Album of the Year 2017: #17 Angelo Badalamenti – Twin Peaks S3 Soundtrack

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The return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was far and away the strangest thing to happen in 2017. Trump’s election? Forget that. Go and watch episode eight of the new season – ‘Gotta Light?’ – then tell me you’ve seen anything more perplexing, terrifying and brilliant since the beginning of January.

It wasn’t for everyone, no doubt. Season three was challenging right from the get go, with an experimental and bizarre first episode that I’m sure turned many off. I wasn’t convinced at first, either, but as the show went on I began to realize the genius behind its disjointed and jarring transitions, its flatly sinister tone and mysterious side stories with no obvious purpose.

It was also absolutely hilarious at times, in a way that Lynch very often doesn’t get credit for. How about the scene where Jerry is taking a drug-addled stroll through the forest and then hallucinates that his foot is talking to him? The brilliant five-minute cameo of Michael Cera as ridiculous cool-guy Wally Brando? The countless moments of slapstick brilliance with Dougie, AKA Mr Jackpot?

Season three was an enigma, full of hilarity in horror in equal measure. And a large part of its mystique comes from Angelo Badalamenti’s incredible soundtrack, much as was the case in the show’s first two seasons. Twin Peaks has some of the most instantly recognizable and iconic TV themes of all time, no question – the sweeping nostalgia of the title theme, the sinister and lovesick ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’, the whimsical ‘Audrey’s Dance’…

These classics make their way on to the soundtrack of season three, too, but they sit alongside new pieces from Badalamenti, as well a couple of contributions from other musicians who are favourites of Lynch. Chromatic’s Johnny Jewel offers up the sultry and spellbinding ‘Windswept (reprise)’, while Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s horrifying ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ sets every nerve on edge.

Badalamenti’s new pieces range from chilling (‘Dark Mood Woods’) to mystical (‘The Fireman’), to rapturous (‘Night’). He wrings drama from every note and chord of these ambient songs, all of which are relatively simple in composition and yet infinitely evocative. And he manages to bring them all together into a cohesive project alongside existing music from his own back catalogue, and that of his guest musicians.

Twin Peaks (Limited Event Series Soundtrack) is its own self-contained world, and that is just about the highest praise that can be heaped upon a soundtrack. Listening to it brings back strong memories of the show’s distant and recent past, but it is also evocative enough to suggest so many more scenes – perhaps even alternate realities – within the show’s dazzlingly strange universe. Grab yourself some coffee and a donut, put some wood on the fire, and stick this on your speakers. You won’t regret it.

Album of the Year 2017: #18 Jay-Z – 4:44

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Is there any living rapper with a more successful and storied career than Jay-Z? Any rapper who has built so large an empire and yet remained, unlike a Dr Dre, musically relevant even to this day? I can’t think of one if there is – the man known as Shawn Carter has been one of the biggest names in music for close to thirty years, and 4:44 is the introspective late-career rap album that draws a line under all those achievements.

It’s a humble, often low key and very personal album, in which Jay addresses the infidelity rumours surrounding his marriage, reflects on his business acumen, and muses on fatherhood. His rapping is mellow and revealing, sometimes bordering on spoken word as he pulls back the curtain on his hustler persona.

Hova makes a couple of appearances – on the braggadocious reggae bounce of ‘Bam’ and the nostalgic ‘Marcy Me’. But by and large this is a Shawn Carter album – conversational, real, and apologetic. On the album’s title track, over a soulful beat, he speaks directly to his wife: ‘I apologise, often womanise / Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes’.

That frankness can be found in nearly every song on 4:44. Opener ‘Kill Jay-Z’ finds him addressing the critics and listeners who condemned his infidelity, and wrote off his music career: ‘How can we know if we can trust Jay-Z?’ He takes all the criticism in stride, and makes no attempt to defend himself, just resolves to correct as many mistakes as he can: ‘You gotta do better, boy you owe it to Blue’.

In ‘The Story of OJ’ he takes on the history of racism over a jazz-bar piano slide. In ‘Smile’ he raps about coming to terms with and loving yourself, revealing his mother’s struggles coming out as a lesbian. And in closer ‘Legacy’, which features a voice recording of his five-year old daughter, he muses on how the money he has made will affect his children’s lives.

