The Third Ear

Music and imagination

Track of the Week #4: Jenny Hval – Spells

The lead track from Hval’s new The Long Sleep EP, Spells sees the Norwegian composer/songwriter/producer at her most oneiric, and also her most accessible. It’s stunning. The sonic richness of Julia Holter, the sweet/sinister vocals, the drum beat that sounds like it was lifted from Queen’s I Want To Break Free… this has it all.

The Long Sleep EP comes out on 24th May



Track of the Week #3: Kero Kero Bonito – You Know How It Is

In which everyone’s favourite London-based J-pop/electro-twee pranksters go all C86, to winning effect. You know how it is…

Track of the Week #2: Christina Vantzou – Some Limited and Waning Memory

Christina Vantzou is based in Brussels and composes things. Her new album, No.4, is out on 6th April. This little taster is sublime. Ambient in all the best ways, with soft fringes of piano flickering like benign migraine auras around the edges. The album contains tracks called Glissando for Bodies and Machines in Space, Percussion in Nonspace and Garden of Forking Paths (presumably named after the Borges story), all of which bodes extremely well.

Track of the week: Kayla Painter – In the Witch Elm

Bristol-based producer and composer Kayla Painter has found herself in possession of some previously unheard samples by the revolutionary electronic music innovator Delia Derbyshire. For In the Witch Elm, she has stitched some of these together to create a new sonic landscape that pays discreet homage to Derbyshire’s vision while displaying her own considerable talent. As befits the source material, it sounds both futuristic and intangibly nostalgic, and achieves its effect without recourse to the overused tropes of hauntology.

Catch Kayla Painter live at Darkroom Espresso in Swindon on 21st April.

Album review: Oly Ralfe – Notes From Another Sea

Oly Ralfe’s piano credentials are undoubted: as the more song-oriented Ralfe Band he created graceful, slightly off-kilter pop, often built around wonky piano melodies whose influences veered from the wild west to the far east, fleshed out with full band backing. But on his first official solo outing he’s taken his instrument and isolated it, in an attempt to find its essence. It is a series of ostensibly introverted studies, stripped away from everything except for that moment of contact between finger and key, and the emotion that can pass between the two.

This is a seriously piano-y piano album. So much ivory that Ralfe could be successfully prosecuted as an elephant poacher. There are two ways you can approach and appraise it. The short track lengths lull you into thinking that these are just Ralfe Band songs with their clothes taken off. Pop music boiled down to its formative cells. But that would be doing Ralfe a disservice as a composer and a performer. This kind of music demands a kind of immersion on the part of the listener to enable it to be appreciated as a complete work. Get to the end, and listen again, and you will hear an overall aesthetic emerge. It is an aesthetic of Romanticism, but it is arrived at in ingenious ways, often via compositional techniques learned from modernism. In this way it is an heir to the work of both Chopin and Satie, and sits comfortably beside the piano works of Yann Tiersen.

It is infused, like so much solo piano music, with palpable melancholy. But like Tiersen, Ralfe has the natural and unpindownable sense for a sudden moment of melodic rapture. That he can pull it off continuously over a series of three-minute bursts, and with enough variation to keep you interested for fourteen tracks is seriously admirable. Icy landscapes (The Swallow Sleeps All Winter and A Forest In The City) sit comfortably alongside pretty (and very French-sounding) waltzes like On My Train and Lantern Waltz. It’s all very lovely, but more than that, it’s an assured set of mini-compositions that bridge the gap between pop and neo-classical without any of the frivolity that either of those genre labels implies.

A Year In The Ear: 2017

A record for every week of the year – here is a list of my favourite new albums of 2017.

52. Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon

Sure it’s essentially derivative – Oh Yeah is basically a camp XTC – and the lyrics are silly, but musically this is some high quality product, lovingly crafted, knowing and at times uplifting.


51. Hans P. og Rasmus Kjorstad – Pusinshi Ulla

The most startling, original album of experimental Norwegian folk you’re likely to hear all year. You can read my review here.


50. Tisso Lake -Paths to the Foss

Edinburgh-based Ian Humberstone’s site-specific homage to a Scandinavian waterfall. Here’s a review.


