The Third Ear

Music and imagination

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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?
Kalamazoo?
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?

Album review: Robert Sotelo – Cusp

The notion of Englishness can be taken in many ways, not all of them good. There are the stereotypes of laddish behaviour: the football-hooligan abroad, the lobotomised flag-waver, the stumbling stag-party stalwart, the, er, Jeremy Clarkson. There is the boorishness, the lack of class, the poor dress sense, the shit cooking. There is Brexit. But in terms of popular music, it would seem that the opposite is true. When people talk about Englishness in pop they are generally referring to the vaguely eccentric but otherwise undefinable strand that runs through the work of Paul McCartney, Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers and Ray Davies, via artists as diverse as XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, Kirsty MacColl, through to twee pop and outsider folk. There is an implied gentleness to English pop, and I mean gentle in the medieval sense as well as the modern. It can be bucolic or cosmopolitan, cheekily subversive or carefully nostalgic.

In pop music’s handling of nostalgia, things can so often go wrong. An appeal to an often spurious golden age is usually indicative of a lack of ideas, even a negation of the genre’s future. But, perhaps paradoxically, nostalgia can be a hotbed of new ideas. When done well, the examination of the past can both pay tribute and satirise. Think of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and in particular that album’s brilliant closing song, ‘People Take Pictures Of Each Other’. Davies uses familiar musical tropes to explore the way the past impinges on the present, in music and in life, while at the same time creating a song that still feels pertinent in the selfie generation.

Robert Sotelo (real name Andrew Doig) is a songwriter in a similar vein to Davies or XTC’s Andy Partridge. Cusp is his debut solo album, and it deals largely in a combination of Davies-style character studies and more personal pieces tackling twenty-first century suburban ennui. Musically, he mixes things up just enough to steer clear of the comfortable traps of the past: wonky psychedelia is offset by a lo-fi bedroom-pop aesthetic (Sotelo plays all the instruments himself, and the guitar and keyboard parts twinkle in the general haze).

‘Bring Back The Love’ is a breathless ballad with woozy, almost tropical instrumental backing, while Bronte Paths is similarly heady, offering up off-kilter guitars and plaintive keyboards over a distinctive melody. Here and elsewhere Sotelo displays an admirable sense of timing and a instinctive feeling for space within the song: the bass lines throughout the album rise periodically to the surface, breathe and then submerge themselves again to carry on with their work.

‘Marinade’ is perhaps the most expansive and oddest piece on show here, irresistibly chasing its own tail to a conclusion that has a slow, almost funky, strut to it, like a one-man Beta Band. Simpler but just as effective is ‘Version’, which channels the Beatles (circa 1965-66) into a tale of creative disappointment, while ‘Dr. Parsley’ has jazzier, folkier frills and the title track goes heavier on the psych.

Throughout the record there are always implied social or political comments just round, and this is where Sotelo makes us aware of the flip side of nostalgia – a kind of timeless drudgery that is engineered or at least encouraged by those in positions of power. These ideas come to the fore in ‘Alan Keay Is Fit For Work’ (inspired by Sotelo’s time spent as a support worker in Stevenage) and ‘Tenancy Is Up’, a timely reminder of how individuals can be negatively affected by large scale property development.

Sotelo may crib from the past, but he does so in a way that is relevant, playful and often touching, with lyrics that point to the possibility of a better future. Cusp is an accomplished and mature debut.

 

 

Mope

We tried the cryptic crossword

in an attempt to wake the beast

 

outside, ginger biscuits sludged in a tray

and offal, somewhere, was being thrown off a truck

with a sound that resembled a wet kiss or two

and the grunting of men dressed entirely in white

(what’s that about?) for you. A bald fella’s head

 

passes the window; the street croaks under the rain:

what passes for ambivalence is often desire. If

you listen hard enough. Is it possible to apply

anything cosmetic to the cracks

in the road?

 

If you think about it, there is a hidden mycelium, which,

asses, cranes its billion necks to see the future and the rule

of the rude: bills of blackbirds snap off in the putty earth

and a mole sasses through the whole shebang. Larvae

 

bubble. The bloom on a plumb turns

out to be athlete’s foot spray.

