Monday, January 23, 2012

Album Review: First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar

You do have to be a bit patient when ploughing through albums by artists you haven't heard of. Clearly there's a bit of taking the rough with the smooth, but the joy is when you uncover a great record that you'd have never previously have considered.

First Aid Kit are sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg and they hail from a small suburb of Stockholm. The Lion's Roar is their second studio album, and a lovely piece of work it is too. The pair have been compared favourably to the Fleet Foxes, although it's an indier and more country tinged sound than, say, Helplessness Blues. I suspect that the comparison comes from the songwriting and beautiful harmonies that the sisters create on tracks such as Emmylou and In The Hearts Of Men.

Conor Oberst makes a guest appearance on the lovely final track King of the World by which time I was totally encapsulated by this record. I'd hesitate before calling them the Swedish Pierces, but it's the most appropriate comparison I can make. If you like the Foxes, the Staves and the Pierces then it's certainly a record you need to hear immediately.

The first excellent album of 2012. Hoo-blooming-rah.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

i was raised up believing i was somehow unique

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (LB)

As I have already said, 2011 was a pretty ordinary year for new music. I've listened to dozens of albums this year and while there were plenty that were perfectly acceptable, I don't think I have heard one 'great' album.

So, my #1 album for 2011 is something that wouldn't have troubled the top of my list in any other previous year. Saying that, it's a lovely record and the follow-up to an album that was almost impossible to follow-up.

At the time, I wondered whether the Fleet Foxes' decision to éschew their marvellous medieval harmonies in favour of sounding more like a normal band was the right one. However, on multiple listens it appears that, in fact, Helplessness Blues was the perfect way for the band to develop. Sounding more like Simon and Garfunkel and less like something from an episode of early Blackadder, the more I listen to this beautiful record, the more I enjoy it. I do miss the wonderful vocal work that characterised their debut album but the songwriting remains superb and it's a very likeable and engaging record.

Title track Helplessness Blues also contains some of my favourite lyrics of 2011:

"I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me"

Lovely. Fantastic band and a very, very good album.

Listen to - Helplessness Blues

1. Ed Sheeran - + (bedshaped)

In the absence of Damien Rice ever releasing another album, I’m always keen to find new male singer song-writers. I love female singer song-writers too, but there’s something that touches more deeply when it’s a guy pouring his heart out. While Ed isn’t as touching and honest and broken down as Damien has been, he’s pretty good at getting heard.

He’s a honest song-writer. His lyrics are pin point accurate at times, but I wonder if his age comes into play with some of his lyrics; Wake Me Up being an example where he sings about Shrek and playing video games. I dunno. A lot of his lyrics are delivered in a “say what you see” style. There’s not much depth and typically twisted lyrics here. It’s a stark and honest way of writing. Reminds me of The Streets in a way.

A mixture of acoustic and mellow ballads and more uptempo songs, this is a very easy album to listen to. A perfect background music album. Ed delivers some great guitar work and his backing band are good enough, but it’s more his stories and the gentle feeling of this album that wins you over. There’s a lot of talk of love on here, and it’s during the ballads such as Wake Me Up and the brutal and stripped back This that really catch the attention here. Here’s a young guy who’s showing the talent that any guy would absolutely love to have. The talent and ability to write a love song about how he really feels.

The critics seem to be divided on him at the moment. Some praising this young and flourishing talent, some writing him off as a wannabe who got lucky. Whatever. In my eyes, he’s produced a brilliant album of pleasing pop songs. There’s nothing offensive here, ok, maybe the occasional naughty word, but on the whole it’s a very enjoyable album. Enough uptempo tracks to prompt a foot tapping or gentle nodding, enough ballads to stop you in your tracks and made you think.

Listen to - Lego House

1. Noah and the Whale - Last Night On Earth (Swisslet)

I’m pretty sure I should hate this band: just look at those haircuts and those over-privileged, jutting jaws and tweed jackets. Every time I see them on TV I want to smash their smug faces in (apart from the guitarist, who looks like he has wandered in from an entirely different band). This impression was further reinforced by the somewhat twee smugness of their music: 5 Years Time was initially decent enough, but suffered more with every subsequent listen.

Another band to ignore then? Well, not entirely.

2009’s The First Days of Spring began the process of changing my mind. Heartbreak had apparently beaten some of the smugness out of Charlie Fink, and the album was full of beautiful songs of loss and hurt. It’s hardly a party album, but it’s a fantastic achievement and was certainly good enough that I bought the follow-up, Last Night on Earth as soon as it came out, on the same day that I purchased Elbow’s Build a Rocket Boys!. I fully expected that Elbow would be the band to monopolise my stereo, but quite to my surprise, they got first play and then barely got a look in. It was all about Noah and the Whale.

It’s the songs, you see. Fink seems happier, but the smugness seems to have stayed away: Life is Life, Tonight’s The Kind of Night, L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N, Give It All Back, Waiting For My Chance to Come, Old Joy… the album is packed with quality songs, with Fink often cast in the role of storyteller. L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N and Give It All Back in particular never seem to fail to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

I’ve not been to many gigs this year, but I have seen Noah and the Whale twice and they were fantastic both times (especially in the Bowery Ballroom in New York, but that’s such a great place to see a band that I’m not sure I can really count it). They still look eminently puncheable of course, but there’s simply no denying that I haven’t listened to any other record this year half as much as I have listened to this one.

