Tag Archive | "The Mountain Goats"

The Mountain Goats – Trinity Centre, Bristol (November 17, 2015)

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The Mountain Goats – Trinity Centre, Bristol (November 17, 2015)

Posted on 18 November 2015 by Joe

“You saved my life,” shouts one fan to John Darnielle, the songwriter and frontman for The Mountain Goats, towards the end of the band’s blistering set in Bristol’s converted church venue Trinity.

Darnielle, acknowledges the compliment but with perspective. “No I didn’t. You did that, all I did was provide the music you listened to at the time,” he replied.

This exchange is a good indicator of how Darnielle’s story telling song writing style, which always offers hope amidst despair, impacts on his fans.

John Darnielle

John Darnielle

It also shows how much he knows the value of music as a healer, whether he is singing about his own demons, from an abusive home life on the album The Sunset Tree, or about the real, sometimes tragic lives, of his wrestling heroes on the band’s latest album “Beat the Champ.”

This respect for the power of music is also evident in The Mountain Goats live performance here, as it  perfectly blended Beat the Champ tracks with a career spanning greatest hits show across, an at times, frantic hour and 45 minutes.

Darnielle is equally at home jumping around on stage with a full band and leading sing-a-longs on crowd pleasers such as No Children, This Year and Up the Wolves, as he is during the set’s solo middle section, which included an excellent version of 2008’s Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle complete with a discussion about the killing skills of the Nintendo plumber.

This solo section also provided a chance to play some of his older tracks to please the old guard that were evident here. This included Song for an Old Friend, from a 1995 compilation from Pottery Records called The Wheel Method, as well as Waving At You, from 1996’s Nothing For Juice album.

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While driven by Darnielle’s songs and stage prescence The Mountain Goats for some time have been a proper band, with Jon Wurster’s emotionally charged drumming and Peter Hughes’ melodic bass now firmly part of The Mountain Goats sound.

Increasingly on record, with albums such as Beat the Champ and All Eternals Deck, there has a good use of horn and string sections as well.

For this leg of the tour they are joined by Matt Douglas on clarinet, sax as well as guitar and keyboards. He is a welcome addition bringing the latest recorded band sound to stage, especially on Beat the Champ tracks such as the epic Heel Turn 2, which has the potential to be as big a live favourite as This Year and No Children.

The last time we saw The Mountain Goats in Bristol was a couple of years ago with just Darnielle and Hughes at the more sedate setting of St George’s Church. To see Darnielle and co for the first time as a pogo-ing rock outfit in a packed venue showed what a truly rich live act they are.

While the life saving ability of their songs is still open to question they are without doubt one of the most life affirming acts around.

Words and pictures by Joe Lepper

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The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

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The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ

Posted on 15 April 2015 by Joe

A Mountain Goats wrestling album was strangely inevitable. As followers of the band’s frontman John Darnielle on Twitter will know he’s a big sports fan. As followers of their music will also know Darnielle loves to spin a good yarn and wrestling is certainly full of plenty of tales.

Darnielle’s focus here is primarily the characters involved in the sport, both the wrestlers themselves and the fans like him, who as a young boy watched in awe as his heroes tumbled around for glory.

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South Western Territory and The Legend of Chavo Guerro offer a bold pair of openers, one painting a melancholy picture of one local wrestler making ends meet and the other a passionate ode to Darnielle’s childhood hero Guerro.

There’s tragedy too on this album. Luna, about a fire in 2010 that destroyed much of veteran female wrestler Luna Vachon’s possessions, is exceptional in its sadness, with Jon Wurster’s shuffling drums and jazz feel offering hope for Luna when all seems lost.

Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan, about the murder of Bruiser Brody, is another weepie, albeit an action packed one, and once again Wurster’s emotive drumming shines through here.

There’s a lot of familiar territory for Darnielle in wrestling. A common theme, in particularly on The Mountain Goats’ 2011 album All Eternals Deck, is the metaphorical masks people wear to hide away from trauma.

Here the masks are also very real as well as symbolic, in particular on Animal Mask and Werewolf Gimmick. Bull Ramos, who features towards the end of story, is another of these mask stories, as he is seemingly fighting for his life in surgery and clings to his carefully crafted image of the brave wrestler with the bull whip throughout.

Musically Darnielle’s arrangements continue to get ever more complex, as elements of classical, jazz and of course the folk and indie rock that the band are most associated with intertwine here.

Darnielle continues to have a fine ear for melody too, although here the killer tunes are back loaded towards the end of the album, with Luna among many picks in its latter stages. In contrast the first half is let down by inconsistency. The Legend of Chavo Guerro is full of driving energy and passion, while Foreign Object and the too long Heel Turn 2 feel more like album fillers.

These are minor gripes though on another album from The Mountain Goats that continues to shine the spotlight on the incredible resilience, wonder and frailty of human beings, from hulking costumed lumps tying each other knots to the wide eyed kids in awe of them.

8/10

by Joe Lepper

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Top 10 Albums – Here’s Mine, What Are Yours?

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Top 10 Albums – Here’s Mine, What Are Yours?

Posted on 10 July 2014 by Joe

We’ve covered our Top 100 alternative and independent albums, Top 10 debut albums and also compiled lists of our favourite folk and psychedelic albums. But I thought for a change I’d take away the restrictions of time and genre and present a list of my top ten albums as a way of finding out what your Top 10 Albums are. It’s a trickier task than you may think. I have constant nagging doubts that I should have included Lou Reed’s Transformer or Blondie’s Parallel Lines. You will face similar dilemmas. Feel free to tell us your Top 10 albums of all time in the comment box below.

10. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)

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Following their huge debut album Licensed to Ill the Beastie Boys second album went in a more experimental direction under producers The Dust Brothers and became one of the best ever examples of sampling. From Public Enemy to The Beatles through to Curtis Mayfield and film soundtracks there are hundreds of snippets that make up each track. The end product is a tribute to music and modern culture and an outstanding album from start to finish. To find out more about the songs and riffs featured on the album click here.

9. Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – Gorilla (1967)

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As a child, back when there were record players and cassettes and MP3s were the stuff of a mad man’s dreams, this was one of a handful of albums I used to beg my parents to play. This debut by art college psychedelic 1920s jazz mash up specialists is fun thanks to the humour of songwriter and vocalists Vivian Stanshall. But above all its got great tunes thanks to the involvement of Neil Inness, who went on to form the Rutles and has an outstanding ear for a good pop song. With tracks such as Cool Britannia, the Intro and the Outro and I’m Bored regularly used in advertising, TV and film this obscurity from a silly age will be surprisingly familiar.

8. The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree (2005)

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There are autobiographical albums and then there’s The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats and its frontman and songwriter John Darnielle. Here he lays bare an adolescence in the shadow of domestic abuse where he escapes into music, romance, drink and drugs. Its an album about survival and must have taken a huge amount of courage to write. Final track Pale Green Things, recalls the death of his step father and is so emotional and personal he can’t even play it live anymore. It is an impressive piece of work that shows the courage of young people and led me to become a fan of Darnielle and his band ever since. For more about The Mountain Goats read our Top Ten Bands That Changed Our Lives article here.

7. Fairport Convention- Liege and Lief (1969)

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A running theme of the albums I’ve selected is an admiration of the effort that has gone into their writing and production. Fairport Convention Liege and Lief’s was written and recorded following a tragic motorway accident in which their drummer Martin Lamble died and guitarist Richard Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklin also lost her life. What emerged was one of the most influential folk albums of all time as their mourning, painstaking research into traditional English folk and rock roots came together to create an outstanding set of songs. From Tam Lin to Crazy Man Michael this album is to this day one of the most exciting of any genre.

6. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

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I came late to Bob Dylan. It was something about the voice, the Christianity and whole 1980s rock star image that put me off. Then I saw Martin Scorcese’s documentary centred around his mid 1960s albums and the time he went electric. From Bringing It All Back Home to Highway 61 revisited to Blonde on Blonde it remains my favourite period of Dylan’s music. Of the three Highway stands tallest, just. Like a Rolling Stone is its most well known track but the power of Ballad of a Thin Man and Desolation Row are among those that keep me coming back to this album time and again.

5. The B-52s – The B-52s (1977)

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When Rock Lobster, one of the singles from this debut from the Athens based band, was re released in the mid 1980s, I had no idea just how talented they were. I loved Rock Lobster but after getting this debut album I was awestruck. Ricky Wilson’s guitar playing is unique and in they were also blessed with three incredible vocalists, with Ricky’s sister Cindy particularly standing out. Her emotion on Dance This Mess Around and Hero Worship alone are worth the cover price alone. For more about The B-52s read our Top Ten Artists That Changed Our Lives feature here.

4. XTC – English Settlement (1982)

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On a monthly basis I kick myself for not including this in our Top 100 Indie and Alternative Albums list. Our XTC album of choice was the excellent Drums and Wires. But as the years have gone by it is English Settlement that I now believe was the Swindon band’s masterpiece. Sure it has the singles Sense Working Overtime and Ball and Chain, but it’s the lesser known tracks such as No Thugs in Our House and English Roundabout that really shine here. It was to have opened the door to fame and fortune, but sadly coincided with a chronic bout of stage fright for song writer Andy Partridge who was unable to tour following its release or indeed since. For more about XTC read our Top Ten Bands That Changed Our Lives article here.

3. The Clash – London Calling (1979)

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Of all The Clash albums none are so perfectly executed as their third London Calling. Steeped in Caribbean and US influences this manages to expertly show The Clash for what they were a London punk band with a global outlook. This topped our Top 100 Indie and Alternative Albums list and remains one of my favourite albums thanks to superb lyrics on tacks like Lost in the Supermarket and instant pop appeal of tracks such as Train in Vain. Listening again it barely ages and remains a timeless classic. Read our full review of London Calling here.

2.  David Bowie – Hunky Dory (1971)

Dory

Last year I detailed my surprise discovery that David Bowie wasn’t just a silly man dancing in his pyjamas wth Mick Jagger. He was in fact the coolest man in music as albums such as Low, Heroes and this pre-Ziggy album clearly show. Of all his albums that I’ve recently discovered this is my favourite due to its sheer quantity of classic, inventive pop songs. Any album that has the tracks Changes and All You Pretty Things is deserving of a place on this list. But to add in Life on Mars, Queen Bitch and Quicksand as well makes this album one of the best pop albums of all time..

1. The Beatles – Revolver (1966)

beatles-revolver

Hey what about Sgt Peppers, Joe? Well, what about it? This seventh UK studio album from the Fab Four is by miles and miles of old George Martin infused studio tape the best Beatles album and in my view the best album of all time. You want pop? It’s got it in Taxman and Dr Robert. You want stunning orchestral melodies? Well, why not check out Eleanor Rigby. Or maybe awesome rock rifts are your thing, in that case She Said She Said will appeal. It’s even got the children’s classic Yellow Submarine, and on Tomorrow Never Knows a track that quite rightly is used to herald the start of counter culture. And then there’s the production with Martin’s backwards loops redefining music. Sgt Peppers is good, but this was the real game changer for modern music.

by Joe Lepper

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The Mountain Goats, St George’s, Bristol (Oct 7, 2013)

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The Mountain Goats, St George’s, Bristol (Oct 7, 2013)

Posted on 08 October 2013 by Joe

It was fitting that John Darnielle choose the track Love, Love, Love, from his 2005 album The Sunset Tree to start this first gig in a short UK tour as a Mountain Goats duo with long time bassist Peter Hughes.

