Best of 2014 - Part 4: Jazz/Chamber/Orchestral/Wonky/Ambient/Minimalist

And so the final part of this journey back through 2014.

I've titled this bunch in favour of the Orchestral/Jazz end of the pop spectrum but there are certainly a few refugees from Dream Pop, Folk, maybe even Soul (and one showtune). Who's counting though.

There are also a good number of Electronic pieces in here as promised, but more of minimalist, downtempo and/or industrial leanings. Mood wise, I think this set hangs together pretty well. Whatever, there's a lot of great music in here for sure.

Just as a reminder, here are the other three parts of my 2014 Review.

1. Polar Bear – Two storms (Leaf)

A wonderfully spacious late night saxophone elegy from last year’s Mercury Prize nominated album.

In fact a pair of saxophones are foregrounded - one a climbing figure, the other a holding melody which then wails in agony - against a shuffling percussion wash and double bass pulse.

It’s sparse, soulful and absolutely haunting.

2. Prescott – Floored (Slowfoot)

A fantastic slice of wonky pop with a raving mad free jazz undertone.

Featuring ex-Stump bassman Kev Hopper who is always worth checking. He contributes something like a 4 minute bass masterclass full of slaps and slides and cartoonish left turns. While Rhodri Marsden (of Scritti Politti) throws in an organ morse code of staccato high notes, atonal jabs and sparkling glissandi. And Slowfoot primo Frank Byng stirs the jam with a flurry of funky hi-hats and danceable mini-grooves.

It all goes to show that avant garde can also be great craic.

3. Automat feat. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge – Mount Tamalpais (Bureau B)

There’s a tremendous brooding dub presence on this track from the debut album of the Berlin 3-piece which came early in the year. All three are notable veterans though as the press release describes.

“Just to untangle the threads: Jochen Arbeit, the guitarist who came to world prominence with Die Haut and Einstürzende Neubauten; Achim Färber, a sought-after drummer with the likes of Project Pitchfork, Prag or Phillip Boa; and finally the bassist zeitblom, known from Sovetskoe Foto and through his award winning radio play works, especially in collaboration with author/publisher Michael Farin, with whom the piece “Kyffhäuser/Unternehmen Barbarossa/Träume vom Tod!” was musically adapted by Automat for the Berlin Volksbühne in 2012.”

The kind of wonderful counter culture high wire act that a cosmopolis like Berlin can nurture. Add in the searching lived-in musings of Genesis P-Orridge and you get an utterly compelling narrative to go with the throbbing industrial groove.

“One may recall the time of the mid-1980s, when the UK industrial-oriented artists discovered dance music. Automat docks onto that – sawing, ringing guitars and dub-reggae bass lines meet in empty hangars with harsh, slow breakbeat rhythms garnished by ticking percussion instruments from the most exciting and remote places on earth – and takes the dance into the present day.”

4. Pye Corner Audio – Black mist (Front & Follow)

A dark-hued kosmische treasure from the latter part of the year.

A relentless motorik pulse sets the tone, an array of percussive synth parts gather, then a high tone melody with eyes on the horizon.

For dancefloors of many shades. Brilliant stuff.

5. Roll The Dice – Aridity (Leaf)

Speaking of industrial, Swedish duo Pedder Mannerfelt and Malcolm Pardon completed their ambitious historical trilogy last year with the sublime Into silence.

This track was the centrepiece from it, conjuring a harrowing narrative from a bed of machine tick percussion, a plaintiff piano melody and the epic romantic backdrop of a 26-piece orchestral arrangement.

It’s become a cliché to describe instrumental music as cinematic. Let’s reserve the term for something as genuinely, gloriously widescreen as this.

Here’s some great reading from the press release while you’re listening to it.

“Until Silence opens with the tense piano reverberations of ‘Blood In Blood Out’; the two protagonists have escaped from the mundane grind of the factory floor, landing in a still more perilous situation. They find themselves in the midst of great societal turmoil, with war erupting all around them.

