Back in 2014

I’m always late with these things. It’s probably for two reasons – well three…. I see too many people giving their “Top Albums of the Year” lists when, really, who cares?…. I think the timing of too many of those lists means great albums released as the year draws to a close don’t get that little bit more exposure by inclusion and albums released in the early stages tend to be forgotten come December. Thirdly… well, life keeps me busy.

However…

I listened to a lot in 2014 and plenty of new music within that lot. Pretty sure it was a good growth year for my vinyl collection too as I tried, for the most part, to stick with vinyl when it came to buying new music.

There were a couple of instances where I’m glad I didn’t shell out for the black circle though…

Two big names released new albums this year and, despite initial expectations, I was left a little disappointed by both. I’ve mumbled enough on the let down of Springsteen’s High Hopes here. It still holds, I’ve not gone back and listened to it and discovered any hidden layers since. That it made Number 2 on Rolling Stones’ albums of the year list baffles me. Then again they gave U2 the Number 1 slot and I don’t think I’ve heard anything that bad that wasn’t coming from an adjoining cubicle in a public toilet.

The second disappointment was more of a shocker, though. It was a shock to hear that, after twenty years, Pink Floyd would be dropping an album. It was a bit of a surprise that it was to be ambient / song-free and I was even more surprised that my excitement didn’t continue after I’d heard it. Granted, I first heard The Endless River through headphones on Spotify (having been put off by the hefty price tag associated with vinyl pre-orders) and when I picked up the CD it did reveal more. It’s not a bad album but it’s not a great album, which their legacy deserves. It’s an album divided into four distinct parts and I think it’s fair to say I like 2/4 of it, love 1/4 and outright loath the other 1/4 – the first half is a decent lead in, the third quarter is abysmal and the final stretch from Talkin’ Hawkin’ is spot on.  While Louder Than Words is a nice nod to and send off for Rick Wright, I still think High Hopes was the perfect way to say farewell to Floyd.

That’s the negative out of the way.

photo 1There was a lot of new music I loved in 2014. Mogwai got things going with the early release (and then forgotten about come those Best of lists) of Rave Tapes. A lot of spins on the record player and a lot of plays in the car – while not as adventurous or different in sound as the press would suggest, it marked a good step forward in their sound and did find them incorporating additional elements into the mix. Though am I alone as a Mogwai fan in not really enjoying it when they sing?

Speaking of which… Thee Silver Mt Zion’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything was another stand out. I tend to view Silver Mt releases with mixed emotions; as much as I enjoy them I’d still rather Godspeed was the main going concern. Still, Fuck Off Get Free… is a solid addition to a very strong canon and sees Menuck really developing as a lyricist.

Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There found its way into my collection in October after reading positive review after positive review. It justifies those reviews. Loved it. Lot of pain and emotional fall out in the lyrics but such delivery and luscious song writing.

I was given Ryan Adams‘ self-titled new album this year too. I wasn’t hugely taken with his ‘comeback’ album Ashes & Fire (don’t get me wrong; it’s good, but…) but this one is a different kettle of fish altogether. Sounding much more vibrant, confident and sure of himself than perhaps ever, really. More direct and accessible than previous albums, hugely enjoyable and listen-able from start to finish.

I spoke of the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways – it’s still getting a lot of rotation (again, probably fuelled by the fact that my son enjoys it so much too) and more appreciation with each listen. Still can’t get over the cumbersome nature of Congregation as a lyric.

Also warranting a few rotations was the latest J Mascis solo trundle – Tied to a Star. While not as much as a revelation as his first ‘alone with an acoustic’ album Several Shades of Why, Tied to a Star is very enjoyable, adding a bit more of a backing band to flesh out the sound along with the odd burning guitar solo though never quite realising the highs of either the former album or his Dinosaur Jr work, of which I hope there’s more to come this year.

A couple of EPs – both the third in a series – bookended the year for me: Pixies EP3 (which also allows me to count Indie Cindy as one of this year’s most played) and EP3 from SQÜRL. Though vastly different in sound of course, both are cracking ends to a trilogy and contain some of each bands best work. Though the SQÜRL EP gets the win if only for the presentation and picture disc.

