Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
“The master of reiki, he waved his hands over me, And said I eat too much steak, And hold on too long to ancient takes, And both are so hard on my heart”. Bill Callahan’s first album in five years is full of dry humour and no little wisdom. Things have changed since the last time we heard from him. “I got married”, he tells us. “To my wife”. Phew. He’s also had a son. “Giving birth nearly killed me”, he confides, probably only half jokingly. It’s a quieter album than the last few. And more free form. This is not the place to come and meet up with chorus and verse. And middle eight is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a number of the songs seem fragmentary, almost extemporaneous. Yet never slight. For an indie legend with mild country leanings, there’s a hint of jazz in the air this time around. But the lyrics remain as beguiling as ever. There are some lovely similes. “Like two wrestlers, I am mostly still”. Some poignant words about death. “I made a circle, I guess, When I folded her hands across her chest”. And more than a few thoughts about matters of the heart. “True love is not magic, It’s certainty, And what comes after certainty? A world of mystery”. I wonder what the Reiki master would say?
The National – I Am Easy To Find
I Am Easy To Find, The National’s new album and accompanying Mike Mills-directed film, is a meditation on life. The comings and the goings. The loving and the longing. The hopes and the fears. There’s a strong sense of nostalgic melancholy. How you felt when you lied to your mother for the first time. When you realized your children were no longer children. When you lost a person you love and the days became almost unbearable. But it’s not a miserable album. As in life too, there’s the presence of uplifting beauty. In the swelling of the strings. The choir of voices. And the gentle cadence of the melodies on so many of the songs. In contrast to other albums, Matt Berninger’s voice is not always the core vocal. There are female voices, often female leads, on all of the songs. So we’re still witness to Berninger’s usual authenticity when he tells us he’s been “binging hard on Annette Bening” and “listening to R.E.M. again”. But hearing a woman sing a line such as “Lay down in the doorway in front of me, Make yourself impossible for me to leave” brings a very different meaning to the scene. When you’re stuck in the middle of life, it’s tempting to think that the last thing you need is a 68-minute slightly melancholic meditation on it. But you’d be wrong. Taking time to reflect on life is always a good thing. And appreciating the beauty that’s present in it isn’t just a good thing, it’s what gives life its very meaning with all its comings and goings, loving and longing, and hopes and fears.
Strand of Oaks – Eraserland
Stunning. Eraserland, the new album by Timothy Showalter’s Strand of Oaks, is simply stunning. Acoustic introspection and full-throttle riffs. This is such stuff as indie dreams are made on. And the most remarkable part is that it was nearly never made. For in late 2017, following some disappointing reviews of his largely disappointing previous album, Hard Love, Showalter was having a crisis of musical confidence. Having progressed in relatively short order from acoustic strummer to electric shredder, where was he to go now? Back to the acoustic future? Luckily, Carl Broemel and some other My Morning Jacketeers were around to help resolve the dilemma. Giving Showalter the confidence to start writing again, the result is Eraserland. With its gentle introductions, this is a place of intense introspection. But with its raging crescendos, this is one that sounds gloriously alive too. And there’s more than a little wisdom on hand. “If you believe you can be loved, You’ll outlive your past”. With some help along the way, Timothy Showalter has shown that it’s possible to overcome adversity and create something new and magnificent. Something stunning. Eraserland.
With the spring equinox just passed, here are some of the best releases of the year so far
The Delines – The Imperial
If listening to sad songs could heal your own sadness, then Amy Boone, Willy Vlautin and the rest of The Delines would put the counsellors of the world out of business. Because The Imperial is packed full of very sad songs.
Cass McCombs – Tip of the Sphere
Another bunch of quirky songs from Cass McCombs. The artist who walks you right up to the threshold of a memorable melody only to reach over and ring the bell of the slightly grumpy neighbours next door. Frustrating at times, but features some really great bass lines.
Deerhunter – Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
There’s a typically eclectic feel to the new Deerhunter album. On ‘Greenpoint Gothic’, for example, Gary Numan is surely in the house. For the most part, though, this is a fine bunch of exciting indie riffs for guitar and keyboards. Oh heaven. ‘Element’ is a particular highlight in the earworm department and it’s a great song to drive to.
