You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Music is the best thing’ category.

Surrounded by the paintings of Myuran Sukumaran , April 2018. Photo credit: Tuggeranong Arts Centre

One of the joys – and, to be frank, surprises – of the last few years has been collaborating on music projects. I’ve spent much of the last three decades in my writing room with only a cup of coffee for company, so it’s wonderful to work in a different form and with others, even if, in the main, I continue to be focused on the words.

There has been THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, for which I was commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium to write the libretto for a new song cycle, with the music composed by James Humberstone – this work was developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra, where it had its premiere in 2018, before being performed in Goulburn and Sydney. During the writing of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, James and I took a few days out to write ‘Yes of Love’, a song in support of Australia’s push to enshrine marriage equality. Late last year, Andrew Bull AKA Hyperconfidence, asked me to write and – gasp – perform some spoken-word lyrics, which he turned into a dance track called ‘We are Freedom’.

There’s been a fourth music project bubbling away.

Back in February last year, the Tuggeranong Arts Centre invited me to spend a day sitting in ‘Another Day in Paradise’, a travelling exhibition of paintings by Myruran Sukumaran, a convicted drug smuggler who the Indonesian Government executed by firing squad in April 2015. Other artists participated in the event, which was called ‘The Final Hours’. I decided to invite my old friend Pete Lyon to join me – he is a singer-songwriter who for many years has performed with the popular acoustic-pop duo The Cashews. I first wrote about this project here.

Inspired by Sukumaran’s work, Pete and I left the Tuggeranong Arts Centre at the end of the day with the sketches of five songs, most of which were recorded on Pete’s phone. We then developed the songs: I rewrote, edited, and polished the lyrics; and together we reflected on the music we had made in the Arts Centre, slowly rebuilding them into songs that people might be interested in listening to. Although my musicianship is extremely limited, from the beginning of this project I said that I would like to try and play some of the music, even ‘write’ some of it – in other words, put my fingers on a piano’s keyboard or on some guitar strings and see what happened.

Gear in Goulburn, June 2018

For the rest of the year, once every few weeks, Pete and I met up to work – in Goulburn, before we moved to his place in Canberra, where he has a small studio. Slowly we layered up the tracks, adding vocals and harmonies. We put the work aside, before we came back to it, adding new elements and re-recorded parts that needed improving.

One of the things I love about collaborative projects is the discussion about creative choices, and both Pete and I were keen to make simple songs in which listeners would be able to find room to reflect on Sukumaran’s work, either directly or indirectly. Even though we both have a longstanding position on the death penalty, we were not making a protest album – our goal was to make a suite of secular hymns. We also chose to limit our musical pallet to piano and acoustic guitar, which would be recorded as raw as possible. Imperfections were embraced.

Although our original intention was to finish the work by the end of 2018, we decided to put the songs aside for much of the summer (my mother died just after Christmas) before doing one or two final sessions. The songs were then mixed and mastered by by Kimmo Vennonen of KV Productions. An album cover was designed by John Fry of Six Heads.

And now, here we are with THE FINAL HOURS available for listening and purchase through Bandcamp.

All proceeds of the songs will be donated to an Australian art-in-prison program.

Art work by John Fry, Six Heads, Melbourne

Four of the songs were directly inspired by particular paintings of Sukumaran’s. For example ‘If I Were You’ is a response to his portrait of his mother; and ‘Indonesian Flag’ is a response to the last painting he made, which is of the Indonesian flag – when exhibited it was shown away from the wall so viewers could see that on the back were the signatures of those to be executed, some of whom took the opportunity to leave messages about wishing Indonesia well. The last song, ‘He They I We’, Pete first recorded in the last half an hour of the original day in the Arts Centre – singing in Indonesian, a language he learned while living for a time in Sarawak, Borneo, he says in essence, we will not forget Myruran and his fellow executed prisoners.

