Best of 2013 Review – Part 1: Folk/Orchestral/Chamber Pop/Classical

Happy New Year everyone. As the end of the year draws near, I’ve taken stock of my favourite music of 2013. Once again, my labels or categories are a little bit arbitrary but I have tried to theme or curate the lists as much as possible. This is the first of those, anchored by quite a bit of folk music, which I’m always open to. There will be three more of these over the next week or 10 days. And the last show of the year from mid December is also on this link for an hour long compendium drawn from all four posts.

Peter Delaney – Sleep, nausea
A short piece on an album of extended meditations (which makes it even more compelling to me) from the Limerick folk musician with a commitment to early and vintage recordings. There’s a ukulele, a fragile, high register male voice and an atmosphere of middle-of-the-night fearfulness – “God tells me things I shouldn’t know.” Marvel at its spare brilliance.

Hidden Highways – Wild woe
Another great Irish album this year on Out on a Limb Records was the Hidden Highways debut Old hearts reborn. Personally I found it hard to get past this song, a combination presumably of Carol Anne McGowan’s yearning vocals and that slowly liting violin.

Olof Arnalds – German fields
This Icelandic native sings in English and possesses one of the most characteristic voices in pop music. She also chooses (happily) to use it in delightfully restrained fashion. This is a top tune and those hummed backing vocals get me every time.

Amor de Dias – Voice in the rose
A gorgeous chamber folk concoction from the Anglo-Spanish duo’s second album. It’s official, Alasdair MacLean’s vocal reminisciences are the most affecting in the genre since Grant McLennan sang “the white moon appeared like a hole in the sky, the mangroves grow quiet”.

Nancy Elizabeth – The last battle
Completely spellbinding folk music with a Morricone sweep, via massed banks of female sopranos - subtly doubletracked with mouth whistles if I’m not mistaken - marching drumbeats and bracing harp arpeggios (is that a harpsichord as well?). There is also a genius keychange involved, as if you weren’t out of your seat already. That this amount of texture and emotional range could be devised in the singer’s Manchester flat (which is reportedly tiny) is a matter of shame to any number of bands who waste endless studio resources creating aural turds. From NE’s wonderful third album Dancing which every home should have a copy of.

Julia Holter – World
Although admirable in many ways (more showtunes please Julia), I found Holter’s third album Loud City Song hard to like. Having said that, there were still some sublime moments and this fragile, thread-thin gem was my standout. An existential meditation on hat wearing, apartment neighbours and other things, it seems to me to make best use of Holter’s vulnerable singing style and avant garde musical inclinations. The swelling, in-and-out synth/cello backing is particularly wonderful and you may find yourself stopping all other tasks when the last line floats into earshot – “How can I escape you”.

Oliver Cole – Little wolf
I love a good woo-hoo as well. And neatly, this woo hoo occurs in a song called ‘Little Wolf’. Nice. More like a wounded wolf, lamenting, with a hint of self pity in there – a distant, whispered call of the wild. This was the ex-Turn man’s first single on new Cork label MDR this year.

Screaming Maldini
I had more than a mild mini-obsession with this song this year. These were my thoughts around July time.

Completely irresistible orchestral pop from this Sheffield band who are new to me but there's always room for something this good.

The tune has a swooping, key changing quality reminiscient of High Llamas at their peak, strapped on to...well, something baroque from another time, harp glissandos and everything.

That might make it sound a little sedate. It isn't. It reaches a belting crescendo liable to blow you as high as the balloon in the video and there's a searing synthesised guitar solo which is 70s AM rock all over.

Finally, the singer - whose name is Gina I believe - has a wonderfully light delivery, even among the thrilling massed choir backing.

You really need this in your life.

At 6 months remove, I second that.

