Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Best of 2008: Year End April






This might seem a little odd, but at least one other person has done it so far, and at the end of March no less (commonality: Foals, Antidotes). I had the idea about a week ago, when I realised that I bought exactly five new albums that I could say, with a high degree of likelihood, would end up on Best of 2008 list. So those are the first five releases pictured above, roughly in order of preference. The next two and, later, three are a slightly more complicated story.

But first, to the mixtape:

01 - 14:25

1. Ham Sandwich, 'St. Christopher'

2. Human Bell, 'Hanging from the Rafters'

02 - 09:04

3. Foals, 'Balloons'

4. The Black Keys, 'Lies'

5. Shooting at Unarmed Men, 'This Song Comes With a Picture'

03 - 07:43

6. Chequerboard, 'Penny Black'

7. Sinaloa, 'Tread, Not Trudge'

04 - 08:31

The Jimmy Cake, 'Red Tony' (long-form version only)

Year End April, 7 tracks

Year End April (YEA 01-04), 3 tracks + bonus


Artist/Album/Track title:

Ham Sandwich/Carry the Meek/St. Christopher

From listening to their singles on the radio and from seeing this band live in February, I would already have a very high opinion of Ham Sandwich. But this album is really, really good and I would have surprisingly little hesitation in saying this will probably still be my #1 record by the end of the year. It's solid to the point of being flawless, with hardly the one song of filler and keeping up its energy throughout.

'St. Christopher' is the opening track, with a little piano melody leading into the rhythmic post-punk/pop-punk/whatever sound of the group. Just as any of the other songs on the album, the combination and trading off of the male/female vocals work very well. And from there it goes, keeping its beautiful melody and trading up its dynamics until the end of the song explodes into a repeated chorus.

This whole album is very loud, and pace Bob Dylan's comments on modern sound recordings, I haven't enjoyed the production of an album so much since I first heard American Steel's Jagged Thoughts. If it's done with the right degree of sensitivity, good production can make an album into something shimmering and wonderful.

Original post: Ham Sandwich - Live at Whelan's, 23/02/08

Human Bell/Human Bell/Hanging from the Rafters

This is one hell of a post-rock record. I bought the Human Bell LP basically because it was on recommendation at Road Records (where I've bought more than half of this list), and specifically because the description and pedigree caught my eye. A collobaration between Andy Heumann and Nathan Bell, the latter a former member of Lungfish, this is seven instrument guitar songs of a variety of different styles. The 'more bluesy kind of Slint' part from the Road blurb caught my eye, and really this is a bit like Lungfish covering Chulahoma-style Black Keys.

This track, the opener to side B of the LP, is the longest on the album at over nine minutes, although most of the other songs average out at about five or six. It has a short intro before the main rhythm of the song kicks in, and then it's all hypnotic guitar blues, scuzzed-out background and snappy drumbeats. Like Lungfish, there is something hugely hypnotic about this band's sound; and like the Black Keys, there is something heart-jerking and colourful about its expression.

The important point to make is the variety of the songs on this album: as I say, there are seven of varying lengths, centred on instrumental guitars but also bringing in Nathan Bell on trumpet at times; and exploring different aspects of the post-rock sound from Slint or the For Carnation to Mogwai. I said previously:

"Human Bell experiments with a variety of grooves, and a variety of minimalist approaches to music. If the combination of richness and minimalism isn't a glaring paradox, then that's what it means to toll the human bell:"

Original post: Human Bell - Human Bell


Apparently 'Skinscore' (Skinxc?) is now a word - at first I thought this was a slightly redundant phrase describing, I don't know, Oi or something else with actual skinheads in it, but then I realised it meant bands associated with the (excellent) TV show Skins. Since at the moment it basically only consists of Foals and Crystal Castles, it's not the most solid of genres with regards to quality: but despite its pejorative origins, it does throw up some music of considerable interest. This same place where I found that term was a Drowned in Sound article trying to trace Foals back to all the other math-rock bands, everything apparently from Slint to Q and not U.

