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Grouper – Ruins

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A few years ago I went to Glasgow to see Rafael Anton Irissari, Lawrence English and Grouper. Having watched Rafael Anton Irissari I didn’t feel the desire to stand through the pulsing throb of Lawrence English. Both Ali and I were tired, Fraser had fucked off for personal reasons after Irissari and Lawrence English had made me feel uneasy – hard to explain.  So we went home.   It is still one of my biggest regrets, not staying to see Grouper. Funnily enough, when I ran Trampoline, I had a conversation with another promoter about jointly putting on Grouper. That fell through though due to fears of other shows costing us a fortune. As such, I am still to see Liz Harris live. I need to rectify this fact.

‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill’ is one of my favourite records. I have liked everything she has done but that record remains the stand out dense with her under water vocals shimmering amongst the ethereal soundscapes. Siren songs for drunk sailors.

‘Ruins’ then feels raw.  This is Harris at her most stripped back.  It’s a skeletal structure of a Grouper record and it is all the more intensely beautiful for it.  It seems like on this occasion Harris has chosen to expose herself from behind the effects using simply piano and voice to deliver a master class in simplistic beauty.  The dreamlike vocals remain but are not immersed in the underwater love treatment.  Up front and centre and just incredible.  The delivery is still muffled, almost mumbled, but the treatment is less dense with the vocals forming a centre piece rather than being swallowed up as part of the overall soundscape.  And yet, Harris still manages to make the vocal about more than words.  As always, it’s a mesmerising instrument designed not simply to share thoughts but to transmit emotion.  And connecting emotionally is something that Grouper has always managed to do, with me anyways.  This record is beautiful.  That’s the word that keeps jumping at me.  Beautiful.  And it feels effortlessly so.  I don’t mean to sound flippant, as if to say she wasn’t trying when she made this record.  On the contrary, it feels like she just sat down at the piano and this record poured out from within.   It really is an incredible piece of music that I want to listen to over and over and over again. Hopefully I will get to see her perform this one live.  Not something I intend to miss out on again.

‘Ruins’ will be released on the ever awesome Kranky on 31 October and I highly recommend that you enhance your life by buying it.  On vinyl too I think.  This will sound perfect late at night, on a record player and with a bottle of red wine to hand.  If you don’t believe me, check out the stunning ‘Holding’ below.

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

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There was a time in my life when Ryan Adams could do no wrong.  ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Gold’, ‘Demolition’, ‘Love Is Hell’ were all just phenomenal records and had a huge impact on me as a music fan and musician.  I will never forget the first time I heard ‘New York, New York’, it was at Christmas time.  As a result I seem to listen to his music much more in autumn and winter.  Funny how the subconscious works.  After Love is Hell though, and mostly due to his incredible output of material, I have struggled with his work.  It really has been hit and miss for quite some time and not in any solid album form.  Cold Roses, with the Cardinals, would be the highlight of the albums that followed but there was not enough quality on offer with albums more than likely to be generally patchy with some absolutely gems to be found in amongst the obvious and safe.  Possibly this is inevitable when you are firing out albums left, right and centre.  I read an interesting piece with Tom Petty recently – to highlight my point about volume of releases, Petty is 63 and has 16 studio albums to his name, Adams is 39 and has 14 – about how he was told at the outset that sometimes the album you create will be like hitting a home run in baseball and sometimes it won’t, and that this is the nature of creating music.  Sometimes it just clicks and is brilliat and sometimes you cannot achieve that.  I think Adams has suffered from these ups and downs in his career and whilst prolific in terms of song writing, perhaps there is an argument that sometimes it is best to take your time and release only the very best things.  Of course, the flip side to this argument is that his fans love him and lap up the fact that he feeds them new music on a regular basis.  So perhaps he is to be applauded for such an approach?  There is no right and wrong answer here.  Just an interesting ramble on quality versus quantity and in my opinion, the quality of his work has suffered for the quantity and speed of releases.  Interestingly, it’s been 3 years since his last studio album ‘Ashes and Fire’ – an overall disappointing record with some lovely tunes, following the pattern of releases since Love is Hell.  These 3 years represent the longest period between any of his records since Gold and Love is Hell – Rock n Roll was in between those but we know that this record was not the planned follow up to Gold – a long story for another day.  My point is this – ‘Ryan Adams’ is a triumph and I would say probably all the better for the time it has taken to be produced and released.

