Saturday, 17 December 2011

Drift Records of the Year

The estimable Drift Records has released its annual best of the year list, which always offers a good guide to some of the best music released in the previous 12 months. This has directed me towards some fine things in the past, notably last year’s Holkham Drones by Luke Abbott, an excellent collection of spiralling, gently pulsating electronica. The shop itself can be found nestled at the top of Totnes in Devon, at the point where the central medieval road curves narrowly around having ascended from the bridge over the Dart, passed the covered Elizabethan walkway and the postwar town hall (it’s all very Belbury Poly here), and skirted around the mound of the Norman motte, crowned with its circular castle wall. It’s always a very friendly place, with good music playing, and boxes full of new vinyl to browse and admire the covers of. There’s also an excellent dvd hire club attached, which offers an enticing range of cult and world cinema alongside more mainstream fare.

I’ve come across a number of their top 100 choices this year. Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues (no.4) was a continuation of the latterday Crosby, Stills and Nash sound found on their debut. The sun-drenched harmonies which suddenly break out as the instruments fall away and the words ‘one day in Innisfree’ are sung (a Yeats reference?) on the otherwise jauntily countrified Bedouin Dress is magical, and I like the little burst of improv sax skronk towards the end – a hint of a new and potentially controversial direction, perhaps? Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit (6) also has a 70s LA pastoral spirit, evidently popular in Totnes, which channels the spirit of America and Jackson Browne. The light, bubbling guitar line running through Desert Raven is impossibly and immediately infections and can’t help but raise a smile. More beautiful harmonies are forthcoming from the Sparhawks on Low’s C’mon (9), a lighter effort than their previous LP Drums and Guns, whose confrontation of the darker, more oppressive currents of the times necessitated a concomitantly harsher sound. The tone here is set by the beautiful celeste melody opening the first song, Try To Sleep. The sparse and simple snare drum, bass, organ and guitar sound (with a touch of folk banjo picking thrown in for good measure) looks back to Secret Name and before. Mimi Sparhawk’s vocals are particularly lovely throughout. Alan Sparhawk still throws in the odd admonishing line, taking on a female viewpoint in Witches and pointing a finger at ‘all you guys out there trying to act like you’re Al Green – you’re all fools’. A vintage Low album.

I look forward to hearing tune-yArDs (and yes, you do need to typograph it thusly) whokill (11), the alias of singer/songwriter/performer Merrill Garbus, having found her solo set completely entrancing at an ATP festival a couple of years ago. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake (13) has won many plaudits over the course of the year, all of them completely justified. It’s a complex and conflicted suite of songs about war, land and nation, and incidentally stands as a validation of the continued relevance of the album as a unified work. Battles were intent on demonstrating that they could do just fine without Tyondai Braxton’s contribution on Gloss Drop (15), and undoubtedly did so, although I found its relentless knotty density a little wearying over the long haul. It’s best in small doses. Arbouretum were a big discovery for me in the latter part of the year (largely courtesy of Exeter library), and The Gathering (17) upped the heaviosity quotient of their folk-inflected rock, heading straight off into full-on, distortion-blurred, massive guitar trio riffing and single-minded soloing, all of which took me back to my teenage metal years – but in a good way.

Metronomy are a local Totnes band, and therefore likely to win favour, but they deserve their position. The English Riviera (19) makes reference to the local Torbay coastline, an area which singularly fails to live up to its marketing monicker. The album thankfully steers well clear of the didgeridoo and drum circle music you’re in danger of encountering if you visit the town, opting instead for danceable pop with some nice keyboard hooks which keep the sound varied and interesting. Rome by Dangermouse and Daniele Luppi (21) has been one of my favourites of the year, an LP which employs some of the veteran studio musicians who worked on the soundtracks to Italian films composed by the likes of Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai in the 60s and 70s. Essentially variations on a single, swooningly beautiful melody, it is, naturally enough, lushly cinematic, and makes good use of the contrasting voices of Jack White and Norah Jones. Blanck Mass (35) was another oft-played favourite, a solo project by Benjamin John Power, splintering off from the Fuck Buttons. It has all the intoxicating sweep of the Buttons, but extracts the martial beats. It’s a mesmeric, miasmic LP of analogue electronica, a perfumed fog of an album (as the cover seems to suggest) in which to lose yourself in directionless drift.

John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (34) hovers between 80s synth pop pastiche and parodic pisstake, with Maus adopting the portentous baritone of a Phil Oakey or John Foxx, intoning repetitive lyrics such as ‘and the rain came down’ with enough conviction to somehow lend them sombre majesty. Mogwai’s cumbersomely titled Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will (59) mixed massive, crunching guitar attack and plangent melodicism to exhilarating and emotional effect, mournful and angry by turns. Oneohtrix Point Never’s (aka Daniel Lopatin’s) Replica (67) wrongfooted, and therefore disappointed, me at first, differing significantly from the warm analogue synth sounds which I’d loved on Rifts and Returnal. But once I got used to the difference, to the aural collage of its rough assemblage of samples, sometimes smooth and seamless, sometimes jaggedly fitted together, I found it a bracing and absorbing listen. Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath 1972 (76) was one long fade out, a series of slightly melancholy drones, blurry and distorted around the edges, with minimal, Enoesque melodic sketches laid on top. I’ve heard parts of Johann Johannsson’s The Miner’s Hymns (96) on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone. It’s a soundtrack with echoes of Arvo Part, again filled with a mournful sadness, naturally enough given the subject. I shall have to check out Barn Owl’s Lost in the Glare (89) next year, as it’s been recommended to me and is in the library – the name alone is enough to arouse my interest, anyway. A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s Cervantine (77) continued this New Mexican band’s exploration of Eastern European folk music, with accordeon blending with violin and blistering brass in labyrinthine tunes played within strange (to my western ears) time signatures.

A good selection again, with plenty more to explore. I would have included The North Sea Radio Orchestra’s gorgeous album I A Moon, which I bought at the shop this year. It’s probably too late for the inclusion of the Trunk Records release of the music from the 70s children’s TV programme Fingerbobs, which Mrs W was delighted to come across. Perhaps they’ll find space next year for the delightful songs of Gulliver, Scampi, Fingermouse and Flash.

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