good in 2011

January 25, 2012

2011 was another vintage year for new music – though it must be said a less-than-stellar year for this blog. Time to make a change.

Still, I just about managed to find time to curate my annual CD-sized selection of favourite tracks (not a definitive countdown, please note) from the past 12 months. I’m grateful for my own small mercies.

Click on the Mixcloud embed above to listen. Or, if you’re a VIP, wait patiently for a physical copy to wing its way to you.

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0:00:00 / Swod: “Sans Peau”, from the album Drei
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Swod is the acronymic name of German duo of Stephan Wöhrmann and Oliver Doerell. Together they crafted one of the most intelligent yet accessible instrumental albums (their third) of the year. “Sans Peau” illustrates its lightly-worn intricacies perfectly.

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0:04:52 / Mina Tindle: “To Carry Many Small Things”, from the EP Mina Tindle
[eMusic] [iTunes]

Nom de plume for Parisian singer-songwriter Pauline De Lassus, Mina Tindle captured critics’ and listeners’ (including this one’s) hearts with her warm, playful chamber pop.

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0:08:32 / Joan As Police Woman: “The Magic”, from the album The Deep Field
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Another slice of grown-up, contemporary pop from the consistent, generous but sadly not prolific Joan Wasser. This cut, with shades of “Cry Me A River” (a good thing, by the way), adds a touch of soul to her indie sensibility.

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0:12:40 / Metronomy: “She Wants”, from the album The English Riviera
[eMusic] [iTunes]

“She Wants” out-New Waves the New Wave – it sounds so authentic it could have inspired Japan, The Cure and the others over thirty years ago. But it was released in 2011, and sounds fresh too. How do Metronomy do that? Maybe it’s something in the Devon water.

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0:17:33 / Blouse: “Into Black”, from the album Blouse
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

More New Wave reminiscence, this time from elegantly morose Portlanders Blouse. My early enthusiasm for their self-titled debut album has perhaps waned just a touch, but “Into Black” still pulls me into a gratifyingly melancholy dream state.

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0:20:58 / Emika: “Come Catch Me”, from the album Emika
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Ema Jolly – Berlin-based, Czech-descended, England-born Emika – created possibly most accomplished electronic pop record of 2011. Her debut showcases her already coherent vision: meticulously-programmed techno and dubstep sounds wrapped in immaculate song structures. A real treat.

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0:25:02 / Astrid Williamson: “Pour (Raffertie Remix)”, original from the album Pulse
[eMusic] [iTunes]

I haven’t heard Ms. Williamson’s Brian Eno-inspired album Pulse, but this blend of her breathy, passionate vocals with Raffertie‘s techno theatrics hits the spot.

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0:30:01 / Hecq: “With Angels (Trifonic Remix)”, from the album Avenger
[eMusic]

Shamefully, the only other album from German sound designer Ben Lukas Boysen I’m familiar (intimate, more truthfully) with is 2008’s Night Falls – a cinematic, ambient, exquisitely dark symphony-of-sorts. Avenger, on the other hand, is a satisfying collection of mostly pummelling dubstep. Trifonic’s take on “With Angels” (click for an insight into the production process) is in fact one of its lighter moments.

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0:34:01 / Martyn: “Viper”, from the album Ghost People
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

This track from Dutch producer/DJ Martyn (Deykers) makes the cut simply as a result of its tip-of-the-hat to my 107th favourite track of the last four decades: Front 242’s “Headhunter“. That it’s also a pleasing little techno interlude is just gravy.

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0:36:39 / Rone: “So So So”, from the EP So So So
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

I can’t think of a single way in which this house/techno hybrid could be improved. “So So So” asks little of you but rewards you in spades – a selfless track that only knows how to give. The video is a hand-drawn treasure, and the other two tracks on the EP maintain the quality. Erwan Castex deserved all the plaudits he got in 2011.

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0:43:45 / Gui Boratto: “Soledad”, from the album III
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Gui Boratto’s 2007 debut Chromophobia remains one of the best dance albums ever released in this blog’s humble opinion. While his third full-length – called, aptly enough, III – doesn’t quite match up, it does have more than a few moments when Boratto’s intuition shines. “Soledad” is one of them.