Album review: Royal Trux – Platinum Tips + Ice Cream (live)

Some acts exist within the broad framework of ‘rock’ or ‘pop’ music but stretch the edges of those defining terms so far that their creations are unrecognisable to the unaccustomed listener. They do not so much defy the conventions of genre as annihilate them. I’m thinking the Velvet Underground in full-on ‘Sister Ray’ mode, the whole of Trout Mask Replica, the Fall at their scariest, Diamanda Galas, Throbbing Gristle and their henchpersons, Faust’s debut. There are a few of them about. A rarer beast, though, is the band that can reach those bleak sonic outposts by feeding purely off the culture that they transcend. Sonic Youth maybe got close but always seemed to come back to the form that begat them. But when Royal Trux had finished stripping the carcass of rock and roll, they crushed up the bones, snorted them and then went looking for more.

With their self-titled debut and in particular its 1990 follow-up, Twin Infinitives, Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty created a thrilling shit-soup, a hot mess of deconstructed rock tropes and drug-mangled pop culture references. What followed was a career of brilliance and narcotic lunacy (they were once dropped by a record label for allegedly spending their entire album advance on smack) that came to an end in 2001 when Hagerty and Herrema, who had been a couple since the late 80s, split up.

After some pretty successful reincarnations – Herrema as RTX and more recently the Black Bananas, Hagerty as The Howling Hex – they got it together again in 2016 for long enough to play a handful of gigs. Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is an amalgamation of performances in New York and California, but its artful sequencing and minimal mastering mean it plays out like a single, short, and often thrilling show.

What is instantly striking – and perhaps somewhat surprising to new listeners or those who haven’t listened to the band in a while – is just how good these two were at writing memorable rock and roll tunes. Opener ‘Junkie Nurse’, from their untitled third LP, comes on with the swagger of the New York Dolls and a dirty groove that any of today’s garage rock bands would kill for. It’s a million miles away from the raw, Big Star-channelling original, which itself was a massive departure from their previous work. ‘Sewers of Mars’, from 1995’s Thank You, contains quieter passages that creep with menace and verses full of boogie. But the band’s penchant for deconstruction and musical self-harm means that even when they are mining the glittering seam of 70s rock-era Rolling Stones they sound like they’ve been beamed in from a dirty, deathly future.

Herrema’s voice was never a thing of ripe beauty or sweet clarity, and here she is every bit the addled urban banshee. Her squeaks and grunts at the start of the churning ‘Red Tiger’ seem designed to explicitly mock the overblown vocal delivery of generations of unselfconscious male rock superstars. When she shares space or trades places with Hagerty, as on the brief but strangely exploratory ‘Sometimes’ or the comparatively conventional ‘Mercury’, it is as if the listener has stumbled on an alternative universe where Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were kidnapped by anarchists and made to live in a sewer and eat gravel instead of going into rehab.

The duo were always able to create a great deal of noise without much in the way of outside input, and here they are augmented by Tim Barnes (drums) and Brian McKinley (bass). The two do a great job on the crunching grunge of ‘Esso Dame’, while on ‘Deafer Than Blind’ you can hear the band progressing from loose rehearsal-style jam to locked-in psychy fuzz in the course of about three minutes.

Part of the Royal Trux appeal was their ability to turn their hand to anything as long as they were allowed to fuck it up and make it strange, and here they have applied that talent to their own back catalogue. ‘Waterpark’ becomes a kind of surf-rock anthem from hell, ‘Platinum Tips’ regurgitates its southern rock riff and revels in the extra coating of scuzz it has acquired over time. Best of all is Twin Infinitives favourite ‘Ice Cream’, rendered as an almost unrecognisable slab of future-funk, covered in puddles of gloopy noise.

Royal Trux were always different. Different from their peers, and different from themselves. Their music was art: pure and filthy. In this respect at least, they haven’t changed. Platinum Tips + Ice Cream won’t stand as a monument to their work, but what’s the point in making a monument to something so vital and so alive?

 

Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is released by Drag City on June 16th

Song review: I, idol – ‘Post-Human, Platform Shoes’ and ‘Xerox Me, Baby’

I, idol is an audiovisual recording project comprising three full-time members – Nina, MC Flesh and 3 – and a host of guests. They are from Swindon. This much we know. Other than that, the biographical information is scant, and the wish for anonymity palpable. The ‘about’ section on their Facebook page resembles the aphasic ramblings of a robot in therapy – twisted binary and cat-on-a-keyboard strings of symbols – and homemade masks are de rigueur in the few photographs that exist of the trio.

