Tag Archives: The Mountain Goats

Albums of the Year, 2011

Commodore Record Shop, New York, 1947

December is the season of three things: Christmas, bloggers making lists of stuff they like and bloggers complaining about other bloggers making lists of stuff they like. Me, I like a list.

Casual Reader beware, with the exception of The Mountain Goats, I haven’t seen ANY of the albums below on other end-of-year lists, and none of them are massive artists in the UK, so you may not have heard of them. It crossed my mind that this may look like I’m being contrary to the prevailing wisdom by not listing more widely acclaimed records. I’m not. I’ve chosen the music that excites me, not the music that others agree is cool.

They’re obscure, but accessible, entertaining and emotionally engaging so if anything piques your interest have a listen: a playlist link is below.

Please leave your comments/disagreements/own list below the line, I always like to read them when people do.

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5) Chilly Gonzales – The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales

Undoubtedly the best classical-hip-hop hybrid album produced by a Canadian emigrant in France all year (GO ON INTERNET PROVE ME WRONG), The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales gave hip-hop a blaze of orchestral glory. The album delivers at every level – an inventive and eccentric orchestra record; a witty, vocally dexterous rap record. But the two sounds also compliment each other. After all, why wouldn’t they? Hip-hop is all about pulling all sorts of things out of the music box and spinning them round til they break – why not cello and piano? Like most art that reaches ahead of the trends, this album speaks to itself (and to other art) way too much. But thank god it lets us listen.

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4) Ane Brun – It All Starts with One

Swedish pop music is some of the best in the world and their most striking export this year (to my ears at least) is by Norwegian emigrant Ane Brun. The lyrics are ridiculously slight – like a hesitant, unreciprocated conversation, answered only by wind-swept instrumentals and, later on, pounding storm-like drums. I don’t think it undersells the work of either to say that Brun will come over to most British listeners like a slower, gentler Florence + The Machine, albeit with more depth both musically and emotionally. Some reviews felt this album was too managed, not free enough – there is a certain rigidness but for me this only helps measure the distance between the singer and her estranged subject.

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3) The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

Most other write-ups are claiming this to be the eighteenth studio album from the John Darnielle-fronted American acoustic rock band The Mountain Goats. It’s a hard number to measure amongst their early lo-fi tapes and other almost-albums, but who am I to disagree? Darnielle revisits many old themes on this record, particularly mythology – used how it’s meant to be used, as an allegory, psychological prism and emotional crutch. Mythology here meets a bit of mysticism, a bit of a’cappella barbershop (yes, they went there) and even a big old panoramic piano ballad – ‘Never Quite Free’, both one of the best and most populist songs the band have recorded to date.

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2) Eliza Carthy – Neptune

An artist I’ve already written much about this year, Eliza Carthy not only had a storming year of live shows, but also made one of its most exciting albums. Bringing in influences from all over the place – folk, motown, jazz – and, more importantly, using them all in just the right places, no album I heard in 2011 was as varied and, one a purely instrumental level, as exciting as Neptune. There was a time a few years ago when all sorts of multi-instrumental arrangements were becoming really fashionable all over the place – in pop, punk, everywhere. I liked that trend. I like albums that just throw every musical trick they’ve got at something, keep whatever sticks and adds some backing vocals. This is one of the best.

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1) Akira the Don – The Life Equation

It’s hard, most people think, to make art that’s happy, that’s optimistic, to make entertainment, excitement, fun and to still make it serious and weighty. Luckily, not everyone thinks this way – some people with serious stuff to say also like Manga comics and pop records and computer games. Akira the Don makes music as exciting and colourful as his various (and multifarious) influences and this year he completed the second record that he seems happy for people to call a proper studio album (he does an inexhaustible amount of collaborations, singles and mixtapes the rest of the time).

Akira is known as a rapper, but The Life Equation feels more like a pop album to me, with a very old fashioned foot-tapping sensibility propping up its rhythms – due in part to the influence of co-producer Stephen Hague (a man whose varied CV includes albums by Robbie Williams, Mel C and New Order). It nicks stuff from all over the place, mixes it up and lets it rip, like a massive Transformer robot made from a load of worn-out cars: “No idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s not what you do but how it’s done” sings Akira – even the very phrases he uses to talk about re-hashing are themselves conspicuously re-hashed.

Yes, the album has its moments of extreme corniness. But it’s Baz Luhrmann-esque – the showmanship that sells cliché back to you as vintage chic. And what is cliché, as Craig Arnold once asked, but a poem that won?

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The Drive-in Bingo’s Songs of 2011 Spotify playlist featuring Nicki Minaj, Arctic Monkeys, Los Campesinos! and The Decemberists is now online.

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Come back soon for AT LEAST TWO more end-of-year posts.