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0:48:50 / Apparat: “The Soft Voices Die”, from the album The Devil’s Walk
[Boomkat] [iTunes]

Sascha Ring (a.k.a. Apparat) toured with a live band for the first time (photo here, video here) to support The Devil’s Walk, his fourth album blending analogue and digital, club and home, headphones and heart. While he may not appreciate the comparison, Apparat brings to mind Radiohead at their very peak.

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0:53:12 / M83: “Midnight City”, from the album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

“Midnight City” was pretty inescapable in the second half of 2011, particularly if you came across E4’s Made In Chelsea or the BBC’s endless Olympic coverage trailers while channel-flipping. I didn’t rate the album as highly as everyone else, but once you hear “Midnight City” its hook remains in your head thereafter. The very definition of catchy.

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0:57:15 / Julia Holter: “Goddess Eyes”, from the album Tragedy
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

The most conventional song on Tragedy, a meditation on the Greek play Hippolytus, “Goddess Eyes” nevertheless belies Holter’s beguiling otherworldliness. The album is captivating, bewitching even – we are Phaedra to Holter’s Hippolytus.

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1:00:39 / Lana Del Rey: “Video Games”, from the album Born To Die
[iTunes]

Possibly the breakthrough act of 2011, “Video Games” single-handedly propelled Lizzy Grant – Lana Del Rey to her audience – from online backwaters to the global chat show circuit almost overnight. A torch song for meaning and happiness, it brings majesty to the mundane. “Hollywood sadcore”, as the woman herself puts it, is the perfect label.

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1:05:19 / I Break Horses: “No Way Outro”, from the album Hearts
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Swedish neo-shoegaze band I Break Horses’ debut Hearts created a shimmering, beautiful soundworld, though perhaps it lacked just a little light and shade across its 40 minutes. That said, “No Way Outro” does evoke a kind of end-of-innocence feeling that takes a long time to fade after the song does.

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1:09:41 / Deaf Center: “Time Spent”, from the album Owl Splinters
[eMusic] [Boomkat] [iTunes]

Norwegian duo Deaf Center crafted a beautifully haunted album of cello, piano and field recordings in Owl Splinters. I’ve covered the solo work of one member, Erik Skodvin, before. “Time Spent”, however, foregrounds the touch and poise his co-conspirator, pianist Otto Totland.

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1:11:51 / ends

See also:

Concert date: Friday, May 20, 2011

Old Apparatus video projection at St. Pancras Parish Church, May 20, 2011

I’ve fallen badly out of the blogging habit over the last few months – and, more regrettably, the listening habit too if I’m honest. I could blame starting a new job, but in any case it’s time to get back on the wagon.

One thing I managed to do was go along to a Miles Of Smiles event at St. Pancras Parish Church last Friday that brought together a trio of ‘beautiful noise’ practitioners, established and new: Christian Fennesz, Philip Jeck and Old Apparatus. I’ve since lost the notes I scribbled during the performance, so this review will be a little more impressionistic than usual.

Fennesz’s set, which closed the evening by a civilised 10pm, saw him push his use of reverb as an active instrument to near total saturation – the originating sounds became almost entirely forgotten beneath layer upon layer of self-sustaining, infinite echo. Yet he maintained a harmonious quality throughout even the most intense, piercing sections of the set.

It was a shame, therefore, that the points of departure for this sonic drenching were Knopfler-esque melodic guitar phrases, albeit with the distortion cranked up a notch or six. They seemed unimaginative, twee even, in comparison to what they became as a result of Fennesz’s deft processing, undermining some of the music’s power as a result.

Fennesz (pictured below, right) announced a new solo EP earlier this week, his first major release since 2008’s Black SeaSeven Stars (Touch), due for release in July. Based on this performance, I’m tempering my expectations.

The evening opened with a video-augmented laptop set from experimental dub-steppers Old Apparatus, who built a pulsing electronic accompaniment to their audiovisual projections of anatomically-themed scans, scopes and symbols (see main picture, top).

Old Apparatus’ music suits headphone listening better than ‘live’. It is in the detail – much of which was lost (to me) in the perfect atmospheric but imperfect acoustic environment of the church – rather than the vision that they excel.

Nonetheless Old Apparatus – whose identity, typically for the genre, is something of a mystery – provided an absorbing and aptly dark introduction to the evening.

