2014 So Far – some standout releases across the genres of indie, electronic ambient and all the stuff in between.
I wanted to do a half year round up, and it’s turning into a stellar year for music so I had trouble getting this list down to 30! So here it is, in no particular order, just a bit late! Enjoy…..
September Girls – Cursing the Sea
The debut album from Dublin’s all girl five piece band, September Girls, is a noisy pop delight. Think ‘60’s girl group meets ‘70’s buzzsaw power pop meets ‘80’s indie naiveté, like Phil Spector producing The Cramps covering The Jesus & Mary Chain. This reverb soaked, hook laden, lo-fi, wall of sound has been done before by bands like The Raveonettes , but honestly, who cares? They released six singles in less than two years, which is how bands used to work, and this album features six of those songs of dark-hearted, harmonic fuzz-rock laced with urgent menace and chiming guitars. Turn it up!
HTRK – Psychic 9-5 Club
HTRK, originally a Melbourne trio, worked closely with Australian post-punk legend Rowland S. Howard before moving to Berlin and this is the first album recorded entirely as a duo, as their guitarist died halfway through the recording of their last LP. Their sound is slow, textured, dubbed out and distinctly downbeat, employing a minimalist sound design using sub-bass and scattered beats to underpin delicate electronic textures which interweave with melodic and husky vocals. Its elegant and gently hypnotic music, perfect for late night listening and should appeal to fans of the deep and moody songs of the XX.
Mr. Sterile Assembly – Transit
Not an actual band as such, but the ongoing collective project of drummer Mr. Sterile & bass player Chrissie Butler, Wellington’s Mr Sterile Assembly’s most recent album is arguably their best yet. Defying genre classification, their music incorporates elements of jazz, rock, punk, improv, indie, pop and post-punk, yet remains oddly accessible….and they can rock! The standard of musicianship is high, with the guests including Jeff Henderson on saxophone, and these are songs with incisive, socially relevant lyrics – some contributed by Dean Hapeta of Upper Hutt Posse – on a CD beautifully packaged with two booklets of lyrics and artwork. This is remarkable music that works with its own internal logic, demanding listener attention, but the rewards are substantial. Probably Wellington’s best kept secret.
Moodymann – Moodymann
Don’t be put off by the cover – it is satirical, depicting a cartoon of a character straight out of a ‘70’s blaxploitation movie. Detroit native, Kenny Dixon Jnr, aka Moodymann, has been a key figure in the development of house music since the late ‘90’s and on this, his tenth album, in a slight stylistic shift, he delivers his skewed take on soul music, singing lead vocals for the first time with a delightfully sleazy croon and incorporating live instrumentation. Here, dark hypnotic melodies weave together funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz and R&B into a rich and unpredictable brew, which, incidentally, includes his remix of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’. This 27-track CD version of the album is extra fun, featuring his signature odd samples and vocal snippets between the main tracks, which helps this become a journey into the mind of an intelligent and deeply funky black artist living in contemporary Detroit.
Robert Scott – The Green House
Sitting interestingly alongside the late ‘80’s Bats re-issues is the latest solo album from the Bats’ Robert Scott. This follow up to his excellent 2010 release, ‘Ends Run Together’, again features a set of warm, post millennium porch songs that illustrates how he has matured as a songwriter over 30 years. Possibly too sweet and gentle for the rollicking Bats treatment, Mr. Scott chose to treat these songs his own special way, playing guitars, bass, keyboards and vocals, enhanced by the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Tiny Ruins Holly Fullbrook on five tracks, and drummer Rob Falconer. These are lovely, hushed and gentle songs, free of irony, and performed within delicate arrangements (with the exception of the rocking ‘Vertigo’ which could easily be a Bats song) that are a cool balm for our hectic times.
