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Albums of the year: 2018

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Presented here is a list of our favourite (ten) albums from 2018. As difficult a task as this proved, we decided ultimately to choose the albums that we found ourselves turning back to time and again over the last twelve months. 

 

10. Earl Sweatshirt – “Some Rap Songs” (Columbia Records)

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Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, otherwise known as Earl Sweatshirt is a rapper, producer and DJ whose third studio album ‘Some Rap Songs’ was released last month to universal acclaim. The sublime hip hop voyage deals – in part – with the loss of his father, poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile.

“Me and my dad had a relationship that’s not uncommon for people to have with their fathers, which is a non-perfect one,” Earl wrote. “Talking to him is symbolic and non-symbolic, but it’s literally closure for my childhood. Not getting to have that moment left me to figure out a lot with my damn self.”

On the opening verse of the seductive dub groove ‘Shattered Dreams’, Sweatshirt asks “Why ain’t nobody tell  me I was bleedin’?” Masterful production and sun-blissed harmonies serve the rich ebb and flow of the cut’s gradual flow. The rapper pleads “Please, nobody pinch me out this dream” beneath the dreamy, hypnotic beats on the following line.

Memories of his father permeates throughout the lucid ‘Red Water’: “Papa called me chief/Gotta keep it brief” beneath stunning soulful  pop hooks. On the R&B inflected rhymes of ‘Nowhere2go’, the Los Angeles rapper explains the need to “redefine himself” and ultimately ‘Some Rap Songs’ finds Kgositile do exactly that.

The poignant ‘December 24’ is a menacing, slow brooding gem that places Earl’s poetic prose beneath cinematic piano tapestries. ‘On The Way!’ contains a sumptuous soul/funk groove. The tempo is slowed on the transcendent single ‘The Mint’ (featuring Navy Blue), another slice of pristine hip hop that serves a parallel alongside the likes of Madvillain and J Dilla such is its divine spell.

This compelling fifteen-track album reflects a hip hop artist that has further evolved and continually develops his unique and immense talents.

‘Some Rap Songs’ is out now on Columbia.

http://earlsweatshirt.com/
https://www.facebook.com/EarlSweatshirtMusic/

9. Marissa Nadler – “For My Crimes” (Bella Union/Sacred Bones)

for my crimes correct

Marissa Nadler, one of the most cherished songwriters of our time, returned with her captivating eighth studio album ‘For My Crimes’ last Autumn. The Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter has carved out eleven deeply affecting and soul-stirring sparse laments whose immediacy and emotional depth resonates powerfully throughout.

It feels as if the essence of the song is captured magnificently to tape wherein each beautiful folk noir exploration navigates the depth of the human heart with naturalness and ease. In contrast to the more polished and layered records that came previously (the magnificent ‘Strangers’ and ‘July’ LPs), Nadler’s intimate song cycles contain quite minimal instrumentation that crafts a hypnotic spell and striking intimacy (intersecting the sound worlds of Townes Van Zandt and Stina Nordenstam).

Nadler co-produced For My Crimes with Lawrence Rothman and Justin Raisen at Rothman’s Laurel Canyon studio, House of Lux. A stellar cast of incredible female musicians joined the recording sessions,  including vocals from Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten and Kristin Kontrol, Patty Schemel (Hole, Juliette and the Licks) on drums, Mary Lattimore on harp, and the great experimental multi-instrumentalist Janel Leppin on strings.

Some of the finest, most empowering songs of Nadler’s career is dotted across ‘For My Crime’s intense narrative. Emotive strings and meditative acoustic guitar drift beneath Nadler’s majestic vocal delivery on the windswept beauty of the album’s glorious title-track (and fitting opener). Nadler asks “Please don’t remember me/For my crimes” on the deeply moving, dusk-lit chorus.

The swell of electric guitar and drums create a post-rock grandeur on the sublime ‘Blue Vapour’: a raw energy is unleashed with each and every pulse. The hard-hitting impact of Nadler’s supreme songwriting gifts is distilled on the heartfelt lament ‘Dream Dream Big In The Sky’ which feels as if the words and music are somehow encapsulated in the faded dreams of the clouds above.

‘For My Crimes’ is out now on Bella Union/Sacred Bones.

https://www.marissanadler.com/
https://www.facebook.com/MarissaNadlerMusic/

8. Tirzah – “Devotion” (Domino)

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The year’s finest debut album undeniably comes from London-based songstress and producer Tirzah. The immense talents of this young artist can be felt throughout the album’s utterly contemporary and unique eleven songs. Steeped in R&B, soul and pop spheres, Tirzah’s fresh and alluring compositions very much belong to the here and now whose beguiling song structures forever push the sonic envelope. ‘Devotion’ is written and produced with composer and childhood friend Micachu with gorgeous pop sensibility and minimal production at the heart of the album’s gripping heart and soul.