At the tail end of 2013 I started getting in the War on Drugs. Their new album Lost In The Dream made its way to the top of a lot of end of year / critics choice lists and it thoroughly deserved to. I loved it. It threw me at first – I thought there was something wrong with my record player thanks to the sound. It’s a beauty. It does recall a lot of those 80’s rock landmarks like Springsteen, Petty and the whole Den Henley  Boys of Summer vibe (all of which get a tick from me) but they’re hinted at, alluded to rather than worn brazenly on a denim-clad sleeve, it’s very much a contemporary sound. One which is so easy to get lost in as you travel through the album – despite being great to spin on a Sunday afternoon, it’s very much an album for listening to on the move. Hazy, dream-like sounds danced all over by some sublime guitar lines.

photo 3In terms of Re-Issues… I only really got into two. Some Pixies magic (again) with the end-of-year release (so will ludicrously miss being included on all those lists when it deserves to sit atop them) of Doolittle 25 meant a triple album of greatness, with the original album remastered, demos, b-sides and Peel sessions all making a compelling release. The second was Led Zeppelin’s IV reissue – hugely superior sound quality and a second slab of vinyl containing alternate takes and mixes adding to an already faultless album.

Most Played?

Bu6ErPKIEAAJp0PThe record that probably got the most spins this year? It’s a very tasty album indeed. It’s the Mondo Tees reissue of the Jurassic Park soundtrack. I love this for so many reasons. I was (very) lucky enough to be given this for my first Fathers Day by my wife after I’d hum this to get our son to sleep. I was also very (very) lucky enough to get one of the very rare Dilophosaurus version. Also, John Williams created another beautiful soundtrack for JP back in 1993 all summed up beautifully in Welcome to Jurassic Park:

I’m still playing catch-up with some of 2014’s releases – I’ve only just picked up Karen O’s Crush Songs and have yet to drop needle on it’s lovely blue vinyl, nor did I get around to hearing new albums from Jenny Lewis, Ben Frost, Spoon or even the terrifying good (based on the little I have heard) Swans albums dropped in 2014. What can I say; I’m a busy guy and who really cares what I think of them?

 

Quick list: Top Five Second Albums

Following the Top Five Debut text, I recently texted  two of my most music loving, list-compiling friends another simple message: “All time top five second albums?”

Only the one cross-over across the lists (Nevermind popping up on two of the three). Here, however, are mine (in no particular order, that’d be too hard):

Pixies – Doolittle

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’

In all likelihood still my favourite Dylan album.

Nirvana – Nevermind

Yes, I know; this is such a commercial choice… blah blah. Commercial, sell-out, whatever – the importance of this cannot be denied.

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

Foo Fighters – The Colour and The Shape

I still don’t think they’ve bettered this. Yes this makes my list a bit Grohl-heavy but what can you do?

 

The second album is important. A debut album tends to be more of a compilation of songs that the artist has been living / gigging / tinkering with for years prior to a deal. A second finds them more established, a bit more at home with the idea of recording and who they are and building on those foundations laid by the debut. I think….

They call this dance the washed-up crawl

Ahhhh the Pixies.

Have they made a bad song?

No.

Even one of their new songs (and title of their ‘new’ album) Indie Cindy points to this “Put this down for the record, it’s more or less uncheckered”.

As such there was more than a little weight of anticipation and no small amount of pressure on any new music they were to put out following their re-emergence as a recording act.

I, for one, spoke of my excitement upon hearing BagBoy and the news of EP1. That was in September last year. A year ago, in fact. Since then they released three EPs of new music and compiled the twelve songs onto one disc for those who didn’t grab them as EPs. I did.

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Going back to my original sentiment – there wasn’t a bad song to be found amongst these dozen shiny new tunes from the man who calls himself Frank Black and his merry men.

The “merry men” element has been one of the biggest focus points from the press – the lack of Kim Deal on the new material. Of course, it was bound to be that way. Her absence is felt though, and no disrespect meant, not in a way that makes this any less of an album. It is noteworthy of course than the first new song and album highlight “Bagboy” does feature backing vocals from a Deal soundalike. Described by the band as pure coincidence it could, still, be interpreted as a deliberate move to aid the transition to a Kim-free Pixies.

I did say album highlight. For me it contains an element of magic when, at the two minute mark , Frank Black joins in with the “Bagboy” calls….

But this is an album full of highlights. From the thumping opening of What Goes Boom to the sign off “Goodbye and goodnight, goodbye” of Jamie Bravo via the delightful, acoustic layers of Greens and Blues, the brooding grower of Silver Snail, Indie Cindy’s kiss-off lyrics to the Pitchfork ‘indie kids’ , the  born-in-a-studio-jam Snakes and the brilliant Another Toe In The Ocean.

It has everything you’d expect from the Pixies – soaring harmonies, catchier than catchy tunes, Frank Black shouting nonsense in both English and Spanish and guitar lines that weave magic despite their simplicity and huge dollops of weird. The different ingredient, and one which has split critics, is that – t0 my ears at least – this album is defined by a more relaxed, confident vibe.

