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Foreign Fields' 'Anywhere But Where I Am' - blink and you'll miss this, but you really really shouldn't

Foreign Fields’ ‘Anywhere But Where I Am’ – blink and you’ll miss this, but you really really shouldn’t

Oh it’s always the little gems, isn’t it, the things you stumble across that make everything worthwhile.

At the end of last year in my local street-press, the always reliable BMA Magazine, there was a series of lists of best albums of 2012; I love these lists, because usually I’ll find the next album I’ll buy.  In one list, amongst names of bands and singer-songwriters that I’d never heard of – that terrible but sure sign of middle-age – was a reference to an attractively reflective album by a band called Foreign Fields who’d recorded a collection of songs in an abandoned Wisconsin warehouse in the middle of winter, or something like that.  On my laptop I pressed a few buttons, found Foreign Fields’ Bandcamp site (it’s their only web presence), had a bit of a listen, and within minutes ordered the album and got the download onto my laptop.  So maybe the modern world isn’t so rubbish, though I’m still open to the distinct possibility.

The album, which is rather enticingly called Anywhere But Where I Am, is a suite of such intimacy, beauty, melancholy, all these words that I love.  The Nashville-based Eric Hillman and Brian Holl really do know how to craft a song out of the simplest ingredients: acoustic guitars, a piano maybe, perhaps a cello, all the while harmonised perfect-pitch voices drift and lilt over the top, a hint of percussion (sometimes it’s nothing more than a series of hand-claps), though if you listen closely you’ll also hear sweet sweet field recordings.  But there’s nothing ‘slacker’ about this; every second of sound is put together so lovingly.  There are distinct colours and shades of Nick Drake, and Bon Iver, and Sigur Ros, but this is also a sound like no other – somehow Foreign Fields manage to be both pastoral and domestic, so small and delicate in scale but also filmic in the moods and suggestions.  There’s no point singling out a song; everything is of the finest quality.  And there’s variety, and contrasts, and depths.  Brilliant.

Even though here in Australia we’re not yet done with summer, I know that when autumn comes around and then winter finally hits, I’ll light the fire, pour myself a glass of cheap plonk, and keep on listening to Anywhere But Where I Am.  Why this record isn’t on a major label I have no idea.  I’m just so glad that I found it.  Because Foreign Fields remind me of why I could never live without music when it’s as good as this.

Crystal CastlesCrystal Castles are the punks of dance music, to the point that III was apparently made without computers (which is quite something considering this really is dance music, as in the electronic thumpa-thumpa kind) and three of the tracks appear on the record unmixed.  If you’re intrigued, you should be.  Inevitably this collection is shouty and rough around the edges, so at times you turn these tunes down rather than up.  But it’s also extraordinarily majestic, and it’s music for the brain, even the soul, not just for the dance-floor.  We really do need to love musicians – any artists – who are committed to pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working within, and not caring a damn about whether dollars will flow or not.

homepage_large.053aea55As I wrote earlier on Under the counter, I wasn’t convinced that this latest Sigur Ros long-player was going to be any good, primarily because we’d heard how difficult it was for the band to get their act together and record something they themselves actually liked.  In the end they roped in lead-singer Jonsi’s boyfriend to make sense of it all.  The fact is Valtari is one of Sigur Ros’ best albums.  Yes, it’s glacial, and ethereal, the words that you’d expect to be used in connection with these Icelandic post-rockers.  But it’s also their bravest, and richest, and deepest.  As always the music patiently builds and builds and peaks before gliding out into nothingness, but it’s in the stillness where the real beauty is to be found, and that’s in the stunning closing third.  You really shouldn’t miss this.

Patrick WolfI’m a longstanding fan of Patrick Wolf, and we were lucky enough to see him at the Sydney Opera House this year right at the beginning of his worldwide acoustic tour.  I’d feared that the rather flamboyant Wolf would be precious and precocious and – dammit: let’s call a spade a spade – outright queenie, but on this evening at least his company was warm, engaging and surprisingly self-effacing; I would have been more than happy to go back the next night and sit through it all again.  Sundark and Riverlight is essentially a best-of collection, but the Lupercalian has re-arranged and re-recorded the selected tracks into a folksy, baroque stew, and it’s tasty fare indeed.  And intimate.  In short: a rare joy.

