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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’.

Okay, stand well back, because I’m about to do something I’ve never done before, and, dare I say it, you’ve probably never seen done before.  Am I about to turn myself inside out?  Levitate while cross-legged?  Speak in two languages at once?  No.  What I’m about to do is quote Australian literary legend David Malouf in what’s essentially a review of three pop-music records.  In his article titled ‘Music, the most abstract of the arts, is mathematics on the move’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 May 2010, Malouf asks, So what is music for?  What does it do to us or for us?  What happens when we give ourselves over to actually listening to it?  Music vibrates in the air around us and involves us; it touches and moves us.  Its rhythms take us back to primitive foot-tapping and finger-clicking or clapping; the regularity of its beat excites our heartbeats and pleases us with its natural order; it invites the body, even when the body remains still, to sway and dance.  All music takes us back to the body; all instruments discover what they do in what the body does.

Three records that are currently doing exactly what Malouf is talking about, taking me back to my body, and getting me pretty bloody excited in the process, are ‘High Violet’ by The National, ‘Crystal Castles’ by Crystal Castles, and ‘This Is Happening’ by LCD Soundsystem, the latter band surely being the most genuinely enthralling bunch of contemporary musicians working today.

First up, The National’s ‘High Violet’.  Frankly, these guys are so god-damn frustrating.  They could be great, they could be huge.  They could take REM’s indy-music crown, and part of me wants this to happen, because on ‘High Violet’ they get mighty, mighty close to making something truly significant.  This is a big record, one that’s best played up loud so the richness and the rawness makes your rib-bones rattle.  Melancholic, intimate, but still rocking, it’s an intriguing beast of a thing.  In parts, especially on album-opener ‘Terrible Love’, it owes a little to Sigur Ros, in terms of the buzz-saw atmospherics, and Arcade Fire in terms of the naked ambition.  ‘Afraid of Everyone’ (I put my hand up to say, yes, that’s me), ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and ‘Lemonworld’ is a stunning trifecta of songs and worth the price-tag alone.  The frustration comes from Matt Berninger’s voice, which while deeply attractive and listenable does tend to mangle the lyrics into an unintelligible slop so that a song’s never given the opportunity to properly blossom into a classic.  But this album grows and grows on you until you just can’t live without it, and perhaps that’s where The National’s true genius lies.

Crystal Castles has now given us their second album and it’s…um…totally friggin’…beautiful.  Yes, beautiful.  Though I should caution that at times it’s an ugly kind of beauty.  As with the duo’s first – and also self-titled – album, there’s the mix of scratchy, screechy snippets of dancey noise (a bit like a jacked-up Sonic Youth trapped in a computer-game shop) and then great big slathers of almost-but-not-quite trance.  This time around, however, it all comes together in a more cohesive whole.  ‘Celestica’, ‘Year of Silence’ (which samples ‘Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur’ by Sigur Ros, revealing the dark soul of those Icelandic noise-niks, which, to my mind, is missing from Jonsi’s solo effort ‘Go’, though the darkness is all over his and his partner Alex Somers’ extraordinary Riceboy Sleeps album) and ‘Vietnam’ make for fantastic listening.  For those of an age there’s a fair bit of inspiration from the 90s-era, Rickenbacker-strumming English band Lush in many of these beguiling songs, and that’s no bad thing.  As long as the world has artists like Crystal Castles in it, dance music and electronica is in very…dangerous hands indeed.  Bugger it, I might just pour myself a glass of champagne, turn out the lights, crank this album up very loud, and dance around the lounge-room like a dervish until the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper give me the evil eye before darting under the bed.

And so we come to LCD Soundsystem, which is the first band in years that have spun my nipples so hard that I’m amazed that I still have a chest.  Mixing brilliant, thoughtful beats and the wittiest of lyrics, a gorgeous though not unchallenging pop sensibility, and perfect production, ‘This Is Happening’ is already in my Top Ten Albums of 2010.  Like the band’s previous record, ‘Sound of Silver’, the influences are many, though in almost every song I’m reminded of Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, which just so happens to be in my Top Ten Albums of All Time.  Having said that, the stunning, feedback-drenched ‘All I Want’ sounds suspiciously like a mash-up of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and any Strokes song you care to mention, just infinitely better.  While it’s true that there aren’t as many highs as on ‘Sound of Silver’, this is a more minimal record, and it’s one that deserves – and rewards – close listening, because there’s more than one devil in the detail here.  And it’s all so very, very New York that I almost feel like going out to graffiti something just for the heck of it.  Apparently James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s key protagonist, has said that this is the last outing for this particular musical incarnation.  If this is true, good on him for bowing out while completely on top of his game.

David Malouf in his Sydney Morning Herald article goes on to say the following: One of the opportunities art offers us is simply to stand still for a moment and look, or to sit still and listen; the pleasure of being firmly present while the ego goes absent and our consciousness is fired with something other than ourselves.  For some reason, losing ourselves in this way is a form of self-discovery.  Going passive and absent energises us, gives us a renewed sense of presence. Whether you want to sit still and be swept away or dance like a complete idiot without a care in the world (I can flit between the two with remarkable ease, I should admit), being fully present in the company of these three albums could make you very happy to be living on this planet in the year 2010.

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If you’re interested in reading the full Malouf article, it can be found here.

Frightened Rabbit's third album. Still not entirely a barrel of laughs.

