Dinas Powys EP

To tie in with the Dinas Powys Fringe Festival I’m releasing a new four track EP of outtake songs that I also recorded in Dinas Powys.

Ex-Conspiracy Theorist

This is something of a bridging song between ‘The Signal and the Noise’ and ‘Dinas Powys’, there’s also a nod back to ‘European Monsoon’ if you’re really paying attention. Originally it was going to be the last track on the DP LP but I thought Big Blue Sky was similar and better. Sort of a ramshackle back porch strumalong from an old man surrounded by piles of old laboratory equipment.

Patrick Troughton

Quite a bit of electronica creeping back in here. Slightly stuck out for the LP, but I still really like how this sounds. All the pads and chord sounds and made from sampled guitars, and the voices are sampled from a field recording I made at an alabaster factory in Egypt. Patrick Troughton was, of course, the second actor to play Doctor Who.

Inbox Zero

This was sort of a work in progress demo for a song that never really got taken any further. In my mind I think it was a Tom Waits song, so imagine him doing it in his boozy weepy style – I sure wasn’t going to try and ‘do the voice’.

Under the Wallpaper (parts 1, 2, and 3)

Taken from the same late night session which was, as much as anything, testing out a new field microphone. This presents the UTW songs all together in one live take. A little more subdued than the versions on ‘Dinas Powys’ and ‘Ah, the Digital Nonsense‘.




Wu-Tang Clan’s $5m F*ck You to Fans

The Wu-Tang Clan are releasing an album which will be limited to a single physical copy. The album will be ‘toured around museums and galleries’ (as a playback not as live performance) before the single copy is sold in a lavish box. Apparently they’ve already been offered $5m for it. Clan member RZA explains the reason thusly:

“The main theme is music being accepted and respected as art and being treated as such. If something is rare, it’s rare. You cannot get another.”

I’ve quietly despaired of the effect digital consumption appears to be having on people’s relationship with music (though that’s a blog for another day). I love physical formats, and I want people to value music more than the current ‘get every song ever recorded free with your new mobile phone contract’ approach encourages them to. But this is not the way to achieve that.

picture of blank CD

A rare artwork

Firstly, it’s elitist. Sometimes a commercially released recording is not the intended context for hearing a piece of music. ‘Sound installations’ paired with visual artworks in a gallery would be one example. Orchestral classical music or opera would be another.

You can get a reasonable approximation of a classical piece from a decent recording, but most classical music was written before there was a prospect of hearing it on two speakers, alone, in your home. It was written to be experienced in a large, acoustically appropriate venue, alongside lots of other people, probably with a glass of wine in your hand.

That costs money. First you have to build and maintain a concert hall. Then you have to pay potentially hundreds of instrumentalists, some of whom will have taken decades of their lives to learn their craft. I could go on… the point is you end up with a concert which costs £lots to put on, and has expensive tickets as a result – tickets which only wealthy people would have been able to afford.

Being able to attend such concerts was therefore a mark of status. The unwashed masses would sit outside with washboards and bits of string ad-libbing whimsical folk songs about maidens falling over in the mud and accidentally showing their bums. The quaffing classes would sip sherry and talk loudly over Mozart or whatever.

picture of dublin philharmonic orchestra

The Wu-Tang Clan perform live

The point is that neither of these situations is actually a comment on the ‘value’ of the music itself, or the ‘respect’ it deserves. Some kinds of musical performance inherently cost more to put on, and some people won’t be able to afford to attend those concerts. So it goes. Pop music isn’t some kind of poor cousin to classical just because it’s cheaper to make. Playing a pop recording in a gallery is an odd attempt to equate it with more supposedly respectable forms of music (even if I concede it might make for a more focussed listen than ‘iPod on the bus’).

Secondly, scarcity doesn’t in itself confer value on something. People might spend millions at auction on a Picasso because they want to own an original, but they won’t spend the same on a painting by me, just because there was only one copy (although if they would they should get in touch).

Imagine, if you will, that there was a way to duplicate a Picasso so that no expert alive could tell which was the copy and which was the original. It’s not unreasonable to assume that people would be less willing to pay as much for either – given that they would never know whether they were getting the ‘real’ one touched by Picasso’s fair mits or not.

With any recorded music there is no ‘real’ copy. A collector might pay a stack for the original master tapes of a famous album, but once it’s booming out of the speakers she’s not hearing anything different than you or I.

