There was a period in my life when I was asked to write sleeve notes for a few records from various groups and artists who had been important to me. I was reminded of that period this year with the reissued series of albums by The Aislers Set, for whose ’The Last Match’ I had been honoured to pen some words back in the mists of time. I was reminded of it too by the release of Martin Carr’s gorgeous ’The Breaks’. Now you will likely know Martin’s name from his group The Boo Radleys, and I have to admit that being asked to write notes for the 2010 reissues of some of their records (including the iconic ‘Giant Steps’) is something that gave me enormous pleasure. Listened to again (something I do on at least a yearly basis), it is clear that there remains something timeless about ‘Giant Steps’. Something to do with the daring of youth; the delight in blending myriad influences into something cohesive and ‘new’. There was something of that in ‘The Breaks’ too, and if the collage sources appeared less wide-ranging and the juxtapositions less startling, that was surely no criticism. For throughout the forty minutes of ‘The Breaks’ Martin Carr did a wonderful job of crafting a beautiful sunshine soft-pop masterpiece out of some choice source references. Certainly there were more than a few strands of his beloved Beatles in there, but for me those were references transported to California and shone through the kaleidoscope of The Millennium, before bouncing back into present day England (or was it Wales?). There were also sonic nudges towards the likes of Felt and Donovan, and surely that was a discreet lyrical nod to Teardrop Explodes and Wild Swans in the wonderful ‘Mainstream’? Certainly ‘The Breaks’ was as cohesive and accomplished a record as The Wild Swans’ priceless ‘The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years’, and that is a statement that should really make you sit up and take note.
It seems to me that in hindsight ‘Giant Steps’ could be cast as a kind of 1990's version of Gene Clark’s peerless ’No Other’. That being the case there is a case too for seeing ‘The Breaks’ in the same vein, perhaps as a rather wonderfully British reverse take on Gram Parson’s notion of Cosmic American Music; part of a warm hearted family where it’s cousins would be records by the likes of The Tyde or Beachwood Sparks. What grand company to be in.
The first I heard of North Atlantic Explorers was a link shared on my Facebook timeline by The PInefox. He was enamoured by the cellos on ‘Spiral Into The Sea’ and it was certainly more than enough to make me want to hear more. The link that took me to some beautifully shot footage aboard an Icelandic container ship convinced me that this was a record I needed hear in its entirety. I was not disappointed.
When I first listened I thought I could hear something of the early Rachels at work in ‘My Father Was A Sailor’. Perhaps it was the idea of a narrative driving an album, much like on the 'Music for Egon Schiele’, or perhaps it was the strings and the filmic quality to the music. Certainly the narrative and filmic quality was central to ‘My Father Was A Sailor’, the album being in effect an ambitious attempt to capture the story of Glenn D’Cruze’s late father’s life at sea with the British Merchant Navy. That it was started before, but finished after his father’s death, added extra poignancy not only to the record but inevitably to my relationship with it (my own father having passed away in early January). There was something beautiful about an artist using his chosen form as a means of exploring his sense of loss without being overtly sentimental or impenetrably personal. So from the opening of Stuart David’s reading of the Shipping Forecast on ‘The Sailor & The Stenographer’ to the treated vocals of closer ‘White Moon Bay’, ‘My Father Was A Sailor’ was both hugely engaging as a narrative and as a collection of lovely individual songs. Highlights would be the aforementioned album opener and ’Spiral Into The Sea’ as well as a delightful take on Pipas’ gem ’South’, but really this was a remarkably calm trip, free from peaks and troughs. It’s a journey I would urge you to take.
North Atlantic Explorers - ‘My Father Was A Sailor’ (Bandcamp)
Sometimes the world just spins too fast and you can’t keep up, right? So it was that I had not twigged the connection between Girls Names and Sea Pinks until this year, when I really dug their wonderful ‘Dreaming Tracks’ set. The connection of course is Neil Brogan, and I trust he will forgive me for saying that really the only reason I dug Girls Names in the first place was because of that song ‘Lawrence’, and that it only recently came to my attention that Sea Pinks also recorded a cover of ‘Ballad Of The Band’ back in 2010, so, you know, ‘it all fits’ and all that. All of which is a wonderfully clumsy way of saying that I adored ‘Dreaming Tracks’ this year in much the same way that I have adored Felt or Denim or Go-Kart Mozart records in the past, and that is really saying something. Lawrence has said something in the past about how groups do not really sound the way they want to sound until they are on a major label, or at the very least until they have the luxury of a proper recording studio and producer, and there was something of that in the sound of this Sea Pinks record. For whilst the spiky, pared down ‘no-fi’ home recording aesthetic of the earlier Sea Pinks records sounds appealing, this first ‘full band’ studio recording took Sea Pinks to another, more assured and matured level. There was a warmth abounding in the powder pink grooves of ‘Dreaming Tracks’ that conjured notions of The Feelies in front of an open fire, or of Stars Of Heaven spinning those old rare Gram Parsons recordings on a red Dansette in a darkly panelled snug, glass of fifteen year old Glenfarclas clutched tight. Or maybe that’s just me. Whatever, if you like your guitar pop warmly roasted but with a distinct bite then there were fewer better albums than this in 2014.
