Saturday, January 04, 2014

Albums of 2013

A list of albums for 2013, in which I update this blog for the first time in 16 months, finish a full albums of the year post for the first time since 2009, and rail against twerking for ruining the year's music and dictionaries.

Youth Lagoon Wondrous Bughouse album cover
1. Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse
Amid comparisons to The Beatles and The Flaming Lips in GIITTV’s review of this second album from Trevor Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, I said ‘Wondrous Bughouse is a melodic, enchanting delight, a densely layered yet still lo-fi pop album that stands up against more psychedelic pop hallmarks’. Since then, its immersive atmospheres and hypnotic chord cycles have only grown ever more irresistible, with practically every listen revealing hidden depths to the songs. Be it lyrics charged with emotion hidden underneath a wash of reverb, or a wonky piano melody linking two entirely different sections of songs together, Wondrous Bughouse reveals a more ambitious, more earnest and more considered artist at work, two years on from his equally pleasing  debut The Year of Hibernation. Though it arrived straight out of leftfield, for me at least, Wondrous Bughouse was a surprising, unique and unrivalled delight.

2. Everything Everything – Arc
Everything Everything’s second album will do well to make it high up in the end of year lists in 2013; coming as it did just two weeks into the year, Arc’s quality remained a high bar across 2013, yet it seems as though many other sources have forgotten about it. Forgotten, for instance, how the band’s subtle evolution had given their excitable indie ideas more time and space to breathe, how the vocals had moved to the centre of songs without ever hiding the talents of the band as musicians and songwriters. The record massively impressed as a result of this progression: Arc saw the four piece let brilliant pop hooks – on Kemosabe, Don’t Try and Duet to name three – temper their fondness for quirky, intricate songwriting; though the likes of Undrowned and Cough Cough still delivered that creativity in spades. That Everything Everything ended the year touring Europe with Foals – who had their own massive success with Holy Fire this year – perhaps indicates how their stock has risen this year, but it’s without doubt that Arc deserves to be remembered in its own right for its impact throughout 2013.

3. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Andrew Hung and Benjamin Power of Fuck Buttons have had quite the 18 months. As the London Olympics arrived last summer, it was the duo’s Surf Solar that accompanied the very first opening television sequence (while the appropriately named Olympians featured prominently during the Games). This summer, Fuck Buttons headlined the Park Stage at Glastonbury, just before releasing their third album to widespread acclaim. It was well deserved: Slow Focus sees the pair relax the abrasive palette that epitomised their debut, but it also does away with the euphoric and melodic dance elements of their follow up, Tarot Sport. The result is something yet again arresting, challenging and rewarding: rhythms, actual beats play a more central role on Slow Focus, and many of the songs seem to unfurl in long, menacing movements, relentlessly growing until they become close to awe-inspiring. It’s not to say the third album is devoid of melody entirely, but the focus is very much on landscapes, the bigger picture. The bigger picture for Fuck Buttons is just how good a year 2013 has been, and now, Slow Focus has put them on the verge of something massive.

4. Dutch Uncles – Out of Touch in the Wild
Like Everything Everything, Dutch Uncles hail from the north west; like Everything Everything, this release came early in 2013; and perhaps most similarly – certainly most importantly – Dutch Uncles’ Out of Touch in the Wild is a frenetic tour through complex stuttering rhythms, spiky off-beat instrumentation and wandering melodies. Bouncy first single ‘Fester’, for instance, shoots marimba notes back and forth between stabs of bass guitar, while ‘Flexxin’ nods towards Field Music in its use of chirpy violins and stomping drums. But aside from those singles, there are plenty of other standouts: ‘Bellio’ enchants with its harmonies, and the crashing drums and siren synths of ‘Nometo’ signal the album’s boldest moment. Its sprawling musical ideas are marshalled by clinically tight time-keeping , perhaps more like the juxtaposing creativity you might associate with a debut (such as Everything Everything’s Man Alive), yet this is Dutch Uncles’ third album. That is no criticism though: Out of Touch in the Wild is a big success because its creators master that schizophrenic sound deliberately and naturally, and few albums this year delivered such an exhilarating mix to so great an effect.

One wonders whether MGMT will ever make an album that lays bare their true intentions and motivations. Accused of being deliberately obtuse on Congratulations, their second album, after almost apologetically releasing two of the best loved crossover hits of the mid 00s from their first,  the duo claimed it was Congratulations’ folk psychedelia-aping sound, and not the synth-led pop motifs of Oracular Spectacular, that was the ‘real MGMT’. Yet if that is so, it is interesting that album three – self-titled, no less – sees that sound fade underneath an influx of musical quirks and murkier atmospheres. Certainly, MGMT is their most challenging LP yet: there’s very little to grasp hold of on first listen, save perhaps for the swaying tune of ‘Plenty of Girls in the Sea’. But give it a chance, for all of the 10 tracks contain at least something worth going back for. ‘A Good Sadness’ is Pink Floyd-esque, the sadness of the title haunting you through inescapable vocals, while ‘I Love You Too, Death’ is an eerie song that spends five minutes coming into focus from an impenetrable blur. If that sounds a difficult listen, by the end you realise it’s all the more worth it. And that sums up MGMT as an album: it is only afterwards you realise that, having absorbed it, evasive unnameable moments are drawing you towards it again to recapture a feeling you almost hadn’t noticed. Frustratingly clever, surprisingly memorable: that, at least, is something that has always been true of MGMT.

6. Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
Laura Marling gives the impression of having been born old. At 18, her debut Alas I Cannot Swim addressed themes like loss, fear, heartache and sex with the acuity of someone twice her age; that was before taking into account her sublime songwriting ability that seemed to come effortlessly while others strove to get even close.  On the two albums in between that debut and Once I Was an Eagle, Marling has dealt with womanhood, patriarchy and family with the searing aplomb of a celebrated wordsmith, while broadening her musical palette and darkening her soul with choice of instruments and arrangements. It comes as some surprise, then, that for the most part on ...Eagle she has done away with the choirs, strings and pianos that had become integral to albums two and three, and returned to a simpler set up more akin to her early sound; indeed the initial four songs here are almost solely Marling murmuring intimately over her guitar in a spellbinding acoustic run of songs. And, while a swelling of instruments does bolster the central trio of Master Hunter, Little Love Caster and Devil’s Resting Place, the album retains that sense of intimacy throughout as Marling puts her trust in her acoustic guitar to lead the songs, and leaves plenty of space for her graceful storytelling to weave its magic. The stories concern putting Marling’s past to bed, or at least accepting it, and in dealing with it on Once I Was an Eagle she sounds at her most naked and convincing. If (coinciding with her recent move to Los Angeles) this album does mark an end of an era for the 23 year old, it does so as her boldest statement to date.
7. Los Campesinos! – No Blues
Each time Los Campesinos! release an album, each time it feels like ‘this is the one’ that will see them finally step into a limelight that has been waiting since Hold On Now, Youngster arrived way back in 2008. If ’08 doesn’t seem that long ago, for LC! and their fans it almost feels a different lifetime. Their development, through five albums in five years, has been like one of those word puzzles where you change one letter in a word to make a new word, change one letter in that word to make another one, and so on until you end up at a word that seems impossible it could ever relate to the one you started with – yet it only required a consecutive series of minor changes. That’s how the Campesinos’ back catalogue fits together: each new album a strengthening, a step up from the last; an acknowledgement of its predecessor but an identity of its own. Which is why No Blues seems such a powerful album compared to that twee pop debut just five years ago: the simple joy of music and words combine perfectly on 10 occasions to form 10 unique wholes, a tale, a heartbreak, lovers lost and lusted after, defeat and defiance in its face; it’s the familiar Los Campesinos! themes, but on No Blues it’s the most personal they’ve ever sounded. At the same time, this is the biggest this band have ever sounded, each of the tracks on No Blues produced masterfully to complement the record’s overall feel that this is a real force to be reckoned with. “There is no blues that can sound quite as heartfelt as mine” laments Gareth, and faced with the evidence on this triumphant fifth album, you’d be hard pressed to disagree.

8. Savages – Silence Yourself
Twelve months ago, Savages’ single Husbands was the most exciting sound going. A gasping, tearing two and a half minute tornado that promised something almost too good to properly put into words: a snarling all-woman post-punk outfit able to make guitar music in the 21st century sound necessary again. Though it recalled Joy Division, Siouxsie Soux and others, with Husbands they really threw down a marker in that no one in the UK was making music quite like it. On their full length record, Savages made good on that promise: an 11-track debut whose whole was a greater sum of its bared bones and bared soul parts. The bitterness in the vocals and uneasy guitar lines produce contrastingly frosty and vociferous atmospheres that jar, perhaps purposely, but in doing so they light up Silence Yourself with moments of unrestrained emotion. Accentuated by swaggering bass lines and ferocious drumming, the songs disturb and linger, but most of all, leave the listener without doubt that Savages are here to be heard. Silence Yourself will, rightly, echo through British music for years to come.

9. Villagers – {Awayland}
Becoming a Jackal, the 2010 debut record unveiled by Conor O’Brien, the man behind Villagers, received rave reviews, led to sell out tours and support slots with Elbow; and heaped expectation upon the shoulders of the slight Irishman with a mystical way with stories and a mournful timbre to his guitar. {Awayland}, arriving almost three years on, is certainly a departure: away from the acoustic sound of that first album, electronic influences pepper the 11 tracks here, to particularly great effect on The Waves, which screeches to a crashing, dissonant crescendo. It’s a feature of several of the tracks, that sense of growing power from simpler beginnings, and the musicians who make up the Villagers band come to the fore much more frequently on this record too, at points where the noise threatens to overspill the confines of the song. But it’s not noise for noise’s sake: it’s the sound of a songwriter and band more confident, wiser and happier to experiment, a logical but imaginative reinvention that made {Awayland} one of 2013’s best records, and suggests Villagers can go almost anywhere from here.  

10. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
Shaking the Habitual could have been one of 2013’s “massive fails”. Seven years since The Knife’s celebrated Silent Shout, and with Karin Dreijer Andersson’s (admittedly excellent) solo album as Fever Ray the only real output of note in between, returning with a 90-minute album that relies on distorted vocals and clanging percussion, often dodges conventional melody and regularly meanders into dark, electro alleyways with no guarantee of remerging into the light might have been seen as pushing your luck in an age where three-minute pop songs with videos of jiggling naked girls (Cyrus, Thicke, Allen) is what makes the music industry go round. No matter – The Knife did it anyway. Shaking the Habitual is more than challenging, being abrasive in sound and political in theme; half the time almost too frustrating to bother with, the other half too enthralling to ignore. For that alone, it deserves end of year recognition, but so too do the eventual rewards on offer: A Cherry on Top, when you get past the industrial noises, sounds immensely sad; Full of Fire is menacing and mesmerising; and Wrap Your Arms Around Me is, in the duo’s own way, a heartwarming love letter. In the end though, the stubborn manner in which this politically charged album has been conceived, created and released took people aback, and those that can get through it may well only do so once or twice. But to get this album out there and enjoyed at all is an achievement of its own, and if we can’t also celebrate that, when ‘twerking’ ends 2013 as an entry in the Oxford English dictionary, then we might as well start up the wrecking balls and bring the whole sorry state of pop music crashing down for good.

Tracks of the year:
  1. John Grant - GMF
  2. Midlake - Antiphone
  3. TV on the Radio - Mercy
  4. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
  5. The Pixies - Bagboy
  6. Jagwar Ma - The Throw
  7. Lorde - Royals
  8. Chvrches - The Mother We Share
  9. Hockeysmith - Let's Bang
  10. Lady Gaga - Applause

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Andy Murray banishes 76 years of hurt with US Open triumph

In the end, after 76 years of increasingly desperate hope, despairing hope that had begun to border on the hysterical, only the most hardy few of Brits were still watching, praying, keeping up with the sport in New York as the clock passed 2am GMT and the 2012 US Open final threatened to roll into a sixth hour. In the end, the final's four hours and fifty-four minutes, which will have felt like a lifetime to Andy Murray, his team, his family and supporters, were nothing compared to the decades of history that had weighed ever heavier on the Scotsman's shoulders as he progressed surely but achingly slowly on his trajectory to become the first British Grand Slam winner in three quarters of a century. 

For that yawning chasm of time, the record books simply noted the lack of a British male taking home any of tennis's biggest prizes. But though the five-set final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic was long, epic even, the result instantly swatted away the many years of nagging doubts, the false hopes, the also-rans, the just falling short, all of that was gone at a stroke. By becoming Britain's first major winner since Fred Perry in 1936, Andy Murray banished the past and erased the need for that statistic to ever matter for the future of his career.

Before the final had even begun, Great Britain had enjoyed an incredible, opulent summer of sport, dominated quite rightly by the achievements of the GB Olympic and Paralympic athletes, with victories and success stories of sporting ability and determination that have led many to laud 2012 as the best year for British sport since 1966 (it is, quite arguably, far greater). The London 2012 heroics overshadow astonishing achievements such as a British Tour-de-France winner and Rory McIlroy's second career major, while there may still be a British Formula One champion before the year is over.

And yet. Has any British sportsperson had quite the 2012 that Andy Murray has?* He reached two Grand Slam finals, winning one, a got to a semi final and a quarter final in the other two Slams. He responded to the gut-wrenching Wimbledon final defeat against Roger Federer by winning an Olympic gold medal just weeks later, against the same opponent upon the very same grass. That medal gave him the confidence to suggest that he could beat the best when it mattered, something which had been hinted at when he had break points to serve for the match in a gladiatorial Australian Open semi-final with Novak Djokovic in January, and again when he took a set off Federer at Wimbledon in June. 

But despite the positives, both of those tournaments still ended in heartbreak, a by now familiar sight of the Brit failing just short (Murray having made the semi finals or final of eight of his previous 11 majors). Indeed, this year's Wimbledon showed how close he was to winning a Grand Slam, but as cruel as it was hopeful, with four defeats in four Slam finals, it also gave rise to more doubts: was it simply beyond him, in a time of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, to break the duck, to lay the ghost of Fred Perry to rest, to go where Tim Henman had occasionally threatened to tread, and win a major? 

