Halfway: Favourite Records/Tracks of 2011
10. Iron & Wine –
Kiss Each Other Clean
Tree By The River
Sam Beam’s departure from Sub Pop couldn’t have arrived at a more fitting time; his band and his style have outgrown their humble beard-folk roots and he is reaching at full stretch for a more robust pop sound. Now weaving his newfangled horizontal, slowly ascending melodies around prominent harmonies and tribal drums. This isn’t to say the album rhythms are adventurous or burly, because they aren’t. They simply but eloquently command attention through their ear-catching timbres, exemplified in ‘Rabbit Will Run’ and ‘Me and Lazarus’, which to some extent are the duo of the album. It’s significant to note that these both share that steady melodic rise Beam seems to favour throughout this record.
In a similar ramification of Beam’s old trustworthy guitar and vocal song-writing echelon, the songs stand at the forefront, with seventies pop arrangements built around the chords and melodies. I fully appreciate the effort he goes to in employing memorable lyrical devices like alliteration, a feat which he deals out quite generously across the album. The stand-out is easily ‘Godless Brother In Love’, since from the minute this gospel starts my ears rejoice and remain attentive throughout. Taking a few more melodic leaps than perhaps his voice is comfortable with, the fragility of Beam’s persona is alluring and accentuated when complimented by these particular harmonies and cadences.
09. Panda Bear –
mp3: Last Night At The Jetty
08. James Blake –
James Blake is a bedroom producer of careful electronica, whose name gets chucked around with loose classifiers like ‘post-dubstep’ and ‘ambient’. On ‘I Never Learnt To Share’, the way Blake contrast an uplifting hymnal plagal chord change with a slowly swelling oscillator frenzy is utterly infectious. The swell is the electronic equivalent of ‘A Day In The Life’, and easily one of my favourite tracks on the album. I thought Blake was purely keyboard, but ‘Lindisfarne II’ showcases a bloody acoustic guitar! Hidden beneath distortion of course, so you might miss it. The ballad ‘Give Me My Month’ is a real stand-out because of its simplistic pub-piano roots, it could almost be a Tom Waits cover.
Like a revealing mirror in a well-lit room, ‘Limit To Your Love’ and ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ are the most handsome features throughout a sometimes unappealing complexion; accurately depicting all of Blake’s genuine talents in their best light: production, minimalist-arrangements and singing.
07. tUnE – yArDs –
W H O K I L L
06. Radiohead –
The King of Limbs
Three of the songs Yorke played at The Cambridge Corn Exchange were ‘Lotus Flower’, ‘Give Up The Ghost’ and ‘Mouse Dog Bird’, all three songs made the final TKOL cut with the latter renamed to ‘Separator’. A lot of really great tracks were left out, and this is the point where Radiohead’s ability to differentiate between the good and the mediocre is unflinchingly clinical and usually unexpected. It often alienates a lot of people or so called fans, but perhaps this is the formula behind that moment when their records totally transform after initial bewilderment.
A vast constitute of different vocal parts work harmoniously in and around each other. But it’s not all about the voice, since the real “songs” don’t appear until the second half. The first half is fronted by an ear-watering Philip Glass style piano loop and typically tricky rhythms throughout. Ever since the unrelenting electronica of Kid A, the band have constantly battled to find the perfect marriage of electronica and traditional rock instruments within the context of popular song. And they do write pop songs, just listen to this, they simply arrange them in more interesting ways than most. Have they mastered that desired fusion here? Not quite, but it’s still bloody good.
05. Burial –
Street Halo EP
04. Bon Iver –
mp3: Download ‘Calgary’ directly from 4AD.
03. Kurt Vile –
Smoke Ring For My Halo
02. Fleet Foxes –
[SUB POP/BELLA UNION]
mp3: Helplessness Blues
Although the “white snow” was once as “red as strawberries in summertime”, Fleet Foxes don’t describe their music as strawberry, blackcurrant, or any other type of popular fruit preserve, but rather as “baroque harmonic pop jams”. And this is still the essence of Helplessness Blues, but it’s not very Beach Boysy anymore, they’ve left that far behind. Turned those lights off, and gotten dark.
‘Battery Kinzie’ is a real foot stomping highlight and one of my favourites whilst the most curious track, ’The Shrine/An Argument’, soon to be deemed the “experimental one” I imagine, contains a chaotic brass hoo-ha not too dissimilar from Radiohead’s ‘The National Anthem’ freak-out. It’s both uncomfortable and pressing. Opening song ‘Montezuma’ summarises Helplessness Blues quite nicely. For me, it was instantly recognisable after making the rounds on Pecknold’s mini-tour with Joanna Newsom. But it’s when every member offers their emphatic input at 2.14, that the result is spine-chillingly euphoric. This unity is ultimately what Helplessness Blues and Fleet Foxes as a band, stand for; where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
01. PJ Harvey –
Let England Shake
TS Eliot influenced Harvey to firstly fabricate lyrics as pure poetry, before setting them to music afterwards. The result is clean, clear and above all unaffected imagery that catalogues roses, hill-tops, earth, war-grounds and wastelands. Her research on the history of conflict, citing testimonies from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, makes for a highly dense mire of lyrical content operating on a number of emotional levels. Every other line emotes exactly what I’d imagine World War I & II to sound like.
Every drum groove sounds like its’ fate was destined to be programmed on a laptop and performed by a machine, but as Harvey is keen to accentuate, our “glorious country” isn’t “ploughed by iron ploughs”, rather “by tanks and feet”. A haunting marriage of man and machine with all the connotations of conflict we despise. So it is perhaps rather fitting then, that these electronically charged beats are played precise and humanely by a real person instead. Thankfully all clichéd tribal-war-drums are sagaciously avoided.
Let England Shake is practically bursting at the seams with heartfelt, battle-winning highlights. ‘The Glorious Land’ and ‘On Battleship Hill’ contain the contagious grooves of the album that I spoke of previously, and conjure reminisces of a similar vein to Portishead. Fittingly, the last two songs might just be the idyllic album closer of English pastures far and wide; ‘Hanging In The Wire’ and ‘Written On The Forehead’ sit together as a bitter-sweet pair and must be taken so; their contrast lying in delicacy and ballsy rowdiness. Polly Jean Harvey is now, in my mind, firmly set as the mistress of reinvention: “I couldn’t sing [the songs] in a rich strong mature voice without it sounding completely wrong. So I had to slowly find the voice”, and boy did she find it. Let England Shake is her best, and easily the album of the year so far.
My Tracks of the Year So Far (In Alphabetical Order) Spotify Playlist
Bon Iver – Perth
Burial – Street Halo
Dirty Beaches – Lord Knows Best mp3
Elbow – lippy kids
Fleet Foxes – Montezuma
I Break Horses – Hearts – Single version mp3
Iron & Wine – Godless Brother In Love
Jacques Greene – Another Girl
James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream
Kurt Vile – Jesus Fever
Mogwai – San Pedro mp3
Other Lives – For 12 (Demo)
Panda Bear – Alsatian Darn
PJ Harvey – Hanging In The Wire
Radiohead – Codex
Tune-Yards – My Country
TV On The Radio – You
Tyler, The Creator – Yonkers
Vivian Girls – I Heard You Say mp3
- Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (informalflick.wordpress.com)