49. Offa Rex – The Queen Of Hearts

If you were playing Fantasy Folk-Rock you’d want Olivia Chaney up front and the Decemberists in midfield. Together, they sound like Steeleye Span for the twenty-first century.


48. Aquaserge – Laisse ca Etre

Former Stereolab members sounding a bit like Stereolab, which is nice.


47. Cape Snow – The Last of the Light

Inspired collaboration, which I was lucky enough to review, between singer Bree Scanlon and slowcore old-timers Tiger Saw. For fans of Low or Mazzy Star.


46. House and Land – House and Land

Minimal Appalachian drone-folk, anyone?


45. Ajani Jones – Eternal Bliss

Cool, intelligent rap from Chicago.


44. Lisa Knapp – Till April Is Dead: A Garland of May

Innovative take on English traditional music. Reviewed here.


43. The Hayman Kupa Band – The Hayman Kupa Band

Darren Hayman returns to the themes he explored with Hefner, with help from the vocal talents of songwriter Emma Kupa.


42. Allred & Broderick – Find the Ways

Superb collaborative effort, bridging the gap between timeless folk music and minimal modern composition. I gushed about it back in April. 


41. Fred Thomas – Changer

An indie-rock album about finding maturity, but delivered with carefree abandon.


40. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Best Troubadour

Affectionate and beautifully rendered tribute album of Merle Haggard songs. Another one that I got to review. 


39. Emma Gatrill – Cocoon

Brighton-based harpist partially filling the Joanna Newsom-shaped hole in this year’s music.


38. Stef Chura – Messes

Chura created some of the year’s catchiest guitar-pop.


37. Karla Kane – King’s Daughters Home for Incurables

Another collection of unbelievably catchy tunes, with a darkly witty heart.


36. Julien Marchal – Insight III

More Chopin-esque loveliness from the prolific composer and pianist.


35. Big Thief – Capacity

Mary might just be the best song of the year, and the rest of the record isn’t bad either.


34. Jonwayne – Rap Album 2

One of the most erudite and distinctive talents in rap.


33. Sun Riah – Sitting With Sounds and Listening For Ghosts

Delicate and devastating in equal measure.


32. Toby Hay – The Gathering

One of the best instrumental guitar albums I’ve heard in a very long time. File alongside Fahey, Jansch, William Tyler. I had great fun reviewing this one.


31. Lomelda – Thx

Wise, life-affirming sad-pop from one of America’s most honest, endearing songwriters.


30. Jane Weaver – Modern Kosmology

Does what it says on the tin. Kraut-pop and psychy synths. A career highlight.


29. Alasdair Roberts – Pangs

Another year, another superb Roberts album for me to review.


28. Hauschka – What If

The year’s second best album of prepared piano music.


27. Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

Byrne is the closest thing we’ve got to a new Joni Mitchell. I reviewed her album for Folk Radio UK. 


26. Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory

Stetson is still pushing the boundaries of the relationship between man and sax (and inviting bad sex/sax puns).


25. The Gist – Holding Pattern

Young Marble Giant Stuart Moxham is back and still bonkers (the new record has a DIY dub take on the old magpie rhyme).


24. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket

Wide-ranging, maybe a bit patchy, but always lovable (and it contained two of the year’s finest songs, the folk-pop belter Bobby and the Big Star-channelling Proud).


23. Richard Dawson – Peasant

I described this record as ‘astonishing’ when it was released, and it’s lost none of its power to amaze. One of the strangest and most ambitious of the year’s albums.


22. Laura Cannell – Hunter Huntress Hawker

Violin compositions blurring the boundaries between modern and ancient. Mesmerising.


21. The Caretaker – Everywhere At The End Of Time

38 tracks (so far), the first half of an epic exploration of dementia. It’s not set to be completed until March 2019, which means there’s a chance the same album will appear on this list three years in a row.


20. The Inward Circles – And Right Lines Limit And Close All Bodies

Lovely, sometimes disturbing, drone-laden site-specific sound art from composer Richard Skelton. Experimental music at its most vital.


