Saturday, March 27, 2010

Q1/10: Where does the time go?

Hard to believe another winter has come and gone, and the first quarter of 2010 is coming to a close. Sadly, there was seemingly a lot less music released this winter compared with 2009, although a string of really good albums were unleashed upon the (un)willing masses. I am providing a quick rundown of how things stand for me and my collection at the end of March...

1) PETER GABRIEL--Scratch My Back

The prospect of a covers album is always a bit dubious. There are many ways an album of this nature can go, and none really very appealing. Take for instance, the artist who wants to show their love for certain songs, but done their way...Duran Duran's Thank You was a disaster. Covering a Bowie or Roxy Music song when there is a tradition of New Romanticisms is one thing, but digging up "911 is a Joke" by Public Enemy was preposterous. Erasure were fine with an ABBA tune, but their full length Other People's Songs is likely their worst album. Then there are those who wish to stay true to the originals. Sharleen Spiteri's recent movie album is generally where this is headed, containing mostly dire readings of songs which sound as if she was locked in some karaoke hell. Another recent disappointment is Bird & the Bee's rendering of Hall & Oates' greatest hits, which taken in small doses would be fine, but over the course of an album, I find myself examining the fact that they are faithful to a fault, with almost every note and squiggle of phrase duplicated to the point that it renders the exercise pointless--just buy the originals already. And the less said about Sinead O'Connor's big band covers album, the better. In effect, finding a covers album that ticks all the boxes is nearly impossible.

Imagine my worry when I saw the news that our beloved PG was releasing a covers album, his first recorded output in eight long years. While I probably would have wanted an original album instead, Scratch My Back functions well as a covers album AND as an original one. Somehow he manages to walk that fine line between tribute and personal creativity that makes this one special. Maybe it is the sensitive orchestrations and sparse arrangements that highlight Peter's sensitive vocals, or the fact that this juxtaposition of sound emphasizes the lyrics in ways that I never would have dreamed before. For instance, the Talking Heads' song, "Listening Wind", which was written over 30 years ago, depicts the story of an Arabian child who takes up the cause of terrorism by strapping a bomb to themselves and heading for a crowded area. The original was a woozy drone with a hypnotic beat, pushing David Byrne's vocals deep into the mix, while Peter's update here allows the listener to really inhabit the story, with the instruments there in support of the voice, as opposed to giving both equal billing. This exposure of the lyrics only serves to highlight the fact that this type of horrifying act of murder/suicide, which was being perpetrated by their own people decades ago, still exists to this day.

So, Peter earns my honor of the best record of the first three months of 2010. It can be depressing. I cried the first time I heard it, and the second. While Scratch My Back isn't exactly upbeat, there are some lovely moments of relief in "The Book of Love" and "The Power of the Heart", songs which could make the most hardened criminal sob. This project may also have served as a way for Peter to unblock some creative jam he had while readying his next original project, as he seems to be his worst critic and an ultimate perfectionist (see Kate Bush, Sade, Green Gartside, Mark Hollis, David Sylvian, etc.). Here's a tip for Peter--the world doesn't want perfectionism, because the world isn't perfect either. All it wants is his voice singing music from the soul, as he has proven here. Now that Scratch My Back is out there for the world to hear, let's hope he gets the original album done soon. Fingers crossed.

2) MARINA & THE DIAMONDS--The Family Jewels

Living in America, I find it difficult to understand all the hubbub regarding the Marina backlash. It seems like several people in the UK find her brash, pushy, shouty, snarky, and a turnoff. This saddens me greatly, as I think The Family Jewels is one of the best things to come out of Wales in a good long while (sorry Duffy). This album is not only chock full of great songs ("I Am Not a Robot", "Oh No!", "Obsessions", etc.), but there is a real strong character at the center of them. I am unsure anybody else could pen songs as unique yet inviting as "Hollywood" and "Mowgli's Road", as she brings such a personal slant to what could be faceless in lesser hands. "Shampain" in particular is quirky, slick, and has one of the greatest choruses ABBA never recorded. Even late into the album, songs like "Rootless" and "Numb" seem quite special. Time to wake up to a special talent then...

3) GOLDFRAPP--Head First

I know it almost seems like a copout choosing Goldfrapp at this point, but they really do still make some of the most wonderfully conceived pop music around. While I may not have completely bought into the perky 80's-express nature of these proceedings, there is no denying the seductive qualities of "Rocket", "Alive", and "I Wanna Life", all shiny and Top Gun-ned. While only "Shiny and Warm" is too reminiscent of what has come before, and "Voicething" something better left to a B-side, the highs here are quite high. Now Goldfrapp need to be careful they do not step any closer into pastiche, or the joke will be on them.

