Fans of The National were anticipating sixth album Trouble Will Find Me with equal degrees of anticipation and fear. How on earth do you come back after the shivering perfection of High Violet? Importantly, they didn’t try to make the same album again, and someone got lighter and darker at the same time. First taster Demons wasn’t much to get excited about, and it’s an odd choice of lead single. It’s pleasant, but it meanders, and the middle eight moving into the minor resolve of the chorus is really the only moment that pricks up the ears. The rest of Trouble Will Find Me, however, is slow-burning magnificence. Graceless packs a punch, Don’t Swallow The Cap is burrowing unease, and Sea of Love’s ever-changing structure is both euphoric and troubling. I Need My Girl is The National at their most raw, a pleading refrain of ‘I need my girl’ set against a series of strange little vignettes (‘Remember when you lost your shit and drove your car into the garden? You got out and said you’re sorry to the vines and no one saw you’), and while it will doubtless be used to soundtrack break ups in dozens of heartfelt indie dramas, its no poorer a song for it. Pink Rabbits – like Sea of Love, it evolves into three songs over its four minutes – stands along with their finest work, with Matt Berringer at his lyrical best: ‘I was a television version of a person with a broken heart. And everybody was gone.’
Disclaimer: I’m still doing a degree, hence lack of posts. Although the interface has totally changed since last time I wrote anything, so this is perhaps a sign that it has been too long.
Released the tail end of last year, The Wave Machines’ Pollen truly came to life this year with the single release of Ill Fit. Easily one of 2013’s finest single releases, it’s funky, just a little bit sexy (‘Bite on a red lip, hold it…’) and a welcome burst of originality. 2009’s debut Wave If You’re Really There still stands up, but Pollen is a big step forward, covering everything from dreamy sentimentality (see Home) to slightly unsettling (Counting Birds). They’re excellent live, too.
Today, Iain Banks announced that he is terminally ill. Several articles about what an imaginative and talented writer (and by all accounts, a smashing guy) he is have already appeared online, and countless more will doubtless follow, but shouting into the void or not, I felt it would be wrong not to say something about how much his writing has given me.
My first encounter with his work was eleven years ago when The Bridge popped up on my university reading list. I knew who he was, and I recognised those black and white book covers, but for whatever reason, I had never picked any of his books up before. The Bridge, for want of a better term, was a revelation. I hadn’t read anything like it before. It was an absolute labyrinth of ideas, different voices weaving in and out of each other’s stories and a conceit that, once understood, blows the whole thing open. The irregular beeping on the phone, the endless bridge that may circle the globe, Dissy Pitton’s, the bar where the furniture hangs on chains from the ceiling: it’s dizzyingly rich in memorable images. It’s not so much writing as it is architecture: the result is this incredible structure that you just want to keep taking in. I inhaled it first time round, and can’t count the number of times I have re-read it since.
I gorged on his back catalogue, and have eagerly awaited every subsequent book (his astoundingly prolific output means that he has pretty much written a book a year since the year after I was born), falling in love with the playfulness and seriousness of his craft. It’s a unique voice, but one that is extremely versatile. That the same writer conjured the wide-eyed naivety of Isis in Whit and the grizzly, gory nastiness of Complicity is difficult to believe, and yet makes perfect sense. And then you have The Crow Road: often cited as having one of the best opening lines in literature (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”), it wraps three generations up in one web of jealousy and inadequacy which is both tremendously sad and somehow humorous. The TV adaptation with Joe McFadden, Peter Capaldi, Bill Paterson and a questionable denim shirt dress is also well worth investigation.
It’s the way he plays with time that I’ve always enjoyed. Many of his books don’t have a linear structure, a constant concealing and revealing which is difficult to resist. Hell, for most of The Bridge, you don’t even know who the protagonist is. There is an unmistakable Scottishness too, but it’s never tokenistic: it’s a genuine part of the characters, and they happen to be Scottish rather than it being their defining trait. After years of reading fiercely Scottish writing at school and university, it was hugely refreshing, and as an aspiring fiction writer, I found it genuinely inspiring. There is an incredible sense of possibility throughout his work. Plus he swears a lot. Like I said, a genuine voice.
The release of his next book, The Quarry, has been moved forward so that he has ‘a better chance of being around to when it hits the shelves‘, so we have one last new work to enjoy, but it’s little comfort. We are losing an incredible talent, and if there is any solace to be found it’s that his brilliant, bafflingly diverse works will remain.
