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Saturday, 18 June 2011

4. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin



Feeling Yourself Disintegrate


This is one of the straightest and most accessible albums on this list. That's no crime, I don't discriminate based on ease, and Wayne Coyne and co. ought to receive credit for an achievement like this; an experimental rock album that vocalises ideas like the importance of love and hope that far from resorting to cliché or masking these themes, positively screams them out in a fantastic album that is without doubt one of the best rock releases of the last few decades. The style is more familiar now than it was on release; great riffs and lyrics combined with a huge and dense array of sound veering from vocoders to piano to synths to some brilliant old-fashioned harmonising. In essence this is almost a pop record, the songs are irrefutably catchy and open; but it is the sincerity of the instrumentation and lyrics along with a gorgeously detailed soundscape that sets it apart.

Almost every track on the album is a winner. Anthemic opener Race for the Prize is irresistibly sunny and weird in the good old-fashioned way, with a straight-up riff playing right into a chorus that expresses hope and humanity in simple terms without ever touching on cliché. In continuation A Spoonful Weighs a Ton glitters with piano and shimmering strings before exploding halfway through into a booming squelch that is playful and inventive, before seeping back into what came before. It's not easy to describe in words the brilliance of these tracks, and in writing they sound fairly standard, but the sheer exuberance and excitement of the instrumentations and Coyne's straining vocals will win you over straight away. The album continues with superb highlight The Spark That Bled that glitters ephemerally to Coyne's curiously oblique and profound lyrics “I accidentally touched my head / and noticed that I had been bleeding / for how long I didn't know” before rising strings break down into a straight-out bass groove that is pure audio ecstasy leading into the euphoric chorus line “I stood up and I said yeah” that has to be heard to be understood.

But what makes this album so special is after this run of brilliant anthems it plays around, and it does it a lot and to ceaselessly brilliant effect. Tracks like The Observer toy with differently paced instrumentals and booming beats in a one-two punch that consolidates any ideas that the music here is clearly just as important as the lyrics, while preceding cut What Is The Light? shifts from a stark beat to one of the albums most uplifting moments. Feeling Yourself Disintegrate (incidentally one of my favourite song titles) opens with a brilliant breath-note that switches between left and right audio lines to gorgeous effect before moving into a subdued and melancholic tune that never loses the charm of other tracks. Most surprising of all is that a few tracks on this album are deeply moving, Waitin' for a Superman expresses the need everyone has sometimes for a hero to lift them from the darkest of times with profoundly simple lyrics; “Is it getting heavy / I thought it was already as heavy as can be”, a quote from a conversation Coyne had with his brother about their father's imminent death- at the same time its a light and infectious song, this tension only increasing the emotive effect. Even more affecting is early track The Spiderbite Song which deals with drummer Steve Drozd's 'spiderbite' (trackmarks from a heroin addiction which threatened to take his arm) and bassist Michael Ivin's near-death experience in a car crash, to which all Coyne has to say is “cuz if it destroyed you / it would destroy me”, the purity of these lyrics is rare and deserves a great deal of respect.

The album ends in a dignified fashion with synthy instrumental Sleeping On the Roof, and you're left wondering what you've just experienced, and it will almost definitely require an immediate second listen just to get more shear enjoyment from this dense and moving tracks. This album is an incredibly rare release that is sunny and catchy without losing any artistic integrity, in fact utilising pop sensibilities to create moving contrasts that never weigh too heavily upon the listener. An endlessly rewarding and enjoyable album, it would fit right in on any summer's day.

9.5/10

3. Fennesz – Endless Summer




Endless Summer


This choice represents a departure from my motives for choosing the albums for this list so far. This album will not be a good one to play at the beach, or while hanging with friends in the heavy evenings; this album evokes a very different side of summer, drenched in electronic hiss and glitchy interruptions, it'd probably be best suited to a good set of headphones watching the sunset on a long walk. The album demands that you pay it your full attention. But not every acutely seasonal album has to express exactly what you'd expect, the washes of static do evoke rolling waves, the few glorious seconds Fennesz allows the untreated guitar to emerge from the fuzz every so often are deeply moving and sound just like the sun coming out at the perfect moment. For anyone with the faintest interest in electronic and ambient music, it will be clear (and not just from the title) that this is a profoundly beautiful album that has been constructed with summer in mind, this is essentially The Beach Boys boiled down to a hiss and the composition is uncommonly excellent.