From the gallery of this full and magnificent Georgian church venue to the pews beneath, the faces of the 350 or so people in attendance were full of love for Darnielle and his music, which has been part of many of their lives for the last decade or more.

John Darnielle (l) and Peter Hughes (r)

John Darnielle (l) and Peter Hughes (r)

But its not just the songs, with their common themes of self-reliance and overcoming fears, that bring such adoration. Love is also directed at  his and Hughes’s personalities and stage prescence. There were smiles and laughter aplenty as the transfixed audience heard insights into the song writing process and comic tales of performing to just one person in a German venue “as indie was going out and everyone was suddenly into electro music.”

As a duo, due to other commitments of their drummer Jon Wurster, the set was perfectly tailored for a mostly acoustic guitar and bass arrangement, with the black suited and long haired Darnielle switching to the imposing grand piano in the centre of the stage for five tracks in the middle.

It was this piano segment that was the most suited to the venue, with Eziekiel 7 sand the Permanent Efficacy of Grace, from 2009’ The Life of the World To Come a highlight. This tender haunting song about torture in the desert is among his most powerful tracks and even better live. The audience too played their part, with Darnielle and Hughes impressed with their perfectly timed applause just at the end of those magical mili-seconds as the sustain of the piano keys drifted away.

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The first gig in this tour meant there were a couple of loose moments, Hughes and Darnielle out of time a couple of times, a forgotten chord here and there, but it didn’t matter. It was all part of the experience as Darnielle and Hughes made this large venue in the heart of Bristol seem like we were sitting around our living room having a chat and a singalong.

Another welcome aspect of this tour was that it wasn’t to promote a specific album. Their last album was 2012’s Transcendental Youth, with most of its songs ill suited to a duo arrangement due to their beautiful horn arrangements by Matthew E White. This made it more of a career retrospective with a chance to play less well known tracks such as Cheshire County, from the 1995 EP Nine Black Poppies as well as the title track from 2008’s Heretic Pride, part of The Mountain Goats successful stint with the label 4AD.

The set ended with a rousing version of Furniture Store, a cover of a song originally by their friend Joel’s band Furniture Huschle, with the crowd standing up and joining in throughout.

Earlier on a member of the audience shouted out “John, it’s been four songs in and you haven’t mentioned Satan yet.” Darnielle laughed as he knew that the opportunity to sing of “the dark Lord” would be too big a chance to turn down as the giant image of Jesus looked down on the stage from behind him in this former church.

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It was the encore where that particular fan and the rest of us, who were still standing, were treated to the appearance of Satan. First with No Children, the track from Tallahassee about a loathsome, devilish couple that is surely in most Mountain Goats fans top ten tracks list. Then the gig ended as we had all hoped, with The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton. This tale of two teenagers separated through an archaic attitude to mental health and human expression with its finale singalong of ‘Hail Satan” was just about the only track that could have ended this gig.

Darnielle informs us that he doesn’t plan what to say between songs “and bands that do are the worst people on the planet.” He may not plan his banter but he certainly knows how to use it effectively, as well as plan a set list for a massive church. As he left stage a fan in the front handed him a sketch. Darnielle hugged him warmly then later praised him on Twitter. Love, Love, Love indeed.

 By Joe Lepper

Set List…compiled by Matt Telfer.

Love, Love, Love

Linda Blair was born innocent

Up the Wolves

You or Your Memory

The Diaz Brothers

You Were Cool

Maybe Sprout Wings

1 Samuel 15:23

In memory of Satan

Tallahassee

Genesis 30:3

Ezekiel 7 and the permanent efficacy of grace

Cheshire County

Heretic Pride

Absolute Lithops Effect

Woke Up New

Furniture Store (Furniture Huschle cover)

ENCORE – No children, Best ever death metal band out of Denton

See Also: Ten Bands That Changed Our Lives: The Mountain Goats

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The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas

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The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas

Posted on 13 August 2013 by Joe

These days bedroom recording artists have Logic X  and a raft of other gadgets to play around with. Back in 2001  The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle relied on his Panosonic RX-FT500 boombox and its tiny, tinny condenser mic. Turns out this ancient piece of technology, which was bought by Darnielle in 1989, died for a while in the 90s but revived itself  for this recording, was perfect for taking the listener into the heart of his story telling lyrics.

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The technology was just one part of the perfect storm of amateur equipment and mundane events that make All Hail West Texas, which has been reissued this month with seven extra tracks, such a special album. Recorded truly alone, at his new home in a new town during a week while his wife was away playing hockey, gives him a sense of isolation and really understanding the characters he’s writing about here.

Be it Cyrus and Jeff, Darnielle’s two teenage heroes whose dreams are shattered by an adult world that doesn’t understand them in Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton, or the life spiraling out of control in Fall of the Star High School Running Back, Darnielle’s alone time brings them to life. Color in Your Cheeks, about making friends and an idealised view of US immigration, is another that clearly benefits from Darnielle’s lonely situation and his sense of longing for  friendship.

Another factor in its recording was he’d just started a new healthcare job, working with children in a residential facility, and was undergoing a period of  ‘orientation’ training, leaving him plenty of time to scribble down lyrics and flesh out the likes of Jeff and Cyrus.

Mostly recorded as they were being written using this old machine also gives the album a unique feel as if Darnielle had to get the song committed to cassette before it broke down again or the tape ran out.

Thankfully the remastering involved here is more a lick of paint than a full scale renovation. To spruce it up too much which destroy its splendour. The seven extra tracks are also welcome, recorded around the same time and also showing the same keen sense of melody and interesting lyrics of those that made the final cut. Waco would ordinarily have become one of his most well known songs, but the tape cut out as he was recording and further attempts to sing it never quite matched this take for Darnielle. Indonesia, which he confesses would not have sounded out of place on his first album for 4AD Tallahassee, is another highpoint of these extra tracks.

