This is not an Album Digest March 2011

Well as I said at the end of last month’s album digest post, I took a bit of a break from pursuing new music quite as closely as I have been. As promised, I sidestepped the new R.E.M. and Elbow albums - although I had been promised the latter as a birthday present it is yet to show up, maybe I will look at in April.

Originally, I’d intended to dig into the more obscure albums that have been recommended in recent months but it turns out that try to respond to music just because it has been well received critically is actually quite difficult. I often wonder if I just like albums because I am told to but I think this month’s experiments have proved that you do have to do a bit of research and think through your emotional responses to stuff, particularly if you have not heard anything before in that genre or by that artist.

Things began well actually. The fabric release was Ramadanman’s contribution to the Fabriclive series and was suitably moody stuff. I’d heard his remix of Night Air by Jamie Woon (whose debut album has been pre-ordered for months chez mattischrome and will definitely be featured in next month’s update) and there were tracks by Burial and MJ Cole so some parts of had a fairly familiar sound. It was probably the most enjoyable installment since David Rodigan’s back in November last year.

In fact, it was a pretty good month for electronic music as the first artist album I tried to catch up with was Complex Housing by Salva, which was released back in February. It is quite a surprising album in that the tracks are nice and short, everything is quite concise and nothing sticks around too long. It also flits between genres in quite a refreshing way, which is good because sometimes genre albums can be a little intimidating. For me the standout tracks are Wake Ups - a beautifully frenetic piece with some awesome little sampled vocal stabs, Baroque - more overtly dubstep (I guess) but with a pleasing techno feel, and a really good 2011 reworking of Robert Owens’ classic I’ll be your friend, probably the best way to introduce old codgers like me to a new sound.

Then came Space Is Only Noise by Nicolas Jaar and The Magic Place by Julianna Barwick, two highly praised albums in which nothing much seems to happen.

With the Nicolas Jaar album, I was hoping for something sleek and minimal like the albums I have loved recently by Gui Boratto, Anja Schneider, Mark Hemmann and Pantha Du Prince. Instead, I got wonky non-music somewhere between Matthew Herbert (who is often quite good) and Four Tet on the worst off day since Emperor Nero decided to do a bit of violin practice. I have a feeling that given enough time I might really like it but right now it just sounds like it is concentration music for ultra-pretentious gits (as I said, I might like it eventually). Opener Etre scratches around for an idea amid wonky jazz piano and found sound of children playing. Admittedly things improve for Colomb, which is probably the best thing here - a sort of scratchy, bassy meditation with delicate vocoder vocals that builds very nicely. Elsewhere though, the jazzy inflections, found sounds and the sparse clicky instrumentation just left me cold.

A similar problem affects the album by Julianna Barwick - each track individually is very compelling to listen to, especially when cranked up loud, but collectively they sound a bit samey and don’t really provide a coherent whole. She clearly has a wonderful voice, which is layered and looped to magnificent effect over lush almost church-like instrumentation - see White Flag for an example. Once the novelty wears off though the songs become annoyingly similar - on the first listen I was convinced that it was some postmodern joke and that all the songs were in fact the same. They aren’t, you can actually tell them apart but here is a very real case of homogeneity not working in an album’s favour. (Actually, listening back to some of this album as I write this post it is very good - I have definitely been a bit harsh and impatient, it is certainly very good in small doses!)

All told then, I did not spend a lot of time listening to new music this month. I got reacquainted with some older material instead, including Odd Blood by Yeasayer (mostly for Ambling Alp and O.N.E., which is on the FIFA 11 soundtrack), This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem (bought a year ago and not listened to nearly enough) and Tales From Turnpike House by Saint Etienne (seminal London band produce great concept album about a tower block).

Next month, Mirrorwriting by Jamie Woon, Ravedeath, 1972 by Tim Hecker and (if it arrives) Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow. Beyond that we shall see.