Phil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.
In the literal sense Dean Owens’ “Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.
Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.
Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them. Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability. Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.
One nomination for this category of mine this year. I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.
Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases: John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’s “Kintsugi”.
Two of Allan’s High Five albums this year were released on Drumfire Records so it was a ridiculously obvious choice to ask the owner of the label (and live music promoter) Phil Penman to contribute to this feature. Once again, we got some really interesting choices.
When Allan ask me to contribute to High Fives, I thought that it would be easy – just pick five albums, I thought. But I wracked my brains and (not including Drumfire Records releases) I could not come up with a single 2014 album I thought was truly ‘great’. A dozen or so ‘good’ albums but nothing to change my life. Maybe I just haven’t found them yet. So what did excite me in 2014?
The Sound – “Box Set #1” (“Jeopardy”, “From the Lion’s Mouth” and “All Fall Down”). Privileged to work on this and truly delighted with the results, and even happier to be working on a second box set for Feb 2015 release. Adrian Borland is sadly missed. The music from this great band has really stood the test of time. Consistently high standard.
Not from 2014, but new to me. John Grant – 2 albums of enormous beauty that I’ve listened to more than any others: “The Queen of Denmark” and “Pale Green Ghosts”. It was hearing these that made me realise how much I crave music that is new to my ears and not just the latest in a succession from artists I already know and love.
Great to see local boys The Carnabys release their debut album “No Money on The Moon”. Great hard working lads, winners of Hard Rock Rising and an album that really exudes the energy and honesty they deliver live. These boys perform with smiles on their faces, which is so refreshing – not po-faced, earnest trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy. Not ground-breaking perhaps, but if you get a chance, see them live. With the right breaks they could be huge. Accessible rock.
Proving that quality can go on and on, the only time this year when one song had me running to the shop to buy the album. Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Westward Ho! –Massive Letdown” was that song. “Urge for Offal” is a good album, which also contains my lyric of the year: ‘‘Cresta! What the fuck were we drinking?!’
Ok, so I couldn’t not mention it. Drumfire released two albums in 2014 and both made Allan McKay’s High Five. We made our first ever piece of vinyl – Ags Connolly’s ‘How About Now’, we hosted great shows with Dean Owens, Martin Stephenson, and Clive Gregson…. but my favourite thing? Phil Burdett’s launch show in Westcliff. I’d only ever seen Phil perform solo. The launch show with full band made me fall in love with his music all over again. World, you don’t know what you are missing.
In parting, I’ll add that I’ve really tried to find new music, and the following half a dozen albums definitely deserve honourable mention (and barely a country album in sight): FKA Twigs, Future Islands, Sturgill Simpson, Royksopp, Strands Of Oak, Honeyblood.
Hercules and Love Affair have, on their third album, confirmed that their own intense love affair with dance music made during the various halcyon years of its many important manifestations is ongoing and as slavish and cult-like as ever. Whilst their 2008 debut album put Anthony of the Johnsons at its centre as the wounded but forever stoic and ultimate Disco Queen and its follow up, 2011’s “Blue Songs” flirted with stranger, European disco and electronic music of the late seventies and early eighties “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is an all-out, no exceptions and no-holds-barred house music rewrite. Trax Records, bitch house, dominant, soulful vocals and luxurious and uplifting melodies are the setting here and, unlike previous releases from the collective, the fever never resolves itself with a ballad. BPM are set at an almost constant 126 and it is relentless in its intention. The sadness and melancholia which is an intrinsic element of House and Disco music’s DNA has translated to Hercules and Love Affair’s music; it was always there from the beginning and it is what helps sets this band apart from other similar but less knowing and respectful acts. Importantly, the band don’t do irony or kitsch, they are interested only in the heart and blood of dance music-and having the most amazing night of your life, again and again.