As a starting point, I would suggest that the record sounds a bit like ‘Demolition’ but produced and influenced by The War on Drugs.  From the opening bars of ‘Gimme Something Good’ it’s clear that this is going to be a rocking album with the grungey electric guitars, catchy vocal hooks and 80s sounding drums.  It sets the tone perfectly in the same way that ‘Nuclear’ did back in 2002.  And it’s funny, because, although an album of out takes and b-sides, I always had a  soft spot for ‘Demolition’.  It says everything about the mans song writing skills that ‘Demolition’ stood up on its own as an album and still, in my opinion, contains some of his finest songs.

There is a familiar 80s sound to much of ‘Ryan Adams’ highlighted to perfection on ‘Stay With Me’, where the lead up to the chorus could have been written by one Jon Bon Jovi (seriously).  That’s not a criticism in any way, (we all love Bon Jovi really), because it’s one of the best tracks on the record.   For me, stand outs would be ‘Am I Safe’, the wonderful ‘Wrecking Ball’ which sees Adams at his finest, the sublime ‘Shadows’ and ‘Tired of Giving Up’.  If you want to rock out though then just turn on ‘Trouble’ and turn it up loud.

It’s a pretty brave record in many ways.  It’s not really what fans of Ryan Adams would be expecting.  In fact, for many people it will border too close to “stadium rock” for comfort.  I guess for me this album highlights everything that I loved/love about Ryan Adams.  His versatility as a musician is incredible.  His ability to produce a record like Heartbreaker all those years ago, to morph and change record by record.  To release an album like Rock N Roll and then do something like Jacksonville City Nights which could not be more different, is testament to his ability and longevity as a musician. Ryan Adams represents another change in direction and embraces the sound of today.   It is different and yet familiar.  But above all, it is just a fine record that showcases Adams talents as a songwriter and producer.  And when he is at his best there are few out there that can live with him.  This is not going to be many peoples album of the year, that’s for sure, but it’s a welcome return to form and a real contender to make my end of year list.  And the best bit about this record is that it takes me back to 2001, listening to Gold over and over and over.  Falling in love with an artist in my bedroom.   In this new world of music, where there is so much to process, sometimes it’s nice to have that familiar voice from your late teens/early 20s return and remind you why music is so fucking important to you.  I have been searching for that feeling of late and a few artists have managed to get me there this year.  The War on Drugs, Sharon Van Etten and now Ryan Adams.  If you are a fan. You will love this record.  I guarantee it.

 

Graveyard Tapes – White Rooms Pre-Order

Today is a really exciting day.  Graveyard Tapes, my project with the immensely gifted Matthew Collings, release our second album ‘White Rooms’ at the beginning of November and this is now available to pre-order from our lovely label Lost Tribe Sound.  I am immensely proud of this record and if you order it you will also receive a download of the unreleased bonus EP ‘The Price of Ambition’ that we recorded in between the making of albums 1 and 2.  Since our debut album ‘Our Sound is Our Wound’ we have been working hard on developing and progressing as artists and we both feel that ‘White Rooms’ represents significant steps forward as a duo.   We were also lucky enough to have some wonderful collaborators on the record including a number of writing credits for Ben Chatwin aka Talvihorros and the incredible William Ryan Fritch.  Please please check out our new album.  It’s available on 12″ vinyl, CD or as a download.  We hope you like it.  Here are some images:

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Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

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There is a distincitve quality in the voice of Sharon Van Etten that takes her to a different level in my ears.  As has been documented on these pages many times, myself and female vocalists have a chequered history.  This has nothing to do with the quality of the music on offer but more the fact that with all my music, I need a voice to be distinctive, imperfect and interesting.  The problem with a lot of female singers is this – they really can sing fucking perfectly.  The men in bands I love tend to not be the best singers – Jeff Tweedy, Ian Felice, Wayne Coyne, Mark Linkous, Bob Dylan, Neil Young – none of them could be classed as brilliant singers.  However, they do all use their voices as instruments and there is something in the quality of their voices that makes it all work.  I don’t want to hear Russel Watson-esque vocals, and there lies the problem.  Female vocalists I am drawn to – Bjork, Beth Orton, Martha Wainwright, for example, have all got that something distinct, impure and interesting in the tone and delivery of their words.  And Sharon Van Etten is another one.  And fuck me I am a bit obsessed with this new record.  Like The War on Drugs this album is kind of consuming my listening habits in the past week or so.

And it is odd because when I heard the first single from the album I thought “shit” because it felt really dull, safe and uninspiring.  After the brilliance of ‘Tramp’ my hopes were high for album four and so I was worried.  No need to be though.  Sharon Van Etten delivers a fourth album of real raw energy and takes on producer duties in the process.