Making THE FINAL HOURS has been an intense, exposing, and rewarding experience. Intense because of the subject matter (in more ways than one); exposing because for the first time I have directly helped make some music; and rewarding because it is always thrilling to make new work, no matter what the form, and because it seemed that one minute Pete and I were spindly 20-year-olds housemates and strumming guitars at midnight, the next – i.e. 30 years later – we had the opportunity to make something tangible, maybe even lasting.

As always, I’ve learned that taking risks can be a good thing, although I know I’m sufficiently privileged to not be in a position where I feel that I have no choice but to risk my life.

[click on the image to buy a copy for just 99c]

 

In my house,

tonight, you are welcome

 

In my house,

tonight, let me make you something wild

 

In my house,

we’ll tell each other how we really feel

 

Let’s loosen and lift

and rise up

 

In my house,

we cram in and huddle

 

In my house,

we lean into each other like the lovers we are

 

In my house,

when pressing against me, you are intoxicating

 

Let’s loosen and lift

and rise up

 

In my house,

in my house, we remove the rules

 

In my house,

at midnight, we are beats and bass and melody

 

In my house,

the windows rattle and the floorboards barely hold

 

Let’s loosen and lift

and rise up

 

In my house,

while the neighbours try to sleep, we fly into outer space

 

we’re stratospheric

we’re stars, we’re Venus and Mars

 

we’re expanding, we’re exploding –

our love is alight!

 

In my house,

right now, kiss me

‘Self-Portrait’ by Myuran Sukumaran (2015, detail)

The closer it got, the more agitated I became.

Back in February this year the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in Canberra invited me to participate in The Final Hours, a day-long, vigil-like residency to be held in conjunction with Another Day in Paradise, the exhibition of paintings by Myuran Sukumaran, an Australian man convicted for drug-trafficking and sentenced by the Indonesian government to be killed by firing squad. (Another Day in Paradise was first presented, in 2017, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre.) I’ve been a long-time opponent of the death penalty and had followed the story of ‘The Bali Nine’, as did most Australians, so I said yes to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s invitation, but decided that I would collaborate with Pete Lyon, a singer-songwriter and good friend – no doubt I didn’t want to do this alone.

In the weeks before The Final Hours, Pete and I met twice. At our first meeting, we talked about our approach – we decided that it might be best to simply see what happened on the day and when surrounded by Myuran’s art work. At our second meeting, we sat down with Pete’s proposed equipment set-up to confirm what we’d take with us (it had to fit in the back of a small car); this discussion also included making notes on the preliminary themes or ideas we might explore, such as raw, authentic, reflective, compassionate, hope, and the possibility and redemption of change.

While our proposal was for Pete to write the music and I would write the lyrics, we had also indicated that I might try and write some of the music, which is a bit like asking a dog to be a cat. Not wanting to make a fool of myself – the gallery would be open to the public – I practiced a set of very basic guitar chords as well as some scales and notes on the piano in my house, the piano I used to play by ear as a teenager. While I adore music, my musicianship is extremely limited; Pete has spent the majority of his life writing, performing, and recording.

But when in doubt (which is almost always the case), just jump in, hey?

After all, that was my approach to THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, a song cycle I wrote with composer James Humberstone, which has gone on to become something much bigger than either of us and is still being performed.

In the gallery and to work. Image courtesy of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre

The day came for The Final Hours to commence and by 8am Pete and I had set up the gear in the gallery. It was time to get down to work. We chose the nearest series of paintings, titled ‘Prison Life’, plucked out some notes on guitar and keyboard (one of which was another instrument from my childhood but ended up in Pete’s hands); meanwhile I banged together some lyrics – we practiced the song once, then pressed the record button on the laptop. We chose another painting, selected some more notes and lyrics, and pressed record again.

Until, rather miraculously, we had five demos, or sketches.

