Friday, February 12, 2010

Looking back - the music of 2009

From my own perception I spent most of 2009 looking backwards into the history of music, specifically the 1980s and following the ephemeral trails left by new pop and (what was then) the daring electronica made by machines and sang with a passionate detachment that historians can only dream about. Despite the trail being somewhat weak in terms of the legacy and impact that new pop and 80s synth pop seemed to have on popular culture it sneaked back enough in the music of La Roux and even bizarrely Lady Gaga in that strange androgynous playfulness (or cold calculated lunacy depending on your viewpoint) that she exhibited. Still, she never made so much impact on me as Boy George did back in the early 80s seeing him on TV and experiencing my first taste of gender confusion - was it a girl? No it's a boy! But he's wearing make-up and a dress mummy! I can only link my extreme open-ness towards the multiple ways in which sexuality and gender can be expressed to growing up in the 80s where it was possible to experience it on a weekly basis if only through watching Top of the Pops - and people think Russell T Davies is being subversive with gay characters in Doctor Who. Hardly.... Anyway I deviated somewhat from the point which was to remind myself that I did not spend the entire of 2009 stuck in a retro music wonderland but I did listen to quite a lot of the modern stuff as well as evidenced by my anal approach to dividing up the albums I buy/add to Itunes into the year they came out. I am sure I am not the only person to do this... commencing with Starsailor's All the Plans which like most of Starsailor's more recent offerings is pleasant but forgettable, I struggle now to even hum any of the songs stark in the list. They even have those vaguely pretentious names like 'Neon Sky' and 'You never get what you deserve' cough Coldplay cough. I bought the Answering Machine Another City, another sorry after reading an interview with them in some trendy muso mag that I can't remember the name for the life of me. It's pretty good in a kind of sounding-like-the-subways-but-less-noisy-kind-of-way, rather earnest and the singer's voice got on my nerves a bit because of his habit of over-pronouncing his words. Bastila couldn't be bothered to think of a title for their album other than um Bastila which is lazy but they have a trumpet player which is pretty exciting and lots of energy live which sadly doesn't translate well onto album like many bands I see randomly at a festival they are quietly consigned to the itunes tracklist for eternity. Mongrel's Better than heavy was a free gift with the independent or guardian something like that so is very worthy as a result I managed about 2 seconds before I got bored. Plus I am not that fond of Reverend and the Makers who constituted a sizeable portion of the record. The Black Ghosts... now this is an album I do like despite their lack of ability to think of an album title and the wistful 'Full Moon' that lurks on the beginning to the Twilight film no real indication of their ability to write a stonking disco tune. Did I really just use the word stonking oh dear I did I blame having to write too many reports at work it has seriously dimmed my ability to think of pretentious metaphors. Ho hum The Big Pink A Brief History of Love seemed to be part of the half-hearted shoe gazing revival (well you don't imagine them to have enough energy to be passionate about it do you?) with its scuzzy production and hazy lyrics about girls and whatever. I like Crystal Visions and Dominos (nothing to do with the pizza people I assume) but the rest seems to be blurred into one big messy mass so lets pass on that to White Rose Movement who released one bizarre single Cigarette Machine which seemed to be an Elvis piss-take on a politically incorrect subject, not as immediate and loveable as their debut but let's give them a chance hey! Anthony and the Johnsons made me cry again with The Crying Light and so I only listen to it at my most resilience, I only hope that Anthony is blithe and cheerful in real life as he is melancholy on record. Ou est le Swimming Pool rocked my festival mind but Dance the Way I feel didn't quite capture the spirit of seeing four men who look like they come from completely different musical backgrounds in one band (the singer in a cardigan no shirt for god's sake) bouncing round the stage like a very wrong boy band. Not that any boy bands are ever right but this is extreme. Dots to connect was some compilation of American bands doing covers of miserable tunes but it had Veil Veil Vanish and Bell Hollow who are awesome kind-of Goth bands. Fever Ray, well I