Best of 2013 Review - Part 4 : Pop/Soul/Choral/Soundtrack

And so we come to the end of this look back to 2013. Enjoy these and all the posts. By the way, there are a couple of podcasts on the 2013 Review theme on these links, one from December, one from last July.


Saint Yorda – Disco
The highly promising debut single from a Cork band who sadly broke up later in the year. Cowbells, a steel drum sample, a great rolling tom drum backbeat, some exquisite syncopated muted guitar and a wonderful falsetto male vocal – these are just some of its pleasures. With shades of the xx and Hot Chip, as sign offs go it’s quite beautiful.

Major Lazer feat Ezra Koenig – Jessica
Catchy as hell dub cut from the American producer with a memorable vocal turn by the Vampire Weekend frontman. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s so great about this and I’ve come up with a word – louche. That’s it friends, it’s the height of loucheness.

Elephant – Shapeshifter
Another absolute gem of a release on Memphis Industries ahead of the Anglo-French duo’s debut album in 2014. My thoughts around October time.

(Elephant) continue to astound us with singles of rare poise and beauty.

This time, we have violins and an angelic choir on backing behind Amelia Rivas’ hazy lead vocal.

It’s widescreen and Spectorish, starring glockenspiels as twinkling stars and ooh and aahs as a moon-induced headrush.

It really is blissful dream pop of the highest order.

“A canopy of bliss” is just about right.

Howe Gelb feat. Bonnie Prince Billy – Vortexas
Howe Gelb is one of those artists whose every activity is worthy of attention. And is he prolific or what. The Coincidentalist is his xxth album and it’s another delight. The opening song hits a high point straightaway, channelling Leonard Cohen and Robbie Robertson via a kind of country lounge with a completely class backing female chorus. And did I mention that it’s really a duo with Will Oldham? Check it out, it’s up there with the best things Mr Gelb has ever committed to record – and even by Mr Oldham’s own weird and wonderful standards, it’s pretty great.

Here Is Your Temple – Once rich
Fleetwood Mac were in the news a lot last year. Here’s a Swedish band with an English singer drawing on some choice elements of Rumours-era Mac to thrilling effect. The arrangement here gets me every time, as noted last May.

The song opens with a soft, insistent bass drum and a circling guitar pattern. Then, a synth masquerading as an air raid siren signals the first uplift.

The first of many, as a chorus appears that just keeps on giving. Like a Fleetwood Mac Rumours chorus, pitter patter bass and epic, stadium synth melodies. You’ll be out of breath by the end and putting the thing on repeat.

Perfect, perfect pop music.

John Grant – GMF
Pale green ghosts is sure to be the album of 2013 for plenty of people, although not me. Something about the tone of it that I just didn’t connect with. However, this song from it stayed with me big time, I think because its mid-tempo alt-country ballad feel harks back to Grant’s brilliant work with The Czars around the turn of the last century. I suppose you could laugh out loud at it, although it’s the sheer sadness of it that gets me.

Hero & Leander – Kiss me by the water cooler
Some people may find this one twee and a bit mannered but I love it. I’m sure fans of Belle & Sebastian will find plenty to like about it. The unashamed naivety of its blue-eyed soul. Or the arrangement, those lush piano chords and the bell-clear male-female voices. There’s a great lightness and fluidity to the lyrics too. Like this line, “kiss me dry or drenched”. That’s an epithet liable to stick in your mind and grow in meaning.

Telekinesis – Wires
I’ve been very fond of Michael Benjamin Lerner’s work since seeing him play live with his band a few years ago in Cork. That night he sat behind the kit centrestage and conducted affairs around him, something you don’t see often enough. It turns out he records more or less solo, usually playing every part himself. This great track from his third album Dormarion on Merge has something of The Cure about its serpentine guitar riff. No nonsense power pop with lasting tunes and there’s always room for more of that when it’s done as well as this.

Best Boy Grip – Locked in the bathroom
Another thoroughly sublime, thinking person’s piano pop tune from Eoin O’Callaghan of Derry, from his EP last autumn. I wrote a few lines on it at the time for WeAreNoise.

The four songs were recorded live but if anything the songs sound better within these relatively pared back arrangements. It’s tough to pick a highlight but I find myself coming back again and again to the wonderful ‘Locked in the bathroom’, where a touching beginning morphs brilliantly into an upbeat, rolling pep talk, a drum and bass propulsion ushering in the line

“I should provoke a reaction, I’m looking for love again”

before falling back into melancholy

“Just leave me here to rot and don’t tell no one what you’ve seen.”

The simple, plain beauty of the piano melody guarantees that those words will reverberate in your inner ear long after the song has finished. It’s a sublime charting of emotional turmoil and it is songwriting of the highest order.