Some critics have defined this as “the problem. Pixies no longer seem a little strange, or in need of excuse. They seem like a really pretty good alt-rock band…”

No they don’t sound ‘strange’. But then given that we’re talking about an older group of musicians now, who have spent the 13 years between albums continually working (in music and…. magic) they were never going to sound as they did before. For critics to criticise them for just this, for not sounding like Pixies of old, is both naive and hypocritical. They’d be the first in line (definitely Pitchfork handing down their 1.0 and 2.0 reviews from their throne of pretension) should they have tried.

I’ve read that Gil Norton, when meeting the band to discuss recording new material and the weight of expcatiation, told Frank Black to approach the song writing not as if this were the first new Pixies album in 13 years but, instead, to do so as if the band had been off touring outer space. Accordingly it’s a collection from a band that carried on evolving in their style away from our ears. Instead of ‘picking up where we left off’ it’s catching up with friends and finding out where the intervening years have lead them.

Then, to further ease the pressure… release it in segments not as THE FIRST NEW PIXIES ALBUM IN OVER A DECADE (P.S: NO KIM DEAL).

It was an undoubtedly savvy move. It allowed them to not only test the waters and gauge reception to their new material (surprisingly not all overly positive) in a gentler way than the conventional album-roll-out and the expected press hype around the first new Pixies album in 13 years would allow. It also gave those of us who adore the band that little something extra in having the three EPs on vinyl. Besides; who does convention roll-outs these days?

Now the dust seems to have settled. The band have released a new video for Ring The Bell and are gearing up for another tour. Surely the downside of having only just, technically, having released a ‘new album’ when the songs have been drip-fed out for over a year is that, I’m sure, the press is already forming the questions “so… what now?”

Whatever it is, I wait the eager anticipation: it’s so good to have them back.

 

This is a song about a superhero named Tone

Last year I read a book called “Perfect From Now On; How Indie Rock Saved My Life”. I think I found it via a Goodreads recommendation, I’m not sure. I did think that any book with a title borrowed from a great Built to Spill song and that subtitle warranted a read – it didn’t hurt that the cover was a bank of record sleeve spines.

I’m not going to drop in a book review here (and I’m not about to start a Mumbling About Books blog either, I barely give this one the time I want to) but it wasn’t too bad a read. Nothing amazing. Plenty of amusing revelations and elements familiar to all alt-rock / indie fans, I’m sure. A little too heavy on and Guided By Voices concerned though for my liking. What the book became really warranted a different title.

The reason I bring this book onto a rarely-updated music blog is that it mentions a universal truth – that the Pixies never released a bad song (although I feel it wrongly uses the exception of Bam Thwok).

The Pixies

Across the woefully-short discography of Messrs Black, Santiago, Loverling and Ms Deal there’s not a single duff song. They blazed a way that inspired both exciting new bands (it’s impossible to not point out that Kurt Cobain held them up as a big influence) and pale imitations. Their songs were tightly wrapped blasts of fun, essentially. There were hallmarks – the ‘loud-quiet-loud’ dynamic, the surf-guitar, the yelps and shouts, crazy lyrics and wonderful harmonies – that nobody else could do as well and so consistently.

Plus, they wrote a song about a superhero named Tony. How could I not love a band that does that?

I did, like so many artists, come to the Pixies too late. They weren’t a functioning unit when I started listening to them. The reunion and reunion tours were good and the documentary that accompanied it still makes for fascinating viewing.  However, the need for new Pixies music, the curiosity, the eagerness is something that has finally been sated. The sudden release of Bagboy caught everyone – except for the band themselves – by surprise.

This is a new song in the fullest sense. It’s not a throwaway like Bam Thwok (which I still feel is underated) or a cover (the only other song to have emerged since the reunion was a cover of the much-missed Warren Zevon’s Ain’t That Pretty at All  ). This is what has been missing in both of those tunes – the Pixies of now. Not a rehash of old songs, not a tepid ‘sounds just like they did on Bossanova’ – this is a tune that shows a band that hasn’t been frozen in time, one that is making contemporary sounds (take note, Soundgarden) and music. It sounds alive and ready to go.

I loved this one off the bat. My adoration for the song and band has even meant I’ve ignored my longterm dislike of being referred to as Tone:

photo (1)

 

To say I’m excited, then, to hear the new EP-1 would be an understatement. I know that I can go and hear it now. I even have the download files sat in my email. But, I got in there with the vinyl order before they sold out and I’m resisting the urge (thanks to a horrendous 4-hour traffic jam and the stress involved I wasn’t even able to pay attention to the airing of Indie Cindy on X-FM this week) to hear it until I drop the needle down on side one.

Of course, that being said, I’m also excited to hear EP-2 and any that follow as the band utilise the freedom of releasing how they like thanks to not being on a label (I’m sure it also helps divert any pressure away from actually making “The New Album from The Pixies”).