Polar Bear – Same As You: Round 84, Nick’s choice

Polar_Bear_Same_As_YouIt wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Polar Bear have been one of my favourite bands over the last decade, since they first came to my attention as the ‘token jazz nominee’ in the 2005 Mercury Music Prize for Held On the Tips Of Fingers. I feel like I’ve talked about them a lot at record club but never played them – although I did play their (now defunct) rambunctious sister-group Acoustic Ladyland once upon a time.

Polar Bear have been notable for their constant evolution between – and sometimes within – records, but last year’s In Each And Every One pushed them in quite radical, and at times unrecognisable directions; it sounded like the work of a completely different band to their previous record, Peepers (to be fair, there had been a 4-year gap).

Somehow, Same As You manages to do the same again, and sees them broaching even more new ground. Mixed in the Mojave desert, Same As You appears at first glance and from a distance to be sparse, arid even, but upon closer inspection reveals huge detail and perpetual, subtle movement. Where its predecessor occasionally obsessed over the gloomy end of the emotional spectrum, its minimalism occasionally burst by skronking intensity, Same As You is quietly positivist and relaxed, its sunny, love-fuelled intent laid out in a spoken-word introduction about “life, love, and light”.

The key components of the album are Seb Rochford’s polyrhythmic drumming and Tom Herbert’s almost dub-y stand-up bass playing; they form a low-key, constantly shifting bedrock for tenor sax and electronics to subtly explore. Nowhere is this clearer than the 20-minute rumination of “Unrelenting Unconditional”, where Herbert’s nimble fingers are the absolute driving force for most of the running time. Solos exist, but they paint in the margins most of the time, and never seem to be overtly seeking attention.

After the spoken-word intro, “We Feel The Echoes” sets the tone for the album by almost completely disintegrating after four minutes. The tune slowly re-emerges, but it’s so low-key as to almost seem apologetic for being music; and yet it’s beautiful.

If Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is probably the biggest (in every sense) jazz album of the year – an acclaimed, hip-hop circling crossover success that lasts for THREE HOURS and celebrates an entire history of American jazz – then Same As You is almost its opposite: where The Epic is grand, flamboyant, searching and, well, epic, Same As You is quiet, humble, and contented, even as it explores new spaces and sounds. I like The Epic a lot, but through admiration and awe by and large; I love Same As You in a very different and much more personal way.

Rob listened: I loved this. I didn’t get sparse or arid vibes from it as Nick suggests. Instead, in its spaces and absences and digressions ‘Same As You’ seemed intimate adn human. From the grain of the voice that opens the record, you can hear the movement and concentration and the fingerprints of the people who made this music, in each pawed bass string, each brushed snare drum and each pushed sax key. We heard this straight after Grouper, another artist unafraid to remove herself from the foreground and let the world around her and the world in the listener’s head fill the spaces. I got the warmth that Nick describes, but not from sunny sounds, rather from the feeling of being in the company of good people making beautiful music.

Tom listened: This was a strange listen to me, a bit like one of my victoria sponge cakes, it was delicious all the way round but sagged a bit in the middle. So I was immediately hooked by the voice and atmosphere of the spoken word opener which led into the equally fine We Feel The Echoes. From there I don’t recall much until the gargantuan last track which lasted for twenty minutes and at no point felt too long! So, whilst I didn’t unequivocally fall for all the tracks on Same As You, I very much enjoyed at least 35 minutes of it!


Dawn Of Midi – Dysnomia: Round 82, Nick’s choice

dysnomiaThis record immediately jumped into my head on the term ‘instrumental’ being suggested as the theme for our next meeting, and no matter how much I’ve thought about it, or what else I’ve listened to, nothing else has come close to dislodging it. Apart, perhaps, from …Endtroducing by DJ Shadow, which is too long to play.

I first saw mention of Dysnomia in the comments underneath my review of Open by The Necks for The Quietus some 18 months ago, where someone name-checked it as another modern, minimalist jazz album worth checking out. In an uncharacteristic move, I listened to a chunk of it online straight away, and was impressed, so hunted down the CD and ordered it the same day. It’s been in semi-regular rotation ever since.

Dawn of Midi are based in Brooklyn (isn’t everyone these days?), but formed at Cal Arts, and are called Qasim Naqvi (drums), Aakaash Israni (upright bass), and Amino Belyamani (grand piano). The music they play is ostensibly instrumental jazz, but you could easily hear it as closer in tone to minimal electronic music; they produce incredibly taut, repetitive, and satisfying grooves that put you in mind of intricate clockwork machinery, simple shapes arranged in complex patterns that overlap, interlock, and affect each other in subtly developmental ways.

