Monday, February 11, 2008

Loose Ends

It took me a lot longer than I'd expected to do that list, but I'm glad I did it. I know some people followed it, and some people skimmed, and that's cool, but mainly it's a photograph of 2007 musically, taken from inside my head. So when I'm gnarled and old and rediscovering Web 2.0 from the world of Web 11.5, I think it'll remind me pretty much of how I was thinking.

It also gave me a reason to properly listen to the 25 best albums of the year. Some of them I hadn't listened to since the first few months of 2007, some I only started listening to a few days before I made the first list. The order is as I thought it up at the start of December. If I was to do it again, Sunset Rubdown would be a lot, lot higher, and a couple of other things would move around.

A few links for your perusal:

  • Quotes were taken from the Radiohead interview I did for that magazine and put in stories for Pitchfork and NME didn't even link to the website, fuckers.
  • I can't think of other things to link to.

If I don't post again for a while, forgive me. Between the magazine agus an diabhal liosta sin, my mind is empty of muso sentence constructions. Then again, I'll have nothing to do in a while and I'll end up writing half a novel about something shit. We'll see.

The Year. 1. Always Touching By Underground Wires.

1. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

The first time I heard Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? I thought it sounded like a cross between very cheesy 80s pop-metal and The Beatles. I don’t know why that first impression stuck with me, but it did. I didn’t stop listening to the album almost daily until December. I’ve seen Of Montreal live twice since. I bought it on CD in Cambridge, Massachusetts along with Icons Abstract Thee and woke up to both of them for several months. On my way to Hard Working Class Heroes in Tripod one night, I decided they were my favourite band. On several occasions I decided that The Past Is A Grotesque Animal was my favourite song. I talked to Kevin Barnes once about his uncle. I got everyone in the band to sign my copy of the album. I know about 90% of the words - which admittedly is not super impressive, but words don’t memorise so well when they don’t rhyme and they’re all multi-syllabic. Hissing Fauna has been a stupidly large part of my life since I first unzipped the downloaded RAR. In that teenage way, the same way The Smiths or Radiohead or REM were for me at various stages of my development. So it’s at number one in my incredibly belated list of 2007’s best albums.

Musically, it lands between purple funk and something approaching twee. It is incredibly constructed. Only headphones properly reveal how much layering and building up went into it. There are songs where what seems like a single bass part is in fact two, bouncing between speakers for no real reason. It happens with the guitars everywhere too. And the non-lead vocals. There are three man, one second “oohs” at varying points. So it’s very impressive as a studio project, even apart from the fact that there are about five separate melodies per song implanting themselves in the mind of every listener. It’s manically catchy. From dance floor-ready disco stuff like She’s A Rejector to grooving, loping seriousness like Cato As A Pun, there are undeniable melodies in every possible shape.

It’s the lyrics that make Hissing Fauna so good though. A baby (you’d have to assume his daughter) gurgles carefree as an invocation right at the start, and there’s something about the freedom and honesty of that that seems to be relevant to the rest of the album. ‘No holds barred’ is the best cliché for it. Quoting is very unlikely to do any justice to how well-measured, lyrical, insightful, beautiful, hateful, funny and shocking Hissing Fauna is at varying intervals, but I’ll try.

“What has happened to you and I/And don’t say that I have changed/Cause man, of course I have”. His girlfriend gone back to Norway with his daughter in Cato As A Pun. “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway/I felt the darkness of a black metal band/But being such a faun of a man, I didn’t burn down any old churches/Just slept way too much” as the first line of a joyous, lysergic Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger. “Somehow you’ve red-rovered the Gestapo encircling my heart” or any other line in the ten minutes of The Past Is A Grotesque Animal, one of the most accurate love songs ever written, in my humble opinion anyway. Everywhere. The whole album is full of lines that make you stand back and smile, or frown, or laugh, or have some other emotional response. And they keep appearing, for the first hundred listens.

I would consider this one of the best albums ever made. I’m not just a sappy blogger saying that. Actually, I am just a sappy blogger, but I don’t come to these sweeping statements lightly. I genuinely do think it is one of the best albums ever. I will vote for it on every Channel 4 poll ever conducted until technology outruns my ageing intellect and I have to get my grandchildren to do it for me. Unrestrained magnificence.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Year. 2. The most perfect day I've ever seen.

2. Radiohead - In Rainbows
It's up to you.

So we move to within inches of finishing the list that I expected to be done with by Christmas. There are hurricanes of bullshit blowing around this album from every corner (including that which I contributed to Analogue), and that’s difficult to ignore. Everyone span it differently. From the extreme right, people like Forbes fucking magazine and Paul McGuinness denounced for killing the business. From the far left, impoverished musicians denounced it because it was letting people think that music doesn’t have an intrinsic value. From the middle, people scowled and looked for ulterior motives. Fuck all those people. Including me. This is a great album.

In Rainbows is the sound of Radiohead emerging from the end of a dark tunnel. Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail To Thief was a trilogy of particularly fearful albums, mired in negative vibes. Trace a line from The Bends to Hail To The Thief. Gloom goes up. So does the feeling that Thom Yorke is an unsalvageable lunatic. The line stops at In Rainbows. The Eraser seems to be the end of entire albums of intense paranoia. While In Rainbows isn’t exactly what you’d describe as “happy”, there’s a definite hope involved that doesn’t come into the gloomy trilogy. The claustrophobia is gone, replaced by sparse instrumentation and heaps of reverb. Renowned composer Jonny Greenwood lends strings. Some of the least loaded and best, most simple Radiohead songs ever appear. We are reminded (for the thousandth time) of exactly how great a singer Thom Yorke is.

