Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

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What was once a stream is now a river. On earlier albums, Damien Jurado was content with minimal arrangements. It generated some great songs, like ‘Gillian Was A Horse’, but they were always built on just a basic band sound. On Saint Bartlett he teamed up with Richard Swift for the first time. The change was noticeable, but only barely. ‘Cloudy Shoes’ swathed a typical Jurado melody in strings and echo, but little else was different. On Maraqopa the current became stronger. It was still recognisably a Damien Jurado album, but some of the songs began to swirl. Now, three albums in with Richard Swift, the flow is unstoppable. Damien Jurado’s ‘difficult’ 12th album marks a radical departure for him and a revelation for us all. Full of lovely, liquid sounds, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is the work of an artist with a new-found confidence. ‘Silver Timothy’ is based on a simple latin rhythm, but it’s filled out with the funkiest of bass lines and interspersed with spangly synths. ‘Jericho Road’ covers the vocals in effects, but the melody is still given the space in which to lilt and lift. ‘Return To Maraqopa’ simply bubbles with sounds. ‘Silver Katherine’ and ‘Silver Joy’ hark back to quieter times, featuring just Jurado and an acoustic guitar. But they’re really just setting the scene for the closer, ‘Suns In Our Mind’, which is a Penny Lane-era gem and which includes the best snoring you’ll hear on any track this year. For some time now, Damien Jurado has been on a journey. Musically, that journey has now come to a certain end. With careful and expert guidance, his sound has been reborn. The trick is not to give in to the temptation to go backwards.

Pitchfork review

Drowned in Sound review

KEXP review

The Line Of Best Fit review

Music OMH review

Boy & Bear – Harlequin Dream

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The Australian Mumfords. Was there ever a less attractive marketing label? You can almost see the waistcoats. Smell the cloth caps. Hear the frenzied percussion. Imagine, then, an album from the band labeled the Australian Mumfords that sounds absolutely nothing like the pommie originals. (Except for the worryingly Mumfordesque track, ‘End Of The Line’). With singer Marcus Mumford Dave Hoskins’ voice always high in the mix, Harlequin Dream is full of straight-up, hook-heavy, FM-friendly songs. It’s far and away the most enjoyable thing you could take out for a spin this January. (Except for ‘End Of The Line’). In a reminder that it’s summer in Australia, the opener, ‘Southern Sun’, is a breezy, sun-kissed gem of a track. Classic song structure. Great melody. What more could you ask for? Well, ‘Old Town Blues’ for one, which follows right on and keeps the tempo right up. ‘Real Estate’ switches electric for acoustic and has one of the most lovely, lilting choruses you’ll have heard for a long time. And ‘Arrow Flight’ brings things to a close with a funky electric piano line and another great refrain. It’s all more 70s-style rock than 00s nu-folk. (Except for ‘End Of The Line’). And this is exactly what the band are aiming for. On ‘Southern Sun’ Hoskins reveals that “As a child I was wonder-eyed at the thought that I might know, A life in the ecstasy of rock’n’roll”. And on ‘Bridges’ it’s a dream come true, because now, as he tells us proudly, but not without a nice note of irony, “I’m in a rock’n’roll band, That makes me more of a man, Didn’t you know?”. We’re pleased for him and it’s good for us too, because we get to hear such a bright and shiny album that it makes for a great escape from the northern hemisphere’s winter gloom. (Except for ‘End Of The Line’).

The Guardian review

The Vine review

Beat review

For Folk’s Sake review

Adrian Crowley & James Yorkston – My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston

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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.

The Quietus review

The Line of Best Fit review

The Skinny review

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Wig Out At Jagbags

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A Stephen Malkmus album is always chock full of irony. And this one is no exception. Take the title. It suggests an uncontrolled frenzy with plenty of long, FX-heavy guitar jams. In fact, though, this is a really tight album. Sure, there are some wig-like guitar sounds on some of the songs, notably the opener ‘Planetary Motion’. But this is a very restrained Stephen Malkmus. There’s no room here for anything like ‘1% Of One’, ‘No More Shoes’, or ‘Real Emotional Trash’. Instead, this time he just wants to get the hook into your head and move on. Mission accomplished. A Stephen Malkmus album is also always jam-packed with fancy word plays. And, again, this one doesn’t disappoint. While there’s no room here for a full-blown, whacked-out story like ‘Hopscotch Willy’, there’s still plenty of space for some truly surreal nuggets. How about: “We lived on Tennyson and venison and The Grateful Dead”? Or perhaps, “Pictionary, Nixon-Kerry, Condoleezza’s Rice, Scattered on the floor”? No. Well, maybe “Shanghaied in Oregon, Cinnamon and Lesbians” is more your thing? Despite the familiar elements, there are some changes. This album contains perhaps his quietest, most laid-back, late-night, wound-down song ever. Complete with gentle trumpets and soothing synths, ‘J Smoov’ will have die-hard Pavement fans turning in their bedsits. There’s also a more upbeat brassy sound to ‘Chartjunk’. It’s a moot point as to whether it works. It’s not in-your-face brass, but it’s certainly an acquired taste. Generally, though, the whole thing is reassuringly Malkmusesque. So, when he channels a punk spirit on ‘Rumble At The Rainbo’, his tongue is firmly in his cheek. “Come slam dancin’ with some ancient dudes”, he sings, “We are returnin’, returnin’ to our roots, No new material just cowboy boots”. Well, this is Stephen Malkmus. So, those boots were made for talking. And that’s just what he’ll do.

