Album Digest, July 2011

Quite a mixed bag this month.

  2. Zomby Dedication
  3. Brian Eno Drums Between The Bells
  4. Bon Iver Bon Iver
  5. Washed Out Within and Without

This month’s collection of albums is a rather mellow bunch. The SBTRKT album (self-titled) is probably the most frenetic of the five though even that does not exactly pound four to the floor. Most of it is pretty calm, though the occasional burst of pop to spice things up: sometimes it is as downtempo as the rest (Right Thing To Do and Trials Of The Past) but at other times things spark into life, as on Pharaohs.

When I first heard the album, it reminded me a lot of something like ex:el by 808 State where you had abstract chin-stroking techno instrumentals rubbing shoulders with poppy tracks like Ooops (featuring Bjork in her “singer from The Sugarcubes” form) and Lift. Here I would say that SBTRKT does better on the pop stuff better than 808 State and the wobbly instrumental stuff a bit worse. After my first listen I tweeted (in that way that we old hands tend to) that the whole thing was just a retread of those pioneering dance music albums of the early 1990s. Of course this is not really the case and SBTRKT is a pretty solid electronic album with plenty to love if you like a bit of pop thrown in your beats. If you do like your albums along those lines, Don Solaris or Gorgeous by 808 State are albums that may interest you.

The other album that I have listened to from the dubstep side of the tracks this month is Dedication by Zomby. It is a 37 minute album that has genuinely shocked me with just how good it is. As the best of a pretty good bunch, it is my favourite of the albums I am writing about this month. Because in all reviews of albums from emerging genres we have to include a line like “it’s like the (insert name of universally acknowledged classic album from established genre) of (insert of seemingly churlish choice of new genre)”, I am going to say that Dedication is like the Pink Flag of dubstep.

In case you don’t know, Pink Flag by Wire, released in 1977, is one of the seminal albums of punk. It is one of the albums that legitimised the genre intellectually, in other words it was a bit of a clever clogs. Specifically, Pink Flag stands out for featuring 21 mostly very short tracks - over half are less than 90 seconds long. Some of the songs are this short because they are pretty much perfect that way (Straight Line, Three Girl Rhumba and Fragile to name but three) and others because leaving them in an abstract and unfinished state makes them a more interesting proposition (106 Beats That and Surgeon’s Girl). Elsewhere, the longer and more fully formed tracks like Reuters and Strange are already beginning to push well toward and beyond the boundaries of what we now think of as punk. It no surprise then that we remember Wire as much for their post-punk work as for Pink Flag. I think that many of these features of Dedication as an album mirror those of Pink Flag.

Dedication also has a very spare structure, 16 tracks clocking in at just under 36 minutes with most tracks under 140 seconds. It is suggestive of a set of sketches or blueprints for something that might come later. There are some more fully formed tracks that are captivating: such as, Natalia’s Song and Digital Rain. I don’t know enough about dubstep (that is probably obvious) to say what these tracks and sketches represent in terms of the whole genre, all I can say is that I found it to be a really worthwhile listen and something that I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I was going to. I should also note that I’d forgotten that Things Fall Apart is actually the most frenetic thing on these five albums so scratch everything I said in the first paragraph.

Before I move on to the more singer-songwriter sort of albums of this month’s digest, I have an album to write about that works well as an intermediary: Drums Between The Bells by Brian Eno. It is a spoken word album based on the poetry of Rick Holland with Eno providing the arrangements and musical backing. Eno’s last album Small Craft On A Milk Sea was one of my favourites of 2010 (fun fact, it is apparently a rejected soundtrack to Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones) and musically Drums… is similar but for the spoken interventions, which don’t have a 100% success rate. Where it works, the effect is sublime: Pour It Out, Seedpods and The Airman are among some brilliant tracks but elsewhere there are points where either the poetry runs out of ideas (The Real for example) or the music doesn’t quite provide the structure that the words require (such as on Glitch or Sounds Alien). There is also an attempt to make the words more song-like: this is on Breath of Crows, which is tucked away at the end. Initially I thought it was a pretty terrible mis-step but I am beginning to warm to it after a few more listens. It doesn’t help that it follows a fifty-second track of silence called… erm… Silence. Seriously, who still does that?

Onwards then to albums of songs rather than tracks. Sweet vocals and lush arrangements are features of both the Bon Iver (self titled) and Washed Out (Within and Without) albums. The arrangements are acoustic on the former album and largely more electric on the latter. Perhaps it because most of the rest of this month’s albums have been more electronic but I got more out of the Washed Out album than from the Bon Iver one.

I certainly appreciate Bon Iver and I can understand why a lot of people like it. I am beginning to too and I know enough examples of albums that are ‘growers’ to believe that I could eventually be quite evangelical about this album. It is probably a matter of mood as much as anything, a lot of it is quite downbeat and I think it is quite hard to listen to those sorts of lyrics while you aren’t really in the mood for it. On the first few listens I found it to be rather grey and mumbled but it is slowly revealing more depth, colour and shade. The first pinpricks of light came with Holocene and its little line of “I could see for miles… miles… miles…” that drops off the end of the chorus. I also really like Minnesota, WI with its strident drums that settle into a funky rhythm (complete with trumpets!) and its high-pitched chorus of “Never gonna break / Never gonna break”.

It also took me a little while to warm to Within And Without too. I am not the greatest fan of shoegaze-y stuff and that is how it sounded to me on the first listen. Initially the muted vocal and the synth washes seemed to just pass me by but as I got more familiar with the songs and their structure, I began to appreciate the builds within the tracks, not to mention a number of cute intricate details. These include the string lines weaving through the end of Far Away, the processed backing vocals on Before and the duet with Caroline Polachek on You & I. Though not immediate, WIthin and Without is a fine collection of songs that would just as comfortably soundtrack a party as it would a quiet night in, not to mention the walk to work.

Looking at what is up for release in August, next month’s entry might be a short one.

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· Album Digest, July, Music, SBTRKT, Zomby, Brian Eno, Bon Iver, Washed Out, Eleven

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