don't know what to say exactly it disturbs me and thrills me in equal measure a brooding slab of awesomeness particularly 'When I grow up' which never fails to send strange shudders through my ears into my brain and crystallise into tears of amazement as such a song could ever be written. Like The Twilight Sad Forget the Night Ahead it is not an easy listen; squalling feedback, grumpy singer in the Scots vernacular and a true horrorshow of song narratives that make you want to cower next to the stereo with your hands over your ears until it stops. But its that kind of challenge which I expect from my music. Kiss of Life by friendly fires was a sweet candyfloss track that I hope will be toughened up for their next offering, its a teeny bit, well a lot twee - we want strong colours not pastel! The Cheek Hung Up on being the Menswear for the new Millennium and Brett Anderson surprised me by going all torch singer on us and delivering a majestic song The Hunted which reminded me of the swooning delights of The Wild Ones. Hmmm the Editors went a bit weird and electro on In this Light and on this evening: I have to say that I liked the sparse musical backing but unfortunately the lyrics are so clunky that their amusement factor completely destroys the attempt at seriousness. Like actors that have one way of acting singer Tom only really has one way of singing - sonorous, po-faced and absolutely no sense of mischief or even a raised eyebrow. Remind you of anyone? Whereas Yeah Yeah yeahs pulled off the same retro vibe with aplomb on It's Blitz mostly because they seem more fun and Karen O yelps and stutters her way sexily through. I think they should have A levels on the song titles to the Manic's last album Journal for Plague Lovers which saw them return to form in a blisteringly beautiful way, and Nicky's last song to Richey is so plaintive that even thinking of it stirs the tear ducts. Somehow they get away with song titles like Jackie Collins Existential Question Time without looking like prats but then the Manics always got away with many things that no other band can, they have that magic. Royksopp Junior was overall a disappointment for me although I love The Girl and The Robot which is infinitely catchy - I think they used up their magic all on that song. Kitsune Maison Compilation 7 introduced me to Two Door Cinema Club Something good can work and at the polar opposite of this sweet paean Heartsrevolution whose electronic mash-ups like Ultraviolence complete with girly sinister vocals are fabulously decadent. La Roux I liked when they first emerged but I went off the high voice antics pretty quick still not a bad return to the 80s, although listening to the real thing kind of spoils the novelty. I went off Maps as well who went all hippy and rave-y with Let go of the fear. The Maccabees weren't really my thing either but Amadou and Mariam are, certainly The Magic Couple does not lie, they have soul and groove in buckets. More so than David Sylvian who continues his war on music with Manafon a nonetheless hypnotic exploration of sound topped off with David's incredible voice (it got me to try out Tilt by Scott Walker which is deemed to be unlistenable but I rather liked it although perhaps listening to Sylvian prepared my ears for it I don't know). Passion Pit Moth's Wings continued the domination of young men with very high voices making music, well not sure if there is really a dominance but I blame Mika. Another band that are better on record than live, like MGMT they were very flat and disappointing. Blacklist I have no idea who they are but seem to be slightly gothic and Midnight of the Century is suitably dark and brooding as a dark and brooding thing can be. Two giants of the 1980s teemed up as John Foxx got together with Robin Guthrie for Mirrorball, no lyrics as such just Foxx ooh-ing and aah-ing over melodic guitar, would sound good in one of those weird water tank things where you can do nothing but relax. Guthrie's former singing partner Elizabeth Fraser did not do quite so well with Moses which sounded like the Cocteau Twins mashed badly with the Gotan project, a bit dated really. Everything Everything another promising band with My Keys, Your Boyfriend which has one of the best lyrics of the year 'It's like I'm watching the A4 paper taking over the guillotine' and despite the presence of another squeaky male he just about gets away with it because of the beautiful melody which is how Interpol would sound if they were on happy pills. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are a well cute band with a cute name and cute band members and cute songs about being in love and being young and eating too many sherbet dib dabs and even better all this cute-ness is not sickly at all because they have absorbed the dirty feedback sensibilities of bands like My Bloody Valentine, hurrah! The Horrors ditched their Victorian steampunk goth overtones (shame) and got grown up and (but not too) serious with primary colours where Faris howled about ice ages and got his fragile frame into a lather but it worked and that's what matters. Howling Bells did not achieve so well IMO with Radio Wars it's like they had all the right ingredients but something did not rise properly so it came out the studio oven all flat. Paul Haig sneaked into the end of the year with Relive and proved that he is quietly continuing to produce great works without fuss. John Foxx was a busy man with another release this time with Steve Jansen (ex Japan) and D'Agostino A Secret Life proving very gentle and subtle, perhaps too much so as it is the kind of music to lie in a dark room to when you have a migraine. Not that its a bad thing, mind. I like the Hours' See the Light again another band that quietly does its thing getting album covers from Damian Hurst and supporting Kasabian, an explosion of piano and 'will to live' songs that give you hope when your wallowing in the doldrums. Simian Mobile Disco is slightly more then A Temporary Pleasure but not having much cause to dance round the house at the moment it largely remains a silent pleasure. White Lies oh yes To Lose My Life caused me much hilarity when I bought it not just for its obvious 80s leanings but also the completely un-subtle references to DEATH and GLOOM and SUICIDE it gives hope to polo neck wearing 6th form miserable-ists writing poetry in their messy bedrooms. But saying that it is a surprisingly catchy set of songs which means I cannot hate it, to lose my life coming out as a collision of Duran Duran and Joy Division - now if only that had really been possible how good would that be? Fab and now onto my favoured band at the moment Franz Ferdinand who burst Tonight: Franz Ferdinand all over 2009 and made me sit up and realise how fabulous they actually are! Mind you the best songs are all squandered at the start of the album in a funk-tastic orgy of Ulysses, Turn it On and No You Girls - stop Franz you are really spoiling us. Then its Jack Penate who forced upon me a similar about turn with Tonight's Today which followed me around Top Shop and beat me into submission with its Latino vibe (hang on isn't that the preserve of Friendly Fires) and I was very surprised to find that boring troubadour Mr Penate could actually be quite exciting if only someone would give him a pair of maracas. Next, a set of bongos... Clark bended my mind with fierce electronica in the shape of Totems Flare the kind of musical meanders where the tempo and whole atmosphere changes with the wim of a pitch shift. But the Wild Beasts Two Dancers is for whom I reserve most of my love this 2009, the unassuming blokes from the North (although Hayden's denim suit is very outre and consequently disturbing) who produce such innovative, mesmerising and downright bizarre music. If they were a cake they would be one of those super expensive and gaudy macaroons in the golden shop window in London. The Boxer Rebellion financed their own album Union and whilst there is nothing to rave about it is pleasant enough in a generically good alternative music style. Ha ha and if that sounds condescending then its not meant to be. I am only recently getting Grizzly Bear but Veckatimest seems to be everything that Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes are not e.g. interesting, tuneful and wistful in a heartfelt rather than a soppy pathetic way, its hard to articulate the difference as such but there seems to be more substance here. They probably have beards though as the beard has inexplicably become fashionable. Empire of the Sun went Walking on A Dream but were too close to MGMT for comfort so it washed into a blissed out haze-fest devoid of much spirit but fun to sing along all the same. The Victorian Englishman's Club have an unwieldy name and on Watching the Burglars do a convincing Adam and the Ants before collapsing into a coma from inhaling too much air whilst gulping; believe me it's good. Wave Machines another festival find with Wave if you're really there and I was there, I really saw them and I really heard I go I go I go which is easily their most upbeat song with a mean message, always a fun juxtaposition. Kasabian continued to head downhill with West Ryder Pauper Asylum I dunno they just seem to have lost their edge since their debut which still stuns me with its menace, especially if you walk the streets of Leicester with it in your ears. And that was 2009.