There is no doubt that Federer is one of the greatest three players of all time, and yet in the same era, Nadal and Djokovic are two players who can go toe to toe with him. Murray's increasingly competitive matches against these three titans over the last two years has shown he too was able to win against the highest calibre of opponent - but his performances, while pointing towards potential Grand Slam success, simply added to a weight of expectation so great it was matched only by the sheer awesome magnitude of the obstacles in the way. 

But at the US Open, the final Slam of 2012, nurtured carefully and skilfully by Ivan Lendl, and having learned the toughest and most valuable of lessons from his career highs and lows, Andy Murray, the best returner in the game and perhaps, with Nadal's injury problems, the fittest too, finally delivered the result his whole career had been building up to, the result many had predicted but had begun to doubt, something British supporters had dared to dream about, then dared to hope for without belief: a result that makes 1936 an almost meaningless year for British tennis, now that 2012 is the year Andy Murray won his first Grand Slam.

And it is his first - when he broke into the top 10, years ago, the question was: can Murray win a Grand Slam? After reaching his first Slam final in 2010, the question was: when would Murray win a Grand Slam? After losing his fourth Slam final in 2012, the question was: will Murray ever win a Grand Slam? Now, only one question remains. Not if, not when, but: how many? 

*Murray, as you've probably guessed by now, would be my choice for BBC Sports Personality of the Year

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Eighteen extraordinary months on Tyneside

As Newcastle occupy fifth place in the Premier League after an astonishingly accomplished season, with European football a very likely possibility next year, I thought I would revisit a blog I wrote for football website Two Footed Tackle in December 2010, on Alan Pardew's appointment as Newcastle manager. While all around were decrying Mike Ashley the Newcastle chairman, and mourning the loss of Chris Hughton from the Premier League, I instead wrote - why not give Pardew a chance?

(Originally posted here)

All we're saying is give Pards a chance 
(15 December 2010)
On the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, two days after the untimely sacking of Chris Hughton to vehement disapproval across English football, Alan Pardew became the favourite in a short race to the Newcastle United manager post. A day later, the ink on Pardew’s gargantuan contract was dry. Seen as a poisoned chalice by many, Pardew admitted in his opening press conference that some of his peers had labelled him ‘mad’ to take a position vacated eight times in six years, under the shadow of one of the most ignominious managerial dismissals in recent seasons.

Eventually, of course, someone had to dance on Hughton’s grave, and many people were confused that it was Pardew who has been given the opportunity.

But what choice did he have? Pardew is a manager, like Newcastle are a team, with ambitions that reside with best of them. He does not doubt his own ability to manage at this level and, it appears, from the length of his new contract (or his ability to negotiate such a strong deal at least) neither does Mike Ashley.
Pardew does have previous here: after taking West Ham back to football’s top table in 2005, he led them to a respectable ninth and FA Cup final the following season. It is a situation not altogether unfamiliar to that in which Newcastle find themselves – though with respect to the Hammers, the opportunity for greater things is richer this time around.

Furthermore, he has something to prove. He left West Ham under a cloud, although his legacy has ultimately been enough to see the Hammers maintain their Premier League status since. However, Pardew is earning a reputation as a difficult character, and commentators point to his record of sackings – three out of his last three positions.

Pardew has, though, shown considerable dignity and honesty since joining the club. “Chris Hughton is very, very unfortunate not to be sitting here discussing this win,” he said, following Newcastle’s fine 3-1 defeat of Liverpool. After all, he of all out-of-work managers prior to last weekend will have empathised most with Hughton, having been dismissed three league games into Southampton’s 2010/11 season, a day after a 4-0 win and off the back of a promising league campaign and trophy-winning season.

It is Pardew’s frankness, a tendency not to pull any punches, that lends him a hint of arrogance, which too often seems to rub people up the wrong way – players, colleagues and superiors alike. Alternatively, having seen Pardew manage my club first hand and do several media appearances, it is becoming of a man simply not prepared to mince words, a man who cuts through the crap and evaluates himself and his charges as honestly and clearly as possible.

That might be a tough transition for a club who are used to the more considered opinions of Hughton and, further back, Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson, and might cross Pardew off the Christmas card lists of one or two players. But for others reeling from the loss of a perfectly good manager – particularly the English spine of the side, from Steven Taylor through Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton to Andy Carroll – Pardew’s no-nonsense style and disregard for sentimentality might be just the tonic for a side capable of both winning and losing 5-1.

For all the headline-grabbing results Newcastle have pulled off so far this season – and there have been many – it probably doesn’t hurt to point out home defeats to Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, too. Pardew may be the man to ensure the rest of the season passes smoothly, putting on hold for the moment the conveyor belt of sensational events at St. James’s Park since Ashley took over.

