Happy New Year. Surely, 2017 can only be better than 2016. But who knows at the moment? What’s for sure is that music will always be a comfort. In that spirit, highly anticipated 2017 releases include confirmed albums from Elbow, Fleet Foxes, Foxygen, Grandaddy, Grizzly Bear, Horse Thief, Nadia Reid, Nikki Lane, Real Estate, Ryan Adams, The Shins, Son Volt, Strand of Oaks, and Sun Kil Moon. And then there’s always the H-LM wish list. This year, it includes Adrian Crowley, Alela Diane, Anaïs Mitchell, Bill Callahan, David Vandervelde, Feist, Field Report, Fionn Regan, First Aid Kit, Israel Nash, Jason Isbell, Jim White, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Noah Gunderson, and Phosphorescent. Mind you, some of these artists were on my wish list this time last year. So, fingers are tightly crossed. Whatever happens, let’s start the new year with some good news. Word is in that Kramies is recording new demos. I can’t wait to hear the end result. In the meantime, here’s Kramies (feat. Jason Lytle) with ‘Clocks Were All Broken’.
Adrian Crowley is the latest subject of a takeaway concert by La Blogothèque. Filmed in Paris, there are lovely versions of two songs, At The Starlight Hotel, and Fortune Teller Song. But the magic lies in the marriage of the sounds and the images. Echoey arcades. Typical street scenes in a popular area. And Adrian Crowley’s beautiful baritone. He joins a wonderful set of artists going back over years now. Recent highlights include Courtney Barnett, and Villagers.
Not to be left behind, here are my favourite albums of 2014. A warning to those with a sensitive disposition. This selection includes some truly miserable albums. Ah, bliss.
Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards – Distance
Dan Michaelson is probably the best purveyor of down-at-luck-yet-still-with-the-strength-to-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning songs around at the moment. This was yet another wonderful album in that vein. And he topped off the year with a Christmas song. A depressing one, of course.
Adrian Crowley – Some Blue Morning
Adrian Crowley can certainly clear a room at parties. Yet Some Blue Morning found him in a surprisingly upbeat mood. These things are relative, though. Put on the magnificent ‘The Wild Boar’ and watch the queue for the bathroom grow.
Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Not quite as memorable as last year’s collaborative affairs. A little more bitter and the first half of ‘Dogs’ should have had a R rating. But throughout it all the humanity shines through. And ‘I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same’ was an absolute classic.
Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s – Slingshot To Heaven
A resounding ‘return to form’ for Margot and her gang of glow-in-the-dark chums. Beautiful melodies about the human condition delivered in a sad and slightly world-weary way. There is simply no better recipe for a great album.
Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
The boy genius returned with an album full of wonderful songs. From the rousing ‘Governor’s Ball’ to the contemplative ‘Common Knowledge’. And on this album he was patched up with the help of First Aid Kit. It only made things sound better still.
Adrian Crowley doesn’t write throw-the-curtains-wide-open-I’m-glad-to-be-alive songs. In fact, they’re usually in the wrist-cuttingly miserable category. Previous offerings include ‘From Champions Avenue To Misery Hill’ and ‘The Saddest Song’, about which it can be safely said that he won’t be sued for misrepresentation in the title. On his new album, though, there’s an almost positive spirit. “Our days are golden palominos”, he sings. More than that, there’s a new-found energy. For the most part, it’s because of the strings. They’re ever present, swirling around, moving in and out of the songs, chivvying things along. But they’re not the only welcoming move. There are female background vocals, softening up a couple of the tracks. And just when things might be getting into an all-too-familiar rut, the mood is broken nicely, first by a short instrumental, and then by ‘The Wild Boar’, a Tindersticks-style spoken-word track, telling a haunting story that Willy Vlautin would be proud of. Yet this is still a comfortingly familiar Adrian Crowley album too. There are some characteristically wonderful turns of phrase. “Do you have a vacancy for a wet-leaf rail-track picker?”, he asks. And ‘The Magpie Song’ – “One part colour of forest at night, One part colour of virgin snow” – is so menacing that you expect Tippi Hedren to appear on the scene at any minute. Adrian Crowley is one of the finest singer-songwriters around. A master story-teller. A soul-revealing communicator. And ‘On Some Blue Morning’ an almost cinematic-sounding music-maker. Arthouse, to be sure, and none the worse for that.