So over a decade on what else is there, apart from some great lyrics and intimate, amateurish recording, that makes this album special? The music itself has to be good to make a great album, and here, Darnielle’s acoustic guitar and vocal delivery are full of wonderful melody and passion. Pink and Blue, for example, is so simple, so effective and so darn catchy. Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton even has a crowd pleasing singalong ‘Hail Satan’ that delights Mountain Goats audiences to this day.

For those new to Mountain Goats this is a pretty good starting point, but far from typical of their current sound. It was the end of an era, with The Mountain Goats moving to the large indie label 4AD shortly after and more intricate, clever use of studio production. Now on Merge they are firmly a full band centred around Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster. There are die hard fans that regret Darnielle’s progression and prefer him to continue to slave away at the boombox. I for one welcome his musical education and feel equally uplifted by the rising horn sections that light up The Mountain Goats’ 2012 album Transcendental Youth as I do when I hear Darnielle strumming away on his own in front of his old Panasonic boombox.

9/10

by Joe Lepper

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Matthew E White – The Thekla, Bristol (April 21, 2013)

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Matthew E White – The Thekla, Bristol (April 21, 2013)

Posted on 22 April 2013 by Joe

Matthew E White’s signature story on stage is about his failed attempt to meet his hero Randy Newman. Armed with the address of his gated mansion in Los Angeles and a couple of his own CDs, White got as far as Newman’s maid, who promised to pass his music and a note on to the great man.

Matthew E White

Matthew E White

He’s still waiting for a response and in the meantime is spending his time creating marvelous, genre defying music in his native Richmond, Virginia, with the Spacebomb collective of musicians.

The Newman tale is a nice story and is part of an engaging and warm performance from White aboard Bristol’s legendary former fishing boat venue The Thekla. Tonight its hull was packed. No wonder, given White is touring his critically acclaimed debut album as a solo artist Big Inner, a mix of soul, country, funk and rock featuring brass, a choir and even disco strings.

Here the set was dominated by Big Inner tracks but this time as a bearded country rock five piece, with keyboards and slide guitar filling in for the horns and strings. While giving a different edge to Big Inner’s near perfect production, this arrangement, especially the keyboard wizardry, is still superb.

Big Inner track Steady Pace’s driving funk remains intact and White, resplendent in chunky knit jumper and gigantic beard, and the bassist even performed an excellent Shadows style guitar dance. Big Inner tracks Hot Toddies and Brazos groove was also far from hindered by the vintage sound of this guitar and keyboards live sound. Big Love, the album’s star track, was another to work well even without its album sheen.

Matthew E White

Matthew E White

A Newman song inevitably appeared, a tender version of Sail Away, and by the encore there was time to trail a new song Human Style, which was very much in the style of Big Inner and showing that White, whose brass arrangements brought to life The Mountain Goats’ most recent album Transcendental Youth, has far more than one remarkable solo album in his locker.

Before the set was over White was full of thanks for those that turned up, seemingly genuinely impressed that so many people are coming to his gigs to hear his tender songs. At the end he promised to be on hand at the merchandise stall, desperate to tell people more about The Spacebomb collective from Richmond that created Big Inner and this tour. “And if you are ever in Richmond, look me up, we’ll have dinner, go out for drinks, it’ll be fun,” White said. Coming from a man who was happy to saunter into Randy Newman’s mansion he seemed like he genuinely meant the invitation. Nicest guy in music? Possibly on this evidence.

By Joe Lepper

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Matthew E White – Big Inner

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Matthew E White – Big Inner

Posted on 23 January 2013 by Joe

We first became alerted to Matthew E White, the bearded behemoth of a musician and arranger from Virginia, when The Mountain Goats recruited him to organise the horn arrangements on their 2012 album Transcendental Youth. The deftness of the trumpets from his nine-piece band brought out new qualities in Mountain Goats man John Darnielle’s songwriting in one of the most successful collaborations of the year.

Around the same time he was also releasing his debut album Big Inner in the US, which has finally been released over here in the UK. Here White is putting his full band through their paces with a mission to blend New Orleans soul funk with the laid back qualities of country.  The end result is timeless country soul at its best and fans of Lambchop’s Nixon are going to love this.

Where this album is most successful is the big horn section numbers in particular Big Love.  This track starts off with squeaking sax, like a later Talk Talk track, before the killer bass line kicks in while the piano takes the melody behind White’s laid back vocals. Strings appear in places before the awe inspiring chorus complete with gospel choir backing vocals. Amazing stuff.

Much of the rest of the album sticks to a more laid back groove, more akin to Lambchop than White’s more direct and evident soul funk influences. The melancholic Hot Toddies and opener One of These Days provide some of the best of these relaxed moments.  The latter’s horn arrangement in particular is a work of beauty.

There is still time across its seven tracks to bring in some of the epic qualities that make Big Love such a killer track. The almost cinematic sounding gospel choir and refrain of “Jesus Christ is your friend’ on Brazos, which builds up wonderfully across its nine plus minutes, is a particular standout and proves a perfect closing track to one of this year’s most interesting UK releases.

9/10

by Joe Lepper

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Top 20 Albums of 2012

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Top 20 Albums of 2012

Posted on 07 December 2012 by Joe

The  culture of illegal downloading and Spotify playlists have conspired to give the album a torrid time this year.  According to latest figures from industry body the BPI, album sales fell by 13.8 per cent during the first half of the year and in the second week of August Rhianna’s album Talk That Talk became the lowest selling UK number one album when it  shifted just 9,758 copies.

