Monday, March 3, 2014

5 Best Albums in February 2014

Now that we are into March, time to reflect on the month past, which had some really great releases. Probably stronger than January, but also heavily back loaded in the final week of new releases. For my ears, there were a number of artists who re-surfaced, refreshed to get back at it, and in some cases, challenging themselves to produce music that may sound a bit different than they ever have, or certainly in a while. These were the standout releases I spent a lot of time with in February 2014

Beck - Morning Phase

Colour me guilty of generally preferring Beck's sexy disco style parties to his dirty hippy acoustic gatherings. At least until now. Many would disagree, but my feeling is even when Beck has missed the mark on certain albums, his will to be weird has always carried and commanded a level of respect and admiration compared to so many other artists. The last 3-4 albums since 2002's Sea Change, now sort of blend together potentially into a forgettable sameyness. If there was any question however, as to whether he "still had it", Morning Phase should largely answer that for fans of all types and stripes.

At the time of Sea Change,  I was admittedly still in the whole "Odelay rules" head space, and never really gave the record as fair a shot as it deserved. There have been many comparisons made between the new record and Sea Change, for obvious reasons. He has his acoustic guitar out again. These compositions are masterful at marrying simplistic songwriting with ambitious spacious string and studio treatments. He also keeps the harmonica to a dull roar, which is good new for this guy, because I fucking hate harmonicas. Unlike Sea Change, there is a warmer optimism in its melancholia (not being a break-up record may have a bit to do with that). The single "Blue Moon" straddles that mix of sentiment on this record nicely. More upbeat and singable than other tracks, yet a far cry from the ass shaking on the last few outings. This is exactly the record Beck needed to make not only in 2014, but for where he sits as an artist today. A sincere and well considered offering from one of the most interesting and important artists of the last twenty years.

Breton - War Room Stories

War Room Stories is the sophomore full length recording from London's Breton, and even though the work they have done to date may not have been highly visible, it is pretty easy to hear that these guys have been together since 2007. The members create short films, as well as directing videos and remixing tracks for other artists. There is a vastness to the songs that captures this penchant for collaboration and experimentation, but not one track on this record compromises focus or flow. The tightness in playing speaks to their confidence as a collective, and the sound layers prevent the songs from becoming too anthemic or bloated. 

Breton to my ears nestle in nicely with other Brit acts of similar tenure like Foals, Everything Everything, or Alt-J, but there is no clear influence point on this record, despite sounding so familiar. They do not shy away from grooves and hooks, but the closing track, "Fifteen Minutes", shows their ability to build a song to crescendo in less than four minutes, with some clever ping pong in sound along the way. A very mature and accomplished record for a still reasonably young band. One of the most pleasant surprises I have heard in my listening travels so far this year.

Neneh Cherry - Blank Project

It has been eighteen years since Neneh Cherry's last solo album. With reasonable buzz leading up to the release of Blank Project, it feels like there is still an unfortunate tendency for many to largely reduce her career to the mammoth hit, "Buffalo Stance," from her 1989 debut record Raw Like Sushi. Fair enough, but what is striking as you listen to this album is how so much of what Cherry was doing twenty five years ago, in retrospect, was very much ahead of its time. Artistically and critically, she has always been known for melding elements of jazz, hip-hop, electronic and pop music into mainstream sounds quite seamlessly. Blank Project follows this path, but with freeness and abandonment that may have been less evident when Neneh had the pressure of writing the next Buffalo Stance. 

Her voice is absolutely gorgeous here, aging in a way that shows hints of a diva with nothing to prove, and that you can project legitimate female strength in words and sound without vocal gymnastics or high priced studio trickery. Looking back, Neneh Cherry has not actually made as much music as her critical darling status might suggest. On tracks like "Naked," "Weightless," and "Cynical" she confirms what many have been preaching from the beginning. "Buffalo Stance" was (and is still) a great song, but this is an artist with pure intentions and vast sonic and emotional capability. I am so pleased to be hearing new music from her this year, and even more pleased at what an amazing record this has proven to be.

Black Submarine - New Shores

Not unlike Neneh Cherry, The Verve are a band who are sometimes reduced en masse to the net effect of their commercially successful output. Most people who have invested in Urban Hymns, know it is a near perfect affair, but still there would be the folks who are familiar with "Bittersweet Symphony," but have no idea who recorded it. What perhaps works best about the Black Submarine project, is enough time has passed that Nick McCabe and Simon Jones are not burdened with any residual baggage from The Verve, yet they can benefit somewhat from the modest celebrity and attention it brings to this album. Because these two gents are heavily involved, you can certainly go looking for and find traces of their former band here, but make no mistake, this is not a Verve record. It is very much a 2014 record. 

The cast includes musicians who have worked with Goldfrapp, Coldplay, and Portishead. There are elements of shoe gaze, psychedelia, trip-hop and britpop throughout, with tracks ranging from under three minutes to upwards of eight minutes. To this point, throughout the whole record there is a clear vision of taking as long on each song as is needed to tell the story the way they want it told. It is occasionally and harmlessly bloated, but thematically New Shores  flows beautifully. Headphones showcase the subtleties of both craft and production, and it is definitely best heard in full either as background or a seated invested listen, rather than in bits on the fly. Comparisons to The Verve will be inevitable, but this record navigates that territory in the best possible way. A fresh recording that could have gone a number of different directions without the right patience and comfort among the players. This one is a keeper.

Wild Beasts - Present Tense

The steady evolution of Wild Beasts over four albums has been a beautiful thing to witness. Each recording maintains core elements of their theatrical foundation, while allowing the band to become increasingly more comfortable with listenability and matters of order. The vocal trade-off between Hayden Thorpe's falsetto and Tom Flemming's more sombre voice has always made their music intriguing, juxtaposing their sense of airiness and aloofness with heaviness and melancholy. Present Tense pulls in more bits of electronic instrumentation than its predecessors perhaps, and the influence of Bjork and Eno production alumni also seems makes this record a bit less manic. 

If you acknowledge how hard it is to make truly original music in this day and age, then perhaps the next best thing a band can hope for is to sound completely different than everyone else across the current landscape. That is what makes Wild Beasts a special band for me, and this record firmly plants them into the space where their following will grow, while commercial success is clearly and refreshingly not a priority. There are tracks like the single "Sweet Spot" that do not repel a listener like songs from their first album might, and in fact there is more gravitational pull and lustre on these songs than they have ever shown. This is the most comfortable the band has ever sounded in their seemingly haughty skin. A song like "Past Perfect" almost sounds the groove came first, and the bassline, as with other tracks, isn't necessarily an after thought.

All of this said, these guys are not for everyone. Thorpe's vocals alone are the stuff crinkled eyebrow looks are made for. For the adventurous listener however, Wild Beasts have made another record of such depth, beauty and complexity that its initial rewards are only surpassed by its ability to keep giving across multiple listens. There is a lot to soak in here, but now more than ever, we are catching the lads at a time when they can tighten things up into a compact set of songs that work brilliantly together and on their own, without compromising any of the things that have always made them such a special and interesting band. Subject to change, I would currently suggest this is their strongest, most focused and consistent album to date, and my favourite record I have heard this year (sorry Dum Dum Girls - you're number two now).


Nina Persson - Animal Heart
Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow
Neil Finn - Dizzy Heights