Dysnomia was recorded live and the nine tracks, which run to a total of 46 minutes, segue seamlessly into one another like a single improvised composition. I’m aware that those two words together are oxy-moronic, but for a long time I genuinely have no idea whether these three musicians played completely off the cuff or whether they micromanage what they do in advance; it could have been either and I’d still have been impressed. As it happens, this really interesting interview with them reveals that it is micro-composed and rehearsed to within an inch of its life; three rehearsals a week for two years, until they played “like three people from the same village playing folk music their whole life together”. The interview also gives fascinating insight into their backgrounds, methodologies, and influences.

In terms of layman comparisons, The Necks are an obvious one, as is Steve Reich, but so are Tortoise, Portico Quartet, Nicolas Jaar, La Dusseldorf, Four Tet, and plenty of other people. Basically anything repetitive and minimal, but they also remind me of Fugazi, somehow, if Fugazi were a minimal, repetitive jazz / pseudo-electronic outfit rather than ragingly progressive post-hardcore punks.

Dysnomia is an alluring, intriguing record. It reveals everything it has to offer within the first few seconds, pretty much, and yet I’ve found myself going back to it endlessly over the last 18 months, playing it over and over, even just thinking about it and feeling a desire to play it at moments when I couldn’t. It lures you into a trance, compels you to move, creates a structure within your mind that allows other thoughts to occur even as it seems to occupy your attention. It feels very pure to me; Platonic, I guess, like an essence of an idea.

Rob listened: This was lovely, an intricate, ever-shifting machine set up and set off just for our wonder and pleasure. The sounds themselves were solid, meaningful, shaped and balanced. The slowly extending and contracting patterns were utterly fascinating. The idea that these three guys rehearsed to the point where they could play this stuff live is incredible, and gives this precise, abstract and delicately balanced piece an underlying sense of joyful humanity.

Tom listened: Firstly I’d like to get the obvious out of the way. This was a beautiful, intimate, addictive listen, with just enough variation along the way to keep me hooked in and fend off those ’emperor’s new clothes’ demons that often come calling when things get a little too minimal.

Almost as fascinating for me as the music itself is the fact that this and John Coltrane could fall under the same genre title. If you were an alien and were told that both these records (that is, Dysnomia and Coltranology Volume 2) were this thing known as ‘Jazz’, you’d surely head off home thinking this species were crazy. But the odd thing is that, however faint, you can just about hear the links, and can appreciate how, over time, one may have led (albeit via a very circuitous route) to the other; something to do with the innovation, the precision, the realisation of a singular vision..and the fact that they are not obviously anything else!

Odds and sods – Round 61, Nick’s choices

A great idea from Tom – rather than supplicate ourselves to the orthodoxy of albums once again, let’s just play some songs, freestyle.

I keep a massive playlist on my phone called ‘I need this song on my phone’, which contains a broad selection of mixtape staples, songs I love that don’t feel, to me, like a part of a parent album. Singles, b-sides, EP tracks, those lone tracks you love by artists you otherwise don’t give a stuff about; there are loads and loads and loads of pieces of music I adore, but which I’d never want to waste a whole album choice on at record club.

So as soon as Tom mentioned the theme, I opened that playlist, scrolled through it, and made a longlist of about 20 possibilities – anything was fair game, as long as I hadn’t played it here before (and I’ve played a good handful – stuff like “Flim” by Aphex Twin – at record club already). On the night, I took about a dozen with me, and played through them in whatever order seemed best, without logic or theme or plan. These are they.

The Boo Radleys – “Lazarus”

The version on Giant Steps (which is wonderful but too long to play at record club) is an edit, and shears off the extended, rolling, dubby intro. Which is a shame, because that intro is exceptionally good, and, as heard on the proper 12” version, wonderfully sets up the tension that the awesome, trumpet-and-feedback driven, wordless chorus of “Lazarus” then spectacularly releases. Guitar feedback, trumpets, dubby basslines; this song rolls all the good stuff together. And it’s about being agoraphobic.

Rob listened: Great intro, great bassline, great chorus, if a little brutish. Unfortunately the whole thing takes on a taint of meh-ness whenever the singing happens. Always liked the Boo Radleys but, come to think of it, not really because I liked their music.

Graham listened: Thought I knew what the Boo Radleys were all about, clearly I don’t. Great track.

Tom listened: I really like Lazarus but I know what Rob means…the intro is just so great that the rest of the track finds it hard to keep up.

