[Artist Spotlight]: Joe McKee

joemckee“I dream of your burning skin from a foreign place, / You are wide awake while I am sleeping

Best known for his possessed vocals and thrashing guitarwork in acclaimed Australian experimental rockers Snowman, Joe McKee significantly changed pace with his solo debut Burning Boy last year. Where in Snowman the focus was on twisted vocals and a pounding rhythm section, McKee’s solo effort is a far slower and more wistful affair, which is probably down to two factors in particular: time and place. After Snowman split in 2011, McKee took a break from writing music which allowed the slow, crepuscular world of Burning Boy to bloom. Secondly, with no band McKee found himself alone in Walthamstow, London, where the band had relocated three years previously. McKee was born in Berkshire, where he lived until the age of five when his family relocated to Perth, Australia, and so in a land which he had not called home for twenty-two years he began longing for Western Australia’s open sun-scorched plains. When listening to his music McKee’s mixed roots make sense as Burning Boy sounds like it is caught between two worlds.

‘Darling Hills’ is possibly the best snapshot of his sound, an elegiac torch burner for the hills of Darling Ranges, Western Australia where he lived much of his life. Remarkably free of a rhythm section, the song meanders dreamily instead and centres on a hazy guitar and McKee’s hollow croon as he petitions cicadas to “sing me back to the glory land”. Amidst the pensive string melodies and McKee’s vocals, breezy field recordings and faint Australian news transmissions can be heard, dreamed willingly perhaps or an unwanted imposition. The spectacular vision of Burning Boy is full of such moments where memory seems both a blessing and a curse, and McKee seems to explicitly draw attention to this when he ends ‘Darling Hills’ with the line, “Hear the ghosts come scream in”. Delicately arranged and channeling Scott Walker, McKee creates the haunting atmosphere of an abandoned ballroom, where the memories and ghosts of past waltzes linger on.

Burning Boy is available now through Big Ship Records.

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[Cover Me]: Poliça, Martina Topley Bird & Mark Lanegan and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

Poliça – ‘Nobody’ (Originally by Keith Sweat)
In this live clip from a show in Phoenix, AZ last year, Poliça take Keith Sweat’s seduction hip-hop and put their energised spin on it. Driven along by the band’s powerful rhythm section, ‘Nobody’ takes on the effervescent energy of tracks like ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Amongster’. Meanwhile, Keith Sweat’s braggadocio is replaced by Channy Leaneagh’s soulful echoing vocals. That is, before she modulates her down a couple of pitches to comic effect mid song (oddly enough for Athena Cage’s part). For a group whose music often comes across as committed and serious, it’s a nice touch of self-deprecating fun and a feel-good club moment.

Mark Lanegan and Martina Topley Bird – ‘Crystalised’ (Originally by The xx)
When the introverted chill of ‘Crystalised’ was first released it quickly beguiled ears across the world and singlehandedly launched The xx into the international limelight. Here, Martina Topley Bird and Mark Lanegan give it a bit of a shake up, with some help from Warpaint. Martina Topley Bird’s distinctive, laconic croon has often acted as an effective foil to another vocalist on many records, but perhaps not against a voice as gravelly as Mark Lanegan’s tombstone grumble. They make an unlikely pair, but their juxtaposing vocals work surprisingly well. Meanwhile, Warpaint surrender to the groove and ‘Crystalised’ subsequently sounds less like disaffected showgaze and more like moody graveyard funk. The song is also accompanied by some pretty stellar visuals too.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – ‘Wild Horses’ (Originally by The Rolling Stones)
Possibly the greatest song the Jagger/Richards writing partnership ever produced, ‘Wild Horses’ already had a slight soul bent. In the hands of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings though (whose fifth album Give The People What They Want recently landed) it becomes an all out soul belter, replete with horns, gospel organ and rocksteady snare snaps. While Mick Jagger’s tender emotional delivery belied his youthful earnestness, Sharon Jones pours a lifetime of experience and struggles into her wails, wringing each note for all it’s worth. Stunning.

