Share it

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Best of 2014 - Part 1: Folk/Roots/Country

I gave in to list culture a few years back, so here's my contribution. In fairness, I find looking back over the year a good way of rediscovering musical highlights, refreshing the mucial memory. Plus I've tried to add a bit of depth by describing why these musical moments, albums, songs, phrases, whatever, have stayed with me.

This first instalment I'm calling Folk/Roots/Country, as usual a somewhat arbitrary set of tags but broadly representative. Enjoy, the rest of the series will follow over the next couple of weeks or so (in total there will be three or four).

1. Olof Arnalds – Patience (One Little Indian)

Another superb album from the Icelandic singer this year, Palme. As with all her work, there’s an endearing quirkiness to the songs but through ingenious arrangements she manages to avoid the stultifying cul de sac which is the home of many of the twee-inclined.

This song has her quivering tones (not unlike Bjork in her quieter moments, in terms of phrasing and delivery) backed with sombre plucked strings and hushed backbeats, while a wonderful vocal chorus joins in on the refrain, with a lovely swinging melody. For someone so apparently quirky, she concocts an almost anthemic quality out of these simple ingredients. By the end, you’ll be singing along lustily, which of course is the highest recommendation for any pop song.

2. Adrian Crowley – Trouble (Chemikal Underground)

The Dublin resident produced another sublime set of story songs this month, in the shape of his 7th studio album Some blue morning.

This lead track shows off most of the album’s finest qualities - lush, swoonsome strings, the whispered embellishments of Katie Kim on backing vocals, to go with Crowley’s engrossing circular guitar picking and velvet croon. And of course, the enduring narrative pull exerted by his lyrics.

Furthermore, Adrian Crowley does good waltz.

3. Aldous Harding – Stop your tears (Spunk Records)

I was sent this album a few weeks ago and from the first note I couldn’t tear myself away.

This song opens the album and begins with what sounds like a choir of disembodied spirits, chanting quiveringly as if perched on your shoulder. The song then progresses like a medieval folk tale, a reminiscience on an unfulfilled life, with talk of bells and babies and murder, and “death come pull me under water, I have nothing left to fear from hell.”

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why the song is so compelling, consisting as it does mainly of a simple acoustic guitar pluck. I think it’s Harding’s voice, a wide-throated delivery with a slightly mannered enunciation, very much out of sync with current pop trends. It conjures the air of a voice from beyond...time, this world, our imaginations, wise and sorrowful and swollen with emotion. It comes on like a folk treasure from 40 years ago that might have been reissued by Light in the Attic. It really is a powerful performance.

To find out that the singer is a 20-something from Christchurch in New Zealand makes the tune all the more compelling and unforgettable, and her self-titled album one of the musical events of the year for me.

4. Damien Jurado – Silver Timothy (Secretly Canadian)

From the tremendous album Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. I can’t do better than this, from my review of the album, in describing how this song gets me every time.

“From the beginning, ‘Silver Timothy’ would remind you of America (the band, one of several songs with those signature close vocal harmonies and brushed acoustic guitars; the vast continent also), although with an added psychedelic, cosmic sheen. In fact the whole album has this feel about it. It’s not that it’s all-out trippy, but inherent to it is a definite step away from accepted reality. It is folk music taken out of the coffee house and brought back into the wild.”

Apart from that, the album features a raft of other masterful psych-folk songs, ranging from the subtly intriguing to the downright epic.

5. Arch Garrison – Bubble (The Household Mark)

The latest AG I will be a pilgrim was an album I fell in love with around last May. You can find the full review on this link, following is a flavour from it -

“An album of folk/classical guitar tunes paired with kosmische-like vintage keys, giving a beautiful, celebratory and sometimes pastoral feel.

It follows a long line of like-minded and superb work by main man Craig Fortnam, taking in two earlier Arch Garrison albums, plus three under North Sea Radio Orchestra along with his wife Sharron and a cast of regular collaborators. Here Craig is joined by James Larcombe who is also part of NSRO, the William D Drake band and Stars of Battledress.

‘The oldest road’ and the title track leap out on first listen, giving a sense of the ancient pathways running underneath our 21st century lives.

Sharron makes an appearance on the utterly lovely duet ‘O sweet tomorrow’, a brilliantly wrong-footing waltz rhythm with intertwining classical guitar lines, chimes and brushed hi-hats.

‘Other people’ follows and takes that thread of shifting time signatures, giving a hint of the avant garde in the service of hummable tunes.

It seems Fortnam has forged a sound that could only be English, while drawing on a variety of global styles and traditions.

The result sounds completely natural and unforced, a music quietly ecstatic and transportative, and another minor masterpiece in the Fortnam body of work.”