Adrian Crowley & James Yorkston – My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston
Genius to some. Unlistenable to many. Daniel Johnston is the epitome of lo-fi. Almost childlike vocals and rudimentary instrumentation. Innocent, yet knowing and mature observation. Listening to a Daniel Johnston album can be like eavesdropping on every day scenes of domestic life with some music thrown in for good measure. And all captured on a battered old cassette deck. Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston are not the first to pay tribute to the songs of Daniel Johnston. Previous efforts, though, have been collections of various artists. Here, the timbre, the pace, the voices are wonderfully coherent. There’s a nod to the lo-fi aesthetic of their subject. The noise of the tape is sometimes audible. Some of the vocals are deliberately unreconstructed. But the beauty of this album is that the seemingly off-the-cuff, often amateurish-sounding originals have been turned into true, real, proper, full-blown songs. This doesn’t mean that they’ve been swamped with musicality. The instrumentation is still relatively sparse. The melodies remain very gentle. But they’ve been given the space to emerge. To exist as undisputed songs rather than what sometimes seem to be throwaway sketches. Nowhere is this seen more effectively than in the title track itself. There’s a charming quality to Daniel Johnston’s version. And compared to many of his other recordings, it’s a relatively well polished performance. Yet by most standards it’s still very rough. Here, James Yorkston sings the lyrics very carefully, touchingly. Behind the vocals, the music builds, yet never overwhelms. The result is memorable, and not least because against this backdrop the beauty of Daniel Johnston’s own words are also allowed to emerge. This is probably a once-off project. But there is space for more. Daniel Johnston may be a frustrating artist for many people, but he has been incredibly prolific. Within that body of work there are more gems. Some of them are already recognised. But others would benefit greatly from the way in which Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston could transform them.
Here are my 11th-15th favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:
The best way to enjoy Jack White’s album was to forget what it was about. Was it about Meg? Was it about Karen? Was it about both? Did she – whoever it was – really do those things to him? Did he ever really say those things to her? Who knows? Who cares? In Jack’s head it’s probably about all of these things, none of them, and many others as well. Like the impenetrable cover, which must mean something but who knows what, the trick was to sit back and listen to the song craft. There’s great playing, great tunes, great drama. It’s more enjoyable than most White Stripes albums.
Ah, this was the album with the lyric: “And I tried to write, The Saddest Song In The World”. Well, good news, Dr Crowley, you’ve won first prize. Sure, I have a soft spot for the miserabilists, a penchant for the self-pityers, an attraction to the artists of anomie, but Adrian Crowley can out do them all. He makes Leonard Cohen seem virtually jolly. But it’s not all melancholy madness. “I see three birds flying”, he sings, “One will steal your rings and, One will make you sing, And one will lead you home”. Full of wonderful imagery and poetic lyrics. This is a fine album.
A great thing about most of Jim White’s songs is that when they get going they often move along at a decent pace. There’s usually a good rhythm underpinning the subtle orchestration. And when he does slow it right down, then there’s always something going on in the music. Some sound. Some texture. All of which means that the songs never get boring. Plus, there’s a real sense of the south. Of chairs swinging on the porch. Of someone who’s been through quite a bit and wants to reflect on it. And, for once, not in a way that’s achingly sad, but with the sense that, hmm, that was really something.
This was the latest of a string of fine albums by Damien Jurado over the last few years. He’s never going to make the big time. He’s never going to sell out big theatres. Commercially, probably the best he can hope for is to get a song played on an episode of a top US TV programme. But this doesn’t diminish the fact that he’s a wonderful songwriter. On this album, he added just a touch of psychedelia on a couple of the tracks and it sounded really good. That’s right. Just a touch. Richard Hawley please take note.
Simone Felice told some of the best stories of the year. Some of them were even true. Homicidal Native Americans. Perverts from Jersey. Michael Jackson. Characters you’d cross the road to avoid. Simone Felice brought these and host of others to life in gentle-sounding songs, but ones with a hint of menace nonetheless. His retelling of the story of Charles Manson and Sharon Tate is particularly chilling. But it’s when he dreams of taking a chance and running away with Courtney Love that the shivers really kick in.