The striking immediacy – and directness – of these songs makes a profound impact. The deeply affecting downbeat-soul of ‘Gladly’ is a delightful, heart-warming love song with hypnotic vocals and gradual beat. “All I want is you/I love you/Gladly, gladly, gladly” sings Tirzah on the breathtaking chorus. There is simplicity in the song (so it seems) but a complexity in the emotional connection. A gospel, R&B lament. ‘Holding On’ contains a quiet confidence and strength as the 80’s synth pop feel radiates throughout. Again, the minimal nature of these songs forges such deep emotions and colour.

The album’s towering title-track features guest vocalist Coby Sey with his soulful falsetto serving the perfect counterpoint to Tirzah’s understated voice and pristine beats. “So listen to me” is repeated like a mantra; reminiscent of James Blake’s downtempo creations. Tirzah sings “I want your arms” on a later verse, sung with such emotion and sincerity. This duet forms the vital heart of the album’s second half.

The guitar funk groove of the following cut ‘Go Now’ packs significant weight: “Don’t raise your voice to me” is sung in a delicate, near-hushed falsetto on the opening verse. Vulnerability is inherent in this breath-taking soulful lament. Acoustic piano patterns serve the sonic backdrop to the sparse ‘Say When’, brimming with melancholic shades of loss, “I felt you gone and now I am lost”.

Devotion’ heralds a significant new voice in contemporary music.

‘Devotion’ is out now on Domino Recordings.

https://tirzah.net/
https://www.facebook.com/TirzahMusic

7. Mary Lattimore – “Hundreds Of Days” (Ghostly)

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Having first discovered Los Angeles-based harpist and composer Mary Lattimore’s 2013 debut ‘The Withdrawing Room’ (released on Desire Path Recordings), each new release has been a hugely exciting discovery. On this year’s ‘Hundreds Of Days’ – and third release for the prestigious Ghostly label – Lattimore’s ethereal, dream-wave bliss of her harp-based compositions casts a spacious, luminescent and captivating sound world of unknown dimensions.

The gorgeous album opener ‘It Feels Like Floating’ feels just like that: the sacred harp tapestries drift in the ether of faded dreams amidst swathes of celestial harmonies. Utterly timeless. Jonsi’s Healing Fields remix is a fascinating re-interpretation that conveys the inspirational quality of Lattimore’s hugely unique and shape shifting compositions.

Guitar, keyboard and percussion is added on the poignant folk gem ‘Never Saw Him Again’: forging a dreamy pop opus from a past we have not yet quite arrived upon. The soundscapes and intricate layers continually build, as if reawakening some once-vivid memories of a loved one. The sparse ‘Hello From the Edge of the Earth’ maps the human heart and Lattimore’s love of the natural world. The lyrical quality of this piece is quite something to behold.

Baltic Birch’ blossomed from Lattimore’s trip to Latvia where she was struck by the abandoned resort towns along the Baltic Sea.  A desolate landscape is etched across the ambient soundscapes with the electric guitar haze recalling Lattimore’s collaborations with Jeff Ziegler.

The LA-based harpist – in much the same way as fellow contemporaries Julianna Barwick, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and so on – possesses the ability to transport you to an entirely new realm wherein the music becomes beautifully buried in the pools of one’s mind. ‘Hundreds Of Days’ is yet another gleaming treasure in the composer’s storied career.

‘Hundreds Of Days’ is out now on Ghostly International.

https://marylattimoreharpist.bandcamp.com/
https://www.facebook.com/harpistmarylattimore/

6. Actress & London Contemporary OrchestraLAGEOS” (Ninja Tune)

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‘LAGEOS’ is the utterly compelling, shape shifting debut full length release from renowned electronic producer Darren Cunningham (aka Actress) and the London Contemporary Orchestra. At the heart of this captivating record is both artists’ ceaseless fascination with sound wherein new pathways of discovery are forever attained.

The first traces – committed to tape at least – was last year’s beguiling ‘Audio Track 5’ EP. The divine title-track (which is also found halfway through the record’s second half) comprises of beautifully drifting strings that float amidst crunching percussive rhythms and piano patterns. The splicing of the various components creates a shimmering odyssey of rapturous, luminous soundscapes, where the abstract techno sphere is masterfully blended with modern classical elements. Importantly, lines become blurred throughout ‘LAGEOS’, one cannot pinpoint to any one musical landscape, for it is a far-reaching kaleidoscope of timbres, textures and tones.

LCO’s Hugh Brunt has described the collaboration as being “about exploring an ambiguity of sound that sits between electronic and acoustic spaces.”

It is a joy to discover new contexts and insights into the cherished Actress discography as classics such as ‘Hubble’, ‘N.E.W’ and ‘Voodoo PosseChronic Illusion’ become a deep stream of consciousness and energy flow. The meditative bliss of ‘N.E.W’ with an endless array of enchanting instrumentation, supplied by the LCO, flows deep into your veins. The irresistible cosmic groove of ‘Voodoo Posse’ serves the record’s fitting penultimate track before the joyously empowering ‘Hubble’s techno fueled odyssey maps one’s innermost fears and dreams.