Done, for now

It was intense, of course, and gut-wrenching – Myuran’s work is powerful, unapologetic, intellectually and emotionally open, and confronting for those of us lucky enough to have to do nothing more than engage, reflect, and respond. However, the experience was also surprisingly uplifting, even joyful: the human spirit, even when extinguished, is a mighty beast. But also because Pete and I have known each other for thirty years; back in the late 1980s we used to live in a Canberra share-house together and mucked around with guitars in the living-room, eventually recording some songs together but never releasing or performing them. I threw myself headlong into literature, and Pete found collaborators who could actually play their instruments and sing a note. But there we were, on 29 April 2018, sitting in a corner of a gallery, passing guitars between us, pressing keys and buttons, creating music.

What happens now? Both of us are committed to developing the songs as much as we can, eventually making them available by the end of the year on a platform yet to be decided. Right now we are not sure how the development process will unfold, or what the final outcome will be, but we very much would love to share the experience given to us by Myuran Sukumaran and the Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

Orang ini tak akan terlupakan.

This feels like the first year during which I’ve found myself buying less new music and, instead, rediscovering albums from my past. Part of it, maybe, is being somewhat financially challenged and I’m investing more and more in reading. Part of it, maybe, is to do with changing – or evolving? – tastes: more and more I’m enjoying post-classical music (Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’Halloran, among others) and that kind of music does warrant deep immersion. And, rather regrettably, this may be due to rapidly advancing years – I’m after beauty and contemplation these days. Still, I have bought some new records this year. The following are the highlights.

Everything Now by Arcade Fire – quite honestly, Arcade Fire are an interesting proposition: they are arguably the English-speaking world’s biggest alternative rock band (for want of a better term), but their work can be patchy; further, there can be a rather condescending tone in their songs, as though only they know exactly what’s wrong with the world and, apparently, it all comes down to consumerism and the internet. Some fans have dismissed ‘Everything Now’ due to the record straying too far from Arcade Fire’s core sound, but it’s silly to chastise a band for experimenting. The titular song is basically ‘Reflektor’ mashed with ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which, frankly, is no bad thing. However, the only other truly memorable track is ‘Put Your Money on Me’, which offers a delicious chord progression and lush shifts of gear. In between those two songs are a number of tunes that are throwaway , with only ‘Electric Blue’ offering any kind of reprieve. But I’m being harsh: overall the set is eminently listenable and it does expand the band’s impressive oeuvre. If only Everything Now didn’t come across as rather slight.

American Dream by LCD Soundsystem – this, for me, is the record of the year. In a word, it’s stunning. But it’s also dark, angry even (despite the latter half of the album sounding a little like a braver, less self-obsessed version of The Killers, which, no doubt, is a reference James Murphy would detest). It’s true that LCD Soundsystem having been mining their form of minimal riffing for years, and some of the songs don’t quite have the emotional pay-off they deserve, but for mine American Dream well and truly rises above all else I’ve heard this year. As opposed to Everything Now, there is not a single throw-away track here, and once again LCD Soundsystem appear to be inspired by Remain in Light by Talking Heads, one of the truly adventurous and astonishing records from the mid-1980s. But unmistakably American Dream comes out of Trump’s fucked-up version of America, hence the darkness and anger. If there’s one song that makes for an intriguing – though menacing – introduction to the album it would be ‘How Do You Sleep?

Three Worlds: Music for Woolf Works by Max Richter – this is a collaboration between prominent new-classical composer Max Richter and the Royal Ballet, and it explores the works of Virginia Woolf. There are three sections, each corresponding to three of Woolf’s novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Overall Three Worlds is melodious, minimal, and accessible, even if the Orlando section does contain pieces that are more meanderingly atmospheric than musical. For sheer visceral power, the final piece, ‘The Waves’, almost rivals Arvo Pärt’s ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’. For a work that is essentially the soundtrack to a ballet, Three Worlds is a rich and rewarding listening experience. A good place to start might be ‘In the Garden’. Beyond Pärt, other influences are Michael Nyman and even The Knife.

