Album Digest, June 2011

I have had the sort of month that is not conducive to listening to much new music. Therefore this month’s post is only going to consider two new albums and two albums that I have bought behind time. Because of various bits of stress and poor mood, I have ended up going back and taking refuge in some old favourites and not listening to new stuff. At other points I have also gone back to the Fleet Foxes’ album that I wrote about last month, which has grown on me even more since. Sometimes I think that I should writing about these albums on a two month delay. Meanwhile, I even have new music that I haven’t listened to at all, namely Bon Iver’s self-titled album. It has received so many good reviews that I have been too intimidated to listen to it. I will try to write about it next month.

Instead by way of brand new albums we have Codes And Keys by Death Cab For Cutie and Gloss Drop by Battles. Meanwhile on back order we have Wounded Rhymes by Lykke Li and These Re-imagined Machines by BT.

Starting with Codes and Keys, we have a nice album that is better than their last album Narrow Stairs though the best tracks don’t square up with the best ones on the previous album. There Bixby Canyon Bridge had a sadness that turned to cynicism over five minutes in a spectacular way and there is nothing to match that here. Meanwhile Narrow Stairs’ other cracker Long Division played out the highs from the previous Death Cab albums in a wonderfully catchy way, a task that falls to Monday Morning on Codes And Keys and the result is almost as good.

Elsewhere, the remaining tracks are polite but lack any real bite. In some reviews, much was made of the synth sounds employed on the new material but to my ears it does not sound any more advanced than 2005’s Plans, an album which had songs that were far more emotionally astute than those featured here. Meanwhile, nothing on Plans, Narrow Stairs or the current album sounds like anything on Give Up, the sole album that singer Ben Gibbard recorded as part of The Postal Service. It is a shame that Death Cab have fallen back a bit in their songwriting and it remains to be seen whether they can pull up from the current nose-diving career trajectory that comfort, appearances in soft focus songtages and stadium sized gigs has led them into.

Meanwhile, Battles are another band softening their edges on their second full album Gloss Drop. Having lost uber-experimentalist and focal point Toyandai Braxton, you might think that the band might become overly indulgent and dull. While the energy expenditure is a bit more economic than on Mirrored, I think that although there’s nothing to match Atlas this is a very fine album indeed. For me, Mirrored was often a little too angular for its own good and the transcendant moments like the aforementioned Atlas stood out simply because rhythms were allowed to build and then soar away.

A softly softly approach to the fiddly motorik polyrhythms that Battles are so fond yields great dividends, producing an album you can march along to or sit down and really lose yourself inside of. Even if there aren’t quite as many breathtaking moments here as on Mirrored, it is much more fun and the guest spots are well-posistioned to provide embellishments to the sound. Of the four additional contributors, I’d only heard of Matias Aguayo and Gary Numan.

Matias Aguayo’s contribution is to Ice Cream, which is very much in his style of minimal electronic music based around samples of the human voice. What is so successful about the track is that it could sit quite comfortably on either Mirrored or Aguayo’s own masterpiece of last year Ay Ay Ay. When two collaborators manage to capture both of their signature sounds when working together, you know that it’s a worthwhile collaboration.

I’d suspect that Gary Numan’s is a little more phoned in on My Machines especially given that I hardly noticed the track at all on the first few listens. A few more run throughs though and sure enough, there he was warbling away and giving the impression that have been there in his car for a day or two. The other two collabs are also pretty subtle: this is because they are vocal contributions and much of what is thrilling about Battles’ music is the tightness and complete mastery of the rhythm section.

Moving on to that catch up albums now and the first of these is These Re-imagined Machines, a collection of remixes of tracks from the album These Hopeful Machines, which was released about a year ago. While these remixes do not add much more to the original tracks, which were also long and progressive, they do dial up the beats and get moving a lot quicker than the originals, which often got lost in a morass of found sound and quiet moments. Interestingly enough there is yet another version of the album, These Humble Machines, which consists of the original album edited back to a single CD (the original is 12 tracks spanning two discs). I’ve yet to find a suitably priced download of this yet but if I do, it is certainly something that I will investigate.

Meanwhile, the remixes have driven me back to both the original album and to the rest of BT’s back catalogue as I have quite a lot of it in my collection. The other day I had a great time listening to both Flaming June (while I had the chance!) and Nectar off ESCM. I also listened to the whole of Emotional Technology while debugging some code at work the other day and it was much better than I remembered. Nevertheless, Movement In Still-Life remains my favourite of his albums for now.

Finally, we have Wounded Rhymes by Lykke Li, which I have been after ever since I caught her on Later With Jools Holland alongside PJ Harvey and Ed Sheeran1. I really like this album because it satisfies at least two of my major criteria: it’s short and it has attitude. I’m loathe to tease out a whole load of comparisons because there’s so many that I could make that it starts to feel redundant to do so. Here she sounds like Marina Topley-Bird, there she sounds like Nina from the Cardigans (yes, that is lazy swede-on-swede comparison at work) and elsewhere she sounds like the most amazing torch singer.

The songs themselves rock from side to side, all bluster and dynamism one minute (Youth Knows No Pain, Get Some), then insistent introspection (I Follow Rivers, Sadness Is A Blessing) and on to outright emoting (Love Out Of Lust, I Know Places). All the while the rhythm section (when required) is tight and together, making everything sound like the work of a band rather than that of a bunch of session musicians surrounding a solo artist. Meanwhile, no song overstays its welcome - even the six minute I Know Places actually finishes in four and plays out with a gentle ambient coda. This makes for an intense and varied forty minutes that makes me want to put it on over and over again. I rarely ask for more than that.

  1. Much like KT Tunstall’s appearance on Later…, Ed Sheeran’s appears to have been a real breakout performance. I really like the song he performed, The A-team, but I really did not expect it to break out in the way that it has. Perhaps an indicator that people do still recognise a good song when they hear one? Or at least that Later still reaches the tastemakers? 

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