‘LAGEOS’ is out now on Ninja Tune.

https://www.ninjatune.net/artist/actress
https://www.lcorchestra.co.uk/

5. Low – “Double Negative” (Sub Pop)

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The much beloved Minnesota trio sculpted one of their finest, most empowering works to date with ‘Double Negative’, released earlier this year on the Seattle label Sub Pop. In similar fashion to 2015’s ‘Ones and Sixes’, the band enlisted B.J. Burton (James Blake, The Tallest Man on Earth) for production duties but here, the dazzling experiments are developed much further, forging deeply moving collages of cinematic, charged rock odysseys that seep into one’s very own consciousness. Abrasive beats and dazzling electronic components melt alongside Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk’s heavenly – soul searching – harmonies and Neil Young-esque guitar echo and reverb.

A dark undercurrent permeates throughout the record, reflecting these dark, uncertain times we find ourselves in. The brooding and hypnotic ‘Trying To Work It Out’ is classic Low with the slowcore bliss of Sparhawk’s highly emotive vocal delivery: “I saw you at the grocery store/I know I should have walked over and say hello/It seemed like you were in a hurry/I didn’t want to slow you down/So I figured out I should let you go.” Dissonance abounds. In many ways, the record serves a parallel with Nick Cave’s latest ‘Skeleton Tree’ – both records are borne out of a sea of darkness and despair but both records ultimately possess an incalculable empowering capability.

The delicate beauty of the meditative ‘Always Up’ is a precious ballad that depicts the frustration dispelled by the world today. The chorus refrain of Mimi Parker’s angelic vocal delivery “I believe I believe I believe I believe/Can’t you see Can’t you see Can’t you see?” emits a cathartic energy flow that is steeped in an unfathomable beauty. Rawest of emotions flood out of these recordings, feeling both vital and colossal in equal measure.

How the songs fade into one another is another marvel of ‘Double Negative’: the multi-layered textures and static that envelopes the space; creating something considerably larger than the sum of its parts. ‘Fly’ is one of the album’s most stunning moments with its Mimi Parker-led soulful dimension “Leave my weary bones and fly” is the deeply affecting chorus that reduces you to tears upon each visit. How the infectious bass groove melds with Parker’s falsetto leaves you dumbfounded such is its unwavering beauty. Uncertainty breathes heavily throughout. But there is hope buried deep in its gorgeous soulful strut.

‘Double Negative’ is out now on Sub Pop.

https://www.chairkickers.com/
https://www.facebook.com/lowmusic/

4. Djrum – “Portrait with Firewood” (R&S Records)

djrum portrait

UK producer Felix Manuel (AKA Djrum) is responsible for one of the most poignant, soul-stirring electronic records of the year with his R&S debut full-length ‘Portrait with Firewood’. The wide range of sounds – everything from modern classical and ambient soundscapes to gripping techno and dubstep flourishes – is one of the hallmarks of this remarkable tour-de-force. The emotional depth of Manuel’s electronic works is perhaps the most alluring trademark of Djrum’s scintillating sonic voyage. For example, the intoxicating electronic-infused classical opus ‘Blue Violet’ (one of the most mind-bending tracks of 2018) unleashes a timelessness that is all too rare in today’s dance music. Analog synths and strings are masterfully woven together amidst beautifully cinematic spoken word segments. “Do you remember how you told me about lightning striking? All of those things you told me to wait for?” is softly uttered by a female voice, beneath meditative piano notes. ‘Blue Violet’ details love, passion, obsession and all points of the human condition – the spirit of Nils Frahm and Jon Hopkins radiates throughout this towering composition.

Waters Rising’ sees Manuel collaborate with vocalist Lola Empire, crafting a beguiling soulful R&B techno gem. Several of Djrum’s piano improvisations serve the initial sketches of these compelling explorations. Techno bliss is etched across the album’s central tracks ‘Creature Pt 2’ and ‘Sex’; the latter fusing introspective piano and violin motifs and intoxicating techno/jungle beats (further highlighting the boundless nature of Djrum’s enveloping sound).

Describe by Djrum as a “confessional record”; the melancholic shades come to the fore on the record’s final third. The highly immersive ‘Sparrow’ is one of the record’s defining moments wherein a spoken word segment floats majestically beneath intricate layers of jazz inflections: “I’ll show you my scars/You show me the stars”. A rich poignancy is inherent in each of ‘Portrait with Firewood’s luminous musical works.

‘Portrait with Firewood’ is out now on R&S Records.

https://djrum.bandcamp.com/
https://www.facebook.com/DjrumMusic/

3. Penelope Trappes – “Penelope Two” (Houndstooth)

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London-based artist Penelope Trappes’ sophomore full-length ‘Penelope Two’ – and follow-up to her essential debut ‘Penelope One’ for Optimo Music – casts a hypnotic, luminous spell through its stunningly beautiful song cycles: drenched in reverb that somehow drift into the ether of our innermost fears. The stark intimacy of the Australian-born composer’s compositions is what strikes you immediately; evoking the timeless spirit of early 4AD artists (This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins) and kindred spirits of Grouper’s Liz Harris and Tropic Of Cancer.

