Category: Album of the Month

MAY – Tracey Thorn – Record

Sometimes an album of the month is a leap in the dark (some work, some don’t, like N.E.R.D., yikes) and sometimes you have one that you desperately want to do but the timing is wrong, and when it comes to your shot, someone’s bloody bought it. NOT THIS TIME. So I’m rather chuffed to be able to still present Tracey Thorn’s new solo album: Record.

There’s a lot to say here, and a lot of history for me, so I’ll try and be brief, but probably fail. While never being a properly committed EBTG fan (more fool me), Tracey Thorn’s solo work has found a way into my heart ever since her first recent album, Into The Woods, back in 2007 (technically her second, but A Distant Shore was released in 1982!). She’d obviously found me via work where her vocals (Massive Attack) or her songwriting (Missing) made it onto the dancefloor, but seeing a solo album was still a bit of surprise, especially away from her work with husband Ben Watt.

But it wasn’t just good: Out Of The Woods was outstanding. Pop hooks and electronic tinges that became less of a surprise when you realise that it was produced by Ewan Pearson, but this wasn’t another set of dance tracks with Thorn’s ethereal vocals ghosting over them, but a series of wonderful, sparky songs that drew on Thorn’s own life, loves and experiences, and that leapt out from the page. A career renaissance, of sorts perhaps, or a new chapter that I loved from the start. To state this by example, Grand Canyon is still one of my favourite electronic pop records of the last two decades. And there were some amazing remixes too, of course.

Come 2010 and its follow-up Love And Its Opposite, was, while less of the surprise of its forebear, is still a earnestly beautiful album. Less sparky, more mournful, tracking love and loss in middle age with elan and panache. Sorrow never too deep, joy never false, confirming Thorn as a brilliant songwriter and musician all over again. Of course, Pearson made sure it sounded as fantastic as Out Of The Woods. There was even a quirky but utterly lovely Christmas album – Tinsel and Lights – in 2012 that captured the reality (good and bad, laid bare) of what the festive period means in this modern age, and is the only recent Christmas effort that I ever play. Joy still makes me shed a tear on a regular basis.

Fast forward to 2018, and a lot, it’s fair to say, has changed since 1982, even 2007. Because while Thorn’s still writing music, there’s much more to her than simply a musical renaissance woman and borderline national treasure. A column for the New Statesman, feminist activist, author and campaigner: even following her introspective Twitter feed doesn’t really cover everything, but it’s through this wider persona that I developed a bona fide intellectual crush on her. Her brilliant memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, dovetailed wonderfully with Watt’s own poignant books on his own near-death and illustrious parents, and marked her out as much more than just a pop memoirist, but a woman with something to say. And in the era of #MeToo, it’s arguable to say that Record has arrived at an almost perfect confluence of so many parts of the last few decades of her life. The fact that I’m a 43-year old that grew up not log after Thorn’s generation makes all of the subjects and reference points seem all the more close to home, but really, it’s a statement, almost a manifesto for living in the modern world.

Put simply, I think it’s one of the best pop records of the last decade. And it’s much more than simply an album. Thorn’s openly confronted the misogyny of being lazily labelled a ‘quirky’ (and that is the the lightest in a grim litany of terminology she faces on a weekly basis) woman, and given many great interviews that explains the context of making it.  Described as ‘feminist bangers’, it’s the best way to summarise the album’s spirit. From Queen’s opening, bleepy, breezy laments, through first single Sister‘s feminist call (“And I fight like a girl”) to arms, it’s an utterly modern palette of beautiful pop music, seen through the eyes of a woman who’s seen many of life’s highs and lows (the steely and world-weary “What year is it? The same old shit”) but come out determinedly swinging. I’m only a new parent now, but listening to Go is a punch in the heart delivered in a velvet glove. And while the songs – sprinkled with Pearson’s disco stardust again – are musically polished and melodically gorgeous, its the lyrics that are arguably the strong point here. Its also is no surprise there’s been gigantic remixes already that are a must for house fans, but they’re an added bonus to the whole experience.

Let none of that take away from the fact that there’s few albums around this decade that have combined great songwriting, fantastic tunesmithery and political and social relevance like this one. I can only hope you can get what I have out of it.


