Other Lives

Round Three.

It was an odd year. With music a less dominant part of my life these days, what I came into contact with tended to be directly related to what I was writing or talking about for DIY or FFS. I heard about a a heap of great albums (I will never tire of great music writing), but the amount of pure listening I did was far than it has been. Which is why, as I sit with headphones over my ears and a full pack of chocolate buttons melting in my mouth, I’m finding it hard to decide. When the albums you’ve loved in a year have been far less listened to, the amount you can critically discern between them is a lot less than it might otherwise have been. But here we go.

Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams

After ‘Coming Down’ swept across the blogs, many, notably myself, were somewhat jazzed about the idea of a epic-scale, anthemic gloom-rock approach from the L.A. four-piece. We didn’t get it. What we got was an album that embraced a true idea of evolution in sound – a step along the girl-group, surf-punk, fuzz-friendly Ascent of Man chart if you will. It refined, retuned and ultimately improved in every way on the group’s debut and, with ‘Coming Down’ as centrepiece and ‘Hold Your Hand’ as finale, indicated what the next image of Dum Dum Girls might look like too.

Dum Dum Girls – Coming Down

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo

This was a grower, and by “grower” I mean that I was completely unimpressed, put it aside in some distant corner of my iTunes library, lost the CD copy and forgot it had been released at all. Then, four months later, it was played at work and I realised how brilliant it is. I mean just great. That there is a grower. Mixing experimental ambience with the drive of classic rock, Smoke Ring… is a wonder, a beautiful comedown. The whole thing envelops you like warm rain, Vile’s voice soothing as drums pound and guitars chime all around you. Easy listening in the best possible way.

Kurt Vile – Baby’s Arms

Future of the Left – Polymers are Forever

There are some certitudes in life that we must be aware of. Examples: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; Alan Rickman is the best; any Future of the Left release will make it onto my end of year list. EP though it may be, this is still one of the best collections of music this year. Maniacally leaping between styles (even within songs) throughout and even more maniacally approaching lyrical output (relationships, Joe Pesci, international relations) this is everything I could want from a FotL release: ferocity, insanity, hilarity.

Future of the Left – Polymers are Forever

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis – Come on Board

I promise I’m not being (too) wilfully obscure with this one. Yes, it may only have been available from the pair’s live shows, and yes it might have taken me a month to find the album artwork, but you can find it online. Somewhere. Whatever the difficulties, this is most definitely worth its placing. This the sound of two kindred spirits separated only by their particular decade of musical popularity. Each complements the other’s own brand of weirdness spectacularly, with Stampfel’s gurgling squeals and Lewis’ croaky drawl mixing to make the best set of badly sung anti-folk tales I’ve heard all year.

Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis – He’s Been Everywhere

The Antlers – Burst Apart

I don’t like this much as Hospice. But that was never really going to happen, was it? Frankly, the best complement I can personally give Burst Apart is that it isn’t Hospice and it still ended up as one of my albums of the year. A definite step away from the “concept album”-as-concept album, The Antlers treated this one as an experiment, simplifying into indie-rock (‘Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out’), playing at being their heroes (the Kid A/Amnesiac-isms of ‘Parentheses’) or messing with new genres (the distorted soul of ‘Putting the Dog to Sleep’) and succeeding at each and every one. This doesn’t need to be Hospice anymore, it’s brilliant in and of itself.

The Antlers – Parentheses

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

I genuinely can’t understand the backlash against this one. I know, I know, I’m a Radiohead douche but seriously, how can this be a bad album? “Not as good as In Rainbows,” fine, but a bad album? Nah. This is complex, beautiful songcraft with a spectacular generic twist halfway through – what introduces itself as a beat-heavy album, some naturalistic iteration of the aforementioned Kid A/Amnesiac era, between ‘Feral’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ becomes a more vocal affair, and with a hilarious non-sequitur punchline for the more desperate of us fanboys (that line in ‘Separator’) to boot. Time will prove people wrong on this one.

