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Everything Everything and the One Day Like This effect

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.



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Sing a Sad Song…

A little Nano break (a holiday from the day job is being spent playing a pretty frantic game of catch up, and I’m gaining ground so stopping for some idle Twitter nonsense and a Rice Krispie Square) led me to find this, a piece on songs that make Guardian writers cry, and I have to, gulp, admit that Will Young’s Leave Right Now has always had a similar effect on me. I’m not someone who generally cries at films (the first ten minutes of Up aside), but the right cadence, the right lyric, can easily make me sob. So the following, I would heartily recommend, should not be played near me in public.

Mew – Silas The Magic Car

Not a clue what it’s about, but it’s the wonderful Mew at their most melancholy, and “We didn’t know we’d seen their last show” hits hard every time.

Elliott Smith – Twilight

It’s hard to separate Elliott Smith’s music from his much documented personal life, and indeed his mysterious death, but this one in particular is devastating, perhaps more so than Pitseleh. When he sighs “I’m tired of being down, I’ve got no fight”, you believe it completely, so utterly defeated is his delivery.

Elbow – Switching Off

I’ve fallen out with Elbow recently after Build A Rocket, Boys, but Switching Off is still devastating stuff. And it shouldn’t be otherwise, really: it’s the story of an elderly couple entering into a suicide pact, choosing a moment to die together. First time I heard this live, I was all but bawling in the middle of Glasgow’s Academy. Very dignified.

Ben Folds Five – Fred Jones Part II

This prompted exactly the same reaction as Switching Off in exactly the same place. Never done than in another venue. Perhaps I just find the Academy emotionally damaging.

The National – Start A War

“Whatever went away, I’ll get it all back now, I’ll get money, I’ll get funny again. Walk away now, and you’re going to start a war.”

Regina Spektor – Samson

A bit of an OC kind of choice, I know, but it’s still a lovely song, and there’s something in her delivery of “your hair was long when we first met” that takes beyond it being the story of Samson to a nameless lover looking back on how things were when they met their other half, and its ingrained sense of regret is absolutely heartbreaking.

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The Mercury isn’t Everything (Everything)

Everything Everything

Tonight we find out who has won the Mercury out of Adele, Elbow, Katy B, the jazz man and a few others. The odds are on for one of the more left-field albums to scoop it this time, but chances are it may well go to Adele. Who can say? As long as it doesn’t go to Elbow (sorry, but Build A Rocket, Boys is just not good enough) or Tinie Tempah who, as part of 6Music’s excellent Complete Mercury’s season, revealed that he had been inspired to make music by So Solid Crew’s 21 Seconds.

On this year’s list, Everything Everything’s Man Alive outshines everything. The Mercury Music Prize is meant to represent an album of unparalleled craft, and that can be said of few other contenders this year, perhaps with the exception of PJ Harvey (who has already won). Man Alive, however, is a study in invention, an exploration in sound, particularly rhythm. At no point on that album does any one member of the band do what you expect, and if that’s not worthy of a prize…

Take, for example, Schoolin and its baffling final minutes. Around 2 mins 50, everything drops out, and a frantic, rippling, impossibly intricate guitar riff starts (not a sample, incidentally – guitarist Alex Robertshaw plays it live). Jonathan Higgs howls something. Then the drums kick in, battered, off-beat, almost Caribbean in feel, and on top of this, a syncopated bassline. All going on at the same time, all fitting around each other like this makes perfect sense. The months of practice that must have gone in to managing to play it live, and this is two minutes’ worth of music. This is before mentioning the glorious Qwerty Finger (the breathless, towering chorus collapsing into the half-speed breakdown is one of the finest musical moments of the past year, and it’s a satisfying title to type too), Nasa Is On Your Side’s ping-ponging melody or the beautifully deployed trumpets on Come Alive Diana. This is a genuinely outstanding band who have created a surpassing album. Is it better than Metronomy, than Elbow, than  James Blake? Infinitely. It’s so good, in fact, that you almost don’t want it to win. It doesn’t need the accolade: it’s already far more than any of the other shortlisted albums could ever hope to be.

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Mercury 2011

The first, natural reaction upon seeing the Mercury Music Prize nominations list is to have a shout about who has been carelessly omitted, and quite wonderfully, Wild Beasts are currently trending on Twitter as outraged fans do just that, but should we really be surprised? Over the past few years, the Mercury list has been embarrassingly predictable. The usual big breakthrough albums, a couple of obvious choices, the token jazz/world music act few people have heard of, and someone with an acoustic guitar, and the degree of outrage that this has happened again is unnecessary.

