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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.

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.

Last week my little humble home stepped into a new era – I had a fire installed, a slow-combustion wood heater, I should say.  Technically I don’t need it.  There’s an old coal burner in the front room that’s now a library; I can use the coal burner to burn wood should I want a fire.  Plus I’m lucky to have ducted gas heating and a wall-mounted gas heater the size of a very large travelling suit-case.  And electric bar heaters.  And an electric blanket on the bed.  In this Southern Tablelands neck of New South Wales, winters do have a bite – heavy frosts are common, we regularly have minus-six mornings (which, according to the Bureau of Meteorology actually feel like minus-ten), even the odd snow flurry.  But I have my range of heaters, and, when I’m here alone, I wear thermal undies, because they make things just that little more bearable, and I really can’t afford to run the gas heating for long stretches.

Still I had a slow-combustion wood heater installed last week.  A man came by and did it for me, because I wouldn’t have had the first clue where to start.

Despite being a winter person, I’m finding more and more that I need heat, good, dry, radiant heat.  So there it is, the fire, sitting in the lounge-room where the piano used to be (the piano that’s now in the front room, glancing back at the coal burner).  My new slow-combustion wood heater is a big black cast-iron box of a thing, a massive black flue that gives the room an industrial aesthetic.  I can’t wait to get to 6pm tonight and light the fire, because I’ll want that good, dry, radiant heat, the flames, the glowing, dancing yellow-orange light, the smell of hardwood burning, the pop and crackle of it all, which scares the living daylights out of The Old Lady of the House.  I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, or Cointreau, or American Honey whiskey, and sit in front of the heat.

Because I’m a melancholic – that’s the real reason why I love my new fire so much.  Melancholia is my natural habitat, it always has been.

I love melancholic books: The Remains of the Day, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Holding the Man, Brideshead Revisited, Brokeback Mountain, Disgrace.  I love melancholic music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Red House Painters, The Smiths, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, M83, Arvo Part, Johan Johannson.  I’m not depressed, although there have been times when that’s exactly what I have been.  I’m just a miserable old melancholic – I have, as my Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary makes clear, ‘a habitual or constitutional tendency to pensive sadness’.  Pensive: deep in thought.  Don’t you love how words can take us on journeys, take us from one place to another!

I think my new fire takes me from one place to another, from the surface-tension of the present to deep within myself, to that core of melancholia that’s there, that which I was born with, that which I will die with.  Because, as strange as it may sound, I’m happiest in that place.  No doubt the fire is more friend than foe, taking me down there but, most importantly, bringing me back, warming me up, sending me to bed, reminding me that, more or less, everything will be alright in the morning.

I really can’t do it. I can’t remember the last time I sat upright in an armchair and listened to a new album from start to finish, the cover in my hands, checking song titles, reading lyrics, scanning the acknowledgements, then just closing my eyes to focus on what’s coming out of the speakers. But that’s exactly what I did this morning, for Bon Iver’s Bon Iver.

It was a nervous few minutes as I put on the album and got to listening. Compared to the awe-inspiring For Emma, forever ago (2008), would this album suck dogs balls? I’d recently had an experience of a band trying in vain to follow up a masterpiece – you can read about it here – and I’m just not strong enough to go through it all again. But, quite frankly, Bon Iver’s second album is extraordinary. It is majestic in its scope, in its wide-eyed amazement. Goose-bump material.

‘Perth’ starts the record in typical Bon Iver fashion – strummed and finger-picked guitars, Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto – but its conclusion is aggressive, as if to say, I’m back and this is my new album and you’re in for a fucking ripper of a ride. From here we meander through a musical landscape so beautifully crafted – so beautiful in and of itself – that it’s as if Vernon can barely believe his eyes and ears and heart and gut.

God is in the detail: in the crystal clear but so very warm production, in the sense of caring – aching – for every note, every beat, every word; you even get this impression in the cover art, the finest of brush-stokes in the idyllic lakeside scene depicted. As well as being majestic, Bon Iver is brave in its exploration and sense of play: song structures that go beyond what we know but stop short of where we thought we were heading. For Christ’s sake on this record saxophones duel with pedal-steel guitars.

Every so often there are hints of other bands: Red House Painters, Sigur Ros, even Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But Bon Iver is all Vernon’s; no one makes music like this, music which strives to get a handle on what it feels like to be alive in this shit-house world we call home, that strives full-stop.

It’s true that Vernon’s lyrics are a cousin of gibberish. Take this for example, the first line from ‘Minnesota Wi’: ‘Armour let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posing’. Others have concluded that at the end of it all Vernon really doesn’t have anything to say, and this is understandable. But it’s possible that Vernon might know exactly what he’s trying to say, it’s just that he wants us to work it out, in our own way, in our own time. A clue could be in the acknowledgements; like many artists, he thanks his parents, but it’s how it does it that’s interesting: ‘And to more than anyone, my Mum and Dad. Who never encouraged me to try anything different. Who raised me to always be the best person I could be. For being my best friends and loving me so much. For as much life as there is to live, I will never be able to thank you enough.’

It’s the intensity, the sheer wonderment.