By beating Liverpool, Pardew delivered the perfect start, ensuring that the fans’ immediate disgust stays trained on the board. They do not have any particular animosity towards Pardew, of course – he can hardly apologise for stepping into Hughton’s shoes – and if he can keep a low profile without undoing much of his predecessor’s good work, he shouldn’t be in any immediate danger. It wouldn’t take long for that to change, however.

But for all the pros and cons that can be made for Pardew’s appointment, for neutrals and for football it would be great to see a manager stuck by, a lengthy contract adhered to (by both sides), and patience, support and stability reign over a football club.

Too often now, managers go like resigning MPs, surface wounds for deeper illnesses. Roy Hodgson and Gerard Houllier have already experienced early feelings of discontent in their respective fledgling Liverpool and Aston Villa careers, and with bookies slashing odds on Pardew being the next managerial sacking, his extended stay in the Newcastle hotseat as they develop into a top six club once again would be the light at the end of a long tunnel. You might say I’m a dreamer. All I’m saying is, give Pardew a chance.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Los Campesinos! live @ Electric Ballrooms, Camden

Los Campesinos! @ Electric Ballrooms, Camden
22 March 2012

Despite having existed for the best part of six years, Los Campesinos! have become something of a rarity in these times. They were one of the original ‘internet hype’ bands in 2006-07, back when online buzz around a band really felt genuine – not now, when any old song can go viral in a day via Facebook and YouTube – back when ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ on MySpace made you dizzy with the promise in its exuberant, bouncy pop sound with fuzzy guitar scrawls all over it. They’re rare because if they were unsigned now, you’d wager the chances of people caring in six months would be slim, never mind six years. They’re rare because since they formed they’ve amassed some 45+ songs across four brilliant albums*, yet they’re still something of an insider band, a band you have to seek out, rather than a band that come to you via seemingly omnipotent media messages.

(*To me, We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed must be a second album, since it is 10 songs long and contains surely their best opening track to date).

They’re rare, too, because they realise this and appear to have wry and pragmatic self-deprecation in spades: I can think of no other band around today who, after writing four LPs in six years, would introduce their breakthrough track from the previous decade by all cheerfully clinking bottles of Budweiser – the beer ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ helped advertise in a commercial at the end of 2010 and into 2011. Yes, of course that sort of deal is great news for a band that spent their first years gigging in between writing dissertations and taking exams, but there’s a certain irony in that their breakthrough song is only recently standing up on its own merit, years later.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Capello leaves England post with reputation intact, but the FA have done too much, too late

As Rafa Benitez once said, 'I want to talk about facts'.

Fact 1. Fabio Capello has the highest win percentage of any post-war England manager (66.7%).
Fact 2. Fabio Capello lost just one major tournament qualifier, in 18 games, leading England to World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, both times as group winners.
Fact 3. Fabio Capello has won a domestic league title at every club he has managed (Real Madrid, Roma, Juventus, Milan).

But today, the English Football Association concluded their bumbling and conceited handling of John Terry's racism allegations by forcing Capello into a position where he felt he had no choice but to resign.

Let's get that fact straight: the manager who has led England to qualify undefeated for this summer's European Championships has had to resign, four months before the tournament.

To discuss the Terry saga quickly: the FA were wrong to strip him of the England captaincy. Terry was accused of racist remarks in October 2011, and charged in December 2011. He pleaded not guilty last week, and the case was adjourned until July this year - after Euro 2012. This is when the FA decided to take matters into their own hands.

Why the FA were wrong to do so is simple. John Terry's racism accusations have never disappeared from view since the allegations were made, and they presented no more of a problem to England and the FA right now than at any point since allegedly taking place - and let's not forget that Terry has already captained England in that time - yet the FA decided that since the case would now be hanging over Terry during the tournament (if he was selected), he should be removed from the spotlight by having the captaincy taken from him.

This is the wrong decision, and Capello's frustration is more than reasonable.

He believed that John Terry should not be punished for something he is not currently guilty of. Yes, he faces criminal charges, but he is not, at this moment (and won't be come Euro 2012), a criminal. Steven Gerrard, for example, was charged with affray in 2008 after punching a man in a bar and played in four England games while still accused, before eventually being acquitted.

Compared to the other recent racism charge, John Terry's situation differs from the Suarez-Evra case because in that instance, the case was always a matter for the FA: it was reported by the game's referee to the association and they dealt with it as a football matter. The allegations against Terry were made by a member of the public to the police, have been dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service, and have therefore never been a matter that the FA have needed to make a ruling on. Their decision over the England football team captaincy would have been acceptable in the immediate aftermath of the allegations, but they are not a legitimate excuse three and a half months on.

That Capello didn't agree with the FA is just one problem. As manager of the England team, for such a crucial decision affecting his squad and the dressing room to be taken out of his hands, without consultation, and to be done so publicly, undermines his position. It displays on the FA's part a complete lack of communication with Capello, or even the willingness to discuss the matter. And it shows their total misjudgement that by acting at the wrong time, and with too much force, they have ousted a manager from his position just 119 days before the biggest international tournament for two years.