A sense of mystery is an admirable thing to nurture, particularly in a time where so much art is about the self. But a sense of mystery will only get you so far. To maintain that mystery and still create art that connects is the difficult trick, but I, idol have managed it. They have released two tracks (or rather ‘video singles’) in 2017, and they are both highly original and scarily brilliant.

The first, ‘Post-Human, Platform Shoes’, mixes retro-futurist minimal techno with blasts of industrial noise, inside which lurks, half-hidden, the glimmer of a beautiful pop song. There are shades of Holly Herndon, Laurel Halo and even Aphex Twin, but the overall effect is one of collage, with rock, pop and hip-hop motifs grafted with laudable perfectionism onto the thrillingly modern bedrock. Like Herndon’s tracks, much of the content seems to examine the increasingly blurred lines between technology, humanity and personal politics. But there is something decidedly British about I, idol, particularly the on-point rap courtesy of Twitch Throat. Throughout, Nina’s vocals hush and swirl, at times approaching the near-glossolalia of Elizabeth Fraser, at others the treated, medicated detachment and repetition of early Julia Holter. It’s an alluring mix.

 

Second up, and preserving the comma-love, is ‘Xerox Me, Baby’. Here the trio’s transatlantic influences are more tangible. Nina’s vocals float like a soul-pop diva stranded in the technological ether before a mad snippet of electric guitar gives a Zappa/Funkadelic vibe to the whole thing. Again, there is a verse from a guest rapper, and this one is a slice of pure daisy age brilliance, a lament for the loss of originality nailed to one of the most original bits of music I’ve heard this year.

 

And there lies I’ idol’s brilliance. Some artists are truly original. Some have a healthy political awareness. Some are blessed with individual talent. Some have an unerring ear for the great sounds of the past or the possibilities of the future. I, idol’s diversity, their fearlessness and perhaps their youth have given them the tools to attempt to be all of these things. Taken together, these two tracks are a short, exhilarating jolt. With any luck, there will be plenty more to come.

A Year in the Ear: The best albums of 2016

30. Richard Moult – Sjóraust

Experimental composition meets weird folk meets social history: read my review here.

 

29. Hello Shark – Delicate

Like the Silver Jews reimagined for post-emo millennials. No bad thing. Here’s a stream.

 

28. Laura Cannell – Simultaneous Flight Movement

 

27. Julien Marchal – Insight

 

26. Rusalnaia – Time Takes Away

Pastoral psych-folk from Sharron Kraus and Gillian Chadwick. Here’s a review.

 

25. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Fan-alienating, Stevie Nicks-sampling electro-folk-R&B. Tres bon.

 

24. Diagonal People – Odyssey

Punk, prog and pop all in the same place, and that place is Swindon.

 

23. Space Mountain – Big Sky

 

22. Yama Warashi – Moon Zero

Arty, Brigitte Fontaine-esque dreaminess via Bristol and Japan.

 

21. Vaudou Game – Kidayu

French Afro-beat at its funkiest.

 

20. Julianna Barwick – Will

 

19. Kero Kero Bonito – Bonito Generation

 

18. Furrow Collective – Wild Hog

Reveiw here!

 

17. Anderson.Paak – Malibu

 

16. Gold Panda – Good Luck And Do Your Best

Oriental-tinged electronica with a hint of minimal techno.

 

15. Julsy – Ze Rest Of Uz

 

14. Yann Tiersen – Eusa

Breton composer at his Chopin-esque best.

 

13. William Tyler – Modern Country

One of the best instrumental guitar albums in a long time.

 

12. Michael Tanner – Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer

The theory of drone meets the earthiness of pagan folk.

 

11. The Pooches – The Pooches

 

10. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens

 

9. Lambchop – Flotus 

Bon Iver’s not the only indie institution mining the rich, shimmering seam of electronic music.

 

8. Waclaw Zimpel – Lines

Jazz! Minimalism! Clarinets!

 

7. Petite Meller – Lil Empire

Simply the best pure pop album I’ve heard in years.

6. Lomelda – 4E*

 

5. Mothers – When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired

 

4. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

For a concept album about menstruation, this is surprisingly accessible.

3. SALES – SALES LP

 

2. John Cale – M:FANS

As uncompromising as always.

 

1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS

Stunning, mathematically detailed, conceptually brave, emotive against the odds.