John Walker's Electronic House

Top 11 Albums of 2005: 5 – 1

by on Dec.31, 2005, under The Rest

Brace yourself…

5) The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers – The Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia

I haven’t got around to discovering Bright Eyes yet, and am slightly daunted by his/their releasing about forty albums a year. People compare them with The Prayers and Tears… so that’ll do.

I discovered the band when learning they would be supporting The Mountain Goats in Chicago, so checked out the album in advance. And was really rather surprised. Like The Mountain Goats, The Prayers are really just a single man, Perry Wright, with whoever happens to be accompanying him at the time. These people include the likes of the Polyphonic Spree, Ester Drang, and somewhat bizarrely, Sixpence None The Richer, who all donate toward the electro-folk-rock mix, that doesn’t really sound like any genre. Splendid strings appear throughout, never better than when introducing and punctuating the jaunty-yet-dark ‘Ammunition for a Bolt-Action Heart’, which are somehow not offset by the frequent bursts of electronica. Arrangement is key, dangerously offering the suggestion that if Godspeed were to try pop, they might, might, come up with something like this. With singing.

Wright’s voice is splendid, casually delivered but empassioned, ensuring his melacholic lyrics do a far better job of hammering the minor keys than even the piano in ‘Above the Waves (Pluripotency)’. No one took any notice of him this year, not even receiving the dignity of a Metacritic entry. So I’m going to predict that whatever he offers next shall be received in 2006 with the same degree of panicked enthusiasm that Sufjan Stevens finally achieved in 2005.

4) The Books – Lost and Safe

I tried to describe The Books to someone the other day. I said, “Uh, well, uh. Uh. Well, uh. Oh, you’d hate them.”

I love them. I haven’t felt such a visceral connection to a band since I first heard Negativland in the mid 90s. It’s as if they tap deeper into my soul than any other group, touching me in unique ways, sometimes such that I should probably have to point out where to the nice lady with the teddy bear. They do something that a part of me wishes all music would do – if only I could put words to exactly what that is.

Their work is collage, found art, with broken narratives, haunting interruptions, and a constant theme of paradoxical arguments. My song of the year is by a league ‘Smells Like Content’, perhaps the simplest track on the album. Without the frequency of sampled speech that threads through every other track, this is instead one of the two members of The Books narrating a description of whereever he might be over the most gorgeous surging tune. It flows in ripples, the past-paced, smart words skipping on the surface. “Our heads were reeling with the glint of possibilities / contingencies / but with ever-increasing faith we decided to go ahead and just ignore them / despite tremendous pressure to capitulate and fade”.

‘Be Good To Them Always’ is probably the track most like their previous albums, almost entirely constructed of samples, beginning with an archive recording of a reporter failing to report what it is he can see, the bouncing of a basketball, backward masking, and thousands of unidentifiable sounds cluttering together to create a bewildering coherence. Which then fades to allow a poetic narration of the confusion of people, the vocal accompanying the obscure archive snippets.

‘It Never Changes to Stop’ implies that it will be a straight piece of original work, dark cellos and a light banjo, but then halfway through a voice appears, what appears to be a male teacher having a breakdown in front of his class. It’s macabre, and deeply sinister. There is fury in his voice as he angrily attempts to maintain control of a room of children while losing control of himself, his voice cracking as he barks commands. The cellos then draw back in, sombre and sad, until the track finishes with a female voice discussing “his” belief that he “thought he could stop when he wanted to.”

There are lighter moments in ‘Venice’, where a percussive tune is added to a recording of a reporter describing the work of a wild artist as he paints both his canvas and the crowd. ‘If Not Now, Whenever’ contains dozens of clips of people’s contradictory statements, broken thoughts and confused logics.

It refuses conventional structures, but does not push you away as it progresses. The collage changes from disturbing to hilarious, always beautiful and infectious. This is a musical scrapbook, Found Magazine sung out loud.

3) Sufjan Stevens – Come On Feel The Illinoise

The joint most-heard record of my year. This barely spent a moment off my mp3 player after I first found it. I’m not really one for hearing the same album twice in a row, let alone over and over, but I think I might have listened to Illinoise non-stop for an entire plane flight to the States.