Fabio Capello's resignation, therefore, is understandable; perhaps even admirable. He has never quite been at ease with the English media's disgustingly insatiable appetite for scandal and carnage: witness the deliberate trapping of Sven Goran Eriksson by the News of the World as an example of how this country likes to set up its own for a fall, and the relentless abuse Steve McLaren received (in some cases justifiably) throughout his tenure as manager. And Capello has never quite understood why results such as those he has delivered in tournament qualification - 14 wins out of 18 - doesn't appease the English press's criticisms.

(This is a sports press who have idolised a stray cat for running on to a football pitch.)

But the England manager's job is a poisoned chalice: it is the most revered position within the most hallowed sport in a country that still kids itself it should be winning major honours in international football, when the reality is that at least seven nations around the world are miles ahead of England, and the chasing pack are getting closer to us than we are to the top nations.

Against these unrealistic expectations, Capello's job had been compounded by England's pool of talent being incredibly thin: where Spain has a second XI that could compete with the world's top nations, England arguably has less than five world class players to call upon.

It is doubtful, then, that Capello would have been given a fair and respectful send off after the European Championships, even before this debacle. We'll never get a chance to find out, and success certainly won't happen now, no matter who is appointed.

With no captain, no manager, no star players and four months until the tournament begins, the Football Association might think they have done the right thing, but when Euro 2012 comes to an end, and John Terry heads to court, it will be Fabio Capello, not the FA, who will look back on today's events with relief.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2011 in 12 words; 2012 in 12 bands

This is one of those new year's blogs. One of my loose resolutions is to start writing for pleasure (clearly I'm going to have to do it more often if I'm going to get away with phrases like 'loose resolutions'), and while there's barely 150 words here, it's a start at least.

2011 in 12 words
January: Job
February: Flat
March: Elbow
April: Carpet
May: BBQs
June: Tour
July: Turkey
August: Bournemouth/(Cornwall)
September: Run
October: Twenty-six
November: Campervan
December: Parties

2012 in 12 bands:
The band everyone should love by now - Los Campesinos!
The band you always remember you love - The Shins
The band who said they'd never reform - At The Drive-in
The band you tell people at parties you're into - Django Django
The band you've never heard of - Pengillys
The band who are actually really good at folk music - The Civil Wars
The band whose song drops and you go crazy - Niki and the Dove
The band who are the newest (and best) 'we're a proper band' band - Dry the River
The band where you have to believe the hype (ok, solo artist) - Lana del Rey
The band you JUST WANT to be utterly brilliant again - Bloc Party
The band whose 'good song' really is - Friends
The band who I will properly discover this year - Real Estate

The Spotify playlist

Thursday, December 01, 2011

LIVE: Bombay Bicycle Club, Brixton Academy, 19 October 2011

There are points on Bombay Bicycle Club’s second album, ‘Flaws‘, where the band could quite easily be mistaken for a singer-songrwiter project. Less than a year on from their distorted guitar led debut, the acoustic melancholy of album number two was as far removed as it was possible to get from the first LP without doing a full on ‘Kid A‘, and the only thing more surprising than the new sound was the speed at which it had arrived.

But when Bombay Bicycle Club approach the end of their euphoric Brixton show, the 16th and final date of their largest ever UK tour and a homecoming of sorts for the four young north Londoners, they have 11 people on stage: the band themselves, who tonight are grown to a six-piece by vocalist (and burgeoning solo artist in her own right) Lucy Rose and multi-instrumentalist Louis Bhose – starring particularly on banjo during ‘Ivy & Gold’ – two brass players and three backing vocalists, courtesy of members of earlier support act Dry The River.


Friday, January 07, 2011

Ten for '10, pt. 1

Though it was officially the first year of a new decade, 2010 somehow felt more a by-product of the previous 10 years than the dawning of some fresh new age. For while there were a series of original and exciting début albums that flirted with wider acclaim, the majority of plaudits in 2010 went to artists returning with second, third or fourth efforts (Vampire Weekend, The National, Arcade Fire, Laura Marling, Kanye West, LCD Soundsystem...).

In some ways this is no bad thing; given the lifespan of a new band at the moment is akin to that of a mayfly, that any of the last decade's popular acts are earning considerable recognition now they're further on in their careers offers at least some suggestion that music in the digital era isn't entirely fucked.

After contributing my nominations to GodisintheTV's end of year poll, my much belated annual review of the year's albums goes into a little more depth on the best music 2010 had to offer.