[Artist Spotlight]: Toy

Toy band photo“Set the time, join the dots, / Watch the hands move round the clock”

After Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong failed to live up to the hype of indie statement-of-intent ‘Lucio Starts Fires’, or even release an album, who’d have thought that the gutted and reassembled core of that band could make a group as sonically intriguing as Toy? A clear case of “rip it up and start again” logic, guitarists Tom Dougall and Dominic O’Dair and bassist Maxim “Panda” Barron jettisoned from Joe Lean and recruited  ex-Mudfite drummer Chris Salvidge and Spanish keys player Alejandra Diez to explore ambitious soundscapes. After forming in Brighton the group relocated to their current base in London, signed to Heavenly Recordings and put out their eponymous debut in 2012. Perhaps it was the thrill of actually seeing an album through to fruition or finding a band formula that worked, but Toy quickly set about recording and releasing their even more ambitious sounding followup Join The Dots late last year. 

While I cottoned on to Join The Dots a bit late for it to be a contender for my end of year list and Toy had been under my radar until then, any band which chooses to start an album with a seven-minute long instrumental is alright by me. ‘Conductor’ opens with lush arpeggiated keys that bring to mind the opening of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite (a high falutin’ comparison maybe, but listen and you’ll see what I mean) before issuing a primal howl that settles into the motorik beat and chugging bass that leads the rest of the song on a dark, spaced out odyssey. Amid waves of paranoid synths that encroach, successive layers of distorted guitars wail along with the rhythm section which gathers velocity. Toy strike a fine balance between keeping a taut sense of momentum and keeping things engaging with flourishes of drama added by atmospheric breaks and Diez’s pedalboard trickery. Towards the end ‘Conductor’ boils over and then bubbles down into silence before ‘You Won’t Be The Same’s jangling Byrdsy guitar melody. As the opening track, ‘Conductor’ certainly acts as a statement of intent on a compelling album which bridges the gap between psychedelic prog and krautrock.

Join The Dots is available now through Heavenly Recordings

[From The Cutting Room Floor]: Bruce Springsteen Special

bg-postcard_1119104652755“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, / But maybe everything that dies some day comes back”

It looks like Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, a collection of session outtakes and unreleased material from the millennium years, is set to reach the No.1 spot, making it Springsteen’s tenth No.1 album. I am very partial to a bit of Brooce and his unreleased tracks are often beauties, but unfortunately after a few listens High Hopes falls just a bit short for me and I think I may have narrowed down the reason why. Springsteen’s previously released four disc collection of B-Sides and rarities Tracks (which was out of print for years, but has recently been reissued) covered a good thirty years from his early days as a New Jersey bar bandleader in the seventies right on through to the years in the wilderness without the E Street Band during the nineties. As such, the collection reflects a variety of periods and styles of Springsteen’s career as a maturing musician and songwriter. Compared to Tracks, High Hopes has a relatively meagre selection to draw from, with only thirteen years and four albums (seven if you count the solo and Seeger Session Band releases). This is Springsteen as a fully matured songwriter and while each of the four E Street Band albums is compelling in its own way, there is a clear oscillation in tone between bristled outrage (Magic, Wrecking Ball) and enduring hope (The Rising, Working On A Dream) in reaction to what was going on at the time (Bush administration; Post-banking crisis and recession blues; Post 9/11; And Obama’s rise to power, respectively). This means that while there are some fine moments on High Hopes, it just doesn’t have the gamut and variety of Tracks. With that in mind, I thought this seemed a prudent time to pull up some of Springsteen’s finest diamonds in the rough for a Cutting Room Floor special.

The Fever
An early cut from 1973, first recorded during the sessions for The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle and performed many time since then, but only officially surfacing in 1998 on the 18 Tracks compilation. In the meantime, Springsteen gifted the song to his Jersey Shore friend and contemporary, Southside Johnny, for his 1976 debut album I Don’t Want To Go Home. It kickstarted the career of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and Springsteen and other E Streeters have performed in the band with him down the years. The song itself is a slow bluesy ballad of longing with the E Street Band creating simmering tension while Springsteen’s croon is on smouldering form.

