Monthly Archives: August 2011

Let’s Get Cynical About Leeds Festival 2011, pt I: Friday

Leeds Festival

Having decided that watching Young Knives isn’t really worth spending an extra night in a tent, I head over to the Leeds Festival site on Friday morning. I luck out and manage to get set up shortly before it starts to rain, before making my way through the mud-strewn campsite to the arena – along the way, I witness the first and last person I’ll see all weekend who managed to remain attractive while wearing a hooded, animal print playsuit. Hats off to you, girl with long, flowing hair.

In the NME/Radio 1 tent, Dananananaykroyd start the weekend off in typically ebullient fashion, with vocalists Calum Gunn and John Bailey Jnr hugging members of the front row before launching into ‘Reboot’. Later on, they realise they have time for an extra song, and so offer us the choice between a song about “burying shit in the ground and finding it later” or one about “having sex on the back of a bus” – no prizes for guessing which one the Leeds crowd went for. Although I didn’t know what ‘Black Wax’ was actually about up until now, so I guess I learned something today.

“Thank God for the rain!” exclaims Fucked Up vocalist Damian ‘Pink Eyes’ Abraham, apparently worried that only about 20 people would have turned up otherwise. I think he’s underestimating both his current competition and just how much fun his band are. Much of the entertainment is provided by Pink Eyes himself – his shirt comes off about halfway through the band’s first song, and before long he’s down in the pit, high-fiving people, posing for photos with security, catching crowd-surfers and generally being a sweaty, bearded bundle of energy. He even runs all the way through the crowd to the secondary barrier and spends the last couple of songs there – and it takes him a good three minutes or so to get back to the stage after the band finish their set, such is the level of love for him. Not being the greatest hardcore punk fan in the world, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy Fucked Up, but the upbeat, infectious nature of their sound left me pleasantly surprised, and to be honest it was worth being there just to watch Pink Eyes’ antics.

In contrast to the first two acts, Best Coast struggle to engage the crowd. “Are you guys ok?” asks singer Beth Consentino, before playing ‘Boyfriend’ mid-set “You look kinda bored.” Maybe they are, I dunno – the problem with Best Coast is that, essentially, they only have one song. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a very nice song, with Consentino delivering her vocals with 60s girl-group longing as a wash of guitars conjures up hazy, summer afternoons. But the similarity of the band’s sonic palette and lyrical themes from song to song means it’s difficult to pick out highlights, aside from ‘When I’m With You’ and the aforementioned ‘Boyfriend’. However, I still enjoy their set regardless of that, even if it doesn’t make too much of a lasting impression on me.

It’s still pissing it down at this point, but luckily the Festival Republic Stage is only a quick dash away, so I head over there to catch Dutch Uncles. I’m not completely convinced that they’re as brilliant as some reviews have made them out to be – but as they soldier on despite blowing an amp (that’s not even theirs), I do find myself being slowly won over by their intelligent, slightly mathy pop sound.

The DJ in the tent clearly has a sense of humour, playing a North-East band marathon of The Futureheads, Maxïmo Park and Field Music before Tyneside up-and-comers Little Comets come on stage – it’s almost as if to say “THIS is the standard of oddball indie-pop brilliance you must live up to.” And to be fair, Little Comets aquit themselves pretty well in that regard – their set is packed with chirpy hits like ‘Joanna’ and ‘One Night In October’, and when set-closer ‘Dancing Song’ offers up the refrain “this one’s for dancing!” the crowd don’t need to be told twice.

I’ve seen Benjamin Francis Leftwich reduce an entire room to stunned silence before today, but sadly that was never going to happen with a festival crowd. But regardless of the nattering masses at the rear of the tent, there’s still a dedicated group of fans at the front hanging on to his every word, with ‘Pictures’, ‘1904’ and ‘Atlas Hands’ proving particular highlights.

After that, it’s back over to the NME/Radio 1 Stage for one of my most anticipated bands of the weekend, Warpaint. Thankfully, they don’t disappoint – eponymous opening track ‘Warpaint’ sets the scene with its beguiling harmonies, atmospheric guitars and expansive drums, and the band play a uniformly gorgeous set. ‘Undertow’ and set-closer ‘Elephants’ are obvious highlights, and the four-part harmonies on ‘Billie Holiday’ are spine-tingling. Also, Theresa Wayman is my new boyish crush – not only is she as pretty as anything, but she delivers a pair of stunning lead vocals on ‘Bees’ and ‘Majesty’. I leave the tent convinced that Warpaint have set the bar very, very high for the rest of the weekend.