CoexistThis second album by The XX is, as others have said, a little on the underwhelming side, though there’s something appealing about that – like a wine that’s not much on first taste but keeps on getting better and better until it’s all that you want to drink, and think about.  The XX sound like no one else, which is something we should be very grateful for as it’s the best thing about the band, that and their skills in arrangement and production, which are always excellent.  I like Coexist best at the end of the day, just as the light’s fading and the melancholy sets in.

GodspeedLike Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are moody bastards, but this time around (after the band put themselves on a long self-imposed hiatus) it’s all straight-out grim anger.  At what exactly, it’s hard to tell – capitalism, the state of political discourse, modern life in general? – but this record is certainly a rally against something or other.  Perhaps it’s against anything that’s safe and predictable and lovely and polished within an inch of itself.  Enter Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at your own peril – it’s utterly relentless – but this is a very sublime kind of misery.

That one special extra: if you’re a fan of thoughtful, haunting and intricate electronica that’s all dripping-wet streets, shadows in the dark and an overall feeling that hope is slithering down the nearest gutter-drain, go search out Kindred, a three-track gem from UK dub-step pioneer Burial.  The coda of ‘Astray Wasp’ is simply staggering and is easily some of the best music recorded all year; it starts around eight minutes into this eleven-minute epic, but you really need to engage with the whole track to get the maximum effect.  You can listen to it by clicking on this.

Godspeed_You!_Black_Emperor_-_Allelujah!_Don't_Bend!_Ascend!In this day and age when there are machines all over the house demanding our attention and, perhaps worse, telling us what to do, it’s rare – or just fucking fantastic – when something comes along that truly reaches out and grabs you, yes, grabs you, around the neck, until all you can do is sit stunned on the couch, a candle or two lit, and you just stare into the near-darkness until you’re weeping, or you’re up on your feet and doing air-guitar in front of the French doors (the blackness on the other side adoring thousands, although in reality it’s just a crumbling old house in the night).  What is this something?  Godspeed you! Black Emperor’s new album, Allellujah! Don’t bend! Ascend!

Godspeed you! Black Emperor, or Godspeed, or GYBE, or, as they call themselves on this album, God’s Pee, is a Montreal-based collective that combines a wide range of instruments into what often amounts to a truly cacophonous climax of distorted and disturbing sound.  On Allellujah! Don’t bend!  Ascend!, their first record in ten years, members play guitars, drums, violins, cellos, dulcimers, something called a ‘portasound’, something called a ‘kemance’, vibraphones, marimbas, glockenspiels, even a hurdy-gurdy.  Think Sonic Youth mashed with a string-quartet mashed with a few blown-ins who will play whatever the hell they want to play, all of them in flannies and rip-torn jeans, bottles of vodka at their feed, and a hatred of rabid, rampant capitalism in their hearts.

I’ve been following the band since their extraordinarily epic Lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven (2000), and then discovered their back catalogue, which was equally impressive.  Godspeed is a post-rock band, so it’s all patient ebbs and flows until building into near-out-of-control conclusions, resulting in general devastation all-round.  There’s no singing, though every so often there’s a field-recording of someone speaking, an unhinged street-poet, say, or a manic preacher.  The band is famous for not promoting themselves – for example, there’s barely a mention of this latest album on the band’s website – and they’ve only rarely allowed their music to be used in films.  This is not easy-listening music, nor is it summer music, which makes it even more miraculous that I just can’t turn this latest bloody album off.

To give you an idea of the terrain we’re in, Godspeed offer us a blurry photo of an abandoned farm-house on the cover and on the back are the following words: ‘WRECK’D US OUR COUNTRIE’S AMOK/TORN THRU/WITH BIRDS THEE SKY’S A BRUIS’D UNRECKONING/THEE SHORE’S BED DRY BUT TEPID WATERS’ (the capitalisation is theirs).  The Bible-esque broken English and fly-blown poetry is perfectly appropriate for what’s on the actual disc: a collection of four relentless but never-the-less strangely uplifting pieces of music.

The first, ‘Mladic’, is an 18-minute masterpiece of noise and riffing, all of it rising and falling before rising again but never losing the tension that is at the song’s pained and twisted heart.  It’s such a grand gesture, but there’s no mistaking the typical Godspeed anger – even on low volume this song makes your ears and nose bleed.  ‘Mladic’ deserves to be heard through half-decent speakers, but you can get a taste of how it’s performed live here.  Interesting that the band allow fans to record their shows; also of interest in this video is the use of looped projections, which have been a long-time feature of their gigs (they include the artists’ names in the list of band members).

