Thursday, 7 December 2017

My 10 favourite albums of 2017

1. Chad VanGaalen – Light Information (Sub Pop)
The man who produced Women’s eternal Public Strain offers up his own bid for eternity with his best solo album to date, a masterful take on guitar pop that takes a skewed look at 21st-century consciousness and offers a pillow for our wounded souls.

2. Art Feynman – Blasting Off Through the Wicker (Western Vinyl)
The man behind Here We Go Magic goes minimal, goes deep, and lays it all out on four track like a lo-fi road map. Head-noddy, funky and scratches all of my itches at once. A worthy successor to Arthur Russell.

3. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins (RCA)
The four Grizzlies have left Brooklyn and scattered themselves across America, and in the process have created their deepest, darkest, most satisfying record to date. Ed Droste’s divorce may have been off limits to interviewers, but the pain of something ending and the hope of something beginning permeates this record like shadows and daylight.

4. Richard Dawson – Peasant (Weird World)
The one-of-a-kind songsmith from Newcastle has crafted an epic record as gnarled and beautiful as a storm-damaged tree. A righteous call for community at a time of individualism, narcissism and violence.

5. Machine Translations – Oh (Spunk)
Greg Walker follows up my favourite album of 2013 with my close-to-favourite album of 2017, the songwriting as excellent as ever, but ricocheting with more pitch-bent guitars.

6. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
Like shining an ultraviolet light on the ocean, Sumney shows us how deep human loneliness goes. And it’s deep. Falsetto of the year, too.

7. Rafael Anton Irisarri – The Shameless Years (Umor Rex)
Every year there’s one ambient/drone/noise album that turns me inside-out. This year it was made by the man formerly known as The Sight Below. He sends us ploughing face-first into the earth’s crust, delving down, down, down into gorgeous aching misery, churning onward until you see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s blinding.

8. Liars – TFCF (Mute)
Angus Andrews is as beautifully incomprehensible as ever. TFCF keeps me listening because I have no fucking idea what’s going on. Despite this, and probably because of it, I know it’s brilliant.

9. Sontag Shogun – Patterns for Resonant Space (Youngbloods)
A wonderfully minimal, tactile record. Its creation started off with samples, then was decorated with delicate piano, rather than the other way around. Like receiving a massage from insects.

10. Everything Everything – A Fever Dream (Sony)
I don’t normally like epic, danceable rock, but Everything Everything are smart enough to juxtapose their shamelessly anthemic melodies with just enough left-field production wizardry to keep things compelling. A fist-pumper for the apocalypse.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Feather Beds – Blooming

Michael Orange (The Star Department, Soft Bones) is a chef of the sublime, bringing familiar musical elements together so beautifully that it occasionally defies belief. Don’t get me wrong, the recipe is simple: impossibly dreamy washes of guitars, synths and other hard-to-identify textures, juxtaposed against crisp drum patterns. On recent single ‘Soft Yellow’, the real magic lies in the drop at 2:29 – the moment after the break when the beat returns, ratcheted up a notch, and the song starts to run away at a heady clip, chased by a gorgeous synth melody, raising the hairs on the back of your neck. Get a load of this:

Elsewhere, the momentum is sustained from the get-go by surges of guitars ('Drip Feed'), or is withheld in favour of vertiginous, atmospheric drifting ('Fear of Water'). While Feather Beds' debut The Skeletal System sounded more vulnerable and home-spun, Blooming feels lush and robust, able to carry the listener a significant distance, suspended aloft on clouds of ambient-pop.

The only criticism I could level at this release is that Michael’s vocal melodies tend to follow a similar contour from song to song, but when the overall feel of the album is this beatific, such nit-picking feels mean-spirited. Especially when not a moment is wasted across these 35 minutes. The only option is to go back for more.

And the more I listen to Blooming, the more it keeps, y’know, what’s the word...

[Blooming is released on Moderna Records on 27th October.]

Monday, 26 June 2017

Richard Dawson – Peasant

I don't know where we're going. What does our future hold? I worry about the world my daughter will inherit in the coming decades. During my journey to and from work, I observe my fellow commuters and feel alternately repulsed by them and deeply affectionate towards them. At our core we're all the same, and wherever we're going, we're going together – but our experience of that future will diverge wildly depending on where in society we find ourselves.

These divergent experiences are explored in vivid and moving detail on Richard Dawson's new album, Peasant. Individual tracks tell the story of different characters: 'Soldier', 'Weaver', 'Prostitute', 'Scientist', etc. However, no matter where in society these roles are played out, Dawson gives equal weight to their trials and tribulations. Everyone suffers. Everyone struggles. Everyone has their own cross to bear.

Dawson's wildly expressive voice and guitar playing have been a constant throughout his discography, but on Peasant we also find a massed choir of voices and strings, foot stomping and clapping, a herald of brass dissolving into tragi-comic parps. It's long, it's dark and dirty, and it's the most moving album I've heard in a fair while. 

For such a harrowing journey, Dawson has wisely front-loaded the album with the more accessible songs: the rousing 'Ogre', the sweetly sad 'Soldier', the hurtling 'Weaver'. From then on, although things become more knotty and bleak – especially during the nightmarish 'Scientist' and the climax of finale 'Masseuse' – individual songs have plenty of light and shade, whether it's Dawson's voice reaching delicately into the higher registers, meandering passages of slack-tuned guitar, or thunderous riffing that has more in common with metal than folk. It's a deeply disorientating and immersive journey.