If it’s true that Vernon’s lyrics mightn’t exactly be driven by clarity, it’s also true that ‘Beth/Rest’ is a bizarre note on which to finish the album. It’s an unashamed soft-rock ballad, the sort of thing that REO Speedwagon inflicted on us thirty years ago. Vernon’s take could well be seen as courageous, but it leaves a distinctly cheesy taste in the mouth, which is odd considering that For Emma was a paean to the heartfelt and authentic. Is it a misstep? Perhaps. But on the scale of wank to genius, it might possibly nudge genius. Maybe in structuring the album Vernon wanted to take us on a journey from the mountain cabin in which he recorded that first record to the bright-light cities of middle America, which, of course, has soft-rock firmly planted in its fat burger belly.

Forgiveness is possible – if you think forgiveness is needed – when you consider the sheer gloriousness of the nine songs that proceed ‘Beth/Rest’. On the elegant ‘Holocene’, Justin Vernon disingenuously claims ‘And at once I knew I was not magnificent’. You are magnificent, I’m afraid to tell you. On Bon Iver, you’re dangerously magnificent, and I for one am glad that I live in a world where music as rich and transcendent as this is possible.

Now it’s dawning on me that we really are into a brand new year and I’m coming to terms with all the hope and expectation and mental exhaustion that goes along with it, and then after the five days of almost-forty-degree temperatures that we’ve had in this Australian part of the world (weather we’ve always had, it has to be said, but it doesn’t get easier, in fact it seems to get harder), and now with everything that’s happening in Haiti – what can I say about that disaster without sounding vacuous? – I’m afraid that the dear old brain has quite simply run aground.  Already.

So what better (read: easier) thing to do than post a handful of photographs, all of which were taken during the Christmas and New Year just gone in the small town an hour east of here where my father lives.  It’s essentially a nineteenth-century cattle-grazing joint, but the mainstreet is remarkably intact.  I took these shots while walking around after lunch one day, as all about me half of the city I live in was passing through the town on their way to the coast to escape…pretty well everything they know.

So there’s a picture of one of the strangest (and possibly most evil) Christmas shop-window displays imaginable.  There’s a soldier in the sky and under a streetlight, the soldier, of course, actually being the main part of the town’s beloved war memorial.  There’s the remnant of what must have been quite a session for a few bored local teenagers, or a few bored local hippies, or, let’s not pick on the usual suspects, maybe the local town priest who just needed a bit of time out, and who’d blame him for that?  And there’s someone else in the sky, this time a cemetery angel.  And, finally, another thing from the local cemetery: plastic flowers on a grave, which has always struck me as odd, the plastic, though at a time when someone so cherished has been lost just a little bit of colourful permanence wouldn’t go astray, surely.

Permanence. Now that’s something worth thinking about over the coming days (though I already know intransience is something us human types can never really have).

POSTCRIPT: while I’ve been getting this post together I’ve been listening to Unmap by Volcano Choir, a collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees.  I won’t write at length about the album right now because I want to let it percolate for a few days so I can fully get my head around what the album’s trying to do, but let me say that mostly it’s a cracker.  For anyone interested in Bon Iver it’s certainly worth a listen to, particularly ‘Still’, which is a stunning reworking of ‘Woods’ off the Blood Bank EP.  I’m not going to upload that song here, because somehow it’d feel like gutting a great piece of music, but it’s worth purchasing Unmap just for this – talk about something wonderful to fall asleep to, which is exactly what I’ll be doing in a couple of minutes.  Until I write something a little bit more intelligent on this, check out the band’s website at http://www.volcanochoir.com.

The XX by The XX.  This is one heck of an album: minimal without being bland, tuneful without being vacuously poppy, atmospheric without disappearing up its own bum.  ‘Basic Space’ is a cracker (that’s two bum references in one paragraph), as is ‘Crystalised’.  Robert Smith must be listening with considerable interest.  You can only hope this band has enough juice in it for more than one album (though things aren’t looking good: a guitarist has already done a runner).

Scars by Basement Jaxx.  This is just so full of ideas it’s hard not to get lost in the balls of it all, and even the weaker songs, the ballads, are a joy.  I loved ‘Raindrops’ the first time I heard it on the radio and a month or so later I still can’t get enough of it.  Sure Scars might sound like your music collection shoved into a blender, but who cares when it’s as good as this.

Riceboy Sleeps by Jonsi and Alex.  I must admit to being a complete and utter Sigur Ros obsessive (though that band’s latest album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, had some great moments as well as the most shlockingly Hollywood-soundtrack thing they’ve ever done), so when I saw this in my record-shop I snapped it up immediately.  And it’s a beauty: sure, it’s gentle and ambient but, according to the boys, no synths were used in its creation, and that approach brings an almost overwhelming warmth to the music.  That said, it’s not all sweetness and light: ‘Sleeping Giant’ could well end up appearing in a David Lynch film.

Blood Bank by Bon Iver.  For Emma, for Ever Ago is a modern-day classic in my book – it’s one of those albums that I love listening to on vinyl – and whilst nothing on this EP is as good as what’s on the main collection, there’s a lot to like here.  ‘Blood Bank’ is a slow-burner of a song and ‘Woods’, a multi-layered, heavily treated a capella piece, hits its mark bang on.

The Resistance by Muse.  Sure, Muse are getting more and more ridiculous (and, as everyone says, Queen-lite) as their career goes stratospheric, but this album, for me, is a guilty pleasure.  ‘Unnatural Selection’ is one of the best things they’ve done, much better than the often-lauded three-part ‘Exogenesis’, which closes the album.  Strap on the air guitar, slip into a pair of Freddie Mercury hot-pants and rock out with your…windows shut.

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