On the album’s gripping centrepiece ‘Maeve’, the chorus refrain of “let go” is repeated beneath delicate piano chords and lucid guitar haze. I feel ‘Penelope Two’ becomes a process of letting go: to allow the waves of anguish and pain wash over you and, in  turn, to wrap your troubles up in dreams. The raw emotion distilled in Trappes’ soaring vocals casts infinite rays of solace and hope as light flickers from within the depths of darkness.

The way in which the drone infused ambient instrumentals (‘Silence’; ‘Kismet’; ‘Exodus’) are masterfully interwoven with the vocal-based song structures (‘Connector’; ‘Burn On’; ‘Maeve’) creates one cohesive whole of staggering beauty and emotional depth. The ethereal dream pop gem of ‘Connector’ possesses endurance to overcome the darkness. The immaculate production and divine soundscapes immerses the listener inside a wholly other realm. The chorus refrain “I am the connector” epitomizes the magical, far-reaching qualities of Trappes’ immense songwriting prowess.

‘Penelope Two’ is out now on Houndstooth.

https://penelopetrappes.bandcamp.com/
https://www.facebook.com/penelopetrappes/

2. Julia Holter – “Aviary” (Domino)

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The peerless Los Angeles songwriter and composer Julia Holter has long been carving out the most ground breaking and breath-taking avant pop masterworks and this year’s ‘Aviary’ reveals an artist at the peak of her powers. The album’s enthralling fifteen compositions explore further into bewitching experimental terrain as an abstract canvas of vivid textures, colour and timbres ascend into the forefront of one’s heart and mind.

The immaculate instrumentation and mesmerizing arrangements – a constant throughout Holter’s cherished songbook – lies at the heart of these stunning song cycles. The epic ‘Chaitius’ opens with gorgeous orchestration of strings, brass and choral lines that conveys the kaleidoscopic vision of the American composer’s newest musical venture. These sprawling, vast pieces feel as if the soundscapes could glide forever into infinity (and beyond). Holter sings “Open my wings with joy” on the opening verse; conveying the artist’s search for love and solace “amidst all the internal and external babble we experience daily”. The way the composition evolves and develops is akin to a process of self-discovery or acceptance. The vocoder/spoken word segments emits such rich imagery that reflects “the melting world” of today’s chaotic world we find ourselves in. Euphoria and an awakening sensation abounds on the glorious crescendo of Holter’s trusted ensemble (double bass as ever adding seductive rhythmic pulses to the sacred sound worlds effortlessly created). The continual striving for direction never feels far away: “Who will tell me what to do? Don’t say to feel so alove.”

It is clear with ‘Aviary’ that Holter effortlessly delves deeper into experimentation with sound; perhaps the first cue for the song’s inception was a sonic idea during the music-making process. The hypnotic, meditative lament ‘Voce Simul’ begins with a cosmic jazz bassline groove beneath Holter’s hushed vocal delivery and ethereal trumpet lines. The spoken word passages are masterfully blended with this cinematic backdrop: “I was just about to go outside” utters Holter on a later verse – inviting the listener on a wholly unique journey. As ever, the past and future become masterfully placed together – at once akin to “a distant mirror” of “a hundred minds” as Holter asks “How did I forget I’m part of the dust?”

The lead single ‘I Shall Love 2’ combined with its sister song – and symphonic rejoice – ‘I Shall Love 1’ form integral components of each half of ‘Aviary’s striking narrative. The former is yet another pristine pop oeuvre with gorgeous melodic flourishes and an awakening of the senses. The song’s deeply empowering rise “That is all that is all/There is nothing else” is a joy to savour; I visualize the moving scenes of the guiding angels in Wim Wender’s ‘Wings of Desire’ who listen to the thoughts of its human inhabitants. In a similar fashion, ‘I Shall Love’ (both movements) offers comfort and warmth.

The soaring beauty of ‘Words I Heard’ is steeped in 60s pop grandeur and Laurel Canyon pop perfection. How Holter’s achingly beautiful voice blends with the strings evokes a dream within a dream; a labyrinth of ancient and modern times – transposed to one sprawling, poignant canvas. The creative process is beautifully articulated on the fitting album closer ‘Why Sad Song’: “Oh ideas, Idea – oh why the words are made of?” But it is the dazzling, contemporary pop tour-de-force ‘Les Jeux To You’ that illustrates just how far ‘Aviary’s journey takes you on. The playful use – and richness – of words combined with the futuristic pop backdrop carves out something wholly unique and otherworldly. The deeply moving quality of Holter’s sacred artistic works is forever etched in the song’s gripping foundations: “I can hope for it today/I wonder though, if my heart tells me everything I need.”

‘Aviary’ is out now on Domino Recordings.

https://juliaholter.com/
https://www.facebook.com/juliashammasholter/

1. Nils Frahm – “All Melody” (Erased Tapes)

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Our most cherished record of the year undoubtedly comes from world-renowned, Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm’s latest masterpiece ‘All Melody’.

