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Flying high

January 18, 2009

air france

Another act that takes me back to the late 90s is the Swedish electro-pop duo Air France.  Not that they were blessing the airwaves back then – simply that they capture a lot of what was good about those days.

Their second EP, No Way Down, was released last year and it’s a promising sign of things to come.  Their music is mostly-wordless, sample-based ambient house music, perfect for lazy summer days and beach parties.  A heaps of turn-of-the-century artists come to mind.  “No Excuses”, my favourite song on the EP, sounds like Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” mashed-up with The Avalanches’ “Since I Left You” in sound as much as bittersweet emotion.  Traces of the Thievery Corporation, Air and a host of little-remembered house anthems can be found elsewhere.

At less than half an hour, it’s over far too quickly, but they’re not fobbing us off so much as whetting our appetite for more substantial fare.  After this, the main course will be really something.

Air France – “No Excuses”

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SNAP

January 15, 2009

Remember the late 90s when electronic music was at its popular peak and the “chill out” craze that killed downbeat music was just around the corner?  I LOVED those days.  This was before a million “Cafe Del Mar” and “Best Chillout Album EVER” compilations sucked the life and soul out of dubby, liquid trip-hop and replaced it with Zero 7 remixes of Coldplay songs.  Good times, good times.

Among the best of them was the UK’s Red Snapper – a trio that played smooth drum ‘n’ bass with all the musicianship of a “proper” jazz outfit.  Their landmark album, 1998’s Making Bones, hasn’t dated perfectly.  The vocal tracks are a little bit too late-90s in their coffeehouse acid jazziness.  But the instrumentals?  They still kill me every time.

After a hiatus that’s lasted most of the decade, they’re back with a mini album called Pale Blue Dot.  It’s received minimal coverage and everything about the packaging and promotion suggests that it’s not their attempt at cracking the market again.  This is more a taster – a reward to their old fans for still caring and a signal of what’s to come.

This time the vocals are gone and it’s all fused-up jazzy electro rock of a kind that Miles Davis would probably have made if he was still around now.  Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a fantastic second era.

Red Snapper – “Clam”

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We’re here for the souls

January 14, 2009

maeshi

I’m going to play catch up this month, covering off some of the songs and albums that I didn’t find time to cover in 2008 – or I discovered too late.

First cab off the rank is Los Angeles noisepunk group The Mae Shi. I only came across their 2008 release HLLLYH a few days prior to Christmas, but it’s an album that grabs you immediately.  “Grab” being the operative word, because The Mae Shi’s modus operandi is to bash down your door, drag you out of bed kicking and screaming down to your living room where they proceed to play a blistering hour-long set in which they trash your place and leave you to clean up the mess.

It’s that crazy.

There are van-loads of crazy synthesizers, cymbal-tormenting drum beats and ear-splitting guitars.  The vocals are almost universally shouted and concern an even more bloody version of the Apocalypse than the Left Behind books could have imagined.  It’s sort of Rapture of the Living Dead.  The funny thing?  It’s catchy.  It’s crammed to bursting with melodies, harmonies and singalongs.  Ever wanted to crank up a song in the car and shout about coming judgement?  Here’s your chance.

The Mae Shi – “The Melody”

The Mae Shi – “Young Marks”

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Jamie Lidell at The Forum, Friday 9 January

January 12, 2009

It might be too early to call this the “Best Gig of 2009” when the only competition from my end was Mystery Jets last Sunday and my performance of “Even Flow” on Guitar Hero the other night, but it’s tempting.

I’d heard good reports of Jamie Lidell’s live shows and the promise of a “5-piece band” got me all excited. There was a good feeling the moment I entered the venue. It turns out that Jamie Lidell has quite a following here in Sydney – much more so that I had realised. In fact, the place was jam-packed and I haven’t seen a more enthusiastic crowd in a long while, or one that knew the song lyrics better.

The main support act was Ray Mann 3, a local trio spinning out charismatic soul jazz jams that went on for about 10 minutes each but never got dull. But as is usually the case, the crowd was there for the main show and they were treated from the moment the band entered the stage. Here’s a quick summary of their costume style for the evening:

– 70s porn star drummer with aviators and mo
– Keyboardist looking like Keith Richards’ eccentric brother
– Guitarist/bassist in 70s motor racing gear
– Saxophonist/vocoder looking like Seth Rogen in a Billy Ray Cyrus t-shirt and all-white tracksuit

The show started off well but occasionally got lost in the quirks. The vocal vs vocoder battle in one song went on a bit too long and Lidell’s self-sampling in “The City” was a little bit indulgent. But then it all kicked into a higher gear mid-way, with energetic versions of “Another Day” (a crowd favourite), “Wait For Me” and others.