Born In The U.S.A. (Demo)
Probably the most well known and most commonly misunderstood of Springsteen’s songs. Like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, where the causticly anarchistic message is thinly veiled behind a plaintive piano melody and uplifting chorus, ‘Born In The U.S.A.’s heavy irony has often been misconstrued by casual listeners who only hear the militaristic fist-pumping beat and the refrain “I was born in the U.S.A.”. In other words, they hear a call to arms rather than the cry of desperation and sorrow of a disillusioned Vietnam War veteran with “nowhere to run, nowhere to go”. The song was famously appropriated in a jingoistic way by Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential reelection campaign. Had they first heard the original version of the song, birthed during the sessions for Springsteen’s starkest record, Nebraska, they might not have been so keen. As the song pounds along on Springsteen’s jittery acoustic rhythm the wiry twang of an electric guitar rises in the distance like helicopters over Vietnam. From the breathless desperation of Springsteen’s delivery and his high and lonesome cries there is no doubt that this is about a man being hunted down; running, but with nowhere to run to.

Murder Incorporated
A rollicking barnstormer of a song, which rose to prominence during the E Street Band Reunion Tour in the late ‘90s. Describing the everyday dangers and pressures of living in New York during the Murder Inc. period of organised crime, it is the little vivid observations such as keeping “a little secret deep inside your dresser drawer” that make Springsteen such an accomplished songwriter. Recorded during the Born In The U.S.A. sessions, Springsteen even considered naming the album after the song before cutting it from the tracklist and going with Born In The U.S.A. instead. What a different album it would have been with that title.

‘Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of A Whale)’
And to finish where we started, here is a bonus cut from Springsteen’s last album, Wrecking Ball. Although there is a lot of rage and darkness on Wrecking Ball there is also a lot of hope, and ‘Swallowed Up’ must have been left off for fear of overtipping the balance towards the former. While bitter anthems on Wrecking Ball like ‘Death To My Hometown’ or ‘Jack Of All Trades’ had moments of galvanised rage or redemptive hope, ‘Swallowed Up’ is consumed by a resigned sorrow as Springsteen envisions the world swallowed whole by a dark beast and the bones of the dead sailors that lie within its guts, despite the true courses they held. It is allegorically bleak and without a sliver of hope seeping through into the belly of this beast.

This is just a small crop, but if you want to go further into Springsteen outtakes then I suggest checking out ‘Fire’, ‘The Promise’, ‘Iceman’, ‘Wages Of Sin’ and ‘Sad Eyes’. Also, if you liked this Bruce Springsteen special, why not check out last year’s Neil Young covers special?

[Artist Spotlight]: FKA Twigs

twigs_papi“How’s that feel? You feel right”

Tahlia Barnett, the artist Formerly Known As Twigs, hails from a middle-of-nowhere area of Gloucestershire, but her sound is informed by her experiences of London’s urban sprawls as much as the quiet stillness of country life. Her mesmerising EP2, released through Young Turks during September last year, narrowly missed out on being my EP of 2013, with Sampha’s Dual overtaking it at the last post. If she looks vaguely familiar, chances are you will have seen her as a backup dancer in Jessie J’s videos or in the BBC skit ‘Beyoncé Wants Groceries’. Far from these roles on the sidelines though, Barnett’s solo work unmistakably positions her centre stage, with her siren call puncturing the fog of slouching beats on EP2 opening track ‘How’s That’. It is clear she has a keen ear for melody and composition as jerking click tracks keep things unpredictable while ebbing and flowing synths and nymph-like backing chorals imbue ‘How’s That’, and much of EP2, with the sense of spiralling depth which permeated Tricky’s Maxinquaye. Indeed in terms of musical DNA, FKA Twigs’s closest progenitor would probably be the musical shapeshifter Martina Topley Bird, whose vocals featured prominently on that album. Also, her attitude as a dancer seems to seep its way into the visual aspect of her music, as she has a penchant for mind boggling videos. See for yourself below…

EP2 is available through Young Turks now.

