Posted by: Nick Walters | January 14, 2012

2011 Album Round-Up

Better late than never…

Wire, Red Barked Tree
was reviewed here. I said:  “Beautiful and interesting and a bit weird. It’s also quite mellow – apart from the industrial thrash of 2 Minutes, and even that seems rather polite.”

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake
This may have won awards and plaudits galore but it pales in comparison to her previous album White Chalk. That was stunning, telling the story of a doomed and vengeful individual, and is the best thing she has ever done. When I first heard this I was extremely disappointed. Sixth-form poetry about war set to skiffle and washboard. It has grown on me – On Battleship Hill is excruciatingly beautiful – but not a lot.

Radiohead, The King Of Limbs
was reviewed here.  I said: “So overall a beautiful, interesting, multi-layered album that’s a treat for the ears and repays listening on a decent hi-fi or through decent headphones. What more do you want?”

Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd, Bordeaux 
Was reviewed here. I said:  “Supremely beautiful and relaxing and soothing, if maybe somewhat formless and less memorable than that earlier collaboration. Superior chill-out music.” Better was to come from Mr Guthrie later in the year…

R.E.M., Collapse Into Now
Complete crap. Their worst – even worse than Reveal! At least Accelerate was a new direction. This, though, is painfully derivative of themselves, weak, dull and pointless. They were right to split. (I wrote a longer review in my notebook but this really doesn’t deserve the effort).

Kate Bush, Director’s Cut
Kate released two albums this year, one of them a work of utter genius. This ain’t it.

Robyn Hitchcock, Tromso Kaptein
Released initially on Norwegian record label Hype, this is somewhat of an oddity, featuring a new (and inferior) recording of Raining Twilight Coast from 1990’s Eye (one of my fave Robyn songs! And he’s murdered it! Female backing singers?! What the fuck?!?) and a re-recording (with Norwegian lyrics) of  the title track from his last album, here retitled “Godnatt Oslo.” (Blimey, what a sentence!) The rest of it is Robyn not quite at his peak but he is never less than interesting. Dismal City is a wonderful ode to enjoying/enduring a sunless urban existence: “Sunlight falls it’s much too harsh / I’d rather bloat in a cool dank marsh” and both August in Hammersmith and Old Man Weather are up there with his best.

Patrick Wolf, Lupercalia
I bought this on the strength of one song, House, which I still love. It never fails to move me, but the rest of the album does. I gave it a chance, but it just did nothing for me. Sorry!

Robin Guthrie, Emeralds
I said better was to come from this direction, and here it is. It’s fair to say now that you know exactly what you are getting with a Robin Guthrie album – unutterable beauty –  but I also mean to say that his sonic palette (guitar, electric piano, muted drums) never varies much, and that is the kernel of his genius. It’s what he does with these elements, the sheer wordless wonder of it, that gets me every time. He also limits himself to short pieces almost always between three and five minutes in length which leaves you wanting more but also speaks of remarkable self-discipline. His refusal to over-indulge – he could easily do an album of 30-minute guitar noodling, and I would as easily enjoy it – makes for compositions like the title track here, which I simply CANNOT describe. “A Cocteau twins song without Liz Fraser” is the nearest I can get but that simply does not do it justice, and would be wrong – although it is easy to imagine Liz singing over most of these tracks, you most certainly do not miss her. Especially when the last two tracks are as sublime as this. The Blue Book takes the simplest, gentlest of guitar phrases and proceeds to wipe your heart out with it. It is impossible not to listen to this and be moved, to tears, to shivers, to wherever it takes you. This segues into the track The Little Light Fades by the end of which you will find yourself transported. Robin Guthrie, you are a genius and I salute you.

Half Man Half Biscuit, 90 Bisodol (Crimond)
It pains me to write these words: I have fallen out of love with Half Man Half Biscuit. I went to their Shepherd’s Bush gig last July, and it was one of the worst I have ever attended – overcrowded, hot, and with a dreadful sound mix which rendered between-song banter totally inaudible. None of those things were the band’s fault, I admit, but I see that gig as the beginning of the end of my love affair with HMHB. Well I will always love them and listen to them, but this album leaves me cold (apart from one or two tracks like the rib-tickling rollocking Tommy Walsh’s Eco House). It seems to be straining to be bitter, bleak and morbid; where past works (the brilliantly evil A Country Practice springs to mind) seem effortless, these new songs seem to be working too hard, or just plain ill-humoured for the sake of it (the woeful The Coroner’s Lament comes across like a letter to the Daily Mail). Even the “climactic”  final track, Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools, a tirade against the music industry, covers old ground and pales beside the sheer joy of We Built This City On A Trad. Arr. Tune and the brilliant deadpan tirade of National Shite Day, the closing tracks from their previous two albums. Oh well, all relationships come to a turning point like this, and most other HMHB fans and critics love this, so I’ll just have to conclude “it’s not you – it’s me” and see if their next album will rekindle the flame.

Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto
Sweet holy fuck, it’s come to pass that I enjoy a Coldplay album more than a HMHB one! Kill me now. This is a fine, uplifting album, my only real criticism being the (over) production, which renders certain tracks e.g. Princess of China, almost incomprehensible. Never mind! Paradise is a top tune and a regular on the jukebox up the Bush. Job done lads.

The Fall, Ersatz G. B. 
was reviewed here. I said:  “To my inexpressible joy, Ersatz G.B it is yet ANOTHER excellent Fall album, the fourth such in a row since 2007, and they show no signs of slowing down. All hail The Fall, the best band ever to exist.” (Listen to one of the best tracks, Nate Will Not Return, here.)

Kate Bush, 50 Words For Snow
Album of the year. I can’t bring myself to review this properly yet, but it is clearly album of the year. Sorry, M.E.S. – in any other year a new Fall album would wipe the floor with the competition, but… this is Kate Bush. Kate Bush. KATE BUSH.

Luke Haines, 9 ½ Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the  1970’s and early ‘80s
If you are of a certain age, this album will have resonance and meaning. If you’re not, it will mean nothing and sound like the whisperings of a madman conjuring fabulous and sinister names like Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki and Big Daddy to a background of slightly baroque (and hardly psychedelic) British indie chamber music. I certainly remember watching the wrestling on TV and was familiar with most of the names and this album drove me to the Internet to find out more, for example the unmasking of Kendo Nagasaki.  This is a strangely beautiful and moving album. Though undeniably funny and very very witty, the subject matter is dealt with seriously, sometimes through the viewpoint of the young Haines, such as on Saturday Afternoon (“Rollerball Rocco got thrown out the pub / Don’t let him in Dad he’ll nick all our grub”), and sometimes through bizarre parody e.g. Big Daddy Got A Casio VL Tone. It all combines to conjure a lost world which although only thirty years ago now seems like a far distant epoch. If you are of a certain age (Haines is 44, I am a year behind him) by the time you get to the closer Haystacks In Heaven there should be a little tear in your eye.

Amy Winehouse, Lioness: Hidden Treasures 
Much has been written about Amy Winehouse, her untimely death, her musical legacy, and what she could have gone on to be. I’ve got nothing to add, really. I’ve always liked her and the image she projects, reminiscent of so many disparate eras, eclectic yet modern. The hair, those eyes, that smile. It was You Know I’m No Good that turned me on to her, and it remains my fave song of hers – bleak, brutal, beautiful and darkly funny, a song that took you on a stormy and sexy journey through a doomed relationship. There’s nothing on Lioness to match it, of course, and I didn’t expect there to be. What we have is a scrapbook of memories of Amy Winehouse, but it is Back To Black and You Know I’m Good to which people will return when they want to be reminded of her greatness.

The Blue Aeroplanes, Anti-Gravity
Still haven’t heard this. It’s only been released on vinyl, and I still haven’t got my record player fixed! A CD release with extra tracks is vaguely promised for 2012.

***

So that was 2011. Best Album: Kate Bush’s wintry masterpiece; worst album, R.E.M.’s turd of a swansong. What of 2012? A new Fall album can probably be expected, as we seem to be back to one a year since 2009; but with M.E.S., you never know. There’s a new Therapy? album, A Brief Crack Of Light, in February, and the titanic lead track Living In The Shadow Of The Terrible Thing can be heard here.  Also in February the Ting Tings are back with Sounds From Nowheresville with its “Walking Dead” cover. There’s a new La Roux album in the works too. And! Paul Weller is BACK! With a new album called, rather ridiculously, Sonik Kicks (why not Sonik Kix,if you’re gonna fart around with the English language at least go for it!) I’m more excited by news that The Wedding Present are releasing their  new album Valentina – their first in four years – in March. And even more thrillingly there are rumours of a brand new (rather than new old) Prefab Sprout album! Heavens to Betsy! We shall see…

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