The immense beauty – and immensity – of the far-reaching soundscapes dotted across “All Melody’s musical landscape is a joy to savour. A myriad of sacred tones are effortlessly spliced together like that of the double helix pattern of each DNA molecule found inside our cells. It is as if a towering composition like “Sunson” unfolds, mutates, and transforms before your very eyes: the soaring juno synthesizer is melded gorgeously with the otherworldly sounds of the handmade pipe organ. The seamless array of colours and textures creates an empowering ripple flow of emotions. Choral odysseys dissolve into this vast sea of forgotten dreams. As the piece continually builds, the interlinked rhythms are forever over-lapping; magical moments within moments are captured at each and every pulse.

Modern-classical, dub and avant pop spheres are masterfully blended together on ‘A Place’. The inner dialogue between the components (choir, strings, percussion, synthesizer, and rhodes) creates a deeply bewitching symphony of celestial sounds. How the female voice is mixed with the luminescent juno synthesizer provides a significant milestone in “All Melody’s mind-bending oeuvre. Gripping dub beats awash with soul-stirring strings. The sonic terrain has expanded, almost exponentially. It feels as if a deep symbiosis exists between all of its vital elements; each one inter-dependent of one another, reacting, breathing and growing as the loop drifts forever into the ether of unknown dimensions.

The possibilities are endless. “#2” fades in – almost subliminally – as the embers of “All Melody” gradually dissolve. Techno bliss is masterfully etched across the sprawling canvas of synthesizer arrangements, creating, in turn, psychedelic dreams orbiting the furthest reaches of one’s inner consciousness.

The album’s penultimate track “Kaleidoscope” conveys the visionary nature of Frahm’s music: the pattern of the interwoven elements (choir, organ and synthesizer) is constantly changing; forever in motion and altering in sequence (in turn, generating endless possibilities). The immaculate exploration feels at once ancient and utterly contemporary; a joyously uplifting creation with its dazzling ebb and flow akin to a river finding its sea.

All Melody” is a defining record for the ages. This is a journey into sound.

‘All Melody’ is out now on Erased Tapes.

http://www.nilsfrahm.com/
https://www.facebook.com/nilsfrahm

Younger Than Yesterday: “Kind Of Blue” by Miles Davis, selected by John Convertino

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John Convertino is best known as drummer and co-founder of Tucson Arizona-based Americana outfit Calexico. Since their inception in 1996, Calexico have fused a myriad of styles and genres including: jazz, electronica, punk, indie, film scores, mariachi, Portuguese Fado, Latin, folk and country. The band — lead by the core duo of Convertino and Joey Burns (who had both previously formed the rhythm section for Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand) — have over the last two decades created a vast body of work, to date comprising: seven studio albums; numerous tour albums (collated in the archived vinyl boxset ‘Road Atlas 1998—2011’); soundtrack scores (‘Circo’, ‘The Guard’, ‘I’m Not There’) and a multitude of collaborative works (Iron & Wine, Depedro, Amparo Sanchez) across numerous formats and releases. Convertino has also contributed his wholly unique and visionary drum playing style to a host of various musicians over the years (Neko Case, Amos Lee, Laura Cantrell, Vinicio Capossela) and has been a member of the following groups: OP8; Friends Of Dean Martinez; The Band Of Blacky Ranchette; ABBC. In 2005 Convertino released his debut solo album of jazz improvisations, ‘Ragland’, via German independent label Sommerweg. Calexico are currently in the final stages of recording their eagerly anticipated eighth studio album (written in Mexico City earlier this year and recorded at Tucson’s Wavelab Studios by Craig Schumacher and Chris Schultz) and follow-up to 2012’s ‘Algiers’.

Words: John Convertino, Illustration: Craig Carry

kindofblue_poster

Miles Davis ‘Kind Of Blue’, by John Convertino.

I wish that I could have a more obscure favorite record to share with people, but I have to be honest with myself that there is not a moment on ‘Kind of Blue’ that I don’t love.

The simplicity, spontaneity, and tone of that record is perfection, I can listen to it over and over again and still find something new in it.

Because of that record, I branched off and explored the music of Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ is right up there, and I will listen to Bill Evans any day. Cannonball does a version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ with Miles Davis that kills me every time I hear it. From there you will find Gil Evans and all the amazing work he did with Miles and his own compositions, ‘Sketches of Spain’ is an all time favorite. Then Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. ‘Monk Alone in San Francisco’ is up there as an all time favorite. It’s the music I love.

I was also going to pick ‘The Rite of Spring’ by Igor Stravinsky. The pulse all through that composition, and where it puts my head, are things I love about being alive.

—John Convertino

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Album: Kind Of Blue
Artist: Miles Davis
Label: Columbia
Year: 1959

Tracklist: So What; Freddie Freeloader; Blue In Green; All Blues; Flamenco Sketches.

