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.


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