Contrasting ‘Mladic’ is ‘Their helicopters’ sing’ (is that poorly placed apostrophe on purpose?).  This is a 6-minute drone where the strings are more prominent…and is that the sound of bagpipes?  It reminds me of something that the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once said, and I’m paraphrasing here: ‘I have found that sometimes it is enough for a piece of music to be nothing more than a single note played beautifully.’  Pärt has always sought spiritual beauty, but Godspeed are after something much more frightening.  ‘We drift like worried fire’ begins in typically sparse fashion, being built around a simple plucked-string (guitar? violin? sample?) motif, before loose-limbed drumming kicks in and the song is off, traveling here and there, lifting and lowering as usual, finding lightness, darkness, and more lightness.  This song is Godspeed at their most majestic; in fact, it’s almost triumphant-sounding, maybe even beautiful, though be warned that this band would find beauty in a pair of sodden socks left behind by a wino.

Like those other post-rock marvels Sigur Ros, who came back from near oblivion with this year’s Valtari, which is a profoundly moving collection of songs, Godspeed you! Black Emperor prove with Allellujah! Don’t bend!  Ascend! that this punky, almost underground musical movement remains as valid and as valuable as ever.  This record is a plea for solidness, for depth and resonance, for real living, the sort that doesn’t begin and end with the click of a button.

You have to take notice of a keenly anticipated album that opens with the gentlest of ballads.  It’s brave, it’s courageous, and it’s exactly what contemporary music needs.  And it’s what The xx do on Coexist, a record that fans of indie music have been looking forward to since 2009, when the band’s self-titled sophomore release bagged them the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.  On paper, The xx are a curious proposition: a male singer who plays bass, a female singer who plays guitar, a percussionist who does it all with electronics (and is becoming a much sought-after DJ and producer).  This is very simple, sparse, left-of-field pop music, as if your brother and sister and their mate are practicing in the bedroom next door.  It is, however, beautifully structured and carefully crafted, every song a sublime mix of peaks and troughs, even silences.  Both voices, despite their youth, are surprisingly soulful, but certainly not in a Whitney Houston or boy-band way; this is all about feeling and intimacy – if soul music is all about, well, bearing your soul, then The xx make soul music.  But it’s also very, very modern.

Like any band that sounds like no-one else, there are challenges.  How to explore and develop while holding on to what makes you special in the first place and keeping your fan-base?  Iceland’s Sigur Ros has had the same problem, and they’ve sustained their career by pushing out the boundaries of their sound without really progressing in any way (leaving that task to lead-singer Jonsi’s side-projects).  What is The xx’s answer?  The band members were only 17 years old when they recorded their first album, and due to its success spent the next couple of years touring the world (and losing a second guitarist at the beginning of the journey).  When they took a break they rather understandably hit the nightclubs of their native UK for a bit of r&r.  In many ways, Coexist is the band heading in a dance-music direction.

Thankfully the craft and sense of dynamic remains.  These songs won’t fill nightclubs, though no doubt many will be remixed (they’d be stupid not to give at least a couple to atmospheric beat-master Burial, who’d do extraordinary things with this stuff – darken it right up to the point that shivering might be a good idea).  In fact, on Coexist, the songs are so brittle, so fragile, that it’s hard to imagine them even being played live.  That opening ballad, ‘Angels’, is a case in point: it feels as if singer Roma Madley Croft is going to simply dissolve in front of our ears (eyes).  ‘Reunion’, which contrasts Croft’s sweet tones with the deeper timbre of bassist Oliver Sim, is similarly delicate, although does manage to climb into a glorious coda that, it’s true, gets the toes tapping.  Towards the end of the collection is ‘Swept Away’, which is The xx at their most clubby, the song building and building into a jungle rhythm (‘jungle’ as in Tarzan, not the style of dance music).

If you’re detecting a hint of reservation in these words, it’s that this fine mix of beauty and intimacy can become all a bit of a blur in the wash-up.  On Coexist The xx don’t stop you in your tracks; it’s a bit like how you can make a mix-tape of your favourite songs only to find that there’s something lacking – sometimes you need some songs that you don’t like, or songs that you don’t like initially but end up working out, or songs that are edgy and dangerous and unexpected.  Perhaps that’s where The xx should go next: into the land of danger and the unexpected; they’ve dipped in a toe but really should dive in head-first.  They’ve proved that they can be audacious, now they just need to put that spirit at the centre of everything they do.  And the world will be theirs.

