[On The Record]: Confessional Records.

As the mornings get colder and the nights draw in close, I always find myself listening to albums of a more personal nature. Maybe I’m a bit voyeuristic, but I do love a good confessional or break-up record full of excoriating truths and heart wrenching tales. Somewhere in between the longing and anger though, there is a cathartic comfort to be found. Against the closing in of autumn and winter such albums can feel like small intense fires, which warm you through to your bones. So, I thought I’d give a rundown of some of my in-the-wee-small-hours-of-the-morning favourites…

Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

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“Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past, / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”

With any artist there’s always the tricky matter of how much to take as autobiographical and how much is artistic license. This is especially the case with Bob Dylan, an artist who has delighted in misleading and provoking listeners and critics alike. However, Blood on the Tracks, written around the time of his separation from then-wife, Sara, is probably the closest we will ever get to Dylan’s personal experiences and observations on relationships. It is a dizzying collection of scenes, some depicting longing and bitterness (‘You’re A Big Girl Now’), others articulating contentment and fond memories (‘Shelter From The Storm’). As ever though, Dylan playfully leaves questions unanswered in even his most detailed accounts and sometimes he merely treats us to a glimpse of a girl who “might be in Tangiers”, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. Even if these stories are not true of him, these perceptive songs are certainly true of somebody at some time or another and rank among Dylan’s finest work.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

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“We will know, won’t we? The stars will explode in the sky, / But they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment then they die.”

After the chilling and blackly-comic Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call was something of a complete U-turn for The Bad Seeds. Where the former is lascivious and merciless, the latter is sombre and restrained, displaying monk-like calm throughout the grief and intense self-scrutiny. Sparked by Nick Cave’s break up with PJ Harvey, he would later denounce it saying “I’d got dumped by some bird and here I was making this grand statement – about some fucking sheila!”’ Despite Cave’s retrospective criticisms of the album, it remains one of the Bad Seeds’s best records and features some of Cave’s most beautifully written lyrics. The album moves from optimism on spiritual-devotional love songs ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ through to misanthropy and self-loathing on ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and bleak album-closer ‘Green Eyes’. Against the backdrop of meditative melodies from the Bad Seeds, it is Cave’s commanding voice which really drives the album home, striking through to the core as if he were delivering a sermon from a pulpit.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

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“Life is funny, but not haha funny, / Peculiar, I guess.”

 From an album whose near opening lines are “My name’s Elizabeth, my life is piss and shit”, you’d expect Electro-Shock Blues to be one long doom and gloom fest. Given the details of Mark Oliver Everett a.k.a. E’s life, you’d forgive him for it (see the album’s story in comics here). But as ever, E finds comfort in creating esoteric, feel-good music with a serious side. It’s a journey you share with E all the way to its stoic conclusion on ‘P.S You Rock My World’ (“I was at a funeral the day I realised I wanted to spend my life with you […] And I was thinking about how everyone is dying, And maybe it’s time to live”). Graceful and indomitable, the album is a lesson in carrying on. Just as good is his recent three album cycle Hombre Lobo, End Times, Tomorrow Morning which follow relationships from infatuation to disintegration to recuperation.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

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“The bed’s too big, / The frying pan’s too wide.”

The biggy in the confessional album world, Blue really is the archetypal confessional album. As Joni Mitchell broke up with longtime partner, Graham Nash, and an increasing post-60’s hangover began to set in for the summer-of-love generation, she moved away from her flower-child image and further explored the personal side of her songwriting. What resulted on Blue was Mitchell letting all her barriers down and giving herself over completely to unmitigated emotional expression, revisiting experiences of infatuation, insecurity, estrangement and giving a child up for adoption. The diverse emotional ground she covers is vast, conveying both painful and joyful experiences in all their emotional intensity. Probably Mitchell’s greatest achievement with this album though is that she really manages to communicate the emotions present in each song, and not just their sentiments.

The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

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“I heard a curse being born, / Forming each finger and forming each thorn.”

