Best of 2015: Part 4 - Soul/Dream Pop/Jangle

And so the final instalment of this Best of 2015 review, which has a Soul/Dream Pop tag ostensibly but really is a collection of odds and ends left over. (Floating Points, for example, could certainly have belonged in Part 1 if I had my head on straight a few weeks ago.)

These round ups are by nature a time travel exercise, some of the music here being a year old. But even since Part 1 of the review in mid-December, the world seems a very different place. It's now a post-David Bowie time, a post-Mick Lynch time, mortality comes for all of us, better get used to it.

Enjoy the music while you can.


1. Marker Starling – Husbands (from the album Rosy Maze, Tin Angel Records)
Spring 2015 was all about my obsession with this song, a glorious discovery and an enduring memory from the year. From February -

There’s an automatic association for Steely Dan, I think, a kind of signature sound. It’s electric piano and of course Donald Fagen’s creamy and nasal vocal tones.

These are also the key touchstones in this intoxicating single from Chris Cummings of Toronto who goes under Marker Starling (he previously used Mantler). He’s been a stalwart of the underground Toronto scene for quite a few years but I think this is the first music of his I’ve heard.

Sombre electric piano chords and a fine lived-in croon (somewhat reminscient of Donald Fagen) introduce a song that seems at first to be about a semi-absurd encounter with a stag group on an airplane. However, over the course of a few short verses the focus shifts onto the protagonist himself, prompting a kind of philosophical meditation.

There’s a delicious jazz-pop key change midway through with meandering vibes solo and the woodwind/reed backing rising to the fore which is followed by a distinct deviation in lyrical tone.

Did they really fool themselves, ask unanswerable questions
Did they forge a new path as if their own was not the best one
They came back to be husbands, they’re husbands husbands husbands again

Those are the kind of lines that could skip past you on the breezy melody but chances are you’ll be snared and need to go back to play them again to appreciate the weight.

After this, like a great short story, you are left with the feeling that you’ve been lead in one direction but somehow ended up somewhere else altogether. This feeling is crowned by the triumphant final verse, a mixture of deadpan self-deprecation and deadly serious life mantra.

I’m giving up on the sublime
And I’m giving the ridiculous a try

To underline the ambiguity, there’s a hush in the arrangement, the two lines repeated, the backing subsiding momentarily (a spotlight on the meaning of existence?) before the flutes and saxophones rise up again around “husbands”. The latter might be mocking or comforting or a combination of the two.

Steely Dan is right – this is a dense, multi-layered three minutes of progressive pop, some of the most teasing and intriguing pop music you might hear this year.

2. Pure Bathing Culture – Pray for rain (Memphis Industries)
An album I dug deeply late in the year was this Portland band’s second full length.

Full of gorgeous melodies wrapped in deceptively hazy dream pop or electro shapes (some are calling it yacht rock), featuring the bell clear vocal tones of Sarah Versprille and the very tasty and hard to pin down arpeggio guitar lines of Daniel Hindman.

And with some fascinatingly ruminative lyrical undercurrents, existential you might even say.

There’s a string of great tunes, from the confrontational tone of the title track to the sumptuous ‘Palest pearl’, the great circling chorus of ‘Darling save us’, the uncertain bounce of ‘She shakes’.

It makes for a very endearing type of blue eyed soul, full of heart with a vulnerable edge.

3. Vinyl Williams – World soul (Company Records)
An intoxicating slice of cosmic soul (it would sit comfortably next to Tame Impala in the playlist, or indeed Toro y Moi, on whose label this appeared) from the Los Angeles resident, real name Lionel and grandson to composer John Williams.

It’s late night, summer, warm, city lights, the hum of an engine, a pause, a blur, the future.


4. Floating Points – Nespole (Pluto)
Definite soul in this too although the roots are closer to club than cosmos.

Beautiful and groovy counterpoint between jerky melodies and fluid rhythms (the contrasts between which by the way are brilliantly evoked by dancer Kiani del Valle in this video).

There’s a poignant edge too, something nagging, some kind of inner cosmic exploration perhaps.

Whatever, it’s subtle and intriguing.