The most enduring impression is of Lidell’s amazing charisma and energy. The guy didn’t stop – bouncing, dancing, emoting. He gave it his all and his live vocals were nearly flawless. For someone who loves technology, he doesn’t need any artificial enhancement in that department.

Sydney loved him and we like to think he loved us back. He certainly gave us something to remember.

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Anticipation

January 3, 2009

It’s a new year and the possibilities are pretty much endless.  2008 saw the unthinkable happen with the release of a new album from Portishead and, even more unexpectedly, Chinese Democracy.  What forthcoming albums are getting you all excited?  Here’s the Goodnight Believer guide to artists that will (hopefully) be gracing these pages in coming months:

Dates confirmed

Thursday – Common Existence (February 17)

Asobi Seksu – Hush (February 17)

Bishop Allen – Grrr… (mid-February)

Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love (March 24)

Some point in 2009

Institut Polaire – Make Your Own Mayflower

The Radio Dept. – Clinging To A Scheme

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus

Mastodon – Crack The Skye

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – Vs Children

De La Soul – You’re Welcome

Mew – TBA

Mute Math – TBA

You can always dream

My Bloody Valentine – TBA

Sufjan Stevens – I’m calling this one Colorado Democracy

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Best of 2008: Top 20 Albums (10-1)

December 15, 2008

Throw Me The Statue

#10 Throw Me The Statue – Moonbeams

Seattle’s Throw Me The Statue are an unassuming band.  They’re not prone to grandiose statements or big sweeping arrangements.  No, they’re the latest in a long line of North American DIY diehards.  Moonbeams is a delightful smashing-together of indie rock past and present, from spiky pop songs (“This Is How We Kiss”, “Groundswell”) to ambling tweecore (“Young Sensualists”, “Your Best Friends Car”) to woozy late night torch songs (“Moonbeams”).  For such a low key album, it’s pleasingly overloaded with joys for the listener.

Throw Me The Statue – “Groundswell”

Adem

#9 Adem – Takes

Acoustic covers albums very rarely set the world on fire.  Luckily, Adem Ilhan brings to the equation a grab-bag of inspired song choices and a gift for reinterpretation.  Mining the nineties and early-oughties, Adem never goes for the obvious choice, even when covering well-known artists like Björk (“Unravel”) or The Smashing Pumpkins (“Starla”).  Even with a limited pallette of sounds – mostly voice, acoustic guitar, xylophone – it’s never same-ish or bland.  Instead, we’re treated to an array of heartfelt, adventurous folk tunes.  It’s a cliché to say that a covers artist makes a tune his own, but in Adem’s case it’s never been more true.

Adem – “To Cure A Weakling Child + Boy/Girl Song”

Frightened Rabbit

#8 Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

Black comedy and indie rock have never felt so well suited as in Frightened Rabbit’s opus The Midnight Organ Fight.  Listening to this album for the first time, the lyrics catch you off guard – you’re never quite sure whether to believe your ears.  Did he really say that?  Scott Hutchison’s wordplay is hilarious, frequently obscene and often uncomfortably personal.  The music is uniformly excellent as well: melding indie rock anthems with spiralling folk rhythms and melodies.  Frightened Rabbit will have you shaking your head, tapping your feet and thanking your lucky stars for their existence.

Frightened Rabbit – “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms”

Raveonettes

#7 The Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust

The Raveonettes have fine-tuned their modus operandi nicely over the course of four albums – Phil Spector-helmed girl groups meet Jesus and Mary Chain distortion, seeped in illicit sex and substances.  It’s amazing that there is still so much potential in the formula.  Their filthy, pretty, euphoric sound is a heady concoction.  It’s blatantly addictive, because The Raveonettes always keep you coming back for more.  This is not an album for overthinking – it’s an album for giving you a blissful head rush and it does it like no other.

The Raveonettes – “Sad Transmission”

Horse Feathers

#6 Horse Feathers – House With No Name

Minimalist folk music has a new standard bearer in Horse Feathers.  They make pristine and wondrous songs using mostly voice and stringed instruments, pulling beauty out of simplicity.  House With No Name is down-home and rustic in the most satisying way.  The gentle vocal harmonies and lightly plucked instrumentations sound like a family making music together, the way it has been done for centuries.  In its evocation of lost eras and fleeting emotions, this album is peerless.

