2012 REVISITED

There were some great albums to come out of 2012. Bruce Springsteen recorded his best record in years, Frank Ocean announced his arrival with the brilliant Channel Orange, and Jessie Ware emerged as a future star. But there was plenty of music that flew under the radar, failing to make a dent in the charts; much of which is well worth going back to. Here are three albums you may have missed in 2012 that are absolutely worth your time:

Chairlift
Something

something album cover

Chairlift’s second full-length album, Something, mines the decidedly uncool corners of 80s pop for inspiration while fashioning bold, joyful melodies that juxtapose Caroline Polacheck’s deadpan vocal style and crude, emotionally potent lyrics. Chairlift revel in the same crisp, elegant, electronic pop that the band Haim are set to make popular in the back half of 2013. This is modern indie music that reeks of Fleetwood Mac and Duran Duran.

Something’s success is at least partly owing to the heart-on-sleeve emphasis it places on relationships and their emotional spillage. Whereas their debut album felt self-conscious with its songs too often filtered through ironic detachment and awkward conceit; Something benefits from a directness that imbues its songs with charm and grace. Nowhere is this more evident than on album highlight, “I Belong In Your Arms”.

Chromatics
Kill For Love

kill for love album cover

Chromatic’s Kill For Love came five years after their Night Drive album and a year after the Drive soundtrack that was so heavily informed by that album‘s aesthetic. The collection of songs that appeared in the Nicolas Winding Refn film served for many as an introduction to the Italo-disco sub-genre for which Chromatics have been anointed ambassadors. Despite the Drive soundtrack’s success, it’s not analogue-fetishising, dreamy dance-pop that kicks off Kill For Love, but a hauntingly beautiful, bare-bones cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black).

From there, the 90-minute album moves into more familiar territory with the sophisticated, post-punk-as-dance-pop earworm, “Back From The Grave”, while “These Streets Will Never Look The Same” takes the palm-muted chug of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen” and stretches it out into eight minutes of torpid build and release. Title track, “Kill For Love” finds the band at their peak, with Ruth Radelet’s mournful vocals coursing through the smoky ambience of Johnny Jewel’s decadent production.

Wild Nothing
Nocturne

nocturne album cover

Nocturne builds on the off-kilter, home-made charm of 2010’s Gemini, taking Jack Tatum’s shimmering, synth-draped dream-pop out of the bedroom and into the studio. The result is an album that sounds fuller and more richly textured than its predecessor, with live drums and meticulous, subtle production greatly benefiting Tatum’s lovelorn atmospherics and new-wave romanticism.

Album-opener “Shadow” is melodic indie-pop with swooning strings and insistently strummed guitar; title track “Nocturne” weaves shimmying guitar lines in and out of its synth-laden tapestry; and “Paradise” seduces with its jangly guitars, velvet-smooth bass line, and watery-blue glimmer. The album is brimming with slick, catchy pop songs and is a definite highlight of 2012.

Bob Russell

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KURT VILE – WAKIN ON A PRETTY DAZE

wakin on a pretty daze

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is the fifth full-length album from Philadelphia singer/songwriter, Kurt Vile, and might just be his finest yet. The album is full of warm, spacious soundscapes, occupied by songs that take their sweet time to unwind and explore the space afforded them. In Vile’s world, there’s no need for things to be hurried along or cut short; patience is a mantra . As he puts it on “Too Hard”: “Take your time, so they say / And that’s probably the best way to be”.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is book-ended by a brace of songs that comfortably scrape the ten-minute mark. Beginning with the almost-but-not-quite title track, “Wakin On A Pretty Day”, the album quickly takes the mantle from its predecessor (2011’s excellent Smoke Rings For My Halo) as serene, wistful guitars labouredly intertwine with one another, and Vile’s laconic, half-sung-half-mumbled vocals exude his stoner-Yoda wisdom. The album concludes with “Goldtone”, a blissed-out dream of a song with billowing guitar figures, celestial finger-picking, and hushed melodies. It’s not just a strong album cut; it’s also a career highlight.

Sandwiched between those two songs are the bar room stomp of “KV Crimes”, the breezy, synth-streaked “Was All Talk”, and the “woo”-filled “Shame Chamber”. “Girl Called Alex” trundles along slowly, gathering organs, synths, and anguished guitar solos in its wake; while “Pure Pain” layers acoustic guitars that hang in the air as Vile muses on windows and highways.

With the spaced-out jams of Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile captures the dark wistfulness of Where You Been-era Dinosaur Jr, the guitar histrionics of Crazy Horse-fueled Neil Young, and the blue-collar rock sentiments of Bruce Springsteen; and does so without ever sounding like anyone other than himself. Pretty Daze is Vile’s most accessible album to date, and the strongest so far in a succession of records that hint at even better things to come.

