Apr 2011 Music Picks

So we've had our summer here in Ireland, in the shape of an Easter heatwave. Normal service has been resumed now in the shape of rain (sometimes wholehearted downpours, sometimes a cheeky drizzle, just for variety). More great music to listen to (indoors) this month, with chamber pop particularly to the fore. But you'll also find orchestral, psychedelic, garage-rock and IDM flourishes, among others, below. What's a pop music tag between friends anyway.
All albums, unless otherwise noted.

The Doomed Bird of Providence - Will ever pray (Front & Follow)
It's quite unusual to find an album that is the result of, in effect, a research project. What a bonus when the music has a mysterious and compelling quality (although we partly guessed as much based on the band's fine eponymous EP of last year). The research in question, by singer Mark Kluzek, focuses on early Australian history and reveals harrowing tales of death and delinquency in the inhospitable tropics and on the high seas. The tales of various miscreants and misfortunates are recounted against a suitable backdrop of folk laments and dirges (violin and accordion are prominent throughout). In fact, the strength of the stories suggests a theatrical setting. Fedicia Exine deserves special mention, a song about "the little-known daughter of a convict" deported to Van Diemen's Land for murder. It contains a heartstopping moment a few minutes in when the drones drop out momentarily to be replaced by a light, airy folk tune on guitar, only for the narrator to re-enter and continue the tragic tale. Dramatic and heartrending.

The Doomed Bird of Providence - Fedicia Exine by frontandfollow

In other very interesting news, Front & Follow are also releasing a series of commissioned remixes of the aforementioned Fedicia Exine, The Fedicia Exine Remixes, by Zoon van Snook, Mark Beazley (ex-Rothko) and I am a Vowel, among others. It's transformative stuff, drawing several extra layers of meaning from the original, and is an essential accompaniment to the album. The standout for me is the Position Normal remix, which has a ghostly, and completely appropriate, deep-sea atmosphere.

The Fedicia Exine Remixes by frontandfollow

William D. Drake - Rising of the lights (Onomatopoeia Records)
Here's what I know about William D. Drake. He used to be in English band Cardiacs. He's obviously interested in English folk and medieval music - I have a hunch he enjoys silent film soundtracks too. His music is playful and quite surreal, but not at the expense of passion and energy. The instrumental track Ziegler starts like a Buster Keaton chase sequence (with twirling clarinet) before becoming very like the theme tune to (the fondly remembered Irish children's tv programme) Wanderly Wagon. He's a fantastic piano player, who sounds like he'd be right at home with jazz, classical, traditional or any other genre you'd like to throw at him. The song Ornamental hermit concerns the (presumably discontinued, although you never know) practice of wealthy English families keeping a hermit on their grounds. The title of the album refers to a disease found in 18th century London. Super altar is a medieval harpsichord melody glued together with a post-punk organ solo. On the other hand, In an ideal world is a plainly beautiful piano ballad. Overall, the album is warm, funny and hard to pin down. Not to worry, because above all it's get-under-your-skin pop music. Learn to love it like a warm memory.


Julia Kent - Green and grey (Tin Angel Records)
This second album by the Canadian (she used to be part of the Antony and the Jonsons touring band) might sound a bit off-putting on paper - solo cello, layered, with field recordings. Don't be put off, it's one of the most beautiful instrumental collections you'll hear in a while. For example, the cinematic poise of Pleiades. Or the gorgeous thrum of Acquario's opening bars with background lapping water, followed by the romantic sweep of several entwined cello parts. The majestic Overlook makes me think of tragic French films. Simply, it's beautiful, beautiful music. Highly recommended.

Interview from 2009:

Playing Primavera Sound Festival, Barcelona, May 26-28

World's End Girlfriend - Les enfants du Paradis (Erased Tapes, from the album Seven idiots)
Beautiful and challenging 7 minute opus from the Japanese composer's new album. Comparisons to Cornelius are inevitable and WEG does skim across genres like a stone over water (pointedly, another track on the album is titled Teen age Ziggy). Amidst various classical and IDM references though, this epic instrumental mainly calls to mind the golden ages of pop music, with Bacharach-like string sweeps and 80's power pop, punch-the-air choruses. There are also cameos straight out of the Hard Rock Café. Nothing but glorious and uplifting pop music, all round.

Free download - http://erasedtapes.com/weg/seven-idiots

Fleet Foxes - Grown ocean (Sub Pop, from the album Helplessness blues)
Among the many comments about beards and vocal harmonies, what is sometimes overlooked about Fleet Foxes is their fine grasp of the dynamics of a pop song - when to rise, when to fall, a timely key change to shift the mood, an instrumental flourish to spice an arrangement. The second track to see the light of day from their upcoming second album showcases all these qualities (the trilling flute is my favourite moment). And it's a tune you'll want to sing along to. Oh yeah, and the vocal harmonies (beards) are irresistible and sound like they've arrived from another time.