Oslo’s Making Marks first came to my attention in 2012 when their lovely ‘Ticket Machine’ single appeared on the Fika label. I admit that it was the fascinating cover image by Sverre Bjertnes that first caught my eye. The fact that the sound on the vinyl more than matched felt like a bonus. Sometimes records can be like that.
The ‘A Thousand Half-Truths’ album that appeared in February of 2014 more then delivered on the promise of that single and in truth it contained a few of my very favourite songs of the year in ‘Bruises’, ‘Falling In Love Again' (that line about not having slept since the 22nd of November feels particularly apposite) and especially the wonderfully infectious ‘Lemon Sheets’. I have literally lost count of the number of times I have found myself singing various lines and refrains, notably the ones about being “just a bus and a train and a plane and another train from Haringey”. I mean, as a former Duke of (part of) the borough*, how could I not?
‘A Thousand Half Truths’ sounded like a lush roof garden hidden in an urban sprawl, or an iPhone screen glistening in the wilderness depending on your preference. Either way, it was an anoraked, desert booted indiekid rubbing up against a barefoot, countryfied beatnik and making beautiful babies.
Or maybe it was, simply, a top Pop album.
Making Marks - 'A Thousand Half Truths' (Bandcamp)
*When I first went online back in the mists of time, it felt important to have a nom de plume. At that time I was very much into the sounds of drum’n’bass and had only just picked up the excellent 'Alroy Tracks featuring the Duke Of Harringay' EP by Squarepusher. So I purloined the ‘Duke Of Harringay’ moniker and hence, from that moment and for many years after I became The Duke...
Fittingly, Papernut Cambridge first came to my attention in an advent project. It was the 2011 ‘Christmas In Howarth’ series to promote the 10” of the same title by Darren Hayman, and it was, coincidentally, also for the 10th of December. Now Papernut Cambridge is a gang of wonderful rogues led by Ian Button, and as Darren said at the time, "He’s on a record in your collection you just don’t know it”.
And if ‘There’s No Underground’, the glorious second album by Papernut Cambridge is not in your collection by the end of 2014 then you’re really missing out on something special. With its triple 7” pack it was certainly one of the most marvellously packaged albums of the year. I will accept that looks aren’t everything however, and I’m pleased to say that it sounded every bit as brilliant as it looked. Laden with mighty Pop hooks (the awesome Power-Popping psych trip of ‘When She Said What She Said’) and shimmering atmospherics (the Strands-like shiver of the frankly beautiful, haunting ‘The Long Shadows Of Lee’), ‘There’s No Undergound’ was a half-hour of near perfection. A record fine enough to file next to The Zombies, Mott The Hoople, East Village or The Television Personalities with no fear of being over-shadowed.
It was my friend Kevin Pearce who used to say something along the lines of “There is a new album by <insert name of group> and that is all you need to know.”* As I recall he said this about groups like Autechre or Clinic who seemed to soar just below the radar of most, yet were clutched close to the heart by many. Groups whose output was, for a long time, almost metronomic in both regularity of release and in terms of sheer quality. There was also the sense of knowing what you were going to get. Like Rothko paintings, they were quite uniform in their sound. No great leaps in style from one album to the next, but rather a considered honing of the art. I say all this because there is something of the same in The Twilight Sad. ‘Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave’ was a splendid selection of gloomy, viscerally spectral songs that took The Twilight Sad to either marvellous new heights or spectacular new depths, depending on your viewpoint. At its best the record recalled a grainy black and white road movie projected on the side of a derelict grain elevator. Or a blend of ‘Glider’ era My Bloody Valentine mixed with Arab Strap. Whichever you prefer. Ultimately though, when I say that in 2014 there was a new album by The Twilight Sad, then really that is all you need to know.
The Twilight Sad - 'Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave' (CD on Amazon)
*In my Unpopular advent of 2012 I used this strategy to recommend the ‘Ghost In Daylight’ set by Gravenhurst. In the wake of Nick Talbot’s tragic passing, I can only trust that by using the same angle here for The Twilight Sad I am not casting some kind of psychic cloak of doom, the likes of which might crop up in an M.R. James story. Then again, that would be the kind of thing that might appeal to Nick, and would perhaps appear appropriate given the tenor of The Twilight Sad, so I guess we shall see...
