This month I dived straight back in to Spotify and listened to about ten albums (nine are reviewed here, I will write about the tenth one next month after I’ve got a physical copy). Most are brand new releases this month but a couple are older albums that are connected. Because there are so many, I didn’t listen to all the albums quite as intently as I normally do: because Spotify provides loads of albums for “free”, it allows you to graze on many albums rather than feeding on a few. If you like, this album digest comes to you from Spotify’s tapas bar rather than the usual melting pots.
I was surprised that Spotify had Mica Levi’s soundtrack to “Under The Skin”, an arty sci-fi movie starring Scarlet Johansen as an alien who drives up and down the A9 in Scotland picking up male hitchhikers and abducting them. The film is based on the book of the same name and intrigued by the trailer I decided to investigate both the book and the soundtrack. The soundtrack in question is an interesting listen with passages that veer from Ligeti-esque atonal string pieces to rumbling dread-laden expanses of noise and drones.
For me, the noisier aspects of the soundtrack are the more rewarding as, having read the book, these were the bits that (for me) mimicked the description of the predatory alien’s trips up and down the A9 to pick up her prey. The atonal strings just made me want to head back to recordings I have of the London Sinfonietta performing Ligeti’s Chamber Concertos, though a long track in the middle “Drift” combines both elements in a compelling way and even shuffles the noises up into a loose partly-biological, partly-mechanical rhythm that is almost (*almost*) danceable.
Later there is a pretty track called “Love” that is perhaps the most accessible five minutes on the album. Full of soaring synths and strings that are much softer and gentler than on the rest of the album (much gentler on the hackles of your poor old cat at any rate), suggesting all the more that the film would be worth a watch.
“Under The Skin” drove me toward investigating Mica Levi’s work as/with Micachu and the Shapes, in particular their debut album “Jewellery”. This 32 minute jumble of an album is probably the one that I’ve listened to the most simply because its sheer exuberance and variety makes it the funnest record I have listened to in a long time. I did think about including it as an understated classic but I need a bit more time living with it before I can do that.
The songs on “Jewellery” range in length from 53 seconds to just over three and a half minutes (3:34). Some of the songs seem to split in to two or three parts two, so you get an album that is continually shifting shape and twisting around on itself. Most of the songs are dominated by Mica’s versatile vocal delivery and the experimental nature of the music backing her. As with the “Under The Skin” OST there are passages of noise and rhythmic elements are foregrounded. The earlier tracks like “Vulture” and “Lips” are angular and come across like Wire, but later songs like “Just In Case”, “Eat Your Heart”, and “Calculator” are super catchy. Everything here is probably too weird to be a proper pop song but my word, the parallel universe where this stuff tops the chart would certainly be an interesting one to live in.
Meanwhile, the second album by Cloud Nothings, the delightfully titled “Here and Nowhere Else”, is another short album (31 minutes this time) and the one that I have generally played the loudest. It is aggressively punky and noisy, yet it is also constructed with a degree of precision that is rarely found in non-electronic music these days.
What do I mean? Well every song on HANE sounds like it was done in a single take. From interviews of the band that I have read, they probably were. The result is an album that is loud and shouty for sure, one that combines nostalgic hits of Green Day and Nirvana, but also one that drips with emotion and sincerity. It reminds me a lot of Idlewild’s “Captain” and that is high praise indeed. My favourite track is “I’m Not Part Of Me” because the lyrics speak to me about my experiences of the last year or so.
More mellow but definitely more angry in parts is “Odludek”, the solo album from Doves’ Jimi Goodwin. Part of the joy of solo albums is the opportunity to pick out which elements of a band’s style the individual in question is responsible for. Judging by how “Odludek” sounds just like a Doves album, I’d say he was responsible for all of it. Of course it might be that beautifully earnest voice that wraps itself around these tales of love and desperation like no other. More importantly, it all sounds a lot like the first Doves album “Lost Souls” and that makes all the difference.