Andy Butler represents dance music made mainly but not exclusively by openly gay and transgender artists. It feels synonymous with a post-aids New York but is considerably more wide-reaching than this, more than anything though it is resolutely and absolutely ‘queer’. Alternative and maintaining free and radical thinking and challenging the norms of today’s gay culture, the list of Butler’s vocal contributors has always supported this. The biggest name here is singer-songwriter du jour John Grant, an inspired and fascinating choice. Alongside him are established soul singer Krystle Warren, trans star Rouge Mary and Berlin based vocalist Gustaph. Grant’s contributions here are not a million miles from those featured on his ground-breaking and celebrated excursion in techno and electronic-folk album from last year, “Pale Green Ghosts”. As might be expected the arrangements here are more florid but detail is everything particularly with the incredible “I Try to Talk to You” which deals with an issue that also played a pivotal part in “Pale Green Ghosts”, that of Grant’s HIV status. Set against distinct hi-hats , churning beats, strings and synth ‘whoosh’ stabs which have been adopted by everyone from Lisa Lisa to the Pet Shop Boys (past and present) it almost, but not quite, tips into handbag house that prevailed briefly in the mid-nineties. A dancing and tinkling, emotional piano refrain props up Grant’s mournful longing ‘I would give you anything to take away your pain’.
‘Are you talking to me? My name isn’t girl. Nor is ‘hey look at me, c’mon baby, give us a twirl’….I’ve come too far from the girl I was taught to be for you to make a bitch out of me’; on “My Offence” Krystle Warren’s vocals are assertive and warm and very much at home on this self-empowerment statement, punctuated by a sharp disco whistle note; this is neither preachy nor sentimental, it’s the album’s highlight. “That’s Not Me” featuring Gustaph is a twitchy and tense minimal house workout and “5:43 To Freedom” harks back to the bitch tracks of early Junior Vasquez and Larry Tee -- ‘is that boy of a girl? A communist? Probably a speed freak. Some sort of intellectual -- or a muscle-queen? Just a whore’. “Do You Feel the Same?” builds on the bliss house of The Beloved and Electribe 101 and the “The Light” sees Krystle Warren’s vocals glisten and soothe over Basement Boys (Ultra Nate, Crystal Waters) keyboards, making good use of a determined answer-machine bleep and electric-guitar samples.
Although not as experimental as previous releases which have played with language, tempos and sub-cultures of dance music, “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is Hercules and Love Affair’s most optimistic, euphoric and consistently engaging album to date. There is enough lyrical weight and personality to prevent this from becoming as one note as it could have been if left in the wrong hands, although this would still play gloriously as a continuous DJ set, which is no criticism. Dance artists have time and again failed when they have diverted from their own template, tried to incorporate styles that can’t yet master but Andy Butler doesn’t even attempt that here. A record to dance to then, from a start to finish non-stop movement and joy which is never dumb or repetitive. “The Feast of the Broken Heart” is a celebration of dance floor families, love and survival.
So, how was 2013 for you? The Riot Squad have had a brilliant year bringing you the best in contemporary music wherever we find it. Allan, John, Klare and Louie have reviewed some exceptional live and recorded music throughout the year and we all thank you for reading our reviews and looking at our photos. We couldn’t resist this opportunity to remind you of some of the artists we reviewed for the first time in 2013.
We saw live performances by the Emile Gerber Band (which became Stoneface Travellers), Henrik Freischlader, Josephine, Marcus Bonfanti (solo and with his band), The Kennedys, Federal Charm (twice), Black Casino & The Ghost, Coco and the Butterfields (several times), The Dirt Tracks, Carrie Rodriguez, Aynsley Lister, Civil Protection, Wheatus, Dean Owens and Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion. Quite a selection, really.
We reviewed albums and singles by Henrik Freischlader, Marcus Bonfanti, Sally Shapiro, Tomorrow’s World, Black Casino & The Ghost, Jimmy Livingstone, Austra, Tess of the Circle, Aynsley Lister, The Nyco Project, The Dirt Tracks, Nadine Shah, Sullivn, Radio (in my) Head, Tal National, Layla Zoe, Kinver, Au Revoir Simone, DENA, Hartebeest, Polly Scattergood, Glasser, Annie, Emika and John Grant and probably a few others as well. Along the way we had some great fun and met some lovely people; you all know who you are, and we’re hoping to meet most of you again this year.