Jacques Caramac & The Sweet Generation - Snowballs
A bit of bonkers glam to add to the January polar vortex. At a push, there's a touch of Jarvis Cocker about this vaguely sexual ditty, maybe even T-Rex a little. But it doesn't really matter - it's the height of nonsense and the height of a top drawer pop tune.

Bernard Cribbins – Gossip calypso
Another one not from 2013 but given a reissue by the estimable Trunk Records last year. Bernard Cribbins is the English actor (remember Shirley Valentine’s husband?) singing an affectionate/sarcastic tribute to cockney neighbourly banter. I don’t know whose idea it was to give the material a shuffling Caribbean arrangement with finger-strummed acoustic, double bass, tambourine and flute, but it was a particularly inspired one. Trunk Records, they’re great.

Track 2 on this show

Mar 26 2013 show w/ Ennio Morricone,Pieter Nooten,Biggles Flys Again,O Emperor,William Tyler, Byrds+ by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

Low – Just make it stop
One of most treasured bands on the planet and the definition of indie, still. I did a piece on this song for WeAreNoise last April.

So far, I've found it hard to get past this absolute showstopper, with Mimi on lead.

It's a curious mixture, as always with Low, the beauty of the suspended-state-of-grace vocals with, in this case, a quietly sinister, thrumming guitar and an upright piano way at back of the room.

“You see I'm close to the edge I'm at the end of my rope The rope is starting to thread I'm trying to keep my hold”

But when she reaches the refrain and about another five Mimis join in on those seven simple words, it'll be all you can do to keep your composure.

“If I could just make it stop Breaking my heart Get out of the way”

The essence of soul.

The National - Graceless
Seeing the Ohio natives for the first time in Cork (their second time) was one of my highlights of last year. It’s tough to pick a standout from the magisterial Trouble will find me but this beauty sums up much of what’s great about them for me – from my live review of the gig for WeAreNoise:

The wonderful ‘Graceless’ from the new album, a sober self-reflection which drags itself out of the doldrums by means of another jumpy backbeat and soaring arrangement. Those backbeats of Bryan Devendorf were a consistent feature of the show. In fact, in a live setting the arrangements were shown to hinge on their itchy, wrongfooting quality, tightly coiled balls of energy only very gradually releasing their payoff.

It also contains one of those National-patented, and strangely quotable, epithets; “there’s a science to walking through windows.”

Yo La Tengo – Before we run
Another American band keeping “indie” safe, YLT released one of their best ever albums in 2013, the sublime . Teaming up with John McEntire of Tortoise on production, they found at least a few new levels of power and grace, adding swooning strings and a horn section to their kosmische drones to fantastic effect. This one, sung by Georgia, has it all - the subtlety, the melody and the sense of adventure.

Camera Obscura – Break it to you gently
Unlike Deerhunter and Julia Holter, here was a band I love releasing a trememdous album in 2013, Desire lines, in fact I’d go as far as to say their best. I wrote about it here in September.

Traceyanne Campbell’s voice has never sounded better, crisp and warm, the delivery always self-deprecating, the songs usually bittersweet (that word again), the arrangements intimate guitar stabs or Hammond organ here and sweeping synths and reverb there, making great, sweet uplifting (that word again) art out of heartbreak. I don’t mean to belittle it by saying that, it’s important cultural material this. It is also the best Camera Obscura album yet I think, which automatically makes it one of the albums of the year, and probably the decade.

After tortuous consideration, this would be the one song I’d take with me, if I could only have one.

Mick Harvey – Midnight on the ramparts
I’m a sucker for whistling and also for Mick Harvey. This is another tune with a vaguely Morricone-esque, cinematic feel (see also John Parish and Nancy Elizabeth in Part 1) - the waltz tune to the uneasy scene before hell unleashes perhaps, ominous whines and rumbles layering the sense of expectation. I’m also a sucker for Morricone so say no more really.

Brous – Streamers
A tune released in 2011 which I came across through a piece by English singer and harpist Serafina Steer. Let’s just reprint this from October.

Ever wondered what might have happened if Dusty Springfield had hooked up with Ennio Morricone? Friends, wonder no more for Sophia Brous (pronounced “Bruce”) of Melbourne, Australia has supplied a glorious pseudo-reality to that tantalising daydream.

Ever since I came across it yesterday, I've been hooked on this absolute classic, part Dusty domestic mini-epic, part Euro lounge exotica nugget.

Apparently coming from a jazz background, Brous has forged a sound from the classic age of 60s pop, all swooping melodies, but with baroque arrangements of organ, harpsichord and bending strings which succeed in nodding very gently to the Italian cinema master. Add in a bonkers Bollywood flourish here and there (check those fantastically unhinged la-la-las and spacey Moog squelches) and you’ve got the headiest global pop confection heard in years, possibly.