 

U.S. Girls – ‘In a Poem Unlimited’

The only thing that I do not like about this album is it’s title. Please don’t let this put you off. So, who or what is U.S. Girls. ? Meg Remy is an American living in Canadia-land, hence the joke-come-band name U.S. Girls. She is to U.S. Girls what James Murphy is to LCD Soundsystem. The beating heart. The reason for it’s existence. Basically, an artist with a backing band. I’ve been ‘aware’ of her for some time and new I was supposed to like what she did. I nearly chose the 2015 album Half Free as AOTM but didn’t feel that I’d loved it enough to justify the choice. Each time I listened to it I really like it but I was not drawn to it enough to recommend. Apparently Half Free was a watershed recording for Meg in that she allowed others to have some input. ‘In a Poem Unlimited’ she has worked much more deeply with others. The result is amazing. It’s opened up what she has always done and injected more influences, excitement and fun into the output.

This is an album of unashamed pop music. With teeth. And power. And politics. And a very 2018 ‘vibe’ to much of the lyrical content. But pop music is the first thing you’ll hear. The most negative review I could find criticised the album because the music was so good that you didn’t notice the importance of the lyrics. That seems to be the worst thing that the critics could find.

There are so many hooks for you to hang on to and drag you into a second listen. There’s no point in me listing my favourite tracks as they all qualify and my favourites rotate depending on mood and context. So who does she sound like? At times she channels PJ Harvey, St. Vincent,  Gwen Stefani and even Kylie Minogue and I know I’ve missed a load of references that I’ve heard on my many listens.

I am intrigued to know how you guys feel about this album. I usually love the singularity of output from a solo artist but this album feels like proof that often injecting others influence results in a well rounded and undeniable triumph. Enjoy.

MARCH: Microshift – HOOKWORMS

Sometimes you enjoy a band, but you know they could be so much more. And you will them into becoming that thing, and so often, that just doesn’t happen. They plough the same furrow with decreasingly fruitful results, until, by album three, you feel something die inside you and you know your relationship with them is over.

I’m always keeping an eye on the local music scene in Leeds. It’s not a bad scene and it always has some bands worth listening to, but often they peter out before they get going. I first noticed there was a bit new psyche thing going a few years ago, and some of it actually seemed really good. At the forefront of that were Hookworms. They’ve made two really solid albums, the first building on the first and expanding its sound. But they were solidly PSYCH albums, sounding something like this:

I’d seen them live and I’m partial to a bit of Krautrock, so it was right in my wheelhouse, but they are REALLY good live, and a lot more punky that you might think, but they weren’t exactly inventing the wheel (to complete the wheel related references). I remember thinking, rather fancifully like a twat, that they were ‘Austerity Psych’ – psych rock channelling the anger of our era in a Northern city.

And then an absence of a couple of years. And then, a month or two ago, I hear THIS on 6Music:

And my mind is blown. THAT is Hookworms? Sweet Jesus, yes. It’s Hookworms having babies with New Order, LCD Soundsystem and every other slice of dance rock heaven you could ever imagine. Everything has gone widescreen. The lead singer, MJ, one of rock’s more unlikely looking lead singers, has no longer hidden his voice behind acres of reverb, and wow, he actually has an amazing voice. The ANGER and the punk attitude is still there (this is, after all, about depression and dealing with the death of a friend), but what a canvas to paint it on.

And then came the album, and the fear that this one truly amazing song would be sat amongst a load of psych songs of old, standing out like a sore thing. Not a bit of it. STATIC RESISTANCE is probably the closest thing to Hookworms of old, but even that has crispness and urgency to it that really stands out. It’s a GREAT Track 2:

It doesn’t let up from there. ULLSWATER is another banger, to rival NEGATIVE SPACE, as is OPENER, which feels almost joyful. And then there’s the other surprise – the soft, almost balladeering underbelly of a band that with hitherto all hard Krautrock beats. THE SOFT SEASON is sweet and moving, and EACH TIME WE PASS is, well, actually quite dreamy!

I think this a major piece of work. It works totally as an album and a vision, and it’s rewarded me every time I’ve played it.

Finally, can we talk about the sequencing? Brother Joey, I know it’s a bugbear of yours and mine when a good album is badly sequenced. Just how beautifully sequenced is this? ULLSWATER as a Track 3 basically says – yes, the whole album is as good as this. And then THE SOFT SEASON is that sudden blast of tenderness that opens out the whole album’s palette. And at the back end, SHORTCOMINGS has got to be the best closer to an album I’ve heard in a long time. It’s up there with my favourite songs on the whole thing – James Murphy would be proud of that one.

It’s only March but I can’t see this not being one of my albums of the year.