Snow Patrol – “An Olive Grove Facing The Sea”

Before they were massive, post-Coldplay rock behemoths, Snow Patrol were a weird little post-My Bloody Valentine indie band on Scottish label Jeepster. This track, from their second album (the one before they got huge), is a lovely daydream about mermaids, gentle and modest and absolutely beautiful, with an eyeball-swelling lone trumpet solo for added sadness.

Rob listened: Pretty lovely. I never had a huge problem with the early phase of their behemoth incarnation. It’s fascinating to listen back to this and try to trace the evolutionary steps they were about to take. I guess on balance I would have preferred them to stay where they were, but neither would have trouble my record-buying habits.

Graham listened: Another eye-opener as I have Snow Patrol filed firmly away.

Tom listened: I am having a re-listen to this as I don’t remember it from the night. It’s OK I guess but I find the vocals a bit mopey. Nice instrumentation though.

Manic Street Preachers – “Motorcycle Emptiness”

Sometimes anthemic rock is the best thing in the world; platitudinous lyrics and major chord surges and melodies that pile up on one another. This puts its foot on the monitor but still maintains a degree of decorum. “Under neon loneliness / motorcycle emptiness” James Dean Bradfield hollers, like some pretentious sixth form poet; it’s pompous and ridiculous, but by god it makes you feel amazing.

Rob listened: Awful. Hate it for all the reasons Nick lists above, plus the fact that underneath the imagined sheen of retro rock futurism, it’s a plodding track with some doo-doo-doodle-oodle-doo-doo guitar bits.

Graham listened: Wonderful. Brilliant. Great. Would have made it into my winning singles world cup team hadn’t I known that the Manic haters in our midst might have shot it down. Huge sound, rifftastic, pretentious but brilliant.

Tom listened: I fall somewhere between Graham’s and Rob’s two stools (sounds messy)…I don’t mind The Manics but find them annoyingly predictable and safe at times. That said, this is probably their best single and I really enjoyed hearing it again.

Dave Brubeck – “Take Five”

My dad was only really into Johnny Mathis and dinner jazz when I was growing up, and I think my love of jazz comes largely from him. This is a tune I’ve loved for a whole lifetime; it’s weird that it’s so well known and was such a hit, when it was basically composed as a vehicle for a Joe Morello drum solo. Just an unbeatable tune.

Rob listened: Perfect. Presumably there’s a section of the populace who can recall only one jazz tune, and if it’s not ‘So What?’ then it must surely be this. The audacity to create one of the most identifiable piano parts of the last 100 years and then stick one of the most memorable sax lines over the top of it.

Graham listened: I recalled this, I am that section of the populace.

Tom listened: Brilliant…more than justified the evening’s concept on its own. A truly remarkable piece of music, the drumming is out of this world. Thanks for bringing it Nick!

Embrace – “Blind”

I toyed briefly with the idea of playing eight different tracks by Embrace, to show the scope and range hidden behind the scenes that’s made me love them so much over the years, but that seemed a little like cheating. Instead, this track off their first EP, probably the song I’ve listened to most in the last 17 years, and which never made their debut album. Just about my favourite guitar sound ever – a giant, textured post-MBV crunch that maintains enormous weight and swims across the soundstage like a car on black ice – plus a massive chorus that’s actually some kind of defiant stand against anxiety and PTSD, plus ba-ba-ba backing vocals. Vulnerability turned into savagery in an attempt to defeat it.

Rob listened: If i’m honest, this sounded like Oasis, even down to the vocals. Decide for yourselves whether that’s good or bad.

Graham listened: I think I’ve kept it fairly quite to date, but I thought the ‘Good Will Out’ was an amazing record and while it did well, I thought it deserved much better recognition. For no reason that I can remember, I never bought the follow ups and thats something I may address. Nick rolling this out inspired me to dig out GWO and give it a spin.

Tom listened: Nick’s keeps dangling the Embrace carrot over us at Record Club, yet here we are, three years in, and still we wait for an Embrace album to be brought by Nick. I agree with Rob on this one – it does sound like Oasis! Hopefully their other stuff doesn’t.

Kyuss – “Super Scoopa And Mighty Scoop”

Josh Homme’s band before Queens Of The Stone Age, Kyuss were desert stoner rockers, detuning their guitars, taking PAs into the middle of nowhere, and playing exceptionally deep, exceptionally groovy rock for people to set things on fire to. This is just exceptionally fun; Homme plays with the riff, bending it and corrupting it into silly shapes, and the stop-start outro is pure heaviosity comedy.

Rob listened: Great, loopy, open rock. Shows you can be indulgent and silly and still kick it hard.