I will admit that I had not come across Brighton group Fear of Men before the delicious ‘Luna’/'Outrun Me' flexizine appeared on my radar courtesy of the fabulous Art Is Hard stable back in May. The subsequent discovery of the ‘Loom’ set (in covetable clear vinyl format to boot) ensured that they were one of my most treasured finds of the year. There was something very redolent of the late 1980’s Independent scenario about them that appealed. The very use of the flexi was like a blast from my past of course, but in terms of visuals and graphics there was very much a sense of Fear Of Men being firmly rooted in an aesthetic that owed as much to, say, those stylish Sugarfrost sleeves for Fugu and Eva Luna as to the sounds of lush dream popping guitar bands. That tip back to the dream pop or (whisper it) shoegaze phenomena has been going on for a few years in the contemporary indie scene of course, and so it was no surprise to see Fear Of Men tour in the USA with The Pains of Being Pure At Heart (who yes, I still adore!). But I’m still waiting for a group that sounds more like Crash than Slowdive to really excite me. Fear Of Men came closer than most, and that I’d happily play ‘Loom’ next to ‘I Feel Fine’ should tell you a great deal. Spinning ‘Loom’ I was also reminded of the wonderful group Sorrow, which of course featured Rose McDowall, and at times all it needed for Fear Of Men to tip into full Strawberry Switchblade mode was for a second voice to play Jill Bryson to Jessica Weiss’ McDowall. Now that’s something I’d really love to hear. As it is though Ive been more than happy to listen to ‘Loom’ just exactly as it is. From the glistening cascade of ‘Waterfall’, through the verdant luxury of ‘Green Sea' to the triumphant ’Tephra’ and beyond, ‘Loom’ was an album that delighted from the off and that continued to deliver sweet sensations with every listen.
When I wrote about Dublin band Ginnels in my advent last year it was to praise the wonderful Feelies infused ‘best of’ set ‘Plumes’. Well, I’m delighted to say that they make a return visit this year with another set of tunes for the Tenorio Cotbade label out of Madrid. Clocking in at 37 minutes for 14 tracks, ‘A Country Life’ is an album that rarely pauses to catch breath, and if that Feelies influence is still evident (and thank goodness for that of course), then this time around it is rather more of a hinted-at constituent part blended with a host of other nods, winks and gentle nudges. Some of those nods might be to the likes of, say, the fabulous Let’s Wrestle or perhaps Wake The President, whose Postcard Utopian sound Ginnels would also appear to subscribe to. Add in some moments of Fire Engines squalls blasting in the undergrowth beneath the foliage of A Riot Of Colour and you have a sound that is all classy references yet all fantastically Ginnels.
TV Girl’s first visit to the Unpopular advent series came back in 2012 when their ‘The Wild, The Innocent, The TV Shuffle’ set crashed in sounding like, and I quote, “Brian Wilson camped out on Mulholland Drive armed only with a MacBook and a brief to recreate the sugary bubblegum Pop of ‘50s Americana for a 21st Century youth with ADHD”. Their ‘French Exit’ album from earlier this year didn’t (thankfully!) deviate significantly from that formula, but it did sound like that ADHD had been successfully and sympathetically taken in hand. At it’s best (almost every one of the twelve cuts could count as a highlight), ‘French Exit’ sounded like TV Girl had discovered the magic in the spaces between the samples and the glitches. In places it was so smooth, spacious and somnambulant you could almost think of it as the Dub version of their previous recordings. Nowhere was it finer than on the aptly titled 'Lover’s Rock’: a delicious smooch of a song that drifted in and out of shafts of summer sunlight like Janet Kay dancing to ‘Dazzle Ships’.
This one almost passed me by, for despite being released in the first half of the year it was not until late in November that I really, properly, listened to the excellent ‘Into Forever’ set. The blame for that can be firmly placed at the feet of record labels who ship vinyl without download codes, or alternatively at my own door for being too damn lazy to turn over the record… Regardless, an enforced day without an iTunes Library did force me to embrace the luxury of listening to vinyl, and this one was a revelation.
Infused with the spirit of Krautrock, yet without being a slave to respectful reproduction, ‘Into Forever’ was a supple beast of inventive, melodic Motorik dynamism. On these seven tracks Eat Lights Become Lights sounded like a more muscular Appliance or a more techno-tinged Stereolab glistening in the morning dew as the traffic builds on the Autobahn. ‘You Are Disko’ was a glorious nearly six and a half minute blast of floor-filling euphoria whilst title track ‘Into Forever’ shimmered like a long-lost outtake from Global Communications classic ’76:14’. Best of all though was the 4.37 of the sensational ‘Shapes and Patterns’. Filled with waves of sweet sequencer blips and washes of glitchy hiccups, it was an addictive candy cane of electro-Pop. Never long enough to leave you feeling fully satisfied, yet short enough to have you hitting ‘repeat’ on a regular basis. Magic.