Set up by Brian Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins as a more unplugged and intimate outfit than The Gaslight Anthem, The Horrible Crowes’s Elsie shot into the top five of my best of 2011 list and it has been played many times since then. Dealing with themes of loneliness and heartbreak, it seems no coincidence that The Gaslight Anthem’s following album, Handwritten, tackled more difficult personal issues than their previous output. On Elsie, Fallon strikes a fine balance between hushed and intimate moments like ‘Sugar’ and raucous belters full of rage like ‘Mary Ann’.  And while there are plenty of tear-jerkers (’Cherry Blossoms’ is particularly gut-wrenching), Fallon ultimately ends on an optimistic note with ‘I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together’. Raw, poignant and sublimely crafted, Elsie marks out Brian Fallon as a major songwriting talent in America today.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

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“For every life… forgo the parable”

Suffering from glandular fever and break-ups with his former band DeYarmond Edison and a relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to a hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin over the winter of 2006 in order to lick his wounds. When Vernon re-emerged in spring 2007 he had recovered from his ailments and carried with him a collection of nine personal songs he had recorded. Self-released under the moniker Bon Iver (derived from the greeting “bon hiver”, French for “good winter”) on a small initial pressing in mid-2007 and later reaching worldwide release in 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago sounded like nothing else when it landed. Complex, yet minimalist, the album perfectly evokes the intimate atmosphere in which it was made, every note indelibly placed and resonating to fill the space. Meanwhile, Vernon delivers his cryptic lyrics in an elastic voice charged with emotional energy that stops you in your tracks. It is the sound of loneliness, introspection and, above all, healing. As ‘re:stacks’ fades out at the album’s close, there is the barely perceptible sound of Vernon walking away from the microphone and dialling a number, signalling that he is ready to return form hibernation.

Tom Waits – Blue Valentine

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“I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings, / And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet”

Despite his gruff exterior (and even gruffer voice) Tom Waits has always had a soft spot for romance, especially where the bungled and the botched are concerned. Even when his characters are in the gutter, more often than not they have one eye cast up at the stars. As Waits began to stretch himself and break out of his boho-poet image he made Blue Valentine, a blues-jazz masterpiece documenting romance in the dark areas of town, and the danger that inevitably follows. In some areas he is the danger (‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard and ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’), and sometimes the danger finds him (‘Romeo is Bleeding’, ‘$29.00’). Sometimes he sings with tongue firmly in cheek (‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’) and sometimes he is achingly honest (‘Blue Valentines’). Covering fractured romances in all their comic and heroic guises, Waits’s most triumphant moment is on the poignant ‘Kentucky Avenue’ where he recalls an intense childhood friendship with a boy who suffered from polio. A romantic album for all the broken things out there.

Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

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“Oh, the appleblossom rag, lord, I’m such a fool, / For things that sing so sweet and sad, and are so goddamn cruel.”

For a year after a bitter divorce from his wife, songwriter Dawn Landes, Josh Ritter experienced difficulties sleeping, passing out from the exhaustion of an intensive schedule only to be wakened by nightmares. His dreams were so awful he took to fearing sleep, as if his grief were hunting him down. Out of this state came the germs of The Beast In Its Tracks, where he claims songwriting proved a retreat: “Some nights, the songs I was working on helped me stay ahead of it. Other nights, the heartbreak got me”. The album is actually cheerier than its birth might suggest and Ritter delivers much of the album from the perspective of having recovered and become a father in the interim. ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘In Your Arms Again’ sees Ritter safe in the arms of a new lover and thankful for the tranquility. However, The Beast In Its Tracks has plenty of the darkness of those haunted nights too, delivered often by sleight of hand. ‘The Appleblossom Rag’ covers self-deception in a plaintive solo acoustic performance while ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise Ritter’s harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Even ‘New Lover’, one of the uplifting singles where Ritter evenhandedly wishes his old lover well in the light of his new, happy relationship, has a sucker-punch at the end so sly that you barely notice it as the song sweeps you along on its jubilant energy: “But if you are sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true, / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”. Between the bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter documents a long road to recovery experienced by many of us and perfectly captures that turning point where you realise “Yeah, I’ll live through this” on ‘Joy To You Baby’.

What are your favourite confessional albums? Let me know in the comments below.

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[Single Review]: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street

jubilee street-592‘She had a history, but she had no past’

So, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds release their new album, Push The Sky Away, tomorrow and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve followed Nick Cave’s output for the best part of ten years now and he’s one of those rare artists that is relentlessly energetic and not afraid to turn their hand to anything. From film soundtracks to novels and all points in between, everything he touches turns golden. If there’s one artist you can always place good money on, it’s Nick Cave.

I suppose the reason I’m so interested in this album is that it will be the first Bad Seeds record to be released since the departure of Cave’s first mate, Mick Harvey. This move didn’t seem so strange as since No More Shall We Part, one of my favourite Nick Cave albums, Cave has been gravitating closer towards Warren Ellis as a songwriting partner, most evident in their stunning film soundtracks. This also means that the difference between the crews of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s busman’s holiday, Grinderman, is even smaller than before. Obviously, this means that there is an increased risk that the output of both bands will start to mimic the other. So I suppose I’m anxious as well as excited.

