Sunday Morning Listen #1

I’ve been transfixed lately by a beautiful new album by Virginian couple Lauren and Daniel Goans, otherwise known as Lowland Hum. If you’re in the mood for some Van Morrison or Cat Stevens, play this instead. The music is simple and unadorned with lyrics focussed firmly on the outdoors. As they aptly note in third track In Flight, ‘sometimes a walk is all you need.’

Woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing…

….warned Virgil in his poem The Aeneid. Laura Marling, a talented British singer-songwriter with both wisdom and a voice far beyond her 27 years, found the quote hilarious and had part of it tattooed on her thigh: ‘Semper Femina’ in Latin. Over the years the phrase grew into a nine track album. On it Marling sings

‘Oh Nouel, you sit so well
A thousand artists’ muse
But you’ll be anything you choose
Fickle and changeable are you
And long may that continue.’

Semper Femina is Marling’s sixth album and one of her best. The spotlight is on female friendships – relationships that have saved her, others more fractured and complex, all meaningful in some way. You can hear Marling’s influences at play: Joni Mitchell in ‘Nouel’; Nick Drake in ‘The Valley’; Neil Young in ‘Nothing Not Nearly’. But it is the close of the album that has stayed with me – the sound of determined footsteps, a slammed door. These mirror the sounds in the closing act of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Dolls House, as Nora Helmer leaves her husband and children in order to find herself. The year was 1879.

Although Semper Femina doesn’t hurl its message full throttle at the listener, there is certainly a clear statement running through it – that woman can be as fickle and changeable as she wants, as she is free to be.

Dreamy new song from alt-j

The British 3-piece are back with the first single from their forthcoming album – and it’s very lovely – a full minute of woozy instrumentation before we hear the almost Gregorian voices of Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman. I love the classic soft rock in the chorus at around the 2:38 mark (think REO Speedwagon), and of course Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowtree making a cameo appearance in the last minute of the song. Bliss.

Best Albums 2016

I saw a brilliant documentary last night. It was equal parts warmth and tragedy, and as funny as hell. The two subjects were eccentric, co-dependent and loved each other to bits. As I watched, the enormity of their deaths within a day of each other hit me. How could these vital, talented people be gone? But, two days after Christmas last year, 60-year old Carrie Fisher went into cardiac arrest on a flight from London to LA. She died four days later followed swiftly by her mother, Debbie Reynolds. After seeing ‘Bright Lights’ I now understand what dying from a broken heart really means. I’d felt the same poignancy listening to Leonard Cohen’s ‘You want it Darker’ and Bowie’s triumphant ‘Black Star.’ What courage – to square off against one’s own mortality. 2016 was a brutal year for many reasons that we’re all acutely aware of. A tweet I saw summed it up perfectly: Is Quentin Tarantino directing 2016? Luckily, out of the shambles, some excellent new music surfaced. And isn’t that one of the important things? The stuff that is created? The stuff that lasts? I think back to being curled in the corner of my bedroom transfixed by ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’; and drunkenly singing ‘Take it easy’ by Glen  Frey outside the Duke of Marlborough Hotel; and belting out ‘1999’ with beloved friends at Lake Taupo on the eve of Y2K. And, of course, I’ll never ever forget Princess Leia.

Here are 25 wonderful albums from last year (in no particular order):

Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool. This is why Radiohead is one of the best bands in the world. Sublime, but don’t rush it – it gets better with every listen. Highlights: Daydreaming; Burn the Witch; True Love Waits.

James Blake The Colour in Anything. Choir boy whose heart overflows with Soul. Highlights: Meet You in the Maze; Put That Away and Talk to Me; Radio Silence.

Frank Ocean Blonde/Blond. More a work of art than an easy listen. But THAT VOICE! Highlights: Pink and White; Ivy; Nikes.

Chance the Rapper Colouring Book. Joyous and spiritual, uplifting hip-hop with a raft of cameos. Highlights: No Problem; All We Got; Blessings.