Graham listened: I should really like Josh Homme’s work more, given my tastes. But something doesn’t work for me. I own ‘Them Crooked Vultures’ and don’t think I even got to the end. Strange.

Tom listened: One of Rob’s other ideas (other than Record Club) – hey, I’ve just realised he’s had at least two – was to do a podcast and within it one of the regular features would be a ‘Slipped Under Our Radar’ slot in which we listen to something pretty significant/ubiquitous that has always passed us by. I think that was the gist of it anyway.  I can now cross Josh Homme off my list. Not really my cup of tea (unsurprisingly) as big rock riffage is to me what jangle pop seems to be to Nick.

Sugababes – “Overload”

Just great dancefloor pop; I remember dancing to this on countless drunken nights at university, whether on ‘dance’ dancefloors or ‘indie’ dancefloors or just daft student dancefloors. It’s simply brilliant, and brilliantly simple. I’ve literally only just this morning realised the line that runs from this back through All Saints and via Massive Attack to Neneh Cherry; it’s produced by Cameron McVey, Neneh’s husband, who worked on all her albums and was part of the revolving community of musicians who effectively comprised Massive’s Wild Bunch sound system in the 80s and 90s (he’s credited as ‘executive producer’ on Blue Lines).

Rob listened: I reviewed the album when it came out. I expected to be dismissing it as another manufactured girl band (not an anti-girl band thing, there were just loads of cobbled together girl and boy bands being prodded in front of us at the time), but 60 seconds into Overload I forgot all that. It’s a belter.

Graham listened: Oh the joy of feeling free to come out at my age and feel comfortable stating that I and other members have a soft spot for the Sugababes!

Tom listened: For my money, Sugarbabes are one the very best singles bands of the last  twenty years – always inventive, slightly quirky, great singing (as in, not all that great singing – their slightly flat vocals seem so cool in this age of Autotune and X Factor). I don’t think I can recall a bad song by them and I imagine their Greatest Hits compilation is a thing of massive joy from start to finish. Maybe I should buy it!

Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down: Round 51, Nick’s choice

mydAnd so back to normal proceedings, and Rob’s house, where we haven’t been for a while due to babies and things.

Sans theme I thought I’d take along something new from 2013 – it’s been a pretty good year thus far, with plenty of records I’ve really enjoyed, but I feel like I’ve barely played anything from the current crop at Record Club. Most of them are quite long though – These New Puritans is 53 minutes, Holden is 75, John Hopkins is 60, Boards Of Canada is 62 – and with all four of us bringing albums again, and a baby in the house, I wanted to take something relatively brief. Luckily the debut album by Melt Yourself Down is only 36 minutes… (Even if those minutes are extraordinarily rambunctious.)

I reviewed this record for The Quietus the other week, so I shan’t repeat myself too much by going into the make-up of the band or how individual songs work; suffice to say that Melt Yourself Down is, at heart, a dance record, a party record – despite liking a lot of ‘dance’ records this year (like the aforementioned Hopkins and Holden), it’s this group of live-action (if you will) postpunk afrobeat jazzers who make me want to dance the most, who seem to have the most physically compelling batch of beats.

Good as those beats are, they’re not quite the stars of the show. Partly this is because Pete Wareham is in this band, and thus hyperactive, riffing-not-soloing saxophone is upfront and centre, twisting down audaciously catchy routes, and partly it’s because of Kushal Gaya’s frankly nuts vocals, which take in French, English, Creole, and made-up-stuff. But mostly it’s because of Ruth Goller’s outrageous basslines, which drive Melt Yourself Down with irresistible momentum, oftentimes forcing Wareham’s saxophone to merely mimic their own rhythmic patterns.

You can hear all sorts in Melt Yourself Down’s DNA – no-wave sax punk, Morphine, Acoustic Ladyland, Mulatu Astatke, Fela Kuti, electric Miles, and far more besides – so much that one could almost dismiss them as just being an amalgamation of their (admittedly myriad, and awesome) influences. Except that Melt Yourself Down also have the tunes. Boy, have they got the tunes. Amazing fun.

Graham listened: I must admit the first few minutes of this had me wondering if Nick had come across an album from the CIA’s Psycholigical Warfare program, as it sounded frenetic, to say the least. But it must have made an impression as it is now the only album released this year that I have bought for myself. The wife doesn’t seem to like it which is generally a sign that it is good. There are moments when it does sound like a Moroccan wedding band (if such exists?), a Madness tribute band and a hip-hop outfit have all booked the same rehearsal room, and that’s what makes it great!