4) EMILIE SIMON--The Big Machine

Yes, this was on my 2009 list, but it came out late in the year only in France, and finally got a UK release in February when I finally got my CD. What an excellent album this is. Anybody who loves Kate Bush really needs to rush out and listen to the whole thing right now, as I don't think I have ever heard anyone sing closer to KB in their vocal delivery (including early Tori Amos). Simon comes up with many quirky winners here, and comes off as a darker, edgier version of Marina. This is her first all-English effort, and she recorded much of it in New York. Funny enough, it all still sounds very Emilie, and this is her best album yet.

5) DELPHIC--Acolyte

Poor Delphic. These days, expectations run so high for your first album, that there was really no way they were going to please everybody. What they did release, however, is a very stylish post-alternative album full of sparkling electronica flourishes, and some catchy melodies to boot. "Doubt", "Halcyon", and "Counterpoint" would be fine additions to anyone's canon (even New Order), and some of the instrumental parts allow them to stretch out a bit musically. As I said about Marina, if this is their debut, I cannot wait to hear what comes next.

6) HOT CHIP--One Life Stand
Another band that has suffered at the hand of many-a-critic, HC's latest effort is, in my estimation, their best yet. They have always seemed like a group of nerds that really wanted to create some deep grooves, and they do that here on nearly every song, even when the grooves are slow. While "Thieves in the Night" gets things off to a sprightly beat, and "Hand Me Down Your Love" keeps things up house-style, songs like "I Feel Better" are slow burners, with "Slush" being especially reflective. "Brothers" is a special ode to the love of a group of guys (how sensitive!), and the title track along with "We Have Love" and "Take It In" are some of the best indie-dance songs you'll hear this year. My personal fave though? "Alley Cats". It's like one of those unassuming little ballads you could hear Tracey Thorn singing. Just sayin'.

I wasn't sure they could pull off a round two, but darn if this isn't one of the most fun and put together of records this year. While "Cousins" is a bit of a crazy little calling card of a single, this album will become more known for songs like "Horchata" and "Giving Up the Gun", and "Holiday" has that must-be-a-single poppiness written all over it. "Diplomat's Son" is supposedly about Joe Strummer as well. What more could you ask for?

8) SADE--Soldier of Love
We got two major summer albums in the middle of snowmageddon this year in the form of Vampire Weekend and Sade. Talk about somebody who takes a long time to make a record. A mere ten years since her last, and with nine years separating the previous two, Sade is the mistress of slow work rates. It's the kinda thing that will really piss off the major label in an economic downturn such as the current state. Fortunately, Sade is always quality, and SOL is no exception. While the martial title track got our attention, songs like "Morning Bird", "Bring Me Home", and "The Safest Place" are what make Sade truly special. Even "Babyfather", a song which could be cringeworthy in 99% of the remainder of female R&B singers hands, has an endearing quality that very few can muster. Please don't wait ten years next time--YOU ARE GETTING OLDER.

I tried to resist her charms many times, but finally fell for them. While I think her girlishness is an acquired taste, and I also don't think she quite has the unique quirkiness of Marina, Ellie is a special, young singer-songwriter who has made one gem of an album. There is not one duff track to be found here (the ladies are really workin' it recently). While "This Love (Will Be Your Downfall)" is probably my favorite here, there are many great songs. Why they could not put the title track on the CD though is anybody's guess. Marina did the same thing. Last year it was Little Boots. Can we please have the TITLE TRACKS ON THE CDs from now on...please???

10) ALPHABEAT--The Beat Is...
Yes, this album is not selling well. Yes, they changed the name of it at the last minute, after months of delays. Yes, the album leaked nearly five months prior to its release, killing its sales potential. Dammit if I don't love this record. Alphabeat do not ape the 90's dance scene--here, they inhabit it. This record is so damn catchy, it's like a bad cold. I don't even know where to begin--"DJ", "The Right Thing", "Always Up With You", "The Spell", "Heat Wave", "Hole in My Heart"--ALL great. And that's only the GREAT songs! There are at least five more winners--my fave non-single? "Chess".

Other great albums of Q1:

DAN BLACK--((un))
GORILLAZ--Plastic Beach
BROKEN BELLS--Broken Bells
SHAKESPEAR'S SISTER--Songs from the Red Room
TWO DOOR CINEMA--Tourist History
RADIO DEPT.--Clinging to a Scheme
ATHLETE--Black Swan

Still digging: Dragonette, Annie, Gaga, LaRoux, Little Boots, Pet Shop Boys, Cheryl Cole, Cribs, Florence, Mary Onettes, Sally Shapiro, XX.

Can't wait for the summer! The ladies are coming! MIA! Robyn! Kylie! Sophie Ellis-Bextor! Kelis! Sia! Pipettes!

Also next quarter: Keane, Andy Bell, Lucky Soul, Tracey Thorn, Hoosiers, Marc Almond, Jonsi, MGMT (actually just heard it--hmmm), the National.

Albums I would buy, but will they ever make one?: Hurts, Sound of Arrows, Penguin Prison, Golden Filter, OMD(this year?), Human League (also this year?), Casey Spooner, Scissor Sisters.