The big commercial hitters this year are Adele, with record-destroying second album 21, Katy B and Tinie Tempah. And fair enough. Big singles, big albums people have connected with. They’re not, perhaps, the works of art Mercury used to claim to endorse, but then neither was M People’s Elegant Slumming, and lest we forget that it received the prize in 1994. The token jazz act is there in the form of Gwilym Simcock (and oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the jazz act won? Just once?), while the ‘who?’ acts include Ghostpoet, Ana Calvi and, for anyone outside of Scotland’s central belt, King Creosote.

This year, there are two previous winners returning for the crown: PJ Harvey and Elbow. PJ Harvey is a fair enough shout – Let England Shake is her best album since 2001’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea – but a repeat nod for Elbow is unnecessary given that they won for their previous album, and the lumpy Build a Rocket Boys is already not ageing well. Twitter is also full of people moaning the Radiohead’s King of Limbs hasn’t been nominated, but here’s the thing: Radiohead do not need to win the Mercury Music Prize. They have long been established as the finest band of our generation, and since that they have been nominated without winning three times, giving it to them now seems pretty needless.

The deserving nominees, then, are Metronomy for the gloriousness of The English Riviera, and Everything Everything’s sublime Man Alive. But chances are neither of them will win. Looking back at the past few years, the winning act flip flops between the blindingly obvious choice and the least expected winner: 2004 – Franz Ferdinand, 2005 – Antony and the Johnsons, 2006 – Arctic Monkeys, 2007 – Klaxons, 2008 – Elbow, 2009 – Speech DeBelle, 2010 – omnipresent advert soundtrack providers The XX. So it could very well be Gwilym Simcock’s time to shine.

Ach, whatever, Wild Beasts were robbed.

Full list of nominees:

Adele  – 21
Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys!
Everything Everything – Man Alive
Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam
Gwilym Simcock – Good Days at Schloss Elmau
James Blake – James Blake
Katy B – On a Mission
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
Metronomy – The English Riviera
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Tinie Tempah – Disc-Overy

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Head, Elbow and other body parts

Radiohead‘s status as musical gods has been cemented for well over a decade, while Elbow, despite their length of service, have only been enjoying the label of being one of Britain’s finest bands for the last couple of years, and, halcyon indie days, both have dropped new albums in little over a fortnight.

Radiohead’s King of Limbs, their eighth album, is, well, it’s hard work. The hooks are minimal, while, for the first half, everything else is as dense as possible. The first three, seven, 15 listens leave little impression other than ‘Christ, that was short’, and the feeling of being short-changed: In Rainbows was released in 2007, and King of Limbs has eight tracks, which boils Radiohead’s writing output down to an average of two songs a year. Thanks, best British band of a generation, you’re spoiling us.

Coming after Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief, King of Limbs would have been less of a surprise, but following In Rainbows’ lightness, it feels like a wilfully obtuse caffeine headache of an album. But this is Radiohead: surely there’s some masterplan at work here, surely we’re just not getting it.

Give it time, and give it repeat listens, and it will sink in. Good Morning Mr Magpie’s claustrophobic rumble will make sense, Giving Up The Ghost and Codex will surrender their shivering charms and Separator will leave with a quiet optimism, and prompt the urge to press play and battle through it all once again. Maybe working so hard to just enjoy an album is ridiculous, but what other band would make it seem like a worthwhile pursuit?

Two and a half weeks later and it’s time for Build A Rocket, Boys!, the fifth effort from Elbow and a positive (comparatively) behemoth at 11 tracks. Debut album Asleep In The Back drew predictable comparisons to Radiohead, and 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid did what Radiohead have consistently failed to do: won the Mercury Music Prize. This, coupled with the misappropriation of One Day Like This as reality TV background music, saw Elbow suddenly a big name, and earned them the dubious Princess Di-ish nickname of the people’s band (seriously, what the hell is that?). Build A Rocket, Boys, is the first album they have made under the weight of mainstream expectation.