Not that there is anything majorly different or ground breaking going on with album four but the focus on her voice, her words is even more prominent than on previous outings and, this is where the strength of the record lies.  I have always admired artists who can tackle the emotional strain of relationships in an honest and open manner.  Van Etten’s chosen subject matter tends to be love.  However, the slant is different.  It’s not all heart break and love songs about hurt and betrayal.  No, the focus is on the small things.  The things that make relationships work.  The minor acts.  For after all, sharing a life with somebody is a big thing filled with little things that make it special.  It’s not all high gloss and excitement.   And Van Etten gets to the heart of this on this record.  Never more so than on album closer “Everytime the Sun Comes Up” where she states “I washed your dishes, then I shit in your bathroom.”  It’s an amusing line but one we can all relate to.  And this is where the beauty of this album and Van Etten lie.  We can all relate to her words.  And we should all embrace her music.  She’s growing as an artist and I am loving being along for the ride.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

A contender for my favourite album of 2014 already then.  Seriously.  I know this band have had a lot of hype of late.  I know this, because I have been told, not because I read music magazines any more.  Along with Swans, I think they have genuinely created something very, very exciting and I, for one cannot stop listening.  Whilst I would normally steer well clear of bands getting loads and loads of hype (not out of pettiness, just a need to figure things out for myself) I got this album out of curiosity and have not stopped listening since.  It’s a weird mash up of Dylan meets Springsteen meets Dire Straits, with the latter to the fore for the majority of the record and sometimes – weirdly – I am hearing Rod Stewart in the mix, like on ‘Red Eyes’.  Despite this werid mash up of artists – with the exception of Dylan – none of whom I am crazy about musically, this album really is fucking magnificent.  I actually sent a text to my best friend telling him to check it out because I have not been as obsessed with a record since Wilco dropped ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtort’.  HIs response ‘How can I ignore a recommendation like that’.  And I don’t think you can ignore this record, nor should you.  Even if you are like me and have that tendency to run from the artists surrounded in hype try and put that itch to one side and go and pick up this record.  There is also more than a small nod to the working relationship between Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile.  Whilst The War on Drugs have a cleaner more polished sound to Vile’s more grungey, garagey vibe there are clear similarities between the two aritsts – hardly surprising I suppose – which would in itself make for an interesting comparison.  And as much as I love Mr Vile, this is simply a brilliant brilliant record that may well eclipse everything else I hear this year.  Check it out.

Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

Let’s get something clear.  I am not a Blur fan.  Not in the slightest.  Never have been.  I hated Parklife.  I mean hated.  Yuck.  Perhaps hate is too strong a word because I do admit that they had some fantastic moments.  ‘Beetlebum’ is as stunning now as it was at the time of it’s release and a lot of the tracks on ‘Think Tank’ were simply gorgeous.  I liked them most though when they were downbeat and understated.   I am also not a massive Gorillaz fan either.   I found the work interesting but these were not records I would ever purchase.  However, I am a massive Damon Albarn fan.  I think he’s a fascinating artist.  And I guess this fascination stems from his desire to constantly evolve and challenge himself with new and exciting projects.  Add a couple of musicals and a number of albums with African musicians to his repitoire and you really do have somebody worth talking about.  And now this.  His first solo album ‘Everyday Robots’.

Those expecting a toned down Blur – forget it.  Apart from the quite hideous ‘Mr Tembo’ which would sit well alongside the likes of ‘Country House’, this record is a complete triumph.  A really, really beautiful piece of work.  And, for me, the reason this album works so well is the simplicity of what is happening.   The arrangements, the simplicity of Albarn’s vocal delivery, the pace of the record.  Everything works well (other than aforementioned blip).  It’s immediate yet you have to keep going back and back to discover more and more.  The hidden treasures buried in the mix.  It’s awesome. Honest.  Well, apart from that awful tune that made me think “yuck, blur”. Seriously, if you get a moment, check this album out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Micah P Hinson and the Nothing

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What a fitting way to celebrate my 1000th post as the Steinberg Principle, with one of my all time favourite artists.

As the 6 years of running the blog have passed I have become less focused on writing reviews – who am I to critique music – and more focused on sharing the things I love.  There are not many artists I love more than Micah P Hinson.  Since the first time I saw him at the Bongo Club and fell instantly in love with his music I have religiously bought his music – one of the few artists I still buy beofre I try.  ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’ is one of my all time favourite songs and Micah has soundtracked much of my adult life with his wonderful songs and quite incredible voice.  And the weird thing is that album to album nothing really changes.  There are never any shocking changes in direction or experimental changes in approach.  No, Micah is Micah and the changes are subtle and delcious and perfect.  And there is nothing new about this album.  More fragile.  More heart breaking.  The voice more impressive than ever.  But not a massive change in direction by any respect.  And it’s just fantastic.  I could soak this mans music up for ever and a day.  Thank goodness he recovered from the car accident and got the use of his arms back.  The world without Micah would be a tragic place.