Albums are arguably becoming a more niche  purchase among consumers, which is why there will be a whole bunch of albums in this best of list that you will have never heard of and by bands whose names will be new to you. But that doesn’t mean the quality of these albums is diminished. We have at least one enormous seller, a couple of concept albums as well as some stunning debuts by brand new bands. Above all all those on our list are interesting, have tales to tell and are showcasing artists doing interesting things with music. Album sales may be down, but the quality of music produced this year shows that critically at least 2012 was a great year for the album. Sit back, get your Christmas lists ready and enjoy Neonfiller’s Top 20 Albums of 2012.

20.North Sea Scrolls

North Sea Scrolls is an album that brings together two celebrated musical grumps, Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan, along with journalist Andrew Mueller, to create an alternative history of the British Isles. That’s right its a concept album, but one that has a worthy place on our list due to its notion of a Britian where the broadcaster Chris Evans is ritualistically sacrificed, 60s producer Joe Meek is culture minister, Enoch Powell is poet laureate and Ian Ball, the kidnapper of Princess Anne, has a crisis of identity in Broadmoor about Ian Ball the singer from Gomez. (DR) More

19. Jack White  – Blunderbuss

We are proud to admit that foppish indie bands who struggle to shift a few thousand CDs are our usual review fodder. It is unheard of for us to review an album that is top of the UK and US albums charts at the time of writing. But for Blunderbuss, the stunning solo debut of former White Stripes man Jack White, we will make an exception. (JL) More

18. Lambchop  – Mr M

As Lambchop albums go Mr M lurks somewhere between the soulful sound of Nixon and the intimacy of Is A Woman.  Its tender subject matter and strings give the impression that Lambchop leader Kurt Wagner is drifting up to heaven with Vic Chesnutt, the late singer- songwriter and friend to Wagner who the album is dedicated to. One of the most beautiful albums of the year. (JL) More

17. Shearwater – Animal Joy

Shearwater have come along way since they were formed by Okkervil River man Jonathan Meiburg as a folky side project. Now signed to Sub Pop  and with Meiburg long departed from Okkervil River, they are a fully fledged indie rock band in their own right. This is arguably their most accessibly release yet, with Meiburg’s fiercely environmental lyrics blending well with a raft of powerful and thought provoking indie rock tracks, with Breaking the Yearlings and centrepiece Insolence among many highpoints. (JL) More

16. The Shins – Port of Morrow

The Shins - Port of Morrow

James Mercer’s Shins are back and getting regular play on alternative and mainstream radio stations alike.  There aren’t many acts that can appeal to such a large demographic, but then not all acts are able to expertly serve up one of the best summer pop music albums of the year. Mainstream music with an alternative edge doesn’t  get better than this. (DR) More

15. Efterklang – Piramida

Efterklang - Piramida

This is the least orchestrated album the Danish band has produced. It takes time to reveal itself, but it is worth the initial persistence to let it unravel its charms. It is not an album that will appeal if you are looking for catchy melodies or a sing-a-long chorus, the songs brood and build and work their way into your brain over time. (DR) More

14. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

As you would expect from frontman John Darnielle’s writing there is still a hell of a lot of lyrical self-help, with the track Until I Am Whole a fine addition to the Darnielle survival songbook. But with the birth of his son Roman this year he has presumably less time to wallow, as his life fills with even more hope and optimism. The use of brass, arranged by Matthew E White, across the album probably best typifies the uplifting feel, particularly the trumpets on the relentlessly upbeat Cry for Judas and the sumptuous horn arrangement on White Cedar. Another great release from the man many believe is one of America’s greatest living lyricists. (JL) More

13. Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament – The Violence

In the final instalment of the former Hefner man’s trilogy about his native Essex he turns his attention to the horror of the county’s 17th century witch trials. This double album is packed full of history, subtle melodies, powerful images and above all a sense of humanity typifies so much of his songwriting. The Violence has been a huge hit among critics this year who admire Hayman’s attempt to find Albion, a quest  that has been in decline in the music industry since the 1960s and early 1970s heyday of The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. A modern folk classic. (JL) More

12. Hospitality – Hospitality

Central to the success of this Brooklyn indie-pop trio’s self titled debut album is the singing and songwriting of lead singer Amber Papini. Her turn of phrase, effortless vocals and keenest of ears for a catchy single are only hinted at on opener Eighth Avenue, a kind of Belle and Sebastian rip. But as the album progresses track after track of hook laden, memorable, potential singles follow. If you don’t believe us, then maybe Rolling Stone will convince you. The magazine has named it among their Top 50 albums of the year. (JL) More

11. Beach House – Bloom

Beach House’s fourth album is called Bloom for good reason, as it emerges spring like from the icy cold wintery pop of 2010’s breakthrough album Teen Dream. As with Teen Dream, Bloom is still full of wonderful dreamy synth and guitar pop but the duo, of singer and keyboardist  Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally, are no longer walking with snow crunching under foot. They are now in a sunlit meadow somewhere gazing at the dandelions and marvelling at the world. (JL) More

10. Django Django – Django Django

Good old-fashioned pop with some modern art rock sensibility is key to Django Django’s appeal. Storm and the insane Duane Eddy-meets-astronaut-meets-Cairo market trader single Wor are included and are immediate standouts. But there’s plenty more pop up the sleeves of this London based band that topped our Bands to Watch Out for in 2011 list and met while studying art in Edinburgh. (JL) More

9. The Walkmen – Heaven

To use an REM comparison, The Walkmen’s latest album Heaven is their Lifes Rich Pageant moment. Just like that fourth album by REM, Heaven is an album by a band on top of their game in life and career and enjoying every moment. Some fine work behind the production desk by Fleet Foxes, Modest Mouse and Built To Spill producer Phil Ek has helped create this joyous sound. He’s not only added some pastoral Fleet Foxes moments, but has also roped in the Foxes’ Robin Pecknold for backing vocal duties. Think Fleet Foxes with balls. (JL) More

8. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The road to Nebraska is littered with the ghosts of Americana and getting there demands a humble homage to the stoic wraiths of bearded plaid shirts to navigate its precise route. It’s rare for outsiders to succeed and unknown for the path to start from suburban Sweden, yet First Aid Kit have majestically transposed their whimsical folk deep into the mid-west, repairing the genres often passive conservatism, to redefine the contours of alt-country. (DN) More

7. Bob Mould  – Silver Age

The former Hüsker Dü and Sugar man has gone back to basics for his first album in three years. Amid an eclectic career, which has included devising TV wrestling shows and DJing, Mould has returned to what he does best for this album; fronting a three piece indie rock band with his gigantic voice and crunching guitar. (JL) More

6. Frankie Rose – Intersteller

Well this was  a surprise. There we were bracing ourselves for another standard indie-pop release from former Crystal Stilts, Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls member  Frankie Rose when this pops into our in box . Turns out she has created not just one of the best indie-pop release of the year, but one of 2012′s best pop albums. More

5. Field Music  – Plumb

Field Music Plumb

If you haven’t been sold on Field Music by any of their previous releases you are unlikely to be converted here, but you are clearly a lost cause. If you love their previous work you may find Plumb takes some time to reveal its brilliance, but once it does you’ll be hooked by their XTC and King Crimson-style riffs and quick fire pop. (DR) More

4. Guided by Voices – The Bears For Lunch

Release the Bears is an excellent record by a seminal 1990s act enjoying their productive renaissance. This is album number three for the band in 2012 alone and is the best of the bunch. Sure, there are a couple of underdeveloped tracks and throwaway numbers, but us die-hard GBV fans wouldn’t have it any other way. (DR) More

3. Tame Impala  – Lonerism

It was no surprise to see MGMT, Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridman credited with applying the finishing touches to Tame Impala’s second album of psychedelic pop. Largely recorded by Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker at home, in hotels, studios and even a plane, Fridman has added that final pop savvy touch, just as he did to the band’s stunning debut Innerspeaker (2010). The end result is something that perfectly blends the care free attitude of a bedroom recording act  with the swagger of a seasoned old pro behind the mixing desk. (JL) More

2. David Byrne and St Vincent – Love This Giant

Love This Giant

Collaborations are something to approach with caution, for every example where the combining artists bring out the best in each other (Iron & Wine and Calexico) there is another where the worst of both is brutally exposed (the appalling Lulu by Lou Reed and Metallica). The good news is that Love This Giant, the work of David Byrne and Annie Clark AKA St.Vincent, falls firmly into the former category. Love This Giant, from the opening seconds of the brilliant ‘Who’ shows itself to be a fun, high quality, set of pop music. It is clever and sophisticated, but never in a way that stops the music being accessible. (DR) More

1. Tigercats Isle of Dogs

 

Our only 10/10 score for a new album this year and our only ever top mark from our co-editor Joe Lepper for a new album. As an indie-pop album goes this is as good as it gets. It’s teaming with radio friendly, infectious hooks, especially on Full Moon Reggae Party, Easter Island and Banned at the Troxy. It also has a sense of completeness as the band take us on an indiepop road tour across the east end of London. This is an album that may take time  to find a wider audience but over the next decade will gather more and more fans. (JL) More

Reviews by Joe Lepper, Dorian Rogers and David Newbury

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The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

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The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

Posted on 13 September 2012 by Joe

Sitting somewhere between the indie rock of Heretic Pride (2008) and the soft piano ballads of The Life of the World to Come (2010), there’s a real sense of joy in the bulk of the songs on The Mountain Goats’ latest album Transcendental Youth.

As you would expect from frontman John Darnielle’s writing there is still a hell of a lot of lyrical self-help, with the track Until I Am Whole a fine addition to the Darnielle survival songbook. But with the birth of his son Roman this year he has presumably less time to wallow, as his life fills with even more hope and optimism.

The use of brass, arranged by Matthew E White, across the album probably best typifies the uplifting feel, particularly the trumpets on the relentlessly upbeat Cry for Judas and the sumptuous horn arrangement on White Cedar.

Adding to this upbeat feel is a change in the way the band arranges the songs, with Darnielle, drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes testing the songs out at gigs before taking them into the studio. This gives the tracks a greater sense of urgency and allows Wurster and Hughes to shine.

In Superchunk’s Wurster, who is also Bob Mould’s  drummer of choice, and Hughes, Darnielle has the perfect accompaniment, with the bass and bass drum mirroring the heart of his songs, while Wurster’s snare apes his pent up anger magnificently. This is especially the case on the track Night Light.

Hughes bass run on Cry for Judas is also a wonderful addition and may perhaps not have been allowed to flourish under Darnielle’s previous method of write song, record song with band, play song live with band.

This mixture of working through songs on the hoof and then carefully recording them makes this among the more interesting of their releases.

Darnielle’s recruiting of White and his own keen ear for arrangements, which was taken to a new level on All Eternals Deck (2011)’s Age of Kings, is progressing well on this latest album, especially on White Cedar. It seems very likely that Owen Pallett, who Darnielle has been collaborating with this year, has been an influence on this album.

There are those that might find some of the tracks over produced, and there is perhaps a case for saying that about Lakeside View Apartments Suite. But surely there aren’t any Mountain Goats admirers left who think he should have stuck to belting out bedroom recordings on an old Panasonic boombox, as majestic as those early recording were.

Darnielle was, is and always will be a storyteller, he just uses slightly different methods and instruments to appeal to his listeners. And the odd horn arrangement here and there are hardly dramatic curve balls. I enjoy listening to how Darnielle’s talent for musical arrangements has developed over the years and look forward to more progress on future releases.