This should be enough evidence of why this band needs attention:
Playing at Glasgow’s excellent new-ish venue Broadcast last week, they were as exciting and refreshing as you could ask, a welcome affirmation of what live music can be. Listening reveals a real craft to their songs, an embarrassment of sheer musicianship, yet live, it looks effortless. Inventive, energetic and – there’s no other term for it – so damn funky. There wasn’t a still pair of feet in the house.
Maybe it was the decision to release it on 14th January, a traditionally quiet time for releases, but there was a palpable sense that people were waiting for Everything Everything’s second album, Arc. Press coverage was pretty comprehensive, Kemosabe was never off the radio, and given that Man Alive was one of the most exciting and original debut albums in recent memory, expectations were high. And when you preview an album with singles of the quality of Cough Cough and Kemosabe, well, people are going to be waiting to hear what you have to say.
So, then, how has Arc fared? Well by all accounts – it landed in the top five. Torso of the Week is one of their best efforts to date, and the moment in Radiant when Jonathan Higgs’ furious shredded howl “it’s all I ever had” collapses into a crystalline chiming guitar is absolutely sublime, but there’s something wrong, and that can be summed up in one word: Duet. It is, said Higgs in an interview with the BBC, “one of the few proper songs I’ve written“. What it is is a massive string soaked concession of the heartbreaking proportions of Elbow’s One Day Like This: Duet was, in the week of release, already soundtracking montages on Match of the Day. It’s a pleasant enough song, nicely put together, but it doesn’t feel like an Everything Everything song. It feels like someone’s idea of what a band is meant to do to sound sincere, to mean anything to anyone, and from a band like this, it stings a little. Like One Day Like This, it feels out of character, and while of a higher quality than the likes of Coldplay’s Fix You, there’s no doubt it’s a stadium filler, the end of the encore, the money song.
In the same interview, Higgs deems Man Alive annoying, and other interviews around Arc’s release have seen the band say that they have made a conscious effort to write songs that the audience can sing along to. With this in mind, listen to Arc. The sheer volume of repeated lyrics is striking – not repeated choruses, choruses and verses made up almost entirely of the same line over and over. Ok, maybe it’s easier to make out the words on this album, but when you have a range like Higgs, accurate singalongs are still mostly out of the question. And it’s not like anyone went to see Jeff Buckley to sing along, is it? It’s hard not to sound a bit “oh, I liked their earlier stuff” on the subject, and the frustrating thing is that Arc is perilously close to being brilliant, but when the band have openly said that they’ve made concessions so that people like them better, it’s hard not to object. If they hadn’t been so conscious of people being able to sing along, there’s no telling what this album could have been.
Second album in two years from Rod Jones’s new venture, and A Conversation Well Rehearsed does not disappoint. Lead single Less Worthless Years hinted at significant game raising (try getting that chorus out of your head), and the quality barely dips across the album. It’s a similar mix to last year’s The Eleventh Hour: there’s punch the air euphoria on You Hear The Drum, gorgeous wistfulness on Out Of This World and balls-out rock on Uh-Huh Uh-Huh (which comes with some excellent screams), but everything is just that bit tighter, that bit better, a little more sure of itself.
Jones’s songwriting is going from strength to strength, with even the big dumb rock moments displaying real heart, and there’s an obvious sense of pride and pleasure in each note. If The Birthday Suit can keep this up, this may be just the start of something very exciting indeed.
Your correspondent has spent much of 2012 telling anyone who will listen about how devastatingly good Field Music’s Plumb is (see?), and it remains my favourite album of the year. Sheer staggering invention. They missed out on the Mercury, but that means nothing: all it has helped to do is get their name out there, and hopefully will encourage people to seek out their rich back catalogue as well.
Picking a favourite track wasn’t easy, but I Keep Thinking About A New Thing just edges ahead. It’s an intro with intent, giving way to a sort of steady funk (Field Music know basslines), topped with that circling, oddly hypnotic guitar. It’s optimistic, yet there’s something strangely downbeat, talking themselves into new possibilities, perhaps. Then, second verse, piano, percussion and a gorgeous breakdown all chime in, adding layer upon layer. On the face of it, it’s a simple pop song, and it sound be enjoyed as such, but getting it this right certainly can’t be easy, and the fact that Field Music do it so often shows what an exceptional band they are. For proof, see the delivery of “played so dumb I can’t bear to look”: the way the voice slides over the notes is shivers down the spine, aural swoon-inducingly perfect