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.
So, I don’t think I need any disclosure here: this feels a little obvious as a ‘Guy Album Of The Month’. Yes, I love Hot Chip (and LCD, and Joe and Al and Felix and Owen and Alexis and New Build and 2 Bears and…) as much as any other band that’s been around in the last two decades, but this doesn’t make it a throwaway choice. In fact, it’s one of the most listenable albums of the year so far for me, but it’s also much more than ‘oh, that bloke from Hot Chip’s made a solo album of dancefloor bangers’. It’s actually pleasingly more subtle than that, and it’s an LP that you should give a chance, because in many ways, it talks about what music means to me and tries to grab bits of all those *moments* that you have, whether it’s in a club, on the way to work, at a festival, at a gig. It may be ‘dancey’, but it’s not just a dance album. Stick with it and hopefully you’ll end up as rewarded as I do.
Joe’s a proper, unashamed, music geek. He loves disco and Salsoul (more of that later), but also dancehall and dub (just look at The 2 Bears influences). He loves techno and rave, and he loves pop music. But until now, his songs have often been twinned with others – Alexis Taylor in Hot Chip, Raf Rundell in The 2 Bears, as well as his Greco-Roman collective (label and releases-wise) – but while the solo stuff he’s done goes back to 2009, and there’s been some memorable stuff, this feels like a long time coming, and a bit of a new chapter for Goddard. He’s spoken about having a load of new kit, and wanting to make a record that gets the most out of it, and to push himself in a way that perhaps he doesn’t get when operating within the strictures of a band. But even with the newer sounds he’s created, what his music always sounds is joyous, vibrant, and throbbingly alive. And it takes someone with a cold heart to feel there’s nothing in Electric Lines for them.
So, what’s it like? There’s a myriad of influences, but instead of wrapping them in knowing subtlety, they’re out there front and centre, whether it’s the famous Celeda sample in tribute-heavy and vibes-laden Music Is The Answer, or the Salsoul sample – Brainstorm’s We’re On Our Way Home – in the paen to late-night wobbly post-club treks Home (with its brilliant Pete Fowler cartoons), Joe’s celebrating the music that is important to him, framed in his own template. The album flits around, from Ordinary Madness’ restrained modern soul openings, to shimmering, wide-angle pain of Human Heart, via balls-out 6am sweatbox Lasers, but there is a traceable line, and changes in tempo and feel that works across the length. You don’t make half a dozen albums without knowing how to structure an LP. Above all though, sonically and stylistically, the album shouts ‘HAVE FUN’, and it’s hard not to just let it wash over you and bounce down the road. It’s definitely made for summer and shades.
And with Al’s away with LCD, and Alexis releases piano-based albums, it’s a deserved chance for Joe to get some more limelight. No, it’s not a huge departure from other work he’s done, but why need it be? Alexis joins on the title track to sublime and familiar effect, and there’s some shades of Hot Chip around a few turns, particularly the cascading synth lines of Truth Is Light. But it’s very much Joe’s own project, and an album that shows that solo work doesn’t have to be any more complicated than putting together a load of music that shows who you are, and if that’s about good times, then where’s the evil in that? Despite being the wrong side of 35, he’s not a man that appears to be growing respectable with age (his comments about simply tearing out into Shangri-La and hanging on for the next 4 days made me chuckle), and if you saw his Glastonbury set on the Sunday, it’s a pretty impressive knowing what he probably got up to before that point!
Sometimes albums that are instantly accessible fade quickly, and feel disposable, but this isn’t one. Also, it’s hard to say what you’ll connect with in music. Even something you think you’ll like, it just doesn’t happen. But I’ve listened to it a couple of dozen times, and all I’ve done is feel it speaks to me and those moments you have when you’re out (we’ve all been in that fuzzy cab ride home). And you feel the connection was there from the start. I can’t make you like it, but I can make you listen, and just hope you do.
It’s hard to believe that Michael Kiwanuka was being touted as a next big thing a whole four years ago, by BBC Introducing, hot off the back of a fantastic debut single “Home Again”. I loved that at the time but it’s fair to say I’d forgotten about him in the intervening years.
