Around this time of year, it’s going to be hard to peruse any blog without bumping into an ‘end of year list’. I’m undecided on their value in some ways – they are naturally pretty subjective and limited by individual bloggers’ tastes and attitudes. It’s also going to end up a summary of the content of the blog over the past twelve months if, like me, you write fairly exclusively about music you find interesting or inspiring. Then there are the rules – what qualifies, what doesn’t – a veritable trainspotter’s delight of technicalities, sub-clauses and exceptions to twist their favourite releases into the framework. In short, it’s a complicated and confusing time of year for the christmas party gig-addled blogger.
But since the mainstream press will be full of their own backslapping efforts to appear to be defining the zeitgeist, I’m a little less concerned about this happening on blogs and podcasts. It redresses the balance a little, and reading these lists on sites with which I generally find I’m musically compatible provides an opportunity to check what I’ve missed. It was this sort of thing which led me to Timber Timbre and Aidan Knight in the past. If nothing else I hope that this list points someone to something they’ve missed and they give it a spin too. I’ve said it before, but this blog is after all the internet expression of yelling at your pals that you “just heard something amazing!”
So what are the rules for the Songs Heard on Fast Trains list for 2011? Pretty simple, this is a list of full-length releases which I’ve listened to most, returned to most often and which I’ll carry forward as essential listening into the new year. It’s a very personal, highly skewed list I have to admit. There are some very honourable omissions, and because for the sake of my sanity the list has only twenty places, because as an arguably fairly normal human being there are things I love more than others – but this doesn’t stop me loving them too. The order of the list is based on nothing more than the impact the releases have had on me – there is no science here, aside from a cursory glance at last.fm to see if my suspicions on what I’ve listened to most are founded in fact or fantasy. There could equally be a list for singles and EPs, gigs or other stuff – but there are still interesting records being released in 2011, so I might get distracted and write about those instead.
So, without further rambling or self-justification here is the list. It’s been a strange and interesting year for me, and the music below has been the soundtrack. Here’s to the next one!
- King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
- FOUND – Factorycraft
- Edinburgh School for the Deaf – New Youth Bible
- Rob St.John – Weald
- Beerjacket – The White Feather Trail
- Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel
- The John Knox Sex Club – Raise Ravens
- Adam Stafford – Build a Harbour Immediately
- The Shivers – More
- The Moth & The Mirror – Honestly, This World
- Song of Return – Limits
- White Heath – Take No Thought For Tomorrow
- Slow Club – Paradise
- Jonnie Common – Master of None
- Pensioner – Yearlings
- The Renderers – A Rocket Into Nothing
- I Build Collapsible Mountains – The Spectator and the Act
- King Post Kitsch – The Party’s Over
- Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
- Lonely Tourist – Sir, I Am A Good Man
Some honourable mentions too, to Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat, Come on Gang!, Edward Gray, Martin John Henry, The Son(s), Happy Particles and United Fruit who made me struggle with the idea of this being a Top 25, or even a Top 30. No doubt these artists will be appearing in lists everywhere – and maybe here in the near future too.
Having finally escaped from a difficult working day and made a very surreal trip on a bus which seem to hurtle dangerously through the dark countryside with little idea where it was really heading, I was slightly distracted by the time I arrived in Bristol. Deposited in the middle of the city’s rush hour, I watched people bustling around all seemingly unaware that tonight was, once again, a Hooops! night. This slightly ramshackle but always entertaining happening defies any attempt at being pinned down as a club night or anything remotely similar, instead managing to encompass performance art, comedy, drama and music – often simultaneously, and managing to occupy every possible corner of the venue. But tonight, it’s a stripped-back affair focused entirely on the music and occupying just one floor of The Louisiana. With some seriously good touring bands passing through town, it seems only right that the link with Fife’s Fence Records should bring them here. So – for one night only I’m sure – this was Hooops! stepping back and letting the music lead the way.