Unfortunately, such brilliance has come at a price – I’ve had to miss most of Friendly Fires’ set, but I do manage to get over to the Main Stage for their last three songs. Ed Macfarlane is definitely a frontrunner for ‘most inappropriately dressed’ – it’s really not the right weather for a Hawaiian shirt – but that isn’t going to stop him from shaking his hips like his life depends on it during set-closer ‘Kiss Of Life’. If you close your eyes and think about it really hard, you might just be able to transport yourself away from this wet, muddy field and onto a sun-drenched beach somewhere…

Interpol frontman Paul Banks is probably one of the few people in rock ‘n roll who can get away with wearing sunglasses on a day like today, and his band have the tunes to back up their effortlessly cool image. Mixing up tunes from all four of their studio albums, they run through ‘Success’, ‘Say Hello To The Angels’, and ‘Narc’ (a personal favourite of mine) – I’d love to stick around for more, but I have to leave while they’re playing ‘The Heinrich Maneuver’, as there’s a band playing in the NME/Radio 1 tent that I’d very much like to see…

The band in question are Death From Above 1979 – I’m ashamed to admit that I totally missed the Toronto two-piece the first time round, so I was eager to make up for that tonight. Opener ‘Turn It Out’ sets off a frenzy at the front of the crowd, and aside from some slightly awkward banter about the Queen, the set pretty much continues in the same vein throughout. ‘Blood On Our Hands’ and ‘Romantic Rights’ get the biggest reactions, but the duo exhibit a furious, battering-ram intensity throughout their performance. The band’s backdrop features a gravestone with ‘DFA1979, 2001-2006’ carved into it, which may suggest that this reunion isn’t going to be permanent – and if that’s the case, it’s been well worth witnessing.

I return to the Main Stage to find Elbow in full swing, and Guy Garvey in a strangely political mood. The recent riots are clearly still fresh in his mind as he introduces ‘Lippy Kids’, stating that it’s a reminder that not all kids are “fuckwits and hooligans” – but at least he has the good grace to see that he might come across as a little over-earnest (“I hate this Bono thing that I’m doing…”). The band are as impeccable as you’d expect them to be, of course, even if the crowd aren’t exactly at their most responsive – though Garvey does his best to engage them with some call-and-response action before ‘Grounds For Divorce’. As I leave, they’re performing a suitably stirring rendition of ‘Open Arms’ – but I know Elbow will endure, and there will be other opportunities to see them, unlike the next band on my list…

While Mike Skinner may be calling time on this particular aspect of his career, it would be unfair to call The Streets a band in their death throes – the atmosphere is more like that of a massive retirement party for a lovably crazed uncle. Skinner is on top form, marshalling the crowd (“WATCH THE MOTHERFUCKING HAND”) and even directing the cameramen (“You’re missing it mate, it’s all over there”) – and all the while, he’s delivering his trademark wit and lyricism. It’s enough to make even the more middling numbers from his recent albums sound good, to say nothing of the out-and-out classics like ‘Weak Become Heroes’ and ‘Blinded By The Lights’. Even stood on the periphery of the tent, it’s hard not to smile at the feel-good vibes coming from the crowd – I leave them bouncing along to ‘Fit But You Know It’, happy to have taken part in the celebratory conclusion of The Streets’ career.

Arguably one of the weekend’s biggest draws, Muse take to the stage just after 9pm for a two-hour set – and I’m glad I brought my umbrella, as it rains for the entirety of it. The big deal for long-time Muse fans is that they’re playing their second album, Origin Of Symmetry, in full – something that has never been done before (and after Sunday’s performance at Reading, most likely will never be done again). The stage is suitably decked out with several imposing models of the pylons/pitchforks/American football goalposts that adorn the record’s cover, and a giant screen displays images that are presumably linked to each of the songs – although if anyone can tell me what ‘Hyper Music’ has got to do with the Roxy Disco then I’d love to know.

As expected, the more obvious hits – ‘New Born’, ‘Bliss’, Plug In Baby’, ‘Feeling Good’ – go down a storm, and it’s never a bad thing when they’re played. But the most interesting thing about this part of the set is that it demonstrates how, even at this relatively early stage, Muse had pretty much nailed the bombastic, show-stopping dramatics that would later go on to define them – as evidenced by the likes of ‘Space Dementia’ and ‘Citizen Erased’. Sure, there’s a bit of a lull as the band play the slightly forgettable duo of ‘Micro Cuts’ and ‘Screenager’, but as ‘Megalomania’ brings the set to a fiery conclusion via some on-stage pyrotechnics, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well Origin Of Symmetry has stood the test of time.