Solange A Seat at the Table. Intensely beautiful RnB delivering a raw and powerful message. Highlights: Cranes in the Sky; Scales; Don’t You Wait.

Whitney Light Upon the Lake. Indie Rock. Perfect summertime roadie music. Highlights: No Woman; Polly; Follow; No Matter Where We Go.

Lambchop Flotus. Truly millenial, melodic and modern. Highlights: NIV; Flotus; Old Masters.

Ray LaMontagne Ouroboros. Gorgeous gentle pastorally-centred songs. Highlights: All of Part Two.

Yumi Zouma Yoncalla. Breezy electronic pop from this talented 4-member Kiwi band. Highlights: Text from Sweden; Barricade (Matter of Fact); Remember You at All.

Leonard Cohen You Want it Darker. A swansong masterpiece that personifies the master. Highlights: You Want it Darker; Leaving the Table; Steer Your Way.

David Bowie Black Star. A difficult first few listens give way to wonder. Jazz-oriented, experimental and unnerving. Highlights: Lazarus; Blackstar; I Can’t Give Everything Away.

The 1975 I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. The sound of a boy-band coming into its own. Highlights: Somebody Else; A Change of Heart; The Sound.

Anderson .Paak Malibu. Paak sounds like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, D’Angelo and Kanye West all at once. Highlights: Am I Wrong; Put me thru; Come Down.

Neko Case, k.d. Lang, Laura Veirs case/lang/veirs. Triple-whammy legends in a class of their own. Highlights: Atomic Number; Best Kept Secret; Song for Judee.

Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial. Energetic and clever guitar-driven rock. You’ll be richly rewarded by Will Toledo’s self-deprecating lyrics. Highlights: Destroyed by Hippie Powers; The Ballad of the Costa Concordia; Vincent; Fill in the Blank; Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.

Roosevelt Roosevelt. For lovers of everything 80’s. You’d have to be made of stone not to dance to this. Highlights: Night Moves; Moving On; Hold On.

Flume Skin. Hypnotic electronica from skilled Australian DJ Harley Streten. Highlights: Say It; Wall Fuck; Smoke and Retribution.

Angel Olsen My Woman. Olsen’s strong, unwavering voice is central here. Be patient – the album’s charms aren’t immediately obvious. Highlights: Sister; Shut Up and Kiss Me; Those Were the Days.

Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. A near-perfect pairing of two celebrated musicians (The Walkmen and Vampire Weekend). Highlights: 1000 Times; Peaceful Morning; The Morning Stars.

Pinegrove Cardinal. Moving, nostalgic balladry. Wonderful story-telling in each song – the delight is in the small details. Highlights: Old Friends; Cadmium; Waveform.

Hiss Golden Messenger Heart Like a Levee. The sound of worn leather boots on a gravel road. Highlights: Happy Day (Sister my Sister); Tell Her I’m Just Dancing; Biloxi.

Bon Iver 22, A Million. Justin Vernon’s vulnerability is all over this record. There is no more lumberjack Vernon here. Beautiful but oh so strange with the most interesting track names I’ve seen in a while. Highlights: 33 “God”; 22 (OVER S–N); ooooo Million.

Drive-By Truckers American Band. This great American band has had enough.Highlights: What It Means; Ever South; Surrender Under Protest.

Michael Kiwanuka Love and Hate. This album aches. Melancholic and gorgeous. Highlights: Black Man in a White World; Cold Little Heart; Falling.

School of Seven Bells SVIIB. Written against the devastating backdrop of the death of one of the band’s members, SVIIB burns brightly with hope. Highlights: Ablaze; Signals; On My Heart.

Three terrific new albums….