I’ve often said how ignorant I am of local happenings, and I confess that The Jelas are a completely unfamiliar name, despite having been around for a fair few years. They are an irrepressibly energetic three piece who despite an outward appearance of utter chaos, are clearly a tight and well-rehersed machine. Back from a recent tour which saw them popping up all over the UK, The Jelas are promoting their new album “The Body Parts” which on a first listen appears to capture their oddness exactly. The rhythm section pounds out a choppy, edgy spine which the guitar jaggedly dances around. Meanwhile drummer Aled, strident bassist Natalie and guitarist Colin all chip in vocals, which range from strange chants to deranged yelps – often within the space of a single song. In discussion after the onslaught of noise and bewilderment we decided that there are definite hints of The Cardiacs here – but there is also something almost unique about the mix of math-rock technicalities and anarchic punky noise. It’s enjoyable and disturbing in equal measure, and an oddly demanding listen. In short then, The Jelas are probably the ideal Hooops opening act – idiosyncratic, confusing, and captivatingly odd. There is nothing easy about this listening at all.
With nearly all of the bands managing to get lost heading back to the venue tonight, time is tight and things are quickly shifted around to accommodate the full band version of Player Piano. Having only seen Jeremy Radway before as a solo act, I’m a little unsure what to expect as a motley crew of musicians take to the stage. In the event the band is, despite only recently forming in this line-up, fantastically tight and strangely funky. Low-slung disco basslines support jerky keyboard riffs as Jeremy‘s damaged, soulful vocals croon and soar with support from multi-instrumentalist Rebecca Jade. With Jeremy happy to shun the limelight on stage, the star of the show quickly becomes drummer Ed Grimshaw who manages to pound out some ridiculously great disco rhythms which have apparently been transported in directly from the late 1970s. Somewhere, mid-set I decided that Jeremy is in fact the natural heir to the likes of Jeff Lynne and other purveyors of that vein of complex, crafted pop which has all but died out in the era of the throwaway download single. On the as yet unreleased new track “Everyone Knows” this reaches it’s peak with swoons of vintage analogue keyboard and soaring choruses. It’s pretty clear that the audience – a strangely hard to pin down collection of local regulars, Fence devotees and curious passers-by – is loving every minute of this. It’s a short set, but feels effortlessly tight and bodes well for the rumour of a future album release.
There is a buzz of anticipation for The Shivers, borne of the great reception their record has garnered in the UK since being released by Fence no doubt. Soon, Keith and Jo take to the rather empty looking stage bathed in blue light, an unassuming pair who seem perhaps a little nervous. Taking advantage of the hush of reverence and atmosphere of expectation in the room, they begin a quiet, atmospheric take on “Love Is In The Air” from their recent album. It’s still amazing to me how a duo with just keyboards and electric guitar can produce such complete sounding music, but they manage it again with “Kisses” which mutates into a jerky, funky strut with a vein-poppingly intense vocal performance from Keith. His wild stare and impassioned delivery is in total contrast to Jo‘s calm, understated performance which finally comes forward when she takes charge of lead vocals for a single song. Her voice is a revelation, a spine-tinglingly quiet and huskily soulful drawl which also adds a new dimension to “L.I.E” a very early Shivers track which pre-dates her arrival in New York to add colour and tone to Keith‘s sometimes stark early work. Clearly overwhelmed by the reaction both here and across the UK, Keith and Jo seem to be enjoying the sense of event as ‘merch lady’ and Jo‘s sister Katherine takes the stage for “Remain In The Pain Zone” – a chaotic, dramatic and hilarious romp which sees Keith rapping, strutting and over-acting his way through the song. Guitar discarded, he gestures wildly at the audience as the churning organ supplies a sort of demented vaudeville backdrop. The reaction is overwhelming, even the band appearing a little stunned at just how well it goes down – but this is Hooops! and it’s just the kind of thing we’ve come to expect. Closing with an affecting, slow-core take on “More”, the title track of the current album, The Shivers leave the audience appropriately baying for an encore. It’s been a pretty successful night.
Making my customary dash for the last train home with the final note still hanging in the air, I wondered where and when Hooops! might pop up next, and just what it had in store. If it’s about a sense of occasion, then despite being a more sedate affair tonight was very special indeed, with some of the genuinely warmest reaction from an audience I’ve ever seen at a Bristol gig. Shorn of its usual chaos and confusion, tonight was almost entirely about the music – and while Hooops! is attracting touring bands of this calibre and pairing them up with eclectic and challenging local acts, its all going to be fine. Trust me. Or more accurately, trust Hooops!