Bob Russell

TORRES – TORRES

torres album cover

Torres is the self-titled debut of 22-year old Nashville native, Mackenzie Scott. Recording as Torres, Scott’s most immediately striking asset is her voice. It conveys an urgency and world-weariness that belies the relative youth of its owner, at once evincing marked rawness and grizzled beauty. Torres’ songs, musically, are odes to austerity, with sparse instrumentation and economic chord structures. Much of their power derives from often ambiguous lyrics and Scott’s earnest, often heartbreaking delivery. Each word is delivered as if Scott’s life depended on it, the end result of which is a collection of songs that carry with them an emotional heft that’s made achingly apparent mere moments into the album.

Torres’ songs range from folk-strained indie and Americana to indie-rock and gorgeous, tempered, insular anthems, placing her in the company of such talents as PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Feist. Torres was recorded mostly in single live-band takes, with its songs afforded the time and space to breathe and unfurl. The ten songs present typically clock in at around four minutes with a few in excess of six, though seldom does a song ever feel as if it’s been stretched too thin or too far. The longest of these songs is “November Baby”, on which Scott makes use of the kind of gorgeous, tragic imagery that soon becomes a hallmark of the album. “This skin hangs on me like a lampshade/ Keeping all my light at bay”, she sings atop a melancholy guitar phrase that, if not for the intermittent groans of a distant bass line, would mark the song’s only instrumentation. The effect is devastating.

“Honey” is propelled forward in fits and starts by a pre-occupied drum beat and dog-eared guitar arpeggio, with Scott’s vocal degrading as the song progresses until it‘s no more than a distorted wail by the song‘s end. It’s one of many subtle post-production effects put to good use throughout the album, the most effective of which comes at the conclusion of “Chains”. As the song creeps towards catharsis, carried by the dull thud of a heartbeat and scraped guitar strings, an abrupt snip of the tape violently stops it dead in its tracks before it can reach wherever it was headed. It’s a moment that continues to startle even when you know it’s coming.

“Moon & Back” showcases Torres’ considerable talents as a songwriter as she assumes the role of a mother addressing the baby she was forced to give up – “I’m writing to you from 1991/ The year I gave you to a mama with a girl and son”. Scott is not old enough to be the mother (she is however, the right age to be the daughter) but it’s incredibly easy to forget that, given the sincerity with which she sings those words, bursting with regret and defensiveness, not knowing which emotion should win out. The song paints a picture of a woman in quiet turmoil and does so with seemingly little effort.

“Don’t Run Away, Emilie” is a song that feels designed to break your heart and move on before you could ever hope to know why. It features pretty piano keys, lush strings, xylophone and gorgeous guitar, but more than anything, it’s Scott’s fractured, pensive vocal that makes the song what it is. “Come To Terms” employs several layers of acoustic guitar and tackles a doomed relationship (“I’m gonna come to terms/ Before I have to”); “Jealousy & I” is ethereal and sparse, with its guitar treated by an echo effect that sounds as if it’s been touched by the hand of Eno; and “When Winter’s Over” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Broken Social Scene album.

Torres comes to an end with “Waterfall”. “The rocks beneath, they bare their teeth/ They conspire to set me free” sings Scott, as guitars shimmer and the echoes of an angelic choir humming can just about be made out somewhere in the periphery. The album ends before we can know if she jumps or not.

Bob Russell

IGGY & THE STOOGES – READY TO DIE

ready to die album cover

Ready To Die is the unlikely follow-up to the Stooges’ much maligned 2007 album, The Weirdness, and the first recorded under the Stooges banner since the untimely death of guitarist Ron Asheton in 2009. The album takes on a more playful and care-free tone than The Weirdness and the palpable lack of menace here feels more like the result of stylistic choices than non-consensual neutering. But while it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to hear Iggy Pop mellowed out and nonchalant – his last few solo projects have seen him play lounge singer, recording low-key covers albums and jazz paeans – it’s hard to ignore the pang of disappointment that comes with finding him toning things down in the Stooges as well.

The Stooges were perhaps the most volatile, dangerous band of the late 60s and early 70s, their shows punctuated by bloodletting violence and psychotic stage-diving as the group tore through some of the most incendiary proto-punk songs of their generation with wild-eyed, reckless abandon. The Stooges were the band in which Iggy Pop carved out his identity as a punk-rock live-wire and a legend in his own time. The aptly titled Ready To Die feels like the 66-year old James Osterberg calling time on the most abrasive carnation of the Iggy Pop persona and making preparations to ease into old age without being bound by the expectations which are by now inextricably linked with being a Stooge.

Ready To Die features not one, but three acoustic numbers (a first for a Stooges album), with the second of which (“Beat That Guy”) actually not being terrible. The song finds Iggy crooning over Tom Petty-esque acoustic strumming as it builds in scope to accommodate an electric guitar solo and a smattering of female backing singers. Album closer “The Departed” meanwhile, employs martial drums, slide guitar and Tom Waits-styled vocal; and “Unfriendly World” features washboard percussion and lyrical misanthropy. These acoustic songs ultimately feel misplaced and disrupt the flow of an album largely consisting of garage rock, but might have been better suited to another low-key Iggy Pop solo album.