Listening to the two preview tracks from Push The Sky Away, ‘Jubilee Street’ and ‘We No Who U R’, it seems that these fears may be hopefully allayed. These songs definitely do not belong to the lecherously raucous domain of Grinderman. If anything, it seems that the departure of Mick Harvey’s groove-driven guitarwork has allowed for more space for the Bad Seeds to stretch out in. That is not to discredit Harvey, far from it. I consider him to be one of the most tactful and talented musicians of the last 25 years and his work with PJ Harvey is as great as his Bad Seeds work. But, these tracks are definitely of a more meditative and contemplative atmosphere that bears more resemblance to Cave’s soundtrack work than with any Bad Seeds or Grinderman precursor. They’re restrained and muscular, as if Cave and co. are pulling their punches, not quite revealing all. The bass, percussion and organ elements are definitely more fleshed out and it allows for what I can only really describe as ‘space to breathe’.

‘Jubilee Street’, named after what Cave mistakenly thought to be the red-light district in Brighton, is arguably the strongest ballad Cave has written since 2004’s Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus and, in typical Cave style, is about the relationship between a prostitute and her john. It’s a track that is beautiful in its restrained simplicity: The groove is solemn, the beats are minimal and the strings are lean and refined. The mood lingers somewhere between reverence and menace (Cave’s prime stomping grounds) and allows the perfect platform for Cave’s half parable/half pulp novel. It is a testament to Cave’s subtle yet commanding vocals that he can make a line like ‘I’ve got a foetus on a leash’ sound completely acceptable (given the circumstances) rather than shocking and distasteful. Juxtaposed with these raw moments are some of Cave’s finest cut sentiments, like ‘Here I come up the hill, / I’m pushing my wheel of love’ and ‘ten-ton catastrophe on a sixty-pound chain’. The song’s finale is magnificent, lifting Cave’s sermon to transcendental heights. That may sound wishy-washy, but honestly, it is that good. Ray Winstone also puts in a surprisingly restrained performance in the video.

If tracks such as this are any indication, then Push the Sky Away is looking to be a rewardingly enigmatic affair where the Bad Seeds have lost none of their energy and gravitas for their restraint. If anything it has honed and refined their craft to scalpel sharp keenness. The music seems more spiritual and gestures to what may lie beyond the song, rather than defining its limits. Maybe that’s what the forthcoming album’s title, Push The Sky Away, is really suggesting: an indication of the infinite.

Push The Sky Away will be available 18th February through Mute Records.

2011: It Was A Very Good Year….

Wow, this place has gotten dusty. I’ve found this blog very difficult to maintain in conjunction with balancing my degree, job and other time commitments, so unfortunately I haven’t been able to write as many articles as I’d desire. However, it is officially the Easter holidays and I’ve found myself with some free time so I figured I would show a face and work on some articles. To kick off I’m reposting a review of 2011 featuring my favourite albums from said year. This was originally uploaded on Hercules Moments, a music blog based in Aberdeen which is run by some friends of mine and which I contribute to on occasion. If you like what you see here, then check them out. If not, even more reason to go to their site. New content will be uploaded in the coming week, I promise. In the meantime, have a browse through what I personally deem to be the top ten albums to emerge from last year. Let me know what you think, whether you agree or disagree with my choices and why.

1. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi

Released early this year, Anna Calvi’s majestic debut exploded into my consciousness and has occupied a space there ever since, and possibly always will. On her self-titled debut she creates dramatic guitar symphonies while her operatic voice rises above all, showing influences of Ennio Morricone, Roy Orbison, Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave and Nina Simone. What I love in her songs, along with the aforementioned artists, is her ability to create entire worlds with her music. Calvi’s songs play out like a movie scene lifted from Byronic prose: the teasing tango in the fleeting glances stolen between two lovers; the shadowy fumbling while the door key refuses to enter the lock; the midnight confessions in the candle light; the hearts left shattered like glass in the streets, while mourned love flows into the gutters. Calvi’s songs invoke crepuscular worlds of passionate trysts and broken vows, where living with your heart on the edge of a knife is the only true meaning of existence. These are worlds we have glimpsed in those rare instances in which we have briefly surrendered ourselves to purely living in the moment. In Calvi’s self-titled debut, these moments are eternal.
Full album review here.

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

There’s very little I can say about this album which I haven’t already said about it in my review earlier this year. I guess the only thing I can add is that this is an album that you simply need in your life and which still has the ability to move me despite having it on constant rotation since its release. Keep up the good work Mr. Vernon.
Full album review here.

3. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

The Gaslight Anthem have been one of my favourite groups to emerge in recent years so when I heard that front man Brian Fallon had released a side project I was naturally interested. What I did not expect was anything as moving or as powerful as Elsie. Teaming up with his English guitar tech Ian Perkins, Fallon lets himself explore darker themes of loneliness and heartbreak in a more stripped down outfit than the plugged in sound of The Gaslight Anthem, showing influences of Greg Dulli on ‘Ladykiller’ and ‘Behold the Hurricane’ and Tom Waits on ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘I Witnessed a Crime’. For all these comparisons though, especially ones to Bruce Springsteen in The Gaslight Anthem, Fallon is ultimately his own musical personality and if the point ever needed proving (it didn’t), Elsie proves just that.

4. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo

This is an album which I only got around to listening to just over a week ago, but which impressed me so much that it shot straight up this list when it came to writing it. Immaculate songwriting all delivered in Vile’s laconic and hazy vocals which float over the soporific, sun-dappled guitar melodies. The perfect thawing treatment for the cold outside, like staring deep into the Californian summer skies.

5. Danielle Luppi & Danger Mouse – Rome

Both a tribute to the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and in itself a soundtrack to the city of Rome, this album is the product of a long collaboration between American producer Brian Burton AKA Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi. Gathering the original musicians from Morricone’s soundtracks, most of whom are now well into their seventies, and Jack White and Norah Jones to provide vocal duties, Burton and Luppi managed to pull off an audacious and ambitious project with great success. Melodious and majestic, this is a soundtrack of authenticity whose example I hope others will follow in the future.
Full album review here.

6. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

In revealing his long-lived passion for the diminutive Hawaiian instrument, Eddie Vedder delivers a collection of tasteful and profoundly moving songs, the subtle high register of the ukulele contrasting perfectly with his deep baritone vocals. Having already proved himself a competent solo artist away from Pearl Jam with his soundtrack to the Sean Penn film Into the Wild, Vedder continues this trajectory with poignant airs and a stunning duet with Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power on ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’.

7. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Let England Shake has erupted silently over the year, gradually gathering pace and intensity like a storm before sweeping the lead position in many critical reviews of 2011 and claiming this year’s Mercury Prize Award, making PJ Harvey the only artist to ever receive the award twice. Harvey admits that this is a difficult album due to the ambivalent subject matter of patriotism and the violence that shapes one’s country (‘Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet, / Feet marching’, The Glorious Land). Aided by long-time collaborators Mick Harvey & John Parish Harvey, PJ Harvey has created a collection of edgy songs that strike an uneasy nerve and that have taken on a prophetic tone in light of the riots across England earlier this year, further cementing Harvey’s reputation to defy expectations.

8. Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen

After spending a near decade in the wilderness after the implosion of Lift to Experience, Josh T. Pearson emerges with a collection of raw, reflective confessionals that literally tug at the heart strings. Well, not literally obviously, but about as close as you can get without a scalpel. From the self loathing epistle of ‘Woman, When I Raise Hell’ to the caustic rant of ‘Sorry With a Song’, Pearson’s frantic performances cut straight to the bone in a similar manner to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and affirm the return of a musical force. Welcome back Mr. Pearson.

9. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

When people talk about art, this question will often arise: how many times can you reinvent the wheel? In the case of Tom Waits, who has tinkered and hammered his particular wheel to the point where it resembles a jagged mobian strip more than a wheel, people may be wondering how much life the old dog has left in him. Though this album may not be a great departure from the Waitsian canon (Working class misfits spending their nights drunk in a gutter, but still looking at the stars etc. etc.), there is no denying that Waits always delivers the goods. Waits always approaches subjects from a unique angle (‘Last Leaf’, ‘Pay Me’) and chucks them out with musical sensibilities you simply can’t find anywhere else. Another Swordfishtrombones or Mule Variations it ain’t, but when the output is this good there is no need to teach old dogs new tricks.

10. Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam

Straddling a fine line between dub/grime and beat poetry/jazz, Obaro Ejimiwe has created an album which is by turns amusing, contemplative, frustrated and melancholic, but always with a sharp focus on a modern day narrative. This is an album which feels utterly contemporary providing a high resolution snapshot of living in 2011.