[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Of 2013

Well, 2013 is officially over, which means its time to cast an eye back over the year’s finest moments. There were so many albums I loved last year that they would easily fill up a top twenty, and even then there would be pushing and shoving. However, there can only be ten (for arbitrary reasons) and so with that in mind I have chosen the albums which impressed me most and continue to impress me long after luring me back for repeated listens. So, without further ado…

The Best Albums

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10. Kwes – ilp
On his hypnotising debut Kwes blends pop, ambient and electronic influences into a gluey fog of emotion that clings to you, giving it the deeply immersive quality of Portishead’s Dummy. While the understated melodies and blurred beats don’t immediately grab attention, it is the quiet confidence and kaleidoscopic nature of the music which is ilp’s strength. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.

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9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
Not usually my thing, but there was something very compelling and mesmerising about Loud City Song which called me back for repeated listens and made me dig deeper each time. Each layer of Julia Holter’s avant-garde pop intrigues with moments of tension and release, forming dense collages of sound. Meanwhile, her flexible voice adopts different guises and moves eerily between seeming faint in the distance or uncomfortably close, as if you were listening to a radio which could tune into different rooms of a city.

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8. Charles Bradley – Victim of Love
After the overwhelming success of No Time For Dreaming, Charles Bradley’s debut at sixty-two, Victim of Love sees Bradley spreading his wings and finding his own (loud) voice. Aided by the capable Menahan Street Band, Bradley moves effortlessly between Temptations style psych-funk on ‘Confusion’ and ‘Love Bug Blues’, and slow-burning soul ballads on ‘Give Love A Chance’ and earnest album closer ‘Through The Storm’. It is an album brimming with gratitude and he gives as good as he gets (better, I’d argue).

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7. Jim James – Regions Of Sound And Light Of God
Jim James’s first out-and-out solo LP came up trumps, inspired by Lynd Ward’s Good Man and exploring themes of living life in an age cluttered by technology. Away from My Morning Jacket’s expanded alt. country, James blends genres to great effect from new-age rock ’n’ roll to electro-gospel. As ever though, at the centre of this extended sonic horizon is his cavernous voice, which sounds more than ever like a man sending messages into outer space.

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6. Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
No other album I heard this year was quite so aptly labeled, or half as fun. Wonderful, Glorious is the sound of E revelling in finally being in a band that can keep up with him, dishing up outrageous, scuzzy rock and gentle, mellow pop in the process. A golden slice of life affirming rock and roll!

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5. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks
An album of dark nights and new mornings, The Beast In Its Tracks is the result of Josh Ritter retreating into songwriting to exorcise his demons from divorce, alcohol and insomnia. While much of the album sees Ritter happy in the arms of a new lover, songs like ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Between bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter evokes a long road to recovery experienced by many and perfectly captures the turning point onJoy To You Baby’. Ritter’s Blood On The Tracks? Possibly…

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4. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
Twenty-three years and ten albums in, Pearl Jam could be forgiven for showing signs of age. But, on Lightning Bolt they prove themselves to be as lean and hungry as ever, equally comfortable delivering full-throttle punk (‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Lightning Bolt’) and gentle ballads (‘Yellow Moon’, ‘Sleeping By Myself’). The only signs of age are a mature perspective on love and mortality, with ‘Sirens’ seeing Eddie Vedder “overwhelmed by the grace with which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”. Lightning Bolt shows Pearl Jam ageing gracefully; still angry and still at the top of their game.

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3. Poliça – Shulamith
Hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed debut, Poliça build on its momentum with their difficult second album. The basic elements of echoing vocals, glacial synthesisers and effervescent percussion are still present, but Shulamith is more confrontational than its predecessor (much like its namesake, Shulamith Firestone). The music is less introverted; the synths are brutalising and the pulsing beats are feverish. Meanwhile, Channy Leanaegh’s vocals and lyrics, concerned with conflicts of identity in relationships, are direct and forthright. Rather than courting mainstream success, you get the sense that Shulamith is the sound of Poliça staying true to their beliefs.