Eno & Hyde – Someday World / High Life
Brian Eno appears to have been re-energised since signing to Warp records and ‘Someday World’, his recent collaboration, with Karl Hyde of Underworld fame, is a surprisingly upbeat and song oriented affair. This is the most we have heard Mr. Eno sing since 2005’s ‘Another Day On Earth”, and it is good to again hear the sweet and nostalgic pop sensibility he is able to convey with his curiously flat but oddly appealing singing style. Funky, upbeat and beautifully produced, the melodies are catchy and there is a pervasive sense of fun. In fact, these two dudes were having so much fun that they released a second album just a few months later that is quite different. ‘High Life’ dispenses with pop structures in favour of long tracks of improvised, abstract, hypnotic grooves that recall Eno’s early collaboration with David Byrne and the playful experimentation and polyrhythms of ‘My Life In the Bush of Ghosts’, though overall these are a lighter affair that may take a few listens but are well worth the perseverance.
A Sound Like No Other – Milky Joe’s Wellington Mix
Wellington based DJ/producer, Milky Joe, curated and mixed this collection of recent tracks released by Wellington based artists across a spectrum including electronic, ambient and indie bands. This doesn’t have the smooth flow generally associated with dj mixes, but given the variety of material used, that is probably a good thing. A selection of strategically placed spoken word samples, including Douglas Lilburn explaining the origins of electronic music, enhance the transitions from track to track as the listener is moved from the ambient washes of i.ryoko to the cosmic groove of Orchestra of Spheres to the art-rock of Cookie Brooklyn & the Crumbs and on to the lovely indie sounds of Terror of the Deep. If anyone is interested in what is happening under the radar in Wellington then this is essential listening – download here….
Slint – Spiderland – Remastered
I confess to having never heard of this 1991 recording until I started reading rave reviews of this re-mastered re-release calling it ‘the brooding, sinister record that invented post-rock’ and guess what? The reputation is warranted. At the time Spiderland didn’t sell many copies but it become a landmark, eventually influencing bands from Mogwai to Sigur Rós. This is a stripped back, edgy and understated sound propelled by metronomic drumming overlaid with half spoken vocals and chunky repetitive guitar riffs. The pace is measured, with half of the six tracks deadly slow yet, despite the pace the sound remains curiously engaging. Listening to this is like entering a self-enclosed arcane world. “They cultivated this sort of psychic playing,” says Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. “It’s way above other bands and is really emotional. When I heard Spiderland, it was unlike anything I’d heard before. I still don’t know if I’ve heard anything else like it, now.”
Patten – Estoile Naiant
Patten’s first release for Warp Records, Estoile Naiant, consists of ten tracks that each go nowhere – but that, according to a recent interview with the artist, is just the point. Influenced by author Jorge Luis Borges, who’s work according to Patten is” incredible in the sense that it produces very convincing, yet completely alien, ways of considering time”, the reclusive UK producer has made a record that is like a collection of abstract expressionist art pieces. Each track begins with a simple looped sound and gradually develops in complexity, some becoming a convoluted, discordant, fascinating muddle and some disappearing into space. Imagine someone letting a pot of milk boil over on the stove just to see what patterns it makes and you have some idea of what this standout experimental electronic record offers.
Lone – Reality Testing
It is surprising that UK based electronic producer, Matt Cutler, has produced such a mature and masterful record when considering that he was still in primary school when Detroit techno first developed. One of this year’s standout electronic releases, ‘Reality Testing’ spans genres, wrapping it all up in a warm package that sounds like music you have always known. His early records featured abstract hip-hop beats with electronic textures before Cutler moved towards a more dance-orientated sound and this, his latest, moves on again, taking a more chilled slant that employs the majestic synth pad sound and the simple and lovely chord progressions of early Detroit techno mixed in with a hip hop sensibility. Lone has been quoted as saying that the greatest influences on his music are artists such as Boards of Canada, Madlib and Bibio and by the sounds of this excellent record, Carl Craig could be added to that list.