Tom Listened: A new one to me, somehow Melt Yourself Down slipped under my radar and I had never heard of it (or them) before Nick played it to us. I liked Melt Yourself Down well enough and sensed that it is one of those records that would benefit from familiarity as it is so busy and energetic. However, after one listen it gave me the impression that it would be one of those albums that, should I ever own it, would rarely find its way onto my turntable despite being a perfectly enjoyable listen once there.

D’Angelo – Voodoo: Round 44, Nick’s choice

dangelo_voodooI decided to play this whilst we were listening to Frank Ocean at Rob’s house last week; despite my comments about that record, the one R&B full-length that has got me from start to finish (almost), is D’Angelo’s Voodoo from 2000.

I don’t like the myth of the ‘romantic artist’, the idea of musicians or poets or painters being magical individuals blessed with talent; I could talk about why not for ages. But Michael Eugene Archer, AKA D’Angelo, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1974, started playing piano age 4, self-produced first solo album aged 20, masterminded Voodoo age 25, then (seemingly, allegedly) went crazy and disappeared because he objected to being objectified for his abs rather than revered for his music and who hasn’t released an album since and only just started playing live again last year, seems like he might be the real deal. He’s certainly not your everyday common or garden pop star.

Voodoo is a strange beast. I bought it almost as soon as it came out, intrigued by salivating hyperbole emanating from critics who talked about it as being an instant soul/jazz/funk/roots/R&B/whatever classic, who placed it in a lineage with Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and Prince and Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic and Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix – no expectation or pressure there then.

The copious sleevenotes, and even more copious musicological analysis you can find online, explain exactly how much of an influence the likes of Sly, Prince, Jimi, Stevie, and Marvin etc were on D’Angelo during the record’s gestation, but for the most part Voodoo sounds like nothing so much as itself. For a start, it’s a record very much about vibe and groove rather than about tunes – I was expecting melodies like Stevie Wonder’s on first listen and was confused and disappointed when they didn’t emerge. D’Angelo absorbed the musical lessons of his idols, and used what he learnt to create something different. As a result, Voodoo is hard to categorise; I think of it and use it more like a jazz album than a collection of songs qua songs.

Recorded on vintage analogue gear at Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio, musically Voodoo is comprised of languid, behind-the-beat drum patterns (courtesy of ?uestlove) and languorous basslines, which are up front and centre like hip hop beats. Above and behind this there are taut, high-up-the-chest guitar lines and riffs, woozy horns, indolent piano and organs, plus scratching, studio FX and chatter. The instruments were apparently recorded almost entirely live in a room, with barely any overdubs.

There are plenty of overdubs on D’Angelo’s vocals, though, as his voice floats over the top of everything else, harmonising with himself almost impenetrably, lyrics hard to discern but mood pretty easy to ascertain. He sings about sex, faith, and love, admonishes the greedy, prays for this son, the vocal melodies less recognisable as songs than understandable as blissful incantations.

Voodoo is world away from the modern digital R&B it was contemporaneous to. Is it better? Not necessarily – the likes of Aaliyah produced some sublime, heart-stopping music – but it is different. As indulgent as an album can possibly be, it is incredibly long, focussed to the point of myopia, obsessed with intangible notions like authenticity and spirit and soul. I go through periods where I get obsessed with it, with unravelling its secrets (and it does feel like it contains secrets), and then I put it away again and forget about it for a year or three or five. Because how often can you find the time and space and mood to listen to a record like this?

“Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”, the penultimate song and big single (with the abs-featuring video that seemingly ruined D’Angelo’s psyche for a decade), is like the ghost of a Prince ballad, the tune so clearly beautiful but so hard to touch that even as you’re listening to it you feel like you’re remembering it rather than experiencing it. It’s the only song to build to a climax, to feature bona fide hooks and a chorus, but it just stops dead, cutting to silence apros of nothing before it ever reaches the ecstatic plateau it’s been teasing you with for seven minutes. For a long time, the fear was that D’Angelo’s career might have done the same.

Tom Listened: In the past two days I have sat through the whole of The Age of Adz and I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One – gargantuan double albums by Sufjan Stevens and Yo La Tengo respectively. And I have experienced almost exactly the same thing as I did when listening to Voodoo at Nick’s house. The albums begin wonderfully, plateau a little and then my own failings kick in and I just want to move on, listen to something else, change the mood in the room and in my head. Sufjan’s and Yo La Tengo’s albums I know well and I thoroughly enjoy both in smaller doses (in the case of the Age of Adz I know I’m probably not supposed to but, for me, it’s a much more enjoyable album than Illinois). But over the course of 70 minutes plus, I find it hard to sustain interest in an single (double) album.