19. King Ayisoba – 1000 Can Die

Bang full of energy and ideas, fiercely Ghanaian but impressively international in scope.


18. Saagara – Saagara 2

Polish composer Waclaw Zimpel and his Indian orchestra create a sound that is hypnotic, minimalistic and highly original.


17. SZA – Ctrl

Confessional, catchy and cutting in equal measure. The pains pleasures of being a young woman in America, brilliantly presented.


16. Phillinois – Stale Green Light

Bristol label Liquid Library is putting out some great stuff, and this release from over the Atlantic is one of the year’s best. Lo-fi indie with heart.


15. Joanne Robertson and Dean Blunt – Wahalla

This was actually recorded in 2014 but only got an official release this year, and it’s absolutely brilliant. Robertson provides typically detached vocals and distorted, psychy guitar, Blunt’s weird guiding hand is ever-present, but never obvious.


14. Laurel Halo – Dust

One of the best ‘electronic’ albums of the year, but so much more soulful than that genre would have you believe.


13. Alex Rex – Vermillion

It’s been a good year for folk-rock acts with ‘Rex’ in their name. Trembling Bells drummer and songwriter Alex Neilson serves up a swirling stew neo-psychedelia.


12. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid

Another triumph of exploratory electronica from last year’s poll-topper.


11. Bulldog Eyes – Seeya

Technically from last year, but released right at the end of December, so I’m including it in this year’s list. Woozy, wonky lo-fi bedroom pop at its finest.


10. Linda Catlin Smith – Drifter

Double album of immense scope and beauty, charting the composer and pianist’s chamber works over the last decade or so.


9. Colleen – A Flame My Love, A Frequency

Cecile Schott is one of our most consistent (and consistently underrated) artists. Here she sets aside her viola da gamba in favour of pocket piano and synths. The results are captivating, and the artwork by Iker Spozio is worth the price of the vinyl alone.


8. Amelia Devoid – Hypogeum

Inspired by native American heritage and the writing of Umberto Eco and Phillip Pullman, Devoid (her real name, apparently) has created something which is both ambient and immediate.


7. Harriet Brown – Contact

Funk, electronica, hip-hop and a load of weird shit, all thrown into a millennial pot and stirred with a spoon made from Prince’s shin bone.


6. Ellen Arkbro – For Organ And Brass

Ultra-modern Swedish drone, filtered through the musical systems of Renaissance Europe.


5. Kelly Moran – Bloodroot

Minimalist prepared piano pieces, on a botanical theme, inspired by but not in thrall to John Cage.


4. Zimpel/Ziolek – Zimpel/Ziolek

Waclaw Zimpel’s second appearance on this list, this time accompanied by guitarist Kuba Ziolek. The result is something like a cross between Roy Harper and Terry Riley.


3. Helena Celle – If I Can’t Handle Me At My Best, Then You Don’t Deserve You At Your Worst

It actually came out last year, but only got a full vinyl release on Night School in 2017. Melodic, experimental techno, I suppose, but such distinctions don’t really do it justice.


2. Soley – Endless Summer

A sparkling Icelandic chamber-pop masterpiece. The musical equivalent of freeze-thaw erosion, but much prettier.


1. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me

One of the saddest, rawest collections of songs ever released. Some have questioned whether Phil Elverum’s extended lament for his recently dead wife even qualifies as art at all. I don’t think that’s the right question to be asking. Just take it for what it is: pure human emotion, recorded as it happened.








THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? A cento for John Ashbery

Little man, what now?
Who’s got the action?
The last of the secret agents?
Is everybody happy?

Are you listening?
Is my face red?
How do I love thee?
How would you like to be the ice man?

Will success spoil Rock Hunter?
What’s up, Tiger Lily?
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Whatever happened to Aunt Alice?

Are these our parents?
Are parents people?
What do you say to a naked lady?
Are all men alike?

Isn’t life terrible?
Isn’t it romantic?
Are we civilized?
What price Hollywood?

Where do we go from here?
Are we there yet?
Are we done yet?

Where was I?
When do we eat?
Does it end right?
Where is my wandering boy tonight?