing an obvious choice for many musicians, from Brian Eno to Bill Laswell.  However successful these collaborations have been, however, few have been as inspired as the pairing of Wobble and Mancunian solo artist Julie Campbell, who released her debut album last year as LoneLady.  On Psychic Life they complement and contrast each other brilliantly, creating a taut tension that’s palpable.  Where Wobble’s bass is dark and moody, Campbell’s voice rises, clear and brilliant, each diverging from the other sharply.  Ambiguity is added in the lyrics, which tell of shadows, doubts, isolation, the failure of technology to connect us, and the horrifying permanence of the past.

Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell – Phantasms Rise…

Read my review of Psychic Life here.


6. Trips and Falls People Have to be Told

For my money, Trips and Falls have the most fittingly perfect name.  While a clever play on the interchangeability between nouns and verbs, ‘trips and falls’ also characterizes the sound of their music, a bumbling, stumbling, and entirely charming mix of twee indie pop and something entirely more experimental and unusual.  The opening lines of “I’ll Do the Dishes, You Do the Laundry” continue to haunt me in the way that Ashleigh Delaye and Jacob Romero sing about secrets and longing, yet their beautifully striking harmonies make this song feel all-encompassing, transformative, universally relatable.  The quiet beauty of its verses contrasted with the dissonance fuelled by the band when they come in fully between verses makes this song in particular feel like one that could be life-changing.  Elsewhere, “Marginally More than Mildly Annoying” perfectly portrays the shambling quality the music takes on at times, halting and then accelerating, running and then crawling.

Trips and Falls – I’ll Do the Dishes, You Do the Laundry

Read Larissa’s review of People Have to be Told here.


5. Austra Feel It Break

I had no idea who Austra were when I first listened to their debut album, Feel It Break, when it was released in May.  They were receiving some buzz for their dark, new wave-y sound from the British music press, whom I often look to for musical and journalistic guidance.  It was after I fell in love with the album and just missed seeing them on a stop on their UK tour that I realized they’re actually from Toronto and the likelihood of seeing their show on turf nearer to home was pretty good.  Seeing them in November along with many, many plays of Feel It Break later and suffice it to say, I’m a big fan.  Katie Stelmanis’ stoic and strong, classically-trained voice is a perfect, if somewhat unlikely fit, for Austra’s dramatic music, played by Stelmanis on electric piano/keyboards, drummer Maya Postepski, and bassist Dorian Wolf.  In short, Feel It Break makes me want to fall in love with someone intense and dangerous, smoke cigarettes, and dance at dark wave clubs in Berlin, and I generally don’t want to do those things.  That’s some pretty evocative stuff for Canadian indie synthpop.

Austra – Shoot the Water


4. St. Vincent Strange Mercy

I think fellow St. Vincent fans will agree with me when I say that it’s been very rewarding to watch and listen as Annie Clark grows as an artist and musician with each of her full-length releases.  Her musicianship has always been impressive, but on Strange Mercy it’s evident that Clark thinks of herself now as an adult, with the resignation, disappointment, and self-analysis that comes with adulthood.  It’s not all feet-dragging, however; far from it: Clark is armed with an admirable sense of determination about where the future will take her and the experiences that have formed her.  Also satisfying to have brought to the fore is her skilful guitar-playing, imbuing these pop songs with riffs that complement and deepen her sound and revealing the rawness buried just under the surface of Clark’s demurely feminine image.

St. Vincent – Champagne Year

Read my review of Strange Mercy here.


3. James Blake James Blake

Yeah, yeah, dubstep oversaturation; backlash… whatever.  I actually haven’t decided yet whether I’m willing to go on the record and say that James Blake’s proper debut LP isn’t dubstep.  I suppose whether it is or isn’t may not be all that relevant at this stage, because it seems to be suffering from said backlash all the same, but I digress.  Back when I got around to listening to this album in March, it was the most refreshing thing my ears had been exposed to in…a while.  It didn’t give me the “whoa, these beats are impressive” feeling that good dubstep often does, but a far more emotional connection based on Blake’s voice, lyrics, and the fragile atmosphere he evokes.  It’s a quiet, perfectly controlled album but its emotional impact is huge, as is the artistic statement Blake makes with it.  James Blake is simply an amazingly subtle and well-realized singer-songwriter album, filtered through a lens of spacious electronics and echoing depths.  See, not dubstep at all.

