Thursday, October 08, 2009

Listening Habits 08-09.2009

We’ve had quite a few great releases in the two months since the last “Listening Habits” post and at least half of them may well find their way in our end of the year Top 50 list. We have already praised the excellent "Get Color", Health’s second album (or third if you also count last year’s remix job), and especially the stellar first single "Die Slow". Dream-pop vocal melodies and layers of My Bloody Valentine-style guitar feedback clash with menacing industrial beats to create what I could only describe as noise-death-disco. Not a catchy name for a musical style, I know, but I think that Health along with a few other acts like their pals Crystal Castles are creatively recycling '80s noise rock, industrial and electro into a brand new, highly volatile hybrid.

A different but equally refreshing musical mix seems to be brewing in London lately. The Big Pink, this year’s winners of NME’s Philip Hall Radar Award for best new act, combine cutting edge electronic dance sounds with dark pop melodies and menacing late '80s-early '90s guitar noise of The Jesus And Mary Chain-A.R. Kane variety in order to tell us "A Brief History Of Love" - one of the most exciting debuts of the year along with Telepathe’s "Dance Mother". Among the many highlights of the record are the singles "Too Young to Love", "Velvet" and "Dominos", as well as "Crystal Visions" and "Frisk". Interesting facts about The Big Pink: Their name comes from the title of The Band’s first album "Music from Big Pink" while Milo Cordell (one half of the band that also includes Robbie Furze) is the boss of Merok Records, responsible for some great releases by the likes of Salem, Telepathe and Crystal Castles (as you can guess by now, I really have a soft spot for these last two groups!).

And if you are in the mood for even more dark songs about love, you can find them in abundance in the fine debut of another very promising and very young London band, The XX. Initially they impressed us with their highly addictive cover of Womack and Womack’s '80s hit "Teardrops". This song is not included in their album but its melancholic air and seamless blending of soul, electro pop and icy '80s guitar style is all over "XX", making it the perfect choice for late night listening. As Romy and Oliver exchange verses in hushed tones, you often get the feeling of eavesdropping in the intimate conversations of a couple falling in or out of love, while the music’s beat follows that of the lovers’ hearts. "VCR", "Crystalised", "Basic space" and "Infinity" are the standout tracks of the record and along with "Teardrops" give you five very good reasons to make your acquaintance with The XX.

The third London-based act to have its debut album among our top picks this month is Florence + The Machine. "Lungs" is a big sounding, grand gesturing, passionate pop record with bright tunes like "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)" or "Dog Days Are Over" which showcase the great vocal talent of Florence Welch. The album was stopped only by the ghost of Michael Jackson from claiming the top of the UK album chart and in a year when the divorce of commercial music from quality seems to be final, this fact alone is enough to justify the buzz surrounding Florence and her band.

Another act that managed to break the embargo against decent music in the pop charts is Arctic Monkeys. For the recording of "Humbug", their third full-length, the band visited Josh Homme’s studio in the California desert looking for a change of scenery and a different sound. Although you cannot really say that they’ve gone stoner rock all of a sudden, the new album is certainly slower and heavier than its predecessors, making also room for the mellower orchestral pop influences evident in Alex Turner’s work with The Last Shadow Puppets. "Humbug" may not be the instant classic that their debut was, but it does show a band willing to take chances, experiment and evolve, the traits that distinguish all great artists.

And while we’re on the subject of brave artistic experimentation, here’s one of the most adventurous records you’re going to hear this year: White Denim’s "Fits". The Austin, Texas group seamlessly incorporates all kinds of influences in its latest work, going from acid rock to garage punk and from freak folk to free jazz in the drop of a hat. The flow of the record, however, remains flawless, offering us a thrilling joyride in rock’s less travelled back roads, the paths carved by groundbreaking innovators like Meat Puppets or The Minutemen.

Yo La Tengo can certainly be counted among the few truly originals of the last 20-something years, a band that is not afraid to mix things up and kick your ass in the process. In "Popular Songs" we can hear the more "easy-listening" side of the band for the album's first 9 tracks while for the final 3 they get lost in extended jams without losing the plot too much. "Here To Fall", "Avalon Or Someone Very Similar", "Nothing To Hide", "Periodically Double Or Triple" and "If It’s True" are the latest gems in the continuing, fascinating story of Yo La Tengo.

Our Top-10 also includes the best record that will not get an official release this year (another sign that record companies have completely and utterly lost the plot), the star-studded "Dark Night Of The Soul", product of the collaboration between the omnipresent Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse, David Lynch and a cast of, well, dozens. We've also listened and enjoyed "Wilco (the album)", the finest record in recent years by Wilco (the band) and "Spinnerette" by Spinnerette, the next step in the tumultuous career of Brody Dale in collaboration with Alain Johannes of Queens Of The Stone Age fame. Not as fierce as her work with The Distillers but with enough fine tracks ("Ghetto Love", "Baptized By Fire", "Distorting A Code", "Rebellious Palpitations") to keep us satisfied 'till we meet again (I don't know where, I don't know when)...

Top 15 Albums

1. A Brief History Of Love - THE BIG PINK
2. Get Color - HEALTH
4. Popular Songs - YO LA TENGO
6. XX - THE XX
9. Spinnerette - SPINNERETTE
10. Wilco (The Album) - WILCO
11. Julian Plenti Is… Skyscraper - JULIAN PLENTI
12. Varshons - THE LEMONHEADS
13. Travels With Myself And Another - FUTURE OF THE LEFT
14. No One's First And You're Next - MODEST MOUSE
15. JJ No2 - JJ

Top 20 Tracks

1. Die Slow - HEALTH
2. Dominoes - THE BIG PINK
3. Little Girl (ft. Julian Casablancas) - DANGER MOUSE AND SPARKLEHORSE
4. Teardrops - THE XX
5. Ecstasy - JJ
6. Pinball (ft. Telepathe) - SIMIAN MOBILE DISCO
7. Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up) - FLORENCE + THE MACHINE
8. These Are My Twisted Words - RADIOHEAD
9. The Whale Song- MODEST MOUSE
11. Crying Lightning - ARCTIC MONKEYS
12. Baptized By Fire - SPINNERETTE
13. Games for Days - JULIAN PLENTI
14. Periodically Double Or Triple - YO LA TENGO
15. Bull Black Nova - WILCO
16. I Start To Run - WHITE DENIM
17. You Need Satan More Than He Needs You - FUTURE OF THE LEFT
18. The Fixer - PEARL JAM
19. Dirty Robot - THE LEMONHEADS
20. Le Flying Saucer Hat - CHAIRLIFT

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