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"Hello...put me on to Edenville... aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one"

Wednesday
Dec172014

2014: records of the year

And so to the albums...

I've certainly bought enough music this year and a lot of it has been of real quality. But I guess the striking thing, looking at my ten favourites, is that there are few new names: most of those featured - good as they are - have also had records in earlier annual lists.

And it has also been a great year for archive releases - the 6 CD Basement Tapes Complete is a superbly packaged document of record while, for everyday use, the 3 LP/2 CD Basement Tapes Raw has the really key stuff looking and sounding great. Add into the mix 3 CDs and a DVD of CSNY 1974 and you start to be pushed for time to listen to much else. And that's before getting to the 6 CD set of The Velvet Underground's gorgeous third album, which has had stunning reviews but I haven't yet brought myself to shell out for: can even I justify having a mono mix of the main record, alongside two alternative stereo ones? A mono 'Murder Mystery' is simply perverse...

But, enough of that. Without further ado, the ten new releases of 2013 that I rate most highly:

10. Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather

The first of two appearances in this year's list from a superb guitarist, who also has a lovely knack of combining his talents with a range of different collaborators. Here he is on his own release, playing and singing with confidence, verve and sometimes unnerving technique.

What's more, my daughter's band Ray Gun opened for him when he played in Ramsgate last month - a huge shame I couldn't be there with them...

9. Ryley Walker - All Kinds Of You 

Sometimes sounding unnervingly like a young Bert Jansch, Chicagoan Ryley Walker has a real confidence and character of his own that make this a compelling listen. Beautiful arrangements (again with some Pentangle echoes) of strong songs. As I said when I first heard it 

That all may sound artificial and knowingly retro, but the end product strikes me as organic and convincingly in the here and now.

I'm still feeling the same, eight months on.

8. Thurston Moore - The Best Day

Despite my best efforts, I've never really come to love Sonic Youth. Appreciate and respect, yes; but no more than that. Thurston Moore's solo albums, though, are a different thing - and The Best Day is up there with the best of them. The palette is more varied, with chugging electric grooves and noisier elements in amongst the acoustic melodicism which first drew me to records like Demolished Thoughts.

And, as I said when it came out, the cover art is beautiful - a series of old photos of Moore's parents. Worth buying on vinyl for the cover alone: you can always think later about whether you own a turntable.

7. Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper - Cantos de Lisboa

It's that man again... Gunn in a one-off collaboration with Mike Cooper, whose music I hadn't really known before. He's a Brit who started off playing blues in the sixties before expanding into a range of rockier and avant garde styles. One of the pleasures of 2014 has been a voyage of discovery through his back catalogue, aided by some well-crafted vinyl reissues from the estimable Paradise of Bachelors label.

Anyway, Cantos de Lisboa is a treat - but one that needs some mastication, and is all the better for that. You're initially sucked in by the sheer beauty of lambent opener 'Saudade Do Santos-o-Vehlo' but then encounter some crunchier improvisations. Two splendid guitarists with open ears and a clear enjoyment of each other's company.

6. Various Artists - Look Again To The Wind

An odd project on the face of it: a cover version of an early sixties album from Johnny Cash, Bitter Tears, dedicated to the varied injustices that have been visited on American Indians. I don't know the original album and wouldn't claim to like every song here equally, but the highlights of this re-creation are quite extraordinary. Producer Joe Henry has assembled a stellar cast of new country royalty: Steve Earle, Emmylou, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are all present and all acquit themselves well. It's the last two who are transcendent. A protest ballad stretching to more than nine minutes could get a teensy bit tedious, one might think, but 'As Long As The Grass Shall Grow' leaves you wanting more. Their voices and instruments twine around each other so perfectly they're like a single entity, and Rawlings' final guitar solo is worth the price of admission on its own. I haven't seen much written about this album, but more should be... do search it out.

5. Robert Plant - Lullaby & The Ceaseless Roar

It's great how Plant remains driven to make new and different music, searching out fresh combinations of very talented collaborators. At a time when he could be sitting back and savouring the royalty cheques from the Led Zeppelin reissue programme, he's moved further on from the fine Americana of his last couple of albums to an edgier, energetic and thoroughly engaging set shot through with African instrumentation and electronics. You're bound to sit up and take notice - and the more you pay attention, the more you appreciate the care and skill that has gone into the arrangements. It's both classy and wildly entertaining: don't miss it.

4. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams

I raved about this one here on its release in April. My then favourite song of the year, 'Almost Everything', now has some serious Wussy-shaped competition (see below) but still sounds great, as does the rest of the record. And the band went on to turn in my favourite live show of the year at The Great Escape in May. They're on tremendous form and this is a very good record.