The particular beauty of ‘Bubble’ – apart from the impossible-to-shake bassline and its overall sheer accessibility – is its wonderful sense of whimsy, of a vague meandering, a quality so rare in pop music (as in life) that it should he held up and treasured.

6. Stars in Battledress – Fluent English (Believer’s Roast)

Very much a companion piece to the Arch Garrison album, as set out in my review in June -

“Brothers James and Richard Larcombe, who make up Stars in Battledress, take elements of folk music, English music hall, classical and minimalism to make an adventurous pop brand all their own.

Sharing vintage keys and guitars, they flit from uplifting to sinister to primal at the drop of a hat. James plays with North Sea Radio Orchestra and William D Drake (as well as with Craig Fortnam in Arch Garrison) and those groups would give a fair idea of the kind of richness of melody and innovative song structures you can expect here. It ends up as quixotic as Van Dyke Parks, with something too of the heartfelt restlessness of Apple Venus-era XTC. The latter is certainly present in my own personal favourite, ‘Fluent English’, a plangent piano tune with a panoramic melody and an intellectual lyrical sweep.”

Basically, sing along to a catchy tune with an added healthy intellectual payoff.

*Check also the scathing ‘Buy one now’, an antidote to consumerism in the cunning guise of an advertising jingle.

7. Diane Cluck – Sara (Important Records)

Diane Cluck played in Cork in 2014. I couldn’t make the gig unfortunately but this song, which had been sent to me by the promoter, worked its way up through my slush pile. Something this good couldn't be denied, basically.

“I've been meaning to post this for months, since Diane Cluck played in Cork, last April I think it was (I didn't make the gig, as often happens).

She's a name I'd come across before as a CocoRosie collaborator, which is a good start, but I don't think I'd heard any of her own music until this.

And what a stunning introduction to the woman's music. A simple strummed acoustic guitar and her voice. The voice is idiosyncratic, you might say - there's a lilt in it, a catch sort of, or the hint of one. It's earthy but unassuming. Parts are half-spoken, drifting in and out of key, deliberately, as if blown off course by the wind. She seems to be singing to herself, or communing with a higher power, or channelling something ancient.

However you read it, by the time the cello and xylophone come in towards the end, almost drawing the curtains on the piece, you are already thoroughly transfixed.

I believe she lives in Virginia in the US and you could say there's something rural about this sound. 'Sara' is from her current album Boneset and there's also a brilliant live rendition below from an NPR Tiny Desk show.”

8. Sun Kil Moon – Ben’s my friend (Caldo Verde)

Mark Kozelek has been in the news a few times this year for being involved in public slagging matches. Let's remember him for the music now.

“Not so new but an album I've just been getting into recently by Sun Kil Moon (with thanks to my buddy Neil). That's Mark Kozelek, the veteran ex-Red House Painters man. Somehow, I never managed to get into that band. Maybe it’s an age thing for me now, cos this is certainly a mature person’s music (in years if not behaviour).

'Ben's my friend' is a rollercoaster of nostalgic memoir from middle life, surfing on a wave of bossa nova and collapsing under the weight of Kozelek’s creaking, soul-weary vocals. It's wonderful and so believable.

That full band bossa arrangement is all the more effective for being unexpected, coming as it does at the very end of the album. Up to then, fingerpicked guitar patterns (almost exclusively) circle around the trapped characters of these mournful story songs, mostly centred on family and childhood. There’s a distinctly literary aftertaste to the songwriting, with something of Raymond Carver’s short story matter of factness about it.

‘Ben’s my friend’ doesn’t shy from the sadness or the pointlessness of life but the saxophone and shakers with meaty drumbeats give some sense of a flowering of mood, an opening out in some way.

And the details will get you where it hurts – from eating blue crab cakes with his girlfriend, to worrying to death about his mother, to going to see his friend Ben (Gibbard) playing in The Postal Service.”

9. Jennifer Castle – Truth is the freshest fruit (No Quarter)

“Jennifer Castle is a new name on me but she’s a well-seasoned session musician and vocalist in Canadian - specifically Toronto - circles, as well as having several albums of her own under her belt (this is the second under her own name, previously she went under Castlemusic). This wonderful opening tune on her new album has managed to stop me in my tracks every time so far, it’s hard to get past it.

‘Truth is the freshest fruit’ starts out with a ghostly folk tinge but takes on a brighter, more uptempo feel courtesy of a sublimely warm, throbbing string arrangement by Owen Pallett. There’s something about it that reminds me of one of those Bobbie Gentry cautionary swingalongs - maybe a slightly muted version – full of drama and intrigue while remaining brilliantly low-key. And even while sounding like a folk song, there’s a lovely AM radio quality to her voice, a smoothness, a restraint.