Blond, Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean has been MIA since 2012’s excellent channel Orange. Well, this is what he’s been up to in the interim. Blond is an exceptional album, managing even to rise above the public pressure preceding it. Listening to Blond you can hear a myriad of influences but it all ends up sounding fresh and original. Ocean is indefinable as an artist, unlike many of his contemporaries, although don’t expect the songs on Blond to end up on a top 40 chart anytime soon. There are no anthemic hits or big bangers but the feel of the entire album is wondrously moody. There are also some hilarious cameos: his mum; a friend burnt by Facebook; his 11 year old brother. Brilliant.

Highlights: Nu-RnB ‘Pink + White’ with backing by Beyonce, the Beatle-esque ‘White Ferrari’, gorgeous ‘Godspeed’ featuring gospel legend Kim Burrell.

 

Blond is not on Spotify. You gotta buy!

Love and Hate, Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka’s album Love and Hate is a glorious, sprawling sophomore release from the talented North-Londoner. It’s a big departure from his ‘safe’ debut album Home Again that, although it showcased his warm soulful voice and superb guitar skill, kept within the traditional boundaries of RnB and soul. This album is another thing altogether.

Highlights: Epic opener ‘Cold Little Heart’, Gospel-infused ‘Black Man in a white World.’

 

Roosevelt, Roosevelt.

Roosevelt

I have to admit I’ve been solo day-dancing to this. It’s an ode to all of you who were teenagers in the real 80’s. So is Roosevelt authentic? I couldn’t say it better than excruciatingly-hip Pitchfork magazine: Roosevelt is ‘a cocktail of disco, French touch, Ibiza house, yacht rock, and electropop that evokes some crowded Tiki-torch dancefloor lost on the Mediterranean coast. Even the artwork plays the part: Roosevelt (aka Cologne-based producer/DJ Marius Lauben) stands awash in purple light, his name displayed in a sharp, 1980s cursive. It looks like something you’d find on a poolside coffee table of a Malibu mansion after a massive rager, slightly stained with suntan lotion and margarita mix.’

‘Yacht pop’ – wow, there is such a thing!

Highlights: You’ll find your own depending on your stamina but mine – ‘Fever’, ‘Wait Up’, ‘Night Moves’

 

 

A Gentle Playlist for Mornings

Morning bird

I’m most definitely not a morning person, being instead a perfectly content habitual owl. However, as any owl knows, the period pre-lunch can be a challenge and needs to be handled with the least amount of stricture. For me, this means shuffling aimlessly around the house in my ancient dressing gown (which will never be replaced, think Linus van Pelt), carrying a bottomless cup of restorative sweet tea. Anything I listen to also has to be similarly restorative.

This playlist is a tender, yet sunny, collection that will gently accompany any fellow morning-phobes as you ease  yourselves into the bright light. I’ve book-ended it with two instrumental pieces: the first, ‘Phase’ by Beck from his bliss-filled album ‘Morning phase’ and, the last ‘Avril 14th’ a rarely accessible ambient track from electronic artist Aphex Twin. In between is a whole mash of tunes – lots of acoustic guitar, soft piano and a handful of interesting covers of some old favourites.

And Larks, it can be played in the evenings too…

If you know like-minded people who love music as much as you do please share this post with them by clicking on the links below.

Best 20 Albums of 2015

2015 was an extraordinary year for music. Candid memoir-albums were everywhere, keeping pace with their literary cousins; 90’s alt-rock burst forth from those conceived in that decade; and preternaturally gorgeous songs emerged from a gamut of broken hearts.

Here’s the complete playlist, with the exception of Joanna Newsom who is not on Spotify:



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New music: Father John Misty, Sampha and Aldous Harding

Dad and I have just returned from the UK, a two week holiday to mark his 90th birthday. One night, over a bottle of sauvignon blanc, I asked him if he wanted to be young again. ‘Of course,’ he said without hesitation, ‘I wish I could go back to being 48.’ I was surprised, being only a couple of years north of that myself and already feeling somewhat ancient. He saw my reaction and smiled. ’48 is the age when the last of you was born’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t want to be alive if you weren’t.’