Philip Jeck and Christian Fennesz at St. Pancras Parish Church, May 20, 2011

In between Old Apparatus and new Fennesz came the unassuming figure that is Philip Jeck (pictured above, left), “multimedia composer, magician, choreographer and taxidermist” (Wikipedia).

Jeck’s simply wonderful An Ark For The Listener (Touch, 2010), his mediation on Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutchsland”, is but the latest addition to an outstanding oeuvre of sonic collage-sculptures. His performance here was perhaps slightly freer in its shifting timbres and dynamics but no less coherent than Ark.

One phrase I recall from my now-lost notes from the evening I wrote in relation to Jeck’s set: “meta-drone”. This now seems like pretentious frippery, of course, but at the time felt like useful shorthand for how Jeck (deliberately or otherwise) uses the drone form both within and across his works.

No matter how much variation in sound, tone, rhythm (as distinct from percussion) or atmosphere he injects – which is plenty, by the way – the spell is never broken. Stretched or mutated yes, but never broken.

Magnificent.

Album cover for Flare by Erik K. Skodvin

Erik K. Skodvin: Flare (Sonic Pieces, 2010)
£4.20 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £6.99 from [Boomkat]

Norwegian musician, graphic designer and all-round creative force Erik K. Skodvin (one half of experimentalists Deaf Center) had until last year only released solo material under a pseudonym, Svarte Greiner.

In Flare, his latest work, Skodvin has pulled away from the rich, noise-tinged soundscapes of his previous output. In doing so, he has decided to give his own name to the stripped back, almost pastoral, filmic vignettes the album contains.

Across the ten pieces, Skodvin conjures – with a limited sound palette of piano, guitar and violin – a world of simple beauty suffused with tragedy, suspense.

Brooding second track “Matiné” exemplifies this, building its repeated refrain over five minutes before releasing it into silence. “Pitch Dark” and “Graves” add a plaintive female voice to atonal piano notes and sudden strikes against the acoustic guitar’s body. The effect is unsettling.

The album deftly treads the fine line between instrumental minimalism and a kind of dystopian folk, often recalling (such as on “Neither Dust”) the solo work of Scott Tuma and the experimental rural-rock of Montreal bands like Esmerine and Sackville.

The two closing pieces capture the album’s troubled beauty perhaps best. On “Vanished” a sustained piano note ebbs and flows beneath a tentative, half remembered melody that gradually vanishes before your ears.

“Caught In Flickering Lights” pairs a gently percussive brush of a guitar – like a moth repeatedly hitting a lantern – with a mournful violin and portentous rolling piano notes.

All of the album’s sorrow (and some of your own) is played out here so that when the album finishes, the silence seems quieter than usual. Listen for yourself, below.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews releases from the eMusic catalogue.

Album cover for Grower by Gareth Davis & Machinefabriek

Gareth Davis & Machinefabriek: Grower (Sonic Pieces, 2011)
£0.84 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £2.50 from [Boomkat]

Grower is not the first collaboration between Dutch sound artist Rutger Zuyderveldt – a.k.a. Machinefabriek – and British-born, Netherlands-based clarinettist Gareth Davis. The two created two 3-inch CD-R releases in 2009 – Soundlines and Ghost Lanes – before their first long-player release, last year’s Drape (Home Normal).

It is the Ghost Lanes sessions that have defined their partnership to date, as they also spawned the recordings for both Drape – which sounds like a scratchy, parched meditation on hunger and thirst – and the more cavernous atmosphere of Grower (released as a beautifully packaged CD by Sonic Pieces).

“Part 1” feels almost serpentine in character, with Davis’ bass clarinet motifs charming the reptile from its lair, the ebbs and flows of Zuyderveldt’s seductive drones suggesting its undulating motion as the creature slowly and ominously feels its way into and around your imagination. That it feels a little slight is in part a testament to the lightness of the musicians’ touch.

“Part 2”, meanwhile, ploughs a deeper furrow. Davis coaxes from his instrument a more dynamic range of timbres – rasps, breaths, clicks – across a more atonal palette of notes while Zuyderveldt gradually tightens the screws, intensifying the atmosphere by degress across its 17 minutes. It is simultaneously freer and more coiled than “Part 1” and is the stronger of the two pieces.