Just when you think it can’t get any better, later on there’s a glorious dash of sun-dappled piano, a resigned vocal repeating “born at the end of the year”, joined by swooping strings as if in moral support.

It’s an intoxicating piece of music, basically.”

'Truth is the freshest fruit' is Track 4 on this show

Sept 23 2014 w/ Laetitia Sadier,Jennifer Castle,Rachael Dadd,NLF3,Ariel Pink,The Vincent(s),Jim Noir by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

10. Mark Fry – Aeroplanes (Second Language)

“I found it hard to get past this opening song on Fry’s new album, a welcome return from the veteran folk artist who pursues a career as a painter when not playing music.

With those wonderful cello drones and flurries of fingerpicked acoustic guitar, allied with a pastoral, dreamlike atmosphere, it plays like a companion to the Bert Jansch song ‘The black swan’, itself a modern classic.

Where Jansch was describing a vaguely sci-fi future, Fry seems to be dreaming of a re-imagined, idyllic present.

You listen to this and find yourself drifting on a stratospheric current just like the silver bird in the song.

It’s uplifting and quite beautiful.”

11. Jessica Pratt – Back, baby (Drag City)

Another one of my obsessions from the latter part of the year. The kind of thing that, when it arrives in your inbox, tends to renew your faith in humanity.

“This Los Angeles-based singer was a new name on me lately but this first taste from her upcoming album is absolutely intoxicating.

And it kinda shows up the limitations of writing down words about someone else producing sounds. Because this song is made up of such apparently simple raw materials. And describing them in words does no justice to the enduring atmosphere they create.

A Spanish guitar, strummed lightly and sunnily, although the lyrics undercut the breeziness with sombre reflections about love lost. In fact, repeated listens reveal a disapproving or even caustic tone wrapped in the soft, gentle musical skin.

And Pratt’s voice.

That’s it, apart from a few harmony vocals and some double tracked guitar here and there. Plus the swing, bordering on samba. And the major seventh chords.

Except her vocal delivery and phrasing are endlessly intriguing. The one word I find myself coming back to again and again is “time”, as in “if there was a time that you loved me”. She seems to pronounce it differently, as if she’s opening her mouth wider just for that word. As if the memory of time with her lover needs more air to admit the emotion attached. It’s an inspired conjuring and adds a wonderful knotty quality to the carefree melody, evoking the joy of love but also its complications.

And so I seem to have written more than a few words about this song. Don’t let me detain you any longer from sampling its wonders yourself.”

12. Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards - Bones (State51 Conspiracy)

A completely gorgeous reflection on the ending of love.

Michaelson’s voice first. It’s so low it seems like it’s about to fall off the end of the register, on the verge of cracking apart any second.

Then the sumptuous arrangement. Keening cello, weeping pedal steel, subdued clean electric guitar, pitter-patter brushed drums.

It’s the orthopedic mattress memory foam of musical beds to wallow in and ranks up there with Lambchop in terms of musical chemistry made in heaven.

Truly memorable.

13. Patrick Freeman – She’s gone (self-released)

From Freeman’s Perfect fit EP recorded with O Emperor at their studio in Cork and an interesting accompaniment to that band’s wonderful album Vitreous, exploring as it does some similar George Harrison and Harry Nilsson influences.

If forced up against up against a wall this would be my pick from it, a wonderfully morose country cut wallowing in steel guitar, as if Harry Nilsson had dropped in on a Lambchop rehearsal of an evening.

14. Johnofsilence – The Merry Weathers (self-released) Another O Emperor connection, johnofsilence being an O Emperor sideproject of sorts. And another completely beautiful arrangement of barroom piano with steel guitar and warm male-female vocal harmonies.

It comes together as if always meant to be, in a haze of late Beatles and 70s AM radio.

15. Laura Cantrell – All the girls are complicated (Shoeshine)

Authentic country sweet and sour from the ex-pat Nashville veteran (surely she qualifies at this stage?), taken from her 6th album No way there from here.

Cantrell seems to love that her sisters in kind are complicated, although remaining wary of the fact.

A purring vocal turn, trilling guitars and a satisfyingly acerbic lyric are just some of the song’s pleasures.

And I love this line -

From the ones who tend their looks
To the ones that mind their books
To the one that’s got her hooks in you

A brilliantly breezy slice of country gold, in the end.

16. The New Mendicants – Sarasota (One Little Indian)

A gem we can also file under alt country, from the Into the lime album.