5. Eska – Shades of blue (Naim Edge)
Another tune with a gorgeous cosmic soul sheen to it, well justifying her Mercury Prize nomination and Minnie Riperton comparisons.

There’s a wonky and unhinged undertone to the arrangement - slides and bends and that wrongfooting offbeat – but the song still manages to take heartbreak and make it uplifting.

And of course her voice, a thing of rare beauty.

6. Natalie Prass – It is you (from the album Natalie Prass, Spacebomb)
I appreciate that Natalie Prass’ voice may not be to everyone’s taste. In fact, it’s not even always to my own. The tentative, sighing, birdlike quality of it is certainly an acquired taste.

However, I think she found the holy grail on this song, putting southern soul to one side in favour of Matthew E White’s technicolour orchestral arrangement.

Prass’ barely there enunciations – at times she sounds as if she’s talking to herself – of the wonders of the world which pale into comparison with her love are perfectly framed by brass swells, swooning strings, cavorting flutes and cascades of harps in waltz time (what else could it be?).

The madness, the infatuation, the giddiness of love therefore in magnificent musical form.

*If this song does not at some time appear on the soundtrack of a romantic comedy (preferably a slightly loopy one, perhaps starring a lovestruck Emma Stone), one of the great opportunities in culture will have been missed.

7. Julia Holter – Sea calls me home (Domino)
There’s one kind of thing where artists favour the avant garde while making nods in the direction of pop music.

There’s another kind of thing where artists make pop music (and even better, avowedly) with the fringes teased by avant gardery.

The last Julia Holter album, Loud City Song, seemed to me to have the aloofness of the former, some great moments but ultimately standoffish.

This new album Have you in my wilderness has patented an engaging brand of mutated showtunes, of which this single is a fantastic example.

There’s mouth whistling, a harpsichord, crazy but relatable sax solos, synth string arpeggios and a lovely endearing vocal melody (what it’s all about, if anything, your guess is as good as mine, could it be as simple as an attraction to water? to be honest, who cares when it sounds this good...).

There’s a real warmth to it but still an intriguing strangeness.

It is (avowedly) pop music with a touch of weird and don’t you just love it.

8. Bjork – Lion song (from the album Vulnicura, One Little Indian)
A distinct echo in this from Bjork’s Post album which is one that has always had a soft spot in my heart.

Presumably it’s those bending swooping Bollywood strings. Those alone and her vocal are enough to make this captivating.

The backbeats are more reminiscient of the Homogenic album though. Thudding and brooding.

Notice too the wonderful layering of her vocal at the beginning of the song. Not double tracking. Quixotic and out of sync.

The triumph here overall is taking deeply emotional content and turning it into a strangely uplifting experience for the listener.

Masterful as always.

9. C Duncan – Architect (Fat Cat)
A thoroughly intoxicating album of leisurely (mostly) and dreamy paeans to the everyday from Mr Christopher Duncan of Glasgow and again great to see the recognition of a Mercury Prize nomination.

On one end of the scale you’ll find the very pleasantly Grizzly Bear-ish ‘Garden’ with its swooping ooh and aw vocals projecting against a driving psych pop backdrop. All on foot of a mere trip to the garden.

Dialling the psych down a notch is the gorgeous ‘Here to there’ with reverbed and falsetto vocal harmonies let loose over a thrumming backbeat. In it Duncan suggests “it’s so familiar” and the song almost comes across as a mission statement for his music. How strange and astonishing the world around us is.

Much of the rest of the album is in a lower but no less lovely gear. ‘For’ has a drifting folk-pastoral air to it (and the most beguiling whistling interlude since Esquivel’s version of ‘Sentimental journey’) with beautiful vocal arrangements on display once again.

It’s the culmination of the album’s opening run taking in ‘Say’, the title track and ‘Silence and air’. The kind of glorious sequence you would dream of in your dream pop dreams. Where guitars and keys frolic in ways most unusual around sumptuous melodies. In fact the way these rock instruments cavort around serenely gives a kind of clue to Duncan’s classical musical upbringing. Classical perhaps in the way that Moondog is classical.

The choral uplift of ‘Architect’ in which the guitar parts form an unlikely orchestra. The dense heady atmosphere of ‘Silence and air’ which has another shadow of the baroque strains of Grizzly Bear to it and banked vocals conjuring church choirs.