There are some record labels where it’s safe to take a punt on a new release – either because they’ve established a reputation over the years, or because in my experience I appear to have similar enough taste to the people running the show that I’m going to at least be interested in what they’re doing. One of these of course is Fence. While their release schedule is slower and steadier now than it was in the heady days of the past, everything they choose to release has a link to their frontier spirit and an utter indifference to the prevailing winds of fashion. Having said this, I was a little wary of The Shivers at first – were they just too far off the Fence map to fit? How indeed had this New York based outfit come to rest on the Fife shores? Or was it just a sense of unease about one of those band names which suggests some sort of bland, US mainstream friendly indie-rock. Well, on the early evidence it’s fair to say that my suspicions are entirely unfounded.
Any band with a good backstory is going to grab my attention, and their tale is a compelling one – telling how Australian Jo Schornikow was so moved by the simple, affecting songs she heard New York native Keith Zarriello play that she upped sticks and relocated to play organ and sing in The Shivers. This becomes entirely believable as “More” begins to unfurl itself on my turntable, and Zarriello‘s simple but direct approach to tugging heartstrings is revealed. He does this through the medium of timeless, classic pop songs which have little regard for where in the last four decades they seem to originate. Sometimes, as the organ churns away low down in the mix he sounds like a revitalised Bob Dylan free of the decades of being a jaded spokesman for a generation. At other times he takes on the swagger of cynical Lou Reed, spinning arch lyrics and coming on like he knows it all to beat down the bile and sorrow. Put simply, the gamut of American music history underpins these songs and The Shivers major accomplishment is managing to channel it’s wayward spirit into this record. If this suggests that this is a mixed bag, that wouldn’t be inaccurate – but the album manages to blend styles and genres seamlessly by sheer force of personality.
An early highlight is “Irrational Love”, a staccato tick of drums, and rumbling bass and organ introduces the track which jerks and stutters into a soaring chorus with Zarriello‘s voice stretching for the notes – and in the face of his romantic tragedies somehow recalling the defiant swagger of Springsteen at his strutting early finest. No sooner has this incongruously joyous romp of a track shuffled away and “Kisses” changes tack with its organ-drenched, tense urban blues which appears to have teleported in from the late sixties. Once again Zarriello‘s voice mutates from a mumble into a pained moan, and his delicate splashes of guitar augment Schornikow‘s organ work wonderfully. There’s a special moment here where the organ mimics Zarriello‘s choppy vocal delivery, before launching into a wonderfully atmospheric swirling solo. By “Used To Be” the band have skipped forward a decade or two in the East Coast canon, and the track is a tight, focused synth-heavy burst of New Wave pop. Zarriello‘s voice drops to a compressed snarl while the playful melody jitters and scuffles around him. A ridiculous but perfectly-placed one string guitar solo leads into the incredibly catchy ending where the synths dance around the jangling guitars. In complete contrast “Two Solitudes” harks back to Schornikow‘s former life as a church organist, as sepulchral notes create an uncharacteristically downbeat atmosphere. Zarriello‘s broken, pained falsetto is delivered apparently from the next room, buried deep in the gloomy folds of organ. The Shivers manage to invoke Leonard Cohen on the folky, delicate “Silent Weapons Are For Quiet Wars”. Just enough support from a clipped, formal piano and trills of military drums while Zarriello intones dense, detailed lyrics. There are hints here of the slight political edge which the band occasionally entertains – never overt, but enough to hint that it’s not possible just now to be a US musician without a nod to the growing gulf in their society. However, The Shivers do their bit to bridge this with the joyous, universal pop of “Love Is In The Air” with its low-budget soul stylings and soaring broken vocal.
The sheer diversity of approaches employed by The Shivers on “More” belies the fact that this is essentially the work of a duo, and if anything the minimalism instils a discipline which keeps this a tight, focused record. It’s fair to say that over the course of “More” they shamelessly plunder the finer moments of American pop’s recent history, but it’s done with genuine affection and reverence – and never feels contrived or affected. This is an aching, damaged-at-heart record in many ways with more than a little bitterness at its core, and there is a sense that all the sweet soundtracks and upbeat moments can’t quite rescue it from it’s lovesickness. However, it’s also just the kind of music you’d hear on the radio every single day if there was any justice.
The Shivers UK debut album “More” is available from the Fence Records webshop, along with any of their usual stockists. The rather wonderful sounding vinyl LP is accompanied by a CD of the tracks. A UK tour is to follow in October and November 2011.
Song’s Heard on Fast Trains is also pleased to announce exclusively that The Shivers will also be part of the line-up of Hooops #3 at The Louisiana, Bristol on 10th November.