James Blake – I Never Learnt to Share


2. Magazine No Thyself

I’ve decided I want to be Howard Devoto.  Not only did he go “b’dum b’dum” back when the Buzzcocks were bored out of their skulls and subsequently inspire Orange Juice’s brilliant “Rip It Up”, even the one-off collaborations he’s done with various musicians since Magazine’s extended hiatus have been mostly very good.  But what he’s primarily known for is fronting Magazine, the influential post-punk band who released three of the period’s best albums (and one bad one) before crumbling after he left the band in 1981.  Thirty years later, No Thyself does one better than pick up where Magazine left off: it offers a mischievous and biting take on approaching the senility of old age and the mortality that follows.  I can only hope that I’m half as badass and wickedly smart as Devoto when I get old.

Magazine – Of Course Howard (1979)

Read my review of No Thyself here.


1. The Indelicates David Koresh Superstar

Even though I have come to expect seriously awesome and innovative things from The Indelicates, I did not expect a concept album about David Koresh and the Waco siege to be this emotionally nuanced and incisive.  Silly, silly me.  Spanning the gamut from the rather goofy, Southern-accented “The Road from Houston to Waco” that’s told from Koresh’s point of view, to the devastated and devastating post-siege scene of “Gethsemane”, and a haunting, bone-chilling rendition of the traditional “John the Revelator”, this is one of the very few albums I’ve ever listened to that has reduced me to overwhelmed tears by the time it’s through.  On paper it’s fucking bold, to hear it is to be astounded by its power, complexity, and empathy, but there’s something unquantifiable about what Simon and Julia Indelicate have accomplished here that makes this album transcend even its weighty subject matter.  David Koresh Superstar is that incredibly rare listening experience that evokes the beautiful tragedy of life and death in both its broadest and most specific senses.

The Indelicates – A Single Thrown Grenade

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“It’s Not a Perfect Plan”: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy Reviewed

There is a lovely dichotomy between Annie Clark’s ladylike, demure image and the intensity of her music that has drawn me to her work as St. Vincent.  Clearly, however, it is the grey areas between these poles of interpretation/representation where Clark’s most interesting and subtle ideas are explored, such as her continued fascination with mental instability and the darkness that lurks just under the surface mundanity of everyday life.  Strange Mercy picks up where 2009’s Actor left off, continuing a trajectory started by her debut outing in 2007, Marry Me (named after Arrested Development character Maeby’s joking exclamation); an off-kilter sensibility that has grown with each successive album.  Where Marry Me was relatively innocent; primarily emotionally and musically upbeat with occasional peeks below a calm, collected surface (“Your Lips Are Red”, with its stabbing bursts of piano and guitar) and Actor was more invested in acknowledgement of an unknown, indefinable horror (the creepy verses of “Marrow” narrating a bizarre biology-as-emotion metaphor before giving way to an aggressively upbeat, verging on funk, electronic-enhanced refrain that has Clark begging for help), Strange Mercy brings Clark’s often aggressive, fuzz tone guitar to the fore, helping flesh out songs that are more baroque than rock in arrangement and whose lyrics are often concerned with subverting conventional femininity.