Slowdive by Slowdive – it’s a tough ask for a once-revered band to disappear for twenty years and then return with a record that retains the core elements of their distinctive sound while being vital and relevant. Remarkably, that’s exactly what Slowdive have done with their self-titled album. Let’s be honest: being a band that was labelled ‘shoegaze’, that infamously introverted if not vacuous movement (if that’s the right term for it), Slowdive was always about mood; they never really had anything much to say, except, perhaps, that beauty can be found in walls of noise. Little has changed, although in this collection there is evidence of stronger song-writing – ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is a gorgeous pop song – and there’s an appealing diversity of sound and structure throughout; with its repeated but building piano motif, ‘Facing Ashes’ is almost epic. Slowdive have an avid (if not ageing) fan-base, and if you would like to know why, this latest record is a terrific place to start.

As I say every year (every day, more like), I would be lost without music: it’s my oxygen, my water, my heart-beat. There is no point comparing it to reading or writing – literature is a whole other world – but music certainly forms an aesthetic space that I adore. As I’ll touch on below, my taste is evolving, as it should; I seem to be searching for beauty more than ever. But, in the main, it’s not a pretty kind of beauty. There has to be light and shadow, darkness even, and edginess, even ugliness. In short the music needs to express the full range of human experience. Sheesh, as if that’s even possible. Thankfully, composers, songwriters and musicians are up for the challenge.

Anyway, enough rambling. Here we go.

puberty-2Mitski is a conservatorium-trained alternative rock musician from New York and, quite frankly, Puberty 2 is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve bought in a long while, though it’s oddly difficult to describe. Here are a few words that may help: low-fi, angular, gutsy, poetic, PJ Harvey-esque, a touch of Weezer, and melancholic (of course). This is certainly a record to turn up loud so you can air-guitar to the knowledge that love is sublime, fraught, messy, and infuriating. ‘Your Best American Girl’ is an almost orgasmic rush of alt-rock goodness. Also have a listen to ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’. Tough, but highly memorable.

Centres by Ian William Craig got me on first listen and it has not let me go. It’s such an elegant mix of keyboard washes and drones, topped with loads of treated voice (Craig is a trained singer). All up, it’s a little like M83, but without the cheesy 1980s pastiche. Album opener ‘Contain’ is the perfect place to start. Great that the album finishes with an acoustic version of the opening track, proving that despite all the studio-trickery there are real songs at the heart of this work.

kiasmosKiasmos by Kiasmos: even though this album dates from 2014 and I’ve long been a fan of Ólafur Arnalds, I only discovered this in the last few months; I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites of the year. Kiasmos is intricate, smart, thumping, and – that word again – beautiful. If excellent dance music moves the head, the heart, the crotch, and the legs, this album is beyond excellent. A stunning collaboration between Arnolds as composer and Janus Rasmussen as DJ. Here’s hoping they are working on another record, because I must admit: I can’t play Kiasmos without turning out the lights and dancing like no one’s watching.

In my list for last year I briefly mentioned that I had discovered Floating Points and liked what I’d heard. Well, didn’t things go gangbusters from there. Floating Points is essentially one person, Sam Shepherd (another conservatorium-trained composer), and his Elaenia album is as near-perfect as you’re going to get. A little glitchy, oddly funky, more than a bit jazz-inflected, on paper this album is a contradiction, but once you connect with it you’ll find yourself drifting into a galaxy where heartbeats pulse and surprise and, yes, float.

It’s hardly startling, but as I get a bit long in the tooth I’m interested less in alternative rock (Mitski being an exception) and more interested in ‘new music’, especially the sort at the minimal – and, dare I say it, left-field – end of the spectrum. Dmitry Evgrafov’s Collage album is gorgeous, even pretty (that terrible word), but always keen on strange twists and turns. ‘Cries and Whispers’ is reminiscent of the The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble , while other pieces are washed in Sigur Ros-like aesthetics. Evgrafov is certainly a new composer to watch.

chopin-projectSpeaking of composers to watch, Ólafur Arnalds is everywhere at the moment, including further up in this list as one half of Kiasmos. On The Chopin Project, he collaborates with Alice Sara Ott on the recomposition of the famous composer’s work. As Arnalds says in the lines notes, ‘By looking at his music in a different way, through the prism of recording technique in its different facets and through my own compositions, I didn’t intent to question the integrity of Chopin’s music. I wanted to find my very personal interpretation, like so many other great musicians have done before me.’ A subtle, wonderful success.