"Very tasty album collaboration between Joe Pernice (Pernice Brothers, Scud Mountain Boys) and Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub), which would remind you of the reasons why those bands were such treasures. Among the unexpected pleasures on the album are the perfect pop structures of Rubber Soul-era Beatles, in the shape of ‘Cruel Annette’, ‘If you only knew her’ and the particularly wonderful (with a touch of ‘Michelle’ to it) ‘High on the skyline’. These still have enough of a Big Star/Teenage Fanclub finish to make the uplift bittersweet, gorgeously so.

Having said that (and I am a huge Rubber Soul fan), it’s hard to get past the gloriously burnished nostalgia of album opener ‘Sarasota’ - handclaps, glockenspiels, swooning vocal harmonies and sunburst guitars, it’s a really beautiful thing."

‘Sarasota’ is Track 2 on this show

Feb 11 2014 show w/ Big Star,The New Mendicants,Future Islands,Bruce Haack,Eyedress,Damien Jurado++ by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

17. Rachael Dadd – Strike our scythes

18. Rozi Plain – Jogalong (Split single, Lost Map Records)

A brilliant declaration of progressive folk values from two of Britain’s most distinctive contemporary voices, and regulars on the show's playlists over the last few years.

Rachael Dadd brings ukulele strums, shakers (in fact a box of matches apparently) and a loping drumbeat with a charm-the-pants-off-you chorus vocal line from the Kate Bush school (“ca-ca-co-co-yup”) to an uplifting worksong.

In Rozi Plain’s case, her signature syncopated guitar, softly insistent backbeat, a glorious kosmische synth line and a bank of celestial harmonies develop an eminently danceable groove, perfect for the stoic nostalgia of the lyric.

One sprightly and bouncing, the other a sort of motorik murmuring. Put together, they make an intriguing yin and yang.

It’s all most beguiling and joyous and, in short, very classy pop music.

19. Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler – The white balloon (Thrill Jockey)

Sublime pastoral instrumental with undercurrents of foreboding from the Philadelphia-based duo.

Harp arpeggios sketch out the carefree uplands while shards of electronic foreboding gradually cast a shadow. The tune has an elemental feel, with all the cruelty and beauty of the universe that that implies.

By the way, the accompanying film by Naomi Yang (Damon & Naomi, ex Galaxie 500) is also a work of art and deserves to be seen in its own right.

20. Hiss Golden Messenger - Saturday's song (Merge)

2014 was crossover time for MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch, something that was great to see, with a Letterman debut and all kinds of well-deserved attention.

Lateness of dancers was another in a line of heartwarming country soul albums, with Taylor's signature vocal burr and down home songwriting at the core.

On paper, this track is about getting wasted at the weekend, but it throbs with all kinds of elevated feelings between the lines - fellowship, family and soul.

East River Pipe - Q&A with FM Cornog

Photo: Barbara Powers

"When I listen to East River Pipe I not only hear beautiful melodies and words, but I also hear the personification of pure, unfettered musical thought, brought about by a commitment to concentrate solely on his craft and his art. This is the sound of a man completely focused on the task at hand, not sidetracked or swayed by any outside forces, be they record labels or any other aspect of the music industry. This is the sound of a man whose only musical relationship is that of sound to tape recorder. Because he chooses not to perform live, he further reinforces the significance of this relationship between a man’s ideas and the form in which we are able to perceive these ideas. He knows that when he makes a record that “THIS IS IT, this is all there is.” Pure. Simple. Perfect."
Kurt Wagner, 1999

It must have been on the inside cover of Lambchop's 1997 album Thriller that I first saw the name FM Cornog. It was there three times. I was a bit obsessed with Lambchop in the late 1990s, so finding that someone not in the band was responsible for writing three of that album's songs was definitely notable. I also remember coming across East River Pipe in Stewart Lee's album reviews (which were always worth checking) in The Sunday Times around then. In a pre-internet age, those names lodged dormant, one of those bands you mean to come back to some day.

That day came for me last autumn when news arrived of the reissue of The Gasoline Age by Merge Records, as part of the label's 25th birthday commemorations. First released in 1999, The Gasoline Age could be viewed as a kind of companion piece to those late 90s Lambchop albums, Thriller and What another man spills, containing as they do five FM Cornog songs between them. It is an album literally full of the highest quality songs and, more particularly, songwriting. There's a kind of street poetry to it, dirty realism you might say that's vaguely related to the writing of people like Charles Bukowski or Raymond Carver - the songs are about ordinary people up against the odds generally, striving, fighting, trying to escape a humdrum existence, sometimes deluding themselves in the process. Invariably, the characters in the songs are portrayed with a distinct generosity, even when they suffer indignity or apparently deserve ridicule. The songs resemble short stories set to music, which consists of perfectly poignant and sympathetic arrangements of keep-your-chin-up guitars and synths, occupying some glorious corner of (let's call it) alt-rock.