Personell: Julian Adderley (Alto Saxophone); Paul Chambers (Bass); Jimmy Cobb (Drums); John Coltrane (Tenor Saxophone); Miles Davis (Trumpet); Bill Evans (Piano); Wynton Kelly (Piano).

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Calexico are currently completing the follow-up to their 2012 LP ‘Algiers’ and have this week unveiled their 2015 European Tour dates which are as follows:

14 Apr – COPENHAGEN Amager Bio
15 Apr – HAMBURG Grosse Freiheit 36
16 Apr – AMSTERDAM Paradiso Amsterdam
17 Apr – EINDHOVEN De Effenaar
18 Apr – BERLIN Heimathafen Neukoelln
20 Apr – COLOGNE E-Werk & Palladium Köln
21 Apr – MUNICH Muffathalle
22 Apr – ZURICH Volkshaus
23 Apr – MILAN Fabrique Milano
25 Apr – LUXEMBOURG Atelier Luxembourg
26 Apr – PARIS Le Trianon
27 Apr – BRUSSELS Ancienne Belgique
28 Apr – LONDON O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
30 Apr – MANCHESTER The Albert Hall
01 May – LIVERPOOL Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
02 May – BELFAST Limelight Belfast
03 May – KILKENNY Set Theatre
04 May – DUBLIN Olympia Theatre

Tickets are on sale this Friday 14 November.

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To read the other Calexico contributions in this series:

Joey Burns (R.E.M. “Reckoning” & Minutemen “Double Nickels On The Dime”); Sergio Mendoza (Pablo Milanés, “La Vida no Vale Nada”); Martin Wenk (Clifford Brown’s “With Strings”); Jairo Zavala (Lole y Manuel “Nuevo Día”).

http://www.casadecalexico.com/
http://www.cityslang.com/

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Younger Than Yesterday: Nebraska

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“Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’ nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
I catch him when he’s strayin’ like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good”

—Highway Patrolman (Bruce Springsteen)

Words & Illustration: Craig Carry

nebraska_craigcarry

This January marks the thirtieth anniversary of perhaps one of music’s most singularly “timeless” of records: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska.’ Recorded in his New Jersey bedroom on a four-track cassette deck (a Tascam Portastudio 144), ‘Nebraska’ is Springsteen’s sixth studio album, and follow-up to ‘The River’, Springsteen’s colossal double-album with the E Street Band released two years beforehand. Springsteen and the E Street Band had already solidly built their reputation to become rock ‘n’ roll’s “saviours” with a decade’s worth of  multi-million-selling albums and endless tours. The collection of songs that would spawn ‘Nebraska’ were initially only intended as demos to show the E Street Band as a blue-print for a future album together. It had been widely thought Springsteen’s follow-up to ‘The River’ would be a live album, a set of songs that would cement Springsteen’s reputation as a twentieth century rock ‘n’ roll icon. Springsteen, however, had other plans. As it turned out, the very songs Springsteen recorded in his New Jersey bedroom would remain unchanged. Imperfect. Raw. Fragile.

Released by Columbia Records on September 20, 1982, Nebraska’s vision of America is certainly a bleak one. The American Dream it certainly is not. These ten sparse songs are tragic stories of murder, hard times, and family strife. The underlining theme is one of universality. ‘Nebraska’s predecessor, ‘The River’ would in fact contain clues to possible directions Springsteen would take for it’s follow-up – namely in the sparse ‘Stolen Cars.’

‘Nebraska’ today still stands for all things any album (or any artwork) should hope to achieve: It’s an album made on Springsteen’s own terms – and no one else’s – at no point are the pressures of commerce or expectation going to get in Springsteen’s way of making his record. Nor does he ponder for an instant the expectations of his (by now substantially ‘huge’) audience which would presumably weigh heavily on anyone’s shoulders.

I can recollect clearly my first listen to ‘Nebraska.’

As teenagers, myself and my twin brother Mark would earnestly build our collection (slowly but surely) via dozens of ‘to get’ lists (inspired mainly by our favorite bands’ own favorite records) on an ever-growing number of scraps of paper. One to rival our dad’s proud record collection even. It would be a long road. At least there were the two of us though. We’d see the list through to completion together. It was only a matter of time. That’s all that mattered.

It was a simpler time too. No computers. No internet. No mp3’s. If you wanted to hear a song badly enough you’d sit for hours-on-end waiting at the radio for the song to come; press record on the tape cassette deck while keeping the ariel just-so with the other hand – between index finger and thumb. A delicate operation. It demanded great patience and keen anticipation. Not to worry if the recorded version contained as much radio static as song, as many radio waves as sound waves. It was all part of the magic.

The collection could consist of tape cassettes, compact discs or records (a personal choice). Our only (unspoken) rule: If I had got an album by, say for instance, Johnny Cash, I would now have the rights to buy anything else by him. Mark could not. Likewise if he had discovered The Velvet Underground – while I could listen to them as often as I’d liked to – I could not buy any of their records.

So, we divided up our musical-map-of-the-world as best (and as fairly) as we could.

