February, the shortest month, harbinger of such delights as Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day. Could it possibly produce any good albums? Well the candidates are the eponymous début album by James Blake, Zonoscope by Cut/Copy, Let England Shake by PJ Harvey and Smart Flesh by The Low Anthem. Furthermore, there was an unexpected bonus when Radiohead announced that their new album would be out and available to listen to this month too.

Got your ears on? Let’s go…

Album of the month: James Blake by James Blake

Well, when I closed the January digest with a desire to listen to more dance music this month, I ordered the debut album by James Blake expecting that it would sate my desire for some more electronics this month. I did this based on some reviews of his EPs that I hadn’t had time to track down. I was in no way expecting such an experimental and spacious album, nor one that was so vocally centred.

It is really quite gorgeous. Even after many many listens it is still surprising and amazing. It is really great when you get hold of an album that is accomplished and experimental in equal measure. It takes such twists and turns, and yet also manages to also be centred on either the space around your speakers or the space between your ears. Some of it - I Never Learned To Share - goes a little bit too far but it is a small price to pay for tracks like The Wilhelm Scream (song of the year so far for me), Lindisfarne II and his excellent cover of Feist’s The Limit To Your Love.

That cover is pretty much the centrepiece of the album. It is quite a clever idea to take a (relatively) well-known song and translate it to his style, providing a Rosetta stone to link his sound world and the one that we are more used to. The fact that he has managed to take an original that I would consider to be the epitome of sparse and then make it sparser still is a complete triumph.

After a few listens, I did wonder whether I would perhaps end up forgetting about this album in a few months time, that it might be a flash in the pan and now a few weeks later I am still not one hundred percent sure. Nevertheless, even if it ends up being something derided as a pretentious ELO rip-off in years to come, it remains for now a thrilling and vital album, a grab-bag of ideas and trends that we might see in the best records of the months and years to come.

Return to Oz

From New Zealand’s The Phoenix Foundation last month to Australian’s Cut/Copy this month. These guys released the highly acclaimed album In Ghost Colours back in March/April 2008, it was on heavy rotation as I finished writing up my PhD thesis. This is a lesser work in my opinion and hasn’t made quite as much of an impression on me. Nevertheless it is an accomplished dancey-indie hybrid if you like that kind of thing.

Particular tracks of note are the Klaxon-y Pharaohs and Pyramids, a lovely little song called Alyssa and the long and burbling closer Sun God. However it is all very pleasant, sunny and Antipodean. This album was perhaps a more straightforward way to indulge me need for more electronic music.

Album of the Month 2: Let England Shake by PJ Harvey

Much was made of the fact that by awarding gongs to Laura Marlin, Mumford & Sons (“The Michael McIntyre of Folk” - Dave Quantick) and (to some extent) The Arcade Fire, the BRIT awards has gone some way to better acknowledging the importance of indie music. However, if the industry allows this album by PJ Harvey to slip into obscurity by next year then we will know that it is definitely an irrelevance. It is a truly amazing work of art that will definitely be among the best albums of the year.

The main triumph of Let England Shake is its ability to tackle dark material head on and yet at the same time mould those themes into excellent songs that are a pleasure to listen to. In some respects this album is on a par with Tom Waits’ Blood Money or Radiohead’s Kid A, though she manages to trump both of these because her voice on this record is beautiful and certainly less divisive than that of either of the T(h)oms. Meanwhile, the subject matter of the album - the first world war and its effect on the very notion of England - is expertly handled. Unfortunately, we live in a time when “England” as a national identity has been hijacked by the far right and the Daily Mail (why am I even treating them as separate things?!) for nefarious purposes, this album takes a strong stride towards offering us an alternative to that.

The other PJ Harvey album I own is Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, which won the Mercury Music Prize in 2001 - the announcement was rather snuck out on September 12 following the events of the day before. That album was a rather loose collection of songs (as its title suggests), it had some lovely songs including a rather sensuous duet with Thom Yorke and No Exit, which was fabulously punky and was further evidence of the world having been enthused by the Strokes and The White Stripes. I have skipped a few records in between and now this seems like a quantum leap onward.