[Cover Me]: PJ Harvey, Iron & Wine with Calexico and Bon Iver

PJ Harvey – Highway ’61 Revisited (Originally by Bob Dylan)

Congratulations are in order to PJ Harvey for winning the Mercury Prize last night for Let England Shake. PJ Harvey’s albums have littered the Mercury Prize shortlists over the years and it’s been ten years since she first won the award in 2001 for Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, making her the first artist to win the award more than once. In recognition of this it seems only fitting to post Harvey’s cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’ which featured on her second album Rid of Me in 1993. Dylan’s desperate blues shuffle becomes a feverish and filthy juggernaut in Harvey’s voice, laying waste to the characters that populate the song. Beginning with Harvey’s muted rhythm guitar and her delicate vocals the song soon erupts with distorted guitar mangling and Rob Ellis’ cacophonous drumming while Harvey’s vocals turn into the whooping of a bird of ill omen. Proof that throughout Harvey’s career she has always had the power to captivate. And still does.

Iron & Wine with Calexico – Wild Horses (Originally by The Rolling Stones)

Sam Beam undoubtedly has one of the most distinctive and gentle singing voices and whatever he sings will always come out in his own hushed style. So though this live session from the In The Reins tour is close to the Stones’ original, Sam’s whispering delivery still keeps things sounding fresh. In fact with American and Mexican folk influenced band Calexico performing this cowboy song of camaraderie with Beam on vocals, a certain level of authenticity is brought in. Coming from musicians who have spent their careers traipsing the American plains, ‘Wild Horses’ sounds truer than ever.

Bon Iver – Bonnie Hathaway (Donny Hathaway/Bonnie Raitt medley)

It’s no secret that Justin Vernon has the heart and soul of an old fashioned crooner, as exhibited by his appearance on the Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble’s release A Decade With Duke performing, amongst his own material, jazz standards such as Duke Ellington’s ‘Rocks in My Bed’ and Nina SImone’s ‘Since I Fell For You‘. In what sounds like an ‘off the clock’ moment in the studio, Vernon lays into a soulful and sublime medley of the Donny Hathaway song ‘A Song For You’ and Bonnie Raitt song ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’. Accompanied by gentle and plaintive piano, once again Vernon’s vocals soar and express infinite emotional depth. I realise with recent articles on ‘Fall Creek Boys Choir‘ and ‘Bon IverTSAR has been a tad Bon Iver heavy of late, but it’s odd throwaway moments like this which bring home just what a treasured artist we have in Justin Vernon.

[Cheap & Cheerful]: ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror Mixtape

‘We used to sleep on the beach, sleep over night. They don’t do it any more.’

Well, the festival season is well and truly upon us and pretty much everyone has planned their summer around their chosen weekend of debauchery. If, like me, you were greeted the other day by your tickets to Alexandra Palace for 23rd-24th July then you are no doubt getting excited for the first UK All Tomorrows Parties sister fest I’ll Be Your Mirror curated by Portishead. I’ve been itching to see Portishead for a couple of years now, though they are famously reluctant to tour. So being able to not only go see them, but also go to a festival the band have organised and chosen the line up for is, pardon the phrase: ‘A Dream Come True’.

So for those who need a little something to get them in the IBYM frame of mind, or simply could do with a little Portishead, Godspeed, Grinderman, PJ Harvey and Doom (previously MF Doom) in their life, ATP have released a free mixtape from the official website. It’s an awesome and heady mix stitched together in a single two hour MP3 for old school mixtape style. However, for those who want to go to the effort of editing it down into its constituent tracks, or simply want to see what lies in store, I’ll post the track listing at the bottom. Get it while it’s free people!

See you in Alexandra Palace!

  • 00.00 “…They Don’t Sleep Anymore on the Beach…” / Monheim – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
  • 13.19 We Carry On – Portishead
  • 19.44 A Cold Freezin’ Night – The Books
  • 23.04 Gazzillion Ear – Doom
  • 27.15 You Fucking People Make Me Sick – Swans
  • 32.20 Yang Yang – Anika
  • 35.11 Real Love – Factory Floor
  • 42.32 Infinity Skull Cube – DD/MM/YYYY
  • 45.51 Untilted – Helen Money
  • 51.42 “Four Spirits In A Room” Excerpt – Alan Moore & Stephen O’Malley
  • 56.50 Plaster Casts Of Everything – Liars
  • 60.43 8 Steps To Perfection – Company Flow
  • 65.23 Written On The Forehead – PJ Harvey
  • 68.49 Arabic Emotions – The London Snorkelling Team
  • 71.27 Wulfstan – BEAK>
  • 77.28 When My Baby Comes – Grinderman
  • 84.09 Paris Signals – S.C.U.M.
  • 88.30 Lovers With Iraqis – Foot Village
  • 92.18 Gratitude – Acoustic Ladyland
  • 96.29 Violence – The Telescopes
  • 100.01 Hannibal – Caribou
  • 106.15 Walk In The Park – Beach House