1. Villagers - Becoming A Jackal
12 months ago, Conor O'Brien was the lead singer of the little known, and defunct, Irish indie outfit The Immediate. One breathtaking appearance on Later... Live With Jools Holland last April changed all that overnight. Outshining Paul Weller, Hot Chip and Gogol Bordello was no mean feat, but he did it with just his trusty guitar, his earnest voice and the heartbreaking lyrics to 'The Meaning of the Ritual'. It was that rare thing: a truly spellbinding piece of television.

The experience listening to Becoming A Jackal upon its release a month later was much the same; 11 songs of heartfelt intensity, built on delicate guitar arrangements and often augmented by sumptuous string parts and atmospheric percussion. Always at the fore, however, was O'Brien's keening vocal, flitting between a menacing mutter on 'I Saw the Dead' to the rueful lament on 'The Meaning of the Ritual' and rousing cries of 'That Day'. His distinctive voice dispatched a series of arresting lyrics, tales vivid with imagery and shimmering with poignancy.

In the end, though, there's little that can be written to do absolute justice to the uniquely affecting album Conor O'Brien released this year as his Villagers début. Now having spent six months touring the LP to awestruck reviews, his is a star that is resolutely rising, and 2010 was the year that all who discovered Villagers set sail on his ship of promises.

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Had it not been for Villagers' unique effort, in fact, ordinarily Arcade Fire's third album could well have been been my number one. With both 2005's Funeral and its magnificent follow up Neon Bible heralded as defining albums of the last decade, their track record was only made more immaculate with the 16 songs of The Suburbs; a quality of music that moved the BBC reviewer to cause something of a stir when he proclaimed it was 'better than OK Computer'.

Whatever it might be better than (or not), it was certainly another paradigm shift from the Canadian crew into territory that, at first, had listeners confounded. Here was a band who, having spent much of their grandiose second album railing against the ills of the modern world, were reverting to the simpler loss of childhood pleasures.

After repeated plays though, it made sense - of course - as each of the songs gave up their individual treasures. The pounding 'Ready to Start' and 'Month of May' were joyously instant single material; 'City With No Children In' and 'Empty Room' were The Suburbs's anthemic calls to arms; while the trio of 'Suburban War', 'Deep Blue' and 'We Used to Wait' towards the album's end saw Arcade Fire at their intense, majestic best. Even the title track's unexpected piano jaunt soon gave way to a haunting, unforgettable chorus.

But it was the group's two-part crescendo 'Sprawl I & II' - half morose waltz, half quite brilliant Abba-ish Europop - that finished The Suburbs in the style it deserved. Worlds apart sonically, 'Sprawl I & II' was nevertheless representative of the album as a whole: where Arcade Fire's outstanding first two records may seem more cohesive units, it's the individual songs, melodies and more immediate arrangements of The Suburbs's wistful, 65 minutes of childhood longing that ultimately made it their strongest, and most necessary, long player yet.

3. Rolo Tomassi - Cosmology
Two years ago, this Sheffield five-piece were barely on my radar when, as teenagers, they released the mind-melting hardcore début album Hysterics. After seeing them tour the album in 2009, however, their difficult screamcore/math-rock/jazz-metal hybrid began to make sense, even though it continued to be an assault on the ears at loud volumes. Another year on, and their sophomore release has racked up more plays on my MP3 player than any other album I own.

Back then, the prodigiously talented band demonstrated a dizzying ability and creative scope that surpassed their years - and peers - to ignite one of the most exciting releases of 2008. Its only real fault was in the way the juxtaposing elements were crammed together over the album's course, suggesting youthful exuberance at the expense of musical direction.

Now, all concerns have been washed away. Rolo Tomassi have retained the unrepentant ferocity that blew Hysterics apart, but in 2010, the quintet have produced an album that utilises this force most effectively: in short, sharp barrages of abrasive noise. Indeed, the first six songs of this 10-song LP clock in at less than 15 minutes; the visceral 'House House Casanova' and 'Unromance' are almost as lightning quick in length as the pummelling guitar riff brilliance of Joe Nicholson - who I can only laud highly enough by quoting the NME review: " a young musician his ability as both a player and songwriter is unbelievable".

But it was during Cosmology's second half, when Rolo Tomassi revisit the slower and more readily melodic soundscapes they flirted with on Hysterics (especially 'Fantasia'), that the album turns from a fascinating work into an unforgettable one. The contrapuntal duo of 'Kasia' and 'Sakia', brimming with spiralling guitar work, mixes Eva Spence's angelic singing voice with her brutish screaming to mesmerizing effect - I defy anyone to listen to the latter song and not recall her line "Mirror mirror on the wall/I'm a liability if there ever was one" days later. 'Tongue in Chic' presents the band's most complete five minutes to date, with a frenzied intro not unlike The Mars Volta's Take The Veil, Cerpin Taxt balanced against an almost overwhelming wash of guitars and hypnotic vocal cycle.