(Postscript: if an album is good enough, as in potentially great, I buy it on vinyl.  I own Coexist on vinyl.)

I might not be big on tradition, but I’m certainly big on habit and routine, and my winter habit and routine is, at 6pm, exactly at 6pm, I call it quits on writing, pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and put on some of the best melancholic minimalist music I can find.  As you can probably imagine, I have quite a store of it, and I do order in new CDs and digital downloads at an alarming rate.  I’m not really sure why I love this stuff in the early evening, but I do, and I’d die without it.  Maybe it’s about the close of the day, especially a winter’s day, which around my neck of the words can be pretty severe – some days, if the wind-chill factor is taken into account, daytime temperatures never go above zero Celsius, and the nights can go down well below freezing.  And it can be grey, so so so grey.  Regardless of the weather, listening to melancholic minimalist music is what I do.

Here are three albums currently on high rotation.

Piano Solos by Dustin O’Halloran (2004).  Mr O’Halloran’s music is a favourite of film-maker Sofia Coppola, who is a very special kind of spunk – some of these tunes were used to great effect in her completely marvellous Marie Antoinette.  As is made clear by the title of this album, there’s nothing but piano here, and it’s all extraordinarily simple – your teenager daughter with a few keyboard skills (the musical kind, not the inane Facebook kind) could probably knock this stuff out.  However, there’s a stack of feeling on this record, and if O’Halloran was to be found playing it in a hotel foyer you could bet your bottom dollar that everyone would be watching and listening, and probably weeping too, which would be a bit nice.  Try ‘Opus # 12’ on for size.

Eulogy for Evolution by Olafur Arnalds (2006).  On the surface, this is just pretty piano-and-strings music.  It would certainly soundtrack a slightly miserable European film where people try to love and live well and be the best people possible, but in the end it all falls apart, only a hint of hope as the credits roll, so you clutch your partner’s hand, drop by the servo on the way home to get a family-sized block of chocolate, and you knock it all off before sliding into bed and each other’s arms, slowly falling asleep to the realisation that all is not lost, not yet.  But Arnalds offers more depth than your standard soundtrack, and, dare I say it, more sophisticated musicology.  Be warned: this bloke’s from Iceland, and there is just little of Sigur Ros here, particularly in terms of the background strings, but also in the way some of the songs end up in quite unexpected places.  Check out this little beauty – ‘3055’.

For the tired and ill at ease by Scissors and Sellotape (2012).  This is a pretty damn special thing, partly because it’s only available on very limited edition handmade vinyl (the packaging, not the actual record…I’m assuming), although I heard it’s well and truly out of stock, and digital download – there are no CDs in sight.  Originally from the UK but now based in Melbourne, the main protagonist here, John McCaffrey, makes the grimmest of music, slow and rumbling and almost drony, despite being based around simple minor-key piano motifs.  Dimension and perspective come from the addition of field-recordings to some tracks, such as a father and child talking, and, on the utterly intriguing ‘I say ‘get used to it’’, the subtlest of beats, almost as though they’ve come from a human heart.  Many may find For the tired and ill at ease (a title written fairly and squarely at me) just too macabre, but after repeated listens it reveals its warmth and beauty.  In short, it’s a ripper.  I’m off to hunt down the vinyl version.  But as it’s now 6pm I better pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and listen to one of these albums.  Which one, I have no idea – it’ll be a lovely surprise for all of us.

*

A great source of information on contemporary minimalism, check out Headphone Commute.  Actually, it’s the only source you need.

You always know things aren’t quite right when a band starts sending mixed messages, and that’s the case in the Sigur Ros universe.  A couple of years ago we got the old ‘we’re on an indefinite hiatus’, which is always code for ‘we can’t stand the sight of each other’.  Then came Inni, a film of the band playing live and an accompanying sound-track album; both are excellent, but was it a way of keeping the fans onboard before they lost their patience?  Then we heard that Sigur Ros had started working on a new album, but ditched all that material because it wasn’t any good, and fair enough, quite frankly.  But now, almost completely out of the blue, or the misty green if the sleeve is anything to go by, we have Valtari – the sixth studio album.

