The world curving away

Swans Trinity Centre Bristol May 2014 2Music review of the Year – my top 5+ of 2014’s CDs

1. ‘Ruins’: Grouper
2. ‘To be Kind’: Swans
3. ‘I Never Learn’: Lykke Li
4. ‘Smoke Fairies’: Smoke Fairies
5. ‘Wild Winter’: Smoke Fairies
Bubbling under
6. ‘LP1’: FKA Twigs
One I missed from 2013
7. ‘Nepenthe’: Julianna Barwick

I still buy CDs. I love an album, a whole creation that you listen to from start to finish while examining the sleeve, reading the lyrics, puzzling over the pictures and smiling at the credits. A CD does not have the gravitas of an LP but it still feels more like you have obtained a piece of art than with a download. The packaging for CDs seems to have changed – six of the seven albums on this list came in cardboard sleeves eschewing the traditional jewel case, and that cardboard does make them a little more ephemeral, but also less clinical than the clear plastic square with its sharp corners. With one exception 2014’s selection of musical gems has a tendency towards mellowness. But then I am getting old.

1. ‘Ruins’, Grouper, Kranky
Somehow I have missed Liz Harris’s Grouper project. It is the music of distance and intimacy, loops and loops of sound, instruments and her own voice. I can’t quite tell if there is any lyrical value to her singing; when it appears it is so low in the mix that the words are murmurings, however, they add to the overall atmosphere of quiet introspection, of a woman alone working her way through the puzzles of existence. On occasions she sounds a little like a gentle version of Jarboe, but her style and idiom is her own, her piano is a reflective fluttering that stands well to the fore. There are multitudes of other sounds woven into the mix, often so low down you are hardly aware that they are there, however sometimes the calls of the night – bird cries and amphibian croaking – blossom through giving a wilderness feel to this totally entrancing filigree of personal yet universal meditations. I’ve waited a long while to find music as gorgeous as this, I can’t stop playing it and I’ve tracked down her other CDs which are equally beautiful.

2. ‘To Be Kind’, Swans, Young God Records.
This is only ranked at number 2 because it is not 2013’s ‘The Seer’, an album of such blinding majesty that I don’t think Michael Gira will ever top it. Also, when I attended the accompanying gig at the Trinity Centre, Bristol, in May the venue was so small and the band so loud that after the first song I could hear nothing but the beat and a ragged rasp of vocals. That did rather spoil the pleasure of seeing again one of the consistently most individual, inventive and thoughtful of bands. ‘To Be Kind’ is a 2 CD set with an additional full set live DVD. The songs range from 5 to 35 minutes in length, the average being about 12. Where ‘The Seer’ was elemental and liturgical, a raising of the earth gods and a cry of anguish and challenge to the one God, ‘To Be Kind’, built from the same basic parts, has quite a different emphasis.

Gira is still mightily angry over the mess we make of ourselves, each other, the earth, but he also seems to have worked some of his blind fury out and focussed more on redemption. I don’t think ‘empathy’ is a word he would be comfortable about using with respect to his music, but there is something there that makes me feel he is opening out a little towards the humility of the frailty of others. Indeed, some of the songs have quite specific references to recognisable individuals. The longest track, the centre of the album, ‘Bring the sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture’, relates to the leader of the Haitian revolution in the 1790s, who transformed the society from slaves to an independent free state. He died in a French prison in 1803 having fought for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. That is the refrain, in French and Spanish, of the Swans song. Words are secondary to the layering upon layering of sound which include, among others, bass, two sets of drums and percussion, lap steel guitars, vibes, bells, keys, handmade instruments and a dulcimer. The music rises and falls, rises and falls then rises and rises to a full-bodied intensity of sound that live has all your internal organs vibrating and at home has a tendency to knock the speakers from their stands. It is music of violence and grandeur, as if the sound of a dragonfly breaking free of its nymph casing had been magnified a million times.

Classifying Swans is always a tricky thing to do, partly because trying to pin them down to a genre is exactly the sort of attitude Gira would hate, but they are one of the bands that crosses the boundaries between experimental rock and contemporary classical. They carve out their work from our basic and elemental natures and can evoke a basic and elemental response in the listener. At the same time they are also deeply, deeply intelligent in their compositions and performance, producing material that can seep into your bones and challenge your own way of being.

3. ‘I Never Learn’, Lykke Li, Atlantic.
I said when I first reviewed this earlier in the year that while it didn’t have the immediate unsettling beauty of ‘Youth Novels’ or ‘Wounded Rhymes’, her first two albums, it was a grower, and that is how it has been. Several months later and I’m still playing the album and finding new things to enjoy with each listen. To start with the title is something I’ve got sympathy with. Where before she could sing that ‘youth knows no pain’ and I could only be wistful over what youth had been to me, this time I’m really with her on the ‘I never learn’ line. Of course there are seas of albums and oceans of songs about relationships breaking up, about the pain of being young and making mistakes, but Li Lykke Timotej Svensson has such a sensually plaintive way of singing and expressing herself in heavily accented English that it would take a hard or concreted cynic not to be touched by her distress.

