Miranda Lee Richards – Existential Beast
Hot on the heels of last year’s excellent Echoes Of The Dreamtime comes Miranda Lee Richards’ wonderful new release, Existential Beast. She describes it as “a political album that takes a personal tack”. “We are all still working”, she says, “within those animal urges of fear, competition, survival and sexuality which are [deep-seated] and manifesting in varying ways and degrees”. But like it or not, she continues, “these tendencies have been revealed, within our leaders, our countries and ourselves; it is indeed a pivotal and transformational time and there is much work to be done”. The personal may often be the political, but with Existential Beast the political seems more like the personal. There are a couple of more-or-less direct statements, “What about non-violence? Is that still in fashion?”, but you could be forgiven for thinking that Miranda Lee Richards is more concerned with the sound than the fury. For this is an album that’s full of gorgeous songs rather than empty slogans. There’s a mix of trippy Californian guitar (‘Golden Gate’), twangy Nashville pedal steel (‘Ashes And Seed’), and folky forest pizzicato (‘Oh Raven’). The most ambitious track, though, is the 12-minute closer, ‘Another World’. Backed by a bucolic mixture of oboe, flute, cello, and more, this is where the worldly meets the other worldly. There are clear references to recent events, “Well I see another world, Where we would march together, Our voices ringing in the street, The Stars and Stripes of unity, California don’t throw yourself to the sea, For the ballot was cast in your favour”. Yet, there are also moments of hope and even ecstasy, “Well I see Another World, Where we eat flowers for dinner, And we drink water from the spring, Elevating our hearts and our bodies”. Think Neil Young and ‘Natural Beauty’ and the spirit is the same. With its Narnia-like cover, Existential Beast is at once a modern-day political parable and a far-away fairy story. And that’s quite a combination.
I was over the Uncut website and I came across John Mulvey’s list of his favourite albums of the first six months of 2017. I like John Mulvey and his writing. This time, though, I was struck by the fact that the list included 60 albums, now increased to 66. With 26 weeks in the first six months of the year or just over 180 days, he has included on average about 2.5 favourite albums per week or one about every three days. Now, let’s assume that he has left the same number of albums off his list. This means he has devoted quality listening time to about five albums a week, or one for every day and a bit. In fact, this figure is a little generous, because there aren’t very many releases in the first couple of weeks of January. Now, John Mulvey is a professional music journalist. He listens to music for a living. It’s his job to spot good music quickly and he’s good at it. All the same, my guess is that he has devoted at most about a day’s listening to the albums he’s calling his favourites of the first half of 2017. That’s not very much.
Here are my top five albums of the year so far. They are all cherished listens. And quite some time has been spent with them. What’s more, last weekend saw the release of three albums – Fleet Foxes, Jason Isbell, and Kevin Morby – that are all candidates for a top five spot. But I’m still getting to know them. So, I’m not going to include them here. Maybe they’ll feature in December’s end-of-year list? In the meantime, here’s my summer solstice favourites.
Conor Oberst – Salutation
Ryan Adams – The Prisoner
Holy Holy – Paint
Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom
Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Planetarium
This project began in 2011 when Nico Muhly was commissioned to write a song cycle by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven. Originally toured in 2012, it’s taken a further two-and-a-half Martian solar orbits for it to finally find a terrestrial release. The mission is a tough one. Any concept album about the solar system has to navigate between Holst, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and a Yes album from the mid-1970s. Inevitably, the temptation with an idea of this sort is to accentuate the ethereal and eliminate the material. But here the trajectory has been calculated to perfection. That’s in no small part due to Sufjan Stevens. In any context, his fragile, quavery voice instinctively communicates a sense of space. Here, it’s also liberally auto-tuned, giving it an extra-dimensional quality too. But it’s the combination of the voice and the lyrical content that really resonates. The words act as a resolutely earthly counterpoint to the infinitesimally large musical themes. “The youngest of children/ A cannibal addiction/ Innocent victim, bite mark, body part/ When in secret siege, we eat them.” If that’s Life on Mars, then the leafy suburbs of Western Europe will do just fine, thank you very much. For sure, there’s a certain disjointedness that echoes the recent outing by Bon Iver, but there are also tracks that would grace a genuine Sufjan Stevens album, notably ‘Mercury’, ‘Venus’, and ‘Neptune’. The result is like nothing on Earth. So, let yourself go. Take a trip to the Planetarium. And enjoy.
Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth
Over his last few albums, Mark Kozelek has taken to incorporating fan letters into his songs. On his new album there’s just one. But the fan – Greg – really nails what makes Kozelek’s recent run of albums so great. “In the last few years”, Greg writes, “there’s been increasingly less and less distance between Mark’s experiences and the words that he writes, leaving the emotions uncovered and there for us all to tap into”. It’s well put and presumably Mark thinks so too. Like those other records, 30 Seconds … is yet another set of songs that rarely leave you indifferent. For sure, they can make you feel slightly uncomfortable. “Ask all the questions you want to and I’ll be polite, but I’m thinking fuck you ninety percent of the time”. They can also be plain funny, “After the show I’ll be back in my hotel room wackin’ my bone all alone, ’cause I’m nearly 50 and that’s just the way the wind blows”. But most of all there’s the sense of melancholy. The thought of what the future holds, “I’m feeling a little blue but not nearly as blue as I’ll be”, he says talking of his father, “when I won’t be able to call you”. And the sad stuff that’s in the present, “I couldn’t stop thinking of my sick friend, I was so distracted that I ended up leaving my wallet behind at a bank”. Once again, all of human life is here. There’s a song about visiting Laurie Anderson’s apartment, plenty of talk about Caroline and touring, a couple of references to Trump, a vignette about a show at SXSW, and mentions of cops, waiters, fans, and many more. And the music’s not too bad either.