 

Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

I feel like I’ve been writing about Damien Jurado for such a long time.  I’ve been listening to him for a long time, that’s for sure.  In all my time loving music I have only met one or two other people who were massive fans.  I really am not sure why this is the case.  I think it’s a bit like Father John Misty.  I’ve been a fan of J.Tillman’s for a long time and really don’t understand why he’s not a bigger name than he is.  Fear Fun is a stunning record deserving of critical acclaim.  He just doesn’t seem to get that acclaim on these shores though.  Jurado – same deal.   So, it seems appropriate that rather than me attempting to explain why Damien Jurado’s new record is so amazing I leave you with the words of Father John Misty.  Enjoy:

Damien is out of his goddamn mind.

This isn’t a recent development, but it’s an important aspect of his work that often goes ignored. In place of this key element is the idea that his music is a sober and in-depth excavation of the American landscape and rural psyche. Well, folks, I’m sorry, but it’s not. In other words: there is no railway station east of Ohio.

Abandoned motels, barren highways, magazine killers, Chevrolets backing out of driveways in the middle of the night, wedding photos, intoxicated hands, bleary-eyed circus clowns, barstool salvation, yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it: “America.” We’d all like to live there, but we don’t. No one does. We’re stuck with Jamba Juice and the internet, occasionally a charming, aesthetically pleasing dilapidated monument of the pre-Air Conditioned Nightmare on the side of the road. For a minute we can marvel and say “Wow, there’s nothing out here!” Nothing except a huge fucking interstate freeway and a massive telecommunication network on which we can Instagram bucolic isolation.

Out there is nowhere, but inside is endless.

You know what else they have a lot of in “America”? Religion. Don’t leave out that old-time relijun or your souffle of polite, revisionist, fantasy America is going to fall flat at the foot of the Cross. When “folk” comes up in their iTunes genre column, them lily-white champions of gravel-voiced, hard-won-wisdom-shilling, Millennial old-timin’™ expect some goddamn symbolic imagery, man! Not actual faith per se, I mean, c’mon now, what are you: fucking insane?

Damien Jurado is every character in every Damien Jurado song. He is the gun, the purple anteater, the paper wings, the avalanche, the air show disaster, Ohio, the ghost of his best friend’s wife. It is a universe unto its own, with its own symbolism, creation myth, and liturgy. You might go as far as to call it a religion, and your religion is a character in his religion.

Level with me. You’re reading this because of Damien Jurado’s new album, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son (produced by Richard Swift). You are a progressive minded, left-leaning person who in parlor-style conversation regarding the globo-political ramifications of Sky Person relationships laughs knowingly so as not to be judgmental and very reasonably concedes “Well, I don’t believe He’s some old man with a beard sitting up in the clouds” at which point everyone agrees on [insert benign middle-ground] and moves on.

Consider this: What if the only way to understand a religion is to create your own?

Who is this Silver community? Where the hell are they in the Bible? Is this heresy? Agnostic reference? Isn’t this sun business a little, I don’t know, animistic? Pagan? Go ahead and answer that question for yourself. I’ll give you a second.

Do you understand the music any better?

Faith is like theater: it isn’t meant to be read, or analyzed it is meant to be performed and inhabited. Upon being asked if he believed in Gawd or not, Norman Mailer replied, “Sure, why don’t you and make him better?”

You know that adage we all use so we have something to say while we shrug our shoulders? “People change”? That one. Is that applicable to Jesus Christ? Maybe he’s been on a personal journey of discovery since he ascended. He went through the 60’s, 70’s, he turned on, tuned out, got disillusioned. Why can’t we talk about that Jesus? Does it have to be the old-timey one all the time? American folk Jesus, ugh. The one who’s always winning Best Soundtrack Oscars for people. Rarely do stories of faith make us identify with Jesus. It’s Abraham, Satan, Silver Timothy, Salome, Dr. J, Saul of Tarsus; divinely imperfect brothers and sisters who give Gawd something to do.

Damien Jurado made up his own Jesus because a Damien Jurado album needs a beautiful Jesus. Some freaky space Jesus that I don’t recognize. The name is the same, a lot of the imagery is the same, but he’s reborn. Born again, I mean. Yeah, as if Jesus got born again. That’s what this album sounds like.

Jesus is out of his goddamn mind, and I want to live in Damien’s America.

Sign me up.