What’s particularly satisfying is that Brous has one foot in the avant garde – further research reveals she is lined up for a part in the Frank Zappa opera ‘200 Motels’ running in London later this month – but chooses to accomodate that tendency within the parameters of the pop song. Which is such a service to pop music we should all be bowing down in praise.

All together now -

“Oh lover come down with your face so lovely Come down with your jewels swinging”

*By the way, check the rest of the EP too, it’s class – ‘Little ticket’, for example, carries on the Ennio theme thrillingly with a massed choir and clanging guitars.

Paul Ferris – Witchfinder General OST
A landmark soundtrack release in 2013, Witchfinder General is the adored cult horror movie from 1970 starring Vincent Price and set during the English Civil War. The music was created by Paul Ferris, a noted horror score composer. The ‘Opening titles’ bring all the tremendous suspense you’d expect from a horror (brass dominating), but also plenty of unexpectedly lovely high-range percussiion flutters. Also worth a mention that the OST features some beautiful pastoral moments, containing shades of Joe Hisaishi’s later film soundtrack work with Studio Ghibli.

Track 8 in this show

Oct 29 2013 w/ Wooden Shjips,littlebow,Bouts,La Femme,Witchfinder General OST,Band of Clouds++ by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

Cat Dowling – Come on
Another wonderful Irish pop album this year was Cat Dowling’s solo debut, . Thoroughly engaging, accessible and full of killer tunes and a deeply soulful voice. ‘Come on’ was the first single and it still sounds the real deal. My own words from June.

The arrangements, though, are the key to this record I think - any record really. (The production, which is also impressive, is credited to Dowling with Gerry Horan and Karl Odlum; we might assume that the arrangement duties were similarly shared.) The album actually reminds me a bit of Sarah Blasko’s As day follows night from a few years back (which was produced brilliantly and with a similar light touch by Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn & John) in the way that sensitive and sympathetic arrangements have been put to the service of solid tunes. The arrangements mean the songs punch above their weight to a certain extent – or put it another way, simple ideas have been amplified to a higher plane. There is nothing random about the drumbeats, the guitar sounds, the tone of the bass, the beautiful backing vocal touches, the string flourishes... the whole thing is almost an exhibit for Rock School 101 in how to set lyrics to music. That’s not to suggest that it’s dry and calculating – there’s plenty of warmth and feeling here too.

Floor Staff – The guest
A Dublin band embarking on an interesting journey taking in plastic funk and orchestral pop. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself humming the genius bassline in this. I also love those beautiful horn swells. Top notch modern soul music.

Kevin Murphy – Your version
And speaking of soul, here’s another compellingly raw example from the Corkman’s debut release last year. All seven songs on this short album still floor me, just as much as when I first listened to it in October.

Here is what I found.

-atmospherics: an oft misunderstood, roundly abused term but here brought to bear with a sure touch in service to the songs.

-those songs, really good ones, dealing with lost love mainly, falling in layers with a dark sensuality and giving something extra each time you listen.

-a beguiling male falsetto voice with a genuine air of vulnerability to it, yet not lowering the common denominator to easy sentimentality for the cheap seats.

-a way with giving lyrical hooks a suitable context; sample the playout of 'Your version' where a closing refrain of "your version of love" rides out on a bass pulse, backwards guitar shapes and stunning vocal harmony layers.

-printed lyrics which do not read like classics on paper but (always a good sign) gather power in combination with the music.

-a way with subtle electronics (perhaps producer Konobo deserves some credit here too?), capable of turning simple folk figures, fingerpicked acoustic guitar typically, into brooding little earworms.

-soul, that thing which is hard to define but which you know when you hear, and plain to hear on every one of these songs.

-the merest, tasty hint of an RnB tendency which doesn't come across as a calculated move but as something belonging to the songs; something of comfort maybe, something describing the emotional state of the singer.

-judicious use of strings, not as window dressing as you sometimes find, but as integral elements of the arrangement, taking flight with the persuasive vocal delivery.

No wonder Domino have just signed on for publishing. These are strong, strong songs with simple, subtly flowering arrangements.

Sundernix – Sunday morning
Dubliner Liam Trappe produced something of a labour of love album as well last year. This downbeat piano gem has something of Blue Nile at their greatest and most melancholy. Which is the kind of comparison I don’t throw around lightly.

The Would Be’s – Could be the weather
And to finish, an irresistible brass-inflected pop tune from the Irish band’s debut album (20 odd years after forming). In fact, I take this song as a tribute to the power of the pop chorus. That chorus is a work of such immaculate art and beauty that I just have to stop now and pay full attention to it.


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