Like Drape before it, Grower showcases the balance of intelligence and intuition, of knowing and sensing, required for electronic/acoustic improvisation to work. It may not break new ground, but it adds a richness and a little mystery to territory you thought you already knew.

To continue to tread this rewarding path, I recommend exploring the copious solo work of Machinefabriek (start with 2008’s excellent Dauw), German kindred spirit Jan Jelinek (a.k.a. Farben) and much of the output of Rune Grammafon (Arve Henriksen, Supersilent).

Sonic Pieces has kindly put Grower onto Soundcloud, so you can explore for yourself:

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews releases from the eMusic catalogue.

Album cover for TNT by Tortoise

#102 Ten-Day Interval” by Tortoise, available on TNT, 1998 [buy on CD from Boomkat] [buy from iTunes]

There was a time in the mid-to-late 1990s when the term post-rock was virtually synonymous with Chicagoan noodlers Tortoise, such was the influence of the band’s second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996).

TNT, the follow-up, was probably the last major release before the post-rock axis’ centre of gravity shifted north towards Montreal, as Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their debut.

Dialling down both the density and intensity, TNT largely swapped out the Krautrock and dub heritage of its predecessor in favour of jazz and ambient influences. Let’s be clear, though: it is neither a jazz nor an ambient album.

Along with “I Set My Face To The Hillside” (a charmingly loungey latin folk number), “Ten-Day Interval” is the most accessible piece on the album. Its hypnotic, iterative, arpeggiated rhythms recall Steve Reich‘s Music For 18 Musicians, of course. But its suggestive quality also reminds me of the film scores of Japanese maestro Joe Hisaishi (Sonatine, Spirited Away and many, many more).

It’s this filmic feel that gives the piece its quiet impact. The portentous chimes and sustained bass draw you into a state of suspended anticipation, as if waiting for something inevitable but profound (whether for good or ill isn’t clear). That the stream of squeaks of burbles at the end outlast the musically straightforward resolution suggests it’s not a narrative with neat closure. Indeed, later on in TNT‘s tracklist, a companion piece, “Four-Day Interval”, reopens its themes in organic slow motion – night to “Ten-Day Interval”‘s day.

As such the two pieces provide the flâneur-hermit (it takes one to know one) with a conspiratorial spur to the imagination that hints at drama beneath the surface of the mundane – the perfect soundtrack to his solitary, headphoned experience of the city.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

eMusicWelcome to eMusic Club (info here), February-March 2011
This edition is dedicated to Berlin-based label Sonic Pieces’ latest two releases. SP specialises in small-edition handmade objets of modern classical and experimental music, so downloading MP3s and JPEGs of its output feels a bit wrong. Ah well. Total budget: £5.04

Link to close to 94 review of growerGareth Davis & Machinefabriek
Grower
(Sonic Pieces, 2011)
Click here for review
£0.84 (requires membership) [buy on eMusic]

Link to close to 94 review of FlareErik K. Skodvin
Flare
(Sonic Pieces, 2010)
Click here for review
£4.20 (requires membership) [buy on eMusic]

Album cover for The Greatest by Cat Power

#103 Love And Communication” by Cat Power, available on The Greatest, 2006 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

The closer on Cat Power’s 2006 opus, The Greatest, “Love And Communication” perhaps (in retrospect) documents singer-songwriter Chan Marshall on the edge of a precipice – shortly after its release she was briefly admitted into a psychiatric ward for mental exhaustion and alcohol abuse.

The album as a whole was her most popular to date, helped by setting Marshall’s purely wrought vocal over immaculate piano and string arrangements along with soulful accompaniment from Memphis session legends Teenie and Flick Hodges, who wrote and played with Al Green at his 1970s peak.

On “Love And Communication” the musicians largely eschew harmonious niceties and the song is all the better for it. Trapped in a perpetual gritty guitar A-E-F-D chord loop and (going by the increasingly strained string pulses) becoming more desperate with each circuit Marshall repeatedly reaches for “something better”. She never quite finds it, but nevertheless clings on to a comforting faith in love and communication.

The bluesy, heartfelt and (comparatively) raw performance creates an impression of carrying burdens too heavy, too formidable, to sustain for long. As the song staggers forward it starts to bend under its emotional weight, each step that bit harder than the last.

When it finally gives out you’re relieved, of course. But you can’t help feeling that if you’ve given up your struggle, what’s left?

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.