The prospect of our ‘Album of the Year’ meeting for 2013 had been causing me some concern for some time. Come November I had precious few records that I could have realistically taken as my album of the year: Bill Callahan’s Dream River was probably at the top of my pile but we’ve already had our fill of Bill; not that you can ever have too much of him in my opinion, but it shows a certain lack of breadth to have three records by the same artist within the space of three years. And besides, it’s not as good as his previous two solo albums, or his last two (amazing) efforts as Smog. Other albums I have acquired from 2013 have largely been disappointing for me: Parquet Courts is a tired rehash of early Pavement, bafflingly revered for some inexplicable reason; Kurt Vile’s latest is some way off the brilliance of Smoke Ring being overlong and meandering; Phosphorescent’s Muchacho is pleasant enough but hardly album of the year material and John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts starts off so strongly but peters out in its second half. To my mind the best record I had heard from 2013 was Rob’s Pinkunoizu thing but I could hardly bring that. Then, at the bum end of the year, as the forums began to gear themselves up to listmania (lisztomania?) I struck gold…twice. One of the two albums I am saving for another meeting so more of that at a later date. The other is John Wizards’ self-tilted debut. Neither album made much (if any) impression on the album of the year lists. I guess I am just becoming ever more out of touch! But for sheer life affirming joyfulness John Wizards takes some beating.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the fact that our tastes share much common ground, my album of the year is kind of the polar opposite of Rob’s emptyset record. Whereas his record is all bright melodies and colour and…oh, hang on, I may have got that the wrong way round! Rob’s album is the absence of music, it’s the sound of what’s left when some alien species has beamed down to Earth and removed everything but heavy machinery. In contrast, John Wizards is crammed to overflowing with music. Ostensibly comprising of 15 ‘songs’, the album sounds more like 200 ideas spewing forth from a very active (ie hyperactive) brain. There’s so much going on on John Wizards’ debut that I find myself worrying about their sophomore effort already…not only will it be hard to match the genius of this album but surely they can’t have all that many ideas left? There are, after all, only so many permutations of notes on a scale and most of them have been used here! So I guess I should just enjoy it while it lasts, something that seems to happen that little bit more with each new listen.
Maybe it’s the mathematician in me, but I love albums like this. Albums which require work, that are like a puzzle, where it takes time just to work out where one song ends and another one starts and then to gradually realise that what sounded at first like a set of disconnected motifs actually do hang together as ‘songs’. Albums like A Wizard A True Star or Alien Lanes or Mark’s Keyboard Repair or, even, Smile which has recently (completely by coincidence) been my album of choice in the car and is slowly revealing its worth despite sounding abysmal during those early plays. But, unlike all of these records, John Wizards sounded glorious on a first listen. A glorious mess. There’s nothing really that jars, the way the songs develop, the movement between sections, is never abrupt and each part of every song could be fleshed out into a 15 minute jam and I would be quite happy to listen to it. And whilst Nick played us some Syrian wedding music that had just a whiff of Western production values detectable, John Wizards’ African roots ground the album in someplace unique but the African influence is subtle and used sparingly so that, whilst at times it sounds a bit like Junior Boys crossed with Ladysmith Black Mambazo at other times it might just sound like Junior Boys. It all adds up to something fresh and, to my mind, unique and highly addictive. The perfect antidote to those emptyset blues!
Rob listened: I spent a fruitless and frustrating couple of minutes this evening trying to describe ‘R Plus 7’ by Oneohtrix Point Never, another of my favourite records of 2013. It’s a dizzying blizzard of a thing, blinking from one stanza to another, apparently teleporting in and out of entirely different tracks. There’s no way on this earth that it should work, but it’s beautiful and moving. To some extent, I could have saved us all the bother had Tom gone first instead of last. I hadn’t heard of John Wizards before tonight, but, crudely put, it’s ‘R Plus 7’ played on real instruments rather than a laptop. Perhaps not quite so deliberate – there are flows and dissolves across the record, but ultimately both artists are getting away with an approach which should spell disaster, at least in part through their energy and attention to delicious detail. I loved it. If this is what a post-internet global music sounds like then for now it sounds pretty good.