Horse Feathers – “Rude To Rile”

Opeth

#5 Opeth – Watershed

Despite substantial lineup changes since 2006’s Ghost Reveries, Opeth sound like much the same band they have for years: that is to say, terrifying, virtuosic and majestic.  As one of extreme metal’s most forward-looking bands, they are also one of the most accessible.  Watershed is easily their least “metallic” album since the acoustic Damnation.  Most of the time it plays like a supremely heavy take on progressive rock: bringing death metal’s portentous blasts of sound to the pomp and genre-melding of classic Floyd, Yes or Genesis.  Few bands can pull off this kind of thing with a straight face.  Opeth do it like it’s the only thing that matters.

Opeth – “Hex Omega”

Cut Off Your Hands

#4 Cut Off Your Hands – You and I

Winning fans galore with an explosive live show and two hit-heavy EPs, Cut Off Your Hands have been edging steadily toward the big time.  Now these energetic Kiwis have dropped their debut album and it’s an instant classic.  Infusing their jerky new wave pop songs with Pet Sounds-like drama and romance, You and I is an anthemic and ornate album.  Bernard Butler’s production layers the band’s locked-tight interplay, giving it a sonic depth only hinted at on early discs.  Fortunately some of their best early work is here – “Oh Girl”, “Expectations” and “Still Fond” – but curiously not the song that shares the album’s name.  They’re definitely a “singles” band at this point, but when you’ve got enough perfect singles to fill a long player, no one is going to complain.

Cut Off Your Hands – “Let’s Get Out Of Here”

Sigur Ros

#3 Sigur Ros – Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

The clue that Sigur Rós’ new album was going to be a little bit different was there in the opening track, “Gobbledigook”: all tribal drummings and naked (in the video, literally) abandon.  Where were the sweeping soundtracks to icy landscapes?  Turns out the album had plenty of those, but the band has expanded its sound.  It’s more percussive, more upbeat and more immediate.  There are short, catchy-as-hell songs here, interspersed with Sigur Rós’ trademark slow-burn epics.  When you’ve singlehandedly created a genre and a language, you don’t need to do much to stay ahead of the competition.  Sigur Rós are racing themselves and they’re taking their quest for supremacy very seriously indeed.

Sigur Rós – “Gobbledigook”

Pivot

#2 Pivot – O Soundtrack My Heart

With a stripped-back lineup and a new contract with Warp Records, Sydney’s Pivot are ready for the (almost) Big Time.  This, their sophomore disc, is a lot closer in sound and spirit to their bludgeoning live shows than 2005’s delicate Make Me Love You.  With vintage synths galore, Richard Pike’s scratchy guitar work and Laurence Pike’s thunderous drumming, these are instrumental pieces to be reckoned with.  Whether the rest of the world will embrace them remains to be seen, but they deserve your attention.  Many instrumental bands are slowly slipping into polite waiting room music.  Pivot are showing the rest how to remain vital and explode minds year after year.

Pivot – “O Soundtrack My Heart”

Tamas Wells

#1 Tamas Wells – Two Weeks In April

Recorded at his home in Yangon, Myanmar, ex-pat Aussie Tamas Wells’ new album is his most stripped back yet.  In fact, with his usual bandmates back in Melbourne, Wells plays and sings almost everything.  As a result, it’s a much more folky affair than the twee masterwork of 2006’s A Plea En Vendredi.  Wells is still singing whimsical little songs, but these have a more meditative, hypnotic feel than before.  Like Sam Beam or Sufjan Stevens, Wells often sounds like he’s singing for himself alone.  This album is a peek into his life and it’s an enriching experience.  You walk away from the Wells’ house with a feeling of deep serenity.

Tamas Wells – “I Want You To Know It’s Now Or Never”

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Best of 2008: Top 20 Albums (20-11)

December 14, 2008

British Sea Power

#20 British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?

Even with unappealling cover art and a clumsy album title, British Sea Power have won over more than a few critics with this effort.  Coming on like the ultimate fusion of stadium rock and indie jangle, they effortlessly move between grandiose statements and intimate moments.  The production is shiny but never distracting and the songs have a way of slipping past you the first time but winning you over on repeat listens with that special slow-release formulation.  If you can answer yes to their question, you can find more than enough to love in this album.

British Sea Power – “No Need To Cry”

Gregor Samsa

#19 Gregor Samsa – Rest

Sounding even more hushed and subdued than on their last, extremely quiet album, Gregor Samsa have moved beyond the Low and Rachel’s comparisons to develop an idiosyncratic sound.  Rest is a contemplative album, full of spacious silences and envigorating atmospherics.  It’s also more than a little bit creepy and you’d be advised not to listen to it while driving dark roads at night.  Gregor Samsa have made a tricky album to grasp fully, but it always tantalises you with the promise of new revelations.