That should lead to wild partying in the streets, especially for those of us who’ve been following the band from the beginning, but, regrettably, there’s more to worry about.  During interviews to promote this latest record the members of Sigur Ros have been saying things like ‘we were going through old songs that we’d previously discarded and found things that weren’t so bad’ and ‘we rediscovered this bit and that bit and just stuck it all together and – hey presto! – a new tune’.  Even more concerning, it appears that the band had to give the lot to Alex Somers, the partner of lead-singer and guitarist Jón ‘Jónsi’ Þór Birgisso, to make something of the whole wretched mess.

So, is it a mess or not?  On first listen, yes it is – the songs do indeed feel like scraps.  Some of the songs sound like not-up-to-scratch intros to songs from previous albums; one, ‘Eganda’, the opener, sounds like a whole bunch of said intros stuck together with masking tape and without much care.  Apparently for a while there somewhere the band was working on a choral record and elements of that remain on Valtari – the most obvious is ‘Dauoalogn’, which is Sigur Ros at its most ethereal, although the title translates as ‘calm death’.  Yes, on this record, the title of which means ‘steam-roller’, we’ve heard it all before.  There’s the ground-swelling, at times ground-breaking prettiness, Jónsi’s pixie-esque falsetto and cello-bowed guitar, and, all in all, the big Icelandic landscape atmospherics.  ‘Varuo’ is a case in point, which, it has to be said, is a Sigur Ros promised fulfilled.

After a few listens, however, half a dozen say, especially if you’ve got a fire going, you’re a bit pissed, and you have a feeling that the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket, Valtari as an album starts to make sense – glorious sense.  What Somers has managed to do is craft from off-cuts an extraordinary suite of songs, which, as a whole, is closer to the magical Riceboy Sleeps album he made with his partner than anything in the Sigur Ros back catalogue.  Although, of course, this is still Sigur Ros.  And that does pose a problem for the band: what on earth do they do now?  I can’t help hoping that this is it, and I can’t help thinking that this is meant to be it; it certainly does sound like the credits are rolling.  Even look at the pic above: they’re walking away from us.

I used the word extraordinary before.  Is that really appropriate, considering the mind-blowing music that Sigur Ros has made over its twelve-year career?  Yes, it’s necessary.  In the end, this is an elegant record: it’s graceful, it’s refined, and – here’s another word that has to be used – beautiful.  However, Somers knows that there’s dark in the light, gravity in the uplift, danger in the sugar-sweetness.  He’s allowed the band to take their sweeping, majestic post-rock sound to its conclusion.  And there I go again, don’t I, using words of endings, because I can’t get away from that feeling that on Valtari we’re hearing the sound of an ending.  If you’re not convinced, or have never been convinced by Sigur Ros, search out the title song from the album – it’s hard to imagine an ending more exquisite than this.  And Jónsi doesn’t even sing on the bloody thing.

A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time.  Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes.  And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin.  You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it?  So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving.  Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground.  Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.

PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.

Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake.  It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year.  In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.

What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one).  Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.

Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music.  Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war.  However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting.  Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.

Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous.  And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious.  Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.

It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia.  And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her.  But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now.  And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time.  Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.

What a complete cracker of a year it’s been for music.  Beside me on the desk is a small tower of CDs, all of which I’ve bought this year and almost all of them could – or should – appear in any kind of best-of-2011 list.  As opposed to this year in reading, where, in the main at least, the books I’ve read have been slow-burners, the records that have come into my house in the last twelve months have demanded immediate attention.  Some of these records will go on to achieve the status of classic, which is thrilling for all concerned, even if the 80s seems to be having a greater influence on contemporary musicians than is strictly necessary.  Anyway, enough introductory crap from me.  Here’s the best of music of 2011.  I’ve tried to keep it to only six albums, but who knows what will happen.

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83 – this record is so extraordinarily ambitious that it’s impossible to ignore.  It’s also made with such craft and love, and you can’t ask for more than that.  This time around the main M83 provocateur Anthony Gonzales has created a double album of depth, delight, texture, joy, sadness, and – like Coco Rosie and DJ Shadow, who are a little further down the list – sheer inventiveness.  Sure this is synth-pop shoegaze with a touch of Toto, Thompson Twins and Simple Minds thrown in for good measure (there’s also a hint of the Seinfield theme tune to a couple of songs, which is rather worrying), but somehow it all hangs together so magically that it traps you until you realise that you’ve been playing it for days on end without a break.  ‘Midnight City’ on the first disk makes me want drive up to Sydney in the middle of the night, which would be a five-hour return trip, and it’d never happen, but when I listen to music as fine as this it makes me think that anything might be possible.  ‘Midnight City’ is also the song of the year, there’s no doubt about that.