Orchestra of Spheres –
Not often enough, music turns up that exists within its own unique bubble of creativity and ‘Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music’, recorded in Italy by Wellington band ‘Orchestra of Spheres’ is a good example. Their celebratory and joyous psychedelic sound, propulsive and slightly off-kilter, has evolved since their first release ‘Nonagonic Now’, incorporating a more user-friendly ‘pop’ feel, but the pop of a parallel dimension tribal culture, where it is normal for musicians to make their own instruments from biscuit tins and perform live wearing robes, sequined masks and hats made of cassettes. That music this unconventional, brimming with both mystery and fun, originated from our urban Wellington environment is something of a revelation and stands as a testament to the creative process. Dare to give ‘Orchestra of Spheres’ a headphone listen – it grooves, Jim, but not as we know it.
Actress – Ghettoville
London electronic artist Actress, aka Darren J Cunningham, is a contemporary of Burial, and similar to that hermetic musician, chronicles the decay of urban culture via the cold isolation which can be felt seeping through the crackles and hiss of his electronic components as they lurch relentlessly onward. But Actress employs a wider sound palette than Burial, drawn from ambient, industrial, techno, avant-electronica, glitch and minimalism and this is his first album to be released by Ninja Tune. It’s not a pretty world, but it is oddly compelling and rewards deeper listening, as hidden within this finely crafted music, which Cunningham has announced to be the close of the Actress project, there is warmth and a strange mournful beauty to be found.
Blank Realm – Grassed Inn
It has been an ongoing puzzle as to why Flying Nun’s world famous indie sound seems to have continuously bypassed close musical cousins in Australia. But now, the puzzle is resolved, as Blank Realm’s ‘Grassed Inn” is a splendidly ramshackle, noisy and off-kilter take on indie pop that clearly references the classically insouciant Flying Nun ethos and is probably the coolest Oz indie sound since the Birthday Party. While not especially original (“Falling Down the Stairs” could easily be as a Clean song), the band’s sound is committed and earnest in their delivery of these rough gems.
Beck – Morning Phase
It must be a relief to fans that Beck has followed his previous release – the brilliant ‘Song Reader’, which consisted of lovingly packaged song sheets but no actual recordings – with an actual CD ……and what a great collection of songs it is. His first release in six years finds him returning to the contemplative, lush Beck of ‘Sea Change’ with a deep and reflective work featuring a wide range of musicians and orchestral arrangements. Apparently, he suffered a severe spinal injury before making this record which may account for the subdued feel and mature tone – but it serves him well as this is an understated and beautifully produced record that presents an artist excelling at their craft.
Real Estate – Atlas
By their third album you are either a fan of Real Estate’s harmonic, sun-drenched, tremolo guitar driven sound or not. For those fond of overt darkness and angst, these pretty, gently yearning songs may sound far too sweet, but for fans this is a beautiful addition to their discography. Not that this collection is angst free, the songs are deceptive in that within the beautiful melodies lurk lyrics about pain, confusion and loss carried by tight, complex arrangements from a band who’s warm and understated sound requires you to listen in to catch their lovely drift.
VA – Pop Ambient 2014
Since the new millennium dawned, Cologne based electronic label, Kompakt have released an annual compilation from their sub-label, Pop Ambient, which features a distinctive take on the electronic ambient genre. The overall quality has been remarkably high, with only one or two editions drifting a little too close to sugary new age muzak, but this 14th edition is a standout and features contributions from masters of their craft including the Orb’s Thomas Fehlmann, ex-Slowdive guitarist Simon Scott, Jorg Burger, The Field and label boss, Wolfgang Voigt. With hardly a beat to be heard, these compositions offer a subtly hypnotic and enveloping listening experience becoming more dense and textural as the tracks slowly unfold.
The Notwist – Close To the Glass
The German band that helped spearhead the indietronica genre with their classic 2002 release, ‘Neon Golden’, were never spotlight grabbers, always appearing to favour working on the periphery, and their first record in six years finds them in similar mode. In the intervening time they have produced a couple of film soundtracks which may have influenced the direction their sound seems to have taken. This is music so subtle and understated that it has the potential to not register at all….but given attention what reveals itself is a sequence of lovingly crafted songs that span the analog / electronic spectrum with confidence and superb musicianship.