3. Braden Gates - Ferris Wheel

This star
fiddler/ singer/ songwriter/ guitarist from Alberta was my find of 2013 - nabbing the top slot in my gigs of the year and the same number 3 slot in the albums that he's occupying now. Ferris Wheel is a distinct advance on his first release, with more variety and confidence in the writing, performance and arrangements. I wrote about it at length here. There's obviously a lot more to come from this highly talented young man: you should get aboard now and follow what should be a fascinating career. 

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Lateness Of Dancers

Possibly the best HGM release so far - despite there being some pretty stiff competition. This sounds more like a band record, rather than mainman MC Taylor plus friends: cohesive, varied and sometimes downright funky. But be reassured that this not come at the expense of HGM's trademark emotional heft. 'Chapter & Verse (Ione's Song)' is a particular tear-jerker, even after multiple listens. As so often, it's not entirely clear what's going on in narrative terms, but the vocal combination of sympathy and reassurance and pain set against a simple piano's willed optimism comes across like proceedings at a frontier smalltown funeral. Beautiful - and the other nine songs are pretty damn good too.

1. Wussy - Attica!

Well, regular readers will not be surprised by the number one slot. My favourite band in the world right now and I've already provided a detailed rave review of what is also probably their most consistently strong album so far. A rare combination of crunch and delicacy, with a melodic sense reminiscent of REM at their best. 'Halloween', 'Beautiful' and 'Teenage Wasteland' are all strong contenders for the best song I've heard this year. The band seem to be on a real roll and it would be good if they could now reach the wider audience they so obviously deserve.

The near misses, jostling at the gate of my top ten, include Beck's Morning Phase and Two Wings' A Wake. Bruce Springsteen's High Hopes and Del Barber's Prairieography both included some strong individual songs but didn't really hold together as albums for me. Neil Young's A Letter Home strikes me as a really impressive work of art, like a time capsule launched to and/or from somewhere beyond the grave, but I haven't been listening to it with any regularity as a collection of songs. I haven't been listening to Neil's Storytone much either, but that's more because the songs don't seem very inspired - whether in their stripped-down or kitchen-sink-arrangement versions. Maybe it will grow on me...

And let's see what 2015 brings. A very Happy Christmas to anyone who has read this far!

Monday
Dec152014

2014: gigs of the year

I've just looked back at 2013's equivalent post. The cornucopia of live delights recorded there was sadly not replicated in 2014. A couple of days at The Great Escape but only nine other gigs this year, so perhaps not incredibly meaningful to come up with a top five performances. But I saw some excellent sets, so I will anyway...

5. John Surman - Dome Studio, Brighton, 18 November

A treat to see a long-time hero for the first time. Wonderful horn playing and some nice duets with guest Norwegian singer Karin Krog in the second half. Soprano and baritone saxes and bass clarinet, sometimes alone, sometimes set against loops: mellow and satisfying.

4. Neil Young - Hyde Park, London, 12 July

A storming set, often crowd-pleasing ('Heart of Gold', 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', etc), but only after he'd stretched the patience of less partisan festival-goers with some protracted guitar work-outs ('Love And Only Love', 'Goin' Home') and rewarded the cognoscenti with the rarely-performed 'Days That Used To Be'. A shame that after playing this well he then turned in a decidedly mediocre album in the shape of Storytone.

3. Jackson Browne - Royal Albert Hall, London, 25 November

I've seen Jackson half a dozen or more times over the years and he never disappoints. My favourite of those shows was probably one in Edinburgh with the collaborator who fits his style best - the great David Lindley. But this was a close runner-up: Greg Leisz's pedal steel filled some Lindley-shaped holes and the rest of the band were on fine form. Some stone classics performed unimpeachably in the course of a marathon 25 song set: 'These Days', 'Before The Deluge', 'Late For The Sky', 'For A Dancer', etc, etc. OK, the ones from the new album weren't quite in that league, but I was in no mood to quibble...

2. Powder Blue - The Great Escape, Brighton, 10 May

Reviewed here. One of those sweet festival moments when a band you've never heard of and have no expectations about grabs hold of your ears and makes you pay attention... Saskatoon's finest, playing Krautrock, shoegaze and a whole lot more. I gather there is a full length album due next year, which I'm looking forward to - I've been listening to Dream In Black a lot.

1. The Hold Steady - Great Escape, Brighton, 9 May

Also reviewed here. Another occasion where I was pleased to see live a band whose albums I've rated for some time. They took the gig by the scruff of its neck and never let go: a tight, explosive and thoroughly entertaining three quarters of an hour.