Indeed, it is the juxtaposition of Clark’s straightforwardly beautiful singing voice with her lyrics and guitar-playing that makes her art so compelling.  There are angry elements to her songs, but the songs themselves can’t be categorized as simply angry.  There are peaceful, content elements to her songs, but the songs definitely can’t be categorized as either of those things.  “Chloe in the Afternoon” (which shares its title with Éric Rohmer’s 1972 film) opens the album dramatically with images of a dominatrix and client having a tryst during the client’s break from work; whether Clark is singing from the perspective of dominatrix or client is unclear.  The barely-melodic verses are strung together with menacing guitar riffs that give way to the sexually satisfied (relative) calm of the repetitive refrain.  When she serenely sings “no kisses, no real names” the anonymity of the encounter is made clear, as is the fulfillment of pleasure through pain (signified by that satisfyingly raw riff).

Clark continues in this vein of (hyper-)sexualized femininity with the song “Cheerleader” and its verses narrating the reasons why a female character wants to give up her presumably small-town American life of pleasing boys and being everything for everyone (“I’ve had good times with some bad guys… I’ve played dumb when I knew better/Tried too hard just to be clever”).  Clearly this sexualized cheerleader of the title is a thinly-veiled metaphor for any woman who wants to live and experience outside of the internally- and externally-imposed limits of her life thus far.  A heavy-handed comparison, perhaps, but when this cheerleader’s confessions are so honestly and unapologetically expressed and are accompanied by that mercurial guitar work, particularly emphasizing Clark’s enunciation of the word ‘I’ in the chorus and lending that refrain a powerful sense of personal resolve without resorting to cheap sentimentality, the song succeeds beautifully and works to further evolve Clark’s exploration of femininity.

Elsewhere on Strange Mercy Clark moves from light ‘n’ groovy pop to an increasingly urgent and anxious guitar solo that screams above her muted voice and a deeply ominous synth line on “Surgeon.”  On “Northern Lights” she contemplates an otherwise dark winter and the depression that inevitably comes with it (“Yeah, your pendulum hasn’t swung back in/It’s a champagne year full of sober months/Through my maudlin days, through my dry moments”) and “Champagne Year” begins with a vocal figure reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s much celebrated, much covered, and pretty much ubiquitous “Hallelujah” while singing with a kind of shrugged-shoulders stoicism, realizing the inevitably of the mundanities of life and how we cope with them.  Strange Mercy really imparts the sense that Clark has reached adulthood as a songwriter and as a person; there’s a theme of resignation that runs concurrent with the idea of new beginnings through these songs.  She is squaring her shoulders, looking her future in the proverbial eye and accepting the unpleasantness that is sure to come, while at the same time looking back at what has brought her to this turning point.  Perhaps this is why I love the album so much: it reflects the complexity and sadness and strangeness of navigating my future while being very much still tied to my past.

I’d also like to briefly divert attention from the album to the video for the first single from it, “Cruel.”  The theme of conventional, traditional femininity subverted is continued in this clip, directed by Terri Timely.  In it, Clark plays a woman who is kidnapped by a wifeless and motherless family and made to fill those roles.  She (quite hilariously) fails at all of the domestic tasks that fall to her and is clearly not the wife and mother this family were looking and hoping for, so they dispose of her by burying her alive.  The surreal highlight of the clip is Clark performing a guitar solo while hooded and tied up in the trunk of her new family’s car, followed closely by images of her singing from a grave and being slowly immersed in shoveled dirt.  What’s interesting here is the uneasy humour imparted by the idea that a woman might actually be killed by an otherwise quite nice (although rather creepy, and definitely demanding) family for failing in this traditional female role.  She is not, however, made to continue this work until she improves, but is discarded quickly and easily.  Her suitability to the role is not assumed by her femaleness, but rather tested through a kind of audition (you get the feeling that the family is quite familiar with this kidnap-a-new-mom scenario).  This is underlined (to highly amusing effect) by the pitying looks the children in particular give her.  She should know better, but she doesn’t, and they don’t have time for this kind of ineptitude.

Also attached is a live clip of St. Vincent’s performance of Big Black’s “Kerosene” from the show last May in New York City celebrating 10 years since Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life was published.  The woman can shred.

St. Vincent – Chloe in the Afternoon

St. Vincent – Cheerleader

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