Voodoo suffered a similar fate – right up to about the 50 minute mark I found this wonderful – vital, sharp and intriguing, I certainly see where Nick is coming from in his categorising Voodoo as jazz as it has that freedom and ability to surprise that the more rigid structures inherent in many forms of more traditional pop music discourage. But, to be honest, I could have lived without the last 15 minutes. Like almost all the double albums I know (and many that I love), to my ears, a bit of judicious trimming would probably have improved the work!

Graham listened: I must admit I settled down to listen to this thinking it would be a fairly testing experience. For around about the same time as Tom mentions, I was incredibly surprised to find myself toe tappin’, boppin’ and noddin’ (my best efforts at R&B slang) along. An effortless and restrained jazzy groove and vibe had me hooked. But after three quarters of an hour or so my attention began to fade. I not sure if I had heard enough, the style became closer to what I was expecting originally or the arrival of a Lebanese takeaway played its part? Still, in the right mood and with a little trimming in places, I would happily listen again.

Rob listened: I’m afraid I failed to sustain any interest in ‘Voodoo’, so Tom and Graham have done extremely well by comparison. I knew a little of the backstory, and have read some of the glowing reviews, and I love spending time with many of the record’s apparent reference points, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Prince. After about ten minutes, I could feel the jazz influence coming in and thought the record was going to grow into something as twisting and beguiling as I was hoping for. Instead it seemed just to plod on, one long groove after another. Played beautifully, assembled lovingly, and clearly concealing genuine depths, i’m afraid ‘Voodoo’ left me with two predominant thoughts: ‘I fancy a snooze’ and ‘Where did I last see my copy of ‘Jazzmatazz Vol 1?’

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel etc: Round 42 – Tom’s Selection

FionaAppleIdlerWheel600GbAs we reach the end of another paltry year of contemporary purchases for me and the end of year lists are pouring in full of albums I’ve never heard of by outfits I’ve never heard of, I’m more unsure than ever of the worth of the process. You see, I could easily come up with a list of THE top ten albums from this year but it would include the majority of current albums I’ve got to know well over the last 12 months. If I were to post said list, I’m sure any reader would assume I had devoured far more music than I actually have and would not realise that my number 10 would represent a scraping of the barrel rather than a glittering jewel plucked from a huge vault of varied and comprehensive listening. At the other end of the spectrum are those lists that are so long they beggar belief – how can anyone get properly acquainted with 100+ albums in a year? Yet you regularly see lists of this length made by a single person! Do they do anything other than make lists while sitting around their stereo all night long? Probably not. Either that or (whisper it) they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

That said, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I don’t avidly follow the lists at this time of year scouring them to find that undiscovered gem I had previously overlooked or been unaware of. And as this is a time of giving as much as receiving it’s only right that I do my bit to contribute to the end of year thing. So…just in case you’ve lived in a cave over the last 12 months, have not followed the reviews or just think you happen to dislike this sort of thing, Fiona Apple released an album in June…and that’s my album of 2012 (and I’m fairly confident about this). It’s called: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (not sure these album titles do her any favours). I would urge you to listen to it. You may well find it not to your taste, and that’s fine, but I think you should definitely check it out. I say this, not because I’ve listened to hundreds of new albums this year but because I think it’s a remarkable album – brutal and subtle, always interesting and unsettling even if it veers tantalisingly close to ‘kooky’ territory at times (too close for some, perhaps). This is the first Fiona Apple album I’ve owned but it will probably not be the last.

The last time I heard a solo female artist sound this confident and instinctive on a record was on St Vincent’s second album Actor. The two albums don’t sound that alike really but they share an honesty and a lack of self-consciousness that enable the songs to reach parts that more considered records (see Strange Mercy) do not.  But whereas Actor has moments of sonic assault, it seems to me that The Idler Wheel is all about space, momentum and the balance between simplicity and complexity which seem to coexist simultaneously on many of the songs. Check out Periphery, Johnathan, Werewolf, Every Single Night…that’s practically half the album already! All these songs have such spartan instrumentation, often just a piano plonking away every now and then – it’s the melody lines and Apple’s (exquisite) singing that lift the song from the ordinary to the frequently extraordinary. That and the astonishing drumming that reaches it’s zenith on the album’s breathtaking closer Hot Knife which, for the most part, is just a drum, Apple and her sister Maude Maggart. This was a joker track (songs that we have to listen to properly..although you are allowed to check the football scores during them, apparently) for which nobody needed to be instructed not to speak! It’s a cracking end to a cracking album and if you can find a record from 2012 that I (and my family for that matter) prefer you’ll be doing well. Maybe the answer lies in those end of year lists. Then again, maybe not!