This is taking the view of Foals as a breakthough math-rock band comparable to the success last year of Battles - which, in fact, Foals do quite resemble on their full album. 'Balloons' is one of the two singles, the other being 'Cassius', to make the cut for that album. Jerky, angular guitars, with frenetic pacing and the colour of a jazz saxophone, make this out still as an excitingly oblique take on what I - and many of the readers here - would find more familiar from listening to Q and not U. (This week a new limited-edition 7" from Irish band Hooray for Humans came out, by the way; so expect something on the blog about that soon, assuming that I am able to pick it up)

The whole album, however, is largely just as energetic as these two singles and encompasses a wide range of interesting sounds and styles. It may not be the single most complex thing to be released this year, but there is plenty to engage and challenge the listener, with post-punk stylings and repetitions and more than a touch of electronics. Particularly if it ages well, this album is assured a high placing in an end-of-year top 10.

Original post: Foals, 'Cassius' video + vinyl rip

The Black Keys/Attack and Release/Lies

This album completely crept up on me, sending me into a flurry of illegal downloading and then trips to HMV to fork out over-the-odds money for an admittedly rather nice gatefold. The 'Strange Times' single makes for a pretty good encapsulation of their 'new' sound, which isn't so much new as their trademark blues rejigged and enhanced by the inspired production of Danger Mouse. But considering my disinterest in their last two full-lengths, I was going to need more than a catchy single for convincing.

'Lies' was the second song up on the band's Myspace page, and basically is there to represent the bands softer, balladic side. I read on a message board a conversation between some guy who had his own advance copy and was itching to share the news with everyone of how good Attack & Release was. He mentioned that there was one really good slow-ish song, and someone else asked 'is it Lengths good?' (that being a pretty awesome slow, countrified number from Rubber Factory); he said 'it's better than The Lengths', and the reply went to the effect that that was a physical and scientific possibility. Well, it ain't, 'cos this song is very possibly better.

So, long story short, the spacious and semi-exotic sounds of Danger Mouse as added to the Black Keys' rejuvenated groove have made this song, along with all the others on their new album, into fantastically novel blues-rockers. Attack & Release has totally reaffirmed my belief in the Black Keys as important, progressive and sonically powerful artists. As well as an album that's immediate to your ears, it's also paradoxically something that you can get lost in the sound of.

Original post: The Black Keys - Attack & Release, Chulahoma

Shooting at Unarmed Men/Triptych/This Song Comes With a Picture

Jon Chapple, the bassist and singer from Mclusky, moved to Australia with his new band in the last few years. Having previously released the rather good album Yes, Tinnitus! and a few singles, this was something to look forward to when it got a European release, which it did on March 31st this year. Although, as I explained in my review of the gig, I find the Future of the Left an impressive band I still prefer this side of the post-Mclusky tree.

Triptych is, as the name suggests, a triple-disc album. Spread over those three discs are twelve (well, actually thirteen when you include a 'hidden track' at the end) songs, but don't worry, they aren't anything near 15 minutes long each. In fact, the first disc - from which this song is taken from - clocks in at a little over nine minutes in length. Overall it seems as if Shooting at Unarmed Men had just too much material to fit on one CD, and instead of going for the too-ordinary double album, decided things come better in threes.

Which is what they do, because Triptych works rather well. It's difficult to explain if you're not familiar with Mclusky, but the Jon Chapple 'part' of their sound was in a large part the broad, expansive post-hardcore foil to Andy Falkous's scatterfire punk; lots of complex, epic bass rhythms carefully wrapped up in three-minute punk songs. Which isn't exactly what's in this track, 'This Song Comes With a Picture', but is part of the whole tapestry of the album. Triptych lines up bursts of lo-fi, rock'n'roll sounds which almost hark back to 70s punk (and a shade more on the British side of it, as well) with more extensive strips of hardcore and post-. Altogether, it's an interesting listening experience and one which brings together the catchiness of their earlier work.