It starts urgently. A fairly old-sounding drum machine squelching out bumps and claps in a difficult time signature. Thom comes in first, singing urgently too. It’s not till the guitar comes in that the tone is properly set. Anodyne and measured. Anything but boring, however. The beat jerks around beneath the song and provides the best 5/4 groove since Take Five. Bodysnatchers is half and half fuzz rock and Burkean sublime, but it’s the oldest song on the album, Nude, that provides the first moment of that sort of pure musical joy that make Radiohead the Best Band In The World. It sounds almost like devotional music, and if any other song in existence (bar maybe Pyramid Song) can provoke emotion like Nude, I have yet to hear it. The strings come it, and it is otherworldly. The first perfect song on In Rainbows.

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is probably my least favourite song on the album, but even it has a saving grace, a breakdown and recommencement straight off Kid A. All I Need gets back to making attempts at the sky. The bassline grooves throughout, and Thom sings a love song of sorts. It might be the best indicator that In Rainbows is not in the Kid Amnesiac lineage. Eight years ago, this would have been How To Disappear Completely. Now it’s not. It’s melancholy as all fuck, but there is hope there. Faust Arp sounds exactly like The Beatles. McCartney finger picking, George Martin strings, an insane man talking about plastic bags and other generally cloudy modern things.

Then Reckoner. I hate these bits where I have to sound like a sap to explain what I’m thinking, and I usually try to avoid them, but it’s hard, seeing as I’ve gone the track-by-track route here. I think if I was drowning, Reckoner would be playing over the slideshow of my life. Definitely actually. Nothing could make slow, panicked death seem more like the right thing to happen than Reckoner. And when the first section stops - the “ripples on a blank shore” part, and the strings with the “In Raaaaaaaaainbooooows” in the background… Does not get better. The second perfect song.

House of Cards and Jigsaw Falling Into Place, I wouldn’t go to war for, so I’ll skip them to speed this up. Videotape though is the third and final perfect song. Just a piano, Thom Yorke’s life on video and eventually an obtrusive drumbeat. The kind of thing you listen to while lying on the floor in the dark. Not that I do that. If it wasn’t for two or three slightly disappointing songs, and the exclusion of Last Flowers To The Hospital, this would be the best album of the year, and maybe the best album of all time. But they’re there, it disrupts it a little and drags it to places it would be better avoiding. It’s still absolute genius, and every other superlative I can conquer.
This is Radiohead, it doesn’t need links.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Year. 3. Woman Vocalising, Man Speaking Backwards.

3. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
Paw Tracks

Sitting in a car on the way to somewhere yesterday, the radio was turned to Raidio na Life. In Irish, some young man was talking along the following lines: “…agus tháinig an EP seo amach ag an t-am céanna le Feels, ar Fat Cat. An t-ainm atá ar an ceirnín ná People - seo hí!”. And with that, he span a six-minute, non-album Animal Collective track with almost no words. Given that the Irish language and six-minute non-album Animal Collective tracks are possibly my two favourite things, I now have undying respect for that man, whoever he was. There aren’t many days when I don’t listen to something by Animal Collective. Could be People on Raidio na Life at 10.30pm. Could be Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished at 4am. Could be waking up to Did You See The Words? in my CD alarm clock at whatever time I have to wake up. But most of the time, it’s my Strawberry Jam double vinyl, in the kitchen at any time of day.
Peacebone opens the album with melting pulses and proceeds to jaunt and bounce around madly. As much as it is the poppiest and arguably catchiest thing Animal Collective have ever recorded, it is the lyrics that get me. I don’t know if quoting them will do them any justice, but nobody can talk about every day things and make them seem like the most unusual events and places like Avey Tare can. It’s definitely a lysergic jam, and if it was not for secondary reading in interviews and Take Pills by Panda Bear, I’d be assuming there were drugs going on. There aren’t apparently.

Everything is immediate, straightforward and direct. It’s not like an Animal Collective album at all really. It’s like 10 Grasses. But that doesn’t mean that the subtlety isn’t here. It’s just higher up in the mix, if that makes any sense. Like the breakdown of Chores, “when there’s no-one watching” - that’s a vibe that they’ve been tapping for a decade, but it’s never been so unashamed until now.

For Reverend Green into Fireworks is unparalleled in brilliance by anyone, ever. That seems like a pointless and lazy statement, but upon mature reflection I actually do think I can validly make that broad, sweeping statement and stand by it. Like I said before, it’s hard for me to find decent adjectives to describe these songs that are at surrogate God levels for me. So, to avoid declining into utter fawning fanboydom, I won’t. I’ll just say they’re great. Unsolved Mysteries is too, and the idea of finding the sensuous, alluring woman you lean in to kiss is actually Jack the Ripper makes me laugh occasionally still. Derek is a Panda Bear track that sounds like a really good Panda Bear track. Winter Wonder Land possibly beats even Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland by Grandaddy as the greatest Christmas song ever written.

It’s a beautiful album about ordinary things, imbued with a very keen sense of fun and games, but also washed in occasional sublime sadness. It’s not particularly short, but it feels like it could handle about four extra tracks. Maybe that’s a good thing. “It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied”, as Lord Henry would have it. And the best thing about it? It actually does sound like Strawberry Jam.
Collected Animals is where the Ultras hang out, but really you should try to make your own.