After the main event, the band offer up a post-Origin selection of hits that contains three too many tracks from The Resistance for my liking, as well as a fairly pointless bass ‘n drums section that essentially amounts to Chris and Dom doing an impression of a comatose DFA1979. But ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ perfectly walks the line between silly and slinky, ‘Hysteria’ still buzzes with as much menace as ever, ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is equal parts vicious, histrionic and sublime, and ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ is, frankly, just ridiculous in the most brilliant way possible. An increasingly obnoxious fanbase may mean that it’s not particularly cool to like Muse any more, and I’ll happily admit that their most recent album is a complete dud – but for me to deny that I enjoyed their set would be an obvious lie. Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain as much tomorrow, eh?

BONUS!: During Muse’s set, someone asks me if I’m the drummer from 30 Seconds To Mars. What the fuck? Never mind the fact that said band are probably still on site at Reading, I don’t look anything like the guy…

Find a Spotify playlist with some of the day’s highlights here.

2 Comments

Filed under Live, Music

Local Artist Of The Whenever #7: Lake Michigan

While there’s already a proliferation of acoustic artists in York, I figure one more won’t hurt anyone – particularly if the artist in question has as much raw talent as Lake Michigan does. Otherwise known as Chris Marks, you may have already seen him performing as one third of Where’s Hollywood?‘s three-guitar assault team – but Lake Michigan is an entirely different prospect. His self-description as a “Post 90s whining teenager” doesn’t really do his music justice – he may only have a collection of rough demos up on his Soundcloud page, but they’re indicative of a fledgling talent that’s poised to imminently take flight.

Lake Michigan – ‘Harmonics Song’ demo

There’s something wonderfully subtle about these songs – even the most intricate-sounding guitar lines seem effortless and natural, while Marks tells his stories in hushed, fragile tones. It all feels deeply personal, but without being self-indulgent – these are intimate, honest tales of distance, love, loss, and bittersweet memories.

Lake Michigan

His music may be relatively simple, but there’s always something to keep things interesting- whether it be the twinkling, music-box sounds he conjures from his guitar on ‘Harmonics Song’, or the intriguing lyrics that run throughout his demos. A perfect example of the latter is the line that gives ‘Jam Jar’ its title – “And every regret/all the fluid from your face/I caught in an empty jam jar.”

Lake Michigan – ‘Jam Jar’ demo

I saw Lake Michigan play his first live show in the basement of Bar Lane Studios recently, and despite being nervous he was completely engaging throughout. I’d recommend that you see for yourself though, so get yourself down to one of the following dates if you can:

It may be early days for Lake Michigan, but all the signs point to something very, very promising coming from Chris Marks’ alter ego. I’d keep an eye on this one.

Find Lake Michigan on Facebook here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Live, Local Artist Of The Whenever, Music

In The Grace Of Your Stream: Listen To The Rapture’s New Album

The Rapture - In The Grace Of Your Love

Having announced their return in recent months, The Rapture will cement their comeback with the release of their fourth album, In The Grace Of Your Love, on September 5th. However, you can listen to it now, thanks to White Out Sessions Live, who streamed the record in full earlier this week – and you can watch a playback of that stream below.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/27878921]

Having had a couple of listens through it myself now, it’s fair to say that there are enough highlights to make sure the band’s new album will be met with some fanfare. The omnipresent synth shudder and yearning vocals of opener ‘Sail Away’; the ‘Pieces Of The People We Love’-esque slink of ‘Miss You’; and the lackadaisical punk-funk of ‘In The Grace Of Your Love’ are all impressive. There’s also the odd interesting experiment that comes off well – ‘Come Back To Me’ may be the first song by The Rapture to feature an accordion, but it works surprisingly well with the tracks’s minimal beats to keep the whole thing bouncing along. The best thing on the album, however, is colossal, 7-minute epic ‘How Deep Is Your Love’, which combines dancey pianos and humming synth bass with an inescapably infectious beat. At the very least, that one track is The Rapture back at their best.

In The Grace Of Your Love is released on DFA Records on 5th September.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Music

Stream Active Child’s Debut Album Now

Active Child - You Are All I See

Pretty much kicking myself for only getting on this today to be honest, but Active Child is streaming his debut album You Are All I See via Hype Machine this weekend. Not only is the man otherwise known as Pat Grossi in possession of a soaring, ethereal voice, he’s also created some uniformly gorgeous soundscapes to go with them – from the sparkling, harp-like sounds that introduce the record on its title track, to the the tumbling drums and twinkling synths of ‘High Priestess’. There’s also the haunting, hip-hop leaning ‘Playing House’, featuring guest vocals from Brooklyn’s How To Dress Well and the bubbling, sinister undercurrents of ‘Shield & Sword’ to mix things up a bit. Overall, it’s an effortless and intriguing listen –  but don’t just take my word for it, have a listen to the record by clicking here (or check out the first three tracks below). ‘Hanging On’ is particularly sublime.