Grey Oceans by Coco Rosie – it’s true that this album came out in 2010 but it seemed to go under the radar until this year, so it’s going to be in this year’s list, damnit.  I’ve written about this album previously, and it’s clear that Grey Oceans is Coco Rosie’s masterpiece.  It’s just as inventive as their previous albums, but this time the half-sisters at the core of the Rosie are searching for purity of musical expression.  They’re achieving a greater musical range, from balladry to weird-arse pop, to even nudging the dance-floor, though Christ knows what sort of dance-floors exist in the Coco Rosie universe.  If M83’s ‘Midnight City’ is the song of the year, the title track of Grey Oceans is a very, very close second.  In a just world, every household would have a copy of this album.

The Less You Know, The Better by DJ Shadow – Josh Davis is undoubtedly a cantankerous bloody thing, refusing to do anything other than make the music that he wants to make, and he’s had his missteps, that’s for sure.  He’s also in that infinitely tricky position of having made a much revered first album, that being Entroducing… from 1996.  Is The Less You Know as good?  Almost.  It’s more like the Psyence Fiction album he did with James Lavelle as UNKLE (1998): it’s widescreen, sentimental, experimental, all the while refusing to be categorised.  It’s fair to ask the question: what’s the point of DJ Shadow?  He’s neither a rap/hip-hop artist nor MC, nor is he the sort of bloke who spins records in nightclubs.  Davis makes music with samples, but the samples are put together so cleverly and seamlessly that it may as well be the product of an actual band.  But who cares when the music is as good as this.  The best way to approach The Less You Know is as a mix-tape put together by a friend who decided to make his own music because he couldn’t find any real stuff he liked. In a way, ‘Border Crossing’ is atypical of DJ Shadow; then again, because he does whatever the fuck he wants, it’s a good illustration of his modus operandi.

The Riptide by Beirutagain I’ve written about this album previously, but let me say at the outset that I love Zac Condon and his wandering (wondering?) band of troubadours, and I’ve been following this lot from the beginning.  This time, Condon strips things back to carefully crafted songs that are almost pop but thankfully – luckily – the melancholy remains.  These are intimate vignettes, almost as though they weren’t made for public listening.  In the past Beirut has sounded like a bunch of street-drunks trying to remember the hymns from their childhoods, but now they sound as though one of them has made a go of things, getting a flat, maybe even a dog, and is starting to think that the world may not be as hopeless as previously thought; perhaps there will be comfort, maybe even love.  The Riptide could be Beirut’s best yet.  Search out the title track if you want to hear what all this is about.

Rolling Blackouts by The Go! Team – yet again I’ve already written about this album, but I still mean every word of it.  I’m just so happy that I live in a world where bands like this exist.  Perhaps like Beirut (or M83 or DJ Shadow for that matter) The Go! Team shouldn’t work: a mix of Sonic Youth, Spice Girls, school-yard rap and 1960s TV-show theme tunes anyone?  No, didn’t think so.  It’s just that it’s all so freakin’ clever (‘freakin’’ really is the right word in this context), and the song construction so faultless.  It’s true that at first Rolling Blackouts didn’t initially grab me as much as I wanted it to – as others have said, it did sound like The Go! Team had run out of puff just a little (and who wouldn’t, quite frankly, when you’ve made a habit of making every song on an album sound like a single).  But I now realise that this one of the band’s best, because there’s more devil in the detail, and, dare I say it, maturity.  In the end this is bubble-gum pop-music with an edge, and it’s bonkers, but it’s also genius. Here’s T.O.R.N.A.D.O., which kicks-off the album.

Bon Iver by Bon Iver – the world’s probably written enough about Bon Iver, and I have too, but suffice it to say that music lovers around the globe were relieved to discover that Justin Vernon and Co had come up with something as good as For Emma Forever Ago (2008), potentially even going one step further.  I’m not entirely convinced that Bon Iver has anything truly meaningful to say, but in this purposeful obtuseness is also a very majestic kind of beauty.  Everything on this record is impeccably constructed so that not a nano-second is wasted.  I’m also not convinced that ‘Beth/Rest’ was a good idea – it’s just too REO Speedwagon for my taste – but there’s no mistaking Justin Vernon’s ability to make music that moves listeners, and we can’t ask for much more than that.

I can’t stop.  So here are two more wonderful albums from 2011.