The second half of the album features such knockouts as ‘New water’ - another hypnotic hymn to home (possibly?) – and ‘Novices’ with great swelling Morricone-esque strings. Both songs anchored by the everpresent tick tock guitar arpeggios. And the closing song ‘I’ll be gone by winter’ which comes on like The Beach Boys sinking even deeper into sacred music.

Intoxicating. Heady. This is strong stuff alright. Liable to knock you out. Tunes to make your head spin. These songs put hooks in your heart and they don’t let go.

10. Stephen Steinbrink – Synesthetic ephemera (Melodic)
Originally released in 2014 but new to me last year.

There’s a shade of Paul Simon about Steinbrink’s hushed near-falsetto but Steinbrink’s songwriting has an intriguing philosophical air to it, meditating on the absurdity of the human condition and the certain destruction of the planet, among other serious shit.

There’s also a beguiling combination of creeping lyrical melancholy along with a rhythmic swing. ‘Synesthetic ephemera’ is eminently danceable as it probes some abstract and complex topics – the scope of human emotion, the deceitful/magical quality of brain activity – “dangerous brain, ambidextrous and textural”. This is set above an irresistible groove built around a two-step drumbeat and hip shaking tambourine, high tone bass pulse and the most gorgeous slide guitar interjection. So folk, maybe not.

Whatever pigeonhole we want to use, it’s coolly challenging, subtly invigorating, naggingly beautiful pop music.

11. The Chills – When the poor can reach the moon (from the album Silver bullets, Fire)
There were several notable returns in 2015 (see Robert Forster below for another) but hearing Martin Phillipps and The Chills come back with a first studio album in nearly 20 years was a distinct and deep pleasure. To find upon hearing it that it was a strong contender for album of the year was an unexpected delight, seemingly picking up their unique thread from the 1990s without missing a beat.

This late year single captured everything that’s inspiring about The Chills – a warming lyrical sincerity, a surging power pop guitar tune with wonderful counter harmonies and a genuine unforced social conscience.

The world is a better place when The Chills are working in it.

12. Robert Forster – Let me imagine you (from the album Songs to play, Tapete)
And the prize for lyric of the year goes to Robert Forster.

Please don’t twitter
Let me imagine you

A lovely teasing return to the sound palette of his own wonderful Warm nights album from 1996 and also Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan (who is referenced in the album opener ‘Learn to burn’) – the lovely warm organ here for example.

It’s heartwarming to see Mr Forster liking mature age, comfortable in his skin, contrary as ever and most importantly finding a way to ply his trade without the late Grant McLennan.

Still a grossly underrrated songwriter somehow but nevertheless a total legend.

13. Anderson – Patterns (Anderson Songs)
A Dubliner with a great line in self-deprecating Nilsson-esque songwriting and winning melodies.

One of the most appealing things about this album is the lyrics, full of sincerity but thankfully without that dreaded earnestness and just as thankfully without any tiresome obliqueness. An opening line of “I get up in the morning, try to feel some sense of worth” could be a recipe for disaster in other hands. Here on the title track it’s paired with a lovely sprightly arrangement of upbeat acoustic guitar, twinkling piano and chirping strings for a genuinely touching effect. By the time he gets to “every song’s a souvenir for somebody to take”, you’re won over.

Such an enjoyable, and again heartwarming, record.

14. The Monochrome Set – Spaces everywhere (Tapete)
Another welcome return in 2015 from a band associated with Rough Trade and Cherry Red in their early years of the late 70s and early 80s and whose apocryphal presence in Morrissey’s record collection reportedly persuaded Johnny Marr to form a band with him. That story alone gives an idea of the dandyish thread running through the band’s music and that particular element of their sound is strong on this album. It’s a wonderful piece of work combining folk, soul and pop strands with an arch songwriting eye and a great characterful croon courtesy of Bid. The arrangements through the album include flutes and banjos but the enduring quality of the writing rises above any individual instrument choices.

Connecting ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ Ray Davies and ‘Common people’ Jarvis Cocker but with extra empathy and poignancy.