You Are All I See is out on Vagrant Records on 23rd August in the US, and 17th October in the UK.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albums, Music

Why It’s Time For Me To Return To Leeds Festival

Leeds Festival

My first experience of a major music festival was in 2006 – and as you may have guessed, it was at Leeds Festival. Despite being gutted that we couldn’t get weekend tickets, my brother, my sister and I all resolved to go to the festival for the day anyway. We ended up plumping for the Sunday, enticed by the prospect of Arctic Monkeys (who, lest we forget, only had one album and an EP to their name at this point) as well as a headline set from Muse. And, amongst the many bands I saw that day – including now sadly defunct acts such as Be Your Own Pet, Dirty Pretty Things, GoodBooks and Dead Disco – it was the two big names that provided the most memorable moments. I recall somehow ending up at the front for Jet’s performance in the Radio 1/NME tent – upon realising that Arctic Monkeys were due on stage any minute, the only sensible thing to do was clamber over the barrier, whereupon security hurriedly shooed us out of the tent. Of course, that was exactly where we wanted to be, and we rushed across the festival site to catch a landmark performance from the Sheffield four-piece. They may not have had the stage presence or fancy light show that Muse would later dazzle us with, but from start to finish Arctic Monkeys had the audience in the palms of their hands.

Of course, Muse’s performance was equally as memorable, and not just for the music. Having stayed fine all day, the weather decided to absolutely piss it down throughout the band’s set, but that did nothing to deter an already chaotic crowd – and I can honestly say that being battered around that rain-drenched mass of people was one of the most thrilling experiences I’d had up to that point. The band were arguably at the height of their powers too, having just released fourth album Black Holes & Revelations that summer. For this show, they flipped the tracklisting on its head by opening with the spectacularly deranged ‘Knights Of Cydonia’, and closing with bombastic album-opener ‘Take A Bow’ – as well as packing in heavy-hitters like ‘New Born’, ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ and ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. After staggering through the sodden campsite, we sat in the car, soaking wet, for what seemed like an age until we could finally leave – but looking back, it was worth it for Muse alone, never mind all the other great bands we’d seen that day.

We quickly resolved to buy weekend tickets for the next year as soon as possible, despite any announcement regarding the lineup being months away – luckily, 2007 didn’t disappoint. On Friday, Late Of The Pier’s early performance left everyone else with a tough act to follow, LCD Soundsystem played a delayed set that was definitely worth the extra wait, and Klaxons rounded off the night with a rapturously received show.  Saturday allowed me to continue my minor obsession with The Horrors (who were still in shrieking, psych-punk mode at the time), as well as giving me my first chance to see the wonderful Patrick Wolf play live. And, while I saw many great acts on the Sunday, one band in particularly blew me away – that band was NYC math-rock quartet Battles, whose insane, infectious single ‘Atlas’ was my favourite song of the entire weekend.

2008 brought with it a new challenge – though we’d once again got tickets in advance, I was faced with the task of finding an additional ticket for my Swiss girlfriend (well, ex-girlfriend now, but we’re still good friends). Scouring the internet in the months beforehand, I eventually managed to get hold of one for face value thanks to a kindly person on Scarletmist.com – and so, with the extra ticket in hand, I was thrilled to be able to take her to her first UK festival. It gave us the chance to spend a great weekend together watching some of our favourite bands – Johnny Foreigner, Foals, Late Of The Pier, Los Campesinos!, Editors, The Kills, Bloc Party, These New Puritans, Blood Red Shoes and the first full UK festival performance from The Last Shadow Puppets being among the many highlights. 2008 in particular highlighted one of the great things about Leeds Festival – the fact that there’s always something of interest happening on one of the stages. On the last night, neither of us particularly wanted to see Main Stage headliners The Killers, so we spent the end of the night watching Hot Club de Paris and The Young Knives on the Alternative Stage – and we loved every minute of it.

If all of the above is a bit too tl;dr, allow me to give you a quick list of reasons why I love Leeds Festival:

  1. There’s always something of interest going on somewhere – even if you don’t care for what’s on the Main Stage, there’s enough variety on the bill to ensure that there’s always at least one band you’ll want to check out at any given time.
  2. On the other hand, the number of stages isn’t totally overwhelming, and they’re all within about 5 minutes walk of each other. While clashes are inevitable, this helps to mitigate that problem more often than not.
  3. It’s a great chance to experience music with other people – introducing friends to bands that you love, or simply sharing the moment with both your friends, and hundreds of other like-minded people.
  4. Also, it’s generally better than Reading because there are more bands playing. Ok, we’ve lost Odd Future this year because Tyler would rather collect awards than play a show, but thanks to Dance To The Radio’s Thursday showcase and Transgressive Records hosting the Alternative Stage on Saturday and Sunday, we’ve got the likes of Three Trapped Tigers, Gold Panda, Pete & The Pirates and The Young Knives playing – and you won’t find any of them on the Reading lineup.
  5. It’s ridiculously convenient for me, being less than an hour’s drive away from York. Having such a major festival so close by always makes it a tempting prospect.
So yes, my love for Leeds is pretty much all about the music – I never did quite understand why there were people who’d choose to spend most of the weekend in the campsite and only see a handful of bands. And so, after two years of non-attendance due to being otherwise occupied that weekend, it’s the music that will inevitably cause me to return this coming bank holiday weekend. I’ve had some excellent weekends at other festivals, but it’s still difficult to find another festival where you can cram so many great bands into the space of three days. Whether it be bands I already know and love (The Horrors, Friendly Fires, Patrick Wolf, The Strokes, Muse, Pulled Apart By Horses, Dananananaykroyd, Crystal Castles), bands I like but have never had the chance to see before (Pulp, The National, Death From Above 1979, Warpaint, Tom Vek), or bands I’ll be very interested to check out (Cults, Anna Calvi, Best Coast, The Antlers, Foster The People), it’s sure to be a busy weekend for me. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Leave a comment

Filed under Live, Music

Local Artist Of The Whenever #6: Marbled

Marbled

Regular readers may recall that I have already talked about Marbled in some depth – specifically in these two reviews of his EPs. While I had planned to do a LAOTW article about him at some point, the man otherwise known as Marck Whiley has forced my hand a little by announcing a hiatus of sorts. It is, therefore, only fair that I give you a heads up about what will probably be his final shows for a while. Firstly, he’ll be playing the Summer Sanctuary Festival at The Judge’s Lodgings in York on Saturday 20th August – organised by local band Dream Of Apollo, it’s free and all in aid of charity. Next up is his appearance at Galtres Festival on Sunday 28th August – Marbled will be playing the Firkin Stage at 6pm. And finally, I believe he’ll be playing support to Towns And Houses at The Basement on 1st September – full details for that one tbc, but I’ll post them when I’ve got them. Update: full details here. Having seen Marbled perform in recent months, it’s fair to say that he’s as fiery and animated as ever, injecting real passion and energy into every song. It would be well worth taking the opportunity to see him – as I said, these performances may be your last chance to do so for a while.

Marbled – ‘Movers And Shakers’

Marbled also plans to release one final EP before the year is out – again, I’ll provide more details on that at a later date, but I imagine it’ll be another 4-track EP to round out the collection of recordings he’s made over the past year and a half. After that, a well-deserved rest, and the possibility of working on other projects – you can read a full announcement about his hiatus on Facebook here. In the meantime, check out his music on Soundcloud, where you’ll find the 4 EPs and many other tracks besides – all of which are worth your time to check out.

Marbled – Pocket Search EP

It’s a shame that Marbled is hanging up his six-string, but hopefully he’ll come back at some point in the future, rejuvenated and full of new ideas. Until then, I wish him all the best with his future endeavours.

Update (17/8/11): While Marbled is going to be taking time off from the live music scene, he’ll still be recording new tracks throughout the coming months. Check out the first of these, ‘Cut Like Vinyl’, below

Marbled – ‘Cut Like Vinyl’

Check out Marbled’s website here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Local Artist Of The Whenever, Music

Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize (2011 Edition)

As promised, it’s time for my annual run-through of the good, the bad, and the token jazz nominations that make up this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist. I’ll be running through the 12 nominated albums in reverse order of personal preference – let’s get this party started.

12. Adele – 21

Adele - 21

Adele’s second album needs absolutely no introduction, as it’s pretty much spent the entire year in the top two of the UK charts. The sheer ubiquity of 21 makes it both the most obvious and the most pointless of this year’s nominations. Seriously, Adele doesn’t need either the exposure or the prize money, so why bother? I suppose it’d look a bit odd to leave the biggest-selling album of the year off the shortlist, but it’d be a complete farce if she actually won. Nevertheless, since I haven’t actually heard 21 in its entirety, I resolved to give it a fair listening to…

…wait, what’s that? There’s only one song from the album on Spotify? Well fuck you then Adele, if you don’t actually want me to listen to your album, I suppose I’ll just have to declare you a complete waste of a nomination slot.