Looking forward to 2014, we’re hoping for more of the same. The review copies are already coming in and it’s starting to look pretty good already. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of our predictions for 2014 from the Riot Squad and possibly from a few guest contributors as well. And, while we’re on the subject of guest contributions, many thanks to Aynsley Lister, Steve Jenner, Marcus Bonfanti and Billie Ray Martin for their contributions to our High Fives feature last year.
Oh, is it my turn for the albums? Ok, these five stood out way above the rest and they’re a pretty mixed bunch but I think that’s what Music Riot is all about. Have a listen to these if you can because there’s a lot of really good music here.
When you’ve listened to a lot of blues and blues/rock (and believe me I have over the years), you understand how easy it is for even very good players and writers to slip into the blues clichés, lyrically and musically. Some writers understand that not every song has to be a twelve-bar blues with lyrics about bad booze and wanton women, and Aynsley Lister is one of those writers. His songs on “Home” are recognisably blues/rock but with a recognition that the genre has to move on lyrically and musically. On “Home”, there are songs about the state of the music business today, an elegy to an old friend, a couple of brilliant covers and a tribute to Gene Hunt. What more do you want? This is one of those albums that grabs you from the first listen and doesn’t let go.
Ok, I’m going to admit to a slight bias here; I’ve been a fan of John Fogerty for much longer than I care to admit to. The first time I strapped on a guitar and played (badly) in front of an audience, the song the band played was the Creedence Clearwater Revival single, “Up Around the Bend”. I’m pleased to say that John Fogerty’s career as a performer has been much longer and more successful than mine.
There are a couple of ways of looking at this album; you can see it as a cynical rehash of old material for a few quick bucks or you can see it as an opportunity to work with kindred spirits to put a twenty-first century polish on some classic twentieth century songs. You can probably guess which way I’m leaning on this one. If you only listen to one song on this album, listen to “Hot Rod Heart”; John Fogerty is joined by guitarist Brad Paisley and the final minute and a half of the song is the joyous and totally self-indulgent sound of two superb players having a great time trading guitar licks. If this doesn’t make you smile, you don’t like music. And that’s before we get on to the reworkings of the classic Creedence songs “Lodi”, “Long as I can see the Light”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and the less well-known “Wrote a Song for Everyone”. Oh, nearly forgot, “Proud Mary”. Superb from start to finish.
If you’re really into music, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve heard, you still love it when you hear something original and fresh (and I’ll be completely honest and say something that no-one else has written about yet). My epiphany this year was an invitation to see Spanish indie band The Dirt Tracks in central London. The audience was four people, and that included me and the band’s manager. It didn’t bother the band because they pulled out a storming set. I was given a copy of the band’s debut album and I promised to review it. When I listened to it, I was hooked.
It’s heavily influenced by British indie, but there are elements of late ‘60s psychedelia in there as well as samples and a huge guitar attack. As if that wasn’t enough, the album includes the experimental single “Kaleidoscope” which combines two similar stand-alone songs across the stereo spectrum to create a third song. It’s quite a disorientating effect designed to demonstrate the difference between left- and right-brain processing and it’s even more impressive when you know that it’s written (like the rest of the album) in writer Santiago Coma’s second language. Very impressive debut album.
This one deserves a special mention for overcoming logistical difficulties; there are artists from 14 different countries on this collection of reworkings of Radiohead songs. There’s absolutely no filler on this album and there are a few absolute corkers. Some of the versions stay reasonably close to the Radiohead template, while The Stoneface Travellers and Yoya put their own stamp on “My Iron Lung” and “Wolf at the Door” respectively. The project was initiated by John O’Sullivan, MD of Bandhouse Records and pulled in contributions from his contemporaries at the London College of Contemporary Music (including Amy Hannam and Beth Mills, who you may have seen on X Factor)and and a few others picked up on the journey. Anyway, it’s a bostin’ album and you should all give it a listen.