On one fine Summer’s day Mark picked up a Neil Young album. Bruce Springsteen, then, was mine (fair is fair).

So, the day I picked up a second-hand copy of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Greatest Hits’ it paved the way for us to embark on the Springsteen voyage together – with me as decision-maker. The Springsteen songs we would have been familiar with growing up were those ones on radio – principally the local lackluster radio station broadcasting to the Cork environs. Churning out whatever chart hits were in fashion at the time. The whistle-to jingles. The obvious. Drudgery, then. Now and then though – albeit rarely would come a song unlike the rest. Not only would you hear the music. You could ‘feel’ it. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart’ was one such song. What struck me most was the voice. The delivery. Whoever was singing the song meant it. It sounded like his life depended on it. I was reeled in.

But amidst the other Springsteen songs on the local radio jukebox (The River, Born In The USA, Thunder Road, Born to Run) one stood out: Atlantic City. The song was unlike the others. It wasn’t any one thing; the forlorn lyrics (‘Now our love may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay’); the sparse arrangement (acoustic guitar and harmonica); the production (somewhat fuzzy). I couldn’t put my finger on it. In a word though (if at-all-possible), it seemed ‘lonely.’

A quick side-track. While slowly building a music collection to rival our dad’s record collection we would try our best to vary our choices as best as we thought how. For instance, if I picked up a Nick Drake album I would make doubly sure the next time around (a month’s time perhaps) to get a female singer-songwriter. So, we had been piecing together our Byrds’ collection. Again, starting from the ‘greatest hits’ and working our way around to the one’s that appealed to us the most from that set of songs. On our third Byrds album in (The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Younger Than Yesterday were first up) we decided (unanimously) to purchase 1969’s ‘Ballad Of Easy Rider.’ (Namely due to the presence of  ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ appearing in the centre of the tracklisting) What left most impact on me (as beautiful as the music was) was the sleeve notes written inside.

At this stage we had built a modestly impressive collection (to our eyes at least) and never questioned the reasons why we felt the constant need to listen to more and more music. And there, written in the sleeve notes to ‘Easy Rider’ – in plain black-and-white – came the answer:

“It’s not a raucous, ego-tripping, I’m-hipper-than-you-are album, but more like an album that says ‘I’m lonely.'”

No album I’ve ever encountered says “I’m lonely” quite like Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska.’ It’s an album to heal any sadness or darkness (however small). As is the case for most people, music means more than anything. Records are friends. Some can become lifelong friends – ever-reliable and ever-present. As is the case with me for ‘Nebraska’.

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Side One opens with the title-track. ‘Nebraska’ is a first-person narrative account of the American spree killer Charles Raymond Starkweather who murdered eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming during a two-month road trip with his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. Starkweather’s killing spree also inspired Terrence Mallick’s debut film ‘Badlands’ (1973), a film Springsteen (on seeing the film’s promotional poster) had already recorded a song inspired by it (‘Badlands’ was the opener to 1978’s ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’). The song’s lyrics remain as unsettling and chilling with every listen:

“I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done/At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun.”

Springsteen’s vocal delivery was inspired by his musical heroes Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan – particularly Dylan’s early records.

Mark Allister summed up the song perfectly:

“Performed in a distinctively folk style, is about the kind of person who is often the subject of folk songs. But in the song there is no counseling of acceptance, as the Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers encouraged, nor transcendence of the situation, as Guthrie would have wanted. There is only a void: a meanness in the world, and in such a man as Starkweather. It is in this seldom-explored void that Springsteen often stakes his territory.”

(—Mark Allister, John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 70)

‘Atlantic City’, a tragic song depicting the sad temptation to go for broke in Atlantic City’s gambling haven (a couple of hours’ drive from Springsteen’s hometown of Asbury Park, N.J.). Arrangement and chord structure more similar to that of previous lp ‘The River.’ The song’s sadness is epitomized by the lyric: ‘Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay.’ The song is heartbreakingly poignant for recessionary times: ‘Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find/ Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.’

‘Mansion on the Hill’ is another personal tale of Springsteen’s, recalling how he’d drive out for a ride in the evenings with his father and park on a back road where they’d ‘look up at that mansion on the hill.’ Lyrically, the song is immaculately executed. No unnecessary detail is included in the final cut. Of ‘Mansion On The Hill’, Bruce Springsteen has said:

“This is a song of when I was a kid. When I was small I always remember my father when It’d be gettin’ late at night. I would be sittin’, watchin’ television, and he’d come in and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we take a ride?!’ I said, ‘yea!’ And we’d get in the car, and there was this house that was on the outskirts of town. We’d always ride out to it. I always remember doin’ that. And we’d get out there and park and we’d sit. And at the time it seemed, so distant… and so unreachable.”

‘Johnny 99’ – like opener ‘Nebraska’ – is a tale of destruction, this time a tale of a man who has just been let go from his auto plant job. The song itself – although only Bruce playing the same single chord and armed with a harmonica – has all the power and vitality of an E Street Band rock-out or the blues singers that influenced Springsteen.