And so while we fretted about the lack of a physical Frank Ocean album, back he popped again. Not randomly: I’d seen him light up Later… earlier in the year with Black Man In A White World, above. It encapsulated why I loved that single back then and – finally – seemed like we may see more of a next big thing, before he became a “whatever happened to…”?
So what do you get with Kiwanuka? It’s not flashy or hip or cool, but that’s the attraction. Sounding like he’s got one foot in Marvin Gaye’s house and one in a smoky basement club in London, it’s modern soul at it’s best. No syrupy production, and while there’s strings, Love & Hate isn’t pastiche, it’s at it’s best an album that’s accessible from the start, with lyrics and a voice that feel heartfelt and powerful.
There’s a lot to love: from Father’s Child with it’s raw, stripped back opening, opening into a chorus of backing vocals and crisp drums. Or Black Man… a track that feels very prescient in today’s world. I’m also a sucker for a long opening track (see Station To Station or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), and Cold Little Heart is a thing of beauty.
There’s nothing showy, but really in a world of artifice, PR, overproduction, compression, auto tune, this feels much more authentic than any of that without ever trying too hard. And lord knows we need some of that. it’s helpful that Kiwanuka is a genuinely lovely person. I just wish I’d seen him at Glastonbury now.
I’m starting to fall for this record after only a couple of listens, and that’s not something I say often. I hope you feel the same.
Well, I was going to say “who saw that coming?” but we’ve been here before. As it’s been said, when you no longer tour and live as a relative recluse, you can control whatever the public sees of you. So it’s no surprise that after The Next Day, which skewered his early years whilst nodding in reverence to them, that David Bowie spent 2015 making a follow-up, confounding us all again with the title track in November. I have to confess I took a little time to finally listen to this, as I wanted to watch the video rather than just the audio. And it stopped me in my tracks. In fact I ended up stood on Cheapside in my lunch break with my mouth open.
As a statement of intent it’s pretty powerful. While I loved The Next Day, for all the parallels to his classic albums, lyrically it was very much in the moment, skewering his character, ageing, his legacy, and proving he still has the edge that made his music so alluring when I first listened in my teenage years. But while the words on Blackstar do find some common ground with The Next Day, that’s mostly where the comparison ends. There’s been a lot (and I mean a LOT) of frothing of about how avant-garde it is, as if he’s turned into John Cage, genetically spliced with Roni Size and Miles Davis, but I’d take much of that with a pinch of salt. For anyone that’s familiar with Radiohead’s more experimental (recent) work, or the likes of Flying Lotus, or Bjork or any other more outre albums of the last two decades (let alone all sorts of electronic music), it’s not that far-fetched, but I guess the praise is in someone of Bowie’s stature and reputation still feeling so fresh, raw, and willing to experiment. After all, I can’t think of many (any?) artists approaching 70 that would do this, or do it with so much success or style. Especially when they’ve had forays into more experimental work with such varying results. I can see how die-hard classic era Bowie fans (especially those who are the same age as the Thin White Duke) may struggle with it, but really forget the hype, and just listen: this is outstanding work, a potential classic in the making, even after a few listens.
The title track’s first half echoes so much of Radiohead to me, and this isn’t a statement of either artistic laziness or pastiche, (just think Thom Yorke singing instead, and it’d be one of their best works itself) but high praise. Coupled with a deeply disturbing video that burns itself onto your consciousness, with Bowie as some sort of excommunicated (punished?) preacher stating prophetic, abstract lines as adolescents convulse and shake in the background, it’s affecting from the start. Who knows what it’s about? There’s been discussion (denied by Bowie’s team) that it’s referencing ISIS, but really it’s the ambiguity that’s the point here. The dead ‘Spaceman’ (Starman? a nice touch either way), the huge candle, the eclipsed (black) star; there’s huge, broad stylistic strokes at play and then, just as you wonder where it can go from here, it slows and shifts into what feels at first like familiar Bowie, its sax and swagger, all offset by the harsh, discordant, repeating chorus. I’m massive fan of long opening tracks on albums (Station to Station, or Elton John’s Funeral For A Friend), after all, isn’t that what albums are for? As an opener you’d think it’s hard to live up to, but it’s a case of setting the scene.