Radiohead – Separator

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Smog and Bill Callahan have been skirting around the peripheries of my music collection for years now, but have always seemed too revered, and perhaps too obscure, to simply dive into without a useful introduction. How kind of Bill to do that for me. Apocalypse is simultaneously traditional and experimental in its take on country-folk, sounding unmistakenly American, but in a distinctly literary fashion – this is more exploration (hence the experimentation) of a sound rather than a retreading of it. It makes for an album that’s as intriguing for its context as its overt content, and, by association, Callahan’s back catalogue looks just as enticing to me now.

Bill Callahan – Drover

Other Lives – Tamer Animals

There haven’t been many new bands in recent years that have grabbed me, shaken me awake and metaphorically said ‘LISTEN TO HOW AWESOME WE SOUND!’ like Other Lives did for me in 2011. Their music sounds so magnificently grand, so all-encompassing in its earthiness that it seems paradoxically unearthly (captured beautifully in their video for ‘For 12’). Clutching at the heady ambitions of classical music and expressive soundtrack work and roping it together with grounded, traditional folk sounds should simply not be this effortless, but they soar together somewhere in between in wonderful fashion. I need more of this in my life, and quickly at that.

Other Lives – Dark Horse

Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On

If Kurt Vile was a grower, this was a revelation. I was actively irritated with this album at first. Where were the folk creaks and strains I loved so much from before? Why was Taylor Kirk crooning? And what THE HELL was a saxophone doing there? It can’t be overstated that I’m an idiot. As Kirk himself sings on ‘Black Water’, ‘All I need is some sunshine.’ Once I saw that light, there was no turning back. Timber Timbre’s exercise in creepifying the sounds of old-fashioned pop is remarkable, showing the talent they have for subtly twisting the familiar into unsettling shapes in a completely new way.

Timber Timbre – Woman

Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen

This started at the top of my list and never left. It’s simply one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard – and I’ve put enough thought into that to say it without pretence. I could expend mountains of hyperbole to explain that, but since Pearson himself kept it so simple, it would seem false to do so (that and I’ve done it elsewhere). What I will say is that this album can take your breath away, such is the depth of the emotions, it can drain you, such is the starkness of Pearson’s troubles, and it can (if I’m any example) completely affirm any pretentious belief you may have in the transcendent power of music. It may not be straightforwardly enjoyable, but by fuck is it satisfying, beautiful, devastating and incredible.

Josh T. Pearson – Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell…

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Part two of round-up day on MFAGW comes in the form of my Christmas Day show for DIY Radio, a (mercifully for some, I’m sure) mostly presenter-free episode where I played a stream of my favourite Folk Bloke tracks of the year. If nothing else, it’s a bloody good line-up of music – Bill Callahan, Alessi’s Ark, Saintseneca, Rob St. John and, obviously Josh T. Pearson all make appearances. If you want an hour of delightful music to reminisce on, stick it on and lay back.

Josh T. Pearson – Thou Art Loosed!

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This week’s show had an abundance (two) of double bills, apologies (two) and songs from films (one?).

The Roots – Double Trouble (YSI)

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Buddy Holly – Listen To Me (YSI)

I saw Other Lives at End of the Road this year, and was completely blown away. Each member played an average of 5.4 instruments (and that average was brought down significantly by their drummer, the lazy git), they silenced the room (tent) for a full hour and seemed genuinely humble despite their incredible sound. Compound that with the fact that I loved the new album (see below) and that Thom Yorke has professed his fondness for the band, and Other Lives are looking pretty exciting in my eyes. Here’s my review of their second album, Tamer Animals, originally written for For Folk’s Sake.