It’s unexpected stuff from the rap game’s most exuberant hustler, and a far cry from ‘Big Pimpin’ or Reasonable Doubt. But it’s brilliant, and it makes for one of his best albums yet in combination with the fantastic production work by No I.D, who handled every single track. These ten songs are soulful, spacious, and feature some excellent sample work to boot.

It’s often said that hip-hop is a young man’s game, but 4:44 provides a blueprint for longevity. Unlike Hov’s last Blueprint, this one strips away all the persona and egotism, leaving behind nothing but passion, emotion and vulnerability. These qualities are a rare find in hip-hop, but it is them that set 4:44 apart as one of the best albums of 2017.

 

 

Album of the Year 2017: #19 Slowdive – Slowdive

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Shoegaze innovators Slowdive returned with a fantastic self-titled album in 2017, delivering another helping of blissful, intergalactic dream-pop. Their return more than lived up to the enormous legacy of the genre they helped pioneer, and comfortably blew all imitators out of the water.

The eight songs of Slowdive are laced in a sugary film of reverb, with each carefully placed chord, rhythm and note sounding out as if in an enormous echo chamber. The album feels spacious to the extreme, limitless even: the soupy production effortlessly fuses guitars and keyboards together into one almost indistinguishable whole, to wonderful effect. Slowdive envelops the ears in a way few albums do.

Which isn’t to say that the record is mellow, by any means – songs like ‘Star Roving’ and ‘Go Get It’ are among the loudest the band has ever recorded. The former builds a driving space-rock groove from multi-tracked guitars and harmonized vocals, while the latter feels a bit post-rock with an interesting quiet/loud dynamic, as whisper-quiet verses erupt into a huge chorus: ‘I wanna see it / I wanna feel it’

For a band who hadn’t released any new music in over twenty years, Slowdive came back sounding full of confidence in 2017. Their new record was meticulous and panoramic: as delicate as a spider’s web, but as eternal as a galaxy. And certainly among the best of the year.

Album of the Year 2017: #20 Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

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On ‘Shadowboxing’, the fourth track from Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights, she sings: ‘There’s a comforting failure / Singing too loud in church / Screaming my fears into speakers / Until I collapse or burst’. These lines get right to the heart of what makes her second album so special – Turn Out the Lights understands the redemptive power of music, and comforting failure is exactly the feeling I get from it.

Across these eleven tracks, Julien airs out her fears and insecurities with intimate confidence, tackling the subject of depression and mental illness. She does so in a manner that is both sensitive and raw, like an open wound in the process of healing. The mood is sombre, but never without even the smallest glimmer of hope, and it is this that gives the album its cathartic power.

On ‘Hurt Less’, a simple and gorgeous piano ballad, Julien recounts how her depression became at one point so bad that she stopped wearing seatbelts while driving, and would fantasize about crashing through the windscreen: ‘I didn’t see the point / In trying to save myself’. But as the piano chords pick up power and a building violin brings the song to a climax, a shred of hope is found: ‘This year I started wearing safety belts / When I’m driving…’

It’s these small lyrical details that really set Turn Out the Lights apart. At no point does it fall back on tired metaphors and general gloom. At every step, Julien finds poetry in moments of day to day existence, like when a hole in her apartment’s drywall teaches her to ‘get used to the gaps’. Or how about this lovely line from ‘Appointments’: ‘Nothing turns out like I pictured it / Maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvasses’.

Musically, Turn Out the Lights is not a particularly adventurous record – Julien employs piano and guitar with heavy use of loop medals and reverb in most songs, some of which feature guest musicians on saxophone and strings. But the melodies are the sort that get immovably lodged in your brain, and Julien’s voice brings each one to life – even those that fixate heavily on death. Her singing is delicate but commanding, immediately grabbing the ear and positively pouring out emotion.

Turn Out the Lights is a painful listen at times, but always a rewarding one. It reminds us to never stop looking for that tiny glimmer of hope in the darkness, whether we find it in religion, love, or – in music.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun (2017)

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Chelsea Wolfe is Metal Bjork. I’m convinced of it, having obsessed over her new album Hiss Spun for the last week. She is a musical polymath who draws influences from countless different corners of the music world, but always bends it to her own twisted vision. She is a brooding Gothic Romantic who sings only of love, the pain and damage of love, power and abuse and sex and sorcery. And this latest record is her greatest achievement yet.

On Hiss Spun she synthesizes sounds as diverse as industrial, doom/sludge/alternative metal, dark folk and a swarm of other abrasive noises in between. She channels Nine Inch Nails and Neurosis and Isis, but with an ear for melody so strong and a voice so warm and inviting she could be a legitimate metal pop star.