11. Tinie Tempah – Disc-Overy

Tinie Tempah - Disc-Overy

Clearly, Tinie Tempah missed the ‘less is more’ memo that appears to have been passed around a lot of the nominees this year. But that’s ok, he’s got some BANGIN’ CHOONZ INNIT. To be fair, that’s true to a certain extent – ‘Pass Out’ is a legitimately great, smash hit single, and ‘Written In The Stars’ has a genuinely anthemic feel to it. Unfortunately, that level of quality isn’t present throughout the rest of Disc-Overy. ‘Just A Little’ feels like a bog-standard floor-filler, ‘Miami 2 Ibiza’ sees Swedish House Mafia set their dials to “Generic Euphoria” and then fall asleep at the mixing desk, while Kelly Rowland sounds pretty anonymous on the snooze-worthy ‘Invincible’.

And then there’s the underlying problem – that an entire album of Tinie spitting out his clever-clever mix of pop culture references, product placement, male bravado and shout-outs to his family gets a little tiresome after a while. I think it’s at around the halfway point that the record jumps the shark, with ‘Frisky’s lyrics straying across the line from “playfully LAD-ish” to “a little bit creepy”. The world-weary “being a pop-star is tough” diatribe of album-closer ‘Let Go’ sees Tinie Tempah attempt to humanise himself –  but it feels like too little, too late.

10. Gwylim Simcock – Good Days At Schloss Elmau

Gwilym Simcock - Good Days At Schloss Elmau

You definitely weren’t alone if your reaction upon seeing Good Days At Schloss Elmau in the shortlist was, “who’s Gwylim Simcock? Oh, he’s the token jazz nomination!” I’m always in two minds about these sorts of things. On the one hand, it’s nice for the genre to get a bit of exposition, and it’s not like this is in any way a ‘bad’ album. On the other, it sits so oddly with the rest of the nominations (despite their disparate genres) that it feels weird, and it always seems highly unlikely that a jazz entry will ever win (indeed, in the history of the prize, there has never been a jazz winner).

To be fair, the album starts out well – ‘These Are The Good Days’ begins with a jaunty, adventurous feel, and ends with Simcock playing the strings of his piano like a guitar and using the woodwork as percussion. Unfortunately, the rest of the record doesn’t really capture my attention in the same way – sure, it’s a pleasant listen throughout, but as someone who’s not a great connoisseur of jazz, it struggles to rise beyond the level of “nice background music.” Shame really – although if you’re into the genre at all, I guess you’ll find a lot to like here.

…also, ‘Northern Smiles’ reminds me of a song from Super Mario World in places. NEEEEERD.

9. Anna Calvi − Anna Calvi

Anna-Calvi - Anna Calvi

After my lukewarm reception to Anna Calvi’s appearance in the BBC’s Sound Of 2011 poll, I was subconsciously prepared not to like her self-titled debut album all that much – so imagine my surprise when I found myself actually kinda enjoying it for the most part. Key to this, I think, is the fact that the sort of bellowing that made debut single ‘Jezabel’ such an affront to my ears has been mostly reined in. Sure, ‘The Devil’ gets a bit melodramatic towards the end, but for the most part Calvi shows remarkable restraint. ‘Rider To The Sea’ sets the tone with swelling drums and haunted, western-movie guitars, before ‘No More Words’ gives us our first demonstration of Calvi’s breathy, seductive vocal. While many comparisons have been made with fellow nominee PJ Harvey, I honestly don’t think that Calvi sounds all that much like her – even on her out-and-out poppiest album, the Mercury-winning Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, Harvey was more gritty than Calvi ever tries to be here. That’s not a bad thing, per say, just an observation.

As for the album itself, Anna Calvi proves to be a decent listen, with the galloping ‘Desire’ and the stirringly upbeat ‘Blackout’ proving to be highlights among its ten well-executed tracks. My only problem? It’s not a record I particularly feel compelled to come back to. And while I don’t think the comparison holds much weight, PJ Harvey already wrote a better song called ‘The Devil’. Just saying.

8. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine

2010’s three-album folk extravaganza was evidently a one-off, as we’re back down to a single, token representative of the genre – and King Creosote is more of a Villagers-type outsider than a Marling or Mumford. Still, the man has recorded a shedload of albums in his 14-year career, so he’s deserving of a nomination for prolificness, if nothing else. Diamond Mine is a collaboration with electronic musician Jon Hopkins, and for an album that’s the result of seven years of on-off work, it feels remarkably cohesive. Creosote’s gentle, pastoral folk runs throughout, with Hopkins’ field recordings and subtle electronica complimenting the experience.

There are times when Diamond Mine feels like a really beautiful record – for example, the vocal interplay between Creosote and a female vocalist on ‘Bats In The Attic’ and ‘Bubble’, or the part at the end of ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’ when it goes a bit Death In Vegas. At other times, however, it threatens to float past without leaving any sort of imprint on your memory. It’s fair to say that Diamond Mine an enjoyable listen that’s arguably deserving of its nomination – but personally, I feel it falls short of being truly essential.

