Here's the first batch of commentary on my favourite albums of the past year. Others will follow (five at a time, I reckon). Hope you find something new to enjoy amongst them. I'd be keen to hear what floated your boat - beside the obvious, that is (I read the music press too, just didn't find a lot of what was being touted actually lived up to the hype). You can listen to the radio show at Totally Radio. Still, the easiest way to listen is clicking the 'beta player' on the home page and scrolling down the list of show until you see the 'Gilded Palace' name.
As well as albums, I wanted to mark a couple of other notable events in 2012.
Single Of The Year: without a doubt this would have to be THE ROCKINGBIRDS' 'Til Something Better Comes Along' (Spring Records): it sounds as if they never went away - superb country-rock from Alan and the boys. I was excited when they got back together for a few dates in 2011 and daren't hope that they would make it a more permanent arrangement. They did! Better still, a new album is about to be released on Loose (in Feb/March). Hmm, looks like the 2013 chart is already writing itself...
Gig Of The Year: I've seen a few(!) and was beginning to think I was getting harder to please. The ever-remarkable Malcolm Holcombe remains the person I would see if you ever compelled me to give up live music, but I could not have been prepared for the exhilarating spectacle that was LARRY AND HIS FLASK at The Hydrant in Brighton. I'd been forewarned (by our departed, lamented Tom Sheriff after he'd seen them in Canada - 'best live band I've seen'). Still, I was overwhelmed: not only do they out on a great show, but they have the songs and the chops (oh, the harmonies!) to back it up. I've been reliving the show ever since. Like nothing else I've seen before - and I cannot wait to see them again! You should make it a priority for 2013: http://www.larryandhisflask.com/shows/
So, on with the albums...
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: The Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock - The Brutal Here And Now (Transduction)
The Brutal Here And Now is the second album from Dublin’s The Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock. Still, nine months after I first heard it, The Brutal Here And Now is unlike anything else I heard this year. That first listen was a truly memorable experience: utterly mesmerising, at times frighteningly so. I was almost scared to listen again in case it wasn’t as good. It was – and still is.
Not just a distillation of all great Irish music and - as if that wasn't enough - a little Italian too. There is enough here to remind you of their heritage, but still they are in a league of their own. Most clearly, they still call to mind Lift To Experience (as they did on their self-titled debut), then again, on ‘Black Diaries’ they sound like Clutch, on ‘Rattling Hell’ like The Dubliners. Though the influences are many - and hugely varied (Gaelic, krautrock, folk and hardcore) - the net result bears comparison to so few of the bands they've probably listened to.
The album was released only recently in the UK, but has been out in Ireland for the best part of the year. Already they've had excellent reviews - notably one from Robin Denselow in The Guardian, four stars in Mojo and three in Q.
Cory Branan – Mutt (Bloodshot)
I’ll wager Cory Branan's motto is "...why not?" Why not have bare breasts on the album cover? Why not give it a title potentially taunting critics to compare it to a dogs' breakfast? Why not completely lift the riff from Jack & Diane - and why not call the track 'Yesterday'? Why not have Tom Waits horn player on the most Waits-ian song on the record?
Whether intentionally or by force of circumstance, Cory Branan doesn't make records in a hurry. This (his third) comes six years after the last: rather like waiting for a John Prine album, you're impatient to hear more and wish he'd up the pace a little, but never tire of listening again and again to what you can get.
Don’t think he doesn’t care, though: the craft is evident in the treatment of the songs. When he decides Bad Man is going for a Springsteen feel, it’s done with kitchen-sink gusto, all stabbing piano and grooving saxaphone. There There Little Heartbreaker is a lullaby as sweet/scary as anything Danny Elfman might pitch for the next Tim Burton movie (it’s only one night alone, just keep away from the windows and stay well away from the phone). Following this (a song featuring harp as its lead instrument) he happily brings clarinet and violin to the fore on The Snowman (that Waits song I mentioned). You can bet that punk audience he’s been courting on tours with the likes of Chuck Ragan has heard little like this.
As with previous albums (The Hell You Say and 12 Songs) the songs on Mutt are varied enough to make it hard to pigeon-hole the album into a genre. Some of them have been aound for a few years (if you’ve caught a Cory Branan live show you were likely familiar with The Corner and Survivor Blues when the album arrived, and there are video performances kicking around dating from at least two or three years ago). What’s remarkable is how fresh the songs still sound. This is in large part down to Cory’s exceptionally dynamic playing and singing: a beautiful trilling riff will suddenly crash to a halt with him dragging as hard as a hammer on the strings, his voice cracking (perfectly) on the high notes. I see a lot of similarities with Malcolm Holcombe in the guitar playing (I know Cory’s a fan) and really he wouldn’t need anyone else to back him up. Tim Mooney’s production is all the more remarkable, then, for adding to (rather than muffling) the textures of Cory’s writing. It is a real tragedy that Tim worked on some of his most highly-regarded albums right before he died (check out reviews for John Murry’s album too). Music will miss him.