Mostly acoustic and delivered with a totally different vocal style to STFCSTFS, these songs are really beautiful and they have a timeless quality about them that makes hope that they might be learned by people and played - despite the dark subject matter and elegiacal tone, they also have a campfire feel to them. After all, it is often therapeutic to make art out of terrible events, folk songs have been about this from pretty much day one. This is not to denigrate the songs with a sort of Kumbaya association but rather to say that these songs are successful in being elegiac rather morose (there is a difference!) because they celebrate the fallen as much as they mourn them - there are stories of friendships here as well as lives lost. Moreover, the presence of additional vocalists and the arrangement of her own vocals throughout are also suggestive of the fact that these songs should be sung in groups together.

The album stands as a coherent whole and I think the theme holds up throughout. If I had to pick the best songs I would say Let England Shake, The Glorious Land, The Words That Maketh Murder, Written On The Forehead and The Colour Of The Earth.

Oh my God, it’s no Charlie Darwin

You always remember the albums that come along just when you need them, even if you have no idea how they came into your possession. The Low Anthem’s previous album Oh My God Charlie Darwin happens to be one of those records, one that I came across (several months after its release) at just the point when I needed a mournful and reflective album to help me ponder my mistakes and choices. Its slightly upbeat undertones make it a very good album for being in a funk, mainly because it will help to lift you out of it too.

Unfortunately, its follow-up Smart Flesh is an early candidate for the most disappointing album of the year. It has many problems, the chief of which is a plodding homogeneity throughout. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are all manner of worthy adjectives and epithets that can be attached to homogeneity like “consistent”, “coherent” and “on form”. Unfortunately, the great strength of Oh My God Charlie Darwin was its heterogeneity - it veered from tender ballads (Charlie Darwin) to belters (The Horizon is a Beltway) delivered in a Waits-esque growl.

On Smart Flesh though, the songs have almost all become dreary leaden ballads delivered in a reedy sub-Dylan drawl that may have got the singer laid but will fail to excite all but the most cretinous listener. Musically, there’s nothing of interest except the weird synth-y noises that underpin the title track; unfortunately the same track is undermined by lasting FOREVER (well 7 and a half of the longest minutes you will ever experience) and the addition of a lisp to that horrible faux Dylan voice (I’m not mocking speech affliction here, it sounds more like an artefact of amateurish production).

I feel cheated for having bought this record. It pales in comparison to something similar like The King Is Dead by The Decemberists. Avoid.

(Of course, if you’ve heard this album and love it, you can probably dismiss my comments as a result of my - hopefully temporary - deafness this month. I will be listening a couple more times just to see whether it does actually improve on repeat listens.)

Valentine’s Day Surprise

On Valentine’s Day, Radiohead announced that they would be releasing their new album online at the end of that week - it ended up coming out a day early on the 18th and so a very happy Friday morning at work was spent trying to concentrate on programming while picking apart the new songs.

As an album, it runs for 37 minutes and consists of 8 tracks. It seems that 37 minutes is the new 76 minutes, all but one of this month’s albums is under forty minutes. As CDs have got cheaper (or dispensed with altogether in Radiohead’s case), bands have stopped trying to fill them up with every last studio sketch and this is a good thing.

The King of Limbs (named for a famous old tree) sounds like In Rainbows in having that very loose spacious sound and relative ease with itself. Like In Rainbows it is much more mellow than the preceeding four albums, that golden run from OK Computer onward. However, this time the songs seem more immersed in the music. I found In Rainbows to be quite spare in the main (think 15 Step, All I Need and House Of Cards) but here bits and pieces from the mix drift in and out, over and under the lyrics. It is much more impressionistic and so you have goosebumpy moments when the lyrics soar out over the music on Lotus Flower and Codex) but you get an equally shivery sensation when the vocals are sebaceous and hidden like on Giving Up The Ghost.

The run of Lotus Flower (be sure to check out the video!), Codex, Giving Up The Ghost and Separator is probably their best sequence of tracks since the second side of Kid A over a decade ago (though the fact that they messed up the track listing of Hail To The Thief also has a lot to do with this!).

At the end of the day, “world’s best band makes yet another lovely album” isn’t much of a story but I don’t care: now if I am having a terrible day I just have to put on that bit about three minutes into Giving Up The Ghost that goes “In you arm” over and over and my day will be fixed. That is good enough news for me.

Album Digest February 2011 - Summary

Well the Radiohead album was a pleasant surprise addition to this month’s collection. I think that as a result I had to write more reviews than I was intending for such a short month! Next month I will be avoiding the big releases by R.E.M. and Elbow, settling instead to play catch up with some recommended albums from January and February that I have managed to miss.