John Parish – The girls rehearse
The noted producer of PJ Harvey, Sparklehorse and Eels had a great compilation of his film soundtrack work over the years released on the wonderful Thrill Jockey label in 2013. This beautiful instrumental (bar some lovely female aww-ing) is gorgeous and unsettling in equal measure and once again would make you think of Ennio Morricone a little bit (Jesus that man’s influence has been in the water a lot this year). From the Belgian film Little Black Spiders directed by Patrice Toye.

Track 4 in this show

Apr 30 2013 show w/ Mountains,William Tyler,Peals,Cat Dowling,Alisdair Roberts,John Parish++ by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

The Doomed Bird of Providence - Ships they come and go
Another compellingly authentic account of early Australian immigration told through the idiom of raw, unadorned folk music, from the English-based band’s second album Blind mouths eat on the always great Front & Follow label. Warning, there are no happy endings in these songs. I particularly love the ghostly reverbed pizzicato (guitar?) on this track behind the earthier accordion and violin.

*I must also mention The Outer Church, a compilation on Front & Follow and curated by Joe Stannard who runs the eponymous live event out of Brighton. Not pop music mind but it was a fascinating snapshot of underground English (mostly) musical activity featuring the likes of Sone Institute, Hong Kong in the 60s, Kemper Norton and Pye Corner Audio.

A couple of samples here - the clattering, occult sounds of Grumbling Fur and the apocalyptic, ghostly cabaret of Vindicatrix.

Garret Baker & The Random Nouns – Desultory Streets
Another Irish album favourite of the show in the past year (Endtimes praise), a kind of smart, acerbic folk rock. This is the track I played most on the wireless. Don’t be taken in by the deceptively jaunty rhythm – this song shows a writer’s eye for mundane details like vanities, jealousies, of the mill stuff for Ireland these days.

Shearwater & Sharon van Etten – A wake for the minotaur
This duet was a Record Store Day 7” release last April. It’s hard to think of a more arresting and stop-in-your-tracks beautiful piece of music released this year. It’s also hard to think of a better chemistry of voices than Jonathan Meiburg’s with Sharon van Etten’s, as they swap the low and the high parts, adding a sense of dignity and grandeur to the beauty of the melody.

Colleen – Ursa Major Find
I had the great pleasure of seeing this woman play live a few months ago, showcasing her first album in 6 years, The weighing of the heart on Second Language. From my review of the album in June -

... an intriguing earthy spiritualism and a meditational atmosphere built around a core of layered hushed vocals, circling classical guitar and viola de gamba motifs...The unique arrangements and lyrical minutiae of the album create a kind of domestic exotica which will sound downright strange to many (conventional) European ears. It’s a music for a quiet room in the same way that Julianna Barwick’s is, although without the sacred connotations of that artist (apart from the title track which draws on the Egyptian Book of the Dead). It’s certainly not for everyone but given time its beauty and power reveals itself, its story of human experience in the shadow of elemental powers, which fittingly sustains a sturdy presence despite its delicate raw materials.

This circular refrain in this song about a walk on the beach at night brings a meditational power with it which requires close attention alright, but in return is likely to stay with you long after the record ends.

littlebow – For the song
Another wonderful Second Language release, from the band built around Kieron Phelan and Katie English. This tune has hints of jazz and Steve Reich, but is also reminiscient of Lalo Schifrin a little - that insistent, propulsive 5/4 time signature probably. It all makes for a lovely warm and playful atmosphere. As through most of the album, English’s flute flutters above or around proceedings with the grace and lightness of a bird. In concert with Phelan’s sensitive keyboard style, they forge a delicious form of progressive exotica, lying somewhere between Eden Ahbez and Tortoise.