Sunday
Nov022014

An explanation

Just in case anyone is wondering about the breaking of radio silence...

Braden Gates' new album is certainly worth talking about, plus the talented young man was kind enough to send a CD to me.

Otherwise, I haven't heard or seen anything new or transformational since I lasted posted here. In the absence of new discoveries, I can recommend some strong and enjoyable records from folk I already knew had it in them - such as Hiss Golden Messenger's Lateness of Dancers, Steve Gunn's Way Out Weather and Robert Plant's Lullaby & The Ceaseless Roar.

In that category,Thurston Moore's The Best Day deserves special mention for housing some strong and varied music in a lovely sleeve. 

There have been some excellent archive releases too, notably Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 1974 boxset and Paradise of Bachelors' repressings of early 70s Mike Cooper albums. And, of course, 6 CDs' worth of the Complete Basement Tapes will land with a substantial thud on Dylan fans' doormats tomorrow...

Not much on the gig front to report: Neil Young excellent for tens of thousands in Hyde Park, Harry Manx similar for tens in a Brighton pub. James Taylor doing his thing with commitment and grace, for those whose boats he floats...

Onward and upward.

Sunday
Nov022014

Braden Gates: Whyte Avenue Revisited

The assured, level gaze with which Braden Gates meets the camera on the cover of his second album was definitely reminding me of something and I went flicking through the record racks. My first thought was Jesse Winchester, facing the world down on his first record - and that is a pretty good, and not inappropriate, pedigree for this fine young singer-songwriter.

Then I was reflecting on how rooted in place much of Braden's writing is - you can often see and hear, and occasionally smell, his stomping ground in Old Strathcona, Edmonton's art-and-nightlife-and-lowlife quarter. (All the best towns have one of those - check out The Hold Steady's 'The Sweet Part Of The City' if you need further directions.) I was looking at the picture of the Commercial Hotel on the CD and visualising the panhandler Gates was bringing to life in a song:

Old man Jason Lee

On the corner of Whyte and 103

Says 'Hey Braden, you got a buck

And an extra smoke for me?'

and I was definitely revisiting Whyte Avenue, Old Strathcona's main drag. So then I pulled out Dylan's Highway 61 and, yes, there's definitely some shared lineage in that stare and the set of their jaws.

Gates has enough talent and potential to make these sorts of comparisons more than fanciful. He's made real progress since his first release, the engaging Break It To Me Gently. While that was essentially a solo recording, the new one, Ferris Wheel, adds friends on bass, piano and harmonica, as well as backing vocals. Importantly, Braden has also overdubbed fiddle on some tracks. Live, his songs are either guitar or (less frequently) fiddle based and it's great to be able to hear the two together. He's a very accomplished picker but, for me, his fiddle playing is in another class, with an attack and verve that raises a song's energy level as soon as his bow bounces on the strings. There are a couple of essentially live fiddle songs on the new record, 'Bound To Win' and the title track, with Braden keeping a stompboard rhythm under pizzicato verses and bowed breaks - very much in the manner of the wonderful 'Gator's Gym Girl' on the first album. They work well, but there is only so much you can do with that format. So it is nice to have the variation of a violin twining around other instruments on songs like 'Holding On' and 'Ocean Blue'.

 I'd heard 'Life's A Picture' live last year, introduced with a wry account of the meeting with the drifter who inspired it. Gates risks putting that spoken story to music and I am happy to say that 'The Story Of Chicago Bob' comes off well and stands up to repeated listening.

But for me, the stand-out song of this strong set is the final one, 'Song For Casper'. Inspired by a friend being arrested for public intoxication, it starts from a description of the party life they are leading but is somehow undercut simultaneously with melancholy, wistfulness and hope. The repeated hookline

now is the time to be free

is strangely moving, combining an appreciation of the transient here-and-now with a yearning for something else. On the record, the arrangement is particularly fine, with Ken Stead's piano adding strongly to the emotional heft in combination with Braden's fiddle.

Some nights you'll end up wasted

Some nights you'll end up bruised

Some nights you'll end up lonely

Just howling at the moon.

It works pretty well as a solo performance too, as you can see here:

 

All in all, a strong recommendation for Braden Gates and for Ferris Wheel. You can download or order CDs from Braden's Bandcamp page.

Wednesday
Jul232014

Eden off the line

It's coming up to 4 years since I launched this site and now, having taken on some new commitments elsewhere, I've decided that it's time to take a break.

I've said most of the things I wanted to say when I started and there's clearly no shortage of music criticism available elsewhere. So I'll shut up for a bit.

Many thanks to everyone who has visited, read and commented so far - it has been fun.

Au revoir.