There are other notable contributors: Chuck Prophet, Luther Dickinson, Amanda Shires, Jeffrey Luck Lucas (new album please, Mr Lucas) but my favourite moment on the whole record is on opener The Corner when Jon Snodgrass (Drag The River) adds his burred, bruised harmonies to the chorus. Beautfiul. Guys, you send me…
Chris Smither - Hundred Dollar Valentine (Signature Sounds/Continental Record Service)
I happened to be on tour myself when Smither played London this year, so thought I'd have to miss him. When the schedule came in, however, I was excited to see that we had a day off on Feb. 29th, and needed to make our way from Liverpool (north-west of England) to Chelmsford (south-east). Even a cursory glance at a road atlas would tell you that passing London is the obvious route. The plan was sealed when we found both a cheap hotel and a much-needed amp repair guy within 20 minutes of Cecil Sharp House, where Chris would be performing. Bagging one of a handful of tickets remaining online, I jumped the Northern Line tube with half an hour until stage time. The venue was packed by the time I arrived. I was resigned to perching at the back on the odd, low-rise bleachers that ring the hall (they hardly afford a better view), but thought I had nothing to lose by taking a look near the stage. "Is this seat taken?", I asked, pointing at the vacant chair between two couples on the front row. Answered in the negative, I set myself down as hurriedly as if winning the last round in a game of musical chairs. I couldn't have been happier - or closer to the man who tok the stage minutes later. Nor could I stop myself grinning like a loon throughout the show.
Listening to Hundred Dollar Valentine elicits the same loon-grin, the same irrepresible laughter at the ain’t-life-a-smack-in-the-chops lyrics, the same tingling thrill at his beguiling guitar-playing. As often as losing myself in this album makes up for not seeing him again in concert, it also makes me look forward to it all the more.
Nels Andrew - Scrimshaw (www.nelsandrews.com)
I tried again (unsuccessfully - again) to read Moby Dick this year. It's been sitting on my shelf for a while now. Can't get past the feeling that Ishmail is a bit full of himself - although maybe that's the point. Either way, at least I knew what “scrimshaw” meant when this album arrived. Although I had heard of Nels Andrews before, this is the first I've heard of his three albums to date. I think I'm going to find the others easier to enjoy than Melville's 'classic'.
It took a few listens for the songs to sink in. I initially thought there was a seafaring theme running through - the album’s title, song titles like Tridents Starboard and Flotsam. The predominance of three-four time signatures only adds to the swelling, swimming feel of the songs. The whole album has a classic, stately feel (like hearing Justin Rutledge's No Never Alone - without pedal steel). Like Rutledge, the enduring strength of the songs here is in the literary lyrics. Metaphors can be clumsy (you're reading this, right?) but in the right hands they carry just enough weight to add to the resonance of a thought or a story. Nels Andrews demonstrates this beautifully. I may be underestimating the effort required to hone these lines, but the end result suggests he has an effortless gift.
It was also the first time I'd noticed producer Todd Sickafoose's name on a sleeve - and then later he also popped up on Anais Mitchell's new one. Not a fluke, then - he really does know how to get the best from the songs. Never showy, he always seems to pull away from a crescendo or climax; the production never overwhelms the music, and vocals and instruments are perfectly balanced. I really can't imagine this album sounding any better than it does.
Nels will be touring the UK in 2013, towards the end of April. Dates confirmed so far include April 18th at The Old Queens Head, Islington, 24th at The Musician in Leicester and 25th at Admiral Bar in Glasgow. Check here for updates: http://nelsandrews.com/gig/
Buy: http://www.theconnextion.com/nelsandrews/nelsandrews_index.cfm?AC=0 - or from Nels himself on the UK tour
Chris Knight - Little Victories (Drifters’ Church)
Not biased to include this simply because John Prine puts in an appearance, although I'll admit to a leap of joy when his voice comes in on the chorus of the title track. It’s so good to hear him singing new music (even if it is someone else's).
No, there are plenty of other reasons why Little Victories is here. Chris Knight records are bleak affairs pitted with nuggets (or pellets?) of hope - well, not so much hope as reasons to carry on. To paraphrase a couple of other songwriters, things aren't necessarily going to get any better, but perhaps they won't get much worse.
At times, one wonders about the political outlook of the protagonists in the songs. I’m fairly left-leaning in my own views, and I wonder if I’d see eye-to-eye with one or two of them. Despite this, he draws his characters so well, so sympathetically, you're rooting for them (even if it's as simple a challenge as getting the car to top speed - without the family groceries onboard). Frankly you won’t find a collar more blue, nor more dirt under fingernails than in a Chris Knight song – and I can get with that.
PS If for no other reason, this album would make my list for the guitar solo on ‘You Lie When You Call My Name’. Is it Dan Baird? Maybe it’s Buddy Miller? Regardless of who’s playing, it tops even anything Chuck "TBGPOTP" Prophet pulls off on his album... but probably because they didn't fade it out.