7. James Blake – James Blake

James Blake - James Blake

It’s fair to say that James Blake might be one of the most ‘challenging’ artists to have graced the UK album chart top 10 this year – his minimal, dubstep-influenced tracks are a mile away from typical pop chart fodder. Perhaps it’s ironic then, that I think the two best tracks on this album are arguably the most accessible ones. Most obviously, there’s his stunning take on Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’, and ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ is also utterly jaw-dropping. Elsewhere, however, the record tends to veer into vague sonic experimentation a little too often. The likes of ‘Unluck’ and ‘Why Don’t You Call Me’ struggle to feel like coherent songs, while the pairing of ‘Lindisfarne I’ and “Lindisfine II’ is basically just an experiment in comparing the minimalism of the latter with the ultra-minimalism of the former.

To be fair, there are other good moments too – ‘I Never Learned To Share’ builds slowly to a satisfying conclusion, while ‘To Care Like You’ provides an intriguingly minimal take on dubstep. Ultimately, however, James Blake isn’t quite the earth-shattering debut that some have made it out to be – but frustratingly, its best moments indicate that it could have been so much more.

6. Katy B − On A Mission

Katy B - On A Mission

The dirty bass and sassy vocals of ‘Katy On A Mission’ made the world stand up and take notice of Rinse FM starlet Katy B, and thankfully her similarly-titled debut album has more to offer. ‘Witches Brew’ features Crystal Castles-esque synths sprinkled over four-to-the-floor beats and the kind of straightforward lyrical come-on that a hopeless introvert like me can only dream of (“come with me, I’ll make you feel so good”) – by contrast, ‘Go Away’ has a more low-key, sinister vibe, and sees Katy pushing a former beau away. Elsewhere, ‘Broken Record’ competently riffs on late 90’s/early 00’s dance tracks, but it’s Katy’s delivery that elevates it to something special, perfectly conveying the feeling of fragile obsession – and the longing, ever-so-slightly faltering way she repeats the line “like a broken record” at the song’s climax is spine-tingling.

Sure, On A Mission has some clunkers – ‘Lights On’ features a typically cringeworthy turn from Ms Dynamite, and both ‘Movement’ and ‘Disappear’ are a tad forgettable. At its best, however, Katy B’s debut album makes me wish I enjoyed clubbing more than I actually do. Mission accomplished.

5. Ghostpoet − Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam

Ghostpoet - Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam

Ghostpoet is an MC in possession of an idiosyncratic, slightly slurred vocal style, but the really odd thing about Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam is that the lyrics don’t seem as interesting as the production behind them. At first, it feels like a weakness, but then you realise that it’s kinda the point –  Ghostpoet’s words capture the mundanity, boredom and loneliness of everyday life, while his skittering beats and subtly oppressive synths provide a suitably bleak backdrop. Debut single ‘Cash And Carry Me Home’ provides a neat encapsulation of the world Ghostpoet inhabits – a spacious instrumental invokes the deserted streets that he’s now staggering home through after a night of drinking to forget the everyday troubles of life.

At the same time, there’s a sense of resilience running throughout the record, with the quiet defiance of ‘Us Against Whatever Ever’ and the singular focus of ‘Survive It’ providing particularly highlights. And then there’s the upbeat nature of album-closer ‘Liiines’ – guitars and pianos provide a surprising contrast to the rest of the album’s instrumentation, while Ghostpoet looks to the future with a newfound sense of optimism. Overall, Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam sees Ghostpoet stake his claim as one of the most interesting new voices in alternative hip-hop. Don’t let the fact that it’s not quite at the top of this list fool you – this record is worthy of your attention.

4. Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys!

Winning the Mercury Prize in 2008 proved to be a breakout moment for Elbow – they’d always been a dependable band, but that victory with fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid thrust them into the public eye in a whole new way. To be honest though, their newfound success doesn’t seem to have changed them – their latest record, Build A Rocket Boys!, still sounds unmistakably like Elbow. The fact that it takes the album nearly 15 minutes to get to its third track underscores the feeling that they’re not trying to pander to anyone in particular – and besides, it’s a damn beautiful opening pair of songs. ‘The Birds’ is a sprawling expanse of whirring guitars and cheery synths that breaks into a sweeping orchestral high at about the five minute mark, while ‘Lippy Kids’ is a tender ode to being young, reckless and carefree.

If you’re looking for massive anthems in the vein of ‘One Day Like This’, or an instantly-appealing stomper like ‘Grounds For Divorce’, you may find Build A Rocket Boys! a tad disappointing. Regardless of that, you’ll still find great songs – ‘Neat Little Rows’ and ‘The Night Will Always Win’ being two of the most prominent examples, with the latter perfectly showcasing Guy Garvey’s charming, honest lyrics with lines like “I miss your stupid face/I miss your bad advice.” You can argue that Elbow’s nomination this year doesn’t seem entirely necessary, but I think you’d struggle to argue that it’s undeserved.

