Sunday, 22 December 2013

2013 End of year roundup

I haven’t written an end of year roundup since I stopped writing my fanzine, Aggamengmong Moggie, in 1999.

It stands to reason that most of the bands and singers featured in this years roundup were possibly still in primary school in 1999.

Oh well, the journalism side of my life hasn't led me into areas where doing a roundup is likely so this is purely self indulgent and entirely reflects my own view of what was good music this year. I've also done a playlist on Spotify, which you can hear here.

Best single: Feathers – Land of the innocent (Nyx)

Coming out very early in 2013, this hard blast of synth pop came with a stunning (albeit disquieting) video and seemed at once very post Grimes and very post Hunger Games, what with its distinctly dystopian lyrics. The following album, If All Now Here, seemed more sensual and playful in tone so it will be interesting to see what they do next.

Honourable mentions: Daughter – Human, PAWWS – Slow Love/Time to say goodbye, Nothankyou – Know Yourself/Oyster, She Makes War – Butterflies/Delete

Best EP: White Blush – White Blush EP (Mondo Tunes)

I first began corresponding with Carol Rhyu (aka White Blush) back in 2012 a little while after writing a blog post on K Pop girls for The F-Word.  The first White Blush release was the single ‘Without You’, a haunting, pared down Julee Cruise esque take on the end of an affair.  The self titled EP followed in January 2013, and revealed a greater range to Rhyu’s work. Working within the area of pared down synth pop, what’s made her distinctive has been the eerie nature of her work. There is something almost ghostly and ethereal about it, and as the EP shows, she’s only just getting started. 

Honourable mention: Lorde – Tennis Court EP


Emika – DVA (Ninja Tune)

Operatic, complex, mysterious ice cold electro. Restoring a little difficulty and awkwardness to a much explored area of music.

Emily Wells – Mama (Partisan)

Although Mama is Wells’ first release in the UK, released on the back of her contribution to the soundtrack to psychological thriller Stoker, she’s been happily ploughing her own furrow for some time in the US. She is a multi instrumentalist, with an organic approach to music, and a scattergun approach to musical style. Mama is a varied and vital album, which has met with much critical acclaim. Recent single ‘Mama’s gonna give you love’ is a sexy and hypnotic follow up to the Cat Power esque wooziness of ‘Passenger’, and deserves to do well.

Valerie June – Pushin’ against a stone (Sunday Best)

June supported the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park this summer, and when you hear the bluesy rock of her debut’s title track, it’s easy to see that she would be a good fit for the bill. Pushin’ against a stone covers a range of styles from blues through garage rock, roots, country and bluegrass while all the while sounding effortlessly cool. No mean feat.

Nancy Elizabeth – Dancing (The Leaf Label)

Minimalist Mancunian bedroom folk, suitably rain flecked and surprisingly pastoral. This is Nancy Elizabeth’s third album, and it’s taken on a similar role in my life this year to that occupied last year by another folk influenced resident of Manchester, Jesca Hoop, with her excellent album The House That Jack Built. That is, frequently listened to, much loved and rapidly becoming an integral part of my life.

      Laura Mvula – Sing to the moon (RCA) 

It would be too easy to write Laura Mvula off as MOR Radio 2 chanteuse fodder.  There is much more to the Birmingham songwriter and, indeed, to the Radio 2 playlist, than that. Singles ‘Green Garden’, ‘That’s Alright’ and ‘She’ gave a taste of the album but, of the three songs, it’s probably ‘She’ that is the most representative. Mvula loves orchestral strings, broadway flourishes and jazz and torch. The result is imaginative, innovative and refreshing. Rather more complex than the admittedly excellent singles would suggest.

Best came to it late album: 

Hollie Cook – Hollie Cook (Mr Bongo Records)

Daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, Hollie was a teenager when she toured with the final incarnation of the Slits in the late zeros. Her debut solo album from 2010 reveals a keen interest in lovers rock and dub reggae alongside a keen pop sensibility that comes across as easy and effortless. Songs like the single ‘That Very Night’ appear to have arrived ready formed, and the more left field ‘Sugar Water (look at my face)’ explores post Slits dub in a highly effective manner.

Monday, 9 December 2013

1969 and All That: Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the beginning

Nik Cohn grew up in Derry, and this – his first book – was written in 1969, that significant turning point for pop music, a moment that appears not to have been lost on Cohn at the time of writing.

His text is capable of passion and dismissal in equal measure, but there is often a clear sense of ‘What next?’ in his chapters, and an unerring prescience so far as anticipating seismic change is concerned. For example, he defines the late 1960s as a second stage of pop, one in which clear factions have developed – mainline, industrialised pop on one hand (80% he says) and idealists on the other hand. Of the mainline pop stars, he writes: “[they are] computerized” and “They have a function and they sell records. They make money. When I’ve said that, I’ve said everything.”

Of the idealistic 20%, they are “hardly even pop stars anymore.” He adds “In ten years, they’ll probably be called by another name entirely, electronic music or something, and they’ll relate to pop the way that art movies relate to Hollywood.”

