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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.

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.)

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