So yeah, sometimes those bands you invest in do reward you by turning into something much bigger than you’d ever imagined…

February Album of the Month: Bicep – Bicep

Hype. I really struggle to buy albums that have hype around them. I don’t know why?Maybe because I have seen the mechanics of how albums get hyped, and I have grown to discount it now to being a load of rubbish. The issue is that at times there are albums that have deserved their hype growing through well-earned excitement, self-propelled by fans. Bicep’s debut album is a case and point of this; I fought it and massively then regretted it when I finally gave it a go. This album desserves the hype.

So where did the hype come from you ask? Well if you ask any of the cool kids they’ll tell you that ‘Bicep are the Irish production duo behind the most-excellent Feel My Bicep blog which has a reputation for blogging only the finest quality house, disco and techno.’ In-fact every article about them seems to start with that line. My line is this: ‘Bicep popped onto my radar a few years ago whilst playing the Space terrace in Ibiza. Ever since they seem to have kept on popping up every few months. Aside from the blog they make some really good music. They’re edit of Diminica’s ‘Gotta Let Go’ propelled them into every club in the summer of 2015 and the rest is history’. At this point I must admit this is when I stopped paying attention to them, too much hype.

I don’t want to delve too much into this album as I want you to discover it yourself. I will say that there are some massive ticks for me with their debut long player.

  1. It’s a dance album that takes you on a journey between laid back to head down in a dark corner stomping and does it well.
  2. It’s a dance album that is an actual album and not just a bunch of singles strapped together.
  3. Instead of releasing on a major label they have signed to Ninja Tune, which I think is pretty cool.

Sadly I don’t go clubbing anymore. I’m not sure if I even want to go to a club ever again. I do still like dance music and I think there is allot of great music being released. Dance music seems to have superseded four decades and with that four generations of new fans. If this is what clubbers are listening to at the moment a firmly tip my hat to them, this is good shit.

This was one of my (late) top picks for last year and I love it. I hope it ticks as many boxes for you as me. Enjoy brothers.

Classic Album: Gang Starr – Moment of Truth

I must admit that I was a bit surprised that the rest of the brothers have neglected Gang Starr from their music collections, though it excites me that I’m welcoming you all to something new.

Gang Starr consisted of two members, MC Guru and DJ Premier. By the point that this album was released in 1998 both as a group (this was their 5th album) and side projects (Guru’s Jazzmazztazz and DJ premier well know beats through the famed D&D studios) Gang Starr were arguably at the top of their game. This album had ALLOT of expectations around it from all levels. The questions was could classic Hip Hop live in 1998?

If you recollect in the 1998 it was a time of champagne and fur coats in rap videos, the back end of the West Coast Vs East Coast beef and the accent of No Limit records….. essentially there was allot of whack rap being released. It was also a time that independent hip hop was gaining traction. The rise of the internet was allowing underground independent hip hop record labels such as Rawkus, ABB Records and Fat Beats distribution to have a wider reach. Very much at the forefront of boom bap backpack rap Gang Starr whom had allot to prove with this album. Their record label wanted radio plays, they wanted to keep their street cred. The result could go either way. Could they still engage the mainstream whilst keeping the backpackers happy?

This album for me was a masterstroke in making a complete album without losing credit. The NY underground boom bap is heavily represented with tracks like ‘You Know My Steez’, ‘The Milita’ and ‘Work’. On the other hand they dipped their toes into the mainstream with tracks like ‘Royalty’ and the reflective ‘Moment of Truth’.

Guru’s voice commands respect and his lyrics span from insight to straight battle raps. Look up the lyrics for ‘You Know My Steez’. I must have listened to that track 100 times in the first day I had the album. As for the beats that DJ Premier came with, and the cuts….. to this day are some of the best!

This album brings back allot of memories for me, I was listening to it when my plane was approaching London when I came over to UK for ‘a few months’ in 2001. Inspecta Deck’s verse on ‘Above the Clouds’ being one of my favourite of all time and apt as the plane broke through the cloud cover of the UK to expose London. ‘Work’ is still one of my favourite tracks to get me going when I run. The tingle that I got the first time I heard ‘You Know My Steez’, and how I lost my shit when I first hear Freddie Foxx on ‘The Militia’.

I still come back to this album, it’s a classic. Give this some time and enjoy. There’s lots to get stuck into with Moment of Truth.