After a-melodic and glitchy Made In Hong Kong makes the bridge from Fennesz' previous more challenging album to this one, title track Endless Summer introduces itself with something infrequently heard in albums this precise and intensely electronic; an untreated guitar, right down to the scrape of fingers changing chords. Fennesz melds the analogue and the digital consistently with a dexterity that never ceases to be both inventive and amazing. The album is bursting with gorgeously detailed tracks that are almost all highlights, A Year In A Minute and Got To Move On are coarser and glitchier, with static rips veiling and unveiling the analogue noise as if it is always masked, you can never get too close, evoking a desperate longing in the soundscape.

Meanwhile Caecilia adds a marimba to the distorted guitar riff that offsets the ringing synths that are allowed to fuse for a brief moment towards the end of the track before fading out as the guitar becomes looped and stuck, the song has run its course and now it is allowed to decay. Shisheido is as pretty as the album comes, allowing whole sounds to penetrate the prickly soundfield, while the significantly different Before I Leave engages rapidly repeated piano tones that penetrate a sparse ambient soundscape like light playing across glass. The album closes with the decaying loop of Happy Audio, destroying itself until all that is left is a stuttering drone. This is an album of rare beauty and compositional skill, and although its not to be broken out at parties, it is relentlessly brilliant and can be enjoyed almost infinitely due to its astute attention to detail. Fennesz is not making an LP of summer anthems, these are the distorted emotions of faded memories and incomprehensible distance, and it is begging to be heard.

9.5/10

2. The Avalanches – Since I Left You







Frontier Psychiatrist



I found it incredibly difficult to choose between the first and second places in this list. I think that ultimately I prefer this album to the number one spot, but nothing can quite beat the album below for summer suitability. Released at the end of 2000, Since I Left You was an artistic statement that pretty much summed up the ten years of music to follow. The album is entirely crafted out of over 3500 samples from other records, and though it's not unique in this respect, it easily places alongside the other masterpiece of sampling, DJ Shadow's moody instrumental hip hop album, Endtroducing. This was an all-encompassing statement of the future made of fractured pieces of the past, vaguely recognisable samples blurring past you at all points on this mind-boggling album. The producers Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann have an astonishing natural proficiency at blending samples of styles from all different genres, and it's not difficult to see the work and skill that has gone into the LP.

It doesn't feel natural to break this album down into tracks, as is so necessary in a music review. As a whole it is a dance album, a party album, a chill-out album, a moving album, but most of all a consistently and ferociously enjoyable album. It can be all of these things because it is everything; including samples from almost every genre and country imaginable and fusing them into something that is simply perfect, there are no other words for it. Utterly timeless, the album sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when first released, and although it feels wrong I'll attempt to explain some highlights. Title track and opener Since I Left You is one of the most uplifting tracks in existence, rising flutes accompany simple harmonies and an infectious beat which all lays the ground for the simple vocal sample “Since I left you / I found a world so new” that adds a touch of melancholy to the summery track. The perfect interlacing of samples creates a power that is utterly transcendent, this track is a bittersweet emotion so powerful that words haven't been invented to describe it yet. The darker variations on the title track in Stay Another Season blitzes past beautifully with a gorgeous melodic addition of what sounds like a harp, into the pounding beats of Radio, the chilled vibes of Two Hearts in ¾ Time, all lying under melodic, pitched-up vocal snatches. Sounds repeat throughout the album, predicting and echoing tracks that have blazed past you. You almost recognise everything on this album, but it always presents itself as something new, greater than its individual parts could ever have been.

I could go on forever, but suffice to say the range on offer here is beyond brilliant. There is a particularly spectacular run towards the end of the album encompassing Electricity's hard-nosed, choppy funk moving fluidly into Tonight's off-kilter piano loops and leaving us with the storming brilliance of Frontier Psychiatrist which samples, out of anything, the Divine lines from a John Waters film to a swirling blur of hard-hitting beats and blistering horns. Later, Live at Dominoes contorts woozy treated samples around a regular beat and a vocoded voice degrades itself before your ears, before gorgeous closer Extra Kings harks back to the statement we've been longing to hear- “Ever since the day I left you” and the album has come to a glorious full-circle, ready to throw on once more for the top – and believe me, you will want to.

I haven't had space to really say anything about this album, and that fact makes me think perhaps its particular effect can't be explained in words. The album as a whole constitutes a richly, lusciously detailed piece of work that would be stellar even if it wasn't somehow made from thousands of samples. I've barely touched on half the tracks and failed to mention the other half, but there isn't a note worth passing over on this LP. It's always too much to take in, and that's the way it should be. “Tonight may have to last me all my life” a woman's voice sings somewhere far off on Tonight, and if that was my position now, I know what album I'd be listening to.