Verbose and pretty, the dancing, melodic big-band-a-like display is enthusiastically catchy, then dipping into the simplest refrains. Beginning with a gentle flute and piano, the opening whimsy sings peculiar poetry of a UFO’s arrival in Illinois. “Mysterious shade that took its form / Or what it was, incarnation / Three stars / Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes.”

And then into the most ludicrously grand fanfare entitled, “The Black Hawk War, Or, How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself In The Morning, Or, We Apologize For The Inconvenience But You’re Going To Have To Leave Now, Or I Have Fought The Big Knives And Will Continue To Fight Them”. Er, yes.

The track names get no more sensible, perhaps threatening a potential pretension, but not one that the songs ever provide. In fact, despite the array of instrumentation, the music is remarkably modest, Stevens’ delicate voice plinking away at the peculiar lyrics. If some are meant to mean anything, it goes swiftly over my head. ‘Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!’ contains the verse, “The sound of the engines and the smell of the grain / We go riding on the abolition grain train / Steven A. Douglas was a great debater / But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator.”

Sense is more forthcoming in the calmer folky numbers, where a peculiar honesty seeps through. ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ provides a painful description of a friend’s final days with cancer, bitterly questioning a Christian faith in the face of such a horrid death. “Tuesday night at the bible study / We lift our hands and pray over your body / But nothing ever happens.” Later, after she dies, “Oh the glory when he took our place / But he took my shoulders and he shook my face / And he takes and he takes and he takes.”

It’s part travelogue, part school play, all so very hypnotic and beautiful. It is at once a large orchestra of intelligence, and a lone six year old boy stroppily banging at a tin drum. Mature and elegant, confused and frustrated, no one I know has listened to this album – I discovered it via the ever-reliable – and yet somehow I see it’s the most highly recommended album of the year, coming top of more Top 10 lists from major music reviewing publications than any other. So someone else bloody well listen to it.

2) Cloud Cult – Advice From the Happy Hippopotamus

The other most-listened-to, this is a masterful album that no one else anywhere in the entire universe will listen to. At first [insert ear equivalent of ‘glance’] it might seem a bit silly, a bit light-hearted. The title could put you off, the track names like ‘Washed Your Car’ or ‘Clip Clop’ might suggest an immaturity. Or most of all, only listening to a couple of tracks before forming an opinion could destroy your chances of recognising how magnificent this is.

The introductory track, ‘Intro’ oddly enough, lays the potential out in front of you. Grumbling cellos are gradually replaced by a cacophony of electronica noise, then stomped on by an angry electronic buzz, which then does impressive back-and-forth battle with a refined guitar riff, the strings sneaking back in to underscore the fight. In the end no one wins, and a simple rhythm skips across the dead bodies to bring in the first track, and the excellent strained and oddly accented vocals.

We’re immediately instructed to ‘Take your broken pieces, use them / Use them for protection / Use them for protection / Take your strong pieces, use them / For living on the outside of your skin / Living on the outsi-yi-yi-yi-oop,’ and things begin to spring into life. Samples pour in, the refrain repeats, peculiar distorted noises invade, a guitar decides it’s in charge, and the crescendo is reached. Naturally everything dissolves into hand claps and music-box tinkles. And move on.

The whole album shifts in style, genre, pace and attitude, while always maintaining a strong central thematic sound. While not quite as liberal, in terms of its willingness to leap between styles, you could loosely think of Bran Van 3000, but without the embarrassing French rap.

At its most dramatic, shifts can throw your mood against the wall. The agonizing and confusing fury of ‘Clip Clop’, which if it’s about anything is about being upset with having been stranded too many times, then dumps you without warning into the achingly pretty, slightly lonely ballad of ‘Training Wheels’. “And you can’t stop now / Although there’re walls all around / You just gotta go through it / And you can’t fall down / Cos everyone’s watching you.” And then, from nowhere, the wondrous dance-around-your-room wonder-jig, ‘Lucky Today’.

It’s big, maybe even ludicrous, but it’s passionate fury, huge roars, and pin-prick delicate melodies, and I love it an awful lot.