9/10

by Joe Lepper

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Top Ten Great Songwriters – Part Two

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Top Ten Great Songwriters – Part Two

Posted on 19 June 2012 by Joe

What makes a good song writer? Is it the ability to turn a phrase on its head , capture an emotion perfectly or to simply be a great story teller? Here’s the second part of our top ten greatest songsmiths. View the first part here.

5. Chris Difford

Back in his days with Squeeze Chris Difford he would scribble down his lyrics, rush over to fellow band member Glen Tilbrook’s house, who would bring music to his wonderful words. While, arguably his best song writing days are behind him, he still releases and writes, with his last album coming in 2010, which just about qualifies him for our list as an active and releasing songwriter.

Chris Difford

Among the main reasons for his inclusion are his expert story telling and biting observational lyrics. For us his finest song was Squeeze’s Up The Junction, the tale of a doomed romance as  the protagonist drinks and gambles his way out of a family and home. It has no chorus and ends with him failing to get the girl, but was still a hit. Here’s one of our best parts where his life begins to crumble.

This morning at 4:50, I took her rather nifty
Down to an incubator, Where thirty minutes later
She gave birth to a daughter, Within a year a walker
She looked just like her mother, If there could be another

And now she’s two years older, Her mother’s with a soldier
She left me when my drinking, Became a proper stinging
The devil came and took me, From bar to street to bookie
No more nights by the telly, No more nights nappies smelling

Humour is another facet of his lyrics and Cool for Cats typifies this well as the male bravado is given the Difford treatment with lines such as

I fancy this, I fancy that, I wanna be so flash
I give a little muscle, and I spend a little cash
But all I get is bitter and a nasty little rash
And by the time I’m sober, I’ve forgotten what I’ve had
And ev’rybody tells me that it’s cool to be a cat

His enthusiasm for encouraging songwriting is another factor  in his inclusion as he spends some of his time these days giving talks and using gigs to explain his craft.

4.PJ Harvey

If an artists songwriting abilities were based on award nominations then Polly Jean Harvey has enough to justify a dozen careers in music. Four Mercury Prize nominations alone over an 18 year period, the last two as winner in 2001 and 2011, make her the most successful artist in that particular competition.

PJ Harvey

Even if you have little patience for back slapping industry events it is hard to argue with the quality of her back catalogue with 20 years worth of albums and barely a wrong step amongst them. Like Kristin Hersh she has an amazing ability to move between musical styles without ever losing her own identity. Vocally she is a real chameleon, listen to the timbre of ‘Rid Of Me‘ compared to the fragile folk stylings of ‘Let England Shake‘ for evidence of that.

Lyrically her work has always had a very personal feel, with raw sexuality and emotional openess a repeated theme. More recently her work has taken on a more thematic approach, never more so than on her critically acclaimed 2011 album Let England Shake. War, identity and the concept of England and Englishness being the central themes on the album. This doesn’t always make for easy listening, more poetry than lyrics, but it is bold songwriting and stands Harvey out from most of her peers.

Death was in the ancient fortress,
shelled by a million bullets
from gunners, waiting in the copses
with hearts that threatened to pop their boxes,
as we advanced into the sun
death was all and everyone.

3. Nick Cave

Nick Cave doesn’t just tell stories in song. He likes to get right inside the head of his protagonists, with criminals a particular fascination. With the Bad Seeds and as a solo artist Cave’s  gothic horror style makes him more akin to the likes of Edgar Allen Poe or Harry Crews than the Australian punk  scene he emerged from.

Take Mercy Seat, his track about a killer facing the electric chair that was so brilliantly covered by Johnny Cash. All the way through the protagonist bravely protests his innocence and says he has no fear for his impending death. But as the electricity sears through his body he finally admits to telling a lie. Whether the lie is about his innocence or his bravery in the face of death is nicely left for the listener to decide.

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
And a truth for a truth
And anyway I told the truth
But I’m afraid I told a lie.

The Murder Ballads album is another of our favourites, with Where the Wild Roses Grow among the album’s most well known and lyrically best tracks. Loosely based on the traditional tale Down in the Willow Garden it tells of a man killing his lover and laying her to rest among the flowers. Cave tells the story through the killer’s and victims eyes, with Kylie Minogue taking the role of the unfortunate lover. In this track and each of the others on the album he describes the moment of death so perfectly, it’s as if the listener was there. Here’s the final two verses of Where the Wild Roses grow where the terrible deed takes place.

On the third day he took me to the river
He showed me the roses and we kissed
And the last thing I heard was a muttered word
As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist

On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow
And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief
As I kissed her goodbye, I said, ‘All beauty must die’
And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth

Cave is still writing, using his skill as a story teller across music, film and literature, including writing the screenplay for Australian western The Proposition (2004) and as one quarter of Grinderman, which disbanded in 2011. At the time of writing he is helping develop a film adaptation of the Threepenny Opera with the actor Andy Serkis.

2. Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg is arguably the UK’s greatest living folk songwriter, with his lyrics managing to mix serious political and social commentary with sparkling observations. He is also one of the few songwriters to write about the issues of the day, with corruption at New International and the rise and ultimate fall of the BNP among his more recent subjects.

Billy Bragg at Glastonbury 2011 (pic by Joe Lepper)

Never Buy the Sun, about News International, phone hacking and the shockingly irresponsibly coverage of the Hillsborough stadium disaster in its Sun newspaper was written in 2011 and shows as far as Bragg is concerned the protest song is alive and well.

Among our favourites is Levi Stubbs tears. This heartbreakingly sad tale of a girl and her miserable life seeking salvation in the voice of Four Tops singer Levi Stubbs, whose tears mirror her’s. Here’s one of our favourite versus.