Dag Rosenquist’s Elephant is at times an unsettling listen: there’s a fair amount of static, a lot of repetitive piano tinkling, and, every so often, blasts of sheer noise. But there’s also plenty of beauty to be found, as well as some artful orchestration. ‘Come Silence’ is the most accessible piece here – it’s a gorgeous combination of slow-building keyboards and horns and then strings, before a Jan Garbarek-like saxophone brings us home. Stunning.

Burial: mysterious, magnificent

Burial: mysterious, magnificent

No reading, no writing, no chooks
I’m in the middle of a Burial festival, and I might be here for some time, no reading, no writing, no chooks, no buying stupid old shit, just Burial. That capitalised B is important, because I’m not talking about an act or event (though I might be, I suppose), but a music, and it could really be a type of music. Before I get carried away, which, as you probably know, is a common occurrence around these parts, Burial is a dub-step/2-step garage/electronica producer from London, UK. Extremely reclusive to the point that for the first five or so years of his practice no one knew who he was, Burial was sometimes said to be in reality a persona of other musicians or artists, including Four Tet, and even Banksy for Christ’s sake. Burial is, however, just a bloke called William Bevan. Who happens to be one of the most extraordinary music producers of the last twenty years.

Doing the opposite
Burial’s self-titled first album (2006) was sparse and beats-heavy, intricately produced but perhaps a little cold aesthetically. On Untrue, released the following year, Burial started working with twisted, distorted vocals to remarkable effect, although some might have found the jaggered rhythms and reliance on constant glitches and scratches and drops for atmosphere grating to the point of distraction. It’s true that Burial’s music often sounds like it’s been made in a dripping toilet with a wild thunderstorm going on outside. Since Untrue, perhaps exhausted from creating a piece of work that’s uniformly magnificent (the record was nominated for the 2008 Mercury Prize), Burial has been spending his time collaborating (Exhibit A: with Four Tet on ‘Moth’), creating a series of celebrated remixes (Exhibits B and C: a haunting, muddy reworking of Massive Attack’s ‘Paradise Circus’, or, if you really want to head into very dark terrain, his remix of Massive Attack’s ‘Four Walls’) and a set of a EPs available for digital download and on limited edition vinyl. Most musicians seem to go from rough to polish, but Burial appears to be doing the exact opposite, while becoming increasingly artful in the process.

Burial's 'Rival Dealer': more mysterious, more magnificent

Burial’s ‘Rival Dealer’: even more mysterious, even more magnificent

I’m going to love you more than anyone
So we have Kindred, Rough Sleeper and, released late last year with almost no fanfare, now Rival Dealer. Are EPs music’s equivalent of novellas? Burial may well answer yes: despite their brevity, in his hands they are deep and expansive and profoundly affecting. Dance and electronica are often charged with being hedonistic, insular, and ultimately vacuous, but Burial has described his latest three-song collection as his anti-bullying statement. In fact, he’s gone further: ‘It’s like an angel’s spell to protect [the bullied] against the unkind people, the dark times, and the self-doubts.’ But easy-listening this is not. Despite vocal grabs including ‘come down to us’ and ‘I’m going to love you more than anyone’ and ‘tonight we feel alive’, ‘Rival Dealer’ the song is a frantic, urgent, beautiful mess centring on a sample that sounds like it comes from screeching brakes; the whole construction stops, it starts, it collapses, it turns in on itself; it sounds as though someone’s escaping torment. Proceedings ease up with the brief (a 5-minute duration is short in Burial’s world) ‘Hiders’, which is all falling piano chords before a surprisingly cheeky serve of almost soft-metal power-drumming comes in for company. ‘Come Down to Us’ is epic in a majestically meandering way, and with its references to minority sexuality – bisexuality and transgender in particular – the sense of loss and loneliness is evaluated to an almost spiritual level…in the most tender way.

No doubt
There’s no doubt that Burial is an acquired taste – with Rival Dealer many will be frustrated by Bevan’s insistence on ignoring familiar structures and dishing out beats that just shouldn’t add up – but once you’ve had the taste it’s almost impossible to forget.

May the Burial festival continue.

For a long time.

Ramones by Ian Dickson, 1977.  (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

Ramones by Ian Dickson, 1977. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

‘Punk to me was a form of free speech. It was a movement when suddenly all kinds of strange voices that no reasonable person could ever have expected to hear in public were being heard all over the place’

Greil Marcus, author, rock critic, journalist

Mr MachineMore often than not the experimental end of the ‘new music’ spectrum leaves me wanting to lie down in the middle of the Hume Highway on a forty-degree afternoon.  But I love Berlin’s The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble (or, apparently, just Brandt Brauer Frick).  They’re a strange combination of techno artists meet classically trained experimental composer who as a bunch like to make dance music using mostly acoustic instruments – and by rights they should be awful.  Thankfully their Mr. Machine album is fresh and new and wonderfully playful, and gives a hint where Australia’s Alpine could go if they ever want to chuck a Kid A.  Check out ‘Pretend’, though be warned: this is as straight as they get.

KveikurAs anyone who’s dropped into UTCOAFITD over the years, I do love lashings of Sigur Ros – always have, always will.  But I was more than a little troubled to hear that last year their foundation multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson had decided he’d had enough and it would be left to the remaining Icelandic pixies to limp on without him.  Amazing, then, that Kveikur is so good.  It’s rawer, rockier, darker; certainly it’s less pretty.  Because I’m a fussy bastard, hard (almost impossible?) to please, I hold to my view that Sigur Ros never quite let themselves go over the edge – if they did, they’d blow the world to smithereens.

Trouble will find meSure Trouble Will Find Me by The National is appearing on a lot of ‘best of the year’ lists, but there’s a very good reason for it: this is the Ohio band’s finest selection of tunes to-date.  It’s Dad-rock for those with an alternative bent, and as some wag somewhere or other put it they’re the Counting Crows it’s okay to like.  But when the songs are as lovingly crafted as this it’s music that’s hard to ignore.  On Trouble will Find Me, The National are like a good port: it’s an old taste, and it’s a resolutely familiar taste, but it loosens you up…before dropping you down into a glorious pit of melancholia.  ‘Graceless’ is just one of the crackers on offer.

hopkins_immunityThe London-based Jon Hopkins is a strange musical beast: he’s a soundtrack composer (he did the tasty music to the tasty Monsters film) and for some reason or other he’s helped bands like Coldplay and seems to enjoy hanging out with Brian Eno, but he also makes his own albums, which, it’s true, can be hit and miss.  Immunity is easily his crowning achievement so far and was nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize.  At times it’s thumpingly atmospheric dance music, but it can also turn sweet at the drop of a hat.  ‘Open Eye Signal’ is such a fantastic piece of minimalist, gritty dance music (it reminds me a little of ‘Rez’, the B-side to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’); damn good video too.  Just so you know, Immunity is brilliant in headphones.

EngravingsFor the last few months I thought Immunity was going to be my album of the year, but then came along Engravings by Forest Swords, who is another English producer of excitingly sliced eletronica.  But where Hopkins is slick and melodic, Forest Swords creates a more organic and varied sound; certainly there’s nothing here that could be described ‘lovely’.  On first listen, Engravings might be a little hard on the old lug-holes (no surprises that the creator of this music suffers from tinnitus and related issues) but, oh my, it reveals itself over repeated listens.  The bloody thing’s never far from the stereo.