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Gently rise and softly call: ‘The Parting Glass’ and ‘Song for Dennis Brown’

My favourite song is a ballad named ‘The Parting Glass’. There are many reasons to think it is the best song written in English: its quietness, subtlety and delicacy are chief amongst them. The crux of the song comes at the end of the second stanza:

But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

The speaker or, more properly (because the song really does only work sung), the singer is addressing a loved one who has died: who “should not” rise and yet accepts this with a quiet dignity, with the same inevitability as the song’s refrain. Death represents a parting and therefore the song constructs a goodbye. Yet the song is fundamentally inward looking: the eternal nature of death is channelled through the singer’s own experience of life, of everything being exhausted. The song opens:

Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.

The singer refers to the “mem’ry now I can’t recall” and begins the final stanza (depending on the version we’re talking about) with:

If I had money enough to spend,
And leisure time to sit awhile,

Everything depletes: time, memory, money. The drink poured into the parting glass will soon go too. The constant references to money commodify life and time as a stock-pile of resource that is to be spent. A part of the pathos of the song is that it is aware on some level of the fallacy of this, of the artificial sense of human control over death that it creates. And yet out of this pathos it creates something truly uplifting: there’s no point leaving money unspent, leaving life unlived and therein the song finds a celebration of death. This is why I describe the song as delicate. There is little foundation to its optimistic interpretation of death, nothing physical, nothing, in the strictest sense of the word, knowable. And yet death is in a meaningful, very human sense, overcome by the song’s warm embrace.

The Spooky Men's Chorale

The song bears analysis. But this does not make it complicated. Its simplicity is the reason for its success, yet few recordings of the song have been able to capture this simplicity. The best live performance of the song I’ve heard was by the Spooky Men’s Chorale, whose output is usually comedic but whose vocal abilities and base humility are hard to match amongst modern performers. Yet fundamental to the song is the integrity and singularity of one human singer. Live, a choir like this can reinstate this singularity through performance, through the human face and gesture. Not on CD. Other recordings seem to go out of their way to lose this singularity either by reciting the song as if it has no particular meaning or sticking clichéd instrumental lines underneath it, which obscure its beauty like light pollution does the night’s sky. For a combination of the two, do (or rather don’t) check out the Cottars’ atrocious attempt on their 2005 album On Fire. The version on this year’s Hannah Peel album is one of the better I can find, which although it begins with some weird sound effects, at least lets the song breath a little vocally.

The reason, I think, that this song tends to sink like a stone into the studio microphone rather than skimming gracefully across its surface is because its simplicity is at odds with the modern artistic aspirations of performers. There is a broad dichotomy between simple and complex and even when simplicity is a perfectly effective means of communicating a message, as with say the Manic Street Preachers, fans often hype up an imagined complexity that does not exist. There is a good reason for this: simplicity is associated with a corporate driven populist kind of release; complexity with ambition and deeper meaning. This is why in jazz, folk and classical music the value of virtuosity and difficulty is inflated beyond its artistic worth. Such a value system is not unimportant; but it should not be where discussion of music stops.

With regard to song writing, this begs many question. Foremost in my mind is whether any modern song writing retains the simplicity of songs like ‘The Parting Glass’. By simplicity, it must be emphasised, that I mean a specific quality rather than a value judgement. Simplicity does not prevent depth and multiplicity of meaning, but is characterised rather by a certain straightforwardness and quiet forthrightness. By this reckoning, the best songwriter writing in English today may be John Darnelle, who usually releases under the name The Mountain Goats. Their new album is out in a couple of weeks but for the purposes of this discussion I wish to explore a song on their seminal 2005 release The Sunset Tree, which documents through a thirteen-song cycle Darnelle’s experiences of childhood abuse. Two songs away from the end of the record is a tribute to the reggae singer Dennis Brown. It begins:

On the day that Dennis Brown’s lung collapsed, spring rain was misting down on Kingston.

and down at the harbor, local cops were intercepting an inbound shipment.

Just as in ‘The Parting Glass’, one should rise and another should not and life itself is the most fitting tribute to death. The death of Dennis Brown intensifies the beauty of life because each action becomes a defiant punch against death: the rain over Kingston, the cops fighting the sailors or, in the next stanza, the school children singing in choirs and the guys who jump into dumpsters behind the Chinese Restaurant.

The last lines of the song make even death itself seem like a challenge, the final dare, the final thrust of life:

It took all the coke in town

to bring down Dennis Brown.

On the day my lung collapses

we’ll see just how much it takes.

In ‘The Parting Glass’, the song’s imagery uses the expendability of life to defiantly imagine that the singer is in control of it. The same is happening here. Dennis Brown was a cocaine addict and died of it. This should be a cause of diminishment. Yet in the imagination of the song, he is a hero. He gets his heroic couplet (town/Brown) and his very defeat makes him a figure of strength, challenging Darnelle to match his greatness. Sure, the song is aware of its own artifice but that is both the source of its pathos and defiance. And, like ‘The Parting Glass’, it knows that it doesn’t need to shout.

Photograph: "Charlie Brown's pub showing curiosities brought back by sailors", 1928 - from the National Maritime Museum's archives.

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