Wolfe has an understanding of dynamics, too, that really sets her records apart. Hiss Spun has moments of plodding industrial tension, like ‘Strain’ or ‘Partical Flux’, but it also has moments of skull-crushing black hole wall of amps release, like ‘Static Hum’, ‘The Culling’ or the transcendent ’16 Psyche’, which is one of my favourite songs of the year. These songs acquire their power by gargoyle-silhouetted contrast against passages of gnawing, atmospheric tension-building and slow dread.

Even within individual songs is a mastery of dynamics. ‘Twin Fawn’ starts out as an ominous dark folk ballad with Wolfe on guitar accompanied by only hand percussion and a gentle drone. But in the chorus it absolutely explodes into a sea of shimmering metal-gaze chords and booming snare hits to wonderful effect.

These talents were evident on Wolfe’s previous record, Abyss, but the difference is that Hiss Spun spreads them out more evenly across its entire length, and creates a more satisfying album arc in the process. Abyss placed all of its heavy songs in the first half, while side two was comprised of ominous, drony folk numbers. But with her latest album, Wolfe has succesfully fused these two aspects of her music into a cohesive whole.

In doing so, she’s put together one of the best metal or rock albums I’ve heard all year. Hiss Spun is wonderfully recorded and produced, genre-fluid, vicious and despondent in equal measure. It totally engulfs in fuzzy Gothic beauty, and absolutely must not be missed.

8.7/10

ALBUM REVIEW: The National – Sleep Well Beast (2017)

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Autumn is here, and with perfect regularity another sobering The National record has fallen from the tree of indie rock like a sad, bruised little fruit. Yes – everybody’s favourite baritone crooners are back to squeeze out the last few drops of optimism and sunshine from the summer, and give us a healthy dose of cruel and dissapointing Reality.

This is a band whose ability to wring emotional and romantic turmoil from moody, mid-paced rock music is almost unparalleled, and over the past decade they’ve released a string of great albums that have done exactly that – 2007’s Boxer, 2010’s High Violet, and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Up until this point, however, it’s fair to say that The National have not been the world’s most adventurous band.

Sleep Well Beast looks to change that, and is the first National album to experiment with the band’s core sound, albeit only slightly. There are sprinklings of electronics to be heard throughout the record, from the gentle tones in the background of ‘Day I Die’ to the sequenced drums in ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’. The electronics add an extra layer of depth to the album’s sound without ever being revolutionary, but at this stage of the band’s career a bit of variety goes a long way.

There are also moments on this record that get louder than we’ve ever heard from the band before: ‘Turtleneck’ has a raucous, stomping chorus with shades of cowpunk and Nick Cave, and ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ builds to a fittingly destructive climax of synths, drums and strings.

The majority of Sleep Well Beast, though, much like previous National albums, consists of very beautiful piano ballads and indie rock slow-burners with cryptic, poetic lyrics courtesy of Matt Berninger. This time around, a majority of songs are about marriage and the struggles contained within, and many of the lyrics Berninger in fact co-wrote with his wife.

Sometimes they are gorgeously fatalistic (‘I was born to beg for you’) while at other moments the romantic drama feels a bit too unspecificied to really affect. The greatest lyrical moments are those where Berninger gets a bit more figurative with his images, like these from ‘Ill Still Destroy You’: ‘This one’s like your sister’s best friends in a bath / Calling you to join them…/This one’s like your mothers arms when she was young and sunburned in the 80’s’.

Sleep Well Beast‘s final quarter is perhaps its only weak point – I find the last three tracks all a bit too similar to those that came before, and lacking the same energy. The closer in particular is a bit of a dribble, opening almost identically to ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ and featuring those same words in its chorus.

But all the same, this is another fantastic record from The National. It finds them taking just enough risks to remain compelling, broadening their music while keeping it as  eloquently bittersweet as a tear drop falling in to a glass of wine.

8.3/10

War On Drugs + Thee Oh Sees PSYCHEDELIC double review BONANZA

orc . a deeper understanding

Oh Sees – Orc & The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (2017)

Hello everyone. To keep to my terrifyingly prolific (not really) writing schedule on this now semi-serious music blog I’m hitting you with not one but two simultaneous reviews of records that released this previous week. Woah! This week we’re taking a nostalgic plunge into the annals of psychedelia with two rather retrospective records from heavy hitters in the world of modern psych: Philadelphia red eye road dogs the War on Drugs and garage-psych mainstays Thee Oh Sees, or maybe just Oh Sees, because they’re one of those bands who invoke tectonic shifts in musical style through a change in the punctuation in the band name. A classic move.