In order to capture that landscape, “we wanted to push the music to extremes,” reveals Mannerfelt. “To make it both harder and darker, but more romantic and emotional at the same time.” To that end the duo enlisted Erik Arvinder to work on string arrangements for several of Until Silence’s tracks, which were then recorded with a 26-piece ensemble. Arvinder’s arrangements further heighten the natural cycles of tension and release that have always been cornerstones of the Roll The Dice sound. During the album’s harshest moments, they sharpen every piano note and rhythmic sub-bass throb so the music cuts jagged from the speakers, while during quieter phases they carve open huge spaces within the music.”

6. Elisa Luu – Shebeen (La bel/Hidden Shoal)

A welcome return last year for two of Hidden Shoal’s family of stalwart and brilliantly individual electronic artists.

Rome native Elisa Luu produced another delirious mix of found sounds and ambient haze with a sprinkling of space dust on her appropriately titled Enchanted gaze album.

What’s so great about this particular track is how she takes something as familiar as an acoustic guitar riff and brushed drums into unexpected and even alien new directions.

Delightfully unpredictable.

7. Markus Mehr – In the palm of your hand (Hidden Shoal)

North to Augsburg in Germany, and Markus Mehr moved his singular vision on another notch by exploring what you might call the personal soundscapes around each of us.

This track is a great example. Machine whirr. Grinding industrial ebb and flo. Lush piano chords. Traffic sirens. Someone playing a trumpet. Snatches of conversation. Footsteps. The sighs and breaths of the city at work.

I hear it as a smaller-scale companion to Roll The Dice above. Which is to say, immersive and entirely engrossing.

8. Silver Servants – Jerusalem (Second Language)

Another autumn gem from 2014, a supergroup of sorts put together by the Second Language label.

“My favourite song from a beautiful album of folk, psych and chamber pop strands, with some baroque and minimalist shapes for good measure, put together by a kind of English underground pop supergroup based around a core of Second Language artists.

This tune is derived from a poem by William Blake and lands gorgeously on the dreamy psych pop end of the scale. Anna Bronsted of Our Broken Garden sings through a haze of clip-clop drum machines, circling Spanish guitar and the most perfect trumpet part in the second half. There’s also whistling involved. The song doesn’t seem to reside fully in either a major or minor key, so there’s a slightly disorientating effect. Plus there’s a strange feeling of something ancient wrapped in something modern. Surrender to the blur anyway, it’s glorious.

The album features the mother of all collaborative efforts, of the like perhaps not seen since Ivo Watts-Russell persuaded the considerable talents of the 4AD roster of the mid 1980s to record as This Mortal Coil.”

For the full backstory, check the link above – it’s fascinating and well worth a read.

9. Chloe March – Eucalyptus night (Hidden Shoal)

A gorgeous chamber piano miniature with shades of Ryuichi Sakamoto, another singular Hidden Shoal release last year.

It's dreamy (as you might expect with a title like that), rich, luxurious even like the lyric near the end.

That piano basically, I could listen to it all day.

10. Kemper Norton – Requited (Front & Follow)

A wonderful collection of seeping drones from the enigmatic Mancunian.

There's an air of a church organ fugue about it although through a psych filter, or possibly with the supposed object of devotion removed from the picture.

Whatever you think, there's a deeply personal atmosphere around this, as thick as a fog.

Secular devotional music for the 21st century and full of emotion.

11. Dustin Wong & Takako Minekawa – She he see feel (Thrill Jockey)

Fans of Cornelius will be interested in this, and in fact Takako Minekawa has collaborated with him/them in the past, as well as with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Buffalo Daughter among others.

There's a touch of 80s English New Wave about her vocal, or what was sometimes called twee pop, a la Altered Images and the like. We're told that in this song Takako sings about “quantum physics, human consciousness and flying above a desert all within the framework of Japanese puns”, which definitely holds more weight than most of the twee pop you find on this side of the world.