I was so blown away by the songs that I made contact with FM, wondering if he would have time to answer some questions. In keeping with the treatment of the characters in his songs, he was generous with his time.


Hi FM, thanks very much for taking the time.

No problem, Conor.

Where are you now and what’s the view?

I’m sitting in my car in a Home Depot parking lot in New Jersey. I’m surrounded by sprawling, nondescript, brick warehouses. A few sparrows overhead on the telephone wires and fiber optic cables.

I’m enjoying The Gasoline Age a tremendous amount, it’s great to see an album as good as it get a second life, so to speak. Can I ask you about the concept behind the album, in so far as there is one.

I don’t think that the concept behind The Gasoline Age is any different from my other albums. I generally write about people who are trying to psychologically, physically, or spiritually escape from present day America. These people feel disillusioned. They feel trapped. They try to escape however they can, by driving, or by drinking, or by chasing an unobtainable dream, or by self-delusion, or by doing drugs, or whatever. Sometimes they don’t even know what they are trying to escape from, but subconsciously they feel that something is deeply wrong. They can’t or don’t want to join the society that surrounds them. They feel like the “American Dream” is bullshit, a mirage. You’re told that there are all these roads and all these highways and all these myths about “freedom”, but somehow, there is no escape.

Several of the songs are tied to themes and conceits related to cars and driving. ‘Cybercar’ is one song that particularly stands out for me. It seems to belong as much in a literary tradition (part Philip K Dick, part JG Ballard maybe?) as a musical one. Can you remember your thinking when you were writing the song?

“Cybercar” is about a guy who has a fucked-up, romantic relationship with his car. He’s unable to have a relationship with an actual woman, so he has a relationship with his car. On the surface this might sound weird, but people are constantly trying to fill the void within themselves with material things.

So would you say that you’re a chronicler of life as it happens around you?

Yes. I write about the people and things I know. The people and things I see every day. Quiet people who are trying to scratch out a living. People working little jobs and trying to survive with a little dignity. People trying to hold onto a few little shreds of idealism, or small dreams they once had. People who are haunted by the past. People incessantly bombarded by commercialized information who are starting to think that something is very fucked-up, but they don't know what it is or how to change it. I write about the people living on the lower rungs of the American ladder. Those are my people. But I am clearly not a spokesman for anyone. I only speak for myself. And I speak in such a coded, private language that most people, including music critics, have never deciphered the depth of my societal disgust. If the music itself truly reflected my lyrical content, the songs would be unlistenable. The accessibility of my music is what makes my lyrics easier to swallow.

How do you reflect on the album now in general, in the context of your other albums and at a remove of 15 years?

Honestly, I never thought that there was anything special about The Gasoline Age, and I still don’t. I don’t think the album is any better or any worse than any of my other albums. Maybe the recurring “car” motif in that album made it more accessible and cohesive to some people? Who knows? But to me it’s just another album.

The reissue comes with a bonus of 9 previously unreleased tracks. Can you tell me a little about those and why you picked them? They’re drawn from your recording archive in general over the years, and not just the sessions that produced The Gasoline Age, is that right?

The bonus songs were recorded over different periods. Some of them, like ‘How’s It Feel To Piss It All Away’, were recorded in the last year, and others, like ‘WTC’, were done years ago. Most of the bonus songs never seemed to fit on any albums thematically or musically. Those songs were orphans. I didn’t want any of them to be released, but my wife insisted that they be released and she won the argument.

Going back a bit further in time, can you tell me about how your initial connection with Merge Records came about?

Well, back in the early 1990s, Barbara Powers (who was then my girlfriend, and is now my wife) started a label called Hell Gate Records solely to release East River Pipe music. She released the music as homemade cassettes at first, then as 7-inch singles. We sold many of those releases through a mail order company in Chicago called Ajax Records. Ajax Records was like the epicenter of cool, American “indie rock” at that time. Just to be in the Ajax Records catalog was a big thing back then. Anyway, one of the people who bought some of those early releases was Jim Wilbur, the guitarist in Superchunk. Jim wrote me a nice letter. So, that led East River Pipe to Merge Records. I’ve been on Merge now for 20 years.

I’m interested in your working process for recording. Is it a case of whittling away for months, as might be the case with many home or self-produced recordings?

No, I don’t whittle away for months. That sounds fucking tedious! But I do work kind of like a painter, I guess. I paint something, then I walk away, then I add something, then I walk away, then I paint over the first thing, then I walk away; on and on, add, subtract, add, subtract. I tend to work pretty quickly, but in spurts of two hours here, two hours there. It’s a terrible way to work, because I can never really get up any serious forward momentum. It’s like a guerilla war…Attack, retreat, attack, retreat. But that’s the way it must be for now, because I work a full-time “day job”, I’m a father of a 12 year old girl, a husband, and the owner of a small, beat-up house.

You’ve played very few live shows over the years. Why is that and is there any change in plans on the cards on that front?

There are so many reasons that I don't play live. But the main reason is, and this cuts down deep to my very nature: I have never liked being the center of attention. I don't like to stand in the middle of a stage with a spotlight on me with a hundred or more people staring at me waiting to be entertained. It makes me feel like a cheap, wind-up monkey.

Your connection with Lambchop is one that will be known to many people, in that several of your songs have been covered by them. How did that contact first come about? Do you keep in touch with Kurt Wagner and the band? I assume you’re a fan?

How did the contact first come about? Well, in 1994 I recorded an album called Poor Fricky, and I heard that Kurt Wagner liked it a lot and that Lambchop was planning on recording 3 songs from it. Those songs, 'Superstar In France', 'Crawl Away' and 'Hey, Where’s Your Girl' came out on the Lambchop album called Thriller. A year later Lambchop recorded 'King Of Nothing Never' and 'Life #2' for their album What Another Man Spills. So, Kurt Wagner has been incredibly generous to me. I see Lambchop play anytime they are within a hundred mile radius of New York City. I love those guys. They are a truly unique collective. Singular. They understand the space between the notes, the pause, the silence. Very few musicians can grasp that.

The Gasoline Age was reissued on Merge Records in October 2014

My review of The Gasoline Age here
twitter: @eastriverpipe

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Playlist 337 - Dec 16 2014

This week's show was dominated by a look back at some of my favourite music of 2014. (There'll be more on this in the next few weeks by the way, stay tuned for details.)

So plenty of album of the year candidates in Caribou and Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Future Islands and East River Pipe (albeit reissued), Adrian Crowley and Aldous Harding.

There was also some new music from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Slow Dancing Society, more from both of those in the new year.

And a Hawaiian Christmas treatment from Arthur Lyman (thanks Trunk Records), just to keep things seasonal.

As I said, more on the blog over the next few weeks on my fave music of 2014. And the next show is on Jan 6th. Happy holidays.

Dec 16 2014 w/ Caribou,W&P,Adrian Crowley,Jessica Pratt,Aldous Harding,Cool Ghouls,East River Pipe++ by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

The Underground of Happiness
uplifting pop music of every creed
Twitter: UndergroundOfHappy

Playlist 337
Tues Dec 16 2014
(repeated on Tuesdays 8.30pm)
UCC 98.3FM
listen live on the web at
*listen back to this show here

Arthur Lyman – Mele Kalikimaka/Jingle bells
Hiss Golden Messenger – Chapter and verse (Ione’s song)
Jessica Pratt – Back, baby
Adrian Crowley – The stranger (playing de Barra’s, Clonakilty, Dec 28)
Slow Dancing Society – Shadows and blinds
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – Careen
Future Islands – Doves (playing Roundhouse, London, Mar 30+31)
Cool Ghouls – Orange light
East River Pipe – Wholesale lies
Caribou – Can’t do without you
Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The offbeat
Aldous Harding – Two bitten hearts
Sun Kil Moon – Ben’s my friend
Benjamin Schoos feat. April March – J’ai essayé de t’aimer

*the next show will be on Jan 6th
**Happy Christmas & New Year to everyone

e-mail the show on
or text +353 (0)86-7839800
please mark messages “uoh”

Conor O'Toole,
c/o UCC 98.3FM,
Áras na Mac Léinn,
Student Centre,
University College Cork,

Friday, December 12, 2014

Future Islands at Vicar Street, Dublin, Nov 2 2014

Photo: Debi Del Grande

It’s been over a month since I had the great great pleasure to see Future Islands in the flesh. I deliberately wanted to wait a while before writing down some thoughts about the gig. This is a band I’ve been loving on record for over 4 years but who I’d never seen play live before. So I wanted to be sure I was processing the experience fully.

You’ll know all about Sam Herring’s dancing by now, courtesy of that Letterman performance. The Sam Herring Limbo. I feel like it’d be worth going to see Future Islands just to admire the man’s style. And stamina. I don’t know where he gets it. It’s bordering on superhuman. (Side note: the internet is waiting for a gif of the sweat map that progresses across Herring’s shirt over the course of a gig. In Vicar Street, full coverage and colour change were complete in time for the encore.)