Machinedrum – Vapor City
US electronic producer Travis Stewart recently joined the London based Ninja Tune musical community with his release ‘Vapor City’, based on a recurring dream of an unknown metropolis. The record is aptly named, as ‘vaporous’ is a description that comes readily to mind when attempting to do justice to the sublime sound of this release. Travis immerses the loping bass lines and skittering hi-hats of dubstep and jungle in the downbeat swathe Ninja Tune is famous for, employing atmospheric pads, lush piano chords and haunting treated vocal samples to create an enthralling contemporary urban sound. You can even become a citizen of Vapor City by signing up online and get to receive free remixes, but even if you don’t want to live there, this is a very cool place to visit.
Toy – Join the Dots
Toy’s second album finds them continuing to successfully explore the expansive soundworld originally established by the early 90’s UK psych rock/shoegaze scene – driving melodic bass, metronomic beats, unfeasibly expansive and effects laden jangly guitars and fey, world weary vocals. Not to suggest that this is boring and predictable music, Toy place themselves within a genre and proceed to deliver a rousing example of their chosen sound. So, while there is nothing especially new to be found here, this remains a confident record and a great listen, especially the wall of sound guitars, and an excellent reminder of a sweetly immersive sub-genre of indie music, released, appropriately enough, on Heavenly Records.
Calexico – Spiritoso – Live with Symphony Orchestras in Vienna & Potsdam
This live Calexico recording is a real treat for fans and an excellent introduction to the band for the curious. Featuring four tracks from their 2013 release, Algiers, including an excellent version of the beautiful ‘Para’, the rest of the selections are drawn from their back catalogue and include ‘Black Heart’ and ‘Crystal Frontier’. What sets this recording apart are the arrangements for two different symphony orchestras which transform the band’s already cinematic sound into epic and majestic masterpieces. The arrangements are subtle and powerful, complementing the band’s sound with sweeping strings, stirring brass and gentle woodwind that add a welcome grandeur to their already stirring songs.
Polvo – Siberia
Polvo have been around since the 90’s, releasing four albums between 1992 and 1997 then re-emerging in 2009 with ‘In Prism’ and now this, their sixth record. When delving into their catchy and refreshingly off-centre indie/math rock, it quickly becomes clear that these musos have learnt their craft. The tight yet ramshackle grooves, propelled by crashing drums and melodic bass, feature classic twin fuzzed out guitars that swirl and bubble under the surface, sporadically exploding into classic hooks and wailing air guitar breaks to punctuate the earnest vocals. It sounds too clichéd to work, but it does – brilliantly. Anyone who needs their faith restored in contemporary indie rock needs to listen to Polvo, who remind us just how “…the telescope is broken”.
Rotor Plus – Dust
Rotor Plus aka Epsilon-Blue, aka Son.sine is the ambient moniker of Dunedin producer Leyton Davies. ‘Dust’ is the third and final instalment of the ambient trilogy he started in 2000 with ‘Aileron’, followed by 2004’s ‘Map Key Window’, all released on his tiny label, The Radiophonics Trading Company of New Zealand. ‘Dust’ fits into the electro-acoustic genre with its dreamlike structure, incorporating periods of silence, field recording, acoustic instrumentation and electronic editing and processing which generally float, but sometimes jump, in and out of the listener’s hearing throughout the three long tracks. Rather than the now clichéd ‘soundtrack to an imaginary film’, ‘Dust’ exists like a well executed abstract painting, not suggesting anything outside of itself but simply is of itself, mysterious and curiously compelling.
Mogwai – Rave Tapes
Scottish post-rockers Mogwai continue to develop their predominantly instrumental sound on album number eight, here stepping back from the familiar LOUD-quiet-LOUD dynamic in favour of a more understated cinematic sound – possibly a follow on from the moody soundtrack work they undertook on last year’s release, the score to the French zombie film, ‘Les Revenants’. The subtle shift sideways enables the band to avoid the corner that the LOUD-quiet-LOUD ethos inevitably leads to, yet the music remains as stirring as ever, at times creating a stately grandeur, while at other times submerging the listener in complex, densely layered driving metronomic grooves and slow atmospherics. ‘Rave Tapes’ stands with anything they have done (and yes, there is a track about Satan) and its great to see a band like Mogwai maturing their sound while sacrificing none of their distinctive allure.
