Monday, December 14, 2009

Unnecessary Stuff

Do you ever worry that you might one day become fabulously rich, and then have no idea what to spend all your money on? If so, help is available. The Financial Times publishes a glossy supplement every month just in the time for the weekend with the no-holds barred title How To Spend It. Here are some of the highlights of last Friday’s issue.

A set of six Fortnum & Mason Royal Velvet crackers for £500 (“contain luxury accessories”). An Atelier winter coat, from £1,100 up to £2,880 for the rose-trimmed design (is it just me, or is that the most hideous fucking garment you’ve ever seen in your life?). A tube of anti-ageing cream called Pure Alchemy Cellular Radiance Serum for £19.99 (“really seems to work,” according to the FT, so if you meet one of their hacks who claims to be 40 but looks 18, that’ll be Lucia van der Post). A Jaeger-LeCoultre Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie, part of the Coffret 55 set (otherwise known to you and me as ‘a wristwatch’), starting from £1.6 million. Tsk, like it's too much trouble to ask a passer-by what time it is.

Also available, should you be feeling flush, is a Salvatore Ferragamo python bag for £2,009 (not just the python getting gouged there). An 18ct Jackie O gold cuff for £15,000 that looks like a gaudy kids’ fancy dress item. Or you can follow in the tyre-tracks of a bloke called Tarquin (even within the context of this magazine, you have to feel sorry for any poor bastard called Tarquin), who goes ice driving in Finland for £900, plus £433 per night in a luxury log cabin for six. Thirteen quid for a Romeo Short Churchill cigar seems like a relatively bargain way to watch your cash go up in smoke.

Best of all is a six-month course of counselling for male business executives who are going through a mid-life crisis. It costs between £6-12k from a company called Overton Smith, run by two sympathetic women who “have no formal therapeutic qualifications” (hey, who needs them?). The magazine interviews one of the company’s clients, a 54-year-old named “Dennis”, who went for help when he realised that he was unhappy being “surrounded by unnecessary stuff. I started questioning the purpose of my life. I realised materialism isn’t as important as relationships and quality of life.”

What, you mean the answer doesn’t lie in owning a pair of 8 grand cufflinks from Wartski? I’m going to have to use up my 10-week Alpine ski lodge timeshare slot all in one go to recover from that monstrous revelation. Note to self: don’t forget to take off your £1.6 million watch before you climb into the mountain-view hot tub.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Top 30 Albums, 2009

It’s already that time of year when music executives gather restlessly around a wireless, clutching semi-unplugged bottles of chilled Bollinger and waiting for the BBC World Service to announce this blog’s top 30 albums of the year. Setting the benchmark for middle-ageing indie-farts since 2004, my carefully researched list - a more or less arbitrary ranking of most of the albums that one individual just happens to have bought this year - is seen by music lovers across the globe as the industry standard pointer towards buying seasonal gifts for people they intensely dislike, usually the family’s aloof musical snob with an inflated sense of his own importance, especially where it concerns musical taste. You’re welcome.

30. The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You
There seem to be less albums like this around these days, filled with muscular, emotional, country-influenced music. As serious and as musically deep as you’d expect with Rick Rubin producing, the fundamentals here are fiddles, philosophy and a vocal finesse that underpin a solid, if sometimes overly safe set.
29. Monsters Of Folk – Monsters of Folk
Indie super group featuring M Ward, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Jim James, with each contributing a handful of songs, all too easily recognisable in Oberst’s case. It’s a broadly successful collaboration, though, which thankfully has as much relation to R&B (on the superb opener ‘Dear God’), rock, pop and country as it does to folk.
28. Dead Man’s Bones – Dead Man’s Bones
Why didn’t I think of this? Indie-mood, electro sounds composed by a pair of actors backed sparingly by a children’s choir. Could be a disaster, but it’s quite the opposite, despite the juvenile band name.
27. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Beware
Another year, and another immaculate slow-burner of a record from one of America’s most prolific, consistent songwriters. As ever, it’s not exactly packed with laughs and party tunes, just the usual low key musical musing on love, loss and death. So, something for everyone.