10/10

1. Primal Scream – Screamadelica




Come Together

What else was really going to occupy the top spot of this list? Screamadelica is the essential summer album, no more really needs to be said. But for the purposes of fairness, I'll go ahead. Before this album, Primal Scream were your average stoner-rock group, and then enter king of 90s dance Andy Weatherall who blurred boundaries that people weren't even aware of, fusing the best bits of rock with house and acid-dance euphoria and crafting this unequivocal masterpiece. The sun blazes from every corner of this album, the iconic cover art even looks a bit like a sun, a bit like a face. The album sounds a bit like dance, a bit like rock. You can listen to it while up dancing at 4am or chilling out in the early afternoon. By straddling all these divides, Screamadelica turns out to be an endlessly adaptive and musically flawless album.

Opener Movin' On Up fuses house beats, rock guitar, and pure rave piano into a conventional song structure, all overlaid with Bobby Gillespie's fantastic vocals that could be called those of a really enthusiastic stoner. From the first beat it's a classic 90s anthem, topped in this respect perhaps only by Loaded, a later cut that introduces itself with Peter Fonda's now-famous vocal sample before launching into one of the most euphoric tracks ever recorded. The horns blare out to the gospel backing “I've gone all delusional” - if these stripped house beats and groovy basslines are delusion then I want in, the track is no-holds-barred delight from beginning to end. Slip Inside This House is another classic, moving much more into acid territory with trippy slide guitars and drugged-out vocals all tied together with the beats and piano that give this album coherence and listenability. But even when these elements are stripped away, the results are still fantastic. Don't Fight It, Feel It is essentially rave goes pop, a woman's vocals masking a dirty bassline and clipped vocal samples with rare force and style. The beautifully textured layers of guitar breakdowns and piano come in at just the right moment, and it's the most obviously danceable track on the album.

The thing about this album is they just get everything right. Their more clearly drug-referencing cuts such as Inner Flight, which is a glistening and cracked out instrumental journey, and the dub symphony second Higher Than The Sun track, an unnerving and compelling electronic odyssey, are never too weird to be enjoyed by anyone, nor too conventional to ever stop feeling fresh. This is not to discount the earlier version of Higher Than The Sun, which basically tracks a series of emotional highs and lows all by itself, culminating in one of the most euphoric sounds I've ever heard in the form of a searing horn that can't support its own weight and is dragged back down into an harsh, acidic comedown. Acoustic track Damaged is a love story told with heartbreaking simplicity by Gillespie, you'll be singing along before you even know the words (“my, my, my”) and other notably downbeat track I'm Comin' Down is gloriously evocative of its title, sailing on downplayed percussion and synths that flit over a sparse soundscape occasionally penetrated by a gorgeous saxophone. The track closes with female vocal sample “yeah, I know that feeling”, a perfect touch that is one of hundreds of brilliant tiny details across the album. This is truly an album that could be enjoyed by anyone, while showcasing enough musical proficiency to impress anyone with its poppy aesthetic that makes it endlessly replayable and enjoyable.

This is all not even mentioning the fantastic slow-burn album standout, centrepiece Come Together, which builds over a vocal sample, slowly adding layers in several distinct movements that is each as satisfying and ebullient as the last, the track could literally go on forever and I don't think I would have any complaints. That this album sounds so fresh after 20 years is yet more testament to its brilliance, a drug-inflected acid-pop odyssey that practically radiates sunshine constantly throughout its hour-long course. And in the tradition of the perfect album, that hour is never long enough.

10/10

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6 Comments:

At 19 June 2011 at 17:33 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Soft Bulletin can't be one of the best rock releases of the 2000's because, you know, it came out in 1999.

 
At 19 June 2011 at 21:38 , Blogger Tom Faber said...

Oops one year off. Shoulda done my research

 
At 21 June 2011 at 00:22 , OpenID PsychExFutureHeart said...

Cool list. Not the typical "summer" albums - great choices. Have you heard the live album (packaged in a gummy skull) version of Soft Bulletin released last week? http://t.co/rbV7Rm0 I'll be posting a bunch on it soon. Follow updates at http://twitter.com/FutureHeartDay

 
At 21 June 2011 at 20:41 , Blogger Tom Faber said...

Ooh that new live album sounds awesome I might check it out. Thanks for the compliment too

 
At 26 June 2011 at 21:19 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot Air France - No Way Down/On Trade Winds

 
At 27 June 2011 at 11:40 , Blogger Tom Faber said...

I'm not a fan of Air France.

 

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