There’s almost breakbeat-ish, brash rock in Tis A Pity She’s A Whore, then a self-effacing Lazarus, which was written for a stage version of The Man Who Fell To Earth. Sue, which is Bowie to d’n’b (in a good way, thankfully) and echoes things like Squarepusher. Similarly, Girl Loves Me goes heavy on percussion and electronics, but they never take over the song itself. Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away again talk of death and loss and age and the past. Even a few listens and I’m hooked, and you can only applaud the constant reinvention of a man that could’ve ‘retired’ in 2003 and had a legacy as good as anyone in music.
Bowie continues to confound, and this may be the best thing he’s done since his Golden Years.
So, another year ended and some great music from January the first to now. Aside from the albums of the month, there’s been some brilliant music, and here’s a bit of mine, so what’s yours?
Albums – (aside from our albums of the month, where my top 3 was AM, Pale Green Ghosts and Modern Vampires Of The City, but more of that later)…
Arcade Fire – Reflektor: I know this has got a lot of stick, but it’s been an essential album since it came out. It’s a change, it’s distorted, overlong in places (not in my opinion really), but it’s a step forward and brave doing it.
David Bowie – The Next Day: How do you manage to record an album in secret as one of the biggest artists in history and release it without anyone knowing? God knows, but even better is that it’s a great album. An elder statesman still on form, and some of his best work in 20 years.
John Hopkins – Immunity: Electronic album with emotion and atmosphere? This nailed it for me. I can’t wait to see him live.
James Blake – Overgrown: I did an air punch when this won the Mercury. It was a leap on from his first, and something that managed to combine the booming, hollow reverberation of dubstep with a very intimate vocal and melody. I wish I had 10% of this guy’s talent. It’s mesmerising music.
A Sagittariun – Dream Ritual: Another electronic pick, but one of the most inventive albums I’ve heard all year. Shades of so much of the music that first introduced me to clubs, but way more than that. (I wrote about it here: http://www.4clubbers.net/2013/music-reviews-161/).
Haim – Days Are Gone: Love it or hate it, it’s not hard to agree this is brilliant pop music. Bits of Fleetwood Mac, 70s soft rock, hip-hop (seriously) and modern guitars, there’s nothing else really like it about this year. And the hype was outlasted. I still love it, even if I’ve listened to it to death.
Phoenix – Bankrupt!: Another festival-inspired album, but more great pop music. A band that’s dismissed as being hipsters, but they can write a tune to remember. Their gig (hazily) at Glastonbury convinced me completely.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories: Ok, so the hype was relentless, the single, Get Lucky, played almost (almost) to the point where it got too much, but there’s something great about an album that goes big on traditional production. Strings, horns, guitars, on a massive studio desk, and not Pro Tools. A complete contrast to most of music in the charts today, and therefore a GOOD THING. It’s not perfect, but then what is these days?
Luke Solomon – Timelines: An unsung hero of UK house music, this album was much more than 12 dancefloor tracks. It was personal, it was poignant (in the case of Lonely Dancer, Solomon’s tribute to Kenny Hawkes) and it was wandering, in fact it’s everything a house music album usually isn’t. That’s why I loved it (and I reviewed it here: http://www.residentadvisor.net/review-view.aspx?id=12961)
Atoms For Peace – Amok: What do Radiohead do when they’re not making their own music? If you’re Thom Yorke then you’re assembling a superband (Flea from the Chilis, Nigel Godrich and more) and making haunting, fractured music that skirts between electronic and guitars. It’s pretty unique – and acquired taste too – but their gig at the Roundhouse was incredible.
Midlake – Antiphon: A late entry but one of my favourite American bands. They may be minus their frontman now, but this is just as good as their previous work. Lush, ethereal, wistful, painful, and sensational.
As for the rest? Singles and gigs were many, and here’s my highlights:
Tons really. Mostly electronic, as that’s what I get and what I listen to, but there’s been a lot of great ones around. Obvious ones and less so.
Todd Terje – Strandbar: You’d have to have been a hermit to miss this, but what a track. Ubiquitous, and no less catchy after the 50th listen.
Bonar Bradberry – 3two5: 50% of PBR Streetgang, it’s a cut of grooving house that is both deep and energetic, and those vocals… we didn’t know Bonar had it in him!
Deadstock 33s – The Circular Path: One of many of Justin Robertson’s alter egos, this is a rollercoaster cut of acid-tinged house that makes you want to find a sweaty basement and stay there until it’s light. Genius.
Jammhot – Chrysalis: Leeds outfit debut on Saints and Sonnets sounded like 90s garage hijacked on a spaceship and brought back 20 years later. In a good way.
Dan Mangan – About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All: A great title, a total fairground of a record. Every time I listened to this, it felt like I was walking down a street to the closing titles of my own film. Superb, and cinematic.
Daft Punk – Get Lucky: Obvious, yes. Still brilliant though. However you may hate it, hearing this will always mean summer 2013.
Justin Timberlake – Suit & Tie: The album may not have lived up to it, but this was the best thing he’s done in years and showed a lot of the noisy r’n’b nonsense of late just how it should be done.
Vampire Weekend – Ya Hey: Infectious, and better than Diane Young for me. A great album from a band I couldn’t really love before, but this changed my mind completely.
Ms Mr – Hurricane: I saw them for the first time at Glastonbury, and they were brilliant. This was the standout single from an album that helped fill an LCD-shaped hole.
Jagwar Ma – What Love: Another Glastonbury epiphany, like a sweaty Aussie rave build on the Stone Roses and Madchester’s hedonism.
Phoenix – Entertainment: Opener of a poptastic album from the French outift. The video’s almost as good (and odd) as the song itself.
David Bowie – Valentine’s Day: What a comeback, and what a record. A clever pun in the chorus, and a brilliant guitar hook. It’s like 1974 all over again.
Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know: Sheffield’s finest reborn as a west-coast power pop band. Many hated it. I loved it.
Haim – Don’t Save Me: I could’ve picked about five, but this was one of a great clutch of radio-friendly songs that you can’t stop singing. Seeing them in March next year can’t come too soon.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor: The opening single of an album that’s divided opinion. But this was a statement of intent, and you can see James Murphy’s fingerprints all over it. Seven minutes plus of majesty that revealed more and more every listen.
John Grant: It may have toured Pale Green Ghosts, but both solo albums got an outing, and the fragile singer with the molasses voice proved even better live. Mesmerising.
XOYO Loves – The Coronet in November gave us DJs (Lindstrom, Waifs and Strays, Aeroplane and Greg Wilson) but it was live sets from Crazy P and Hercules and Love Affair that topped it.
The Reflektors – Ok, so Arcade Fire, but who cares? Seeing a band that big in a venue like the Roundhouse and them playing from their new album and back catalogue, while the whole crowd was dressed up like a circus…. I wish I could do gigs like this every week.
Despacio – not a gig specifically, but James Murphy and 2ManyDJs’ own disco in December was a glorious throwback to pre-superclubs, lasers, glitter cannons and jets. Just an amazing soundsystem and brilliant tunes, for 5 hours.
Glastonbury – So many bands, so many memories. Some missing ones too. Haim, Ratpack, Rolling Stones, Seasick Steve, Phoenix, Jagwar Mar, Ms Mr, Chic, New Build and all sorts of other shenanigans. Going back here reminds me there’s nowhere else that comes close to it, anywhere.
Seeing as this isn’t the album of the month for Jan, this is worth posting. I’ve been a fan of Midlake since I was put onto them about the time The Trials Of Van Occupanther came out in 2006. They’re a band that sounds very much like they were born in the 50s (1850s), with a real Americana feel, as if they’d lived in a log cabin (see Roscoe, for that whole vibe from that album) and worked on the railroad. It could be affected, but actually it’s great, and they don’t really sound like much else I own, though the vibe is quite similar to the isolation of Bon Iver’s debut album.
This is the single from their new album, sans original frontman, but they’re still just a potent, and this is such a rich sounding record, but they have an amazing way of evoking world-weariness and regret and emotion in their music. I like this A LOT.
As we run down the last month of 2012 (which has been a strong year for music), I thought I’d share with you some of my highlights for 2012 in no particular order:
Kendrick Lemar – The Art of Storytelling