ReflektorI’ve written at length about Reflektor by Arcade Fire and after countless listens I still think it’s a very fine record.  As always, this Montreal lot are maddeningly, frustratingly brilliant; LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has helped them find their very appealing swagger, but there are still songs which build and build before…they unravel in front of your ears.  Perhaps the unravelling is intentional, but it can drive a punter to despair.  And ‘despair’ is an interesting word to use here, because Arcade Fire, to a certain extent at least, have built their career on exploring contemporary despair in all its urban and semi-urban grimness.  Lucky for us, then, this time around they invite us down to the disco for a party, with a few deliciously weird and wild left-turns to keep us guessing.

Finally, here are three honourable mentions.

Does it look like I’m here? by Emeralds – a strange but beguiling beast, this is gloriously noodly, and at times can come across as good as M83 but without the histrionics.  Pedestrian Verse by Frightened Rabbit – a very solid record from these very solid Scots.  Being their major-label debut it lacks the rough edges of the earlier work, but perhaps this is a more varied record; it does contain ‘Backyard Skulls’, which is an elegantly structured master-stroke of a pop-song.  And, finally, there’s One (壱) Uno (壹) Ein by Australia’s Rat & Co – a captivatingly risky record, perhaps (most likely) the best one from our funny little old nut-case country. Check out ‘The Letter’.

Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': is this at last the perfect record?

Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: is this at last the perfect record for our beautifully fucked-up world?

How would it be to exist without music?

I for one would have no clue, and I don’t want to try imagining it, or even write much more along those lines.  But it is, perhaps, worth asking a related question: how would it be to exist without excellent music, or even very good music?  For me, this has been the question of the week.  And you can blame Arcade Fire for that.

I’ve been following this Montreal-based bunch since their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004).  Using the phrase ‘highly acclaimed’ in this context is hardly new or surprising – it seems that when Arcade Fire simply get out of bed in the morning there’s cause for rapturous excitement around the world, the sort of rapturous excitement that once greeted The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (the crusty old shit that he’s become), David Bowie, Nirvana, and, erm, U-bloody-2.

But is Arcade Fire really that good?

There’s no doubt that when they’re fully charged they’re excellent.  Witness ‘Neighbourhood No. 2’ and ‘Wake Up’ from Funeral, ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible (2007), and ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Suburban War’ from The Suburbs (2010).  One day Arcade Fire are going to put out a best-of that’s going to knock the socks off people and prove once and for all how great – and ‘great’ is the word – they can be.

However, and this is a big ‘however’: they can also be utterly infuriating.

Some Arcade Fire songs start brilliantly before burning out as though in the end they just didn’t know what to do with them but, hey, chuck it on the record anyway.  The band can pack too many ideas into each song (certainly Reflektor suffers from this in parts), and lyrically they can be as awfully obtuse as a Sixth Form poet inspired only by Google.  Throw into the mix the fact that they’re fueled by both anger and beauty, they appear to adore and detest modern life in equal measures, and they can be grand, dramatic, over-dramatic, over-blown even, but there’s also a deep vein of melancholia throughout.  A rich brew or a directionless mess?  They’re both, quite honestly.

So.  What to make of this latest record?

In a way it’s exactly what you’d expect.  This is, apparently, Arcade Fire’s dance collection and they enlisted LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy to get their hips a-wigglin’.  Appropriately split over two discs, and inspired by the 1950 Brazilian classic Black Orpheus and its themes of death and isolation, Win Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the couple’s clever cohorts lead us from the superb ‘Reflektor’ – this is their ‘Atomic’ – through ‘You Already Know’, which sounds like what would happen if Butler fronted The Smiths and Queen, and the almost Clash-like ‘Joan of Arc’.

On the second disc the pairing of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ shows just how close Arcade Fire is getting to John Lennon, in ambition if not execution.  ‘Porno’, the most James Murphy-esque track, is a fine slice of moody electro, and ‘Afterlife’ is one of those typically exasperating Arcade Fire songs: a gorgeous verse, a glorious chorus, it’s all ‘Can we work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?/Can we just work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?’, and then, and then – well, it just collapses under its own weight.