Playing The Marquee, Cork, June 26

The Horror The Horror - Believe in magic (Tapete Records)
Don't you just love Swedish bands? On their third album but a new name to me, The Horror The Horror (or THTH as I'm already calling them) seem to distil the spirit of the 1980's. The blurb mentions Style Council and Prefab Sprout, but the absolutely knockout Believe in magic comes across more like Van Halen to me, without the Eddie van Halen guitar solo. Which means a better version, in my book. It's on repeat at my house and is nestling up close to Ariel Pink's Round and round for company. Get into it.

Free d'load:
The Horror The Horror - Believe in Magic by Tapete Records

Equally ace is Wilderness, their new single (and title track of their new album). It has an irresistible "ooh-ooh-ooh" chorus, among other great things. The video features a man dressed as a dancing chicken but is oddly romantic.

Left with Pictures - In time (Organ Grinder Records)
If you're into chamber pop (and I am) you'll want to be checking out this English band's second album. It's a concept-ish album, with 12 songs, each one relating to a different month of the year. So, it opens with Constantly, a bittersweet meditation on the passing of time, driven along by a rolling piano figure and some great banjo playing. The Ides of March sounds strangely like Morrissey (only, if he'd been into The Zombies instead of the New York Dolls). August's Go Simon, Go! brilliantly finds common ground between a barbershop quartet and Thin Lizzy's Dancing in the Moonlight. And the at-odds-textures of bowed saw and jaunty brass on closing song Forgive me perfectly evoke the mixed feelings of an English December. Joining folk and classical music, via English music hall, this album just goes to show how broad a church pop music can be, if you go looking in the right places. And don't you just love it.

This light -

Damon & Naomi - False beats and true hearts (Broken Horse)
The former bandmates of Dean Wareham in Galaxie 500 are still making a handsome contribution to the canon of dream pop. You only need to hear the plangent beauty of How do I say goodbye, or the English folk revival feel (albeit with a VU-ish electric guitar drone lurking in the shadows) of the gorgeous Shadow boxing. My own fave is What she brings, with its aching slide, creamy psych guitar and vibrating bells. Rich textures are supplied by understated mellotrons and flutes. All in all, a dizzy drift of pleasure through your subconscious. Which is something I recommend.

Chris Marker's "video" for And you are there - http://www.thewire.co.uk/articles/5946/

Connan Mockasin - Forever dolphin love (Full length original) (Because Music, single)
A genuinely mind-bending and envelope-pushing addition to the canon of surreal New Zealand pop. Atonal piano string arpeggios, followed by the fusion of several high-pitched synth drones, before falling away to be replaced by jam-room bass and drums introducing some lovely woozy guitars. That's just the prelude. At that point the tune kicks in with underwater atmospherics around a chillout drumbeat and high tone bass sound. Plus the vocal has an outer space character as befitting a lyric about inter-species amour. It sounds ridiculous on paper but it's completely convincing in the flesh. It's intriguing, slightly haunting and makes you want to press play again and again.

As for the rest of the album, experimentation is never for its own sake or at the expense of catchy hooks. For example, the sublime trumpet outro of It's choade my dear, the woozy bossa nova guitar of Faking jazz together. Or take a cruise to the south seas in the shape of Quadropuss Island, with a house band consisting of xylophone, tremolo guitar and shakers. It's all quite strange and very, very wonderful.

Low - Try to sleep (Sub Pop, from the album C'mon)A tightly coiled ball of jangly guitar and glockenspiel, wrapped in trademark angelic harmonies. A fantastic return to form from Mr and Mrs Sparhawk.

Playing Primavera Sound Festival, Barcelona, May 26-28

Deerhunter - Memory boy (4AD, single)
A nostalgic, Byrdsian jangle down memory lane with added harmonica, from Brandon Cox and friends.

Tune-Yards - whokill (4AD)
After recording her debut, Bird-Brains, using a dictaphone and freeware, album number two sees Merrill Garbus making full use of a studio, in terms of scope and sound. Unlike that album, there's a lot less ukulele in sight (one exception is Wolly wolly gong with its spooky fairytale quality, a kind of hip-hop lullaby). The other main difference is a more prominent dub influence running throughout - a prime example is Powa with its lovely loping tempo and heavily reverbed vocals. The single Gangsta has a great caustic energy (brass and strident vocals); check out the street funk of My country, with a memorable fuzz synth line, freewheeling brass section and playground chant na-na-na-na-na outro. However, if you have no other contact with this album, you must at least hear the transcendant moment during Doorstep when a bevvy of layered Merrill's (all sha-la-la's and whoa-oo-whoa's) contrive to produce an intimate atmosphere straight off a Chiffons' record. Although coming across at first like a lover's plea, the song deals with a race riot fatality in her adopted Californian home (a theme which also crops up on Riotriot) - "a policeman shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep". (It also has an insanely catchy, spiralling bassline.) This ability to wear social/political themes lightly and wrap them in audacious pop arrangements is a particularly winning one - independent without being isolationist, pop-smart without being throwaway. Overall, the studio setting succeeds in giving the knock-out vocals and other textures more room to breathe without losing a certain delicate touch. Merrill, the studio experiment has paid off handsomely. One of the albums of the year.