Charles Webster – House Masters
As fans of the House dance music genre will tell you…”house music is a spiritual thing”…. and Charles Webster is the one to lead the congregation! He helped develop the genre known as deep house with its characteristic soulful vocals, jazz influenced samples, dubbed out electronics and relatively slow grooves and has lovingly curated, edited and programmed this double CD compilation from his own personal archive of remixes and original productions. Smooth and sultry, this is a beautiful late night ride into the heart of a lush dance music sub-genre.
Cheatahs – Cheatahs
A squall of raucous twin guitars announces the arrival of this London band that has taken five years to produce their first album. The breathy melodic vocal lines buried under swathes of rich textured noise recall the heyday of early ‘90’s shoegaze and college rock and they recreate that sound so well that on first listen this could be mistaken for a lost ‘90’s recording. However, further listening reveals a band transmuting those influences into something, while not original, exciting and compelling, like the missing link between My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Junior.
Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams
Canadian band Timber Timbre’s fifth record finds this excellent collection of musicians hitting their stride. Imagine the soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western directed by David Lynch and you get some idea. The pace is alt-country slow, the vocals are reverb laden, the guitars twang and the entire production is just nicely askew enough to create an original surreal take on Southern Gothic via ‘50’s Americana. “This is Bates Motel schmaltz, with the entire record a decrepit, cobweb-clogged anthology of past styles and vintage genres”.
Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
The follow up to 2012’s excellent ‘Light Up Gold’ finds the band tighter, more confident but just as wonderfully wonky and off kilter. Their sound is derived from the spiky, angular post punk of bands like Wire and the Fall, with the chug of VU and the quirkiness of the Modern Lovers all channelled through Pavement, but theirs is a post-modern version, powered by scratchy repetitive guitars and super smart lyrics they are, to quote Pitchfork, “using the past to write their own version of the present”.
The Soundcarriers – Entropicalia
It is no surprise that the latest album by UK band, the Soundcarriers, is released on Ghost Box, a label dedicated to the very British sub-genre known as ‘hauntology’, which references Jacques Derrida’s idea that ‘the present exists only with respect to the past’. Consequently, influences abound within the Soundcarriers hallucinatory dreamworld, including the Hammond organ sound of the swinging ‘60’s, the jazz flute of ‘50’s tropicalia, the sweet vocals of Pentangle and the rhythmic drive of the Velvet Underground. With Stereolab no longer around it’s great to know that the Soundcarriers are there to continue the retro future space jazz folk revival!
VA – Only Lovers Left Alive – Original Soundtrack
Whatever you thought of indie film director Jim Jarmusch’s recent take on the vampire genre it’s hard to deny that the soundtrack was fantastic, a moody and invocative collection of tracks by no other than the director’s own band SQURL and lute player, Josef van Wissem, which won the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Soundtrack Award. The guitars are overdriven, the pace is generally pretty slow and the tunes unfurl like dark flowers. The movie is set in Detroit and Tangiers and the soundtrack is correspondingly divided into two halves – ‘Detroit’ featuring a dense murky sound with lots of feedback, while ‘Tangier’ is lighter, featuring middle-eastern influenced plucked strings. Overall, a soundtrack that stands alone as an accomplished musical work.
Fujiya & Miyagi – Artificial Sweeteners
This is the Brighton based UK trio’s fifth album of intelligent beat-driven, post-Krautrock, dance grooves and one reviewer has asked “how does a band this good continue to remain a cult concern?”. They arrived fully formed on their first record and since then have refined their analogue synth, bouncing bass lines, krautrock rhythms and trademark arch, near-whispered vocals to deliver yet another excellent record. If you like up-tempo grooves that appeal both to the hips and the mind then dip into this or anywhere in their back catalogue and you won’t be disappointed.