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2. Anna Calvi – One Breath
Grander in scale, but more vulnerable than it’s predecessor. Anna Calvi still has a flair for the dramatic, but she seems to let down her guard more on One Breath, not letting the façade get in the way of expressing mortal frailty on the title track or brutal honesty on ‘Love Of My Life’. Calvi’s symphonic ambitions still remain intact on ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Sing To Me’ though, and that astounding voice continues to grip the imagination, even when it is but a barely audible whisper.

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1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
With the departure of guitarist Mick Harvey in 2009, Nick Cave’s right-hand man for nearly thirty years, the sound of the next Bad Seeds record seemed uncertain. As a result, the Bad Seeds embrace disarmingly minimal and intimate soundscapes on Push The Sky Away, focusing on textural instrumentation and contemplative lyrics delivered with conviction by Cave. The album looks both backwards and forwards on the band’s legacy, with the cataclysmic ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ seeming an answer to their ‘Abattoir Blues’ prophesied nine years earlier, while the spiritual communion of ‘We No Who U R’ and personal mantra ‘Push The Sky Away’ gesture to the artistic boundaries which they continue to push and transcend.

The Best EP

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Sampha – Dual
A genre defying EP; part electronic and hip-hop, part soul and singer-songwriter. While Morden based musician/producer, Sampha Sisay, has been lending his skills to high-profile artists such as Jessie Ware, SBTRKT and Drake, here on his second solo EP he shows that he kept the best ideas for himself. The songs themselves, based around Sampha’s soulful vocals and commanding piano melodies, are accomplished and would make enjoyable listening by itself. However, the extra layers he constructs on these solid basics indicate a measured artistry and that Sampha has a clear direction in mind. Brief interludes such as ‘Demons’ and ‘Hesitant Oath’ brim with creative enthusiasm and give the EP a cohesiveness which is missing from many full-length releases, while the intricate composition of clipped samples that weave in and out of the ‘live’ instrumentation keeps Dual unpredictable and imbues it with a compelling sense of depth. And yet for all its intricacy Dual still manages to sound pared down to its lean essentials, with no flab or unnecessaries attached. Evocative and simply captivating.

The Best Single

David Bowie Performing

David Bowie – ‘Where Are We Now?’
Released silently on Bowie’s birthday in January, ‘Where Are We Now?’ announced the Dame’s return to recording as the leading single to The Next Day. In many ways indicative of the album’s musical introspectiveness, evoking and pastiching the diverse phases of Bowie’s career, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is the quintessential post-Bowie Bowie song. While only four minutes long, the song’s sweeping scale and slow-burning energy feels like a lifetime condensed into a single moment, as Bowie casts a forlorn backward glance at his Berlin days. Over twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall things have changed yet remain the same, as old names and places spark memories and are filled with hurrying people crossing their fingers as they traverse busy intersections “just in case”. In the midst of the commotion which leads us nowhere, a childlike Bowie finds some solace and resolve to carry on in a few fundamentals: “As long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain, as long as there’s fire, as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you”.

The Biggest Surprise

Lou-Reed-Creem

Apart from Beyoncé dropping a killer pop album unannounced, Miley Cyrus’s twerktastic antics sparking mass debate on female autonomy in the music business and the early release of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, probably the single piece of news that caused widespread shock and disarray across the music world was the sudden death of Lou Reed on 27th October. Lou died of liver disease at the age of 71, having undergone a liver transplant earlier in the year, and I guess the reason his death came as such a shock was that his body had been through so much abuse that people expected him to be one of the few things to survive a nuclear armageddon, along with the cockroaches and Keith Richards. Black humour aside, the effect Lou’s songs had on music and peoples’ lives is immeasurable and his sudden death took many off-guard as they realised there would never be another like him. So rest in peace, Lou, this satellite has gone way up to Mars.

What were your best music moments of 2013? Let me know in the comments below.

— Elements of The Best Albums appear in extracted form over at Hercules Moments.