The universe is making music all the time

Label Of Love: City Slang

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Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

New City Slang releases adorn Spanish filmmaker’s Pedro Almodovar’s list of musical inspirations for his new film ‘Los Amantes Pasajeros’. The albums in question are the latest albums from two greats, Lambchop and Tindersticks. Lambchop’s ‘Mr. M’ album is the closest thing you can get to a solo Kurt Wagner album which is dedicated to the late Vic Chesnutt. In Kurt’s words, ‘I felt Lambchop had one more good record in us, and this time I was going to do things as directly and true to my desires as possible.’ The result is a heart wrenching jazz-folk opus of, and about love. ‘The Something Rain’ by Tindersticks is their debut for the German label and what an album it is. The album is a milestone in Tindersticks’ long and fruitful career, showing the band in a rejuvenated and truly inspired form. From the opening David Boulter spoken word of ‘Chocolate’ to the closing cinematic piece ‘Goodbye Joe’, compelling experimental rock of ‘Frozen’, jazz infused soul of ‘This Fire of Autumn’ and ‘Slippin’ Shoes”s gorgeous chamber pop noir, ‘The Something Rain’ is a stunning masterpiece in sound, emotion and style. The inclusion of both albums on the legendary filmmaker’s ‘stress lifting’ playlist is a testament to the sheer quality of ‘Mr. M’ and ‘The Something Rain’. In Almodovar’s films, music is a central character and is forever integral to the creation of the unique and wonderful world that Almodovar’s characters inhabits.

The album I hold most dear to me is ‘Neon Golden’ by The Notwist. The album was released on City Slang in 2002. I will always remember the first time I heard The Notwist in the form of ‘One With The Freaks’, taken from ‘Neon Golden’. Every Sunday night I would stay up late, into the small hours of the morning and listen to Jay Ahern’s late night music program on 2FM. The show was my gateway into exploring new and alternative music. I felt the magic in the air’s airwaves for the three captivating hours, from 11PM ’till 2AM. As a teenager, at 17, a whole world of new possibilities opened up before me. Every weekend I spent waiting for the arrival of Sunday night and every Monday at school I would be lost in thought, trying to recapture the music that drifted in my ears from the night before.
My musical discoveries were endless. I first heard the exciting sound of electronic music from the likes of Brian Eno, Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk. A new generation of electronic music in the shape of Four Tet, Manitoba and Schneider TM. The NYC guitar scene of LCD Soundsystem, The Strokes, The Rapture and Interpol were burning brightly. Detroit were doing their thing with The White Stripes, Detroit Cobras, The Von Bondies among others all in full swing. Hip hop was introduced to me, from the legendary Jurassic 5 to new protoges on the Anticon and Def Jux labels. The guitar disco of the DFA label reinvented rock ‘n’ roll for me. Hour 2 was nearly always based on Americana and folk music. I fell in love with James Yorkston & The Athletes album ”Movin’ Up Country’ and M. Ward’s ‘Transfiguration of Vincent’. Oh, and I heard Chan Marshall (AKA Cat Power) for the first time, whose (classic) album ‘You Are Free’ was recently released at this time. The array of bands and artists I became obsessed with are too numerous to mention!

At this moment I realized I’ve transgressed from my original recount of the Notwist and ‘Neon Golden’. Jay Ahern played ‘One With The Freaks’ almost religiously every week. The song’s chorus ‘Have you ever been all messed up?’ sung by Markus Acher moved me hugely. Acher’s vocals were heartfelt and the song was both indie and electronica in equal measure. I was mesmerized, particularly at the moment when the electric guitars and drums crash in so magnificently. This, the DJ told me is ‘indietronica music’, the combination of the traditional indie music guitar/drums elements and electronic music’s experimentation. I soon scanned the shelves of Plugd, my local record store and happily found ‘Neon Golden’ gracing the ‘Electronica’ section. ‘Neon Golden’ is an album I’ve returned to most often in the last ten years, although Calexico’s ‘Feast of Wire’ (also on City Slang) could have broken this record! The album is the amalgamation of electronic and acoustic instrumentation. From the opening ‘One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand’ wrapped in seamless beauty to the closing lo-fi lullaby ‘Consequence’, the album is the most natural thing in the world. Since its release in 2002, The Notwist’s ‘Neon Golden’ is among the best, most vital and innovative albums of the 21st Century, and branded a universally acclaimed masterpiece. Frontman Markus Acher has said ‘We want (the music) to be fragile, vulnerable. And in a way we want it to include the weaknesses.’ The sonic and emotional journey ‘Neon Golden’ takes you on is otherworldly.

