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.

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Album cover for Whatever, Mortal by Papa M

#105 Over Jordan by Papa M, available on Whatever, Mortal, 2001 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

“I am a whore” intones David Pajo (a.k.a Papa M, Aerial M, M, Evila and plain old Pajo) at the beginning of Over Jordan, the opening track on his outstanding post-folk album Whatever, Mortal.

He might be referring to his almost pathological promiscuousness over the years in working with other musicians (Slint of course, but also Will Oldham, The For Carnation, Tortoise, Stereolab, Royal Trux, Zwan, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol to name a few), but I doubt it.

Setting a world-weary, emotionally spent voice against primitive (in its purity) picked guitar and banjo, Over Jordan is a hymn to our true home, the final resting place beyond a life – and loves – already fought for, won and lost.

Evoking a Fordian journey of return and redemption, the song performs its role as scene-setter for Pajo’s story-rich journey against the backdrop of a fading rural America perfectly. Through it the album begins at the end, going on to recount – as though in flashback – a life rich in the agonising pleasures of love.

Love’s fortune is transformed, for the worse, three-quarters into the album with Sabotage (an album highlight, musically speaking) bringing us, in the end, right back to the beginning: the journey home.

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

Album cover for Weather Report by Chris Watson

#109 Vatnajökull by Chris Watson, available on Weather Report, 2003 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

Field recording stretches the widely accepted definition of music as humanly-organised sound. Why should recordings of everyday life – familiar or otherwise – be considered alongside the songs and symphonies created from the imagination of artists?

To be honest I’m not sure they should, though clearly that won’t stop me from including an example in this list of favourite music.

Field recording’s contention (as an artistically rather than scientifically motivated activity) that emotional and intellectual value can be derived from active listening to the physical world around us is undoubtedly true. But it achieves this by combining both cinema’s sense of place and event and music’s more abstract imagination-stirring qualities. It is a part of – and therefore stands apart from – both traditions.

By this analysis, Chris Watson (whom I’ve written about before) is one of the world’s best cinematographer-composers, and a most persuasive argument for the power of his craft as a fully fledged art form.

His 2003 album Weather Report remains the best distillation of his practice to date, though most people will have come across his work (without necessarily being aware of it) as sound man for countless BBC Natural History Unit documentaries.

Each of the three pieces on Weather Report is substantial and stimulating, but for its otherworldly musicality the final piece, Vatnajökull, is the one I’ve picked out (the 14-hours-in-18-minutes Masai Mara drama of Ol-Olool-O is also recommended as a complete contrast).

Vatnajökull documents, as Watson summarises, “the 10,000 year climatic journey of ice formed deep within this Icelandic glacier and its lingering flow into the Norwegian Sea”.

This incredible odyssey begins deep beneath the glacier’s surface, with the hollow creaking that opens the piece evoking the almost tectonic shifting of massive sheets of ice. Coupled with the heartbeat-like thudding it suggests the awakening of a beast from hibernation. Gradually, your perspective as listener starts to climb towards the surface – accompanied by a ghostly chorus – until, at the end of the first ‘movement’, you break into the clear, cold Icelandic air.

On you continue, among the gulls and other birds, over volcanic earth towards the coastline. The white noise of the wind whips around you as you drive, across miles and centuries, towards the sea. There, you are submerged in eery quiet until, quite suddenly, you break the water’s surface. Finally you drift – with the wildlife and the elements – until you melt away into silence.

It is astonishing. Listen to it with your eyes closed and headphones on.

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

Album cover for Dying In Time by port-royal

port-royal: Dying In Time (n5MD, 2009)
11 tracks/eMusic credits [buy on eMusic] [buy on Boomkat]

Genoese post-everything group port-royal (like close to 94, resolutely lower case) have carved a useful shoegazey niche in electronic instrumental music. Over the course of their three full-length releases to date they have incrementally expanded this niche, from post-rock (2005’s wonderful Flares), through ambient glitch-pop (Afraid To Dance, 2007) to – on last year’s Dying In Time – ethereal dream house.

While every stage in port-royal’s evolution to date inhabits the same reverb-drenched soundworld, giving their output a satisfying coherence, which incarnation you’ll prefer depends on where your taste sits on the rock-pop-dance continuum. Dying In Time‘s staple ingredients – breathy vocals, cathedral sustained organs, shimmering synth washes, pulses and arpeggios usually draped over a four-on-the-floor kick/snare/hi-hat pattern – are combined and recombined across its eleven tracks with a focus on consistency. The album maintains a singular feel throughout and flows – in atmosphere, theme, instrumentation, even key – from one song to the next.

It is clearly designed to be consumed in one sitting, and undoubtedly works best that way (or as a live set; review here), to the extent that considering the songs individually weakens their effect somewhat, particularly in comparison to the more pronounced musicality of the group’s earlier work.