3. Everything Everything – Man Alive

Everything Everything - Man Alive

I’ve enjoyed Everything Everything both times I’ve seen them live, but for some reason I’d never actually sat down and listened to their debut album Man Alive in full. Having now done so, I can probably split the songs on it into two camps – those that are, quite simply, bloody brilliant, and those that are still good, but not quite as good as the others. Sure, every track amply demonstrates that they’re a very clever band, with guitars, synths, drums and rapid-fire lyrics meshing together pleasingly – but for reasons I can’t quite pin down, the resulting effect is somehow more enjoyable on some tracks than others.

It might just be a case that some songs just have little moments that elevate them above the rest – the cheeky synth riff on ‘Schoolin”, ‘MY KZ, YR BF’s breathless chorus, or the “who’s-a gonna sit on your face when I’m gone?/who’s-a gonna sit on your face when I’m not there?” hook on ‘Suffragette Suffragette’. There are certainly lyrics that my inner nerd can appreciate too, with ‘Two For Nero’s opening gambit of “tell me why you came here/squatting round a Game Gear/like Sega never died” being a personal favourite. Overall, it seems that Everything Everything have managed an uncommon feat with Man Alive – they’ve actually made an album that’s as clever as it thinks it is.

2. Metronomy – The English Riviera

Metronomy - The English Riviera

I will admit to having flitted between being disparaging and ambivalent about Metronomy in the past, and while third album The English Riviera hasn’t completely turned me into a gushing fanboy, it’s given me a newfound sense of respect for the band. Throughout the record, Joe Mount and his compatriots demonstrate a knack for crafting interesting, left-field pop songs – ‘Everything Goes My Way’ feels like a post-modern attempt at re-imagining an early Beatles song, while ‘The Look’ is simply stunning in its minimalism. Also impressive is the breadth of ideas on display – the brooding ‘She Wants’ blurs the line between romantic and obsessive, ‘The Bay’ reconciles the band’s current pop slant with their dancier past, and ‘Loving Arm’ has Mount singing over what sounds like the soundtrack to a NES game. By the time you’ve reached incessant, pulsating album-closer ‘Love Underlined’, it’s clear that the band aren’t lacking in imagination.

It might not quite be 100% glorious pop gems (although it’s not far off), but The English Riviera is a fantastic reminder that ‘pop’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean overblown production and hackneyed emoting. Metronomy have shown remarkable restraint on this record, and have rightly been praised for it – instead of the usual lowest-common denominator bullshit, wouldn’t it be nice if pop music this intelligent was a more regular feature in the charts?

1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

It’s interesting that my list is bookended by artists who don’t necessarily ‘need’ the exposure that the Mercury Prize provides. But, while it would have been difficult to leave Adele off the list due to her sheer ubiquity, it would have been infinitely more ridiculous to ignore PJ Harvey this year. Why? Because Let England Shake is quite possibly the best thing she’s ever put her name to. Tackling the subject of war is a bold move for any artist, even one as formidable as Harvey, but the key to the album’s success is one of narrative tone – Harvey doesn’t judge with her words, she merely observes. And yet, the likes of ‘All And Everyone’ and ‘On Battleship Hill’ paint a more damning portrait of war than a hundred tub-thumping “WAR IZ BAD” protest songs ever could. Harvey often adopts the same piercing high register as on previous album White Chalk, which provides a stark contrast to the tone of her lyrics – and the effect is even more unsettling on the jauntier-sounding tracks such as ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’.

And make no mistake – while the music is suitably stirring throughout, it’s the lyrics that steal the show. The title track portrays the upbeat, adventurous spirit of soldiers leaving for war in a decidedly sinister way (“Smile, smile Bobby/with your lovely mouth/pack up your troubles/and let’s head out/to the fountain/of death, and splash around”) – and their exuberance quickly turns to contempt on ‘The Last Living Rose’ (“Goddamn Europeans!/take me back to beautiful England”). And so, through the blasted battlefields of ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘In The Dark Places’, we come to a most Pyrrhic of victories – ‘The Colour Of The Earth’ recounts the tale of a soldier who has not only seen his “dearest friend” fall in battle, but has also seen the blood of countless others stain the earth red. Rather than preaching, Harvey paints a picture of the past and allows us to draw our own conclusions from it – and that is the genius of Let England Shake.

For more information on the Mercury Prize, visit their website.

4 Comments

Filed under Albums, Music