Album Digest, April 2011

Album of the month: Mirrorwriting by Jamie Woon

Jamie Woon was brought to my attention late last year by Pitchfork who wrote an article about the video for lead single Night Air. I’ve put that video down below because I think that it is very good, a simple well executed and the tune itself is brilliant, probably my favourite individual track of 2010. It’s a downtempo tune full of dark spaces and empty beats, full of nocturnal promise and mystery. Hungry for more, I also bought the Wayfaring Stranger EP and pre-ordered Mirrorwriting as soon as it was possible.

The thing that got Pitchfork so excited was that Burial had provided a remix of Wayfaring Stranger and had also provided co-production on Night Air. The first impression was of a young pop star (actually he’s 27) under the influence of one of the most exciting producers of recent times, suddenly it seemed as though there was a potential for 2011 to be an interesting year for pop music and that Jamie Woon would be at the forefront of it. Naturally, that isn’t really the case and he has been at pains in interviews to say that he sought out Will Bevan (Burial) for help on some aspects of production, and not to write songs or to decide their direction.

As a result Mirrorwriting is not the proxy Burial album that many may have expected. That said, the three tracks where Bevan adds production touches are easily the best on the album and it is unfortunate that these are also the first three tracks. Mind you, if you had asked me after my first listen to pick out which tracks had a Burial sound, I would have only got one right.

Of the remaining tracks Shoulda and Spirits are lovely, if a bit boy band. It has that lovely melancholy quality and really brings out the quality of his voice, which is excellent throughout the album. His voice has an elastic quality that allows him produce a really smooth sound that really wraps around a tune without being too showy, no weird lung-busting fist clench moments here - the wine glass remains resolutely unshattered. Elsewhere, tracks that are pretty much a capella to show off his pipes, the most successful being Gravity, which was the B-side of Wayfaring Stranger.

Mirrorwriting is a very good début, even if it does sag in the middle a bit with Echoes and Spirals (though the latter is starting to grow on me). I think he has proved his point that he can write and produce, though the first three tracks are head and shoulders above the others shows that he should probably be open to collaborations in future. I think the future is bright for him either way.

Young Knives Ornaments from the Silver Arcade

There are lots of bands out there and no one is forcing you to listen to them all, no matter what record companies or music journalists might want you to think! It is understandable then that some bands go under the radar, while others get praised to high heaven and others still get savaged and pilloried. Sometimes critical and commercial indifference is down to sheer logistics and/or luck and not down to the quality of the music.

I think this is the case with Young Knives (AKA The Young Knives and I think it sounded better that way), a band that I really like. Ornaments From The Silver Arcade is their third album (worst title yet) and follows two strong previous efforts. As a band, they don’t really have a unique feature that makes them stand out from the crowd. The singer sounds quite posh but he’s so committed in his delivery that it can’t really be mocked and the band is a tight three-piece that (for the most part) delivers some powerful post-punk.

Ornaments… is a little more mellow than Of Animals And Men and Superabundance, so it is a bit mundane by comparison. Nevertheless, it is good sunny day music for jumping around in the sunshine. Tracks like Human Again, Love My Name (video below) and Go To Ground are well worth seeking out.

Katy B On A Mission

Katy B is a singer who has come through the Brits school (the second of two in this month’s posts, see Jamie Woon above) and had appeared on several underground hits before making her own record with some top dubstep producers. Given that one of the tracks that she appeared on has even made into to my collection, I guess it was inevitable that she would make her own album because things have to be pretty mainstream to reach me!

I am not sure I would have bought this album if I still listened to the radio and had heard the singles. That is not to say that the singles (Katy On A Mission and Lights Out) are bad1, just that I would probably would have dismissed them as throwaway pop. While there is a lot of that on this album and some of it comes complete with cringeworthy dust-lust variety rhymes, there is also a lot to enjoy. This comes courtesy of the guest producers, though I am obviously so out of touch that I only recognise a few names in the booklet2.

I really enjoyed Why You Always Here, Broken Record and Easy Please Me. The latter sets its scene in a club with some sleaze latching on to our narrator who proceeds to reel off a list of demands for a potential amour, it’s an entertaining and empowering song with a nice elastic beat underpinning. Of all the stuff here, it is probably the most likely to make it to my playlists. In the end though, it is a pop album and it usually isn’t long before I move on to the next thing.

Elbow Build A Rocket Boys!