The good news is that, for the most part, there is no sign that this has been any kind of a factor: it’s only Open Arms that really does a One Day Like This, a to the roof chorus which cries ‘everyone sing’ rather knowingly. The album as whole, though, is very much The Seldom Seen Kid’s cousin: understated, stirring, all dynamic rise and devastating hush. When it’s brilliant, as it is on Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl (the devastating delivery of ‘nothing to be proud of/and nothing to regret’ is almost worth the price of the album in itself) and Lippy Kids, it’s something truly special, a reminder, were one needed, of why Elbow’s fans clutch to them the way they do. But, and perhaps because it has had less time to sink in than King of Limbs (it admittedly feels like it needs less work), there is a similar sense, initially, that some of the magic is missing: it’s only closer Dear Friends that really conjures something beautiful here, the shimmering sound of debilitating love. But again, once it dies away, the urge is there to be immersed in it all again. And that, perhaps, is what makes Elbow, and indeed Radiohead great: the compulsion to disappear inside their sonic worlds. Few bands provoke this kind of dedication; fewer still reward it.

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Goodbye Grammatics

Last week saw the hugely talented Grammatics play their last ever gig, a devastating event not just because a truly talented band has stopped making music. The real kick in the teeth is that Grammatics’ self-titled debut album was only released last year. That’s one year from dream realised to dream destroyed. And the reason? Largely financial. At their final Scottish gig in Glasgow last week, their merchandise stall offered only t-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Grammatics are fucking bankrupt’.

Money troubles are, of course, nothing new, but it seems that an increasing number of bands are having to stop making music because it is no longer financially viable. Look at Reuben, who held down day jobs throughout their touring days before taking a lengthy hiatus;  look at Idlewild, who have cited similar reasons for their imminent break. After their last album, Elbow have become big hitters, but before that, they were shuffled from record company to record company as they failed to meet sales targets (see also Delays). A deal with a major label is no longer security, a deal with a smaller label even less so.

So what are the options when a band finds themselves without money? Stick it out and hope there’s another label to pick you up? Work even harder for even less reward and risk ending up resenting your own music for getting you into this mess? Or walk away as gracefully as possible? Given the available  choices, Grammatics’ decision to pack it in is understandable, but it’s no less heartbreaking. You can pledge towards their final EP release here, and then all that remains is to say goodbye to an exciting, endlessly inventive band who simply can’t do it anymore.

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You’ve Got to Stop

As recently as two years ago, it was completely unknown. Then there was an advert for a new channel called 4 Music which was set to a song called Kiss With A Fist by an emerging artist known as Florence And The Machine. Little did we know the soundtrack to the next two years of our lives had just been decided.

Florence and the Machine’s debut album Lungs was one of the biggest selling albums of 2009, winning Best Album at this year’s Brits. And on its release, the hype was justified. Florence Welch’s voice is a thing of remarkable power and personality, not the usual pop puppet croon, and Lungs felt fresh and inventive after the mortgage indie landslide that dominated the end of the 2000s. It was an unlikely album to cross over given Welch’s often bizarre treatment of song structure and melody: the vocal line shooting into the stratosphere every few bars, Dog Days Are Over isn’t exactly easy to hum along to.

But somehow Lungs found its way onto most of the ipods in Britain, and into the public consciousness. The next step? Television saturation. Evidently bored of mining Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid for incidental music, producers set their sights on Florence, and here we are, almost two years later, unable to turn on the TV without Rabbit Heart popping up on Come Dine With Me or Dog Days on a trailer for one of BBC3’s gems about sending WAGs and neds to impoverished areas for reasons best known to themselves. Seemingly, it’s an album for all occasions, from hope over adversity to getting the asparagus just right.

And the worst offender is the album’s low point, the competent but unremarkable cover of You’ve Got The Love, popular with the same people buying those Glee covers albums in their droves on the grounds that they don’t have to make space in their heads for songs they don’t already sort of know. It was a huge hit, it became the go-to montage soundtrack, and then became a massive hit again, albeit in a slightly different form, after Florence performed with Dizzee Rascal at the Brits.

It’s too much. Slowly but surely, all pleasure once found in the record is destroyed. It doesn’t help that albums are hammered until pretty much everyone who can afford it has bought it: relentlessly promoted for anything up to three years, every album is now a Thriller, hanging around until every possible single is harvested – Lungs is now on its fifth single, sixth if you count the downloads of You Got The Dirtee Love (yep, actually what it’s called). And with festival season looming, the next big crossover album is surely due. It could be one you like, ready to be ruined forever, or one you hate on first listen, destined to become a maddening soundtrack to your every move. Pray for ambivalence and you might survive with a love of music intact.

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