Referencing a bunch of great bands and singer/songwriters here is intentional, including The Smiths and The Clash.  Is Reflektor as good as the former’s The Queen is Dead or the latter’s London Calling?  No, it’s not.  But it’s dangerously close.  It has the scope, depth, audacity, and a burning desire to create something as timelessly artful as those albums.  In some ways it also feels like the best mix-tape you could ever possibly receive (the inclusion on the second disc of the test-sound once found on cassettes alludes to this) and, perhaps, in the age of iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify, Reflektor is as good as it gets.

A magnificently flawed masterpiece.  Yes, let’s call it that.

And I can’t stop listening to it.

'Kveikur' by Sigur Ros - could it be that this one record is able to answer that question, what is music?

‘Kveikur’ by Sigur Ros – could it be that this one record is able to answer the question, what is music?

What is music?  It’s a pretty bloody stupid question, especially as music is one of the few things that link us human-types together and runs as a conduit down through the ages.  It’s impossible to know if Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros ever ask the question or just go ahead and make music with all they know and feel.  On the basis of Kveikur it sounds very much like the latter.

Before discussing the contents of the record, here are a few bits and pieces you might want to know.  This is Sigur Ros’ seventh album over 15 years but first without founding multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, who left in 2012.  It’s hot on the heels of last year’s superbly brooding but divisive Valtari.  Why the rush?  Perhaps it’s to make the most of the new dynamic.  Also, Sigur Ros has now played Madison Square Garden and appeared on an episode of The Simpsons and, ahem, Sarah Brightman’s done a cover of one of their songs.

Is Kveikur – which apparently means ‘candlewick’the band’s leap towards U2/Coldplay territory?  No, thank Christ, but it is a significant part of their ongoing evolution.

The album opens with the surprisingly muscular and menacing ‘Brennisteinn’, which is based around a bass riff that sounds like someone trying to kill a fairy by squeezing the crap out of its stomach.  From there the band makes it way through its usual palette of widescreen peaks and troughs, lifting us up before easing us back down, and then bleeding into the next song.  On Kveikur there’s greater variety to Jonsi’s angelic falsetto – ‘Isjaki’ is a fine example – and there’s also more exploration of percussion; ‘Hrafntinna’ sounds like it was recorded in a cutlery factory.

This time around the band also seems more committed to working with light and dark, and it’s the dark that makes Sigur Ros a truly worthwhile proposition: they might do sweet, and glacial, and epic, but when they want to they can lead us into the murky depths.  Frustratingly, and despite the cover image of what could be a mask found in a psychiatric hospital (and hence adorn a death-metal record sleeve), Sigur Ros never really takes us over the edge.  ‘Yfirbord’, with its reverse-looped vocals, goes close.  If only they could find a producer they trust: oh my, Sigur Ros could break our hearts.  There’s also a slightly annoying tinny-ness to Kveikur; no matter what system the thing’s played on it does sound as though it was mixed in a supermarket with the fluorescent lights on.

But still, because these guys give a shit, this is an excellent album.  ‘Stormur’, all stabbing piano chords and frantic drumming, should fill stadiums and get the mobile-phones held aloft; no doubt ‘Kveikur’ will give the strobes and distortion pedals a work-out; and ‘Blapradur’ manages to be both beautiful and just a touch unhinged before it segues into a chorus most bands would kill for (here’s hoping an outfit like Crystal Castles will mix the thing – the results will tear nightclubs apart).  And there are choruses aplenty here; there’s rarely a dud moment or a lull.

So, in some ways, on Kveikur it’s business as usual in the weird but engagingly peculiar land of Sigur Ros, while at the same time the band gets to explore and expand their range.  And there’s no denying that Jonsi and co have a renewed sense of purpose, one as an actual rock band.  In a world where talent programs such as Idol and X-Factor and The Voice smother us with saccharine tosh, we need our Icelandic mates more than ever.  And so that one day we might be able to answer that pretty bloody stupid question: What is music?

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 177 other followers