The mistake Wu-Tang have made is to measure the ‘respect’ Serious Art apparently receives – and which pop music apparently doesn’t – solely in monetary terms, conflating ‘value’ with ‘price’. In response they are artificially imposing an elitist financial constraint on listening to their new record. Politically speaking, this makes me do sick in my mouth (you may feel differently).

I haven’t heard ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’ (clearly) and probably never will, so it’ll be for the people who hear it to decide whether the ‘art’ contained within stands up to being presented in a gallery. I’ve no problem with Wu-Tang or anyone else creating music to be heard in a particular space. Recorded music designed for a particular context can be exciting and innovative – like, for example, the Flaming Lips’ parking lot/boombox experiments.

If there were no copies of this album whatsoever then that would be fine. By making a copy, the person who owns it can listen to it wherever they want – undermining the idea that it needs to be heard in a particular setting. If you’re making one copy you might as well make more.

It’s not been stated whether the person purchasing the album will also own the rights to the music – I’m guessing not. But even if they don’t there’s nothing to stop them ripping it and sharing it. Once something is leaked it stays leaked.

And I think this is what really bugs me. I don’t know Wu-Tang’s music very well, but I know they’re a band who inspire real loyalty in their fans. Many of those fans will now never be able to hear this music (legally) in any setting – either because they don’t live near a gallery or because they don’t have $5m. Yet the only reason Wu-Tang are in a position to make a single copy of an album and sell it for millions is because so many ordinary, non-millionaire fans have paid what they can afford for their records, concerts, and merchandise over the years. This is something of a fuck you to those fans.

I have a similar problem with any kind of artificially limited release which stops you being able to hear a particular recording – things like Record Store Day special releases (though I must emphasise that I love independent record shops!).

I don’t have a problem with people doing lavish physical editions which are limited and expensive – as long as Joe Schmoe can get hold of the actual music to listen to for a reasonable price. Many of the people who obtain RSD special editions whack them on eBay immediately, selling them at an inflated price (and at no benefit to independent record shops whatsoever).

And I guess that’s the point Wu-Tang are clumsily trying to make. What is an album worth?

picture of a pile of money

What music is all about

When you’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money making a record for others to enjoy (presumably), their unwillingness to pay for it can be disheartening. Albums generally cost less now than they did when I was a teenager making the bus trip into Bolton once a week to buy them. Back then £9.99 was an amazing bargain. These days you can generally get a new album on CD from an online retailer for £8 or less (if you don’t mind subsidising tax avoidance and unethical employment practices).

Trying to sell a handmade CD copy of an independently pressed album for £10 at a gig can feel ambitious bordering on self-defeating*. But that’s not because you desperately need a tenner, it’s because you want someone to like it enough to commit. You want the validation of someone saying ‘I like this music enough to spend ten pounds for the ability to hear it again, whenever I want, for the rest of my life’.

Someone out there is clearly willing to pay $5m for a Wu-Tang clan album. Would that same person would pay $5m for it if every other oik could get the same music for $10? If not, the added value of that sole copy is in the exclusivity, not the music. That’s the opposite of what Wu-Tang claim to be trying to do. Or are they somehow saying this new record will give $4,999,990 worth of additional pleasure to its owner than any of their other albums? Do they really just want the validation of one wealthy idiot rather than the millions who already love their music?

Wu-Tang’s futile, reactionary, self-indulgent, illiterate, insecure gesture looks to me like another death rattle of an industry we don’t need anymore.



*Funnily enough, last year I calculated what I would have to charge for a single copy of ‘Dinas Powys’ in order to recoup what I had spent on it. This included the cost of every instrument I used (even ones I’d owned for years and therefore hadn’t bought specially), the computer I recorded it on, speakers to mix it on and so forth, as well as paying myself minimum wage for time I estimated I’d spent recording and mixing, and ‘session fees’ for the guest musicians. It came to just over £10,000.

I had planned to list a ‘special edition’ version for sale on Bandcamp at the exact price I’d calculated, just to make a small point about the (financial) ‘value’ of the work. The plan was scuppered as Bandcamp have a limit on what you can charge for a single item, but the point remains… 

Further reading:

Wu-Tang aren’t the first act to do this. Jean Michel Jarre made the same facetious point before the internet made the statement redundant. I’d also heard, until I checked just now, that noise artist Merzbow had made an album only available by buying a car which had the CD glued into the stereo. Turns out that isn’t true but there’s the story anyway. The Residents’ second album was entitled ‘Not Available’ and was intended never to be released, however they shit out and ended up doing so in response to label pressure.

10 ‘Important’ Albums

There’s some sort of meme thing going round about ‘10 important albums’ which I’m choosing to interpret as ‘the 10 albums which I think have had the greatest influence on the music I make (or aspire to make)’.

It’s interesting, writing this, how whilst these albums are ‘significant’ to me, they’re not all my ‘favourite albums’. Some of them I don’t listen to much, and some I view as flawed masterpieces.


In some kind of vaguely chronological order of impact on me, they are these:

Pulp – His N Hers

This was the first album I had on CD. Bought after Common People changed my life, but before Different Class had come out. Common People, of course, remains the consummate pop song. It is the song by which all others are judged. But as we’re talking albums ‘His N Hers’ made more of a mark on me by virtue of being the first set of Cocker songs I absorbed in full. The subject matter – whether it was working class lifestyles, outsiders who feel they can criticise working class lifestyles, the broken innards of relationships, love and lust – always had a serious commentary made palatable and warm by the wit and affection in the writing. There are no goodies and baddies in Pulp songs, just believably flawed human beings. And damn good tunes. As I’ve continued on my ‘musical journey’ I can revisit this album and hear all those influences from Cool Bands that, as a n00b, just blended into magical otherworldly pop. I felt for the first time like music could be ‘meaningful’.

Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

I’m not sure this is actually the best B&S album (it’s this or Tigermilk), but again it was the first one I got. It’s the combination of wonderfully unfolding melodies and those very relatable but at the same time utterly obscure lyrics that made me love it. With hindsight I think a lot of it went over my head at the time, I don’t know what I thought the S&M in ‘She was into S&M and Bible studies/not everyone’s cup of tea’ stood for, but I sure didn’t know.

B&S were and still are a large ensemble with every instrument doing something memorable and adding to the song in a way that some bands with only a couple of instruments sometimes fail to do. And yet you could learn to strum your way through these songs in your bedroom and they sounded just as great. Another thing that endeared it to me was the utter anonymity of the band. No pictures, no biographical information (at the time). It felt important to me for a band to be able to make music this excellent without it being about ‘them’.

Aphex Twin – Richard D James album

I don’t think there’s an album on this list which I have continued to listen to over the years as much as this one. Even Pulp get played less often. This is the perfect balance between RDJ’s ability to construct wonderful melodies and mix them with cutting edge production. It was his last album before ‘Drukqs’, where at times he pushed his production a little too far into giddy ridiculousness. For showing that electronic music could be ‘musical’ this album is unparalleled. When one of the preview tracks for ‘Drukqs’ was a solo piano piece, you could absolutely tell that it was the work of the same man through the melody alone. For all the blatter and scrape of Aphex’s drum programming, it’s always been the composition that gives his work the edge. And it’s this record – along with ‘Come to Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’ – that first sparked my interest in electronic music.

Godspeed You Black Emperor! – f#a#oo

Quite simply one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful records ever made. One which make a mockery of the other ‘post-rock’ bands around at the time by showing them up as personality free geeks fiddling with toys (or so my teenaged self thought, my adult self is a little kinder in retrospect). Mogwai might have ranted about people selling out, but they would then name a song ‘Kappa’ for money on an album that – side by side with this one (I bought them both on the same day) – suddenly sounded like bland pish. Godspeed were toiling away, (like B&S) in anonymity, somehow imbuing their work with devastating critiques of capitalism and how it breaks people, not with lyrics but with found fragments of the words of others. So again a record I love as much for the idealogy around it as for the actual sounds in the grooves. Vinyl copies came with a  penny crushed by the trains that ran (then but now no longer) behind the squat/studio where it was recorded. A tangible physical link between the ‘fan’ and the real world location this music was made. Utterly perfect and intense.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

I’ve often said that if I were to go on Mastermind, The Velvet Undergound would be my specialist subject. This album sits where it does almost peripherally to my deep engagement, as an impressionable youngster, with the individual philosophies and sensibilities of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucket, Nico, and Andy Warhol, and how they combined in this banana-fronted package. How the avant garde gently but unmistakeably informs ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ and ‘Venus in Furs’… Lou Reed’s commitment to making pop lyrics something clever and non-banal… and the seismic impact they had on most of the western pop music I’ve loved that came after. Listen closely to ‘Common People’ and there it is – a John Cale-style droning viola throughout the track!

Pavement – Brighten the Corners

In my mind I play the guitar like Stephen Malkmus, but only in my mind. I struggle to pick a favourite Pavement album but tend to plump for this one (I may be the only person who thinks ‘Terror Twilight’ is a contender). ‘Angular’ and ‘slack’ get used a lot to describe Pavement – probably because they’re really good words for them. It isn’t Malkmus’ flash that makes him great it’s how those guitar parts don’t start or end where you expect, and don’t take the obvious route in between… and yet (it always come back to this) it’s a pop record. It’s a record that wants you to enjoy it. Light hearted and upbeat, sounding for all the world like ‘just some guys in a band having fun’. Effortless but unique – a mid-point between Weezer and Captain Beefheart.

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

In my mind I play the guitar like Nick Drake, but only in my mind. ‘Pink Moon’ is my favourite because it dispenses with all the strings and the faint hint of schmaltz that contributors occasionally brought to his first two records. Much is made of his depression around this time but the honest reality is that Drake would never live long enough to develop much character as a lyricist – even the posthumously released ‘Black Eyed Dog’ used a well-worn metaphor to talk about his depression, though it was undoubtedly real. As a singer he was pleasant but hardly intense. Oh but his guitar playing! Is that really only one guitar on ‘Road’? Apparently so. The record was done as live takes, with only the briefest of piano overdubs on the title track. The endless, intricate, tumbling finger picking seems to cram more music than is possible into six strings. Every time I pick up an acoustic guitar this is what I’m aiming for (and maybe a bit of Jim O’Rourke too).

Radiohead – Kid A

I don’t get why people don’t like Radiohead, honestly I don’t. Words like ‘miserable’ and ‘pretentious’ get used by the same people who then enjoy Fellini or David Lynch films. Music shouldn’t be criticised for having ambitions beyond the box marked ‘fun’ – aspiring to poetry and compositional complexity on a par with modern classical music had been part of what Radiohead did ever since ‘The Bends’. But it was Kid A where they really took a risk and changed the game.

Musically… well it begins and ends with ‘Idioteque’ for me. Remember how I loved the Velvet Underground for combining the avant-garde with pop music? Here Radiohead made a huge, high profile step towards doing that with the cutting edge electronica of Warp records and the like. It’s probably only the third or fourth best Radiohead album, but this is the one that made the impact on me. I’m also inclined to think that it was this record that led to the interest in electronica in the decade plus since. It rescued synths from their association with eighties cheese/commercial dance and made them something serious young white men like myself could take an interest in. I’d already started digging into Aphex Twin when this came out, but afterwards it unlocked Autechre, Boards of Canada, Four Tet, and everything after….

As for ‘peripheral stuff’, you might not have liked the strident politicking of Thom Yorke at the time, well I did. I think that listening to what he was saying, and reading the books he plugged around the time this record came out made me a better person. Started me on a path to caring about social justice which now drives my non-musical career and continues to inform the things I write songs about. Is it somehow gauche to be induced to care by admiration for a musician? Perhaps it is, but that’s the young man’s curse to be as impressionable as a warm blob of wax. Importantly, Yorke’s statements in interviews were always blunt and pointed, but his lyrics explored the same themes using abstraction and metaphor – meaning that, whilst the music may still have come across as pretentious – it never came across as clunky or strident in the way that ‘protest singers’ can.

So maybe I’d have picked up a synthesiser and written about politics without this record, maybe others would too, but as it turned out Radiohead did it for me. Other than Pulp, Radiohead are probably the single biggest influence on me, musically and otherwise….

The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat

Occasionally jarring, but unwavering in its commitment to epic songs with unexpected left turns. What struck me most about this was the ‘song suite’ style. How something like ‘Mason City’ can discard the entire structure and melody halfway through and still feel coherent. Are they the first band to do this? Nope, but they were the one who did it for me. I think you can hear the influence of this all over my stuff for some years after it came out. The big, bright synthesisers and very clean, dry sound also contributed to a lot to how I like things to sound. I much prefer records where the notes are clear and arranged neatly than those that, in my opinion, cop out by burying everything in whoosh and atmosphere. Reverb plugins are cheap.

The Fiery Furnaces are a hard band to be moved by. Their over-reliance on ridiculous lyrical structures, archaic words, and compositional left turns can – in the wrong moments – irritate even a big fan like me. Matthew Friedberger has shown himself more than capable of making some irredeemably unlistenable solo material, whilst his sister Eleanor has gone on to make much more accessible pop records. Here, and for a couple of records after, their sensibilities seemed to strike just the right balance. Individual songs that take as long to get into as some albums mean this isn’t a record I’ve really come back to since playing it to death in 2004, but for showing me how a song can really surprise you this had a big impact.

Field Music – Plumb

Have I stopped being influenced by records? I don’t think so. It was a tough call between this and Neutral Milk Hotel, but honestly other than a melody or two I can’t say I’ve been influenced by them – their work is almost intimidatingly intense and perfect in a way I can’t envisage ever matching. Field Music then… officially the most recent act to graduate to my own personal Rock N Roll Hall of Fame as ‘one of my favourite bands’…

People had been telling me they heard Field Music in my stuff for a while before I listened to them. I tried ‘Measure’ but it was too much music to take in at the time (especially when bought from a cheap download website) and I didn’t listen much. Dipping my toe into the shorter, tighter ‘Plumb’ a year or two later unlocked the rest of their discography. The opening trilogy perfects the sort of multi-part songs that I’ve loved ever since the Fiery Furnaces, but does so more concisely and less jarringly. ‘Plumb’ is an album that works best listened to in one go, and for a while it fit handily into the length of my commute meaning endless repeated listens. The meticulousness of every element from the composition to the recording appeals to the ‘reverb is bad’ side of me. The earworm melodies deliver lyrics which are a humane, accessible critique of life in modern Britain, even as they float over intricate arrangements and the occasional complex rhythm that, even now I can’t quite pin down and fix in my mind. Whatever I do next, you will hear Field Music in there.


Anyone missing? Well having written this away from home I came home to grab the CD’s for the picture and realised I’d overlooked Talking Heads, David Bowie, and Broadcast. Pretty fundamental omissions but perhaps the fact I didn’t think of them means this is more honest. The albums above are perhaps more ‘formative’? (though Bowie should be in there really…)

Perhaps I should also have written about Garbage, another formative band I was obsessed with. And the first band I went to see live. I could have written about Napoleon IIIrd whose work has definitely influenced my own, but I was too embarrassed because he’s my friend. Four Tet nearly made the list, as did Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Possibly the Super Furry Animals, Mansun, Low, Slint, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem… Bjork’s ‘Homogenic’ gave me a big push in an electronic direction – but probably just in the same way Radiohead did. Bonnie Prince Billy’s ‘I see a darkness’ is maybe in eleventh place.

And really any one of the largely identical mid to late nineties not-quite-successful indie bands I bought endless singles by could be picked as a reference point for the simple joy of a guitar and a tune. Fierce Panda’s double 7” compilation ‘Screecher Comforts’ would be a representative example – Symposium, Snug, Midget, and Inter all on one record.

Music’s great, isn’t it?

Albums of the year 2013

One thing I’ve particularly noticed about this year is there have been hardly any ‘song’ records which have really grabbed me. I’ve been much more excited about a lot of new electronic stuff.

jon hopkins

1. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

If I’d bothered to write up my albums of the year in 2011 you’d have seen Mr Hopkins’ name appearing at the top of the list alongside King Creosote for their brilliant and beautiful ‘Diamond Mine’ collaboration. Hopkins is an electronic producer who’s also worked with Brian Eno and Coldplay (!). On ‘Immunity’ he creates a lush and warm fusion between glitchy electronics and acoustic instruments to create some really original and engaging techno that sounds like nothing else I’ve heard. Creosote pops up again for some understated vocals on the last track, squaring the circle on a producer who I think is going to continue making brilliant music across genres for some time to come.


2. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

Intriguing promotional campaign aside, a new Boards of Canada album after eight years was always going to be an event. One of the undisputed greats of electronic music, the duo pulled off the neat trick of returning with an album which bore their personal stamp throughout whilst also sounding like nothing else they’d done. Harsher, more abrasive, more drone based, with fewer of the unusual vocals samples or short interludes of their classics. Tomorrow’s Harvest creates its own unique mood, and evokes some sort of decaying post-urban landscape. Impossible to pin down, utterly unique, often imitated but never bettered – the return of Boards of Canada was something special indeed.


3. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Another very different electronic duo also made a return this year. I have little to add to commentary on ‘Random Access Memories’ other than to say how surprised I was to find it getting under my skin. Initially put off by the very very slick sound and lack of crunchy bangy synths, the couple of standout tracks kept me coming back until the rest of the album revealed its charms. Sure my 10 track reshuffled tracklist which drops some of the tat (‘Lose Yourself To Dance’ is fucking rubbish) is a much better album, but it would be the an act of wilful anti populism to deny that this is one of my most played and enjoyed records this year. ‘Get Lucky’ is the first number one record I’ve owned and adored in a very long time.


4. James Holden – The Inheritors

Holden wasn’t someone I’d really been aware of before this record, though as the leader of the Border Community label/collective he’s been in the shadows of plenty of other records I’ve enjoyed (Nathan Fake, Luke Abbott). This record is another wonderfully human electronic album. Managing to make the science and strategy of modular synthesis wonderfully organic, loose and natural sounding. Much in the way Boards of Canada breathe ghosts into their machines, Holden here evokes something primal and feral, always avoiding clichés of electronica both in structure and sound. Really special.


5. Darkside – Psychic

I adored Nicolas Jaar’s 2011 debut LP ‘Space Is Only Noise’, he’s now followed it with a collaborative album with experimental guitarist Dave Harrington. A mood piece, which manages to co-opt 70’s prog clichés into something unsettling and new – ‘Psychic’ begins with one of the most engaging pieces of drone/ambient music I’ve heard in a long time in the eleven minute long ‘Golden Arrow’. Building extremely slowly without ever becoming dull, the piece deconstructs itself as it goes along, every sound seems broken, fractured, and haunting. The rest of the album becomes, by contrast, more conventional, but remains epically odd. Harrington’s guitar work is the most noticeable addition – though it’s not all he contributes – it’s inventive and original without being showy or weird or over reliant on effects. It contributes to an album which really feels like one long piece. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this wonderfully engaging record.


6. Low – The Invisible Way

The tenth album from one of my favourite bands. Low continue to find ways to reinvent themselves within their quiet, slow niche. After the relative dud that was 2011’s ‘C’Mon’ they’ve simply returned with a better set of songs, tighter, better sounding, returning some emotion to their lyrics, and with wonderful clean and bright production from Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. ‘Clarence White’ and ‘Plastic Cup’ are highlights, with Mimi Parker contributing more songs than she usually does – though nothing to quite match her finest work like ‘Laser Beam’. This is a brighter, warmer Low, though still with an undercurrent of malice and darkness. Special mention to Alan Sparhawk’s other band Retribution Gospel choir who released their third LP with just two tracks – both 20 minute garage rock freakouts that manage the impressive feat of actually being quite enjoyable to listen to.


7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

An uneven album which categorically does not need to be as long as it is, but after a few listens starts to work its Haitian voodoo magic. Turning their back on alt rock/chamber pop tropes which were in danger of running out of steam after three albums, they’ve embraced a more rhythmic approach. Whilst it wasn’t quite the dance rock monster I was expecting when I heard LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy was producing, I got over my disappointment quickly enough and started to appreciate this record for what it was. At its best ‘Reflektor’ brings all the drama and borderline pomposity that made previous Arcade Fire albums great and adds some new elements which if anything succeed in toning down their increasingly preachy lyrics. Yes we all know the internet might be alienating us from the things that really matter in life (or maybe it isn’t), but how does an album focussing on that subject drag us back to reality? Surely another ‘Funeral’ with its unmatched elevation of the humdrum business of life and death with one’s family would be a better antidote. Overall though, this is a big tasty alternative rock album which brings some welcome new influences to my ears.


8. The Field – Cupid’s Head

Previous Field albums have contained one or two standout tracks for me, and then a few more which I struggle to recall. ‘Cupid’s Head’ feels much more of a piece. Not bringing anything noticeably different to the gradual evolution in Axel Wilner’s sound since his debut six years ago. This is sequenced techno with vocal samples, meticulous in its sound and arrangement, patient in how it introduces changes. Not grabbing frantically for your attention, content to ride the wave of its own sonic world until you choose to tune in. The absolute standout is ‘Black Sea’ 11 minutes of throbbing, juddering samples (seemingly of guitars) which sound like a million other electronic tracks but somehow seem to perfect those that have gone before. Halfway through a complete transition in the track manages to sneak up on you, a throbbing bassline takes over, and the whole mood of the track changes to become more sinister. Epic. ‘Cupid’s Head’ bypasses considerations about whether electronic music needs to innovate to be truly great and simply works. Everything in its place.


9. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

My favourite Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album is ‘The Best of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’, as Alan Partridge once almost said. It’s odd that I see someone so renowned as an auteur as something of a singles act. Push the Sky Away breaks the pattern. There’s no obvious ‘hit’, no clear standout – although the sweeping strings of ‘Jubilee Street’ tend to be the first sound that comes to mind. This is much more of a mood piece of an album. The supernatural figures, historical allusions, and classical characters of previous albums take a back to seat to more modern considerations like the Higgs Boson. This sounds much more like that work of a bloke who lives in Hove than some otherworldly gothic nutter – but is no worse for it.


10. Sam Amidon – Bright Sunny South

Amidon continues his path of unearthing and reinterpreting American folk music from the not too distant past, mixed in with a couple of modern pop songs (previously he’s covered R Kelly, this time Mariah Carey). Bright Sunny South feels much more like a live band playing together in a room compared to 2010’s ‘I See The Sign’ which was my favourite album that year and featured much more lush orchestration by Nico Muhly, electronic flourishes, and had the feel of a ‘studio record’. I guess I preferred that approach because parts of this record left me a bit cold – not least the ‘skronky free jazz sax solo’ which seems to be A Thing at the moment. Parts of it are gorgeous though ‘My Old Friend’, is a highlight with its bright sunny guitars building gently to a well earned climactic stomp. Great lazy afternoon music from a consistently interesting musician. I’d love to hear an album of original compositions by Amidon, if he ever felt like putting pen to paper.

Honourable mentions (in no order):

Julia Holter’s ‘Loud City Song’ for its unashamedly art pop songs about hats.
My Bloody Valentine’s ‘MBV’ for existing at all and for not being an absolute train wreck.
The Music Tapes ‘Mary’s Voice’ for being a minor otherworldly masterpiece.
Fuck Buttons ‘Slow Focus’ for being a new Fuck Buttons album.
Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ for being like a natural successor to Mercury Rev’s finest work.
Mat Riviere ‘Not Even Doom Music’ for being a wonderful, more widescreen take on his unique approach to songwriting.
The Focus Group ‘The Elektrik Carousel’ for being another great instalment in their unique ‘what the future sounded like in the past’ collage.
Autechre ‘Exai’ for being two hours of new Autechre music.
Land of Kush ‘The Big Mango’ for being an epic avant-jazz tribute to the Arab Spring.
Quiet Marauder ‘Men’ for being a baffling, hilarious, ludicrously ambitious tribute to the world’s second most popular gender.

Disappointing, must do better:
Four Tet ‘Beautiful Rewind’ – in which Kieran Hebden tries to reinvent jungle and makes a record I don’t want to listen to again, despite having good bits.
David Bowie ‘The Next Day’ – it’s not terrible, but if hadn’t come a decade after his last effort it wouldn’t be getting anywhere near the acclaim it’s had. Overlong, plodding in parts, lyrically it’s funny at times when I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be. Some great moments on there but not as many as 2002’s ‘Heathen’, a much better late period Bowie record which probably got overlooked because it only took three years to make.
The Knife ‘Shaking the Habitual’ – seriously, what the fuck was this supposed to be?

Dinas Powys: Track by Track. ‘The Big Blue Sky’

This is probably my favourite song on the album, and also the simplest (what have I learned there?). Again mad props to my backing singers, Laura is joined this time by Nicola Jones – making this a partial Silence at Sea reunion song. It’s got a campfire vibe, maybe a hint of the first Bon Iver record I suppose. As previously mentioned the Beth Jeans Houghton male choir was in my mind throughout making this record, I think this song is the most obvious example of that.

Lyrically… well it’s true! I did keep dreaming I was moving to Reykjavik after I went to Iceland for Airwaves. It’s a beautiful place, and I was really happy for the week or so I was there. So, the rest of it… do things work because they work? Or do they work because you believe they’ll work?

Dinas Powys: Track by Track. ‘Light Pollution II’

This is a version of a Local Sports Team song that we recorded for the Latvia EP. I’ve replaced the meandering bassline with ebbing, flowing, melodica, the drums with plucks, blips, and shakey egg, and the entire second half of the song with basically a big smudge of sound based on a single chord. The long droning section is comprised of granular synth samples from this song and some of Laura and Eleanor’s parts from the rest of the album, processed live using a monome arc/grid application called ‘Grainstorm’. I decided after the fact that this ever increasing drone represents the ‘Light Pollution’ itself blotting out the song.

The lyrics were the main reason I decided to re-record this. It was one of the first LST songs to have words, and we kind of realised later that we were a band with more light hearted themes. The words I wrote for this were more like one of my own songs, so I made them into one. They absolutely fit in with the overall themes of the album; absolutism, isolation, inflexible thinking, how depression perpetuates itself….

Listen to the original Local Sports Team version here:

Dinas Powys: Track by Track. ‘Under the Wallpaper (part3)’

This is actually a really old song. Dating back to ‘European Monsoon’ times originally. I put out Parts 1 & 2 (which are actually just one long song) on the bonus disc for ‘The Signal and the Noise’ last year. In those songs, in a nutshell, the protagonists inherit their grandparents’ house – (well… not their mutual grandparents, as clearly they’re a couple and that would mean they were having an incestuous relationship). In this song they take a look at their life and realise there’s nothin’ left (as Coolio once said), so they set off on an aimless adventure.

The genesis of all three of those songs was an experiment I did at the time in spontaneous composition. I wrote loads of songs by just turning the mic on and starting to play and sing. The original ‘Under the wallpaper’ was a challenge to myself to do an uninterrupted 20 minute long take in this way. I knew the title would be ‘Under the wallpaper’ (itself inspired by seeing an exhibition by Clay Ketter in Stockholm), but not much more than that. It was an endurance test, and actually significant chunks of the lyrics of all three songs came from that original improv – though greatly refined. It’s a fun thing to do. One day I’d like to actually do a gig where I just improvise the songs and lyrics live onstage. It’ll take some guts though….

Musically, what to say? It’s an acoustic guitar song. One of the most stripped back on the album.

Dinas Powys: Track by Track. ‘Axioms’

And so we come to ‘Axioms’. The quintessential ‘cubist folk’ song, and the one which provided the template for the rest of the record.

This track was called ‘Dinas Powys’ before I wrote any lyrics (and before I lived there). It’s a Jim O’Rourke inspired part in DADGAD tuning, which was built on and retweaked to become this 9 minute folktronic monster. The first section I recorded the guitar in a bathroom, the ambience on Cardiff Queen Street, the underpinning drone from a mellotron (not a real one). The last section uses the Reactable app on an iPad to process the guitar through a modulated delay into the percussive sounds that spin around the main track. Things get flipped backwards, requantized, buffer shuffled, live chopped using the monome 64, micro looped using an arc 2. Eleanor returns for more violin…. Basically everything I have I threw at this track.

Lyrically ‘Axioms’ is about what much of this album is about, being wrong about what will make you happy. The sentiment ‘your axioms are wrong’ is nonsensical in itself, the point of axioms is that they aren’t wrong – they’re the immutable, fixed starting point for mathematics, or in looser usage, for a philosophical stance. So if, in that informal usage, your axioms are wrong then everything else you’re building on top of them may also be wrong. In one sense, it could be taken as amongst the most insulting things you could say to someone. I often find myself wanting to say it. Here though, the axioms again are the beliefs about how to be happy, and how to hold on to happiness when you have it.

Dinas Powys: Track by Track. ‘Foreign Players’

I sometimes cause problems for myself with deadpan delivery of lyrics intended to convey the opposite of what I actually mean. One particularly witless reviewer some years back really pissed me off by taking ‘The Gentlemen’s Game’ totally at face value – basically accusing me of racism. At risk of making the same mistake again, here is ‘Foreign Players’.

The chorus here comes from the famous line from Sartre’s ‘Huis Clos (No Exit)’ ‘L’enfer c’est les autres’ or ‘hell is other people’ – a statement which I disagree with. Most of this record is trying to articulate how much I feel other people are important to being happy. So ‘too many foreign players’ is both a little pun on the football meaning, and the song’s protagonist’s way or articulating that he believes others get in the way of him doing what he wants. He doesn’t stop to consider how important they really are to him….

Musically this is a great time to mention returning guest violinist Eleanor who plays a stunning part on this song, and Laura Roberts whose multi-tracked vocals on the chorus were so lush and gorgeous that I had to copy/paste them one more time at the end so they could be heard more clearly.

Dinas Powys: Track by Track. ‘Time Crisis, 1982’

Originally I wanted this to be the first track as it really encapsulates what I was thinking when I came up with the ‘cubist folk’ idea. The riff is built from acoustic guitars both played normally and cut up, reversed, processed, interspersed with field recordings (the clattering background percussion on verse 2 is a quantized recording from Wally’s Kaffeehaus in Cardiff) and a moog bassline underpinning it all. In the end I chose to open the album with the poppiest songs, and a cool opening lyric.

As a song I came up with it after seeing Jeff Mangum perform at the Union Chapel in 2012, just before my trip to Tokyo for the final PWL show. My love of Neutral Milk Hotel is well established, and I think the melody to this song (and ‘the Gentlemen’s Game’) make that clear. Ever since I was about 15 I’ve wanted to have a song with the line ‘One of your days’ in it – not really knowing how to make that make sense grammatically – until ‘…will be your last’ popped into my head in Tokyo. Like The Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realise?’, this song is ultimately very positive about accepting your mortality and focussing on what matters.