The vocal has a lovely carefree attitude which seems to emanate from lots of Japanese artists (Pizzicato Five and Shonen Knife, to name a couple). And the backbeat has just the right balance of drone and bounce to stay ahead of the posse. (Her 90s hit 'Fantastic cat' below serves as an interesting counterpoint. It was apparently used in a Miller ad, which shows up the difference between what passes as (semi) mainstream in Japan versus in the western world.)

The impressive guitar work on this tune by ex-Ponytail member Dustin Wong veers from unexpected space country associations to wonky pop and hi-life riffing, but still manages to contribute to a coherent, infectious, groovy tune. Which is a fair achievement.

With a rush and a push, you could find this down your indie disco, somewhere wedged between The Flaming Lips and Battles. That is to say, it's off the beam, forward-thinking pop music you can dance to.

That is to say, inspired.

12. OOIOO – Gamel Uma Umo (Thrill Jockey)

The legend that is Yoshimi turned her attention (with friends) to the Javanese gamelan last year. The resulting album Gamel was a wonderful blast of fresh air, making wonky and classical and minimalist and effortlessly fun pop music all seem like strands of the same idea.

"While previous OOIOO albums have been largely studio creations, Gamel is the most accurate portrayal of the band’s overwhelming, forceful live presence they have released yet. Yoshimi leads her minimalistic rhythm ensemble by making quick, impulsive shifts in tone and attack, the group acting as one mind under her expert instruction. While the gamelan elements will be brand new to many listeners, the band offsets the bizarre with familiar, at times even nostalgic and childlike, melodies. Gamel is euphoric, bursting at the seams with an exhilarating frenzy that is universal yet uniquely their own. OOIOO’s music is reflected in the ear of the beholder, with each listener taking away something different."

Track 13 in this playlist

July 1 2014 w/ The The,Orange Juice,White Fence,Altered Hours,OOIOO,Tune-Yards,Howe Gelb++ by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

13. Little Tornados – Summertime (Rio Bogota)
14. Laetitia Sadier – Release from the centre of your heart (Drag City)

Laetitia Sadier was busy this year and prolific form seemed to suit her.

The Little Tornados project was formed by Laetitia with film-maker and activist David Thayer along with a bunch of other close collaborators. There’s a distinct political edge to the songs, albeit that they are wrapped in beautiful dream pop arrangements, with drunken steel guitars, woozy brass and even some unexpected harmonica.

Her third solo album saw her take another short step away from the beat-driven glory of Stereolab, in the direction of something more meditative, you might say taking a cosmic view, although as much as ever there was a distinct social, or even sociological, undercurrent to the music.

The middle track, ‘Release from the centre of your heart’, came across very much as the centrepiece of the album and the epitome of her musical manifesto. It has shades of Stereolab in the vocal layers, but these are outweighed by thoughts of the orchestral cosmic soul of Curtis Mayfield, or the lush uplift of Burt Bacharach. And a sense of how positive karma can spread from one small good thing. This song is like the one small good thing you need in your life, improving everything else as a result.

Stirring and beautiful.

15. Ann Margret – Bye Bye Birdie (from the soundtrack of the film Bye Bye Birdie)

Neither jazz nor from 2014 but this film soundtrack gem landed on my radar for the first time this year via a belated viewing of Mad Men and its infectious genius needs to be acknowledged in this round up. So allow me this indulgence.

For starters Ann Margret is a legend obviously (no wonder Lee Hazlewood took a shine to her). Such a legend of sound and vision in fact that it's quite likely this song wouldn't have half the impact without her star turn on camera. Vivacious is one word.

Other than's like a premonition of Grease undercut by West Side Story.

And her delivery is pure magic.

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

Frozen by sight was 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.

17. Golden Retriever – Flight song (Thrill Jockey)

One of the many soul-warming releases on Thrill Jockey this year, a label so bursting with good people and sounds it’s almost indecent. This, from the minimalist, electronic end of its wonderful spectrum.