Listen to - L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

Monday, January 02, 2012

what makes me love you despite the reservations?

The Top 10 Albums of 2011

2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (Swisslet)

It is no exaggeration to say that the debut album by the Fleet Foxes, released in 2008, is one of my favourite ever records. There is just something so perfect about those magnificent harmonies, and I can’t recall hearing a band who sounded remotely like them. It was as though they had stepped out of the fifteenth century.

So magnificent was that record that I found it difficult to imagine where the band would go next. They couldn’t just release more of the same, but where can you go when your major influences appear to be from the Middle Ages? The answer, it seems, was to become a more traditional sounding band: those amazing vocal harmonies that were such a key part of their sound on the debut, are still present but are much less prominent here. Instead we have a more traditional set up of a band supporting a much clearer lead singer in Robin Pecknold.

This doesn’t sound all that promising on paper, as it seems to take away the band’s unique selling point, but actually it works really well. The reason? The songs are strong. Montezuma, Sim Sala Bim, Battery Kinzie, Helplessness Blues, Lorelai… wonderful, warm songs all, brought to life by Pecknold’s crystal clear voice. I could live without that jarring free jazz sax solo that breaks in towards the end of the record, but that aside, this is a lovely record by a band that sound like no other. I can’t wait for the next one.

Listen to - Sim Sala Bim

2. Elbow - Build A Rocket Boys! (LB)

Considering I bought Asleep in the Back a decade or so ago, it's taken an awfully long time for Elbow to clamber their way into a list of acts I'd name if you wanted to know who my favourite bands are. I've seen them live on numerous occasions over the years - mostly in the company of Swisslet - and have always enjoyed their shows without falling in love with them. Sure, there have been moments - the beautiful Newborn and Puncture Repair, the brilliant Station Approach and Leaders of the Free World - but I can't say I'd ever been their biggest fan.

Therefore, I am not sure what happened. It certainly wasn't The Seldom Seen Kid as there are Elbow records I like better. Perhaps it was simply repeat listens, getting a bit older or simply my love of the amazing One Day Like This that unlocked the door, but whatever it was I am delighted it finally happened.

Build A Rocket Boys! is a traditional Elbow album in the sense that it isn't something that grabs you instantly. Indeed, it probably took me a dozen listens or so before I really began to adore this brilliant record. Combining Guy Garvey's lovely and 'real' lyrics with yet more great instrumentation, this is another great Elbow record. I love the anthemic Open Arms, the beautiful Lippy Kids and the gradually building The Birds but it is on the utterly beautiful (and very true, in my experience) The Night Will Always Win that Elbow have again produced a beautiful and majestic pop record that will live with me forever.

I was lucky enough to see Elbow twice in 2011 also, and both times they were astonishingly good, largely thank to Garvey's gregarious and endearing personality (although, if there is a criticism, it's that both gigs were a little too focused on the recent two albums).

Elbow are a national treasure, and this is another fine record.

Listen to: The Night Will Always Win

2. Radiohead - The King of Limbs (bedshaped)

It’s no secret how much I love Radiohead. Even in their ‘difficult’ period, I can still hear the genius, in the background, fighting for attention. People will say they find it difficult to associate the same band that produced The Bends or OK Computer with Kid A and their last album, In Rainbows; a monumental album of pure genius. And I can understand that. And I can totally respect it. But one of the reasons I love this band so much, is listening to them grow and evolve and change and experiment. Considering I feel like I’ve been with them since Pablo Honey, they are probably one of biggest musical influences in my life.

Eight tracks, running in at just under 40 minutes (some say the perfect album length!), this is Radiohead in a much more playful mood than on In Rainbows. There’s a lot more knob twiddling, sampling, scratching, looping, vocal play going on here, particularly during the first half. Lots of programmed percussion, but their drummer is also getting mixed in (the fabulous Lotus Flower being a great example) and overall it’s the beats that really dig in here. Thom’s vocals are typically great, but there’s lots of vocal sampling, scratching, back-mixing and the likes on the up-tempo tracks. I like it, but it does take away some of the fragility of his voice. And that’s such a shame. That said the pulsating rhythms are infectious and hypnotic. There’s a certain ravey-trance vibe going down here

Thom’s vocals really come into play on the final three tracks; Codex; a piano led ballad, haunting backing vocals, wonderfully effective brass sections, sombre cello moments creating a chilling song that sets off those all too familiar goosebumps, Give Up The Ghost; heartbeat percussion, minimal chord strokes on an acoustic guitar, light bongos, amazing backing vocal samples and Thom has never sounded better, Separator; busy drums, boomy basslines that walk up and down the frets, again some fantastic backing vocal playaround, then about half-way in, a guitar hook sneaks in from outta nowhere and sinks itself deep inside your head. And you hear it days later. It’s soulful, it’s rhythmic, it’s swirling, it’s hypnotic, it’s trance-like, it’s dreamy. It’s a bloody stroke of genius!

For me, Radiohead just keep getting better and better. I secretly like the fact that when they release albums like this; slightly more experimental, their fan demographic changes. The more I read about the band members, what they stand for and why they love making music so much, the more I fall for them. Radiohead are like my bestest friend ever. They never let me down.

Listen to – Separator