1. The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Sadly this isn’t a title of my own making, because I love winter and I love mixed drinks – no, it’s the name of the third album from Frightened Rabbit.  Some say these wild and woolly blokes out of Scotland are about to grab Arcade Fire’s crown, although more likely they’re going to have a crack at The National’s.  Good luck with that.  Previously known for being miserablists, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is almost an upbeat selection of songs, except this version of upbeat is frantic, in parts panicked, and the close-to-joyful melodies mask lyrics that plumb some pretty bloody tricky depths.  For instance, from The Wrestle: ‘The crumpled ocean is no boat trip/Dark water stole my clothing/A shape stirs beneath me’.  Or this from Skip the Youth, an almost hymnal song, if hymnal songs were allowed to break free and go stratospheric: ‘I’ve been digging a hole tonight/On my knees beneath the moon/All I want is a place to lie/Guess a grave will have to do’; I should add that the glorious, increasingly noise-soaked coda to this angsty gem finds the band shouting over and over ‘Skip the youth/It’s ageing me too much’.  Oh amen to that.  This is simple music, only a few chords per song, and the often fast-paced beat drives and drives and drives, sometimes until the song reaches a crashing crescendo or burns out under its own weight.  But this is also electric music, electric as in the electricity of modern life (which is a bit rubbish, it must be said).  The Winter of Mixed Drinks is best played up loud so the windows rattle, which means it probably should be served on vinyl, and at a time when you have something to celebrate but you also know that yet another disappointment is lurking around the corner.  If you’re sailing seven sheets to the wind, well, that wouldn’t hurt either.

2. The Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers. Twice in the last month, perhaps because Easter has been stampeding towards us like a herd of chocolate-filled elephants (they do exist – go have a look), I’ve spotted those brown-clad happy-clapper-types in the central part of my city, standing comfortably together in a circle, a three-metre-high hand-crafted cross upright in the middle, one young chap with a cheap banged-up acoustic guitar, a few of them with bongos, one or two with their hands in the air.  Whilst the intransigence and, at times, outright danger of their religiosity worries me, I can’t help admiring their courage.  They don’t give two hoots about what they look like or what we think of them.  And they do appear so ecstatically happy, especially when they look to the sky and smile and one of them joyfully tosses a plastic bottle of water into the air or another starts clapping in time with something other than the song they’re all singing.  Obviously, when the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers take a break from singing to – with black-bound Bibles in hand – work their evangelical tricks amongst the general public I run a mile into the nearest music or book shop and scamper for the darkest gear I can find.  But I can’t help being glad that someone has been singing in public, that they believe in something so much, so God damn hard, that they want to take it to the streets while the rest of us lose ourselves in shopping malls and reality television.  And blogging.

3. My Italian Neighbour. Almost a year and a half ago I came home to hear loud drumming in my head.  No, it wasn’t a headache thing, or a hangover thing, or even a mental-health thing – it was the middle-aged father next-door who’d bought himself a drum-kit for Christmas.  And he practices often: weekly, daily.  In his garage.  With all the doors and windows… open. But he’s getting no better.  Okay, he’s getting a little better, particularly with the complexities of his fills, and by ‘complexity’ I mean how much he puts into each fill, he fills his fills, he piles them on top of each like what a brickie does when making a wall, though My Italian Neighbour is actually a green-grocer (all clichés are based in reality).  Does he harbour unrealised dreams about being the next Tommy Lee?  Did he recently hit forty but the wife didn’t allow him to get a Harley Davidson motorbike so instead he maxed-out the credit card on the kit?  I’d poke my head over the fence and ask him but there are always too many kids, and these days kids scare me as much as rats.  Despite the fact that I have to close up the house when My Italian Neighbour’s practicing, and there are times when the pillows go over my head and I swear like Courtney Love if she’d been bitten by a Rottweiler, I do admire him for having a crack at learning an instrument regardless of his advancing years, for trying to be good at something musical, and, a bit like the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers, not giving a shit what anyone thinks.  If he feels like hitting the skins then that’s exactly what he’s going to do – bugger this (normally) quiet, gentile inner-city neighbourhood of ours.  And you know what?  I reckon he builds up a racehorse-sized sweat, and he closes his eyes, and when he’s done he’s puffing, and he smiles as if it’s the first real smile he’s ever managed.

4. The Best Gig – Ever. So, it comes to this.  How good it would be if we lived in a world where Frightened Rabbit could come to my neck of the global woods with a fistful of songs and play in the central part of my city – we have a stage, it’s out in the open and not big, but it’d do.  Frightened Rabbit would spot the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers further along the pavement; they’d wave and invite them onto the stage.  The Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers wouldn’t shake their heads.  They’d go, ‘Sure, why not!’  So the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers step up onto the stage and Frightened Rabbit share with the Clappers some lyrics, and the Clappers pick them up quickly because singing songs in public is in their collective blood.  And then My Italian Neighbour, who’s in town to take the wife and their brood of kids out to Mama’s Trattoria for lunch, walks by but is immediately snared by the music and starts nodding his head.  And then he can’t help himself: he kisses his wife on the cheek, pats his nearest kid on their head, and then walks over and up to Frightened Rabbit’s drummer.  And Frightened Rabbit’s drummer, without any reluctance whatsoever, smiles knowingly and steps away from his kit, handing it over to My Italian Neighbour.  And My Italian Neighbour finds the beat, yes, the beat, and he drives Frightened Rabbit and the Brown-Clad Happy-Clappers forever onwards.  And the crowd grows and grows until the central part of my city is packed and the sun’s going down and everyone’s singing yet another rousing Frightened Rabbit coda, this one from The Loneliness and the Scream: ‘We fall down/Find God just to lose it again/Glue the community together/We were hammering it/I fell down/Found love/Can’t lose it again/But now our communal heart beats miles from here’.  Yes, how good that would be!  I’d write a post about that, I would.

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