Cohn was 22 when he wrote the book, and had been writing about rock’n’roll for four years in the UK and US. But, as he puts it in his preface to the 2004 edition, “I had met most of the people who interested me, and the edge of my passion was starting to dull. Time, I thought, to gather my thoughts into one final package, and move on.”

The book was written over seven weeks in a house in Connemara, and is the product of Cohn’s previous 4 years, working at a time when music journalism itself was still largely undefined and ever evolving, much like the music it was covering. As Cohn writes, he had no examples to base his book on, no reference books or research. He wrote it “off the top of my head, whatever and however the spirit moved me.” He adds “What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were the things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved. They were the things I tried to reflect as I left.”

The book itself reflects this writing process: Reading it is like being seated in a particularly fine American dinar or London expresso bar with a young, excitable raconteur, determined to tell you everything about popular music from its roots in jazz and blues in the 20s right through to the state of play in England in 1966. It is selective (as all music histories are) but also deliciously irreverent, a type of music writing that became a stylistic pastiche in the 80s with Smash Hits, and has now largely died altogether.

Because the book was written in 1969, and Cohn has (very sensibly) refused to update his observations in the light of later events, his is a curiously refreshing take on the 1950s and 60s musical landscape. He likes what he likes (Little Richard, PJ Proby, The Who, Tina Turner, amongst others) and has little time for what he doesn’t like (Dylan, later period Beatles, Trad Jazz, so on) But never once does he claim to be in the right so far as taste goes: He makes it clear that these are merely his opinions, his own taste.

Even the book’s dedication is enough to lure you in: “To Jet Powers, Dean Angel and Johnny Ace.”

As a twelve or thirteen year old, I first read Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom as a series of short stories, so alien and unknown to me were many of its subjects at the time. But the lyrical immediacy of Cohn’s writing makes it readable in this way. It isn’t an academic or objective book, it is friendly and partisan, Cohn appearing in his role of narrator as a character in himself. These days an hour on the internet would remove any confusion and, indeed, mystery. Had the internet existed in 1969 both popular music and Cohn’s book would have been very different indeed.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Nancy Elizabeth's Dancing

Nancy Elizabeth is from Manchester and Dancing is her third album. It is, according to her website, the most stripped back and bare boned of her works. A self produced bedroom folk album at face value, a quiet masterpiece when you listen more closely.

Dancing has more in common with Stealing Sheep and Laura J Martin than it does with northern quarter toilet venues, and the overall feel of the album is pastoral rather than urban. We are talking fields, sheep, howling wind and rain. Given that it was recorded very much indoors, can this be read as a tribute to an inner world? A universe is being created by this atmospheric soundscape of an album. One that leaves you wanting more.

The album opens with ‘The Last Battle’, an eerie folk piece with an ethereal otherness that, throughout the album, becomes something of a trademark for Elizabeth. The vocals are clear, calm and commanding, holding the song together.

Second song ‘Heart’ begins with a delicate piano tinkling that suggests Florence + the Machine initially. It’s a pastoral piece, impressionist and complex. “For him, I remove, my very skin” it obliquely concludes. To add to the painting analogy, ‘Indelible Day’, an atmospheric piano led piece with almost fevered vocals is like a beautiful miniature portrait.

The electro distortion of ‘Mexico’ blends with a shimmering piano folk dance as mournful vocals move in and out of the distortion. Despite its discordant tone, this is oddly beautiful, very shamanic and soundtracky. It’s electro folk, but not as you would think of it, more as an experiment in sound.

Standout track and single ‘Simon Says Dance’ has a breathy, yearning quality to it. It is accomplished, taut piece, fully realised in structure and theme charting as it does years of dancing across the years of a relationship. There is a maturity here and it has the mark of a classic.

The simple piano of ‘Death in a sunny room’ is effective and wistful, whereas the strummed guitar of ‘Debt’ adds depth and menace to what feels like a particularly urgent song. I am reminded of Miranda Sex Garden (and it’s not often I can say that) possibly crossbred with Glasser. The result transcends folk and indeed genre; the way the piano dances hypnotically amongst the guitar and the burgeoning drums is particularly effective.

The aptly named ‘Shimmering Song’ features eerie vocals and electronic rhythms that drive the layers of sound and melody. If Glasser collaborated with Laura J Martin, it might sound like this.

The pure electro of ‘All Mouth’ appears to owe more to Laurie Anderson than to Laura J Martin, though the ghosts of the Radiophonic Workshop are also present for added weirdness. The overall result is like a warped lullaby for androids who dream of electric sheep.

The skittery rhythms of ‘Raven City’ evoke a bird it flight at times as the initial piano subtleties give way to a more dramatic run on the keys and pathos and poignancy, whereas ‘Desire’ begins with layered harmonies. A poignant, stripped down piece with a sorrowful piano, it is intimate and beautiful in its simplicity. The mediaeval maiden is alone in a bower but she has discovered Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry and all is well.

This established, it’s fitting to end with ‘Early Sleep’, a murmured stream of consciousness bubbling under metallic sounding samples. The randomness of drowsy dreams seems to be being invoked.

Sleep tight, Nancy Elizabeth.