The stand-outs, therefore, are not those that reach higher or wider than the others. Instead, they plant their foundations more deeply. Tracks like the choppy Anna Ustinova (apparently named after a Kazakhstani high jumper), the anthemic and album-encapsulating Balding Generation (Losing Hair As We Lose Hope) and the Hermitage trio that harks back to the Flares period, are satisfying because they are dependable rather than risky.

One track does stand out in the more traditional sense. The Photoshopped Prince is a port-royal rarity: an actual proper song, with verses and a chorus. Striking a new waveish pose, and featuring vocals from Michał Wiraszko of Polish band Muchy, its task is to seek an answer to the question “Do you care if I go bald?” (its video is delightfully moral in addressing this). Twinned with the more serious Balding Generation it creates an unexpected alopecia-themed strand to the album.

Dying In Time shows port-royal are no longer afraid to dance, but – Photoshopped playfulness aside – the beats are suffused with with regret rather than joy, as though party was a wake not a straightforward celebration. As such its embrace is warm, reassuring, safe and ever so slightly suffocating. And sometimes (though only sometimes) that is what we need.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews one album from the eMusic catalogue every week from a selection refreshed every month.

Album cover for Out Of Nowhere by Jimi Tenor

#112 Hypnotic Drugstore by Jimi Tenor, available on Out Of Nowhere, 2000 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

Jimi Tenor (born Lassi Lehto, 1965, in Lahti, Finland) is one of those musicians that occupies an indefinable space between astral jazz, techno, post-rock, afro-beat, pop and film score. I say “one of those”, though I can’t think of who might share that precise spot with him. His neighbours might include the Chris Bowden of Time Capsule, some of 4hero‘s output and the inner reaches of Sun Ra‘s music (from this solar system, say, rather than further-flung galaxies).

Out Of Nowhere saw Tenor move on from his previous electronic noodling to prove his chops as both composer and arranger. Drafting in – and remaining firmly in control of – a large scale group in the form of Polish 60-piece Orchestra Of The Great Theatre Łódź (listen to out-takes and live versions on this page before investing in the album), he creates an exotic, swinging, funky and faintly foreboding soundtrack to an imaginary 1960s beat movie. Hypnotic Drugstore amplifies both the exotic (courtesy of Indian sitarist Baluji Shrivastav) and the funk in a tale of narcotic-induced decline and eventual self-destruction.

Tenor’s vocal performance, it must be said, is not what makes this track so successful, though its strained imperfection does somehow reinforce the authenticity of the protagonist’s plight. The song’s triumph is its unassailable groove, constructed from hundreds of moving parts – organic and electronic, live and sequenced – emerging indivisible but both solid and fluid. Hypnotic Drugstore insidiously trickles into your mind before attaching itself to parasitically feed on your vices and fears.

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

Album cover for Stankonia by Outkast

#114 Ms. Jackson by Outkast, taken from Stankonia, 2000 [buy from Amazon.co.uk]

Reportedly penned for the mother of Erykah BaduOutkast member André “3000” Benjamin‘s former lover with whom he had a son, Seven – Ms. Jackson recounts the complicated, bitter/regretful fall-out from a failed relationship.

It’s the lyrics, therefore, that deliver the song’s initial impact. That they are wrapped up in Outkast’s still-peerless hip-pop hooks, beats and melodies lifts it to another level altogether.

The word that springs to mind when listening (critically) to Ms. Jackson is “care”. Not only the evident care for the emotional well-being of all the protagonists/victims (in particular the child) in the tragedy the song depicts, but the care – as in attention to detail – taken in constructing the music too.

Let’s break it down. The reversed toms and snare, the plaintive piano riff and the devastatingly sparse use of electric bass (a characteristic of a number of Outkast’s best songs: witness Big Boi’s The Rooster from 2003’s Speakerboxxx) combine to create possibly the best R&B chorus of the noughties.

It’s not known how the “baby’s mama’s mama” felt about the song, but Benjamin’s trillion apologies were appreciated by many, many others.

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

Album cover for Veni Vidi Vicious by the Hives

#115 Hate To Say I Told You So by The Hives, taken from Veni Vidi Vicious, 2000 [buy from Amazon.co.uk]

Probably the least typical Scandinavian band in terms of temperament and showmanship, Swedes The Hives caught (indeed co-created) the UK’s 2001/02 punk revival (a.k.a. NME’s New Rock Revolution) just right. And it’s this song that, for this listener at least, puts them first among equals alongside fellow ‘revolutionaries’ The Strokes, The White Stripes and the multitude of other ‘The’ bands that emerged at this time.

It’s all there: a guitar riff you wouldn’t want to meet after pub chucking-out time, sarcastic arrogance with the promise of more bad behaviour, a dirty bass and proper rock ending.

As the world’s 8th greatest live act (as compiled in 2006, when the band were arguably already long past their prime), you need to see them live to for The Hives to really Tell You So. Lead singer Pelle Almqvist‘s dual on-stage personality – a mix of James Brown’s knowing self-aggrandisement between songs, and Mick Jagger’s f**k-you strut ‘n’ gurn during – is so compelling the song almost – almost – takes second billing.

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