Album opener “Burn” fares much better, showcasing James Williamson’s fiery fretwork and raucous guitar tone, laced with Iggy Pop’s caustic vocal. The song is the closest Ready To Die comes to recreating the alchemy of the band’s unpredictable live shows. Album highlight “Sex and Money” snakes around an energetic rhythm, infused with jovial blasts of Steve Mackaye’s sax. “I Got a Job” is notable only for its lyrics, which are apropos of the album’s overarching theme (intended or not): “I got a job/ but it don’t pay shit/ I got a job/ and I’m sick of it”. “Gun” half-heartedly attempts to illicit shock with its lyrical subject (“If I had a fucking gun/ I could shoot at everyone”) but comes off as more of an idle threat than shocking declaration. The bass line from “DD’s” is reminiscent of the Blues Brothers, while title track, “Ready To Die” is pleasingly reminiscent of Funhouse-era Stooges with its sneering vocals, death-trip fantasies, sleazy rhythm and unhinged, free-falling guitar.

Ready To Die is ultimately the sound of a band fully aware of its advancing age and the limitations imposed on them by no longer being twenty-two. It’s an album that sounds like it could well be the Stooges’ last and an album that – despite housing a few quality songs – never comes close to the quality of the bands’ initial 1967-1973 run. It’s the sound of a band that, after over fourty years of successes and failures and deaths and the cultivation of an undying legacy, is finally ready to move on.

Bob Russell

SHUGGIE OTIS – INSPIRATION INFORMATION / WINGS OF LOVE

inspiration information wings of love album cover

This newly issued, deluxe two-disc set collects Shuggie Otis’ 1974 masterpiece, Inspiration Information as well a second disc of previously unreleased songs recorded between 1975 and 2000. For many, this set will serve as an introduction to the musician who – for all the critical acclaim, noted influence on peers such as Sly Stone and Prince, and cultish admiration from existing Otis converts – was never quite able to channel his obvious talents into the commercial success he probably deserved.

Otis got his start in the music industry at the age of sixteen, playing rhythm guitar on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. Before he was twenty, the blues guitar prodigy had racked up two albums with Al Kooper and found himself signed to Columbia, recording from the comfort of his own studio. Inspiration Information dropped in 1974, following the modest successes of Otis’ solo debut, Here Comes Shuggie Otis and the sophomoric Freedom Flight. The album is a hazy tapestry of smooth California funk; jazz instrumentals, flirtations with electronica that were at least 20 years ahead of their time, and acid-tinged psychedelia. The album was quickly likened to the works of Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers, and was a profound influence on Sly Stone.

The title track builds on a funk rhythm, introducing Booker T-styled organ, a bouncing bass line, and announces its chorus with a minor key change. Album highlight, “Aht Uh Mi Hed” is purportedly the result of an acid trip, otherworldly and discordant. The song folds sweeping strings and mandolin into its layers of breezy, acoustic guitars and whimsical flute, recalling Arthur Lee’s Love. “Rainy Day” is a jazzy, noir-film score for a movie that never existed; while “Pling!” serves as modern, lo-fi electronica, driven by drum-machine and synths – it’s the kind of song that would come to be commonplace in the catalogues of late 90s dance artists such as Air and Zero 7.

Despite its evident quality, wide-reaching influence, and historical importance; Inspiration Information failed to live up to Columbia’s expectations and Otis was subsequently dropped from the label in 1975. Two years later, Otis’ own “Strawberry Letter 23” (originally featured on the album, Freedom Flight) would become a worldwide hit for the Brothers Johnson, perversely ensuring that the success of the songwriter’s most recognisable song would forever be attributed to another band. By the time “Strawberry Letter 23” made the Brothers Johnson a household name in 1977, it had been two years since Otis had so much as granted an interview. He wouldn’t return to public life for nearly 40 more.

Wings Of Love (the second disc in this two-disc set) collects 14 songs recorded between 1975 and 2000. The disc is nothing short of revelatory, with a number of its songs easily eclipsing anything that appeared on Otis’ first three albums. “Special” calls to mind early Prince with its disco rhythm and irresistible funk-guitar. “Give Me Something Good” marks one of Otis’ most impassioned vocal performances whilst evoking the spirit of P-Funk with its Bootsy Collins bass line and spaced-out guitar solo. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” is smooth funk-soul, while “Fireball Of Love” is a Hendrix-esque guitar workout which highlights Otis’ impressive chops (both David Bowie and the Rolling Stones tried unsuccessfully to recruit the guitarist in the 70s). The epic title track begins with the sound of seagulls and crashing waves before Spanish guitar and wind chimes give way to dramatic synths and searing guitar lines. The song is one of many highlights on a disc that, had things gone differently, might easily have served as a solid greatest hits compilation.

Inspiration Information / Wings Of Love is unquestionably the definitive Shuggie Otis document, collecting both his most celebrated album and a treasure trove of previously unreleased gems. It acts as both the perfect introduction to the man’s music for newcomers, and the rarities collection that long-time fans have been clamouring for since 1975.

Bob Russell