 

JANUARY – N.E.R.D. – No One Ever Really Dies

 

Ok, so some disclosure here first off: I was always a fan of N.E.R.D. back in the day, but honestly, never a die-hard. I loved In Search Of… and Fly Or Die but it feels like a long, long time ago that I listened to much beyond the hits. And I think it’s fair to say it was a different time. Back in 2001 and 2004 (when those came out) they seemed pretty much like something totally new: they were hip-hop, but they had guitars, they were cool, good looking, ridiculously talented, and of course, alongside this, they were The Neptunes. For all the brash, boisterous records they released as N.E.R.D., they were also one of the production outfits of the decade. Their Clones album had everyone on it, all produced with their slick, gossamer-like studio skills, and brought some of the best hip-hop of those years. Kelis, Snoop, N.O.R.E., Nelly, Busta, Ludacris… they sprinkled their gold dust on everyone. And so, well, I gravitated away from N.E.R.D. to the Neptunes.

So, fast-forward to 2017, and it’s been 7 years since their last long-player and the world’s changed. Have N.E.R.D.? I’ve certainly changed, and this was an album of the month that I’ve come to pretty much totally cold.  Given Pharell’s polymathic skills, its’ a question that will it work or will it prove an ill-fated comeback. This is enough to give me the cold sweats, especially where it’s a genre I’m less than enamoured with than the rest of you gents. So, is No One Ever Really Dies (yes, that’s what the initials mean) really a step forward? Looking at the (inevitable) guests it certainly feels very 2017: Kendrick, Gucci Mane, Rhianna, Future, and Ed Sheeran. Yes. Him. Then there’s Andre 3000, an interesting nod to the past.

I’m three listens in, and I have to say, my first reaction is that I FEEL OLD. I know I am old, but really, for a man that’s pretty mired in the old school sound of samples, turntablism, and classic hip-hop, this feels so alien. It’s not like I don’t like new stuff – Kendrick is brilliant, Frank Ocean likewise, and there’s new records that still shake me (A Tribe Called Quest’s new record is one of my favourite albums of the last ten years, already) – but the new production style that sits somewhere less grinding than trap, but still with percussive, nervous tics and few melodies that open Lemon is way out of my comfort zone. In fact, the first listen almost makes me feel like I’ve tried to watch the news in a foreign language. Or use Snapchat.

But…. but…. it’s not all dad jokes and cliches. As I revisit, things start to gel. Lemon is a ballsy opening track, with Rhianna’s words and voice suiting its bombast well. Andre 3000’s golden skills on Rollinem 7s makes you wish he’d actually make a new album of his own. The brash melodies of Deep Down Body Thurst are bright and bouncy. It starts to emerge out of the mist, and I feel less like the new dad I am, trying to listen to Radio 1. Kendrick makes reading the phone book interesting, so he’s always listenable on Kites, and on Don’t Don’t Do It (though do they have to really overdo it on everything, rather than just make a perfectly-pitched record?). The overriding feeling so far is that there’s an album waiting to get out, if I just give it more time. It’s a much more coherent beast than some of their patchwork earlier albums, and much better for it.  But it’s also an obvious truth that the modern style of hip-hop they’re swiping just isn’t my bag, so either I’ll end up liking it in spite of that, or going off it because of it. Pharrell didn’t need to make this album, and he certainly didn’t need the money, so while only time will tell, it’s good to have them back.

Aromanticism – by Moses Sumney

Welcome to my 2nd write up of an AOTM. First it was the write-up of Plunge by Fever Ray that I wrote before finding out that it was not released on CD yet. The second is an album that I chose Plunge over initially. The first reason for this is that I am committed, long term lover of The Knife and Fever Ray and wanted to take the opportunity to choose an artist who has meant so much to me for such a long time. The second reason was that David chose a ‘soul’ album for for the November album and I thought this might be a bit ‘samey’ for the following month. However, I have listened to this and Jordan Rakei back to back a few times and in doing so am pretty confident that this is a different enough proposition to propose for the festive edition of AOTM.

Apparently Moses Sumney falls into the sub-wanky-genre of ‘Art-Soul’. Have you heard this term before? I hadn’t and didn’t/don’t really understand it. I was expecting this to be a lot more ‘noodle’ given this art-soul description. While the tracks rarely fit verse / chorus / verse structure, i do feel its relatively conventional and accessible. I have had this in my life for a few months now and it has delivered more over time. I am sue that I think this is absolutely a soul album. But it is a very sparse, austere, often fragile but always perfectly beautiful version of ‘soul’. The album relies heavily on the blues, melancholy and introspection.

This feels like an album of it’s time without borrowing contemporary tropes and production flourishes from it’s recent ‘R&B’ cousins. Again this is perhaps closer to Michael Kiwanuka than it is Jordan Rakei? I think the brothers will like it at first, and those brothers that stick with it will love it.