Our contributors at MusicRiot all have their own musical preferences and areas of expertise, but we’re all passionate about music and our paths tend to intersect fairly often; this is one of those cases. John Preston raved about this album several months before 6 Music latched on to John Grant and he was absolutely right; this is a great album. John Grant took a lot of flak over moving from acoustic instruments to electronic on this album (a nod to Dylan’s “Judas” moment there), but it’s still a classic singer-songwriter album. There are moments of humour, sneering, viciousness and painful emotional honesty on subjects as difficult as an HIV diagnosis. When it’s funny, it’s very funny, when it’s vicious, it’s very vicious and when it’s about honesty, it will make you cry. Even the remixes are worth a listen.
If you want to learn a bit more about these albums, you can search for the reviews on the site. Or you could give them a listen.
For those who don’t know, Future Bible Heroes is one of pop intellectual and professional miserablist Stephen Merritt’s many musical side projects that he occasionally flirts with when he’s not otherwise engaged in his main gig of being the most dominant, growling member of the everlasting The Magnetic Fields. Following a self-imposed hiatus from electronic music over a three album period The Magnetic Fields returned to synth pop, a general term, on last year’s mostly underwhelming “Love at the Bottom of the Sea”. Future Bible Heroes released their last album in 2002 and this, their third, feels very much like a more leisurely, and superior companion piece to that last Magnetic Fields album.
“Partygoing” sees vocal duties being shared between Merritt and The Magnetic Field’s Claudia Gonson, a change from their last collection, ‘ Eternal Youth’, where Gonson led on every track with Christopher Ewan remaining as music supervisor. Lyrically themes of old, or the old, remain; ageing, unrequited love, loneliness, drug and drink reliance and keeping children in comas (for their own safety of course). Musically, British mid-eighties synth pop is Ewan’s main template and sometimes also the weak link on an album where some of the strong melodies, certainly some of the best Meritt has written for a while, still require some musical gravitas to prevent them from becoming jokey novelty songs, a problem which plagued the Fields last album.
“Let’s Go To Sleep (And Never Come Back)” sees Claudia Gonson listing the reasons as to why she needs to finish with life (‘can’t afford the children, can’t afford the rent’, sing it sister) with the usual, detached ironic humour typical of Merritt over a soundtrack that sounds like a Yazoo demo with this reaching its natural conclusion later in the album with the brilliant “Digging My Own Grave” which mimics a Moroder-produced Sparks track; it’s funny and, crucially, substantial. “How Very Strange” is a clanking, melancholic variation of the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield’s “What have I done To Deserve This?” with Merritt playing Dusty (‘I put a little heroin in everything you took in’ is the answer Merritt gives to Gonson, altogether puzzled by her situation) to Gonson’s male lead gender swap and is fantastically arch and satisfying and the only time the two sing together here.
I personally find Merritt’s baritone bellow sometimes harder to take than Claudia Gonson’s plaintive, asexual stance. His dominant drawl, not exactly full of subtleties, can rob songs which are already lyrically sarcastic and ironic enough, of any crucial sincerity or truth. However on at least two occasions here, the catchy mid tempo pop structure of “All I Care About is You” and sad “Sadder than the Moon”, Merritt does move. On the raucous music hall of “Drink Nothing but Champagne” we have comedy voices (an impersonation of David Bowie, which is funny the first time you hear it) and a sing-a-long chorus which comes off more as a gimmick than a solid song or performance. Gay, tortured and funny John Grant covered similar lyrical themes of neurosis and alienation on his spectacular “Pale Green Ghosts” album from earlier this year updating his sonic soundtrack to that of an inspired sharp electronic stew and this is where “Partygoing” can fall short. Musically it’s often the case that a good melody (in particular see the title track) is undermined by a horribly, thin and trite synthetic soundtrack. It can sound unfinished and one wonders just how fantastic some of these tracks would be with a propulsive production, the music here sometimes sounding like a self-conscious, piss-take of pop itself; an ironic nudge too far.