Hazy pop melodies drifts in and out, lo-fi ballads float slowly, beautiful, dreamy electronic textures circulate and delicate instrumentation creates an album of true magic. The poetic lyrics of Acher ring in your ear long after the music has stopped. ‘In your world my feet are out of step/my arms don’t move, my hands won’t grab’ is a lyric from ‘One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand’. A gently picked acoustic guitar, conga and soft woodwind sounds floats heavenly amidst Acher’s poetry before Martin Gretschmann’s electronic prowess arrives over heavenly strings. ‘Pick Up The Phone’ is perfect electronic pop with New Orderesque bass from Micha Acher, ‘Today I will step out of your past’ are Acher’s final words. ‘Trashing days’ opens with a banjo before Gretschmann’s magical electronic beats guides the song along before a gorgeous flute line enters on the chorus, ‘They’re skipping backwards, they’re trashing days,is that all they’re believing in?’ ‘Solitaire’ weaves its magic, containing a Michael Nyman sample. The violin and Gretschmann’s slowed down beats combine to form an utterly compelling dreamscape of sound. Acher sings ‘We stay here and bare until dawn everyday ‘ on the song’s chorus. I soon realized many off-shoot projects stemmed from The Notwist, namely Lali Puna, Tied & Tickled Trio and Console. These artists were often played by Jay Ahern, together with The Notwist, and often all consecutively for the ultimate German-electronic-indie-tronic journey. The album’s closer ‘Consequence’ is probably my highlight. In fact, the lyrics ‘Fail with consequence, lose with eloquence and smile’ is engraved on my precious ipod! The song is achingly beautiful with layers of intricate textures woven together. The album’s title-track is sublime. Flutes, banjo and layers of percussion creates the perfect backdrop for Acher’s vocals, ‘Neon golden like all the lights/Neon golden, don’t leave me here/For I glow’.

In 2003, I discovered Calexico. Their fourth studio album ‘Feast of Wire’ came out in February on the City Slang label. This was my most important musical discovery as over the past decade, Tucson Arizona’s finest have been my most beloved and cherished bands, unlike no other. Each new Calexico release is a celebration of pure joy. Equally, seeing them on tour is always of paramount importance. The band holds such significance to me that music without Calexico would seem unthinkable. Since discovering ‘Feast of Wire’ I discovered their previous masterpieces, ‘Spoke’, ‘The Black Light’ and ‘Hot Rail’. Listening only to Calexico’s studio albums is merely scratching at the surface. Before Calexico, Joey Burns (guitars, vocals amongst varied others!) and John Convertino (drums, vibes and more) were the rhythm section of Giant Sand and were in Friends of Dean Martinez. Furthermore, Calexico collaborated with a vast array of musicians, including Neko Case, Richard Buckner, Marianne Dissard, and more recently, Iron & Wine, Vinicio Caposella, Depedro and Amparo Sanchez. Calexico have written and composed scores for a wide range of films from the heart-wrenching Mexican documentary ‘Circo'(Aaron Schock) to the Fellini-inspired Dylan biopic ‘I’m Not There'(Todd Haynes). The wealth of music the band have produced and released over the years is staggering. Not to forget their many tour albums that are released in the space between the major label releases, all of which are essential listening.
‘Feast of Wire’ is a masterpiece of beauty and diversity. I first heard the album’s songs on Jay Ahern’s Sunday night alternative music program. The likes of Dirty Three, The Black Heart Procession and (labelmates) Lambchop were often close at hand! The night in question was a rare musical treat where Joey Burns was the guest for the full 3 hour duration. It reached epic proportions! I escaped to Tucson, Arizona, the expansive Sonoran desert, downtown Tucson, Wavelab studios, Craig Schumacher, Cormac McCarthy, the U.S/Mexican border and mariachis, folk, jazz, gypsy, latino music galore. During the show, the entire ‘Feast of Wire’ album in addition to sprinklings of older material was played. What I heard was simply the most exciting and momentous music, unlike no one else. The genres and styles of jazz, gypsy, folk, lo-fi indie, cinematic scores a la Morricone were immersed in their deep-rooted sound.