An absolutely gorgeous piece of minimalist electronica from the Portland duo, Matt Carlson on modular synthesizer and Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet.

While the former lays down intricately patterned melodies, which dance over you like sparkles of light on the ocean, the latter brings some wonderful primal drones to bear, taking the music towards smearing, ambient majesty.

It's so good that while Brian Eno no doubt comes to mind, there's also a hint of the master French orchestral arranger (and Serge Gainsbourg collaborator) Jean-Claude Vannier.

Nothing short of superb.

18. Beck – Wave (Capitol)

Another album sure to feature in end of year round ups although it didn’t all quite hang together for me.

But we can all agree on moments as sublime as this track in which Beck’s father David Campbell's heartbreaking string arrangement channells JC Vannier a la Gainsbourg’s beloved Melody Nelson (an echo of Beck's collaboration with Charlotte Gainsbourg a few years back for which he also recruited Campbell).

And Beck’s flailing, drowning vocal, suggesting first a deep-sea undertow, then some kind of soaring transcendance as the end approaches.

It’s a beautiful, although distinctly upsetting, piece, a mid-album emotional trough which reaches convincingly into the depths of relationship death.

19. A Winged Victory For The Sullen – Atomos (Erased Tapes)

The second album by Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie was another masterful, majestic piece of work.

"As with the first album, despite (maybe because of?) the poise of the music, the restraint, there’s still something deeply romantic about it. What does that mean? Well, it seems to connote some vague sense of human yearning, something primal. Maybe for love, contact, a search for identity even, in this universe of ours.

The melodies are simple and direct mostly, lead by O’Halloran’s piano or strings, unshowy but massed and layered for maximum impact. Those melody lines are like the miniature details close at hand, while Wiltzie’s industrial interventions act like premonitions of infinity. The skittering samples of distant radio voices on ‘Atomos IX’ and ‘Atomos X’ for example, filtered and distorted so as to be out of reach of understanding.

As with any meditation on the human condition – for that is exactly what this album feels like – there is heartrending, sumptuous melancholy at every turn."

20. Bell Gardens – Darker side of sunshine (Rocket Girl)

Wiltzie's former partner in Stars of the Lid Brian McBride also returned last year, with Kenneth James Gibson and friends, to produce a beautiful album of dream pop lullabies, Slow dawns for lost conclusions.

This track summed up the tone of the album - a sleepy piano pulse, an orchestra of dreamtime guitars, brushed drums and hushed vocal harmonies.

Sweet and low.

21. Silver Apples – Missin’ you (Enraptured)

This was a tour single late in the year and made a huge impression on me with its irresistible kosmische pulse and bounce.

I think my favourite part is that flute-like melody line, rising into the clouds without a care in the world.

A great sign for the new album due from Simeon Coxe later this year.

22. John Spillane – River Lee (IML)

The Corkman’s latest tour de force is akin to Josh T Pearson locating the axis of the Christian religion underneath Texas on the first Lift to Experience album.

In this case the mythological powers of Cork’s main lifesource are traced all the way from pagan she serpent times right up to modern day freshwater swimming off the riverbank.

Apart from the energising delirium in Spillane’s voice, the arrangement of massed female backing vocals would bring Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ thrillingly to mind.

Gospel, Irish mythology, cabaret, sean-nós, protest songs and just plain acting the spadgie - John Spillane has once again torn up the rulebook and produced songwriting gold.

23. John Sinclair – Mohawk (Ironman Records)

And to finish, a terrific oddity this year, a bolt from the blue last February.

A wonderfully gnarled and earthy account of a jazz session, ostensibly, from June 6th 1950 featuring "Bird and Dizzy and Monk", from this veteran although a new name to me.

The track consists of a Ginsbergian spoken delivery, supported only by a loose double bass and skittering drums (plus an electric shaver momentarily). The term beatnik has developed into something of a dirty word in recent years (decades) - 'Mohawk' brilliantly relocates its true beating heart.


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