It is sometimes difficult to see where The Magnetic Fields ends and the Future Bible Heroes begins especially as an outlet for his electronic compulsion, the main purpose of the group, given that Stephen Merritt has returned to this in his other group. Of course this doesn’t really matter and honestly, given the disappointment of The Fields’ last full length album which was all fur coat and no knickers, “Partygoing” does in fact feel more like an unexpected treat from the same band rather than alternative one given that, although it covers pretty much the same areas sonically and lyrically, it does so in a far more seductive and ultimately satisfying manner.
The song “Queen of Denmark” was made to known to me, and to many others I would presume, in its venomous but life-affirming cover version by Sinead O Connor which featured on her most recent album and was an obvious highlight. I wasn’t aware of the original and had never heard of the former lead singer of The Czars before; sorry. Since then I’ve been curious enough to listen to John Grant’s much-adored, very good indeed debut album (also called “The Queen of Denmark” )released 3 years ago and am curious as to what fans of that recording will make of this, the follow up, “Pale Green Ghosts”.
The “Queen of Denmark” album was predominantly acoustic, occasionally full-on jokey but mainly folky, tongue in cheek Carpenters-aspiring melancholia. The song writing here remains pretty unchanged, every song is about John Grant and his emotional, cognitive state; there is a lot of humour and a lot of anger. Musically however there has a been a very significant change, give or take a couple of tracks every song is awash with electronics, executed perfectly and extremely well produced courtesy of art pop Icelandic group GusGus’s Biggi Veira. The leading title track and “Black Belt” are typical examples of that with “Pale Green Ghosts” also incorporating Sergei Rachnaninoff’s “Prelude In C Minor” and sounding very much like Barry Adamson’s late nineties, cinematic stuff. “GMF” follows and is the first of the 2 acoustic tracks but it’s not until the beautiful and biting “Vietnam” (hold out for the striking string coda at the end), which signifies the start of an amazingly strong run of 6 songs, where Grant ups the song-writing ante and everything comes together magnificently as a whole.
“Sensitive New Age Guy”’ could be considered to be the most throwaway track here and is a delirious, techno sneer at the irritation that phrase conjures up. It sounds like it’s been produced by Felix Da Housecat in his prime and shares DNA with Donna Summer’s “Sunset People”; you wouldn’t have seen that coming after listening to Grant’s debut. “Ernest Borgnine” refers to Grant being informed of his recent HIV diagnosis and it isn’t depressing; it’s funny and catchy and one of the closet things here to an actual, albeit wonky, pop song. This and the elastic “You Don’t Have To” more than anyone else bring to mind Rufus Wainwright, another gay smarty pants; ironic, bitchy, scene-hating intellectuals who still feel outside of any supposed community and both of these tracks bear a strong resemblance to Wainwright’s best, most-realised work from the “Want One” and “Want Two” albums.
So John Grant must have also really enjoyed Sinead O’Connor’s take on the ‘Queen of Denmark’ because she features on 4 songs here (and is amusingly referred to as Mrs Grant in the credits) and what a joy and surprise it is to hear her in such a bleak, electronic setting and no more so than on the razor sharp “Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore” which is the darkest and probably the best song here. More of a duet than the backing vocals she provides on the other 3 songs, O’ Connor sings the whole song with Grant as a ghostly duet, echoing back each line with both suspended in the most chilling electronic soundscape, the pile up of duelling synth melodies at the end just continues the sense of a couple’s relationship disintegrating.
I think some of Grant’s original fans could struggle with the musical direction he has taken here and although understandable I think it adds a dimension that was in fact needed, the weightiness of some of the lyrical themes justify an equally substantial and edgy musical surround. He is an interesting, complex and sometimes challenging artist and this album finds him successfully experimenting and taking risks in areas where he could just have easily replicated the original sound of his much loved debut. Bravo big guy, one of the best releases of the year so far.