Saturday, 28 December 2013

Album review: Darkside - Psychic

In their own incongruous way, Psychic’s two creators do an admirable job of defining the sound of Darkside’s debut LP. While Nicolas Jaar believed he was making an electronic record, Dave Harrington thought he was involved in a rock record. It turns they were both right. What they’ve produced is an impressive combination of the two.

In reality, it’s pushing it to suggest the duo didn’t know what they were doing. Jaar is renowned for his monochromatic swathes that teeter between avant-garde electro and flat out floor-filler. And Harrington – a member of Jaar’s live band since 2011 – is a jazz trained bass player with a track record for cinematic compositions.

So, while Psychic is more likely a pre-contrived melding of minds than a convergence of contradictory style, it shouldn’t lessen the appeal. From the first notes of 11 minute opener ‘Golden Arrow’ – a down tempo opus of astronautic effects and textures – it’s clear this is a collaboration that works, with Harrington building funk-soaked pillars of bass within Jaar’s celestial grooves.

Those expecting an extension of Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise may be left disappointed. Harrington’s influence ripples through the gnawing ‘The Only Shine I’ve Seen’ and the driving cosmic ceremony of ‘Freak Go Home’, helping to deepen the depth and scope of their arcane arrangements.

At just eight tracks long, it should be a brief encounter. But many of these cuts, such as the loose limbed ‘Paper Trails’, are bottomless troves, opening up and unravelling on every listen. And while its creators may disagree on categorisation, one thing’s for sure: whatever Psychic is, it’s fascinating.

Album review: Breathe Owl Breathe - Passage of Pegasus

It looks like Breathe Owl Breathe have finally decided to grow up. Here, on album number six, the Michigan-based trio have replaced the idiosyncrasies of past records with a tonal consistency that runs throughout these 10 folk-pop strains.

This change of tack creates a perfect platform for the rich, emotive baritone of Micah Middaugh to thrive. Each song—in particular "Ferns Move" and the gorgeous "Two Moths"—are fraught, tender tearjerkers that swoop through a fug of pert percussion and grievous strings. And while it may not be enough to win over new fans, this refreshed approach will see Breathe Owl Breathe age well with the ones they've already got.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Xiu Xiu - Nina

An entire record of Nina Simone covers is probably not how most people expected Xiu Xiu to follow last year's Always. Yet given the capricious nature of Jamie Stewart's avant-garde ensemble, it's unlikely to be a decision that surprises many.

Stewart's provocative and emotional approach is the perfect fit for Simone's own powerful sonic impingements, and the peculiar dovetail of the artists' styles starts to make even more sense in this 11-song tribute to the late great jazz chanteuse.

It is a disorienting experience to hear Simone's punctuating keys replaced with incongruous saxophone parps and almost non-existent drum rhythms. "See Line Wome
n" is stabbing and immoral; "The Other Woman" evolves into a deep swell of lovestruck hopelessness; and "Flo Me La" is a loosely-stitched jazz freak out.

Stewart's unfathomable intonations are central to the record, which does its best to emulate the muted neo-baritone of Simone while emitting its own quivering gulp of emotion. So divisive and unsettling is Stewart's delivery that it can prove as destructive as it is captivating, such as during the formless "Don't Smoke In Bed."

Much like Simone's own live performances, there's no middle ground here. What Stewart has produced is a wild, discordant plunge into the legacy of a legend; a visceral interpretation that could only emanate from his creative bowels. Nina would approve.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: 65Daysofstatic - Wild Light

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to fellow Brit noise merchants Fuck Buttons, 65daysofstatic is aiming for higher ground on its fifth studio album.

Combining to form an imposing skyline of layered guitar and percussive bombast, each of these drilling post-rock instrumentals is slashed with electronic skewers and an unavoidable sense that grander plans await. Promising work.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Live From KCRW

The trouble with studio albums is they don’t always capture the essence of a band in the flesh. In the case of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds it’s a point that’s amplified by their blistering outings in support of album number 15, Push The Sky Away. For a band whose integral parts have each passed a half century in years, there are few more beseeching, emotionally raw and darn right beautiful acts currently plying their trade.