You’ll know all about the top drawer tunes, taking a whisper of New Order and lighting a rocket under it. In 2010, they called it post wave (post punk/new wave). Electro pop works for me. Propulsive, in any case. Driven by Will Cashion’s thrumming basslines, while Gerrit Welmers' tumbling synth melodies occupy your waking dreams.

And you’ll know about Sam Herring’s vocal delivery. As if his movement wasn’t enough (manic, wild, other words), his singing is both sweet and savage, often within the same phrase. In fact, watching the gig it became clear that there’s a distinct Jekyll & Hyde split to his onstage persona. The tenderness, the balladry, the fist against his chest. Then the sudden violent switch, the clenched jaw, the bared teeth, the menacing growl - ”I am the tin maaaan”. See it once, you might think there's a pantomime element. See it over and over and you realise the sincerity, the heart behind it. Yeah, lose your shit to that alright.

But what you may not have known - and it was definitely news to me - is that Future Islands are a reincarnation of a certain strain of old fashioned soul music. I mean southern soul in the manner of Al Green, for example. Something hospitable, courtly, nostalgic, a kind of hand holding.

But Future Islands also manage to combine another type of soul music which is a cousin of gospel preaching, the kind where the performer undergoes a transformation before your eyes. Where the singer is visibly a channel for higher powers. Similar perhaps to the kind of transformation, or transportation, mentioned prominently by Nick Cave in 20,000 Days on Earth.

In Herring’s case, the transformation verges on an exorcism, or a shamanic ceremony, such are the physical rigours. There’s a distinct darkness in the growling, a howl, a confrontation, a grabbing by the neck and shaking. Not necessarily a religious event. More likely a punk rock event. Something in post wave alright.

This soul man impression was confirmed for sure when Sam Herring spoke over one musical intro, explaining the background to the song in a courtly southern drawl. (If I’m not mistaken, he even spoke about “good ol’ boys” at one point.) Needless to say, this was completely at odds with the throat-shredding growl that came later. Still though, even at his most bearlike, he held the impassioned demeanour, holding out a pleading hand over the heads of his people. Inclusive and communal. The reason this band is loved.

*One other unexpected titbit. The majority of the crowd was made up of the indie staple 20-40 demographic. However there was the notable presence of several older gentlemen right up front, white-haired, elbows on the stage, eyes on Herring. It made me wonder if the Joe Dolan comparisons (you'll have seen the genius mash-up here) had had the effect of allowing Future Islands to jump a generation.

Maybe it was just the old fashioned soul echo.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Playlist 336 - Dec 9 2014

A couple of blinding folk records I've been enjoying in the past week or so. Aldous Harding is a young woman from Christchurch in New Zealand who sings ghostly, gripping folk songs, murder ballads and such, using not much more than an acoustic guitar and her unique voice. She may be young but the songs have an ancient quality. Stunning.

Also great is the new Elephant Micah, plangent tales of the world at large feat. forests, 4-legged creatures and the unmistakeable backing vocals of Will Oldham.

A couple of token Christmas tunes, but a little off the beam. Gruff Rhys imagining Christmas post apocalypse, a la Cormac McCarthy but as heard through T-Rex, sort of. And Tex Ritter, combining western swing with some social sensibility, a surprisingly apt combination it turns out.

Some furious Krautrock from Faust and also their Austrian friends Villalog. New Alasdair Roberts, glorious, some old This is the Kit, who play Ireland this week, lovely trancelike folk.

And the absolutely sublime chamber pop of Paul Smith & Peter Brewis.

More on the blog as ever.

Dec 9 2014 w/ Aldous Harding,Elephant Micah,Bell Gardens,Faust,This Is The Kit,The Chills++ by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

The Underground of Happiness
uplifting pop music of every creed Twitter: UndergroundOfHappy

Playlist 336
Tues Dec 9 2014
(repeated on Tuesdays 8.30pm)
UCC 98.3FM
listen live on the web at
*listen back to this show here

Villalog – Dusseldorf Dub
Faust - Gerubelt
This is the Kit – Sometimes the sea (playing Coughlan’s, Cork, Dec 10)
Alasdair Roberts – Artless one
Gruff Rhys – Post apocalypse Christmas
Tex Ritter & his Texans – Christmas carols by the old corral
Aldous Harding – Stop your tears
Bell Gardens – Joan’s ambulance
Elephant Micah – No underground
Syd Arthur – Dorothy (playing Crane Lane Theatre, Cork, Dec 12, w/ Cold Comfort)
Cold Comfort – Love pains
The Chills – Dan Destiny & The Silver Dawn
White Fence – Anger! Who keeps you under (playing 100 Club, London, Jan 30)
Paul Smith & Peter Brewis – Santa Monica (playing St Giles in the Fields, London, Dec 19)

*next week’s show features music from Adrian Crowley, Hiss Golden Messenger and some Hawaiian Christmas sounds from Arthur Lyman, among others

e-mail the show on
or text +353 (0)86-7839800
please mark messages “uoh”

Conor O'Toole,
c/o UCC 98.3FM,
Áras na Mac Léinn,
Student Centre,
University College Cork,

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Paul Smith & Peter Brewis – Frozen by sight (Memphis Industries)

A sublime and intriguing album of chamber pop from the Maximo Park frontman and one of the Field Music brothers, which interestingly draws on their previous work in both bands.

