If Mayan predictions are correct, this is our final year before the human race is made extinct in the coming apocalypse. So let’s hope we get to the pinnacle of musical achievement before then. No pressure.
Iron & Wine
Kiss Each Other Clean
From gentle lo-fi beginnings with 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle to 2007’s band-accompanied The Shepherd’s Dog, Sam Beam’s journey to become indie-folk’s most treasured poster boy has been one of wistful melancholy. Kiss Each Other Clean picks up where The Shepherd’s Dog left off, with indie purists glad to hear that Beam’s introspective lyrical whispering is still intact, coupled with further exploration and flirtation into afro-pop and funk, as last seen on his previous album.
Album opener “Walking Far From Home”, with its gospel-tinged layered vocals is a case in point, slotting well into Beam’s back catalogue of excursions into tender earnestness, whilst the warm and memorable chorus of “Tree By The River” would not have sounded out of place on Beam’s debut. Interesting experimentation with instruments are indicative of an album about progression however, and the subtle jazz flute on “Rabbit Will Run” and the crying saxophone on “Big Burned Hand”, together with Beam’s meditative poetry make this record a less black-and-white affair, something that Beam himself hints at on the colourful neon album cover.
Kiss Each Other Clean is a panorama of organic melodies and gushing emotion, that will be a surely be a hit with current fans, and should earn Iron & Wine more attention as a proven specialist in his field of gentle indie-folk. The unexpected layers of funk, soul and familiar warm vocals present here all point towards an artist capable of much more than mere acoustic numbers, and as a result Kiss Each Other Clean is a successful execution of Iron & Wine’s desire to push the musical envelope further and to more interesting limits.
James Blake might well have been the most used words on the internet in the last few months for all the fixation his music has generated. With the BBC now official proclaiming him “big” in their Sounds of 2011 poll (and forcing uncomfortable interviews with Nick Grimshaw), it is probably for the best that Blake recorded his debut album before the media storm.
James Blake, follow a trend set by his previous EPs, CMYK and Klavierwerke, of having not much in common with his previous releases. This is Blake’s first release in which his vocal skills are given centre stage: soulful, slightly melancholic and less manipulated than before.
It would be wrong to say this change has generated some backlash, or even disappointment, it seems more a case of preference. Those initially allured by Blake’s experimentation as a dubstep producer maybe less attracted to an album of what is essentially acoustic music. As a lyricist, Blake isn’t quite as accomplished as in his production, at times touching as with “Wilhelms Scream” but also occasionally grating as with the repetition of “I Never Learnt To Share”.
Something has been lost in translation from producer to performer. You still can hear the same electronic pioneering, that was so fascinating from the beginning, but mixed as sparse acoustic album it isn’t quite as transfixing.
Diddy Dirty Money
Last Train to Paris
Diddy Dirty Money is the latest incarnation of Sean John Coombs, (aka Puff Daddy, aka P Diddy aka Diddy – I’ve lost track of the amount of ridiculous variations on his name), plus two female singers, Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harpe, known collectively as Dirty Money. Before you listen to the record, I urge you to pay little attention to Diddy’s description of it as a “concept album” (apparently is has a story?). This doesn’t really come across, and it’s also pretty redundant in terms of album appreciation.
The first album since 2006 from Diddy reaffirms him as hip-hop royalty, as well as showcasing two incredibly talented female artists – Dirty Money. If Hip-Hop or dance is your thing, why haven’t you heard this?
With a plethora of A-list music superstars lending their vocals, (seriously, the tracklist reads as the biggest who’s who in hip-hop since, well, Kanye West’s album), the record can’t help but hit the spot. There’s a track for everyone, “I hate That You Love Me” is a personal favourite, but with the likes of Drake, Justin Timberlake, Lil Wayne, and even Skepta getting involved, you’re sure to find one that you like.
Even if you’re not a Diddy fan, give this a listen. I just have one criticism; stick to one bloody name from now on please.
The Battle Rages On
Perhaps you’ve heard of Charlie Louvin in connection with fashionable youngsters like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Alex McManus of Bright Eyes, or Will Oldham, all of whom sidled up to sing alongside the eighty year old, of country music fame, on his self-titled comeback album in 2007.
During the forties the Louvin Brothers (Charlie and Ira) carried the old-time tradition of sibling duet singing into the pop world, paving the way for another funny-lookin’ duo, the Everly Brothers. Despite the Louvins’ garish Christian evangelism (or perversely because of it), pie-eyed alt-country forebears like Gram Parsons also dug the Louvin’s. Their influence can be detected in some surprisingly trendy places.
But The Battle Rages On, Charlie’s swansong, released in December shortly before his death in January, is not the place to start. First off, it’s a star-spangled concept album honoring in broad strokes those who serve their country for the greater good in war. Second, the songs are too often overpowered by the intricate symphony of gasps, wheezes and gummy splutterings that inevitably accompanies an octogenarian chain smoker wherever he goes. Try The Tragic Songs of Life (1956) or Satan is Real (1960) instead.
The Joy Formidable
The Big Roar
The Joy Formidable have been basking in the “one to watch” hype for some time now, so it’s about time that this debut from the trio was finally released.
At first listen, The Big Roar can be best summed up in one word: loud. But when properly taking the time to appreciate the record, it’s clear that the album has so much more to give. Lead singer, Ritzy Bryan (I suspect that’s not her real name), admitted that the album was recorded in the corner of her bedroom, and this really comes across – and sounds amazing. The tracks are refreshingly messy, shambolic and rowdy. At times writhing with anger, at times heart-felt, there’s a euphoric feel to the whole thing. Often compared to Arcade Fire, it’s clear to see why: “A Heavy Abacus” sounds like it could be an extra track on The Suburbs. The songs shout out with triumphant intensity, but instead of Arcade Fire’s army of musicians creating that rich and complex sound, there are only three members in The Joy Formidable, quite an accomplishment.
A brilliant debut, The Big Roar is the perfect showcase of a band that, in an age of the ‘everything’s been done before’ mindset, somehow manages to sound original and unique. Expect great things from The Joy Formidable.