Gregor Samsa – “Jeroen Van Aken”

Al Green

#18 Al Green – Lay It Down

The old master still has what it takes to deliver a killer album.  After more than three decades as one of soul’s greatest, Al Green has made an album that sounds like the work of a much younger man.  With help from Roots drummer ?uestlove and a host of other youngsters, Green belts out a disc full of spirited, funky R&B.  It manages to sound both current (the production is industry gold standard) and classic (you could almost be listening to Green’s debut).  He might sound happy and relaxed nowdays, where previously he was tense and horny, but there’s still no one who can beat Al Green at his own game.

Al Green – “You’ve Got The Love I Need”

Lambchop

#17 Lambchop – OH (ohio)

Kurt Wagner, grouchy frontman par excellence, does his own thing whatever happens.  With his revolving lineup of country and western compadres, he makes album after album of disgruntled rural soul.  OH (ohio) is a slightly more contented and positive album than previous discs, but it’s still full of the trademark Lambchop sounds: gruff baritone singing, shimmering acoustics and sophisticated instrumentation.  You may not have any idea where Wagner is going with this album – conceptually it’s all over the place – but it’s a great little ride if you want to follow him.

Lambchop – “National Talk Like A Pirate Day”

Portishead

#16 Portishead – Third

The weight of expectations after 11 years is always high.  The only way to really get around it is to pretend the expectations don’t exist.  Portishead’s Third sounds as if they simply aren’t aware that any time has past.  It’s both a logical extension of 1997’s Portishead and a perfect fit with today’s tense and uncertain climate.  Third is a difficult listen, full of Beth Gibbons’ plaintive singing and grim arrangements, but it’s frequently beautiful and endlessly inventive.

Portishead – “Hunter”

Damien Jurado

#15 Damien Jurado – Caught In The Trees

Seattle’s gloomiest troubador never seems to run out of sad stories to sing.  On Caught In The Trees, he manages to find another line-up of degenerates and desperadoes to populate his chilly gothic folk.  It’s an approach that isn’t getting old just yet.  Jurado’s newfound consistency of backing musicians also helps.  This is his loosest and most playful album in years – the product of a band at ease with each other.  Juradoland is a sad place to spend time, but anyone with a love of storytelling and inventive folk music will find it worthwhile.

Damien Jurado – “Last Rights”

M83

#14 M83 – Saturdays = Youth

After turning out a Vangelis-meets-My-Bloody-Valentine extravaganza in 2005, Anthony Gonzalez took time to rework his sonic pallette, with amazing results.  Mixing up the best of 80s synth-pop with his own sweeping atmospheres, Gonzalez is a talented fusionist and an unashamed romantic.  In interviews, he reveals an unselfconscious love of all kinds of music.  There’s no hipster irony in his appropriation of old sounds.  He knows that so much material dismissed as “cheesy” has a real heart and he’s determined to make us realise that too.

M83 – “Too Late”

Mystery Jets

#13 Mystery Jets – Twenty One

Bursting out of an energetic young London scene, Mystery Jets are among the best of the new wave revivalists.  As well as an enviably tight band dynamic, they’ve got some of the best tunes and choruses going.  They’re another band that doesn’t mind drawing on uncool influences, taking cues equally from the popular and the leftfield sounds of the last few decades.  Twenty One is an ode to youthful experimentation and mistakes, capturing a slightly bruised optimism in every tune.  Being young has its downside, but Mystery Jets know that it’s also the best time of your life.

Mystery Jets – “Veiled In Grey”

Titus Andronicus

#12 Titus Andronicus – The Airing Of Grievances

They’re bratty and precious.  They flaunt their highbrow influences shamelessly.  But don’t let that put you off them.  New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus are the perfect antidote to musical indifference.  Their punky swagger, screamed vocals and glass-shattering guitar work is bracing and inspiring.  With the take-no-prisoners approach of The Thermals and the wordy brilliance of Bright Eyes, they’re a talent to watch.  There aren’t many young bands that sound quite so much like their life depends on the songs they’re singing.

Titus Andronicus – “Fear And Loathing In Mahwah, NJ”

Deerhunter

#11 Deerhunter – Microcastles

For the product of a deeply strange and experimental band, Microcastles is a remarkably accessible and tuneful album.  Deerhunter’s sound is still swirling, noisy and effects-laden but it’s also welded onto a framework of solid tunes and insidious melodies.  Bradford Cox’s vocals are eerie and ethereal, slipping in and out of the complex, almost psychedelic arrangements.  It’s a work of punchy, glorious, shimmering shoegazer brilliance from a band that’s still finding its sweet spot.

Deerhunter – “Nothing Ever Happened”

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