Early the next morning, as I was rambling around the country lanes in Rye while Dad slept, a song by Father John Misty came on my playlist. This one:

It’s from Misty’s album Pure Comedy which was released in April. I had listened to the album a couple of times but, missing the rich vaudeville feel of his previous albums, I’d left it at that. But this time was different. Whether it was seeing the world through a 90 year old’s failing eyesight or not, the song got to me. And that’s all you need with music isn’t it – to affect you in some way – to make you move or sing along or have a bloody good long sob (the latter in my case as I understood there can never be a magic mountain). The rest of the album followed easily.

Father John Misty, a self-described ‘sarcastic Michael Buble’, is an outlier in the indie music world as he is possibly more fascinating than his music. He was once the drummer for the sleepy Fleet Foxes before he busted out with a rakish performance on Letterman’s Late Show singing ‘Bored in the USA’.

On Pure Comedy he espouses 70 minutes of home truths which could be sanctimonious if the songwriting wasn’t so damn brilliant. He delivers biting, cutting lyrics in a voice so smooth it’s easy to forget he’s ranting about climate change, social media, religion and politics. I had a nagging sense of deja vu all the way until I realised what I was really listening to was a millennial Elton John in the midst of a depressive episode. It’s on stalks in this track:

If Pure Comedy gets under your skin, have a listen to Misty’s previous albums: Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear. He has also released a number of songs under his real name, Josh Tillman. They’re exceptionally maudlin. I love them but many don’t.

Another beautiful and thought-provoking album is Sampha’s Process. It’s honest, intensely melodic and moving. You may have already heard Sampha’s husky soulful voice on albums by Solange, Kanye West, Drake, FKA Twigs and Frank Ocean. Now, with his debut album, he has come into his own.

One of many highlights is ‘(No one knows me) like the piano’, a gorgeous ode to his mother who passed away during the recording of the album:

Rounding out this clever trio is Aldous Harding with her second album Party. I can’t stop listening to it and I’m wickedly envious of anyone lucky enough to get tickets to see her this June (http://www.undertheradar.co.nz/news/12568/Aldous-Harding-Announces-Two-Intimate-Shows-At-Aucklands-Historic-Pah-Homestead.utr).

Harding has two voices – one reminiscent of Kate bush or Joanna Newsome, the other PJ Harvey – and each as captivating as the other. What astounds me about this album is both its quiet power and Harding’s deft control as she unfolds her thoughtful lyrics. Party is not something you’ll want to dance to, but it is a mesmerising and addictive listen.

How to find new music…with a quick how-to about Spotify

musicblock-0013

I find a lot of new music from public or student radio stations that can be streamed into my living room from all over the place. A couple I listen to regularly are: The Current, Minnesota Public Radio http://www.thecurrent.org/listen; and, because I’m a Kiwi and like to hear what’s going on in my back yard, Radio Active, Wellington NZ  http://www.radioactive.co.nz/.  If I like a song, I’ll jump onto Spotify on my computer and listen to the artist’s top tracks (Spotify lists them in ‘popularity’ order), and entire albums if I love what I’m hearing.

Listening to radio ad infinitum can be very time consuming, particularly for the frantically busy individual. This is where Spotify is brilliant. All you need is the name of a band, or even a song, that you’ve recently heard and like – perhaps a friend’s recommendation or one from this Blog, let’s say ‘Death Cab For Cutie‘ – plug it into ‘Spotify’ and it will throw a whole bunch of similar artists right back at you.

Here’s how you do it:

First you need to download the Spotify App. which you can do by visiting the official Spotify website. I recommend the ‘Premium” service simply because you can then listen to songs on your mobile phone – perfect if you’re trying to multi-task by combining listening time with dog-walking/running/power-walking/supermarket shopping/traffic-crawling…. The Premium service costs NZ$12.99/US$9.99 per month. There is a free service (with limited listening hours) and an ‘Unlimited’ service but then you are chained to your desk.