The Guardian review

The Irish Times review

Spin review

This Is Fake DIY review

Here’s the final instalment of my favourite albums of 2013.

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Perils from the Sea

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This album was full of characters. Gustavo, the illegal immigrant. J H Park, the flight attendant. His dad. His sister. There was death. Break ups. Touring. The usual. But through it all, magnificently, “the wonder of life prevailed”.

Bill Callahan – Dream River

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This was Bill Callahan’s happy album. At times he seemed almost contented. It’s all relative, of course. “You looked like world-wide Armageddon while you slept” is his form of a compliment. And sitting on a barstool uttering only the words “Beer … Thank you … Beer … Thank you” is about as close as you’re likely to come to a conversation. Few could get away with it, but Bill Callahan certainly can.

Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

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Song after song with the same tone. The same mood. The same sound. Chilled out. Laid back. Confident. Kurt Vile pulled off a great trick of turning in a really disciplined and coherent album that still totally relaxed and spontaneous. It was an album that you wanted to go on for hours and hours. And with the arrival of the deluxe edition, it did.

Phosphorescent – Muchacho

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Much was made of Matthew Houck’s new-found love of electronica. But he blended it beautifully with Phosphorescent’s signature-style, slightly off-kilter americana. There were the usual yips. Raggedy guitars. Head-scratching song titles. But most of all there were great melodies and an extra dimension to the sound.

Arctic Monkeys – AM

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There were no frills, no flourishes to this version of the Arctic Monkeys. The sound was slinky, sexy, groovy. The themes were late night. Lonely. But then up popped Arabella with her “interstellar-gator skin boots” and “Barbarella silver swimsuit”. Oh, being a rock superstar is such hell.

Pop and Chamber Pop. The Best albums of 2013 Part 3

Local Natives – Hummingbird

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Wonderfully vivacious, Local Natives were this year’s surprise package. Hummable hooks. Memorable melodies. What more could you ask? Perhaps some more reflective themes. Well, Local Natives had them too.

Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record

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Eleanor Friedberger would be well qualified to do guided tours of New York City. But you’d have to move pretty fast to keep up with her. This was an album that veritably scampered along. And this time she got help with the lyrics from Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding).

Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond

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When a band calls a song ‘Advanced Falconry’, you know they’re not trying to appeal to the death metal demographic. Full of liquid sounds, this  was an album bursting with beautiful songs. And so fragile that a puff of wind would blow them away.

San Fermin

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If Mutual Benefit was the sensitive child hiding at the back of the class, San Fermin was the confident one at the front. Not such much math pop, as a PhD in astrophysics pop. Oh the contrapuntal elegance of it all. All of which makes the cuss word in the utterly magnificent ‘Sonsick’ all the more shocking.

Young Man – Beyond Was All Around Me

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So precocious. So full of tunes. Colin Caulfield demonstrated a maturity beyond his years and produced an album that had the best Pink Floyd pastiche of the year. And then the band split up.

Welcome to part 2 of the best albums of 2013, AKA the miserable 5.

Dan Michaelson & The Coastguards – Blindspot

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The gravel-voiced Gollum of gloom returns with an album so downer-sounding it’s positively uplifting. After all, at least you get to realise that someone out there is worse off than you. While poor old Dan and his Coastguards give the impression they’re about to hit the rocks any day soon, they tell their stories with such a delicate beauty that you can’t help but want to throw them a lifeline. Sure, they’d probably drop it anyway.

Mark Kozelek & Desertshore

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Just when you’ve managed to come to terms with the ultra-miserabilist themes of the new Mark Kozelek album, doesn’t he go and release a second one. Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you? If it wasn’t so freaking affecting. If it didn’t sound so darn beautiful. Well, you’d have reason to be resentful. Instead, you put ‘Brothers’ on repeat and wonder how anyone write a song quite so emotional.

Alela Diane – About Farewell

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Alela Diane writes about the pain of breaking up. The anger of having wasted part of a life. And the excitement of starting afresh. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. There’s plenty of unfinished business at the end of this particular journey. It’s tough to listen to a first-hand account of the break-up of a marriage. But hopefully the process of writing was cathartic and with luck we might yet get to hear the part about starting afresh.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern

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Jason Isbell is an interloper. He’s got over his troubles. Kicked his destructive habits. But, thankfully for the rest of us, he can remember just enough of his dark days to tell some great stories. And he recounts them with tremendous verve and panache. This is a songwriter at the absolute top of his game. An album full of great songs with wonderful hooks and lovely arrangements.

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

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There are times on this album when Neko sounds really angry. She’s had a difficult time recently and sometimes it shows. When she sings about murdering a man by shooting him through his jelly eye, you start to smile politely and back away. But don’t go too far. There’s plenty here to keep you amused and entertained.