It feels apt, then, that Cave and co are bookending a successful 2013 with a living, breathing document of their current vintage. Recorded at Apogee Studio in L.A., Live From KCRW doesn’t just represent the band’s here and now; it retreads and reworks a back catalogue more powerful and burgeoning than any modern day equivalent’s. In fact, so aware is Cave of this sonic goldmine, he teases the audience by taking requests, before admitting he’ll only play songs on “this very short list here”.

As a recording, Live From KCRW is the band at its most reflective. ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is smoky and brooding, weaving a seductive sense of menace through its tragic guitar creeps. The ethereal notes of ‘Push The Sky Away’ extend the melancholic pattern, somehow trumping the original recording’s meditative lament, while Cave baritones “And some people say it's just rock 'n' roll/ Aw, but it gets you right down to your soul.”

The intimacy of the recording is quite something. ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ radiate tender beauty , each underlining the deep intuitive space each musician operates within. And the remodelled majesty of ‘Mercy Seat’ - impregnated by skeletal piano and Warren Ellis’s barbed wire string work - proves that even a stone cold killer can be brought warmly to the bosom.

Ultimately, Live From KCRW is the personable side of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. And, while the appearance of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is a rip-roaring atomic bomb amidst these supple paeans, it’s a record that showcases a band comfortable at the peak of its powers. Thirty years on, they remain an astonishing

Albums of the year: My 10 of 2013

2013 was quite the year for music, wasn’t it?

Indie land’s big album comebacks, for the most part, hit the mark; numerous cherubic acts cracked the mainstream; and glitch-riddled electronica seemed to percolate every crevasse of popular culture.

For me, the most notable trend in my listening was around just how many female voices I made time for. Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter, in particular, made good with their equally ethereal and mesmerizing longplayers. While the poppier side of my tune-chomping was fed by Charli XcX, Lorde and, yes, even the omnipotent Haim.

I was probably most surprised by the quality of the new Vampire Weekend record. I’ve never been impressed by their preppy pseudo-Graceland schtick, but Modern Vampires of the City moved them into a weightier songwriting sphere that combined their ear for a ditty with a touching sense of emotional depth.

 For a long time, MOVTC was my album of the year. Then Spencer Krug turned up with Julia with Blue Jeans On. One man and his piano does not sound that earth shattering, but this evocative, brittle and downright sumptuous recording dragged me through one of the most draining periods of my life. It is, quite simply, beautiful.

So that’s been my 2013 in music. I’ve listened to a lot, old and new. And even now – at the tailend of December – I’m discovering sounds and sonics that would surely have made my final list had I a few more weeks to let them gestate.

But, time waits for no man, beast or last minute top ten contender. So… as it stands, below are my top 10 records of 2013:

1. Moonface – Julia with Blue Jeans
In one sentence: Beatific ivory tinkling majesty from an artist who finally strips out the metaphor to reveal his ear for startlingly naked songwriting.


2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City 
In one sentence: A developed, fully formed masterpiece that measures melody against compositional depth.


3. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
In one sentence: Submerged in haunting string-bound atmosphere, this is ethereal and comatose elegance at its most sublime.


4. Deptford Goth – Life after Defo 
In one sentence: Tranquilised narco-induced dub-step with a sideline in haunting, heart-melting ballads.


5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
In one sentence: Dark, luscious and brooding with menace; as consistent as Cave and co have been in years.


6. Darkside – Psychic
In one sentence: A bottomless, funk-fuelled opus of astronautic effects and textures.

7. Jon Hopkins – Immunity 
In one sentence: A twitching, high brow collection of sharp electronic clusters, visceral beats and jarring bleeps.


8. Villagers - {Awayland}
In one sentence: A true testament to the art of songwriting, {Awayland} was a complex album that managed to sound ever so simple.


9. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
In one sentence: A James Murphy-inspired regeneration, that’s brash, bold and – at times – funky as hell.


10. Factory Floor – Factory Floor 
In one sentence: Furious, impenetrable and completely deranged, Factory Floor’s debut LP is one of the year’s most barbaric sounds.