This is classy pop with an indie edge – more mainstream than the first two albums and that’s where I’ve struggled to accept it. But there is quality in the arrangements, a simplicity in the production and an intelligence in the lyrics that raises it up to the level of a sweet, tender, fragile minor masterpiece.

4. ‘Smoke Fairies’, Smoke Fairies, Full Time Hobby.
5. ‘Wild Winter’, Smoke Fairies, Full Time Hobby.
Smoke Fairies release both their fourth and fifth ‘proper’ albums in one year, which is a good way to expunge the memory of the disappointing (for me), ‘Blood Speaks’. ‘Through Low Light and Trees’ was my introduction to Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire – music that shivered through the frost with an English folk heritage and a contemporary quiet sassiness. These two albums are evocative of ‘Through Low Light…’ but with a stronger sound, more gutsy yet still smoky. ‘Smoke Fairies’ opens with ‘We’ve seen Birds’ (which is appropriate as I write this with binoculars in one hand, distracted by the throstles bouncing over the lawn) that musically contains echoes of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – a marker that lets you know that once more we are in the territory of missed loved, relationships stretched and tense, broken and misinterpreted. That Davies and Blamire have spent some time in the US, even recording in Nashville, is evident by the undercurrent of country influences and the increasing strengthening of their own characters behind the music. They get classified as ‘dream pop’, but while there is a certain wispiness to their music I’m finding a growing muscle, a steel, a forcefulness in both their music and their singing. ‘Smoke Fairies’ is nowhere near as simple as it first sounds, but it is elegant and has pride in its own quality. Within the lyrics there seem to be themes of belief, imagery that evokes aspects of Christ as the Way while being inclusive, personal and as applicable to a general concept of love or of belief in self as they are to a belief in God.

‘Wild Winter’ is something I never thought I would buy – a Christmas album. It is brilliant, but it stays at number 5 because is mentions the ‘C’ word. Me and Christmas are not particularly good friends. Opener ‘Christmas without a Kiss’ begins with a scuzzy, fuzzy heavy guitar sound, a slow beat and a lush lyric about messing it up so that you will have another Christmas on your own. From then on each song picks up a different Christmas and winter time theme – snow, journeying, giving and receiving, excess, the way the season brings out the worst in relationships, the lack of peace despite the birth of the Prince of Peace. It seems almost thrown together and thrown away in comparison to the careful construction of ‘Smoke Fairies’ and yet it works splendidly, fizzing and cracking along with wonderful energy, wit and inventiveness, a cracking album and one which I can’t stop playing.

6. (Bubbling under) ‘LP1’, FKA Twigs, Young Turks.
I couldn’t place this higher than either of the Smoke Fairies albums despite its marvellously idiosyncratic creativity because it didn’t quite work for me. It is a great album but not quite what I was looking for – I wanted something that was more like a cross between MIA, Goldfrapp and early Macy Gray, perhaps with a twist of Grimes. FKA Twigs (Tahliah Debrett Barnett) is far more individual than that, working her own mix of what ‘The Guardian’ has described as ‘ethereal, twisted R&B’. That’s not a bad description, it is certainly one to pique my interest, but as ever with these labels it doesn’t tell half the story. Of course this is a young woman’s music that is miles if not eras away from my own experience so I might be just the worst sort of person to review it. However, there is something that resonates here, I can’t say I love it – there is an element of dissonance that I keep finding too unsettling for that – but it has a fierce power, a maturity and a dramatic eloquence that intrigues and attracts me. Her voice is high and girlish, breathy and innocent where her language and her arrangements are not – they are angry and self-possessed, proud and knowing, assured, edgy and playful. This is a woman who has found her voice and has much to say.

7. (Missed from 2013) ‘Nepenthe’, Julianna Barwick, Dead Oceans.
This is what I was looking for. Found it too late to include in 2013’s list of the best, but must allow it some space this year. This is ethereal. Although that is a lazy way of describing music looped and looped over and over that builds layer upon layer in a way that is both far removed and identifiably linked to the unaccompanied voices Barwick was used to in her father’s Louisiana church. There is mystery in her music that has a kinship with Radiohead circa ‘Amnesiac’ and she could easily be pigeonholed with Liz Harris, but this is a less immediately intimate sound, rather it is one which has a more explicitly meditative quality. Another easy description would be ‘ambient lush’ but again that is only partially appropriate. It has something of the restful and gently positive quality of a Peter Firman/Oliver Postgate film while also soaring to great heights of possibility and at the same time sailing through a sea of melancholy, of loss only quietly remembered.

Conclusion
It seems my word of the year is ‘ethereal’ and my predisposition is for independent female musicians who know what they want to say and don’t really care what the rest of us thinks. Oh, and Swans – with Swans at their maturity there is always going to be something for the masculine side of me and something which will challenge, energise and enthral me.

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