Nick listened: I bought Fiona Apple’s debut album many, many years ago, I think on the advice of my older brother after enjoying her cover of Across The Universe. I quite liked it, as I recall, but haven’t played it in many years – I suspect it was a victim of the post-adolescent indie boy’s fear of women. I’ll be revisiting it soon to reasses.

Because this was awesome; several times during the playback I said “this is a jazz album!” and, with its minimal arrangements, sense of musical freedom and unusual chords, it certainly felt closer to jazz than mainstream pop. Apple’s vocals, almost scatting at points, add to the impression. I was intrigued and beguiled by The Idler Wheel, and I’ll be picking it up pretty soon, I think. PS. I did indeed pick up a copy, last week in The Drift; I also picked up Ekstasis by Julia Holter, which Tom played a track from. An expensive week’s listening!

Graham listened: Unfortunately I am a bit of a ‘Kooky Monster’ and offer short shrift to those that bend, rather than play within or completely break, the rules. An interesting listen but it fell outside my my boundaries on to the stony land of stuff I don’t try hard enough to appreciate.

Rob listened: I had Fiona Apple filed somewhere only slightly to the left of Alanis Morissette and due North of Liz Phair. To be honest, all I really knew about her was that she used to be a bit poppy, had gone a bit more left-field and kept getting mentions on Pitchfork, although i’d never really unravelled whether this was because they dug her or because she was having some sort of extended public breakdown.

I’m so pleased Tom sorted all that out for me. ‘The Idler Wheel’ clearly deserves all the plaudits it has received. Somehow both rich and sparse, it feels like creature who’s internal structures you can see working mysteriously away whilst it lives and breathes. We talked about how lazy it feels to compare female singer songwriters only to other female singer songwriters. To be fair, we’re probably equally lazy when it comes to comparing male performers too. I wonder, however, whether the reason we find ourselves invoking St Vincent and Merrill Garbus and Joanna Newsom when we listen to a record like this, is that women just happen to be making the most challenging and inventive music at the moment?

Loved it, will buy it.

Miles Davis – In A Silent Way; Round 21, Nick’s choice

Graham deigned not to set a theme for this week, so I turned to the literal pile of CDs that I’ve amassed on a shelf and mentally labelled as future contenders for Devon Record Club. And, as usual, I’ve picked out a record that I’ve written about before, way back when Stylus still existed. (To my amusement, my ruminations on this record, researched from a couple of books I had on Miles from the library, are now used as a source on producer Teo Macero’s Wikipedia page. Which just goes to prove the pointlessness of citations.)

Anyway. The Christmas holiday in my first year at university, and I decided to get into red wine and jazz. As you do. My dad shared a bottle of rioja that he’d received as a gift from a client with me, and my brother bought me Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis. Not a bad introduction to either. I delved further into Miles’ catalogue more quickly than I explored pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, though, eating up Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way first, as those seemed like the most exciting and essential jazz albums from Miles’ oeuvre for a young man to get to grips with.

But, whilst Bitches Brew can take some getting to grips with as you go about unravelling its immense tapestry of sound, rhythm, melody, and texture, In A Silent Way clicked with me straight away. Maybe it was the fact that I’d already digested a handful of CAN albums as a 17 year old? Or perhaps it’s just that this mesmerising, mellifluous amalgamation of electric pianos (two of them, and an organ on top), slinky bass grooves, insistent high-hats and insouciant, beatific, late night melancholy-and-cool-at-the-same-time trumpet and saxophone riffs is, purely and simply, an absolute pleasure?

I’ve never met anyone who knows In A Silent Way and didn’t love it. It occupies a similar territory to CAN’s Future Days and The Necks, and paved a trail that would be followed by a host of ambient musicians and other minimalists and experimentalists for years to come, as well as pioneering production techniques that only The Beatles had ventured towards previously, and which would soon become commonplace throughout pretty much all pop music.

I say it a lot in reference to the records I bring along to DRC, but In A Silent Way is one of my favourite records ever (I bring them because I love them dearly!). But what will Graham, Rob, and Tom make of it?