Paul Smith’s lyrics are derived from writings done on tour with Maximo Park (locations include Barcelona, L.A. & Budapest) and they contain wonderfully off-kilter and side-on perspectives of daily life in a foreign place.

Like the picture of two people digging in the sand in ‘Santa Monica’. Or the deceptively plain image of the guy “flipping his mobile phone” and the “girl in pink flip flops” from ‘Exiting Hyde Park Towers’.

All the while, the perfectly sympathetic arrangements of Peter Brewis probe and tug at the outer edges of meaning and tone, with swaying strings, plangent piano, pinging guitars and brilliantly wrong-footing percussion (the other Field Music brother David Brewis was involved on drums and production).

‘Perth to Bunbury’ is a great example, a rolling tom pattern with rattling percussion setting the scene for a train journey, while piano and strings swoop and fall about and Smith’s observations sprout up like the palm trees going past the train window.

There’s a shade of Van Dyke Parks (any hint of chamber pop inevitably has) in the questing mood of the album, maybe later Talk Talk too in terms of the great expanses of space between lines. I believe Brewis has also mentioned David Sylvian as a reference point. This is particularly apparent on the beautiful ‘Budapest’, sparse piano, double bass and falsetto harmonies creating the most gorgeous almost-emptiness.

With a lyrical poise, combined with homely yet adventurous arrangements, this album is a wonderful collection of songs and all round a tremendous piece of work.

*Check also this fine interview with Paul Smith from The Thin Air where he goes into detail on the working process between himself and Brewis and the level of improvisation involved -

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Playlist 335 - Dec 2 2014

An album I'm loving a lot lately is the new Cool Ghouls, a San Fran band with a great line in fresh-faced psych pop (find a review of the album under December 2014 posts). And Twerps are another very endearing group from Melbourne - in another age they might have been called twee pop, although they give off a bit more gusto than that tag usually implies.

The new Adrian Crowley album is another superb set of songs adorned with his velvet croon. Olof Arnalds' latest is another triumph, putting the likeable back into quirky, and ageless folk music to boot. And the drifting dream music of Chloe March, another wonderful magic carpet ride.

Benjamin Schoos w/ April March channels Serge & Jane, both some kind of lovelorn adult romance with heart-leaping string sections.

The new Elastic Sleep single, a thundering bass and other nice things, Brother Earth & Circus Devils, two lovely psych weirdness miniatures.

And Silver Apples, bringing a great bounce to pillowy kosmische.

More on these pages as usual.

Dec 2 2014 w/ Twerps,Cool Ghouls,Elastic Sleep,Adrian Crowley,Olof Arnalds,Silver Apples++ by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

The Underground of Happiness
uplifting pop music of every creed
Twitter: UndergroundOfHappy

Playlist 335
Tues Dec 2 2014
(repeated on Tuesdays 8.30pm)
UCC 98.3FM
listen live on the web at
*listen back to this show here

Twerps – Back to you
Cool Ghouls – The mile
East River Pipe – Party drive
Liam Hayes – Fight magic with magic
A Winged Victory For The Sullen – Atomos II
The Haden Triplets – Billy Bee
Adrian Crowley - Trouble (playing Workman’s Club, Dublin, Dec 12)
Chloe March – Eucalyptus night
Olof Arnalds – Patience (playing Scala, London, Mar 11+12, w/ José Gonzalez)
Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin – 69 Année Érotique
Benjamin Schoos feat. April March – J’ai essayé de t’aimer
cloud life – Archduke
Silver Servants – Lopsided
Brother Earth – Lade of the lake
Elastic Sleep – Slip (playing Triskel TDC, Cork, Dec 6, w/ Roslyn Steer)
Circus Devils – Animals are alarm clocks
Silver Apples – Missin you (playing Corsica Studios, London, Dec 3)

*next week’s show features music from White Fence, Alasdair Roberts & Aldous Harding, among others

e-mail the show on
or text +353 (0)86-7839800
please mark messages “uoh”

Conor O'Toole,
c/o UCC 98.3FM,
Áras na Mac Léinn,
Student Centre,
University College Cork,