‘Feast of Wire’ opener ‘Sunken Waltz’ begins with an angelic accordion and acoustic guitar waltz before Joey Burns sings, ‘Washed my face in the rivers of empire.’ ‘Quattro (World Drifts In)’ is next and for me, is still the finest moment in Calexico’s songbook. John Convertino’s drums echo Joey Burn’s lyrics, ‘hit the ground running’. The sheer atmospheric feel and weight of the song is mind-blowing. Paul Niehaus’ pedal steel pours emotion, as do the soaring trumpets on the song’s chorus. A song rarely carries such power and emotion like ‘Quattro’. ‘Black Heart’ is sublime. The mesmerizing string section beneath Convertino’s illuminating drums creates a timeless sound. The song is cathartic and its magical power cleanses your soul, ‘ heart, crawling its way to the four corners of the world’ Burns sings on the chorus. The album contains as many instrumentals as it does vocal tracks. ‘The Book And The Canal’ is my favourite of the instrumentals. A cinematic tour de force. Meandering piano builds into a crescendo before eerie cello strings appear halfway through. The piece isn’t even 2 minutes long yet the spell it casts is undeniable. This piece always brings me back to seeing Calexico perform in the Cork Opera House in 2003. The lights went off and ‘The Book and the Canal’ came on the venue soundsystem. A short black and white road trip video of Calexico (featuring all members exploring a city’s streets at nightfall) was shown before Calexico entered onstage. ‘Across The Wire’ transports you to the heart of the Mexican border. The song title is taken from Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel ‘Across The Wire’. The song offers a compelling look at life for those refugees on the Mexican side of the border. The song is full of hope and dreams, searching and longing. The rise where Burns sings ‘some say a new day will shine here’ is one of the defining moments of ‘Feast Of Wire’. The glorious mariachis and waltzing accordion is empowering, celebratory and casts light of hope on the darkness ‘across the wire’. The album is an artistic treasure and a feast of musical sounds and styles.

Nashville’s Lambchop is a band, like Calexico, who constantly inspire, no matter what sonic avenue they travel down. Kurt Wagner and co. came to Cork Opera House for their ‘Is A Woman’ tour in 2002. Fortunately, I witnessed this magical night. At 17, this concert (as well as Calexico in the same year at the same venue!) blew me away. I can always remember the presence Kurt Wagner exuded onstage, sitting down with his trademark Nashville Co-op cap and a book of lyrics close at hand. The musicianship in the band was clear to see. Tony Crow’s piano was in constant dialogue with Kurt’s storytelling. The intimacy of the night was something I will always remember. Sitting next to my brother and my Dad, I felt the special spark in the air brought by Lambchop’s deeply soulful creations.

‘Is A Woman’ is a Lambchop album I’ve returned to many many times since it was released 10 years ago. Each song pours with such raw emotion, creating an album of deeply affecting songs that resonates powerfully to this day. ‘The Daily Growl’, ‘New Cobweb Summer’, ‘My Blue Wave’, ‘I Can Hardly Spell My Name’, ‘Caterpillar’, ‘The Old Matchbox Trick’ are all vintage Lambchop. ‘I Can Hardly Spell My Name’ may be my favourite. Gorgeous female backing harmonies appear after Kurt sings, ‘this may not appeal to you, but I can hardly spell my name’. Tony Crow’s piano, Paul Niehaus’ pedal steel beneath Kurt’s gentle guitar provides a meditative soul sound. Moments of magic are dotted all over ‘Is A Woman’. Take ‘Autum’s Vicar’ with Kurt’s lyric on the bridge, ‘believe you me, believe me you’ is life affirming. ‘Caterpillar’ closes with haunting strings amidst Niehaus’ atmospheric lap steel. The title track evolves into a soulful reggae opus. ‘The Old Matchbox Trick’ contains a deep bassline groove. The lyrics on the final verse/chorus is perhaps my favourite of Kurt’s, ‘the old matchbook trick, keeps the table from wobble, slipped under the short leg, steadies the unsteadiness, of the lopsided conversation, makes a solid place to rest, arms and thought upon’.

‘Nixon’ is another masterpiece from Lambchop that came out in 2000, the predecessor to ‘Is A Woman’. This in fact was my first introduction to the ‘Chop, and what an introduction!! I remember my brother and I were in HMV and we saw the colourful autumnal artwork of ‘Nixon’ and blurb that read, ‘A tenderly gorgeous hybrid of country, folk and soul’. That was enough for us to dole out the cash! Like The Notwist’s ‘Neon Golden’ and Calexico’s ‘Feast of Wire’, ‘Nixon’ is a rare treasure which breathes significance and life’s insights. If ‘Feast of Wire’ introduced me to jazz and latin music, ‘Nixon’ introduced me to soul. Funnily, this album got me into Curtis Mayfield shortly afterwards. Whenever I played it, my parents would say his voice (Kurt’s soul falsetto) is like Curtis Mayfield!