While Peasant depicts plenty of suffering, the overall tone is one of hope and deep empathy. Ultimately, I'm reminded of a line from W.H. Auden's poem 'September 1, 1939': "We must love one another or die." Thank you, Richard, for creating such a raw, evocative and poetic album. Whether it will help us as we cascade towards oblivion is another matter... 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Jonathan David Shaw – Waa

Here's a first for dots and loops: a guest review! A good job too, as I haven't written much lately, plus it's an album by Jonathan David Shaw, the lead singer and acoustic guitarist in my band, Summon the Birds. This review of Jon's new solo album Waa comes courtesy of C.J. Lahey...

Armed with an acoustic guitar, vocals and late-night candle-lit eiderdown reverb, Jonathan David Shaw (JDS) delivers what could be his most accessible album since 2005’s conceptual Boo.

What delineates this from JDS’s other works is a certainty that steers the album confidently through 13 lush tracks. The welcome mat track, 'Overture', is an appropriately sized and framed instrumental blueprint through which the album unveils.

JDS’s vocals, while not hardening in the sense of cement, are certainly more defined, stronger and more purposeful than in the past. In Waa, the way his vocals shape his lyrics is almost akin to a melodic actor, allowing the dense and earthy imagery of his words to form. Tracks like ‘Bird on a Branch’, ‘Run Like You're Never Still’ and ‘Bird Knows Where You Are’ are the best reflections of this, where along with his vocals and accents, JDS peppers his delivery with poignant and purposeful pauses.

Another aspect that gives Waa wings lies in the guitar work. While always working as the foundation upon which JDS and Marlene Samson sing, JDS's fingerpicking style adds a nuance and flair that elevates these songs. A special note to the engineer, who allows the album to develop a sonic signature within the tasteful reverb that the songs soak in.

A return to form for the Melbourne balladeer; we hope he finds time in his busy schedule to tour it.

– C.J. Lahey

Waa is available to download via Bandcamp, and to stream via Spotify.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Fred Thomas – Changer

Fred Thomas's 2015 album All Are Saved hit me like a bolt out of the blue, and ended up #3 on my list of favourite albums from that year. (I still play standouts 'When They Built The Schools' and 'Bad Blood' on a regular basis.) When I heard that follow-up Changer was on the way, I was predictably excited. Late last year, Polyvinyl previewed the album with four great advance tracks, two of which – 'Voiceover' and 'Mallwalkers' – knocked me sideways. Now Changer has landed, it's enchanted me in a similar way to its predecessor.

Although All Are Saved is Changer's Polyvinyl predecessor, it's worth noting that Thomas also released an album of instrumental electronic sketches in the interim via Bandcamp. Minim comprises 30 one-minute vignettes that point in so many interesting directions, the mind boggles (an early version of Changer's '2008' has a home there, plus Changer's title track is basically Minim's 'A Park For People'). Thomas seems to thrive in the overlapping zone of a Venn diagram that has loose electronic jams as one circle and strummy indie-rock as the other. (Check out his band Hydropark if you like Krautrock-influenced instrumental rock.) And let's not forget Thomas's words, which spill over everything like an upturned cup of coffee.

The words are the first thing you notice on urgent opener 'Misremembered' – it's so crammed full of them you feel like you're walking in on songwriting in progress. "There was something I was trying to say," is repeated over insistent guitars, emphasising his tendency towards open-ended pronouncements; there's the feeling that a Fred Thomas album is just a snapshot of an ongoing flow of music and words that the listener has the privilege of sampling. (Indeed, Changer was originally submitted to Polyvinyl as an hour-long album before being edited down to these 34 minutes.)

Thomas crams a lot of great songs into Changer, interspersed with instrumental stretches that allow the album to breathe amid his tumble of words. 'Reactionary' is an early languid detour; 'August Rats, Young Sociopaths' is an absolute peach. The fact it all ends with 'Mallwalkers' is no coincidence – it's easily one of his finest songs to date, crammed full of hooks and lyrical gems; a culmination of a lot of the best aspects of the album. While not quite as magical as All Are Saved, Changer still comes highly recommended.

[Changer is released today on Polyvinyl.] 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Rudi Arapahoe – False Self

The concept behind Rudi Arapahoe's new album False Self is an interesting one, especially to anyone curious about the grey area between composition and improvisation. As detailed in the album's liner notes, Arapahoe used the SuperCollider programming language to create "an algorithmic musician designed to compose and play alongside my true self". The results were then used as a springboard for further improvisation, composition and performance of the musical information by human musicians on keyboard instruments, tuned percussion, bass flute and bass clarinet. The results are otherworldly and beautiful.

The six pieces, ranging from six to ten minutes in length, are decidedly eerie in atmosphere, hovering like phantoms unsure of their next life. The song titles 'Mechanical Mask', 'Petrification Phastasy' and 'Ice Carnival' offer a vivid glimpse of the soundworlds mapped out and available to explore. Sustained tones bleed out into '80s reverb. Struck metal shimmers and blooms. The spaces between the sounds are as important as the sounds themselves.

For some, this will probably fail to register as music, or will test the endurance like water torture. It's certainly firmly in the abstract ambient camp, yet I find there's just enough musical connectivity between these sounds to lead me, rapt, across this chilly chasm. 

False Self is available now to download on a pay-what-you-want basis via Music Glue.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Ian William Craig – Centres

It's cold and windy up in heaven. Noisy. The voices of angels rattle and rasp.

Damaged instruments are left there to die. They still vibrate with life; ascension sharpens their purpose.

This drifting, shimmering void is no place to rest.

Everything overflows.