Here we have two very different approaches to making psychedelic music in 2017. The War on Drugs, who are famous for that one song about smoking weed and those other ones that you couldn’t distinguish from it when you were stoned, are making psychedelia in the same way that James Cameron made Avatar. Like, lets slap as much production detail and throw as many extra dimensions in there as we can until the audience is sure to be wowed, and fail to realize the lack of real substance underneath. These songs are so filled with overdubs and hundreds of layers of reverb and vocals and keys that the Ableton Live files on Adam Granduciel’s computer probably required a server farm in Libya just to keep them going, and A Deeper Understanding, the record that comprises said songs, has about as much meat on the bones as a starving Libyan child.

This is a very hollow record, one which impresses on a first, second, and possibly third listen, but soon reduces itself into an expensive and technical slush in which every song is unidentifiable from the next and we move along in a languid sort of has-it-kicked-in-yet malaise for an hour and six minutes. In fact, the extent of everything I can even remember about this album, having listened to it at least four or five times for the purposes of reviewing (I am a consummate professional), is that the first two songs were rather pleasant, the third sounded a lot like Arcade Fire, which was kind of boring, and ‘Thinking of a Place’ was the only tune to attempt anything that struck me as ambitious, but that might just be because it’s eleven minutes long and wants you to think it’s ambitious. I don’t even know any more.

Thee Oh Sees, on the other hand, are an eclectic bunch. Their latest record, Orc, is something of a Pick ‘N’ Mix grab bag of narcotic candy, dipping briefly into styles of psych from across the musical timeline for one, two songs at a time. There are moments of motorik krautrock adoration (opener ‘The Static God’), slinky 80s psych-pop (‘Nite Expo’), interludes of weird Faustian noise (‘Paranoise’), and drony psychedelic folk (‘Keys to the Castle’). For the initiated, Orc is like a bit like playing a game of psychedelic Guess Who with all your favourite sounds of years past. Does your character play the sitar? Yes? Is it Revolver? Bingo! Wait, wrong game.

Anyway, this constant jumping around in style keeps Orc sounding fresh with each new song, and on a couple of occasions pushes the band outside their comfort zone. ‘Animated Violence’ is one of my favourite songs here, sounding more metal than anything Oh Sees have ever made in the past – specifically more stoner metal, like some hazy Electric Wizard type of psychedelia. It has a face-shredding riff in the chorus that erupts into an equally face-shredding riff in the verse, and is the most fun I’ve had playing the air guitar so far in 2017.  ‘Cadaver Dog’ is another highlight, a slice of Pink Floyd worship if Pink Floyd were fronted by a grouchy troll with a throatache.

Orc‘s predilection for wandering perhaps gets the better of it in the second half, though, where it begins to lose some of the focus it erupts out of the gate with. ‘Cooling Tower’ is a cute three minute distraction that reminds me of the soundtrack to Cave Story for some strange reason, but feels ultimately insubstantial, while closer ‘Raw Optics’ has a fiddly and far too long breakdown that lasts almost the entire song, and completely kills all sense of momentum the record had right as it ends. As a finale to an exciting record it’s a bit like having a bucket of cold water unceremoniously dumped on your head, and leaves my ultimate impression of the record a bit weaker than it perhaps deserves to be.

Still, at least I can tell you what song I’m listening to at any given moment. Thee Oh Sees cram more ideas into one record (and they make a new record, sometimes two, every single year) than The War on Drugs have managed in their entire career. Unless ‘more reverb, dude’ counts as an idea. But I am being too harsh – really A Deeper Understanding is not a terrible record and I am sure it will prove popular with the indie rock blogs and the bearded masses. It is sunny and strummy background music for doing laundry or very mild drugs to, but everything about it is just so pleasant, so safe. I can’t help but feel there’s so much more to the future of psychedelic rock than what A Deeper Understanding offers up. And for their part, Thee Oh Sees remain firmly in thrall to the genre’s past. But hey – the future of the future will still contain the past, so more power to them.

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding           6.2

Thee Oh Sees – Orc           7.9