1) The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree

John Darnielle’s spell on me is complete. I start welling up just hearing his voice. This is my album to cry to.

His previous records, over the last fifteen or so years, have been works of fiction. Characters are invented, given histories, and then sung about over a dozen or so songs. Reviewers delight in trying to discover personal allegory within the words, making claims with each new album that this one is loosely based on his own life, only to be scoffed at by Darnielle. The Sunset Tree is his ultimate response: this one is his life.

This album is just so fucking good. It’s a knife in the wrist honesty, raw and exposed, and utter agony to believe. “I write down good reasons to freeze to death / In my spiral ring notebook / But in the long tresses of your hair / I am a babbling brook.” It’s the tale of a broken childhood, of being abused, of a self-destructive teenage life, and remarkably, of healing and optimism.

‘Dance Music’ is probably the track that haunts most. It’s a tale of escaping violent parents, running to his room, turning on his record player, and realising, “so this is what the volume knob’s for”.

His is the opposite of my ideal childhood, something I can’t even stretch to identify with. And yet his pain and fear is vivid and alive in my ears.

(The liner notes consist of:

“Made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940-2004): may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now.

Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news:

you are going to make it out of there alive
you will live to tell your story
never lose hope

Freed by the death of his stepfather, this remarkable album seems to have only been possible as an act of release. It’s storytelling perfection, bare-flesh honesty, healing and productive. The mangled collection of emotions lash out or whimper in each direction, the fragmented memories have their moment, then disappear. And at the end, in ‘Pale Green Things’, the release is identified.

“My sister called at three am / Just last December / She told me how you’d died at last / At last.”

I think you know what to do with your ‘JCB song’.

8 Comments for this entry

  • Frosty840

    I keep being told by people whose opinion tends towards correctness that otherpeople are still making good music and I sometimes hope that these people with their musical opinions might be right about these other people with their music and then I listen to the music by the music people that was recommended to me by the people with the musical opinions and I wonder what is wrong with the ears of the opinion people that they can stand to hear the work of the musical people and it just got so consistently and horrifyingly awful that I decided to just assume that when I was told music was good by people who give me opinions I otherwise regard highly I would simply assume that they were correct about that music rather than allowing any more damaging nastiness into my brain via my ears and thus allowing me to live on under the illusion that I like music that is appreciated by anyone else in the world and the problem with that is that I really want to hope that John is the sort of person who would like music that I enjoy and vice versa but I have been hurt so very badly in the past by dreadful caterwauling and the fear stops me from trying any more.

    So, punctuation, eh? Marvellous invention.

  • SamK

    “Who the fuck is Arthur Digby Sellars?”

    Anyone get the reference? Anyone?

  • Kieron Gillen

    Frosty: John has awesome taste in music. Beware, however: Very little of it is good for dancing and/or will get you laid.


  • SamK

    Okay, you had your chance. Arthur Digby Sellars is a minor character in the greatest film ever made, The Big Lebowski.

    He’s the guy in the iron lung. I know you all care.

  • Tom

    While accurate at the time, your claim that no-one you know has listened to COME ON FEEL THE ILLINOISE (I like writing it in caps) is no longer the case. I’m a fan of his, yet somehow completely missed that he had a new album last year. It’s absolutely unbelievable. Chicago and The Predatory Wasp are the amazingest.

  • Prometheus

    I wish no one had listened to sufjan stevens. Then I might have been able to land tickets when he played here. The line ‘I’ve made a lot of mistakes’ in Chicago is one of the most vulnerable lines I have ever heard ina song. Let’s hope that he gets aorund to making an album for every state (although he might stumble on Delaware…)

    However, I note a distinct absence of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on Johns list and wonder if he heard it. Because it sounds as if he might enjoy them. A lead singer that sounds like a cross between Thom Yorke and Dave Byrne, instrumentation that is as varied as it is accessible, one note guitart solos reminiscent of Neil Young and a name that is a great call to optimism, it is sublime. But enough dancing about architecture.

  • Prometheus

    Having re read my previous post, I think I’m becoming dyslexic.