She ran away from home with her mother’s best coat
She was married before she was even entitled to vote
And her husband was one of those blokes
The sort that only laughs at his own jokes
The sort that war takes away And when there wasn’t a war he left her anyway

It’s no wonder Woody Guthrie, the great American protest singer is such an influence. Like Bragg Guthrie also transcended the simple protest song and often wrote about love and family life. We caught Bragg’s show at Glastonbury in 2011 and urge anyone who hasn’t seen him to do so. Anyone who wants some political discourse wll be disappointed, I’m just going to belt em out” he told the crowd.Its something he’s been doing for decades.

Joint 1.David Lowery

David Lowery first came to our attention when he was the singer with Santa Cruz country-ska-waltz-punk-pop band Camper Van Beethoven just before they split up (first time around) in 1990. The band were known as a bit of a one-hit novelty act thanks to ‘Take The Skinheads Bowling’  but this song (as good as it is) distracts from what a sophisticated songwriter and lyricist Lowery was and is.

David Lowery

The early songs were brilliant in their own right, humorous and anarchic with a real emotive sense of the world that Camper Van Beethoven existed in their formative years, but it is on the last albums they recorded where Lowery’s lyrical genius became apparent. On the peerless ‘Sweethearts’ he sings;

Angels wings are icing over
McDonnell-Douglas olive drab
They bear the names of our sweethearts
And the captain smiles, as we crash

Heard in the context of the music their is something just a little bit heartbreaking about those words.

Over the past two decades Lowery has done many things including recording with Sparklehorse, writing for Sussanah Hoffs and reuniting with Camper Van Beethoven in 2004 to record the brilliant concept album New Roman Times in 2004. Throughout that period his main day job has been fronting Cracker with guitarist Johnny Hickman and writing dozens of brilliant songs over their eight studio albums. His lyrics clover a whole trange of subjects but always manage to painty a beautiful picture, take these verses from ‘Big Dipper’;

Hey Jim, Kerouac
(The brother of the famous Jack),
Or so he likes to say.
Lucky bastard

He’s sitting on the Cafe Xeno’s steps
With a girl I’m not over yet
Watching all the world go by

He continues to write and record music, and each new album serves up a selection of thoughtful, witty songs that sound like no one else. His last was released in 2009 and finished with these wise words;

So if you want to see what’s in the shadows
the burning meadows
of our apocalypse
I dream of fallow fields
I dream of winter
cause dying is easy,
It’s living that’s hard.

You can read lots more about David Lowery’s songwriting process (and get a bit of a history lesson to boot) at his 300 s0ngs blog.

Joint 1. John Darnielle

The Mountain Goats’  John Darnielle is America’s greatest story teller in song. Sometimes as on Sunset Tree his songs are about his own life and recovery from an abusive, early homelife.

The Mountain Goats (John Darnielle, centre)

Other times his songs are about fictional characters or the lives of real, sometimes famous people, such as Judy Garland and Charles Bronson, who feature on All Eternals Deck (2011). Autopsy Garland from that album, in which he imagines Judy Garland’s last moments, remembering the abuse from studio executives as she takes her final, global road trip away from the horrors of Emerald City, is a particular highlight in his career.

Fat rich men love their 12-year-olds
Deco cufflinks and cognac by the glass
Look West from London toward the emerald city
Remember Minnesota

Across his career Darnielle’s  lyrics are always compelling and his stories are always told with conviction. In an interview with InDigest Darnielle explains more about his motivation tell stories in song

 It’s kind of impossible for me to think of a song that doesn’t also tell a story. That whole period in the early nineties when indie-ish bands were into “abstract” lyrics that didn’t tell stories or have beginnings middles & ends, God I hated that

Among our highlights in a career, which started through releasing tapes  of just vocals and acoustic guitar made on a boombox and currently resides with Merge Records, is No Children from Tallahassee about a hateful, but wonderfully well-suited couple, and All Hail West Texas’s The Best Ever Death Metal about teenage friends Cyrus and Jeff. In one cruel moment Cyrus is sent to a mental institution, known as ‘the school’ because of his love of death metal, which paradoxically appears to be the only thing keeping him sane.

This was how Cyrus got sent to the school
Where they told him he’d never be famous.
And this was why Jeff,  in the letters he’d write to his friend,
Helped develop a plan to get even.
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.
The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you.
Hail satan! Hail satan tonight!

Darnielle used to work in such a place as a mental health nurse, proving Partridge’s point that the most successful songs are about what you know. It is perhaps the songs about his own life where his song writing is most poignant and powerful.

Here’s some lyrics from Pale Green Things, about a rare good memory about the step father who beat him. This  track, set at a racetrack with the young Darnielle gazing at the green moss and grass growing in the dirt underfoot as he stands beside his abuser, was another in our list to make our top ten tearjerkers list . The doubling up of the phrase ‘at last’ is simple but tearfully effective.

My sister called at 3 AM, Just last December
She told you how you’d died at last, at last
That morning at the racetrack, was one thing that I remembered
I turned it over in my mind,like a living Chinese finger trap
Seaweed in Indiana sawgrass, pale green things, pale green things

Despite a formidable track record of song writing behind him arguably Darnielle’s best work may still be ahead of him. As Autopsy Garland and For Charles Bronson on On All Eternal’s Deck (2011) showed the quality of  his song writing is showing no sign of letting up. Here in an exert from For Charles Bronson Darnielle charts the Death Wish star’s final years in film, battling alcoholism and his falling star.

Hit the gym each night, stay cool and seldom speak
Keep the heart of a champion, never let them see you’re weak

And whatever they say on your page three mention
Focus on the parts that make you feel good, be grateful for the attention

For more about John Darnielle see: Ten Bands That Changed Our Lives Part 4 – The Mountain Goats

Compiled by Joe Lepper, Dorian Rogers and David Newbury

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