While there is nothing that compares to “The Cedar Room”, there’s a lot here to excite Doves fans in songs like “Sea Song”-retread “Didsbury Girl”, the unexpected intro of “Live Like A River”, upbeat single “Oh! Whiskey”, the angry anti-religious screed of “Lonely at the drop” and the closer “Panic Tree”, which articulates sentiments similar to those of Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be The Verse”.
Of course in terms of solo albums, more attention will be given to Damon Albarn‘s first solo album Everyday Robots. This was only released this week, so I have only listened to it about three times but I enjoyed it in the main.
Solo albums are often associated with personal freedom and release from the constraints of being in a band. In Jimi Goodwin’s case this manifests as the freedom to put an awful instrumental with the cringeworthy title of “Man vs Dingo” halfway through his album. In Damon Albarn’s case, being apart from Blur and putting the Gorillaz aside, has produced something more overtly melancholy than I expected. Also most of the musical arrangements are quite straightforward: most of the songs are simple songs built around the acoustic guitar and some samples. I guess this provides ample separation from the work of Blur and Gorillaz.
The best tracks are probably “Photographs (We Are Taking Now)”, a song with an interesting vocal sample that genuinely perturbed me on the first listen; “Mr. Tembo”, because I particularly like the word association spoken word bit that reminds me of Karl Hyde from Underworld (*his* “solo” collab with Brian Eno will be featured next month); “Lonely Press Play”, which is just heart breaking; and “Heavy Seas Of Love”.
Of course melancholic introspection is not just an old man’s game, debut album delivering SOHN‘s “Tremors” is dripping with it too. However rather than a life lived, it’s more of a tasteful melancholy designed to slot in nicely with the rather bland James Blake-lite sound of the album. The avant-garde always becomes the mainstream in the long run. There are few genuine tremors to be had with this record, only “The Wheel” sent a shiver down my spine. That said, tasteful is as tasteful does and “Tremors” works well as background music.
Before we move in to the dancier end of this month’s little Spotify tapas bar, another “relic” I picked up was Grails’ compilation of their recent twelve inches “Black Tar Prophecies Vols. 4, 5, &6” that they released while I was away. Like most of their stuff it allays complex guitar work built up in jams to smoky synths and the odd sprinkling of strings here and there. These tracks are cinematic as those on “Deep Politics” and even the more epic moments of their side project Lilacs & Champagne’s second album “Danish & Blue”. In fact, the inclusion of samples and the extremely laid back atmosphere give the impression that Grails and Lilacs & Champagne are not quite as distinct projects as they used to be, especially now that Lilacs & Champagne are serving up live jams on their newest EP. This EP is what sent me looking for more Grails as it hasn’t appeared on Spotify yet (Update: it is now, so I will discuss it next month).
Now for a boogie. Let’s start with Todd Terje‘s “It’s Album Time”, an album whose title pokes fun at the terrible trouble that dance acts have when it comes to making full length album. The wonderful cover art cheekily suggests that he doesn’t feel too stressed out about it.
So how does he fare? Well to be honest I’m still forming an opinion as “It’s Album Time” has left me feeling a bit cold. To my ears it does suffer from exactly the problems to which the title alludes. It’s uneven but it is paced well and there does seem to be a structure to it, even if it isn’t telling a story or following some other logical progression. Fortunately there are some absolute belters on it (e.g “Dolorean Dynamite”) and the cover version of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary” is excellent: you might argue that as a cover the heavy lifting is already done but compare this version to the one by Placebo (a B-side from the “Black Market Music” era) and you can easily hear the difference between copying and reconstructing.
I think that “Young Alaska” by Christian Löffler is a better dance album than “It’s Album Time”. This is partly down to my boring insistence on consistency and brevity, but there’s also something innately interesting about its melancholy structures and its minimalism. There is a nice long stretch in the middle consisting of three tracks
“Notes”, “Beirut”, and “Roman” all layered and interspersed with broken melodies and half-formed lyrical lines while underpinned by solid baselines. It’s very propulsive and I tend to like that too.
PHEW! Nine albums. I promise there’ll be just three or four next month, all discussed in the forensic detail that you’re used to!
Here’s a playlist with all 99 tracks, it should keep you occupied for at least six and a half hours (so you might want to open it in Spotify!):