When the title track's combination of displaced vocals, off-kilter time signatures, a guitar solo and a crashing instrumental outro of intergalactic proportions brings Cosmology to a close, the full effect of Rolo Tomassi's second album takes a moment to sink in. When it does, the crux of the issue is this: for such a young band, their transition from hardcore aggressors to masterly and innovatively ferocious songwriters in 2010 was little short of astounding. Cosmology was an achievement that wrestled hardcore from its moorings and crossed spectacular new frontiers for the genre.

4. Everything Everything - Man Alive
It was only after a chance meeting - I happened to be visiting HMV in Oxford Street one lunchtime when the band were doing a 1pm in-store live session - that I even gave Everything Everything a second glance this year. It was on the strength of the two and a half songs I heard then that I bought Man Alive - and discovered it to be perhaps the most enjoyable listen of any album this year.

Vocalist Jonathan Higgs's staccato/falsetto may take some patience at first, but it soon mattered little with each song so brilliantly forged. Opener and previous single 'MY KZ, YR BF' (My keys, your boyfriend) is all spangly R'n'B-stealing bombast, ingenuously soundtracking the awkward moment of one relationship ending for another's beginning. Newly re-released single 'Photoshop Handsome' pitched synth stabs, pattering drums and ringing guitars under a video-game eulogy, while 'Schoolin'' warps expectations by being another R'n'B throwback brushed with funked-up art-rock.

The latter song's difficulty to define is indicative of Man Alive as a whole, not least when 'Final Form', the album's glittering, slow-burning mull over life and death happened to contain the best chorus of the record.

Album reviews often talk about 'single material', and Man Alive was one of those rare, and in this age almost unnecessary, albums where the majority of songs were strong enough to be potential singles. But unusually, this made Everything Everything's first album so much more a sum of its parts; a collection of irresistibly exciting and creative songs that simply outshone pretty much every other 'indie' début in 2010.

5. Foals - Total Life Forever
Foals had the unusual success of actually delivering copiously on early hype back in 2008 when their first album Antidotes collected the spiky electro promise of 'Hummer' and 'Balloons' into an album of angular, pulsing tunes that dominated end of year lists.

Expectation this year, then, was high, but musically, Total Life Forever was a very different beast, more out of necessity than anything: Foals' 2010 would have been very disappointing if they had simply made Antidotes pt. 2. True, they employed a similar use of minimal clean guitar lines in sound, but in scope, their follow up was a deeper, more fervent affair, with tracks building over their not inconsiderable lengths into overwhelming waves of sound.

Lead single 'Spanish Sahara' spent seven minutes drawing blood from its whispered beginning, culminating in one of the defining choruses of this year, Yannis intoning, I'm the fury in your head/I'm the fury in your bed', but across the album other highlights gleamed: 'Miami' was Foals' most straightforward indie rock song to date, 'Black Gold' and 'Alabaster' revelled in their rumbling, moody atmospheres, and second single 'This Orient' bounced with a lightness of energy that stood out among the eloquent sonic weight around it.

Total Life Forever was the sound of an artist deliberately turning their back on earlier success and setting about creating an ambitious record that would change people's opinions of the band. That it received so much critical acclaim and further raised Foals' stock in British music in 2010 was merely verification of that ambition being scaled.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Underestimating Social Media; a recipe for disaster

Ten days ago, a phenomenal wave of anger surged through the internet thanks to social networks and media sites, vilifying the unknown Western New England-based Cooks Source Magazine for its blatant and unapologetic copyright infringement - which had been uncovered by a blogger whose work had been stolen to go into October's issue.

I wrote about this for Birddog here. Not only was the journalistic crime obvious and pretty unforgivable yet flippantly denied, but it showed the power of social media and the internet in bringing brands to justice - if that justice now seems in hindsight a little severe.

In the interests of fairness, too, the editor responsible finally broke her silence here. But it's a rather biased woe-is-me tale; which perhaps isn't surprising given how badly the magazine's "apology" that sits on their website does its job.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Villagers, live at Scala - 5 October 2010

London’s Scala boasts a colourful history as both a cinema and live venue. Now one of the capital’s most coveted locations, its vaguely steeping stalls and balconies and close standing area seem to bear down on the stage almost as intently as the spotlights above.

They fall first on Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon and her three compadres, who flit around the cramped stage, swapping locations and instruments like good friends exchanging playing cards. Cate Le Bon initially caught the eye as vocalist on Neon Neon’s debut single, ‘I Lust You’, resulting in her year-long tour with the band. Now forging her solo path, Scala sees her deliver a quaint performance, in which Cate’s syrupy but dextrous tones float and soar over her mix of rough-edged guitars and woozy organs, just about winning over a rather cooler-than-thou audience with her bursts of heady folk: warm applause sends the Welsh songwriter on her way.

The real spotlight tonight, though, is all on one man, Conor O’Brien. The face behind the misleading Villagers moniker... more