The album is sublime. Words can’t paint the feelings I have for ‘Nixon’. The strings, clean guitar tones, Kurt’s soul voice, brass, bass grooves, country licks pour out of the speakers. Each song is an anthem with a message delivered by Reverend Kurt. My favourite all time Lambchop song is ‘You Masculine You’, the third song on ‘Nixon’. The song has such a wide dynamic range from the opening delicate string soaked verses to the cascading soul grandeur it becomes. Kurt sings ‘Don’t follow me’ in refrain over the swirling strings, guitars and drums proving to be ‘Nixon”s climax. It’s breathtaking and live, the song becomes something more, an anthem for a generation, embedded in a whirlwind of emotion.

Similarly with Calexico, Lambchop have released countless tour albums for the fans over the years and each one documents the band in a particular moment in time. Recently both bands have released their tour albums in one box set; Calexico’s ‘Road Atlas’ and lambchop’s ‘Tour Box’ are steeped in inspiration and wonder. Lambchop’s liner notes say, ‘Making things difficult since 1992’. For the listener, Lambchop have made some of the most beautiful, moving and transcendent music of our time. The sound of Lambchop transcends time. Asking ‘What is your favourite Lambchop album?’ is like being asked what your favourite Beatles album is. It’s never a constant. It changes with time. It changes depending on life’s current circumstances. One day it could be ‘Rubber Soul’, the next day ‘Revolver’ or ‘Sgt Pepper’. Likewise with Lambchop, the latest ‘Mr. M’ is my current fave. A short time ago it was the double-album of lush instrumentals, thoughtful ballads and rousing rock of ‘Aw C’mon/No You C’mon. I love their older albums too, released during the nineties. ‘I Hope You’re Sitting Down’ is their debut and contains classics such as the infectious ‘Betweemus’, and the achingly beautiful ‘I Will Drive Slowly’. At the time of its release, Lambchop were pronounced as ‘Nashville’s most fucked-up country band’ with their unique songcraft and style(s). Since 1992, Lambchop have evolved into becoming American music’s true national treasures.

The German electronic artist Schneider TM (AKA Dirk Dresselhaus) was another discovery I made via Jay Ahern’s late night radio program, on the City Slang label. I first heard his collaboration with Kpt. Michi.gan on ‘Light 3000’. The electronica track is a re-working of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths. I was already familiar with the Morrisey/Marr original but this complete re-interpretation was absolutely mind-blowing. I don’t think a better cover version has been made since. Schneider TM’s ‘Zoomer’ album was released on City Slang in 2002. Exciting and fresh electronic pop sounds painted each of the album’s eight tracks. The opener ‘Reality Check’ starts with a strumming acoustic guitar accompanied with strange effects and electronic blips. A lyric is ‘beware of the matrix, and keep a warm heart inside’. Schneider TM’s vocals are reminiscent of Beck and like Beck himself, creates exciting and cutting edge music. At the same time ‘Zoomer’ was out, Manitoba AKA Dan Snaith released his masterpiece, ‘Up In Flames’. Although this very album was released on the Leaf label, almost a decade later, Dan Snaith would release a classic electronic album ‘Swim’ under the ‘Caribou’ moniker, on the City Slang label! I fell in love with Dan Snaith’s unique sound found on ‘Up In Flames’. The single ‘Jacknuggeted’ is sublime as is the beautiful music video that accompanied its release. A great electronic-indie musician who effortlessly combines rhythms, percussion, electronics, jazz, indie/psych music among other styles, forming a unique and revelatory sound. Dan Snaith’s masterpiece arrived in 2010 under the Caribou moniker. ‘Swim’ was borne out of Snaith’s desire to create “dance music that sounds like it’s made out of water”. ‘Swim’ is an organic dance record with remarkable sonic detail and textures. Snaith has been at the forefront of electronic music for a decade, with the likes of Four Tet, who are capable of creating utterly compelling and transcendent music. I can’t wait for Caribou’s follow-up to ‘Swim’! Also, the remixes to ‘Swim’ are essential listening.

More recently, a wave of indie-rock acts have been signed to the City Slang label. Most noticeably, Tu Fawning’s album ‘A Monument’ is an enchanting and truly interesting album. The opener ‘Anchor’ is reminiscent of Beach House and many fine indie pop moments are scattered across the nine tracks. Laura Gibson’s ‘La Grande’ feels ancient and new all at once, whose voice echoes the great Karen Dalton. Indie acts Get Well Soon, Nada Surf and O Death make their own distinct indie rock sound. Arcade Fire released their third album, ‘The Suburbs’ on City Slang to huge critical praise and cemented their reputation as the best indie rock groups around. The best of 2012 is yet to come with the imminent release of ‘Algiers’ by Calexico. The album was recorded in New Olreans so expect yet another melting pot of sound from New Orleans via Tucson Arizona.

Written by admin

August 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm

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