Once you have Spotify up and running on your computer, find and click the ‘radio’ button in the menu on the left of the screen. Now, click the ‘Create new Station’ on the top right. In the search box that appears, type in ‘Death Cab For Cutie’. Click their name when it appears under “Artist” and, voila, Spotify will start to play music that is similar (by genre and decade) until you decide enough is enough and press ‘pause’. You can also make playlists of all the songs you hear and like, share songs with friends or listen to specific genre radio stations.

Two important thoughts:

  1. If you like what you hear please buy the album, particularly if you have subscribed to the free service.
  2. If you have linked your Spotify account to your Facebook account (or joined Spotify through Facebook) everything you listen to will be up in lights on your FB friends’ news-feeds. If you don’t want people to see what you’re listening to, go into the settings menu and check ‘private session’. You’ll need to do this each time you use Spotify.

I’ve included a link to an article (courtesy of Mashable) comparing Pandora and Spotify for those in the US: http://mashable.com/2013/03/01/spotify-vs-pandora/

Staying on the computer, there are a myriad of excellent music sites to browse – here’s a few I like: Pitchfork; Drowned in Sound; The Quietus; Stereogum; and Sputnik. These sites have ‘Best of’ lists of albums and songs which are a quick and easy way to get started. A helpful site to investigate, when you’d like to know more about a particular album, is Metacritic. It usefully collates all the critic reviews in one place and provides an overall rating for the album.

A lot of people use the Shazam app. for songs they hear and like. Shazam identifies the artist/band and song name.

The more traditional ways of finding new music generally involve moving away from your gadgets. It’s all very well sitting in a darkened room in front of a screen, comfy in your shabby dressing gown and polyester sox but it can be hard on both your vitamin D levels and rapidly-waning social skills. Trust me, I know. You can save yourself a post head-phones headache and go and see a band you’ve never heard of. If you don’t like them, well, at least you’ve had a night out with some real humans. You may become an obsessive fan. I talked to a classical pianist the other day who had just discovered Radiohead. He now knows their entire back catalogue, every lyric Thom Yorke has ever uttered and every instrument they’ve ever played – I’m impressed by that sort of commitment.

I know it seems obvious but if you hear something you like, in a cafe or at someone’s house, ask (or download Shazam). Commit it to memory (aka put it in ‘Notes’ on your phone) and check it out later on Spotify. I discovered Gillian Welch years ago in cafe in Wellington (thank you, Deluxe). A lot of my music recommendations also come from friends – the ones who are mad about it – and I mean ‘mad’ in an entirely unhealthy way. Talking to people about music can be a revelation in itself and a helluva lot more interesting than house renovations, university deadlines and badly-behaved pets.

Bat those lashes, Natasha

Cover of
Cover of Two Suns

Compelling  and unconventional with a memorable voice, 33 year old Natasha Khan has been likened to Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Bjork. However Khan, more commonly known as Bat For Lashes, is carving her own track with her emotive, and sometimes theatrical but never ordinary,  indie-pop/dream-pop songs.

Khan had produced three albums since 2006: ‘Fur and Gold‘; ‘Two Suns‘; and last year’s ‘The Haunted Man‘. What I love about her music is that it’s unpredictable and catchy all at the same time. There is a jubilance, an exhilarating freedom, in many of the choruses to her songs that grabs you unexpectantly (especially given the raw subject-matter). Khan’s voice is the centrepiece of everything and its authentic quality holds us steady amongst the noise –  the stirring orchestral strings, the all-male backing choirs, the emergence of unusual instrumental sounds that are purely electronic in origin. And, somehow, it all seems to work.

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Good Winter

So, who’s up today?

Bon Iver

First, the name – Bon Iver. It’s from the french phrase bon hiver, meaning ‘good winter’. I, of course, mispronounced it for quite a long time, saying it loudly and confidently until a kind and sympathetic soul whispered the correct pronunciation in my ear. Since then I’ve found I’m not alone:

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