26. The Pastels/Tenniscoats – Two Sunsets
Fancy a nice cup of twee? Check out this Scottish/Japanese indie-pop collaboration. Glasgow fey may have had its day (give Stuart Murdoch’s tame God Help the Girl project a miss), but the two groups here work off each other to produce a neat little box of spangly gems, if you’ve got a quiet half hour to spare.
25. Alela Diane – To Be Still
I’m still a sucker for a Joni-influenced girl with an acoustic guitar if the voice, the songs and the string-picking can endure over the course of a whole disc (although this voice may not to be to everyone’s taste). Catch a thousand copyists in a coffee house near you, but none as good as this.
24. Califone – All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
If you’ve ever wondered what an album recorded in an old barn by possibly drunk musicians messing around with dusty equipment would sound like, then welcome to Califone. From the lo-fi doodlings there eventually emerges some half-realised, rough-cut jewels. Perhaps there’s more scheme to this than seems apparent from the end result, but I prefer to believe they just put it out the way they recorded it. Categorise under ‘experimental country/broken folk.’
23. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing
I think it was on the letters page of Paste magazine that someone described Manchester Orchestra as “ridiculously derivative”, but that’s probably just because they’re from the grunge states. True, they still channel that 90s sound through big guitars and interludes of introspection that sometimes verge on the timeworn, but they have the songs, as well as an overt flair and bite to their delivery, that allows them to carry it off.
22. Eels – Hombre Lobo
Nothing much unexpected here from Mr E, but he’s one of the elite who can pull off delivering stylistically similar sets, thanks to the inherent strength of his compositions, fuelled by the throaty, soulful suffering of a lead voice that mixes the sour with the sardonic, while never forgetting the importance of delivering a tune.
21. Jah Wobble – Chinese Dub
Best Chinese folk-influenced dub album of the year. Oh heck, ever.
20. Royksopp – Junior
I love the simple things in life, like thoughtfully manufactured electronic pop. It’s easy to digest, and if taken in limited doses you never lose your taste for it, even if you would never throw yourself upon its practitioners and passionately proclaim them harbingers of the world’s most indispensable art. More likely you’d say, “Nice work, keep pressing those buttons.”
19. Maria Taylor – Lady Luck
We all love Maria in the Indie-Pop household, reliably recording a fine album every couple of years, and half-packing them in at the Rock and Roll Hotel, where we all get lost to ‘Song Beneath The Song’ at the end of a beer-travelled night.Lady Luck is another very decent collection, although slightly patchier than her first two superb efforts. 11:11 and Lynn Teeter Flower.
18. Metric – Fantasies
This band remind me of Blondie, in that they write nakedly commercial pop songs boasting enough punch and power to keep them bouncing around your sub-conscience, but in a rewarding rather than an irritating way. And yes, I still love Parallel Lines.
17. Sufjan Stevens – The BQE
Stevens recently told Paste that since this classically-oriented project, presented here with a mesmerising film fixed on and around the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he’s lost the ability to write ‘normal’ songs. So the 50-album project, with each record focused on an individual US state, is on hold for now, 48 states short of its target. In the meantime, lose yourself in this astonishing journey, where he uses alternately manic and reflective composition to transform an unwieldy, traffic-clogged concrete artery through New York into an absorbing mirror of the urban human condition. Brave, fascinating, disconcerting and musically moving, all in one culturally packed package.
16. Magnolia Electric Company – Josephine
MEC’s mournful latest is a stripped down song cycle that apparently laments the titular subject, but on the band’s admittance is more of a loose tribute to its late bassist, Evan Farrell. It avoids the descent into dirge that has occasionally blighted Jason Molina’s voluminous and mostly magnificent past register of grey cloud, country-blues. It’s hard to imagine Molina as a London resident now - every note of this record is steeped in the feel of a vast and lonely America.
15. Modest Mouse – No One’s First, And You’re Next
There’s no group in the world that sounds remotely like Modest Mouse. Their nonsensical name underlies a twisted creativity that can be initially off-putting, but which ultimately draws you into a musical universe where so much is going on that there’s barely enough space in every song for all the weird ideas and tortured riffs that are kicking around. Persevere, and the rewards are durable.
14. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
It takes some kind of peculiar genius to finger-pluck a violin, whistle, and not just desist from spoiling but actually improve already excellent songs. Even though this is not Bird’s best album, that only speaks for the extraordinary quality of his back catalogue. Added award: best live act of 2009, on a dream ticket with Loney, Dear at the 9:30 Club.
13. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Stunning, smart, shockingly gifted, Neko Case gets better with every album. Bold as a banker grasping for a bonus, every song demands your attention and, in the end, your appreciation. Case’s New Pornographers band mate AC Newman put out a good enough album with Guilty, but he must have listened to this with some measure of envy and conceded, “She’s the best.”
12. Vieux Farka Toure – Fondo
Imagine a record by Vieux’s father, the late Ali Farka Toure, played on electric guitar, and you have an idea of the extra sonic dimension added to what Vieux has happily inherited – a gift for vocal palliatives, understated rhythm, controlled improvisation (if that’s not an oxymoron), and overwhelming beauty.
11. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost
Anthemic, brash, cool… the abc of Brandi, and I could go on to devilish, euphoric, fresh but fragile, and beyond (to gargantuan, hoarse-heavenly, incandescent), but all I want to really do is pathetically declare my love. Mindy Smith and Tift Merritt were just one-off flings, Brandi. This is your third album, and you’ve still got me.
10. Iron & Wine – Around The Well
It says something for the depth of Sam Beam’s exhaustive library that a double CD collection of b-sides, outtakes and cover versions can compete with the year’s best recordings. Maybe it’s because this mostly takes us back to the sparse format of his wonderful early records, with just a voice and an acoustic guitar. Two whole sides of bliss.
9. Jason Lytle – Yours Truly, The Commuter
No longer Grandaddy in name, but very much a continuation of the older generation’s genre. If that group’s thick, creamy pop sound was your favourite indulgence, then a dollop of this will sweeten your ears too.
8. Au Revoir Simone - Still Night, Still Light
Pop angels sent to soothe you with synthesisers and sisterly singing along the lines of, “I’m moving on/I hope you’re coming with me…” Definitely.
7. Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
Maestros of melody produce a third irresistible album of wistful, guitar-led singalongs. Impossible not to love.
6. Marc Almond – Orpheus In Exile: The Songs of Vadim Kozin
Almond’s albums veer between seductive twilight dance electronica and collections of atavistic, cabaret-style, Brecht-Weillian numbers, but either way he’s a genius who deserves a ton of recognition for his lifetime achievements. This album is in the latter camp, featuring the folk songs of a little-known Russian folk singer of the early 20th century, and perfectly suited to Almond’s strong but sensitive vocals on top of perfectly realised arrangements that speckle the songs’ traditional timbre with minimalist technological touches.
5. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
A cogent piece on the excellent Quietus music site posited the theory that Wilco are, quite simply, boring. It was a well-constructed argument, and I could see where the writer was coming from, but unfortunately the theory is wrong. This album - Wilco’s seventh or eighth, probably - should by rights be boring. Just look at the disingenuously dull title. And most bands are churning it out long before this point. Except that it isn’t - it’s brief, and it’s brilliant, their most accessible, least indulgent ever slice of whatever we’re calling ‘Americana’ these days.
4. Loney, Dear – Dear John
The subtle crescendos of Loney, Dear take you on a most relaxing rollercoaster ride, with enough warmly crafted songs to make this one of the year’s most endlessly repeatable releases.
3. Baaba Maal – Television
“Africa is the future” declares a sleeve note slogan, and if it sounds this good, the future will be shaped by hope and harmony. The record stacks a fuller sound on top of Maal’s trademark intricate acoustic work, fusing traditional rhythms with plangent bass lines and vocals that straddle a range from didactic urgency to tender crooning.
2. Anna Ternheim – Leaving On A Mayday
The darkness and the rain drive this Swedish nightingale, whose Nordic litost is matched only by her peerless delivery and immaculate songwriting. An almost perfect record.
1. Malcolm Middleton – Waxing Gibbous
Melancholy, bitter and thoroughly Celtic may not seem a high enough recommendation until you throw in Middleton’s extreme gift of being able to shroud his misery - darkly awash with the smile-shy humour at which Scotland excels - in consistently addictive, even invigorating tunes. Life is grim, but you can turn it into something dark, funny and beautiful, even as the rain keeps coming down.
The next 20:
31. Aidan Moffat and the Best-Ofs – How To Get To Heaven From Scotland
32. Twinkle 3 – Let’s Make A Solar System
33. Wye Oak – The Knot
34. Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane and Sugarcane
35. The Handsome Family – Honey Moon
36. Heartless Bastards – The Mountain
37. Beirut – March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland
38. Dan Deacon – Bromst
39. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
40. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love
41. M Ward – Hold Time
42. Hope Sandoval and the Warm Invention – Through The Devil Softly
43. AC Newman – Get Guilty
44. Osso & Sufjan Stevens – Run Rabbit Run
45. Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew
46. The Nightingales – Insult To Injury
47. Steve Earle – Townes
48. Atlas Sound – Logos
49. Air – Love 2
50. Regina Spektor – Far
Previous years:

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Do Little, Earn Lots

Last night I went to my first $50 concert. I went of my own free will, so I only have myself to blame. I knew in advance that the venue was the DAR Constitution Hall, a seats-only theatre that would be better suited to basketball games. I also knew that The Pixies would be playing their 1989 album ‘Doolittle,’ from start to finish in correct running order. And I could probably have guessed that as I looked down at the audience from my seat at the back, I’d see more barren pates bobbing around than at the Slaughter of the Slapheads, the brutal, climactic face-off in Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic movie, The Battle of the Bald, where two clans of ageing, wild, shiny-headed warriors fight it out for the world’s last remaining hairpiece.

For years The Pixies were shy about reuniting, but the commercial pickings as they approached retirement age became irresistible. You can’t blame them for tapping the surplus income of the generation whose indie attitude has been turned into loose cash. Buy a ‘Doolittle’ hoodie for $60 (and hide your lack of hair). You can pay another 25 bucks upfront for a copy of the concert on double CD, to be picked up on your way out back to suburbia. There’s probably a deluxe version of ‘Doolittle’ available by now too, and a vinyl reissue, and a remastered boxed set with added b-sides. The b-sides, by the way, are what we kick off with, because the album’s not very long. Fans love b-sides. Well, real fans love b-sides. But that’s okay, because the hall is apparently full of real fans, all supplying a wave of adulation.

This is payback time, because I used to tape all the Pixies albums off my girlfriend back then, so this is the first time in my life I’ve ever paid them a cent. It’s their due, because I did get a lot out of ‘Surfer Rosa’ and ‘Doolittle’ especially. More than I got last night, where they rushed through side one of the album, scratching out brash, sub-standard versions of great songs. I wouldn’t have minded at all if they’d stretched out ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ to 15 minutes, but there was no re-imagining of the work. Perhaps they know their audience wants it served up pretty much as it was in 1989. Only not as good.

Although the performance of side two, and the inevitable encores, were a huge improvement on side one, there was no escaping the fact that you were getting a package, and that the gig was a mere step above puppetry - I was so far from the stage, it could have been a tribute band for all I knew. I tried not to think about the spitting, righteous contempt I had for people of my parents’ generation who used to go and watch the Rolling Stones at huge outdoor concerts in the early 80s. And now post-punk is posting it in too. Noise and posturing turned into a steady career, and what’s wrong with that? At our age we all know the cost of health insurance. If 3,700 people are happy (and they are happy - a lot happier than me) to be packed in to a venue where you can only get Heineken in plastic cups that you can’t even take to your crummy, cramped seat, then who am I to go bellyaching on for five paragraphs?

Looked at from an artistic point of view, however, this trend of touring classic albums is gutless. It’s like getting the players from Italy and Brazil’s classic encounter at the 1982 World Cup to replay the game with the same skill and speed they did almost three decades ago. And asking me as a fan to feel the same excitement. ‘Doolittle’ was 1989, and always will be. Perhaps my generation will be listening to it in twenty years time and saying, “Ah, this reminds me of the 2009 reunion tour. Just after my second divorce and before the back operation.” By then I might have enough disposable income to bin my cassette for the fortieth anniversary reissue edition.