If you like at least some music, it seems unlikely that you could possibly dislike Other Lives. It’s just a fact. Tamer Animals, their second album under this band moniker, is a record satiated by generic influences, gracefully pirouetting from one to another whilst surreptitiously tying them all together with a single ribbon of recognisably indie-folk vocals and outlook. It’s important to emphasise that gracefulness too – this is not a hotchpotch of sounds crudely forced into a single package, but rather an artful set of ideas working seamlessly together, within and off of one another, always flowing and never jarring. The core of Other Lives, made up of pianist/vocalist Jesse Tabish, cellist Jenny Hsu and drummer Colby Owens, began as an instrumental group, and whilst only one track on Tamer Animals adheres to that particular style, it’s the knowledge of how to make instruments emote as much as vocals, so necessary in instrumental music, that lies at the heart of the album.

That knowledge has led the band to create an album with the qualities of what, nowadays, constitutes popular culture’s most self-evidently emotive instrumental music – the soundtrack. First track, ‘Dark Horse’ ripples with staccato trumpet and woodwind reminiscent of Don Davis’ self-reflexive score to The Matrix while ‘Desert’ mixes the string sweeps of the ‘60s Star Trek theme with an insistent bass drumbeat to dark effect as Tabish mumbles, ‘Desert / Reclaims the land’. It could almost be a description of the sound rather than a subject. Of course, this knowing effect could be a double-edged sword, impressing someone who cares but becoming ultimately insubstantial – what’s a soundtrack without a subject? Luckily for us, Other Lives know just how to reign it in. First single ‘For 12’ is just as partial to a grand sting strain as the rest of the album, but its acoustic rhythm guitar, country electric twangs and prominent vocals emphasise a structured song with the affects of cinematic grandeur. The album’s title track pushes this further, with a booming piano and percussion spine that nearly tips it into White Lies gloom-anthem territory.

It’s this constant interplay between the classical and the contemporary that marks Tamer Animals as a truly exciting album. In ‘Old Statues’ we hear the creepy gleam of the warped ‘50s ballad (last heard on this year’s Creep On Creepin’ On by FFS favourites, Timber Timbre) meet a gentle core of guitar and plaintive vocals, whilst ‘Weather’ melds the beat experimentation of noughties Radiohead with quivering string sections. Every track has been immaculately composed (and I use that word deliberately), creating an album of never-ending intrigue. Even the final track, ‘Heading East’, an instrumental, classically classical track is shrouded behind a wall of impenetrable production fuzz, classical lo-fi if you will – a marker to the listener indicating how nothing is truly of a single essence on Tamer Animals.

By all means treat this album as a soundtrack, let it wash over you, because even as you do every trick, nod or influence will draw you back out again. Tamer Animals sounds like everything else and nothing else, an endlessly novel, engaging and fantastic exercise in creative songwriting.

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It’s Sunday, it’s past 1pm and that means you missed my radio show again, didn’t you? Don’t worry, I’m not angry with you. Just play that little embedded podcast above and we’ll forget it ever happened. Ok?

This Is Ivy League – London Bridges (YSI)

There’s something that seems innately stilted about country music. Maybe it’s the conservative politics, or the fact that they dress like they’re still in the 1800s, but I can never shake the feeling that country singers, and country music by extension, just can’t be “modern”. But in putting together this week’s radio show (WHICHYOUCANLISTENTOONSUNDAYATTWELVEPM) a couple of the tracks I included made me feel the keen sting of folly.

Other Lives’ first single from their upcoming album, Tamer Animals, ‘For 12’, is a whirlpool of a track, dark acoustics and strings shimmering into the centre of your attention before being sucked away again, but amonst all of this lies a constant guitar and percussion hoofbeat, amended by occasional electric twangs – almost art-country in its own peculiar way. Milk Maid’s ‘Girl’ on the other hand marries an unbelievably memorable melody with an undulating country rock guitar to supremely catchy, cool effect; making a lo-fi garage track that dares to be comprehensible. In choosing to pick up stale tropes and freshen them up, it’s bands like these that force me to realise that music will always reinvent and that originality stems from innovation rather than inspiration most often.

Other Lives – For 12 (YSI)
Milk Maid – Girl (YSI)
The Blues Brothers -Them From Rawhide (YSI)