Metals by Feist – if there’s anyone who could turn me from my wicked gay ways it’s this Canadian songstress.  Not only is she completely gorgeous, she has the voice of honey – if hers was the last voice I heard I’d die a happy man.  She follows up the resolutely poppy The Reminder (2007) with this collection of ballads; there’s nothing to get the toes tapping here (though it’s not hard to imagine that many of the songs become punchier live).  This is aloof music, austere even, and there’s more than a hint of Kate Bush, which is never a bad thing.  But what makes this record so very special is Feist’s strength (so to speak) in saying, I will not get poppier, I will go in the opposite direction, I don’t want popularity, I just want to be good.  Any artist who does that is an artist of confidence, and Feist is confident.  But also humble – how does that work?  If you want a good place to start with Metals, go looking for the soulful, bluesy meander of ‘Anti-Pioneer’.

Lupercalia by Patrick Wolf – here is yet another fiercely original artist, even if on this record Mr Wolf does get dangerously close to being this decade’s Rick Astley.  But everyone has a soft spot for a bit of Astley, don’t they?  What I love about Lupercalia is that as opposed to Feist, Patrick Wolf has specifically set out to make a poppy, commercial record.  Strange then that not much of it got commercial-radio airplay.  Perhaps Wolf is just too camp for these supremely conservative times.  Which is exactly why we need an artist like this, an artist who refuses to be anything but himself.  Despite his pop intentions, Wolf hasn’t lost his keenness for exploration, for experimentation, for new musical perspectives.  This album includes ‘William’, a song he wrote for the man he clearly loves and will marry in 2012; in his rich, articulate baritone he sings, ‘And I showed you my ugly/heart yet you did not/surrender’.  Now we just need Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to listen.  Here’s another gem from Lupercalia: ‘House’.

With that, happy festive season.  Whatever that may mean to you.

I’m writing on a windy, drizzly, overcast Goulburn day.  I’ve had to triple-peg the washing on the clothesline otherwise it will end up down the street.  On the Tuesday just gone it was so windy – with gusts of 80km/hour we were the windiest place in the state – that one of my standard rose-bushes was decapitated; I’ve bandaged it up with masking tape and, miraculously, it seems to be recovering.  The chooks aren’t coping as well: Mrs Honky became poorly during the wind-storm and proceeded to go downhill until I woke up yesterday morning to find her still body on the floor of the run, the score marks of her legs in the dirt as if she thought she could outrun this.  But I noticed that she was making small, long, slow breaths, so I got down to a crouch.  She opened her eyes and looked at me, or at least in my general direction.  A few minutes later I returned to the run with gardening gloves and a large plastic bag.  She didn’t open her eyes, and her body was no longer breathing.

So here I am today, with the wind and the drizzle and the overcast sky.  And Inni by Sigur Ros playing on the television.  If there’s been one constant in my life since 2000 it has been Sigur Ros, the band that plays music which sounds like the earth is simultaneously falling apart and coming together, all because they’re from Iceland.  I’ve been with the band since their miraculous Ágætis byrjun album.  At first, I wasn’t taken by the enigmatically titled ( ) record, until I realised that I’d played it non-stop for eighteen months.  He Who Likes To Sing Along To Some Songs and I were lucky enough to see the band play at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney just before the Takk album was released in 2006, so that record will always remind me of how we downed a bucket-load of vodka and soda before the band took to the stage, and when they did how overwhelming it was – there were tears, that’s what I can tell you.

In 2007 Sigur Ros put out Hvarf/Heim, which is a cross between a b-side collection and live footage of the band playing intimate shows across their homeland.  And then came Med sud i eyrum vid endalaust (meaning ‘with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly’), the record with the young folk doing a nudie run across the road on the cover.  For the first time Sigur Ros worked with a producer (U2, Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey et al), and the production is more three dimensional, the songs more varied, even if Med sud contains ‘Ara batur’, which is so widescreen Hollywood that you expect some trout-mouthed actress to leap out of the speakers and try to whisk you off to the altar.

And then the band went kaput, at least a temporary-hiatus kind of kaput.

But now we have Inni, which is the essentially the soundtrack to a film of the band playing live in London in 2008.  Where I’m from, for $39 you can get the DVD, two CDs, and the album across three vinyl records, which is quite a bargain.  In Inni, Sigur Ros sound more aggressively electric, which is no doubt because they aren’t playing with Amiina, their regular four-piece string section.  Lead singer Jonsi Birgisson is in extraordinary form, somehow sharing the secrets of his life even though we English-speaking types have no idea what he’s saying because he uses either Icelandic or his own made-up language, or an infuriatingly appealing combination of both.  As usual the band around him is both tight and expressive, although loose-limbed drummer Orri Pall Dyrason can sometimes sound as if he’s barely able to hold it all together.