Original post: Shooting at Unarmed Men, 'Girls Music' (Promo Single)


So they are the five albums which originally came to mind; I think, if five equally good albums come up every four months in the rest of the year, that should leave them with on average a 2/3 chance of being in the top 10 (my probability maths is a little rusty, but basically 10 over 15). The middle three I all bought on LP, so - having got my first record player in January - they make an important introduction into the world of modern music on old formats for me. Top is the only one I've caught live, although I could have gone to see (3) if I didn't mind the Skins-core fans, and (4) I saw a couple of years before the current album.

In addition to those five, are a couple extra that I've been getting into this year. Chequerboard's Penny Black is a bit of a dark horse, not because of any lack in quality, but because it's a bit 'out-there' in terms of the music I listen to (it's been played on Lyric FM - only by John Kelly though, naturally). Classical Spanish guitar over glitchy electronica, if you liked the Si Schroeder track from the 21st Century Bites mix, you should really like this too; but if you didn't, then probably not. Chequerboard is all one man, John Lambert - musician, producer and full-time graphic artist. The album is a beauty to behold, as you can see from this example of the artwork below (from The Indie Hour):

I bought his earlier album, Gothica, recently and the CD booklet was entirely taken up with a comic book short story (graphic novella?). Penny Black has a kind of Victoriana theme going on, and it's probably just my imagination but the music does seem somehow reminiscent of late-19th century Ireland.

The second extra track, from Sinaloa's new album, is more of a white horse for this list - as genuinely really good modern screamo record. I first got into Sinaloa from their 2006 Ampere/Sinaloa split and which I still think is probably their best work, but their full lengths are excellent too. They don't just play modern technical hardcore, but also have a strong vibe of the original Moss Icon/Indian Summer sounds. A certain person commented on Zen and the Art of Face Punching that they thought Sinaloa was the blandest of the new emo bands (and subsequently what sort of punishment they would deserve for saying that). But I can see at least in part where they are coming from; Sinaloa's sound is quite repetitive and that dreaded word, same-y - even after listening to them quite often and quite closely. The thing is, their style is just so purely and powerfully emotional that it just doesn't matter. I guess it's a bit like saying that all blues songs are bland, if you didn't appreciate the emotion in them.

Oceans of Islands is an album I'm pretty sure I want to get on LP, and if I order it from Purepainsugar in Europe like I'll have to, I should be able to get the latest repress of Indian Summer discography along with it. Woo!

Finally, the fourth 'bonus' track in the long-form download is from an album which has made a big splash in the Irish indie scene when it was released in the middle of last month. (I hadn't got it at the time of first making up the mixtape, which is why it's only on the long form version, and to tell the truth I haven't listened the full way through yet). The last Jimmy Cake album was released when I was about fifteen, so they haven't been a group that I've been aware of apart from very generally, but their long-awaited new album Spectre and Crown sounds very very good.

The Jimmy Cake are a sort of post-rock musical collective, who've been rotating members over the last five years. Lots of instruments, and a lot of different sounds, but all very good. You can read all about their album launch show here and here. This opening track sounds a bit like Ham Sandwich strung out on opiates and as performed by GY!BE (although the Godspeed comparison isn't allowed, because it's both too easy and too inaccurate). Jazzy, layered, and rather beautiful.

The album artwork, too, is extremely aesthetically pleasing. It was commissioned from a Japanese artist, Atsushi Kaga, who is based in Dublin. The whole CD case is this beautifully smooth black, with the iconic image on the front and tracklistings written elsewhere in a calligraphic, wispy font which is almost unreadable. The spine (the green bit in the picture) is a detachable peace of card which, along with all the information in Japanese (I have a copy of the Ramones' Leave Home with the same thing) has the tracklisting in a normal font and the barcode, usefully located away from the main artwork. Really, for the best album artwork of the year, it's between Chequerboard and The Jimmy Cake at the moment.


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