‘Highway Patrolman’ perhaps best epitomizes the Nebraska album and Springsteen-as-songwriter. A fragile beautiful song about the bond that exists between family, in this case between two brothers Joe and Franky Roberts. The lyric ‘nothin’ feels better than blood on blood’ is my personal favorite lyric ever penned by Springsteen. The recording is again beautifully raw (a creaking chair would stay in the final cut of the song). The song reminds me of Willy Vlautin’s debut novel ‘The Motel Life’, which follows the doomed lives of down-on-their-luck brothers Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan. ‘Highway Patrolman’ would inspire Sean Penn to make (write and direct) ‘The Indian Runner’ in 1991. The film focuses on the bond between both Frank and Joe Roberts, a visual version of the Springsteen song.

In Sean Penn’s biography (‘Sean Penn his life and times’ by Richard T. Kelly), Kelly writes:
“Stories about brothers’, Penn remarked in later years, ‘seem to move me on another, deeper level than other stories.”
Indeed, Richard Kelly himself surmises ‘Nebraska’ perfectly when he describes the album as:
“a suite of songs about Middle America, poor families and violent crime.”

‘State Trooper’ is similar in style and delivery to ‘Johnny 99’, another song in the true spirit of the 1930’s blues songs. It recalls the spirit of Elvis Presley in vocal delivery while Springsteen’s sudden roar and howl drips with emotion – connecting to the helplessness of our central character who – in apparent desperation – is speeding on the road to nowhere leaving his former life behind him.

‘Used Cars’ is the touching tale of a father buying a sequence of used cars no longer wanted by their previous owners. A primitive and almost childlike keyboard can be heard which only heightens the nostalgic and tender mood of the song.

‘Open All Night’ shares a feel to earlier Springsteen material, sounds like a song that could have been cut from ‘The River’ sessions, recorded two years earlier. It doesn’t quite have the heartbreak quality found in the rest of the album’s songs.

‘My Father’s House’ is a deeply personal and moving song about a son who has lost touch with his father. A tale of regret; the song is as beautiful as any song penned by Springsteen.

Nebraska’s closer, ‘Reason To Believe’ is brighter in tone, although remains haunting. Importantly, it suggests that hope is always present, even amidst the darkest of times. The song is in fact four separate stories told by Springsteen linked by the fact that each character at ‘the end of every hard earned day found some reason to believe.’

What’s particularly revealing is the reaction to ‘Nebraska’s release back in ’82. Unsurprisingly, the media’s response at the time was divided. My personal favorite response was by Bill Ashton, writing for The Miami Herald, who wrote:

“This album doesn’t need a single. Nebraska doesn’t need a barrage of airplay. It doesn’t need a publicity campaign, and it won’t get a Springsteen tour to boost it. It isn’t that kind of album. It is a low-key, personal statement. By releasing Nebraska instead of a live album (which would have been an instant hit), Springsteen has showed that he cares more about the music than the money.”

For others, ‘Nebraska’s sparseness proved too dull, uninteresting even:
“At present he really does seem to have no particular place to go and whether he can shake free of his own self imposed limitations will decide whether he can remain one of the few artists capable of making this particular writer a more interested party.” (—Paolo Hewitt, Melody Maker, September 25, 1982)

‘Nebraska’ was similarly described as boring, written for rock critics rather than people, an album that inspires cynicism. (—Steve Simels, Stereo Review, December 1982)

Perhaps most negatively of all was ‘Boston Rock’s review at the time:

“…chapter 20 of this never-ending version of a John Steinbeck novel. To be recommended “only for those who like to ponder the hopelessness of everything while drinking themselves into a lone stupor. Preferably in a trailer home in Idaho.”

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‘The working, the working, just the working life…’
(Bruce Springsteen, ‘Factory’, 1978 -Darkness On The Edge Of Town)

Bruce Springsteen, as both a songwriter and man, is a truly inspiring figure. What sums everything up is the man’s work ethic. His desire to make records. That simple desire to create music is as strong today as it’s ever been for Springsteen (and The E Street Band). He is a true artist: He don’t look back. As evidenced on last years ‘Wrecking Ball’, he’s recording music as compelling and as significant as ever. As if his life still depended on it, in fact.

Springsteen’s position in my own music collection remains as it has done since I first picked up that second-hand copy of ‘The Greatest Hits’. Even as genres expand and space becomes an increasingly pressing issue, Bruce Springsteen’s albums take pride and place in the top shelf; aligned left and sorted by date; ‘Nebraska’ six from the bottom of the stack.

A music collection without Springsteen. A music collection without ‘Nebraska.’ I find that hard to imagine. For doesn’t everybody need a friend to turn to?

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For all things Bruce Springsteen:
http://brucespringsteen.net

‘Bruce’ by Peter Ames Carlin, a biography on Springsteen is out now.
‘Heart Of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska’ by David Burke (Cherry Red Books) is out now.

Written by admin

January 13, 2013 at 11:12 pm