Aha, the long-awaited Elbow album (in my house anyway). The Seldom-Seen Kid was introduced to us with low expectations and rewarded repeat listens, thoroughly deserving its slow-burner status. The previous album Leaders Of The Free World arrived to similar hype, following their excellent early albums and despite a strong start, faded into a suite of similar songs. A worrying precedent then for this album, which arrives as a sequel to an album that has, like those first two, built itself into the fabric of my life (and that of a lot of people, given the ubiquity of One Day Like This at cup finals and weddings since).

It as well then that Build a Rocket Boys! begins slowly with The Birds, a song that now stands as Elbow’s longest and so naturally burdens it with comparisons to Newborn, the glorious extended song-suite that was the tortured pulsating heart of Asleep In The Back. Not only that but Elbow are masters of the opening track so The Birds has to also stand alongside Any Day Now, Ribcage, Station Approach and Starlings! The relief is that they managed it, I am not sure how they did it but they somehow amalgamated those songs into one - adding a touch of Security-era Peter Gabriel in the process. It squirms and soars in equal measure over its eight minutes and Guy Garvey’s vocal detonates into an anthemic burst of sunshine at precisely the right point.

Following this comes Lippy Kids, which is the other album standout, a beautiful song with a strong kinship to Scattered Black And Whites off Asleep In The Back (perhaps that album was the start point for the songwriting here). It has a wonderful sense of nostalgia building on that realisation that not only is your childhood gone and locked in memory but that also no one else can relive that experience, no matter how much you might want them to. That refrain of “Nobody knew me at home” is a killer too.

What struck me about the rest of the album has been said in other reviews: many of the songs could sit nicely on Peter Gabriel’s mid-period solo work, I’m thinking Peter Gabriel 3 and the aforementioned Security here. These songs are punctuated with sweet near-acoustic numbers like Jesus Was a Rochdale Girl and The Night Will Always Win (a lovely little lament that falls over itself). However, irrespective of the arrangements and their historical touchstones, the over-riding qualities of these songs are the voice of Guy Garvey, an excellent band behind him that rarely intrudes and those aching lived-in lyrics. When all is said and done, Build a Rocket Boys! is another solid album and if you shuffled up all the Elbow songs on iTunes you wouldn’t skip over a single one of them. “We’ve got open arms for broken hearts like yours my boy” indeed.

Fabric 57 : Agoria

I tend to only mention the fabric mixes in passing each month, which is a shame because they often form a significant part of what I listen to, particularly when it’s a nice straight-up house/techno mix like this month’s one from Agoria. I had never heard of Agoria before listening to this mix and I still don’t know much. For example, my first google search brought up a Belgian technology company. They do seem to have a MySpace so I guess that works as a starting point to learning a bit more about them.

The mix itself is really good, probably the most enjoyable Fabric mix since the one by Surgeon (though I did find the Shackleton one very admirable technically) and definitely one to keep coming back to. Whereas Surgeon delivered (I wrote about it here) a hypnotic full-on pound-the-dancefloor mix, this one by Agoria is a different beast altogether.

A quick glance at the track list shows the difference, there are lots of double and triple tracks3 and the there is also the credit to tracks that “feature throughout the mix”. The result is a relentless (but at points gentle) mix that layers on bits and pieces, sometimes doubling back on itself and revisiting various vocal loops. It helps that there are a lot of vocal tracks, in these mixes the vocals can sometimes disappear for large sections and more often than not leave you mired in repetitive and boring beats.

I was very impressed by this mix and I particularly liked the fact that they ended with a classic Ella Fitzgerald track. This was a classy touch and it sent me off to look for some of her songs online. I even found a version of “Ten Cents A Dance”, a song I have grown to love due to it being heavily featured in Bioshock 2.

  1. When I heard Lights On, I realised I had heard it before. I’d seen on a music channel that my housemate had on one afternoon, my typically gruff response was “This is sh*t!”. Either I am becoming a reactionary jerk or I am starting to reject all music that hasn’t been through my own headphones. Or both. 

  2. Speaking of the booklet, there is an unintentionally hilarious minute or two at the end of Hard To Get involving the shout-outs and such. This is actually quite sweet but the same words are in the booklet and so I got the sensation of pop album suddenly morphing into an audiobook! 

  3. By this I mean tracks that comprised two or three tracks that are either segued or mashed-up. They often sound great but are the bane of MP3 taggers everywhere! 

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· Music, Album Digest, April, Jamie Woon, Young Knives, Katy B, Elbow, Fabric, Eleven

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