14 December 2006

The Music of 2006: Part 1 - New Music

2006 has been a slow year for me musically. For whatever reason I have fallen out of touch (or interest) with new releases in the last 12 months and have picked up very few new albums in this period. One obvious reason is lack of finance - having been tight for cash all year I have understandably not been trawling the record stores for the great and the good of new music or, more accurately, randomly ordering something off Amazon because I spotted a good review or it was recommended to me.

Another reason is my lack of radio and TV habits that are sporadic at best - I stopped listening to the radio years ago when I realised that, for the most part, my tastes simply weren't catered to in the mainstream - thus my avenues of exposure for new music are few and far between. I do try to stay on top of things in a general way - even if not the pop scene: there are groups or individuals I'll follow, for example I'm keeping myself more than aware of Damon Albarn's The Good, the Bad and the Queen who are releasing an album in the next month or so - but it is easy to lose track with a lax approach like this. I try to catch shows like Later... With Jools Holland when they're on, but given the format of the show as often as not if there isn't someone really special or interesting on the bill I'm unlikely to stay up for it given a) the time of airing and b) how crap some of the other guests might be.

The third major reason I can put my finger on is that the music business in general is going in a way that turns me off: mainstream music at the minute seems to be returning to Britpop-type stuff which turned me off 10 years ago, and turns me off now. Granted, I might be giving a lot of current bands undue slack with that, but frankly I've heard virtually nothing recently that I have enthused about that wasn't older. In fact I think I've only bought 5 or 6 genuinely new albums this year, and at one of them was a complete dud. Actually, that's not true - there are a few more I got at the Dundee Blues Bonanza back in July, but I would never have seen, heard or picked up those albums if I hadn't been in Dundee that weekend and seen the groups live (Thanks Garry, and Rosa!).

The 5 new albums that I have bought this year and which weren't duds or impulse buys at a blues weekend are:

  • Harpo's Ghost by Thea Gilmore
  • The Beautiful Lie by Ed Harcourt
  • 9 by Damien Rice
  • No Sudden Moves by Amy Wadge
  • The Eraser by Thom Yorke

Each of these have something on or about them that makes them good buys in my book. An honourable mention also goes to Massive Attack's Collected best-of, since I bought that simply to have the one previously unreleased track - Live With Me, for which Terry Callier performs the vocal.

The simplest one to explain is No Sudden Moves. This was an album I did buy on a whim, not that I can remember for the life of me what kicked me to get it. By and large it listens like an album bought on those terms too - its forgettable and generic. Except where it isn't; in that case its very, very, very good indeed. Admittedly it's only one track, but Ms Wadge's acoustic cover of the Manic Street Preachers' Design for Life is simply one of the most beautiful recordings I've ever heard. As much as I dislike the Manics I've always had a bit of a soft spot for this tune, but the stark contrast between the vocal and sparse acoustic guitar line on the Wadge cover blows any other version I have heard right out of the water - along with a hell of a lot of other music, too.

The other four listed are all by people I am more than a little familiar with as a longtime fan and having seen each of them live before now, although admittedly Thom Yorke in concert means Radiohead in this context. Starting there, then - The Eraser is everything one might expect given the evolution of Radiohead's sound over the years. Laden with electronic and beats that are often reminiscent of Idioteque from Kid A this album marks the pinnacle (to date) of Thom's efforts to match his unique voice to music. I must admit given the way I tend to listen to music these days I haven't listened to this work enough as a full piece to comment further on the album. It is certainly one in my "give more serious time!" pile, albeit one I've listened to enough to know I love it.

Ed Harcourt has been around a while now. I got into him after seeing him support Beth Orton at the Colston Hall in Bristol in 1999/2000 (when she was touring Central Reservation and Ed was playing material from Here Be Monsters). A prolific singer-songwriter who's primary instrument is piano, The Beautiful Lie is Harcourt's 3rd subsequent album (not including Elephant's Graveyard which was an iTunes only release) and he's clearly still producing a large body of work: he claims to have written god-only-knows how many songs in his time. Unfortunately from my point of view it appears to be getting weaker as of now. The range is still diverse, but I found The Beautiful Lie to be a more morose and generally weaker album than those to precede it. There are still some grand tunes on this album - I'm very fond of Rain on the Pretty Ones for instance - but it feels more like a release of songs not good enough to make it onto earlier records. Again, I have not yet given it all the attention it is due, but in broad terms I regard it as the beginning of the end of a fine career: not a complete miss, but a climb down from previous highs.

Damien Rice's debut album, O, was a favourite of mine at the time it came out and after 9 was released a few weeks ago I stumbled in from a rare night out and wrote a very short post about how much I liked it. I've rarely listened to it since then, but as I found with the debut Rice is an artist I binge on when in the mood, not one who I'll routinely listen to under any circumstance. I did imply I might come back and review it when sober, but I shall not. I don't think 9 hits quite the same highs as O did and the huge space of (near)-silence recorded on the end of the final track is a major annoyance in certain circumstances but it is a piece of work that ripples with emotion - one quality I like to hear present in my music - and simplicity, a combination that has a strong allure.

Finally Harpo's Ghost which must qualify as my album of the year. This is no surprise - I was swept away by Thea Gilmore's music from the moment I first heard Rules for Jokers. Her most recent offering, however, was more of a slow-burner to my ears. Most of this is probably down to the combination of holding her to high standards and a weak opening track. Even now, 4 months on and several listens later The Gambler does nothing for me. But Harpo's Ghost is an album that gets better as the tracks go by, and by the time The List kicks in it's really rolling nicely. The climax of the album is the radio-friendly Cheap Tricks which is powerful, jaunty and very, very catchy. It's up there with my favourite tunes - not just of Thea's but of all time. As a whole work, Harpo's Ghost is more mature and thought provoking than her earlier work - hence being more of a slow burner than an instant click, but it is surely a continuation of the brilliant body of work stretching back over 6 albums, a covers disc and a rarities collection.

Whilst 2006 has been slow for me with respect to new music, it has been a good year musically as it is the year I discovered, or really got some older stuff. But that's for another post.

No comments: