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‘.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.