Jonsi, who in the footage looks like a cross between Jimmy Hendrix and Adam Ant, and his almost pitch-perfect falsetto and his way of playing the guitar – with a violin bow – is undoubtedly the focus of Inni.  But just as important is the film-work by Vincent Morisset.  It is grainy, it is gritty, it is menacing.  Morisset takes us onto the stage, almost as though he wants to give us a first-person experience of the band.  He does not say, look how popular and talented Sigur Ros are; instead he takes us inside the band and beyond.  I mentioned the word menacing, and it’s an appropriate word for Inni.  Sure Sigur Ros can be pretty and beautiful, and yes sometimes they have their Enya moments, but there’s darkness at their core, a terrible darkness; anyone who’s noticed the David Lynch-esque motifs in Heim will know what I mean.  Morisset reveals the band’s gravitas by focussing on the musicians and their music; how revealing are these four men, how unafraid they are of being emotional.

There’s very little sweetness and light to Inni, which is a good thing.  Especially for days like this one, with the gale-force wind howling around the house, the grim sky, a dead bird in the garbage bin, and a rose-bush stuck together with masking tape.  Because if Sigur Ros says anything it’s this: work fucking hard to live the deepest life possible, because there’s nothing else.

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.  Sadly I’m not the first to say this; it was Aldous Huxley, who was the first to say a stack of really interesting things.  Trying to put my jealousy aside, Huxley is right – music does express the inexpressible, which is handy because otherwise we’d be even bigger basket-cases than we are already.  Thankfully, the last couple of months have been awash with great music, and awash is an apt word, because one album I’m enjoying very much at the moment is Within and Without by Washed Out.  Frankly, that’s a crap name for a musical project, but it’s highly appropriate – twenty-eight-year-old former librarian Ernest Green (with a name like that of course he was a librarian) makes what the kids are calling ‘chillwave’ music, which, is also a crap name, but again it’s accurate.  This record reminds me of early 90s English shoegazers Slowdive (these names were never any good, were they), except Washed Out backs it all with shuffling dance beats.  Apart from ‘Amor Fati’, which is just a little too vacuously buoyant for my liking, this is finely crafted music.  It may have nothing to say, but it does say it pretty damn well.

I approached Patrick Wolf’s latest album Lupercalia with caution.  Early reports suggested that it was the poppiest Wolf record to date; someone even went so far as to say that Patrick is today’s version of Rick Astley, which is grossly unfair – and just a little hilarious.  I’ve been following Mr Wolf for some years now: he’s talented, hugely creative, takes risks, and he has the widest of emotional ranges (that’s not a euphemism, by the way).  Lupercalia is certainly the most straight forward set of songs that he’s ever done, but there’s still enough twists and turns to make it sound like nothing else on earth.  And Patrick is apparently getting married shortly, so we can allow him to be just a little chipper, can’t we?  Especially when he’s lucky enough to live in a country that allows more than one type of sexual orientiation to get married.  So I’ve found myself turning this record up loud and singing along and annoying the neighbours, who are probably sharpening their abattoir knives, or – perhaps, just perhaps – singing along as well.

Another artist I’ve been following for a long time is Zac Condon, otherwise known as Beirut.  Originally a solo project, Beirut is a band these days, though it’s an odd band to say the least, comprising brass and mandolins and accordions more than anything else (with the odd drum machine thrown in, just to keep us on our toes), the whole strummy-crash-bang of it all overlaid by Condon’s deep baritone that suggests an eighty-year-old drunk rather than the young and handsome chap he is.  Influenced by Baltic folk music, Beirut precariously straddles celebration and melancholia, more often than not ending up sounding like a bunch of homeless men having a Saturday-night jam down on the street corner.  The Riptide is certainly Condon looking for a poppier, snappier sound (perhaps he should do something with Patrick Wolf, which is a sentence I should have thought more about before I wrote it down; what would Mr Wolf’s fiancé say about that?), but it’s still utterly beguiling stuff.  Pour yourself a glass or seven, light the fire, and sing along to Condon and co as if there’s no tomorrow, which, you know, may well be true.

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