Tom listened: Well, Nick is being a little disingenuous there as he already knows what I think of it. For me, In A Silent Way is the best jazz record I have ever heard… by a long shot. But then, I’m not sure just how ‘jazz’ it is. This is something else, it exists in its own little group of one, a unique record that is a blissful meeting place of be-bop, fusion and african rhythms, loops, crazy organ sounds and a hypnotic groove that keeps you guessing right up until the last few minutes when Miles eventually lets rip in the (frankly orgasmic) kaleidoscope of sound that had been promised for the previous 35 minutes. This is not one of the best jazz records ever, it is one of the best records ever…and if you think you don’t like jazz and haven’t heard this, reserve judgment until you have!

Rob listened: Beautiful and timeless. I hadn’t heard it before, my Miles go from ‘Birth of the Cool’ to ‘Kind of Blue’ and then run out. I get Tom’s opint about this seeming to sit in a class of one. ‘In a Silent Way’ sounds like it’s always existed. To an extent it was unsurprising in that its moods, if not its moves, have been copped so many times since then that they have become part of the culture. It’s slightly disorienting then to face the facts that this sound, this approach, this type of record had to start somewhere, that this it where it DID start, and that, based on my scant experience, none of its celebrants, or imitators have come close to its accomplishment. It’s impossible to imagine anyone not loving it. But then, I have a limited imagination.

Graham Listened: Well I’m one of the people Tom points to in  last sentence. Lets be clear here. I’m not about to grow a goatee, buy a beret and start attracting people’s attention by saying “hey Cat”, but I may just have been converted. Wonderful feeling of motion and groove. Need to tread carefully along this path to avoid falling back in to previous prejudiced view.

Acoustic Ladyland – Skinny Grin – Round 18; Nick’s choice

There was a little organisational chaos around this week’s DRC – we were meant to meet last week, at Tom’s with a complicated theme involving some serious (for us) logistical planning, but things fell through, so we rescheduled a regular, unthemed meeting for my house at short notice. So it seemed logical to go back to my mental checklist of albums I first thought of when DRC was conceived, and this excitable slice of “punk jazz” has now wormed its way to the top of that pile.

Released just before Christmas in 2006, I reviewed Skinny Grin at the time, and made bold claims for its genius and potential as a marketable crossover from the vibrant London jazz scene that’s produced seemingly scores of tokenistic-jazz-choice Mercury nominations – Polar Bear, Basquiat Strings, Portico Quartet, even avant-rock choices like The Invisible. I was convinced that Skinny Grin would garner universal acclaim and massive success.

Sadly, although it definitely got the acclaim, its bizarre choice of release date saw it fall into the cracks between Sufjan Stevens Yuletide boxsets and Celine Dion best-ofs, and nobody outside the crowd of usual suspects seemed to become enthused by it; it was too late to make any 2006 end-of-year lists, and by the time the 2007 ones rolled around, it had been forgotten in favour of Battles, who did a similar thing but seemingly from a different direction.

Acoustic Ladyland started their career with an album of, unsurprisingly, acoustic jazz reinterpretations of Hendrix tunes, and then spectacularly found their own sound at the edge of jazz, punk, the avant-garde, and metal with their second album, Last Chance Saloon, which came out around the same time as Polar Bear’s acclaimed, Mercury-nominated quasi-crossover, Held On The Tips Of Fingers; the two

Skinny Grin itself is frenetic, groovy, teetering-on-the-edge-of-chaos stuff. One track is mixed by none other than DRC-fave Scott Walker, who adds what sounds like a muzzle of angry electronic bees to the jerking, multi-directional instrumentation. Guest vocalists, and bandleader Pete Wareham, trading saxophone for microphone, add a punky, poppy dimension to some tracks, but it’s the (predominantly) instrumental tracks that hit the hardest, packing a progressive punch that transgresses genre boundaries like little else I’ve heard before or since. It’s not just jazz fusion; it’s far more exciting than that.

Tom Listened: I am amazed at how consistently Nick manages to choose records that I don’t know, most of which it’s turns out, I really like! This was another one, captivating from start to end, hard to pin down (was it jazz? rock?, fusion? – horrible word that), yet so effective in doing what it was setting out to achieve. I liked the vocal tracks just as much as the instrumental ones and would look forward to exploring Skinny Grin further, despite the fact the band have such an awful, and totally misleading, name. Well done Nick – another goodie!

Rob listened: I loved the first track which seemed cast as a face-off between a cocktail jazz quartet and a herd of straining mid-90s metal apologists. Which is all good in my book. As the record progressed, it started to lose focus, a sense of purpose, for me at least. I liked the compressed thrash jazz workouts wherein Acoustic Ladyland genuinely seemed to be onto something, combining the free associative joy of both genres without, apparently, doing either a disservice, but the more the record went on, the more I found my attention drifting.

%d bloggers like this: