Saturday, 29 December 2012

Best of 2012: Menomena – Moms

Despite the much publicised departure of founding member Brent Knopf, Menomena have done an impressive job of carrying on regardless. The Portland outfit’s fifth album Moms maintains their unconventional brand of meandering, off-piste motifs. The matadorial guitars and cascading percussion are all in check, as is the soul-searching subject matter that scrapes perilously close to the bone. But Moms is much more than just standard Menomena fare. These ten cuts are charged with a current of brutal, unrelenting oppression that’s as thrilling as it is absorbing. Menomena MkII, it seems, is working out rather nicely.

First published in Under the Radar's Albums of the Year 2012

Best of 2012: Hot Chip – In Our Heads

Recapturing the wonky, synth-pop styling of 2006’s The Warning has proved to be a tough ask for Hot Chip. But with the release of In Our Heads the UK electro-poppers finally found some semblance of form. As you’d expect, the quintet’s fifth LP is an infectious melee of disco-glittered melodies and kaleidoscopic effects. Yet amidst this floor-filling lather are speckles of transient, other-worldly grooves and melancholic wig-outs that reveal a new found sense of wisdom. While it’s hardly the sound of a band growing old gracefully, In Our Heads may well signify Hot Chip’s first step into adulthood.

First published in Under the Radar's Albums of the Year 2012

A nice end to 2012...

I've recently been approached to write for Under the Radar, an American music magazine billed as "the solution to music pollution". Slightly questionable straplines aside, I'm excited by the proposition as it's (1) my favourite Stateside music publication and (2) an opportunity to get back into print writing again.

It seems like an absolute age since I last wrote long-form print journalism. Being one of the last sect of journalism students to study the mechanics of pure print hackery, it's been a steady learning process for me getting fully versed in the art of digital writing. But, now I'm there, it will be interesting to see how I cope regressing back to print.

To be honest, I can't see it being too much of a problem. The multi-platform approaches that most magazines adopt today (ie what's in print also needs to go online) means there needs to be some sort of synergy in the style of writing. There's no use in writing something that only works in print when it's also needed for a digital audience. So a basis of short paragraphs, a strong lead and a rewarding pay off should work well for both mediums.

Given my UK location, I suspect one of the most challenging aspects will be writing for an American audience. Already I'm getting my 'Zs' mixed up with 'Ss" and I'm much more conscious when proofing  words like 'colour' and 'centre', but I'm sure a few will slip under the crack. I'm hoping Under the Radar has a strong subbing desk.

As ends to 2012 go, though, it's been nicely positive. Let's hope 2013 carries on in this fashion.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Album review: Woods - Bend Beyond

Woods have never been a love on first listen sort of band for me. My relationship with the Jeremy Earl-led ensemble has always been more of a curious friendship valued at impromptu times, rather than some full-blown, heart-quivering love affair that exploded at first listen. But that’s okay. Those kind of instantaneous, depth-charged affairs never last. Something sexier always comes along, flouting fresh lughole-loving noise to steals my affections.

Woods, though, are different. Without every really being there, they never go away. They’re always lurking; patiently waiting to take their chance when fortune (or shuffle) leads me back to the arable rinse of Songs of Shame or the languid melodies that haunt At Echo Lake. And then I’m hooked. Lost to the hazy, hopeful glows that radiate from Earl’s joyous falsetto and the band’s penchant for lo-fi sun-blushed-psychedelia.

This unfaltering nature is what makes Woods such a dependable, if unspectacular, proposition on record. Yet, album number six, Bend Beyond, indicates the band isn’t necessarily happy with this state of affairs. Rather than using the same home-spun formula that worked so successfully on At Echo Lake and last year’s Sun and Shade, Woods have sought to build on the epic, sprawling dynamics of their live outings to create something thicker, bolder, and maybe even more lovable.

As curtain-raisers go, the title track is as persuasive a statement of intent as you could hope to hear. Orientating around slow, sludging guitars, its tip-toe pace gradually rises into a ferocious psych-rock wig-out akin to Grandaddy at a microdot-induced orgy. More dynamic and brazen than ever before, the track finds Earl unshackling his staple melancholia to shrill “just to see, just to know, just to bend beyond the light” while a sprawl of layered, clanging instrumentation writhes underneath.

Then, after such a triumphant opening, Woods make a strange decision: they revert to type. Suddenly, Bend Beyond's growling throes succumb to summery guitar chimes and its pulsating percussion is replaced by mallowy acoustics. After stumbling down an unfamiliar alley, it’s as if Earl and co have found their way back to the familiarity of the main street, finding comfort in ‘Cali in a Cup’s jaunty Byrds-esque melody and the alt country balladeering of ‘Back to the Stone’.

Given this descent to normality, it’s hard to get excited about a record that rarely moves from its musical comfort blanket. But there are still moments. Snaking guitars wind their way through ‘Cascade’s climatic drum thunder; ‘Find them Empty’ is a swirling totem of swamping, stomping blues; and ‘Size Meets Sounds’ valiantly attempts to reach that opening high with a bar-brawl of crashing, nuanced noise.

In hindsight, front-loading the record with 'Bend Beyond' probably wasn’t the smartest of steps for a band refashioning its image. Its formidable peak was always going to dominate handclapping toe-tappers like 'Lily'. Yet, there’s still a lot to admire here. As a whole, Bend Beyond is as full and broad as Woods have ever sounded. Sure, it lacks the adventure promised by its opening gambit, but this is a band shaping its ambitions at a gradual pace. As Jeremy Earl, himself, puts it: “It ain’t easy looking for different ways to make things stay the same”.

Album review: Andrew Bird - Hands of Glory

Back at the turn of the year, Andrew Bird’s seventh studio longplayer Break It Yourself was released to the usual clamour of praise. By resisting the urge to execute his usual repertoire of musical back-flips, pirouettes and double rolls, the Illinois-born songsmith landed an album with mass-appeal. Add to this his whistle-lipped mentorship of Kermit in the Muppets' latest box-office smash, and you could say it’s been a pretty good year for Mr Bird.

So his decision to close out 2012 with a collection of covers, outtakes and reinterpretations is, frankly, a little peculiar. Not that Hands of Glory represents anything to be alarmed about. But there’s something rather limp - half-hearted, even - about the way these eight cuts have been compiled, composed and executed. Instead of being a dimension-adding companion to Break it Yourself, all this mini-album does is close a loop that had already concluded.

Despite its failings, Hands of Glory is not without charm. The curtain opens with the delicious 'Three White Horses', a lolloping, warbling lament that finds Bird in reflective mode, commanding - “Tell me what’s so easy about coming in to say goodbye”. Musically it’s more rustic than the polished Break It Yourself, and there’s enough here lyrically to deduce this particular songsmith isn’t as comfortable toying with spotlight as he appears.

Such depth, however, never lasts. From here we trundle into a country-slash-blues melee that blends the dark, steel guitar lines of The Handsome Family’s 'When The Helicopter Comes' with Railroad Bill’s hay-bailing, dungaree-donning, fiddle-fest. If Mark Lanegan was scraping his ragged baritone it may make some semblance of sense. But this is Andrew Bird – a man of subtle and noble intonation - and he labours under the strain of this glorified barn dance.

Moments of quality do intersperse these drags. 'Spirograph' showcases Bird’s ability to compel through word play and nuanced guitar; while the minimalist styling of 'Orpheo' is a spacious refrain that bests its full-album sibling, 'Orpheo Looks Back'. Yet, as if to purposefully undo this good work, 'Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horse’s nine-minute re-interpretation of the record’s opener crashes somewhere between artistic overindulgence and cutting-room indiscipline.

As ways to close the year go, there’re probably better ways to see out 2012. But in this season of goodwill and retrospect, Andrew Bird has acquired enough credit over the last 12 months to deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

2012: 10 of the best

I realise it's been a while since I've posted here, so what better way to kick back into gear with my top 10 cuts of 2012.

Now, I wouldn't exactly say this has been a glorious year for music (well, the music that I like) but there have been a number of remarkable releases from the likes of Chromatics, Liars, Twilight Sad and Actress.

Of course, there are lists upon lists currently floating about there in the internet for you to get your lugs stuck into. So, instead of clogging up the blogosphere with another album of the year piece, I thought it better to put together my favourite ten tracks of the last 12 months.

 To be honest, I'm still debating whether these are my favourite ten. For instance, I'm convinced Andrew Bird's glorious Orpheo Looks Back probably merits a spot; while Twilight Sad's gruesome Sick was a track that rolled over and over again in between my lugswhile I was commmuting to and from London during those dark nights.

But we are where we are. And at the moment, these are my ten favourite tunes from 2012...

Now (if there is anyone left reading this) what were your favourites?