Dan Haywood – I’ve got heaven at my door
Similar to Peter Delaney in that you will hear nothing else like songwriter and ornithologist Dan Haywood this year. This song is from an album of pastoral English folk songs recorded in the countryside (around Forest of Bowland in Lancashire) with a backing chorus of birdsong, and evoking a time long, long ago in a way the best works of art can do. The simple genius of this tune is to marry Haywood’s unique, pinched vocal tone with a timeless, repeated mantra – but the X factor is in the background noise, as Haywood explains -

“’I’ve Got Heaven at My Door’ is akin to a hymn or a prayer. We sat on a stony island in the river Wyre at Abbeystead and recorded it as the birdsong and the rising temperature made it worth having got up in the middle of the night. The sort of heaven I had written about. It’s pantheistic but also asks Jesus, “Am I your baby too?”. The character steps into a natural paradise in times of grave doubt. It’s almost like an English gospel tune, with the sound of the rapids and the repetition of the words having a hypnotic effect.

You'll find the tune in this podcast (Track 7) - here’s also some killer footage of another track from the album, filmed during recording.

Nov 26 2013 show w/ Go Betweens,Connan Mockasin,Band of Clouds,Angele David-Guillou,Jacques Caramac+ by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

William Tyler – Hotel Catatonia
Another superb, thrilling even, instrumental album this year from the sometime Lambchop member and Nashville native, Impossible truth on Merge. In common with the rest of the album, this electric guitar tune manages to conjure vast horizons, incorporating the beauty and harshness of the American frontier, much like some of the best westerns which have apparently provided inspiration to Tyler. Might I also recommend this interview I did with Tyler for WeAreNoise, in which he provided some fascinating background on his political, as well as musical and other cultural, interests.

This excerpt gives a flavour -

I have a particular love for the urban theorist Mike Davis, he’s written a couple of books about the pecuilar design and history of Southern California. One of them is called “The Ecology of Fear” and it is essentially about how Los Angeles is one of those cities that continually gets destroyed in spectacular fashion in pop culture; earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. Yet it’s also a city that positioned itself to be continually at risk of disaster, essentially a sprawling churning metropolis at the edge of a great desert.

I just happened to also be reading “Hotel California” by Barney Hoskyns at the same time; he examines the 70s Laurel Canyon music scene and gets into some of the same themes of unsustainablity and grand illusion/ambition. I saw a lot of apocalyptic parallels between, I guess the Eagles and catastrophic earthquakes? Ha.

Track 5 in this show

Apr 2 2013 show w/ Biggles Flys Again, William Tyler, Fuxa, Hiss Golden Messenger, Julia Kent++ by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

Angele David-Guillou – Kourouma
The title track of David-Guillou’s solo album is the standout for me, a song of hope and solidarity on a sombre, lilting piano figure, which features a strikingly beautiful vocal turn. Finding out from the press release that it is a lament about child soldiers in Africa (after the work of Ivorian novelist Ahmadou Kourouma) just adds an extra layer of poignancy to it.

Julia Kent – Nina & Oscar
Brilliant cello textures from the New York-based experimental artist, taken from her third solo album, her first on the Leaf label. The album is great, although this closing track foregrounds its knock out, swooning melody unlike anything else in the set.

Liam Singer – Unhand me (You horrid thing)
Another New York resident. There’s something brilliantly unsettling and enduring (you might even say psychedelic, as Liam himself mentioned when I interviewed him for the show a few months ago, that link here - about this mixture of childhood memoir and fairground organ. His Arc Iris album this year on Hidden Shoal was another great moment in the contemporary course of chamber pop.

Adrian Crowley & James Yorkston – Walking the cow
From the Chemikal Underground pair’s very touching album of Daniel Johnston songs. The stretched, wracked atmosphere of this song - created by a combination of Crowley’s majestic baritone and some filtered, heightened strumming - made this my highlight.

Track 2 in this show

Nov 19 2013 w/ Moondog,Adrian Crowley & James Yorkston,Elastic Sleep,Dean Wareham,Bill Callahan++ by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

Meitheal – Sacred Harp 159 (Wondrous love)
Meitheal is the combined and considerable talents of Vicky Langan (on stirring, earthy vocals here), Dave Colohan (harmonium) and Mike Gangloff (fiddle). This live recording has a wonderfully eerie and timeless character to it.


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