Hand Habits – Placeholder
Don’t be fooled by the slightly shy-sounding vocals. There’s plenty of power to the songs on Meg Duffy’s second solo album. Most are about relationships of different types and, typically, there’s a sadness to the outcomes. There, though, the similarity with The Delines ends.
Amanda Palmer – There Will Be No Intermission
There Will Be No Intermission is the third solo release by Amanda Palmer, the former lead singer of The Dresden Dolls and the one and sometimes still performance artist also known as Amanda Fucking Palmer. It’s certainly quite a performance. Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes and with a couple of tracks passing the 10-minute-plus mark, this is not a record for those who are even slightly pressed for time. It’s also a highly confessional album. Indeed, as confessional albums go, this one has already been inside the box talking to the priest for quite a considerable period. It could all be a little too much. And in a different context it would be. If this was a man singing about his personal problems in an equivalently querulous and emotional register, any relationship he was having would most likely go tits up sooner rather than later. But it’s not. Released on International Women’s Day, the themes speak to some very difficult gendered issues, including Palmer’s own experience of abortion. Fittingly enough, the truth-telling reaches its climax on ‘A Mother’s Confession’, where Palmer recalls the everyday difficulties of motherhood in sometimes disturbing detail. “At least the baby didn’t die”. There Will Be No Intermission isn’t an easy listen. That’s both its strength and its weakness. Sometimes a huge amount can be too much. But sometimes it can be perfection too. Here, there are moments of plain and simple beauty that will stay with you forever. The waltz-theme of ‘The Ride’ being one. For that reason alone, let’s hope that there will indeed be no intermission.
Goshen Electric Co.
“You won’t have to think twice if it’s love. You will know”. We missed Jason Molina this year. But there was plenty to celebrate. A highlight was Timothy Showalter and former members of Magnolia Electric Co. reinventing two of the more obscure tracks from Molina’s Didn’t It Rain era.
Iron & Wine – Weed Garden
“Some want love and some want gold, I just want to see you in the morning”. Sam Beam returned with six gorgeously gentle songs full of recognisably Iron-&-Wine-y themes, lyrics, and arrangements.
Kevin Morby & Waxahatchee – Farewell Transmission/The Dark Don’t Hide It
“In the sirens and the silences now all the great set up hearts, All at once start to beat”. We missed Jason Molina this year. But there was plenty to celebrate. A highlight was Kevin Morby and Katie Crutchfield reinventing two of the best tracks from Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co. era broadly understood
Kramies – Of All The Places Been & Everything The End
It’s been a long wait. “Ireland” was premiered on the 2015 forêts antiques live EP after all. But it was worth it. Rising and falling. Swelling and subsiding. Kramies brought us on a journey through all the places been to a new home. And more.
Phosphorescent – C’est La Vie
“If you’d have seen me last year I’d have said, ‘I can’t even see you there from here'”. Matthew Houck may have become a parent and started writing songs about his young son. But fear not, the essence of the old Phosphorescent still shone as brightly as ever.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Sparkle Hard
“This is a verse about a man who dared, To fall head over heels for a woman who shared, Similar interests, similar looks, Similar taste in similar books”. A typically eclectic mix from the (grand)father of indie rock. Includes the best song about a bike lane that you’ll hear all year.
The Rock*A*Teens – Sixth Sense
‘Take a deep breath and blow the cobwebs away”. The Rock*A*Teens returned with a new beginning, proving that teens still know how to rock, even once-upon-a-time ones.
Shakey Graves – Can’t Wake Up
“Tonight!, I’ve got nothing on my mind but you, Somewhere, somehow, You’ll feel it too”. Alejandro Rose-Garcia really doesn’t like Abba. The song ‘Aibohphobia’ confirmed that.
Mount Eerie – Now Only
In a category of its own. Do not send these songs to your friends or play them at parties! They are some of the most emotional pieces of music of the year though.