Playing Whelan's, Dublin, June 17

Josh T. Pearson - Last of the country gentlemen (Mute)
A man struggling with the end of a relationship. One side of a dialogue between two lovers. A dramatic storyline of religious intensity and naked honesty. This album is all of these things, and some more. Including a compelling answer to the challenge of three chords and the truth. And a deconstruction of country music, using tempo changes and squalls of overlapping, fingerpicked guitar patterns. Also Thou art loosed comes on like an out-of-phase Roy Orbison, who after all was the king of break-up records. Sad songs, in this case, say so much. You need to hear this.

*Interview with JTP coming soon.
Playing Barbican Theatre, London, November 26 (with guests tba)

Crystal Stilts - In love with oblivion (Fortuna Pop)
As I've said before, this is a special band. Among the many delights on this record, you will find: the great oscillating bassline of Sycamore tree; the Byrdsian shimmer of Silver sun; the swirling Animals-esque organ of Shake the shackles (which somehow also sounds, thrillingly, like early Go-Betweens); the stomping reverb guitar hook of Precarious stair, eventually submerged under an authentic garage rock beat; the fantastic tambourine and organ rush of Half a moon; the VU-ish John Cale piano+Lou Reed guitar thrash of Prometheus at large; the couldn't-give-a-fuck vocals of Brad Hargett while all around him musical fireworks go off. And finally, the mention of Bo Diddley in an interview from 2009 (below) reminds me that the wonderful Blood barons is a runaway train BD beat. This is a brilliant album.

Free d'load of Through the floor -

Through the floor -

Antonymes - A licence to interpret dreams (Hidden Shoal)
A deceptively simple set of neo-classical instrumentals (there is spoken word on one track), featuring piano, atmospherics and heart-swelling orchestral arrangements, from north Wales' Ian Hazeldine. There's a stillness and glacial beauty about these tunes which inevitably bring existential matters to mind. The maritime pull of The siren, hopelessly lost, for example. Or The Gospel Pass, with a religious bearing brought on by a solemn church organ. The single Endlessly somehow draws a rumbling chord from a series of ineffable tones. An unexpected muted trumpet fanfare opens The door towards the dream, followed by a female soprano signalling the stars. The Reichian piano structure of A light from the heavens is gradually submerged under yearning cellos. Honestly, the fact that one man/the world can produce an album this gorgeous gives hope for the future of the human race.

*I must say also that ambient opener A fragile acceptance reminds me a little of one of Joe Hisaishi's Studio Ghibli soundtracks - and no higher recommendation than that could a piece of instrumental music have for me.

Antonymes - 'Endlessly' from Hidden Shoal Recordings on Vimeo.

Dutch Uncles - Cadenza (Memphis Industries)
According to Wikipedia, a Dutch uncle is "a term for a person who issues frank, harsh, and severe comments and criticism to educate, encourage, or admonish someone." From the same source, Dutch Uncles are "an indie band from Manchester...known for their use of atypical time signatures in a pop context." Nothing there to indicate that, for example, Fragrant is one of the songs of the year (or any year), with its genius massed vocal anti-anthem "Hands, hands, hands you hold me up". Nothing either to prepare you for the beauty of close-to-a cappella Dolli, sounding like something that might have come out of a Beach Boys side project. Dressage takes a music box melody (literally, a field recording) and makes it the basis of a circling guitar pattern. OCDUC has something of Efterklang's experimental spirit about it. Floating over it all is Duncan Wallis' fragile, lilting voice. Unashamed art pop with memorable tunes, magnificently realised.

Metronomy - The English Riviera (Because)
A less immediate album than their previous, the wonderful Nights out, but rewards repeated listening, as they say. So, the out-of-phase vocal and saxophone stabs of Everything goes my way creep up on you gradually; the gameshow organ of single The look takes on a different colour bedded under scratchy percussion, high-tone bass and a yacht rock synth. The terrific Trouble comes on like an 80's Northern soul throwback (I'm thinking Orange Juice) with a half beat, chorused electric guitars and falsetto male harmonies. The bay is closest in tone to Nights out, with a slap bass and serious dancefloor chops among the massed harmonies. But then again the great synth build of Some written, from an unassuming samba shuffle, also shows an unlikely future in dance music for the kazoo. Pop music with an endearing sense of adventure and hooks to burn.

The look -

Free download of She wants -

Playing Oxegen Festival, Punchestown, July 8th

Battles - Ice cream (Warp, from the album Gloss drop)
Prog + Tropicalia = Progicalia. That's all I'm saying. Except to say, it's great.

Ice Cream (Featuring Matias Aguayo) by BATTLES


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