15. Gaz Coombes – Detroit (from the album Matador, Hot Fruit)
I always had a soft spot for Supergrass (that song ‘Moving’, what a piece of pop music). Last year was the first time I had checked in properly on Gaz Coombes’ solo work (me and a few others it seems).

This song was the standout from his album last year, a thrilling gospel tinge to it, and intriguingly a motorik undercurrent (in fairness, turn of the century Supergrass had many pleasing progressive tendencies).

He also comes across as one of the good characters so here’s hoping for more of this from him.

16. Jon DeRosa – When Daddy took the treehouse down (from the album Black halo, Rocket Girl)
There’s a great delirious mariachi quality to this cut from DeRosa’s latest album, which is another superb collection of haunted ballads.

This track is co-written with Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields) - the album as a whole comes across as if Nick Cave had put down the blues and taken a leaf out of Roy Orbison's book of sumptuous and lachrymose balladry.

Dream pop with dark atmospherics and such a wonderful thing.

17. Skelocrats – Lyin’ eyes (Popical Island)
Another stayer from early in 2015 and another very tasty line in progressive pop from the Popical Island crew.

This one has a lovely loping country rock jangle going on and crucially a great soulful female lead vocal from Bronwyn Murphy-White to go with the insinuating melody.

For Beatles fans there’s even a perfectly appointed half-beat bridge complete with an exit consisting of a rising figure you pine for as soon as it’s over.

Until the glorious vocal falsetto in the final chorus.

I’m not even sure what the song is about – deception, mal intent loosely, providing a satisfying antidote to the sweet musical arrangement.

But it’s all about the songwriting which is sharp and succinct and gives me a warm fuzzy feeling all over.

Sublime pop music.

18. Totally Mild – The next day (from the album Down time, Fire Records)
There’s something about Elizabeth Mitchell’s voice.

While singing these lines -

I’m in bed and I never want to go outside again

she sounds like she’s drifting off into sentimental or even mildly ecstatic reverie.

The voice is billed as falsetto. I’m not sure it is exactly but I’m sure it’s pitched just above the shelf of full throated. Delicately poised.

Meanwhile the genius guitar line forms a duet with it in the spiral staircase chorus.

Thereafter the rhythm section pulls the neat trick of leaving out half the beats.

With the twined guitar and poised at an angle voice this has the wonderful effect of slowing you right down to the pace of the song as it stretches its limbs. Twould nearly make you want to up sticks to Melbourne.

It is languid and altogether very very lovely.


19. McCarthy – The well of loneliness (from the album I am a wallet, Optic Nerve)
The gorgeous chiming guitar of Tim Gane twines around the marvellously matter of fact vocals of Malcolm Eden.

A poignant personal moment from an overtly political band and all the more touching for that.

20. Steve Warner – Rainfall (from the album Steve Warner, Earth Records)
Another first for me last year, a couple of decades after the fact, and another complete justification of the revival work of the Earth label.

‘Rainfall’ is an instrumental beauty with a bit of a prog rock feel, plangent piano chords giving way to a descending guitar riff (soft distortion and all) and synth choir.

Sumptuous is a word.

Track 15 in this playlist

Nov 17 2015 w/ Cluster,Bruce Haack,Noveller,Moondog,Mikael Tariverdiev,Lail Arad,Julia Kent++ by The Underground Of Happiness on Mixcloud

21. Lee Hazlewood – For one moment (from the album The very special world of Lee Hazlewood, Light in the Attic)
The hurt I hurt
Is nothing like
The hurts I’ve hurt before

And to end, an absolute classic cut from one of three Lee Hazlewood albums Light in the Attic reissued together last year.

It’s from Lee’s MGM years, when he was given the run of a studio and accompanying crack session crew following his smash hit for Nancy Sinatra ‘These boots are made for walkin’. This album was released in early 1966 and there’s more than a hint of Ennio Morricone to Billy Strange’s wonderful arrangement, full of swirling strings and massed backing vocals. (That would seem to be coincidental as Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, with Morricone’s famous theme music, also came out in 1966.)

It’s at arm’s length from the psych folk sound for which Lee is rightly revered but it qualifies as another magnificent footnote in his voluminous discography.

Nothing like a masterpiece to wrap up another year’s worth of music.


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